Philosophy Politics

Ibn Khaldun and the Crisis of Modernity

Ibn Khaldun was a fourteenth century historiographer, sociologist, economist, and philosopher. Born in a turbulent time when the remnants of the Umayyad Caliphate in Iberia and North Africa were either collapsing or under extensive pressure internally and externally (corruption and European invasion and crusades), Ibn Khaldun set out to chronicle a sociology of the rise and fall of civilization. His “history” of the Arabs and Berbers and sociology of the Maghreb was published in seven volumes in which it is the three volume “introduction” that has been the legacy of Ibn Khaldun. The Muqaddimah, as it is remembered to posterity, was the first attempt to give a universal science of history.

Ibn Khaldun is continues the classical tradition of humans as political animals but also serves as the transfiguring prophet of modern political theory: the state of nature, individualism, and atomization. In beginning his work Khaldun states, “human social organization is necessary.” Humans are not meant to live an unorganized, isolated, and un-political life. Humans are, following what Aristotle said, political animals. Humans are social creatures and sociality entails organization as humans encounter and engage with one another. Organization is born from this dialectic of encounter and engagement.

Moreover, Ibn Khaldun gives a more practical or material reason for human organization and formation of political life, “[T]he power of the individual human being is not sufficient for him to obtain the food he needs, and does not provide him with as much as he requires to live.” Unlike Hobbes and Locke, the competition for the scarcity of resources in the world doesn’t keep men separated; true material self-interest moves men into tribes and groups. It is not, as Hobbes and Locke said, that the conflict with other men in the state of nature that leads to men forming political communities, it is the very self-interested rationalism and material reality of geographic harshness and scarcity that moves men into political community. It is not man against man alone that moves humans into political organization, it is man against nature that also demands it.

But Ibn Khaldun also foreshadows Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Locke when he gives a second reason for the formation of political life, “aggressiveness is natural in living beings.” Ibn Khaldun does not take a starry-eyed view of the world and of humans. In many respects, he is the Islamic version of Saint Augustine with his pessimistic realism. Humans are grounded with an insatiable lust for domination. Humans are domineering animals who thrive in the exhilaration of conflict and aggressiveness. It is in this lust to dominate, aimed at comfort and happiness, where humans are ironically most energetic and cooperative.

Of all the animals of the world humans are the most intricate in their organization and building. They are, as such, truly political animals. With this as his framework Ibn Khaldun launches into a breathtaking analysis of human organization, society, and how it rises and falls.

For Ibn Khaldun there are three principal reasons for the origins of political life. First, humans are political (social) by nature which drives them into relational bonds with others (starting, of course, with the immediate family and branching outward from there). Second, the harshness of the environment and the scarcity of resources that humans need to utilize in order to survive—and, indeed, thrive—demands it. Third, the aggressiveness of humans and the lustful soul of men equally demands the socialization of humans into groups to ward off threats and domination by and from others. Synthesized together, a harsh environment and the harsh reality of human-to-human encounter moves humans into political communities to improve their material well-being and to have protection against the domineering and lustful ambitions of other humans.

This coming together of humans to form political communities is also the birth of civilization. The origins of the political is also identical with the origins of civilization. And, as Ibn Khaldun stated earlier, “organization is necessary.” Therefore, political structures, laws, and offices are erected in civilization—political community—as the law of organization demands. The organization of civilization, its laws, offices, and structures, are all rooted in the three principals of socialization. Thus, civilizations have a ruler. Thus, civilizations have laws, customs, and civil institutions. All of this aims at the curbing at humanity’s aggressive instincts and to achieve material comfort and security—to enjoy the fruits of labor and life, in other words.

There is no such thing as an a-political animal. Humans are the political animal par excellence. But it is in the origin and trajectory of political life that Ibn Khaldun will discover a great irony of the political. Its very success proves to be its downfall.

Ibn Khaldun sits in a league with a select few other thinkers in the world of geopolitical theory. Geography is very much at the heart of Ibn Khaldun’s thinking, and humans, as a creatures in the world, cannot escape this reality as a being-in-the-world.

Ibn Khaldun is a geographic determinist. As such, humanity’s being—and political life—is also determined like any other living organism in the world. And like the diversity of life on earth, human life is diversified through environmental influences. But that doesn’t do anything in altering the life cycles that all human civilizations will experience. Ibn Khaldun asserts all life-forms have built-in predetermined life cycles (stages). Every plant has a life cycle. However, life-forms adapt and grow based in their environmental surroundings. Plants, despite their life cycles, have adapted to grow in their respective environments.

As Ibn Khaldun observes, the history of political life is one in which human civilizations have arisen and remain founded near water. Water is necessary for life. Therefore, arid environs are generally unsuitable for life so have minimal life. As humans settle cities and transition away from nomadic or rural life (the great urban vs. rural dialectic entailed in Khaldun’s thought), they do so near water-sources for the purposes of agrarian living. It is not the case that agrarian life is antithetical to urban life. On the contrary. The two go together. Agricultural life is that which is necessary for urban life to emerge. (The dialectic between urban and rural/nomadic/Berber isn’t based on agriculture and commerce as in Marx but based on the very dictates of geographic reality and how it impacts human development and settlement.)

