Ibn Khaldun and ‘Asabiyyah

This is the sixth 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.

In contrast to a classical liberal view of existence, the role of violence and of the irrational is critical for ushering in the new worlds within the thought of Ibn Khaldun. Tribal bonds, mutual sacrifice and subservience to a higher group-state … these Ibn Khaldun identified as the genesis of civilisation, of abundance, and still later of decadence. The name Ibn Khaldun gave to the group-ethic, which in turn served as the motor of history – determining how the various civilisations rose and fell – was ‘asabiyyah (note this can be spelled differently in the same Latinized dialect).

First of all, what does ‘asabiyyah mean linguistically and etymologically? Halim tells us the root, ‘asab’, has the meaning of ‘to bind,’ Baali adding that the binding refers to being bound to a group. The Enyclopaedia of Islam denotes‘asabiyyah as having meanings of tribal kinship and there is a masculine sense to the term, the implication that of a strengthening bond. The Arabic-English Lexicon again gives yet more depth to the possible meanings of ‘asabiyyah; a person demonstrates group-feeling when he feels angry or compelled to act in defense of his group. The same dictionary also tells us that, etymologically, ‘asabiyyah has the meaning of a turban being bound around one’s head (the turban could be a metaphor for the tribe and for the head, the latter representing individual disposition but the former seems more likely). Goodman tells us that the root word is that of ‘nerve,’ as in the “fiber or sinew by which a group is held together.”[1]

Old Bedoin tents

When it comes to ‘asabiyyah, we could say that there is the implication of a certain fanaticism or sectarianism. A sense of righteousness or morality is not inherently implicit in the use of the word. Another volume, the Lisan-al-Arab, says that ‘asabiyyah has the meaning of the request of mutual self-aid or co-operation. There is also the connotation of a metric, i.e. one could imagine is whether their ‘measure’ of ‘asabiyyah is waxing strong or waning weakly. Importantly, while it does undoubtedly evoke feelings of factionalism, it should not be confused with nationalism. There are numerous terms in Latinized dialects that can be used interchangeably with the word. One author gives us the following catalogue of approximate or equivalent terms in a few European languages (most are from English):

Rosenthal translates it as ‘group feeling’, Monteil mostly as ‘esprit de corps’ or ‘esprit de clan’. It seems misleading to equate it with Durkheim’s mechanical solidarity and ascribe to Ibn Khaldun the claim that this is solidarity tout court … Some others have used it as group consciousness, gemeinsinn, nationalitatsidee, corporate spirit, feeling of solidarity, group solidarity, group will, communal spirit, social cohesion, martial spirit, striking power and social solidarity.[2]

For our purposes it is sufficient to translate ‘asabiyyah as ‘group-feeling’ or ‘group-ethic’ even though these words may not convey the sense of purpose and dynamism that ‘asabiyyah entails. As a matter of fact, the meaning of ‘asabiyyah seems to be close to the original meaning of what we in English term ‘religion,’ which meant a ‘binding together.’ However, there is no sense of a set of religious rites implicit in the term ‘asabiyyah, so this usage will be generally avoided.

In the Islamic religion itself, the concept of ‘asabiyyah is frowned upon but not something that is categorically forbidden.[3] A hadith of the Prophet says the following:

He is not of us who proclaims the cause of tribal partisanship and he is not of us who fights in the cause of tribal partisanship; and he is not of us who dies in the cause of tribal partisanship.[4]

