Ibn Khaldun: Asabiyyah (Group Feeling)

One of the major concepts that Ibn Khaldun discusses in his great work Al Muqaddimah, besides the role of environment and geography upon people and shaping the human condition, is the notion of group feeling and its role in history, the formation of societies, and how this too is shaped by the environment.  One could say that Ibn Khaldun is the first systematic geographic and geopolitical philosopher in that almost all of his core ideas are tied to the environment.  So what role does group feeling and intimacy play in Ibn Khaldun’s magnum opus?

Since all life starts at the margins, or the “desert,” e.g. the harsh world before progressing, humans need intimate bonds in order to survive, and eventually thrive.  Humans instinctively and naturally turn to their immediate family for the first structure of support and justice in their lives.  This is because, as Ibn Khaldun says, love of family and one’s own is natural in humans except in the most debased and sinful of men, “Respect for blood ties is something natural among men, with the rarest exceptions.  It leads to affection for one’s relations and blood relatives, the feeling that no harm ought to befall them nor any destruction upon them.”  Biologically, and geographically, this love is inculcated through this double enforcement.  It is natural to care for one’s blood family because they are, in some sense, you.  You come from the same parents.  Geographically this love and intimacy felt by family members is reinforced by the harsh stages of life where one is dependent, or looks, upon family for their refuge.  Over time the immediate family expands outward to secondary family.  Fathers turn to their brothers.  Brothers turn to their brothers and their families.  This is how a tribe emerges.  Together, through this intimate bond that Ibn Khaldun calls group feeling, do people begin preserve themselves and overcome their environs.  (Now don’t confuse Ibn Khaldun for sounding a lot like Thomas Hobbes or John Locke or Benedict Spinoza.  For Hobbes, Locke, and Spinoza all deny this intimate bond of family, blood, and tribe in their states of nature; humans are not social or seeking justice as Ibn Khaldun claims, they are already atomized and a-social and entirely self-interested consumers.)

The emergence of this group feeling in the form of tribal solidarity is what gives a group, or tribe, its power.  This intimacy felt for others is what leads to other members of the group being willing to die for their tribesmen.  They understand, at this point, that it is not about them.  It is about the group.  If I must die for the group to survive, and thrive, then this is the ultimate and most noble sacrifice I must make.  This is why Ibn Khaldun says that although the Bedouin lack intricacy and refinement, although they lack sophistication, though they are not cosmopolitan and generally unlearned (in the sense of being well-versed and well-read), they are “closer to being good than sedentary people.” This is because the harshness of rural life forces people to be moral; it forces people to have close ties with each other in order to survive. This is played out in many ways, even culturally, where rural people—“backward” as they may be—stop to help people in need more than city folk do.

In fact, Ibn Khaldun, being the learned and educated man, implies that “learned” people who regard the Bedouin as backward are themselves unlearned, for their feelings and emotions about what ought to be, as opposed to what is.  The true educated man understands what is, and what Ibn Khaldun is telling us about the what is, is that group feeling, solidarity, and tribal loyalty and self-sacrifice is very real, it is the very building bloc of human society, and when this feeling of togetherness, intimacy, solidarity, loyalty, and self-sacrifice is lost, a society is lost – the society collapses.  Though, again, Ibn Khaldun is not without seeing the benefits of sedentary civilization: Its intricacy, refinement, centers of learning and education, libraries, its grand mosques (or cathedrals), its paved roads, houses, etc.; this leads to the paradox and tragedy that runs throughout Ibn Khaldun’s text.  The culture of the city is superior to the culture of the rural Bedouin, but the humanness of the Bedouin is superior to the lack of humanness exhibited by the urban city dweller.

Thus, we can also understand what Ibn Khaldun is saying about life in general.  Meaningfulness and power in life is related to intimacy.  This is not unique to Ibn Khaldun.  The importance of intimacy in one’s life, and in political life, is already attested to by Aristotle in Politics, Cicero in Republic and On Duties, and by Christian philosophy more generally.  The inverse of this is also true.  The spiral into exhaustive nihilism and meaningless, the growth of self-centeredness and selfishness, all reflected by the leisure-seeking self-pleasuring hedonism of the urban dweller, can only come about by the loss of intimacy (the end of group feeling).

Why is this so?

