The Tragedy of Civilization: Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah

Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah is the “introduction” to his seven-volume history of the Arab and Berber people, and history of the world (up to his time and from what he knew of the world via sources and travelling). The Kitab Al-‘Ibar is the full text name, but it is his lengthy introduction (the Muqaddimah) that is fondly remembered by scholars of many stripes: sociologists, philosophers, political theorists, economists, historians and historiographers.

Ibn Khaldun lived in turbulent times: Cordoba had fallen to the Christian Iberians, the once great and mighty Islamic state in Iberia had been reduced to the Emirate of Granada, North Africa was fractured and falling victim to Christian crusades (with Islamic rulers often allying with the Christian crusaders for their own self gain and interests), the Abbasid Caliphate had fallen in the Middle East, the Mongols and their successors (Timurids) were invading the Levant, and the Black Plague had struck the Middle East (we often forget that the Black Plague also hit the Middle East and North Africa, though not as consequential as the Black Plague in Europe). The world that Ibn Khaldun read about was not the world he was experiencing. Ibn Khaldun’s world was one of chaos and tragedy – which should never be lost to readers. He could be, in more modern parlance, classified as a “realist.”

The Muqaddimah serves several purposes: First was a “scientific” approach to history where Ibn Khaldun sought to explain events and the human condition from purely naturalistic means. The first book of Muqaddimah details this in some detail concerning the relationship of geography and environment upon human civilization and races. Though a bit boring and dry, his outlining of the role of environment – what scientists call “environmental conditioning” – is going to become a present theme in the other sections of his work. Second was the attempt to understand why great civilizations all seem to fall: the great Biblical civilizations had risen and fallen, Persia, Greece, Rome, and now it seemed like the great Arab-Muslim civilization was on the cusp. Thus, Ibn Khaldun sought to understand why civilizations experience a “life cycle” of formation, growth, stagnation, and eventual decline. Third, and this is related to the second purpose, is that he sought to understand what was happening from Muslim eyes. Though the work portends to be scientific, it is also motivated from a man who was a sincere Sunni wondering why the promises of success and safety to God’s people seemed not to be coming true in his time.

Ibn Khaldun’s exploration of civilization has been the focus of scholars since the work’s publication. He follows the ancient political philosophers in understanding humans as political animals – that means social animals. Humans are not, as Enlightenment philosophers came to think (e.g. Hobbes, Locke, Spinoza, and Rousseau) as solitary and separated (atomized) individuals who only pragmatically place themselves into society to avoid the brutal life of the state of nature (Hobbes, Locke, and Spinoza) or have been forced into society by the dictates of the powerful (Rousseau). Instead, Ibn Khaldun takes the classical view that humans are naturally social which means they are naturally political. Political, in classical Greek philosophy, rooted in the word polis meaning city, entails how to organize a body. People are members of a body and a body needs to be organized.

From this Ibn Khaldun maintains that filial bonds are the primary roots of one’s political animus. In a harsh world, family is the refuge of justice (because there is no natural justice in the world). He says that it is natural to feel affection for one’s family and extended family and that it is natural to seek to defend your family members from harm. This is the root of asabiyyah – or “Group Feeling” (in the Rosenthal translation) which is alternatively called “Group Solidarity” in other explanations of Khaldun’s thought.

Asabiyyah is the wellspring of civilization. It is what unites people and gives them a warlike and sacrificial character in which members are willing to die for others for the continuity of the tribe. Westerners may be more familiar with the idea of the esprit de corps: love of kith and kin which provides the fighting spirit of a community.

This way of life comes from rural geography where life is harsh, and people banded together to survive—though they do not live a life of luxury but a life of basic necessity. Here we return to the impact of geography on politics: Thus, Ibn Khaldun offers an in-depth and penetrating philosophy of geopolitics. Cities do not fall from heaven and represent the start of civilization. Instead, civilization emerges from the margins. Civilization has its roots in the rural regions where the tribe first emerged from, where life was harsh and brutal, where beasts and other tribes constantly threatened one’s survival. As Ibn Khaldun says, “aggressiveness is natural in living beings.” And that includes humans. It is a stark picture that is like the ancient Catholic-Augustinian portrait of humans: Men of sin.

It is because the rural way of life fosters a spirit of aggressive love for one’s kith and kin that the rural person is courageous. In this sense, and in this sense alone, the rural dweller (Bedouin in his language) is closer to goodness than other types of humans (e.g. the urban dweller). This is because people who live in cities are self-centered and self-enamored: They only care about themselves in their pursuit for luxurious and pleasurable living – the city turns people into self-seeking pleasure animals (hedonists).

This leads to paradoxes about human civilization. Ibn Khaldun does not apologize for the rural way, so to speak. Urban civilization is grander and superior to rural civilization because it is intricate and refined: The city has libraries, universities, public monuments, great ports, refined clothing and cuisine, paved roads, great cathedrals and mosques; the rural town or tent-encampment has little in comparison and is defined by its simplicity and savagery. That said, the irony of this is the city is doomed to fail because of its self-centeredness.