Camels and swords

However, the Prophet elaborated on this by saying in response to a question that ‘asabiyyah is “helping your own people in an unjust cause.”[5] While someone may rightfully possess a love for their tribe or nation in Islam, Islam teaches Man’s individual relationship with Allah is paramount and this means that men shouldn’t jettison divinely ordained laws and justice for the sake of experiencing or partaking in group-feeling.[6] Given that he was a notable scholar of Islam, it is interesting that Ibn Khaldun chose this particular word. His own life-story indicates that he may have considered it appropriate to use where legal relations are inappropriate (i.e. between rival dynasties, rival religious factions, or in the domain of power politics) but blameworthy in normal circumstances. He may also have used such a charged term for sectarianism to give his teachings a universal colouring but also to tell his main audience of Muslims that the enemies of Islam have this primal urge to defend each other against outsiders while Muslims have lost this quality. There was also a risk involved in, not only using the term but, rotating his entire philosphy on the axis of ‘asabiyyah. The word was associated with the times of ignorance (Jahiliyyah), the pagan era of Arabia which preceded Islam, and early scholars generally employed ‘asabiyyah in a pejorative sense. Later scholars of Islam adopted a more nuanced use of the term, whereby ‘asabiyyah is not always recommended but sometimes commendable.[7] Despite this more favourable approach to ‘asabiyyah, it still took courage on Ibn Khaldun’s part to use the word so liberally, and this confidence in how he employed the term, as well as the context he gave it (i.e. within his analysis of civilizational growth and decay) was innovative because, it is fair to speculate, the tendency of scholars would have been to consider the universality and station of Islam as a given. While we know that the early Muslims had quite strong bonds between them that were based on religion, but also to a degree on blood, this fact was likely effaced somewhat as time went on and Islam moved further away from its roots. Nevertheless, while he positions group-ethic as the motor of civilization, Ibn Khaldun doesn’t see ‘asabiyyah as necessary and in fact can envisage a perfectly stable state without it. He also had high regard for civilisations that suppressed group-feeling. In a civilized state, there is the possibility of no ‘asabiyyah and also the possibility that a Bedouin culture might advance politically without becoming sedentary.[8]

Whatever the various etymological and linguistic speculations concerning ‘asabiyyah are, we can say for sure that the idea of rational self-calculation, essential to a liberal-economic view of the world, does not enter into any understanding of the term. ‘Asabiyyah as the focal point of a political inquiry represents the very antithesis of a rationalist account of politics. As Sumer says in a research article:

For many centuries, the focus of the West has been on .. individuality. For Ibn Khaldun, the group, not the individual, was history’s focal point and determining factor. Individuals seldom- if ever, unless they were divinely inspired- have more than a minor influence on the overwhelming forces of history. Indeed, the individual for Ibn Khaldun is practically neglected as a philosophical topic.[9]

Ibn Khaldun ignored or possibly even rejected the individual as an object of socio-political discourse investigation, or alternatively as the subject/agent of politics. Instead history was determined by group dynamics. That does not mean he neglected how humans behaved or their motivations. He merely went beyond individual psychology, turning to group dynamics to understand sociology and consequently history, but turned to individualism when explaining why groups formed in the first place.[10]

So, what is ‘asabiyyah? A research paper summarizes Ibn Khaldun’s portrayal of asabiyah as existing

due to the primitive life possesed by certain groups or nations when they face difficulties. These force them to stand together to protect themselves and their fellows from any danger outside their group … The spirit of ‘Asabiyyah usually arises from the blood relationship, which is the core element of this spirit. On the other hand, the sense of ‘Asabiyyah could also exist in those who have no blood relationship, yet have a common view from ‘…alliance and clientship’…

Another point to note is that religion plays a crucial role in binding the members of a group through the spirit of ‘Asabiyyah. The spirit of ‘Asabiyyah is essential in spreading the teaching of a religion. Religion eliminates the jealousy among the members of a group that possesses ‘Asabiyyah … Furthermore, having a common sense of religion allows the members of a group to work together, to the extent of being willing to die to achieve the objectives that they believe in. Accordingly, the physical aspect of hardship and the spiritual aspect … of religion actually uphold … ‘Asabiyyah in developing their group or nation.[11]

