Ibn Khaldun: Geopolitics, Geo-Dialectics, and Environmental Conditioning

Ibn Khaldun was a son of modest aristocratic family that, through merit, had risen to prominent positions within the Hasfid Dynasty in Tunisia.  His actual family roots go further back into Islamic Spain but, as the Reconquista gained steamed his family left for North Africa and this set Ibn Khaldun off on a travelling adventure over North Africa and brought him to Egypt.  While some would argue against an epochal explanation for Ibn Khaldun’s geopolitical philosophy contained within the Muqaddimah, I believe it is nevertheless important to remember the environmental geography in which Khaldun lived, traversed, and was familiar with: North Africa and the Middle East, regions that combine some fertile and agrarian friendly areas, regions that also contain much desert and fairly useless land for human development, and regions that are prone to significant climate shifts and storms.

Geopolitical philosophy is the sub-discipline within philosophy and political theory that examines the role of the environment (or geography) and its impact upon political and social development.  It is also closely linked to the further sub-discipline of environmental conditioning within human nature; that is, examining the role and impact of the environment in shaping human nature.  This is not to say human nature is necessarily a byproduct of environmental forces, though it can mean that, but what environmental conditioning is primarily concerned with is how environmental forces shape human action. And this is a long running theme in Ibn Khaldun’s great masterpiece with many implications for us today.


The beginning of the Muqaddimah includes some dry, but important, comments on the nature of the environment and how the environment impacts human development, biology, and actions.  The main theme that runs through the Muqaddimah is how man is not detached from the environment but very much a creature of the environment.  Man is, for Ibn Khaldun, as much a terrestrial (or environmental) animal as he is a social animal.  In fact, man’s social animus is very much shaped by his experience with nature.

Unlike moderns, who live in comfortable environments, Ibn Khaldun maintains that the world is a harsh one and that this impacts how humans develop and organize themselves.  Since the earth that man find himself inhabiting is harsh, and often times dangerous to him, the harshness of the environment is something that drives asabiyyah, or group feeling.  That is, man would not be able to survive, let alone thrive, materially on his own.  He is not alone in this thinking.   The Greek word idiote, which is the root word for “idiot,” was given to Greeks who argued that man could be completely self-reliant and self-sustaining on his own.  Living a life completely independent of others would either lead to an uncomfortable and bare minimum life of day-to-day subsistence, or, more likely, lead to death.  (Especially given the environmental conditions that Ibn Khaldun was most familiar with.)

There are other reasons for group feeling to emerge, including how humans interact with each other (often in aggressive and domineering manner), but the role of environment also forces the emergence of group feeling.  Because of the harsh world families bond together to provide for themselves in this harsh world.  Over time the bond of kith and kin leads to the formation of the tribe.  But because the world is harsh and often dangerous, this also leads to a conquest ethos within man.  Man’s aggressiveness and domineering nature must exert itself if man is to survive.

Here Ibn Khaldun utilizes advances in Islamic science and biology of his era.  Tame and meek forms of life throughout the animal and plant world, will often die because of their tameness and meekness.  The “law of the jungle,” which dominates animal, and even plant, life, is one in which the strong, aggressive, and predatory (or the case of herbivores, the ever alert and often the strongest of the alert herbivores), survive and thrive.  Man, in many ways, is no different than the animals and plants in the zoological world.  That is to say that the tame and meek humans, families, tribes, and nations, are the ones that will succumb to death quickest.  The humans that are most aggressive, domineering, and exploitative, are the ones who will survive, and ultimately thrive, in this harsh world.

Thus, man’s aggressiveness which is essential to his nature is something brought out by the environment itself.  Because man has his origins on the margins (in the deserts, or the jungles, or the plains), man’s aggressiveness is ingrained in his DNA.  Man, until very recently, did not begin his life “in the city.”  Man began his existence in the bleak and harsh world, devoid of all the refinement, comfort, and intricacies of city life.  This is something very important for Ibn Khaldun because that ultimately means that group feeling, and the roots of every nation, begin in the margins of the environment.  Long before Oswald Spengler said the same in Decline of the West, Ibn Khaldun recognized that nations have their origins in the “heartlands” rather than the metropolitan centers of the nation.

