Ibn Khaldun’s Sociology

This is the fifth part of a serialized discussion on Ibn Khaldun (see the previous post here) which will be published over the coming weeks (Jan-April 2017) and is to support a book I am writing on the interaction between the economic and the political in the thought of Ibn Khaldun, Machiavelli, and Carl Schmitt.

The overarching purpose of Ibn Khaldun’s inquiries is to offer a convincing explanation of the dynamics which underpin the totality of human affairs, i.e. explore ‘what makes’ human civilisations. For this task, the tool which he was going to use, the instrument which would prise open the secret vault of history – he literally uses the Arabic word for ‘secret,’ sirr[1] – would be sociology. Sociology is simply the science of society. Some philosophers, most famously Karl Marx, have interpreted history solely on the basis of social factors. In Marx’s case, he saw the modes of production as determining history. Long before Marx, Ibn Khaldun proposed that history could be understood as an expression of underlying social conditions. The specific word which he chose to describe his science by was al-‘umran, although sometimes he would also use the term al-ijtima’-al-basharii.[2] Critical to an understanding of Ibn Khaldun’s philosophy, ‘umran can be translated as ‘civilisation’ or ‘culture.’ However, it should be stressed that there must be some dynamic of development into fields of human activity such as the economic for ‘umran to be manifested. Etymologically, the root word has the same meanings in Arabic as that of European languages which are variations of colo (e.g. culture in English). Furthermore, it has meanings of dwelling in a certain place, ‘stocking’ (as in populating), to be in a good state of upkeep, and also that of cultivation. It has both the meaning of being present somewhere but also that of growth and elaboration.[3] Mahdi illustrates use of how derivatives of the root word for ‘umran are employed:

The verbal adjectives ‘āmir and ma’mūr (is cultured) point to the existence of the various results of man’s labour without further specification, and are equally applicable to a land, a house, a fortress, or a marketplace, and indicate a flourishing state or a general state of prosperity … They can become more specific in two ways. First, by the object described. Thus, when a house is called ma’mūr, what is meant is that it is inhabited, taken care of, and in a good state of repair; while when the same adjective is applied to a harbour, what is meant is that it is bustling with merchants and ships … Second, through the use of additional defining words or phrases. Thus a marketplace is said to be ‘well-stocked with goods’ or ‘frequented by merchants.’[4]

Fez streets

‘Umran is a social complexity, a social organization, and population increase. Increasing complexity ultimately lay in the arts and crafts and societies were structured according to how they earned their livelihood, i.e. by the modes of production. However, Ibn Khaldun was not an early Marxist. He saw modes of production as ‘outcomes’ of human sociability, and not the other way round, i.e. the Marxist view that people have a skill and then form culture on the basis of their artisanship.[5] As Mahdi puts it, culture “is not an independent substance, but a property (khāṣṣa) of another substance which is man.”[6] Man is “not the product of his natural disposition and temperament,” and conditions “have replaced his natural disposition.” Instead, Man “is a child of the customs and the things he has become used to.”[8] Although he focused strongly on the effect of arts and crafts in determining the characteristics and differences humans manifest, Ibn Khaldun also cited numerous other factors, such as the climate, food, and diet.[9] Nevertheless, these ‘natural factors’ form a lesser role in his theory, although they do feature in his lesser Muqaddimah portion of the greater Muqaddimah whole. The dominant motor of human history, for Ibn Khaldun, is the varying tendencies to engage in arts and crafts.

Before Ibn Khaldun, it doesn’t seem that such a sociological science ever existed – or at least, was consciously elucidated – and in this respect he certainly stands apart. Prior to Ibn Khaldun, and even for some time after him, there was always the impression that the great law-giver or leader, or even the form of government, would impose order and thus culture, for better or for worse (this informs Machiavelli’s The Prince). History was thus merely the plaything of the great who, for better or for worse, made decisions from positions of rationality, aloofness or, if they were corrupt, self-interest. When it came to society, we of course had the speculations of Aristotle but he never studied society in a scientific manner; society was an expression, a heuristic we may say, of important features of human psychology, not the bread and butter of history. Of course differences were noticed by the ancient philosophers on variations of human cultures. But they never put social analysis on a scientific footing and still less made universal claims that linked sociology to history.

