Ibn Khaldun on Why Law is Bad

“Dying societies accumulate laws like dying men accumulate remedies.” So said Nicolás Gómez Dávila, the great Colombian conservative. This aphorism tells us that order is not secured through hyper-induced law-making, but rather through an internalization of ‘higher’ laws, duties to obey parents, obligations to others, willingness to take on social responsibilities, etc …

Today’s world is sophisticated and complex. This means that there are less ‘natural’ bonds between citizens who inhabit many nations in the contemporary world. Since the world is increasingly diverse, there are less common principles, more disputes about what is just and right, and consequently more laws or instruments to support the implementation of the Law. Police, prisons, and security services are obvious manifestations of these brute facts.

Writing about six and a half centuries ago, the renowned historiographer and sociologist Ibn Khaldun drew similar conclusions to Davila about law. In his masterpiece Al-Muqaddimah (II.6, Rosenthal translation), Ibn Khaldun said that a preponderance of legal prescriptions is an unhealthy sign of a society. Not only that, but it brings out the fact that men are being ruled, as opposed to this fact being hidden from them. Men don’t like being ruled but “man must by necessity be dominated by someone else.” However, just application of the laws means that legal machinery is applied sparsely and people come to rely on their own virtuous qualities. This fortitude becomes a habit and hence, there is order and less need to impose laws. On the other hand, if

the domination with … laws is one of brute force and intimidation, it breaks their fortitude and deprives them of their power of resistance as a result of the inertness that develops in the souls of the oppressed.

Ibn Khaldun goes on to identify two seemingly opposing tendencies which have the same negative results. He elaborates on what was just touched upon; namely, the use of force to impose the law destroys a person’s self-reliance. Curiously, he then says that when

laws are (intended to serve the purposes of) education and instruction and are applied from childhood on, they have to some degree the same effect, because people then grow up in fear and docility and consequently do not rely on their own fortitude.

In this regard, Ibn Khaldun compares the rough-hewn Bedouin (who we should understand not as dwellers of the Arabian peninsula, but rather those who live outside civilized settings) and those who live a sedentary, i.e. civilized, lifestyle. The Bedouin who have little in the way of formal laws yet display immense self-reliance and strength, while those educated and habituated to law possess little of the Bedouin power for self-reliance.

As a trained judge, Ibn Khaldun yet upholds the religious law on the basis that it is not imposed but something inherent in people. Someone looking at a country like Saudi Arabia might dispute this, where there are vice police and constant reports of arrests for seemingly trivial incidents. However, if we look closer we may judge Ibn Khaldun to be correct. Saudi Arabia, despite its bad reputation, has an advanced civilized existence, with many people inhabiting cities, and has moved very far away from its Bedouin roots. Fewer and fewer people are living in the desert in Saudi, although the numbers are proportionally still quite large. Because of the increasingly urban culture of Saudi, order is maintained by force or technical education, both of which Ibn Khaldun considered in a negative light.

We leave the final word to Ibn Khaldun:

Therefore, governmental and educational laws influence sedentary people, in that they weaken their souls and diminish their stamina, because they have to suffer (their authority) both as children and as adults. The Bedouins, on the other hand, are not in the same position, because they live far away from the laws of government, instruction, and education.

Currently, I am working on a book about Ibn Khaldun, Machiavelli, and Carl Schmitt, which I intend to release sometime in the second half of next year. Any comments or suggestions to this blog are welcome.

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