Toynbee elegantly described ‘asabiyyah as “the basic protoplasm out of which all bodies politic and bodies social are built up.”[12] Ibn Khaldun himself says that group-feeling means “(mutual) affection and willingness to fight and die for each other.”[13] At the same time, Ibn Khaldun argues that generally group-feeling is only necessary at the beginning of a dynasty – “group feeling makes it possible for a dynasty to become established and protected from the beginning”[14] – and can be watered down or dispensed with as a dynasty grows in strength. As a matter of fact, political strength can exist for a long time in the absence of group-feeling, but Ibn Khaldun’s surmises that the dynasty does not have the vital life force which enabled it to grow strong initially. It may live on extended time also because of the lack of will-power on the part of challengers to openly oppose the ruler, or because those under the ruler are content with building their own private sources of power. Where a dynasty lasts without group-feeling, subjects have become weak and used to being ordered, and act with subservience and obedience as a matter of course.[15] There may also be problems when ‘asabiyyah confronts those without the same group-ethic. At the beginning of a dynasty, those who are outside the group are unfamiliar with how the dynasty operates and there is a suggestion that they may not trust those who are dominating them. At this stage, group-feeling can be a hindrance because the rule of the dynasty has become familiar to the ‘strangers’ it rules over (we will discuss royal authority in more detail later).

[P]eople find it difficult to submit to large dynastic (power) at the beginning, unless they are forced into submission by strong superiority … But once leadership is firmly vested in the members of the family qualified to exercise royal authority in the dynasty, and once (royal authority) has been passed on by inheritance over many generations and through successive dynasties, the beginnings are forgotten, and the members of that family are clearly marked as leaders … People will fight with them in their behalf, as they would fight for the articles of faith. By this time, (the rulers) will not need much group (feeling to maintain) their power. It is as if obedience to the government were a divinely revealed book that cannot be changed or opposed.[16]

Bedouin gathering

Lack of ‘asabiyyah represents a blind spot from which the military power – if not the legitimacy – of the incumbent dynasty can be attacked.[17] As an example, referring to the North African Sinhajah, Ibn Khaldun relates as follows:

Their group feeling was destroyed in the fifth [eleventh] century, or before that. Dynastic (power), but of decreasing importance, was maintained by them in … frontier cities of Ifriqiyah. Frequently, some rival aspirant to royal authority would attack these frontier cities and entrench himself in them. Yet, they retained government and royal authority until God permitted their dynasty to be wiped out. Then the Almohads came, fortified by the strong group feeling among the Masmudah, and obliterated all traces of the (Sinhajah dynasty).[18]

‘Asabiyyah is a condition of power, it is not a necessary condition for the maintenance of authority, but if allowed to lapse can be fatal to the fortunes of a dynasty. When we analyse the various statements of Ibn Khaldun concerning asabiyah however, we can see that one thing is a constant; namely, a dynasty requires at all stages of its life those who will lay down their lives, or alternatively, kill other humans, in defense of the dynasty. In the primordial state where ‘asabiyyah manifests itself most strongly, the population of the group-ethic driven faction is small in number. What these small groups do possess is a fanaticism, a factionalism, and a devotion to each other. This weighs heavily in the balance because they are willing to take the lives of other fellow-humans, sacrifice their own lives and comforts, and also consummate their bond with the group-ethic. Yet despite the fact that group-feelings inspires valour, an adventurous spirit, and possibly even a certain ruthlessness, there is a creative element to ‘asabiyyah that is critical. Men are willing to jettison their own personal ambitions and accept subordinate positions because of the group-feeling. Asabiyah is important in providing the will to find a political structure, calming intra-factional passions, and giving solid foundations for social solidarity. We could even say simply that it gives a sense of meaning and purpose, or perhaps that most cherished of commodities accruing from association, an identity. Since there is a common basis for organized, socialized, life there is also mutual loyalty.[19] We are here far beyond the limits of the liberal-economic view of the world, even though we may be tempted to ascribe the entering into a group-ethic as reflecting more practical, ‘selfish’ motivations. A person may merely seek community to avoid loneliness, to augment their capital, to cultivate relations which may ‘come in handy’ someday. He may internalize a tribal spirit so as to gain access to the romantic feeling of complete self-annihilation or otherwise enjoy voyages into the unknown which command his attentiveness and emotions. Yet, we become prisoners of our own egocentric rationalism, which is undoubtedly a product of our education and civilized existence, when we try to neatly encapsulate all human experience into the rationalist model. In fact, despite the highly organised lives we live, we still see examples of human heroism and self-sacrifice that astound us. In the state of strong ‘asabiyyah, it becomes even more difficult to uphold the argument that humans are merely agents of their autonomous intrigues to better themselves materially.