‘Umran is an expression of the tendency of humans to use their God-given faculty of intelligence to advance beyond mere subsistence, co-operating together so as to live a higher form of life than would be possible in the wild. Men are deficient physically and so compensate by using their mental abilities, their reason, intellect, and imagination. Greater numbers of people co-operating results in a higher level of civilization, but co-operation is the operative word. Once co-operation wanes, ‘umran declines, regardless of the numbers an area of civilization. So, an uncivilized people can increase their ‘umran, whereas in a sophisticated people, the same quality can decline. Thus Ibn Khaldun made one of his great linkages between principle and interest. In the wild, men struggle to meet the bare necessities of life. Gathering around a principle entails no loss to them in material terms, and in fact has the promise of material increase, personal glory, and the intoxicant of tribal superiority. The headline of one of the chapters of  Book V is The Arabs, of all people, are least familiar with crafts and Ibn Khaldun directly follows up this heading (this is a feature of his literary style) by saying that “Arabs are more firmly rooted in desert life and more remote from sedentary civilization, the crafts, and the other things which sedentary civilization calls for.”[7] On the other hand, the Bedouin are self-reliant, go out heavily armed, are constantly vigilant, rarely given to relaxation, and are at home in the challenging environments of the wilderness. As a consequence, they are courageous and will apply their bravery and steadfastness when called upon.

Spices in souk

Sophistication in arts and crafts may not lead to dominance. As an example of how hardy peoples can unite around a principle and overwhelm those who have lost their roots in the wild, the example of the early Islamic conquests is cited. In their primordial stage, Ibn Khaldun tells us, a pillow on which to sleep was unknown to the Arabs. Their standard of living was rudimentary and the obvious correlate with this was that the arts and crafts were woefully underdeveloped. For instance, and in spite of their power, the early Umayyad dynasty gave its clients camels as rewards for services rendered, such was the hold the desert life exerted on them even when they were probably the most powerful dynasty in the world at the time.[10] Later, under the Abbasids, this all changed and Ibn Khaldun gives a startling description of a wedding of Harun al-Rashid in the 9th century:

On the wedding day, al Hasan b. Sahl [the father of the bride] gave a lavish banquet that was attended by al-Ma’mun’s retinue. To members of the first class, al-Hasan distributed lumps of musk wrapped in papers granting farms and estates to the holders. Each obtained what chance and luck gave him. To the second class, (al-Hasan) distributed bags each of which held 10,000 dinars. To the third class, he distributed bags with the same amount in dirhams. In addition to all this, he had already spent many times as much when al-Ma’mun had stayed in his house. Also, al-Ma’mun gave Burin a thousand hyacinths (rubies) as her wedding gift … on the wedding night. He burned candles of amber each of which weighed one hundred mann [a mann about .75 kg] … He had put down for her carpets woven with threads of gold and adorned with pearls and hyacinths … One hundred and forty mule loads of wood had been brought three times a day for a whole year to the kitchen and were ready for the wedding night. All that wood was consumed that very night … Boatmen were ordered to bring boats to transport the distinguished guests on the Tigris from Baghdad to the royal palaces in the city of al-Ma’mlin … for the wedding banquet. The boats prepared for that purpose numbered 30,000, and they carried people back and forth all day long. There were many other such things.[11]

One characteristic of a civilized people is the evolution of legal rationality. In a manner Carl Schmitt would somewhat echo centuries later (albeit with a different purpose in mind), Ibn Khaldun cited law as a corrupting factor in the life of civilizations. He does exempt religious law because this exerts an inner influence on people; it disciplines them because of their belief in religion and the obligations it lays on them as a product of their beliefs. By contrast, laws in an urban environment are usually either of two types; (1) they are merely to punish because of the lack of self-restraint on the part of urban-dwellers, or (2) they are habitual and instrumental to the needs of technical and scientific education. We could summarize Ibn Khaldun’s entire view on this matter by saying that laws are least effective, promoting sedition, weakness, and irreligiousness when such laws are seen as being imposed on the individual from ‘outside,’ rather than being merely an expression of a culture. Where there is a cleavage between culture and law, then law has a corrosive effect.[12]

