Ibn Khaldun

Ibn Khaldun and Change
World Info
can be thought of as a commentary on the work of Ibn Khaldun, who is said to have been the first social scientist. He lived from 1332-1406 and was a Muslim philosopher and statesman who provided a useful way of looking at the political and social conditions of the pre-modern world. He was born in Tunis and died in Cairo, where he is buried in the Sufi cemetery. He travelled to Morocco, Spain, Damascus and other parts of the Muslim world. He witnessed the attack of Tamurlain's troops on Damascus, and spoke with Pedro the Cruel of Castile.

Government in our world has to deal with closely packed masses of people. In the ancient world the towns were smaller and more widely spaced. Government was more a matter of maintaining the peace between the towns than anything else. The army in settled countries was the first call on the resources of the government - and almost the last call as well. Every country had considerable areas of wild land not settled by farmers. The army's main task was to guard the settled land from attack by the nomads.

There was a limited amount of settled land, and outside the governed areas there were huge regions where nomads lived without any government at all. These nomadic areas in North Africa, Arabia and the central part of Eurasia were one of the great uncertainties of political life. Out of them came from time to time invasions of the settled areas. See Mongolia and Spain.

Ibn Khaldun described this process in his book Al Muqaddimah - the Introduction to History. His explanation of the rise and fall of states was that there was a constant renewal or replacement of the ruling group by nomads conquering the towns and settled lands. This was followed by a period when the invaders lost the skills of the desert and acquired the vices and slackness of town life. This observation fits very well the history of western Eurasia and north Africa until quite recent times. Only in the 20th century did the nomads of the world become absorbed into the political systems, as air transport, space surveillance and electronics make it impossible for anyone to be unreachable by the administrator and tax-man. The last nomadic conquest was that of Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud who created Saudi Arabia in 1921. (But perhaps there has been a change and it is now the businessman from the more recently settled areas, such as Australia, or the penniless immigrants and refugees who tend to excel in business in the older industrial countries and then prosper in competition with the older inhabitants.) Thus the fall of the Roman empire in the west was, according to Ibn Khaldun's theory, the result of more vigorous Germanic tribes overcoming the soft living men of the cities. The same applied to the Arabs when they overcame Byzantium and Persia. In turn the Mongols organized by Genghis Khan invaded the world of Islam, grown soft after centuries of luxury. In Ibn Khaldun's own world of the Maghrib - he was born in Tunis of Hadhramauti ancestors - the pattern is plain as a succession of armies led by preachers came out of the Mauretanian desert to conquer the Muslims of the Maghrib and Spain.

Ibn Khaldun says:

 It can be noted that those people who, whether they inhabit the desert or settled areas and cities, live a life of abundance and have all the good things to eat, die more quickly than others when a drought or famine comes upon them. This is the case, for instance, with the Berbers of the Maghrib and the inhabitants of the city of Fez, and as we hear, of Cairo. It is not so with the Arabs who inhabit waste regions and deserts, or with the inhabitants of regions where the date palm grows and whose principal food is dates, or with the present day inhabitants of Ifriqiyah (Libya) whose principal food is barley and olive oil, or with the inhabitants of Spain whose principal food is durra and olive oil. When a drought or a famine strikes them, it does not kill as many of them as of the other group of people, and few, if any, die of hunger. ... Those who die in famines are victims of their previous habitual state of satiation, not of the hunger that now afflicts them for the first time. p67

He expounds the theory known in Lancashire as "clogs to clogs in three generations" - though he makes it in four.

 Prestige is an accident that affects human beings. It comes into being and decays inevitably. No human being exists who possesses an unbroken pedigree of nobility from Adam down to himself. ... Nobility originates in the state of being outside. That is, being outside of leadership and nobility and being in a base, humble station, devoid of prestige, as is the case with every created thing.

It reaches its end in a single family within four successive generations. This is as follows: The builder of the family's glory knows what it cost him to do the work, and he keeps the qualities that created his glory and made it last. The son who comes after him had personal contact with his father and thus learned those things from him. However, he is inferior to him in this respect, inasmuch as a person who learns things through study is inferior to a person who knows them from practical application. The third generation must be content with imitation and, in particular, with reliance upon tradition. This member is inferior to him of the second generation, inasmuch as a person who relies upon tradition is inferior to a person who exercises judgment.