Returning to asabiyyah, Ibn Khaldun contrasts urban and rural life in a dialectic of conflict. The rural people still retain a strong sense of group solidarity. The urban people, over time, because of their life of luxurious living, become lazy and soft. They lose group consciousness, which, as Khaldun then remarks, “becomes useless.” This represents the beginning of internal division of the nation: urban vs. rural, rich vs. poor, “enlightened” vs. “backward” (tropes we are all familiar with today). Khaldun suggests that two outcomes are possible: the rural people lead a revival of the old ways which injects temporary life into the nation that gives it extra legs; or an outside group that is more savage (committed to group solidarity) arises and overtakes the decadent and weakened nation that has torn itself apart by internal division. Neither outcome is ideal because Ibn Khaldun doesn’t celebrate ancient ways and customs as God’s revelation to the world, but he understands the importance of ancient ways and customs in fostering group spirit and identity that is necessary for a nation to survive. However, even if that revival takes place, the decline and fall of the nation is still going to happen.

In the midst of this commentary we can also identify traces of historical circumstances that he was familiar with. He remarks that nations rarely last when they rule over a multitude of people of different cultures, languages, and religions. Look at Cordoba Caliphate – that grandest of the Islamic caliphates that ruled over Muslims, Christians, and Jews, Arab speakers, Latin speakers, Hebrew speakers, and various Iberian speaking peoples. For all its grandeur it collapsed because there could not be enough group solidarity.

But group solidarity is not something entirely benign either. As the tribe expands from its rural enclaves and grows into a modern and large civilizational polity, there comes a point when marriage into the family isn’t enough to foster group solidarity. This is when tribes turn to propaganda. In Khaldun’s time the most obvious form of this was religion. Religion becomes the new blood identity of the people: We are Muslim, or we are Christian. In more modern times we can see this through new forms of identity politics or ideology: We are liberals, or we are humanists, etc.

At the same time as all of this he gives commentary over political economy. Ibn Khaldun laid out a theory of supply and demand, the division of labor, and taxation that is very prescient. One of the more haunting insights – perhaps for Americans especially – is how at the start of a civilization the tax rates are low, but the revenues are high because of the productivity and willingness for its citizens to fight off invaders. At the collapse of a civilization the tax rates spike, revenue drops, economic productivity stagnates, military protection is outsourced (which demands higher taxes) and the military is enlarged to try and defend its land (which leads to higher taxes also).

Additionally, and very thought-provokingly, Ibn Khaldun also says that urban people are really oppressed despite thinking otherwise. The rise of cities demands a rise in state power and the creation of a political apparatus because people “entrust their property and lives to governors.” People in the city reject taking political responsibility for themselves and push it off to what becomes the political class which then forms the true political dynasties of all nations. Thus, the paradox of the city is that it leads to Leviathan. As Khaldun notes, people subject themselves to the laws and regulations of the city which manages the lives and property of the people which is what they wanted in order to pursue lives of luxury and hedonism. Meanwhile, the rural people remain outside the subject of city politics and are freer because they are self-resilient and reliant. Rather than turn to family and social networks, people in the city turn to the state to provide their needs and solve their problems.

This is why the growth of civilization leads to the expansion of the political order, increased taxes, and, eventually, a stagnation and decline of economics. Furthermore, Khaldun says that urban dwellers are unwilling to make sacrifices because they have grown custom to a life of pleasure and luxury. Rural people are still willing to make sacrifices because they live a life of daily sacrifice: They don’t have luxurious goods, they are not used to eating multiple meals a day, they aren’t used to being “fat cats” in other words. (This only furthers the division between rural “savages” and urban “cosmopolitans.”)

This includes how political classes rule. The dynasty, which traces its origins back to the original “Founding Father” so to speak, and embodied the ethos of asabiyyah many generations ago, suddenly seeks its own luxury politics. Suddenly, politics turns not to how to organize a body but how to organize luxury. The dynasty becomes concerned with holding onto its wealth and goods and rejects helping others – especially the poor and rural people who grow resentful toward their rulers for having abandoned them.

In the end, the Law of the Jungle prevails. All civilizations are destined to collapse. And the cycle of the rise and decline of civilizations starts anew.

Ibn Khaldun offers so much: Cultural criticism, notes on political economy, class conflict, geopolitics, irony, and a tragic picture that even though civilizations are destined to fail, humans have no other option than to engage in civilizational building even though it will not last. Those who have read Oswald Spengler ought to read Ibn Khaldun, who beat him to the observation of the cyclical nature of the rise and fall of civilizations 500 years earlier.

 

The Muqaddimah.
Ibn Khaldun. Trans., Franz Rosenthal.
Princeton University Press, 2015; 1989; 512 pp. (Abridged Edition.)

This review is taken from my Amazon review of the book, 31 January 2018.

One thought on “The Tragedy of Civilization: Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah

  1. Pingback: Ibn Khaldun: Asabiyyah (Group Feeling) | Discourses on Minerva

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