Given the reality of humans as beings-in-the-world, Ibn Khaldun understands human biodiversity through what scientists and other scholars call “environmental conditioning.” Environmental conditioning is the view that, over the course of time, life-forms acclimate themselves to their environments (as we already established in the metaphor with plants). Human behavior and organization will differ based on their environmental dwelling. Differences in behaviors, laws, customs, and other conventions, are based not on different gods or different understandings of the Good but based on the environments that humans found themselves inhabiting and cultivating life in.

The role of environment in shaping humans and civilization is so pronounced that Ibn Khaldun goes on to state what we might consider the obvious, but which was, in his time, not obvious at all. The fertility of land leads to a multiplicity of civilizations. Take the Nile, the Fertile Crescent, or the Indus River and Yellow River as examples; early human civilizations were river-based in the great river valleys of the world precisely because they were environmentally suitable biomes to live in. Arid lands lead to very few civilizations (if any) because of the scarcity of usable resources to sustain human life and the people who occupy such places often remain in a state of primordial existence. In arid lands where single empires formed, like with the Mali Empire along the Niger River, that is the result of few tribes that eventually get overwhelmed by the most dominant tribe which forms the single empire in relative isolation because there were few human tribes in arid regions to serve as great competitors.

By contrast, because the river valleys of the Indus and the Middle East and Nile were so fertile there were many tribes which warred and quarreled with each other and that result in dominate tribes forming empires but right next to them other tribes were subjugated by a dominant tribe to form a neighboring empire. Thus the great empires of the Near East constantly waged war with each other because of the fertility of the land in which they occupied drew many peoples and tribes to it which, due to the aggressiveness of men, led to wars between tribes and the formations of empire in history. But whether in an arid environ or a lush environ, human civilizations cannot escape their predestined life cycles to decline.

Wealth, which springs from successful domination of nature, also impacts political society. A virtuous people are not, intrinsically, virtuous. Virtue is something that matures and, because it matures, also dissipates over time. Therefore, seemingly virtuous civilizations of the past have all dissipated and died.

Virtue has a limited political life which is tied to what Ibn Khaldun calls asabiyyah, or “group feeling/intimacy.” As Ibn Khaldun elsewhere stated, “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.” Wealth corrupts virtue and disintegrates group feeling and leads to the process of atomization and hedonistic self-interest. No virtuous people can avoid this. In fact, other earlier philosophers like Aristotle and Cicero also commented on how commercialist interests need to be properly kept in check (Aristotle) and how wealth is the ultimate enemy of democracy and republicanism (Cicero).

Those who lack an overabundance of resources and wealth are generally cautious because they do not have excess or surplus. Those who have an abundance of resources and great wealth become frivolous because they have surpluses to waste—wealth always correlates with wastefulness. Wealth, like the environment that humans find themselves in, subsequently conditions them. Wealth becomes almost parasitic as it eats away at the willingness to sacrifice for oneself and for others. Humans become accustomed to comfort and pleasure and become conditioned to this type of hedonistic and materially pleasant life. This detaches humans from their origins in scarcity. As Ibn Khaldun states, in this life of luxury humans “find it painful to give it up or to make any changes.”

But not every inch of a civilization share in equal luxury. As such, there emerges a split internally in civilizations between decadent (mostly urban) peoples and sacrificing (but suffering) peoples of the exterior regions. The decadent urbanites come to shun their past because they have become conditioned out of it. The sacrificing people (generally found in poor rural areas) retain asabiyyah because it is necessary for group solidarity and sacrifice in order to continue to survive. This split magnifies in time in civilizations which help hasten a civilization’s collapse as it internally fractures.

However, there is a tragic irony in all this. Ibn Khaldun notes that one of the reasons for civilization and the eventual settlement of cities rather than living in small rural communities with few networks or nomadic lives is to enjoy luxury. Ironically, the very aim of the political leads to its death. The apex of civilization, in its wealth and luxury, is the culmination of the “growth phase” of the human life-form called civilization. After the growth phase starts the decline phase—which is characterized by corruption, in-fighting, the urbanite hatred of their history, past, and “uncivilized” savage compatriots who live in the rural regions of the nation—sets in. Additionally, during the decline phase there is an increase in atomization and unwillingness to make sacrifices on behalf of the common good. Society has become so individualized that there are no more common causes or values to unite people. Force becomes the final glue of a civilization in collapse. How ironic.

All civilizations descend from their acme to death. The disintegration of society is marked by excessive luxury among an increasingly small segment of the population. At this point the civilization dies and is replaced by a new civilization, often by outsiders, who exhibit the asabiyyah of the conquest/growth phase of civilization. And so life repeats itself and new civilizations rise and old civilizations fall. The cycle of life, as it were, starts anew. There is nothing new under the sun after all, but the Muqaddimah remains one of the greatest works of sociology, philosophy, and human nature ever written.

2 comments

  1. People need to read Ibn Khaldun for 2 main reasons:
    1) he was the one who started philosophy of history foreshadowing Machiavelli and Hobbes like you said.
    2) because westerners think that eastern were not philosophers.

    A great post my friend. I will reblog it and it will be published on Saturday 12th.

    Liked by 1 person

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