Intimacy leads to the development of those “unwritten” rules of ethics and filial piety.  Duty, honor, loyalty, etc.  These ideas, beliefs, or feelings are inscribed into men by group feeling.  One feels like they must honor their mother and father who helped them in their time of need.  While we know our parents in their prime, there will come a time (as they age) in which they will become weak and we are strong and in our prime.  Just as they helped us in our weakness, we feel obliged to help them in their weakness.  Thus, I am forced to put “my interests” aside to take care of my parents.  I love my brother and sister.  I seek to protect them from the harm I know is out in the world.  When they are harmed, I seek, essentially, revenge on those who have harmed my kin.  In doing this I must also put ‘my interest’ aside to tend to the matter that must be addressed.

The bond of intimacy is what gives a group its self-sacrificial ethos.  Intimacy is what binds people together: In love, in family, in protection, in fulfilling duties and obligations to others just as they had done to you.  Intimacy invokes union.  It invokes togetherness.  By that token alone intimacy is the great barrier to atomization, alienation, and the road to leisure-seeking self-centeredness.

Thus Ibn Khaldun is also implying throughout the work that the loss of intimacy is the sign of the end of the nation.  Since the nation is the extension of group feeling writ large, a nation in its early stages of life exhibits and embodies group feeling.  Towards its death stage group feeling, and therefore intimacy between persons, is lost.  This drift from intimacy also leads to revulsion of the actions and ethics of ancestors.  As Ibn Khaldun says, the last generation(s) of the nation look back upon their ancestors and deplore them, they hate them, they don’t want anything to do with them.  This is because not only have they lost group feeling, that intimate bond that connects us with people (but also connects us with the past), it also leads us to make foolish conclusions like not believing that our ancestors faced a difficult and harsh world where their actions were often necessary for survival while we, enjoying the fruits of the pacified and tamed environ, accustomed to lives of luxury and softness, believe this is how the world always was and will remain.  When people are no longer willing to take care of their parents, when people come to despise their ancestors for their actions, one can identify the transition toward the decline stage and the coming emergence of an entirely selfish and atomized civilization according to Ibn Khaldun.

Thus, what Ibn Khaldun is telling us is that civilization, society (social, it’s in the word), and the struggle for life is a group effort.  It depends upon intimacy, bonds of social and filial solidarity and commitment.  Together we are strong.  Divided we are dead.  When groups collide, and they inevitably collide – civilizations do war with each other – the group, or civilization, with the strongest esprit de corps, or group feeling (asabiyyah) emerges victorious.

Furthermore, the destruction of the bonds of intimacy is what allows our self-centered material pursuits to explode within city life.  This is why the city is inferior to the Bedouin tribe encampment in terms of humanism.  The rural way is the human way.  It is humanity in its most basic, natural, and biological form.  The city way, by contrast, is the consummation of the dream that men have dreamt, a life of leisure, luxury, and endless self-want and consumption; but Ibn Khaldun says it comes at the cost of group feeling, intimacy, and our natural humanness (reflecting in those intimate bonds exemplified by the Bedouin).

This is why tragic irony appears again in Ibn Khaldun.  The consummation of the city is, in some way, the consummation of what the Bedouin do, in fact, desire.  For the city is the place where the harshness of the world is no longer a threat.  The city is the place where justice, at least in name, rules supreme.  The city is the place where we no longer need to labor 16, 17, or 18 hours a day just to survive.  But again, lack of human foresight means that the consummation of the city – of that sedentary civilization and way of life – will destroy our own humanity.  The success of the city, which brings about the demise of nations and humans, is what life itself struggles for.  For all life must die.  And when life begins to die it deteriorates from the outside exterior to the central core (now the city).  Lifeforms allow their less important exterior elements go first in false hope of sustaining its core.  This is why, as the nation is heading to its final stages of life, it abandons the rural regions.  Those areas are deemed “not important” for the life of the city, which is now like the central core, or heart, of the nation.  This represents the loss of those intimate bonds to “those people” whom the city folk, as Ibn Khaldun says, begin to regard as backward and uneducated.