Because man has his origins in these harsh outlying regions of the nation, and because group feeling first manifests itself to combat the harshness of the world, those people who remain living in the desert plains, the open and rolling hill and countryside, etc., are the ones who retain the highest level of basic human instinct: aggressiveness, savagery, and group feeling (or more explicitly group loyalty).  The world around them demands that they are ever present, aware of their surroundings, working together with others, and confront all threats that may befall them, because that is all necessary for human life to continue in these harsh environs.

Conversely, the environs that have been “pacified” or “tamed”, so to speak, lead to a pacified and tamed man.  While those who engage in the pacification, or taming, of nature do not lose their aggressiveness (because they know from experience what the “real world” is like), their progeny are the ones who are conditioned by this benign and pacified environ.  As such they lose the ethos of group feeling that was first necessary for man to survive.  They do not know how to work together or sacrifice for others because the world in which they now inhabit doesn’t demand this of them.

The problem is that the nation covers many different environs.  As a result, a dialectic emerges within the nation between peoples that is, in many ways, the result of the different environs that make up the nation.  Those who have the strongest sense of group feeling (loyalty), those who have the strongest communitarian ethos, and those who are “aggressive” and “savage” are the people who live in those open, harsh, hilly, and “desert” environs.  In other words, the “rural people.”  Those people who have the strongest ethos of self-centeredness, those who pursue luxury, and those who do not share the ethos of group feeling, are those who live in the urbane, metropolitan, and comfortable cities.  In Ibn Khaldun’s own words, the “city-dwellers.”


An important aspect of Ibn Khaldun’s philosophy is the geopolitical dialectic that defines the “politics” of a nation.  This is the dialectic that I just outlined above.  For Ibn Khaldun, national politics (if we anachronistically apply that term back onto Khaldun), and the dialectic of life more generally, is between those who live in harsh environs and those who live in comfortable and luxurious environs.  This is the real origins of “class conflict” according to Khaldun, or rather, that Ibn Khaldun’s understanding of class conflict is one not of material oppression between the capitalist and worker (a la Marx) but between urban and rural which contain the seeds of “rich” and “poor” and “metropolitan” and “nationalist” (so to speak) because of the environs in which they live.

Because the city emerges from a tamed and pacified environ, in which group feeling can be discarded and the people who live there are “free” to “pursue their own interest,” and because the rural way is still situated in a much harsh and angst-filled environ in which group feeling remains strong and communitarian ties necessary for continued life, the division that opens up in this dialectic of conflict is one in which rich vs. poor and “patriot” vs. “traitor” are the product of geography itself.  And since group feeling first emanates from the harsh countryside, or the environ that was at once harsh, it is these regions that the populace retains that high level of group feeling but are materially less well off than those who live in cities where group feeling dissipates and, eventually, totally disappears and now the nation is fractured between those who have a retention of group feeling and those who regard group feeling as something backward, barbaric, and “uncivilized.”

Ibn Khaldun does something very interesting in that he doesn’t fit the tradition geopolitical dialectic of Antiquity (found in the writings of Thucydides) or of the more modern European period between land and sea powers.  Rather, there is an intra dialectic of just land vs. land.  While the people of tamed and pacified land very much end up being similar to people of the sea, they are not actually sea-fearing peoples or powers.

Within the Muqaddimah the dialectic of geopolitical philosophy is very important and is something that defines human society and life.  This is why many regard Ibn Khaldun as among the first modern “scientific historians” in which natural and environmental processes can be understood and that they help explain human history (which is something ultimately cyclical which follows the life-death cycle).  When this dialectic hits full steam what happens is not the pacification of land anymore, but the pacification of the particular peoples of particular environs.

The city comes to dominate the rural areas, which is to say the city folk dominate the rural folk because of their material wealth and centers of political power (which arise in the cities rather than the more decentralized political order found in rural areas).  For many reasons, from fear of invasion, from need of aid, and from simply sharing in the spoils of conquest, the rural people become subjugated to the city.  This leads to only further divisions within the nation because of the retention of group feeling among rural people and the dissipation of group feeling among city people which results in the now subjugated rural people feeling “betrayed” by their metropolitan masters and elites.

What happens next is twofold (befitting dialectical philosophy).  Either the nation completely withers away and dies (having been taken over by a younger nation or foreign people who have a strong sense of group feeling that is able to overcome the fractured and divided nation in which group feeling has largely dissipated outside of a few areas), or there is a revival of group feeling that begins from the rural areas and spreads into the cities which gives an extra shot of life for the nation.  Now, for Ibn Khaldun, this extra shot of life doesn’t avoid the inevitable death that all nations will face.  However, it is something that will allow a nation to endure longer than nations that completely lose their group feeling.