(The influence of) religion, then, decreased among men, and they came to use restraining laws. The religious law became a branch of learning and a craft to be acquired through instruction and education. People turned to sedentary life and assumed the character trait of submissiveness to law. This led to a decrease in their fortitude.[13]

A way of interpreting Ibn Khaldun’s opinion on law is that he differentiated between law and justice. On the one hand, there is law, a mechanistic, formalized, technical apparatus which can be valid law even where it does not approach even a semblance of ‘right.’ On the other hand, we have justice. Justice might ‘break’ law, it might be in harmony with it, but it touches something deeper than merely rationalized forms of propagating or implementing technical legalities.

Ibn Khaldun adopted a dichotomy when describing ‘umran. There was desert, nomadic life, or even what may be called the ‘outsiders’ (those who live outside urban civilized culture) which was denoted as badawah, and then there was urban/sedentary life, or hadarah (al-’umrān al-badawī and al-’umrān al-haḍarī, respectively). Today, this could be simply stylized as the opposition of town versus country but in Ibn Khaldun’s time (as indeed is still the case in some parts of the world, and as is even coming back into fashion in ‘developed’ parts of the world), ‘urban’ areas engaged in agriculture. The key difference between ‘town’ and ‘country’ in Ibn Khaldun’s world was that there was an observable gap in population density. But this population density was, at base, a product of the increasing social organization inimical to sedentary life. Once a people transcend the mere day-to-day existence of cultivating food, tending to animals, foraging, or those essentials of shelter and clothing, once a people begin to diversify and expand their range of products, this is when they have progressed from a rural to a sedentary culture. Although Ibn Khaldun doesn’t state it as such, he is suggesting that the two groups are different ‘breeds,’ with one transforming into the other, but the other – the Bedouin – as essential to the sedentary.[14] Effectively, Ibn Khaldun postulated a ‘clash of civilisation’ but whereas American propagandists like Huntington proposed a clash of civilisations between monolithic constructs that are largely the result of fiction – or even a hangover from the strange era of the Cold War where two monolithic nation-states really did stare across well-defined borders from one another, threatening to annihilate each other at a moments notice – Ibn Khaldun’s collision of historical forces is far more sophisticated, polycentric and empirically sound, whatever other shortcomings the theory may have. His theory is also scientific, in that it is either falsifiable or verifiable. There are many examples throughout history where we can think of a more urbane and sophisticated culture transcending the ‘call of the wild’ or the rough-hewn taking charge of the more luxurious and stately. The hardy Romans, based in the countryside, dominated the Greeks, the Romans themselves were overthrown by Germanic tribes, there were the conquests of Islam which have been alluded to.[15] Ibn Khaldun adopts what may be loosely termed a ‘noble savage’ view; he attributes moral virtue to the Bedouin – or at least the capacity for moral virtue – while at the same time pointing out the difficulties of reforming a sedentary people or making them act in ways which go beyond their selfish desires. Sedentary masses can become corrupted and unable and/or unwilling to change because of their habits.[16] Nonetheless, we shouldn’t portray Ibn Khaldun as a hopeless romantic. While he had much praise for the Arabs or Bedouins – and indeed most people would see qualities like fortitude, resilience, and courage as worthy characteristics – he was not someone who deprecated civilised life. On the contrary, he portrayed sedentary existence as the goal of human development.