It is important to remember that Ibn Khaldun sees these life cycle patterns as unavoidable.  He is the true intellectual insofar that he describes what is rather than how it should be.  This is why Ibn Khaldun is considered a pivot to modern philosophy.  It is not, so to speak, that classical (or ancient) philosophy wasn’t concerned with the what is.  It most certainly was.  But classical philosophy was also concerned with ideas like summum bonum (the good life), the ideal life, perfect forms and perfect regimes (and whether we could ever attain such things).  In Ibn Khaldun within the Islamic tradition, and then come Hobbes, Locke, Spinoza, and the “Enlightenment” philosophers in the Western tradition, we see such concerns as the good life, ideal life, highest good, perfect forms, and so on, disappear in their philosophical works.  It is no longer a concern of the modern philosophers.  Rather, the modern philosophers have turned to the mechanical and mechanistic universe and simply ever seek to describe the what is

Yet, even with this turn, the modern philosophers notoriously disagree.  Just as is evidence with the acceptance from classical philosopher in Ibn Khaldun that man is a political (social) animal with deep intimate bonds.  Man struggles to fulfill duties and obligations.  But is endlessly tempted with selfishness which, when acted upon, destroy those intimate bonds (group feeling) and duties and obligations to others.  This erodes society.  The erosion of society is the downward movement to death.  But this, Ibn Khaldun says, is the way of the world. It is the law of life.

For Ibn Khaldun, the most important thing a person can do is to recognize what stage of life within the nation he or she is living in.  The easiest way to do this is to look at the closeness of human bonds, intimacy, and solidaristic relations between people; between family and between countrymen.  When family atomizes itself, the nation will follow soon after.  When family lacks intimate bonds, the nation will soon after also lack intimate bonds.  When the lack of intimate bonds grows, one knows they are living in the decline stage of the nation.

This is not to say that all individuals and all families will lack intimate bonds.  No.  Most of the people and families who live on the peripheral borderlands, who remain living in the desert or the rural zones, will retain their intimate bonds.  But since the transfer of power moves from the rural to the urban through the rise of nations and construction of cities, it is of little use that these regions still retain such bonds since the centers and organs of power are no longer in these regions.  As such, as Ibn Khaldun also says in his work, these regions are the first to slip away from the dying nation as they are swallowed up by the new emerging nation, or civilization, which is resolutely filled with group feeling, solidarity, and determination.

Therefore, in moments of crisis, which often happen during the decline and death stage, the lack of these intimate bonds leads to the people of the declining nation to abandon their duties and obligations.  It is “every man for himself.”  They desert.  They are unwilling to fight.  They allow their work, their city, and their history to be overtaken by the new power on the rise.  That new power on the rise is one filled with strong intimate bonds, courageous group feeling, willingness to sacrifice and die so that the group may live on.  And so the cycles of history, the rise and fall of civilizations, begin anew.

There has long been discussion about Ibn Khaldun and whether his deterministic and fatalistic, or pessimistic view can be overcome.  Is it possible to retain that group feeling, and if so how can it be done?  The reason for this is simple: It is the end of group feeling whereby Ibn Khaldun sees the road to weakness and death.  Retention of group feeling, he also says, is what gives extra life to dynasties that experience such “revivals” of group feeling.  Thus, can group feeling be retained to avoid death? While Ibn Khaldun doesn’t see a way to prevent the inevitable decline, readers of Ibn Khaldun have long wondered if it is, in fact, possible to keep perpetuating those “revivals” to keep the life of the nation going. Ibn Khaldun, however, definitely says No! To wishfully hope for that is to hope for what ought to be, rather than acknowledge what is.


This essay is adapted from a post on Hesiod’s Corner, 20 March 2018.

4 thoughts on “Ibn Khaldun: Asabiyyah (Group Feeling)

  1. Gilles Deleuze, 20th century French philosopher, mentions him in his work and somehow he inspired him for his concept: geophilosophy. Just as geography and environment shape our life, our mind, it does also to the way we do philosophy

    Liked by 1 person

    • Indeed, and we shall cover the basics of Ibn Khaldun’s geophilosophical dialectic and other such things forthcoming as it is the most insightful and engaging aspect of his work! A lot of contemporary relevance too.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I have recently been keenly aware of the importance of recognising one’s historical situation as well as one’s geographical one, since our Whiggish culture tends to engender orphans of history. I think historical chauvinism is probably the origin of other kinds of chauvinism. “Kairophilosophical dialectic” maybe.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I’ve largely felt the same; though as a classicist of some sort who really specializes in Plato and Augustine (where my academic articles have been published on) and political philosophy (pre-modern) we tend to have a sharp hatred for that Whig chauvinism. Why study anyone before 1900? It’s tough for literature too.

        I do like how you described the plight as “orphans of history.” Never used that phrase before in describing the problem. Everyone needs a phrase like that to be the hook!


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