Within the geographical dynamics at play in Ibn Khaldun’s work is also how the environment inculcates certain ways of living.  That “traditional” way of life: Working the land, living in a close-knit community where people rely on each other (and know each other as a result), a strong sense of communal belonging (group feeling), and, while not being “one with nature,” have a certain appreciation of nature and nature’s way because of how often they live and depend upon nature’s good fortunes (and also know nature’s destructive hand which leads to a respect of nature’s power), is inculcated in the rural regions and the harsher environs.  Thus, life is simple, unrefined, non-intricate, but people are basically people (as they have always been).

The lusher and tamed environs, in which cities spring up, leads to a new way of living.  This way of living, shall we say metropolitan life, is characterized by its luxury, refinement, intricacy, technology, and grandeur.  It is the material life crystallized whereas the “desert life” is the human life enduring.  While Ibn Khaldun is quick to point out the flaws of the metropolitan life (the life of the “soul” of humanity which is lost in metropolitan life), he still positively reflects on the refinement, culture, and grandeur of the material greatness of such ways of living.  As he recounts in Chapter 4, it is predominately in the cities where great works of architecture, the most beautiful mosques (and such religious buildings reaching up to the heavens), art and artisan life, etc., flourish.  The simplicity of the rural way of life simply doesn’t compare.

Here again we see another dialectic at play: Simplicity and Humanism vs. Intricacy and Materialism.  The environs which have been pacified lead to greater and greater refinement, intricacy, depth, but this is all largely manifested in material things: Clothing, food, architecture, roads, and so forth.  The harsh environs lead to humanity toiling away as it has always done.  The clothing, food, architecture, and roads of the “simple rural town” (so to speak) are precisely that: simple.  The difference is, for Ibn Khaldun, that the simple and traditional way of life, though lacking material grandeur, is one of deep human substance and character.  People work hard.  They depend on each other.  They have deep bonds with other people and respect for nature.  Metropolitan life, while it has tremendous civilizational grandeur (to which Ibn Khaldun states that sedentary civilization is superior because of its refinement and material splendor), nevertheless creates shallow humans.  People care only for themselves.  They are alienated from each other (worst being the alienation from their fellow compatriots) as well as being alienated from nature.  They lack deep bonds and, as a result, as he says in numerous places in Chapter II and Chapter III, the people who have adopted the metropolitan way of living are inferior (humanistically) to the simple rural folk.

The reality of the world, for Khaldun, is both ways of life, both of these “civilizations,” exist in the world.  They also often exist within the nation.  And this dialectical dynamism leads to tension within a nation.  These tensions are only exacerbated when nations have multiple cultures, languages, and peoples, which add to national fracturing and discontent (as he elaborates upon in Chapter III).  The tragedy in this dialectic that Ibn Khaldun sees is how the metropolitan way sees itself as superior in every aspect to the rural way and seeks to subjugate the rural way of life by breaking down group feeling through various means.

We can understand the geopolitical humanism and philosophy of ways of life as this: (1) The rural way of life is traditional, harsh, and simple whereby people foster and maintain deep social and communitarian (and filial and national) bonds, the people are and hardy and hardworking people despite their simple-nature, care about honor and loyalty, and have a certain appreciation and respect for nature; (2) the metropolitan way of life is refined, intricate, complicated, governed by material pursuits and many laws and regulations, the people lose their bonds with each other as they pursue their own economic interests which leads to the dissolution of group feeling, they care only about themselves and scoff at notions of honor and loyalty – and yet, metropolitan civilization is grand and splendid (but only on the material surface).  Is there a way to synthesize the grandeur and splendid ways of both?  Not for Ibn Khaldun.  However, Ibn Khaldun has a conflicted view of both the urban and rural ways of life, both have their pros and cons, but in some way, Ibn Khaldun seems to suggest that the rural way is the more virtuous even if it is marred by low culture, low civilization, and lack of grandeur because they retain a (primitive) humanism while the urban way turns humans into commodities and cogs which we, today, erroneously call (refined) humanism which isn’t humanism at all but a hollow corruption of what it means to be human: have intimate ties with others, especially your family.


This post is adapted from an earlier post on Hesiod’s Corner, 26 February 2018.

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