The fourth generation, then, is inferior to the preceding ones in every respect. Its member has lost the qualities that preserved the edifice of its glory. He despises those qualities. He imagines that the edifice was not built through application and effort. He thinks that it was something due to his people from the very beginning by virtue of the mere fact of their descent, and not something that resulted from group effort and individual qualities. For he sees the great respect in which he is held by the people, but he does not know how that respect originated and what the reason for it was. He imagines it is due to his descent and nothing else. He keeps away from those in whose group feeling he shares, thinking that he is better than they. p. 106

He develops his theory further. What causes a tribe to be able to act together is what he calls "group feeling".

 ..when a tribe has achieved a certain measure of superiority with the help of its group feeling, it gains control over a corresponding amount of wealth and comes to share prosperity and abundance with those who have been in possession of these things. It shares in them to the degree of its power and usefulness to the ruling dynasty. If the ruling dynasty is so strong that no-one thinks of depriving it of its power or of sharing with it, the tribe in question submits to its rule and is satisfied with whatever share in the dynasty's wealth and tax revenue it is permitted to enjoy. ... Members of the tribe are merely concerned with prosperity, gain and a life of abundance. (They are satisfied) to lead an easy, restful life in the shadow of the ruling dynasty, and to adopt royal habits in building and dress, a matter they stress and in which they take more and more pride, the more luxuries and plenty they acquire, as well as all the other things that go with luxury and plenty.

As a result the toughness of desert life is lost. Group feeling and courage weaken. Members of the tribe revel in the well-being that God has given them. Their children and offspring grow up too proud to look after themselves or to attend to their own needs. They have disdain also for all the other things that are necessary in connection with group feeling.... Their group feeling and courage decrease in the next generations. Eventually group feeling is altogether destroyed. ... It will be swallowed up by other nations. p.107

This is not an unreasonable theory of political and economic change. It fitted many of the facts of the period up to Ibn Khaldun's time. Even though there are no nomads left today we might recall that in the 20th century guerrillas and armed political parties with "group feeling" fought against highly trained and technological armies and won (see Vietnam and Afghanistan) and are doing so now (2006) in Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover, migrations of peoples are still occurring, especially from the poorer south to the richer north.

It is too soon to tell whether elected governments (elected by people relatively richer than the world average), operating market economies, can renew themselves sufficiently to avoid the stagnation of luxury Ibn Khaldun describes. In the business world company structures which allow "take-overs" may similarly have the effect of allowing the business to be renewed by new blood, the equivalent of the new tribe from the desert (though in Germany and Japan, two of the world's most successful economies, takeovers are difficult). In the Islamic world the most successful states have been those which recruited their governing class from the nomads - such as the Mameluke state of Egypt and Syria in which the army and ruler had to be recruited from the Turkish tribes of the Caucasus and the sons of the rulers were forbidden to inherit. These states might be considered as a practical application of Ibn Khaldun's philosophy. Another application may have been the Janissary Guard - soldiers formed in the Ottoman Empire from the children of the subject peoples, including Greeks, Slavs, Romanians and Bulgarians and converted to Islam.

Perhaps we should note that both the British and United States armies these days are recruiting people from other countries, such as Fiji, Nepal and the Philippines.

Although there are no nomads of the political kind left in the modern world there remains the possibility of migrations of refugees on a large scale which could accomplish the same result. Who can foretell what will happen when the world's climate changes and large numbers of people have to find new homes?

The study of history should show us that political units and borders can change profoundly and suddenly. The system of states in Europe changed radically three times during the 20th century - in 1918, 1939, 1945 - and may be about to (1990) change again. The Austro-Hungarian and British Empires have vanished. The Russian Empire was transformed into the Soviet Union and has also disappeared. In Africa the potential exists for even greater changes as all the borders there are disputed.

The present system of states is endorsed by the United Nations. Legitimacy in practice is marked by membership. Does this mean all change is forbidden? This seems unlikely.

In the modern world Climate Change, the end of cheap oil, and the spread of technological weapons all make change likely. Moreover the west has an abundance of people who have grown used to luxury and forgotten the poverty of their great grandparents in the Depression of the 1930s. Is the cycle going to continue?

Perhaps western Hegemony itself is coming to an end.

Adapted from E.G.Matthews The Rise of the Islamic World (Unpublished) 1989.

Quotations from "The Muqaddimah by Ibn Khaldun, translated by Franz Rosenthal, abridged by N.J.Dawood (1967)

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See also Aramco Magazine article

Last revised 16/08/10


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