Towns are dwelling places that nations use when they have reached the desired goal of luxury and of the things that go with it.[17]


Furthermore, he says that “sedentary culture is the goal of Bedouin life.”[18] Where Ibn Khaldun does criticise sedentary life, it is with regard to the corruption the sophisticated co-operation unwittingly brings into being. Law, which has been cited earlier, is one example of this. He cites particulars of this corruption. Prices rise, customs and taxes are levied at an ever more unwieldy level. As a result (and we are becoming familiar with this phenomenon nowadays), prosperity goes hand in hand with poverty as more and more people are unable to make ends meet.[19] In tandem with the economic crisis comes the social chaos, whereby greed cultivates immoral and blameworthy characteristics, with obscenities openly broadcast and shamelessness abundant.

Corruption of the individual inhabitants is the result of painful and trying efforts to satisfy the needs caused by their (luxury) customs; (the result) of the bad qualities they have acquired in the process of obtaining (those needs); and of the damage the soul suffers after it has obtained them … The soul comes to think about (making a living), to study it, and to use all possible trickery for the purpose. People are now devoted to lying, gambling, cheating, fraud, theft, perjury, and usury. Because of the many desires and pleasures resulting from luxury, they are found to know everything about the ways and means of immorality, they talk openly about it and its causes, and give up all restraint in discussing it, even among relatives and close female relations, where the Bedouin attitude requires modesty (and avoidance of) obscenities. They also know everything about fraud and deceit, which they employ to defend themselves against the possible use of force against them and against the punishment expected for their evil deeds. Eventually, this becomes a custom and trait of character with most of them, except those whom God protects. The city, then, teems with low people of blameworthy character. They encounter competition from many members of the younger generation of the dynasty, whose education has been neglected and whom the dynasty has neglected to accept. They, therefore, adopt the qualities of their environment and company … even though they may be people of noble descent and ancestry … The person who is strongly colored by any kind of vice and whose good character is corrupted, is not helped by his good descent and fine origin. Thus, one finds that many descendants of great families, men of a highly esteemed origin, members of the dynasty, get into deep water and adopt low occupations in order to make a living, because their character is corrupt and they are colored by wrongdoing and insincerity. If this (situation) spreads in a town or nation, God permits it to be ruined and destroyed.[20]

Personal dissoluteness means that the good habits inculcated by the habits of religion and self-discipline wane. Man then becomes merely an animal.[21]

‘Umran is both a natural state for mankind and also a telos. Humans are naturally sociable and thus ‘umran is a word which doesn’t denote some kind of structure into which men and women enter into. Rather, ‘umran should be understood as the essence of mankind. It is a constitutive state of Mankind. A human existing in a non-umranic state can be said to be non-existent as a human. At the same time, the essence of human nature is to desire the augmentation of a natural, Bedouin state. As opposed to what we may loosely call ‘natural’ ‘umran, the ‘developed’ or ‘consummated’ ‘umran – the realization of a sophisticated human existence – is not a constitutive state of Man. Instead the image of Man that he projects into the future – the will to transform oneself via artisanship and increasingly sophisticated modes of production, communication, and organisation – it is this projection which is constitutive. Man’s being is both determined by ‘what is’ and ‘what is possible,’ by a realism of present circumstances, experience of the past, but also an idealism thrown forward into the future. We can loosely call primitive ‘umran a ‘natural’ state in the sense that it is a state that all humans either exist in, or have emerged from. It is the state of subsistence, or authenticity, of merely existing as a traveller who takes only what they need for sustenance, it is most easily realised in a desert life, where Man is confronted by a barren vastness, by the need for quick calculations as to who constitutes friend or foe, by constant uncertainty and fearfulness, but also the absence of either material goods or ideological speculations – both of which are products of increasing human interactions and both of which are poles representing sheer realism or a logical positivism – which can exacerbate tensions.

So, in the void of a sophisticated existece, the vacuum of material prosperity or cultural diversity, in the most straitened of circumstances where the most scanty of provisions is matched by an adundance of familial and tribal loyalties, there yet comes into being the seed, the flower of whose being is the fruit of complex civilisation. Ibn Khaldun also conjured up a remarkable image, strikingly modern in its formulation; each civilization finds itself as if in a new world, and here he somewhat precedes the phenomenonology of the 20th century. Every expression of human sociability, and presumably the interpretation of this social existence by the constituent humans, is unique.