(To be continued …)

FIND OUT MORE ABOUT MY BOOKS BY CLICKING ON THE PIC BELOW

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

References

[1] Goodman, L. E. (1972). Ibn Khaldun and Thucydides. Journal of the American Oriental Society,92(2); 256.

[2] Sumer, B. (2012). Ibn Khaldun’s Asabiyya for Social Cohesion. Electronic Journal of Social Sciences,11(41); 256-257.

[3] Abdul Halim, A. (2014). Ibn Khaldūn’s Theory of ‘Aṣabiyyah and the Concept of Muslim Ummah. Jurnal al-Tamaddun Bil,9(1), 33-44; Abdul Halim, A., Nor, M. R., Ibrahim, A. Z., & Abdul Hamid, F. A. (2012). Ibn Khaldun’s Theory of ‘Asabiyyah and its Application in Modern Muslim Society . Middle-East Journal of Scientific Research, 11(9), 1232-1237; Qadir, H. (2013). Sociological Insights of Asabiyyah by Ibn Khaldun: An Inevitable Force For Social Dynamism. International Journal of Recent Scientific Research ,4(8), 1220-1224; Alatas, S. F. Ibn Khaldun and Contemporary Sociology. SSRN Electronic Journal SSRN Journal; 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.

[4] Abdul Halim, A., Nor, M. R., Ibrahim, A. Z., & Abdul Hamid, F. A. (2012). Ibn Khaldun’s Theory of ‘Asabiyyah and its Application in Modern Muslim Society . Middle-East Journal of Scientific Research, 11(9); 1233.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Abdul Halim, A. (2014). Ibn Khaldūn’s Theory of ‘Aṣabiyyah and the Concept of Muslim Ummah. Jurnal al-Tamaddun Bil,9(1), 33-44.

[7] Qadir, H. (2013). Sociological Insights of Asabiyyah by Ibn Khaldun: An Inevitable Force For Social Dynamism. International Journal of Recent Scientific Research ,4(8), 1220-1224; Ibn Khaldun,  A. A-R. b. M. (Rosenthal, F.; Trans.) (1958). The Muqaddimah [pdf version]. Retrieved from http://scribd.com; 851.

[8] Çaksu, A. (2007). Ibn Khaldun and Hegel on Causality in History: Aristotelian Legacy Reconsidered. Asian Journal of Social Science, 35(1), 47-83.

[9] Sumer, B. (2012). Ibn Khaldun’s Asabiyya for Social Cohesion. Electronic Journal of Social Sciences,11(41); 256-257.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibn Khaldun’s Theory of ‘Asabiyyah and its Application in Modern Muslim Society . Middle-East Journal of Scientific Research, 11(9); 1234.

[12] Qadir, H. (2013). Sociological Insights of Asabiyyah by Ibn Khaldun: An Inevitable Force For Social Dynamism. International Journal of Recent Scientific Research ,4(8); 1220.

[13] Ibn Khaldun,  A. A-R. b. M. (Rosenthal, F.; Trans.) (1958). The Muqaddimah [pdf version]. Retrieved from http://scribd.com; 205.

[14] Ibid. 207.

[15] Ibid. 376

[16] Ibid. 206.

[17] Ibid. 205-206.

[18] Ibid. 206.

[19] Goodman, L. E. (1972). Ibn Khaldun and Thucydides. Journal of the American Oriental Society,92(2), 250-270.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s