When there is a general change of conditions, it is as if the entire creation had changed and the whole world been altered, as if it were a new and repeated creation, a world brought into existence anew.[22]


Book Cover DesignPixlr_Smashwords Hi Res colmgillis2d (1)Emroidery of the Eternal (1)Mysteries of State Image


[1] Mahdi, M. (1957). Ibn Khaldun’s Philosophy of History: A Study in the Philosophic Foundation of the Science of Culture. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press; 152

[2] Corbin, H., Sherrard, L., & Sherrard, P. (2014). History of Islamic philosophy. London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group; p. 279; Enan, M.A. (1941). Ibn Khaldun: His Life and Work. Kashmiri Bazar, Lahore: Shaikh Muhammad Ashraf; 122-123.

[3] Mahdi. Ibn Khaldun’s Philosophy of History; 184-187.

[4] Ibid. 186

[5] Sumer, B. (2012). Ibn Khaldun’s Asabiyya for Social Cohesion. Electronic Journal of Social Sciences,11(41), 253-267.

[6] Mahdi. Ibn Khaldun’s Philosophy of History; 173

[7] Ibn Khaldun,  A. A-R. b. M. (Rosenthal, F.; Trans.) (1958). The Muqaddimah [pdf version]. Retrieved from http://scribd.com; 167.

[8] Ibn Khaldun. The Muqaddimah; 127-132; Mohammad, F. (n.d.). Ibn Khaldun’s Theory of Social Change: A Comparison with Hegel, Durkheim and Marx. The American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences, 15(2), 25–45. Some of Ibn Khaldun’s remarks with regard to climate and its influence upon dark-coloured peoples may be viewed as racist. He saw the climate they live under as rendering them more stupid, prone to exert themselves physically, and slavish than people living in cooler climes. A defender of Ibn Khaldun might say that his focus was not colour per se, but the actual environments people live under, regardless of skin colour. It just so happens to be incidental that an excess of sunshine produces the effects he talks of.

An incredibly interesting study which focuses more on these environmental factors as being determinative of human history is the book: Crotty, R. D. (2001). When histories collide: the development and impact of individualistic capitalism. New York: AltaMira Press.

[9] Ibn Khaldun. The Muqaddimah; 511; Ibn Khaldun insists that this co-operation is ‘necessary.’ I think its somewhat of a moot point whether civilisation is ‘necessary.’ Such an ascription of necessity to civilised life is as spurious as saying that the reason we have tools is purely for the purposes of ‘use.’ Mahdi. Ibn Khaldun’s Philosophy of History; 187-188


[10] Ibn Khaldun. The Muqaddimah; 229-231

[11] Ibid. 229-230; Ahmed, A. (2002) Ibn Khaldun’s Understanding of Civilizations and the Dilemmas of Islam and the West Today. Middle East Journal, 56(1), 20–45.

[12] Ibn Khaldun. The Muqaddimah; 168-169.

[13] Ibid. 169.

[14] Ibid. 850-852; Sumer. Ibn Khaldun’s Asabiyya for Social Cohesion; 253-267; Mohammad. Ibn Khaldun’s Theory of Social Change; 25-45; Alatas, S. F. (2006). Ibn Khaldūn and Contemporary Sociology. International Sociology,21(6), 782-795.

[15] A famous name in English history is the eccentric politician, Turnip Townshend, who brought methods of developed agricultural techniques to England, long after such methods had been used in many other parts of the world. The US also benefitted greatly from increasing agricultural methods in stimulating its rise to global hegemony.

[16] Mohammad. Ibn Khaldun’s Theory of Social Change; 25-45.

[17] Ibn Khaldun. The Muqaddimah; 440.

[18] Ibid. 468.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid. 469. One can possibly think here of Oliver Stone’s movie Wall Street and the famous speech by the chief protagonist Gordon Gecko, where he famously states that “Greed is good.”

[21] Ibid. 470.

[22] Ibid. 80.

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