Ibn Khaldun and the Eclipse of ‘Asabiyyah

This is the seventh part of a serialized discussion on Ibn Khaldun (see the previous post here) which 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.

Early on its life, political units discriminate strongly, as they are in a state of heightened ‘asabiyyah. Close kinship is the basis of tribal loyalty and honour. At a later date the units driven by group-feeling find that discrimination must be more nuanced if they are to develop. A narrowly constructed group-feeling, discriminating strongly between friends and foes, meets competition and also comes into contact with those outside the group-ethic. Something has to give if the dynasty is to progress further, if it wants to expand its population, and also add layers and networks of civilizational complexity. At a very crude level, this sophistication may merely be the joining together of two large families or tribes through marriage or mutual alliance. At a higher level, it involves development of trade, and of cultural, social, and political links, all of which lead to centres and networks of power, authority, coercion, bureaucracy, martial organization, etc … Techniques of government, sources of wealth, and cultural flowering are all important in helping the dynasty gain dominance. However, religious belief is by far the most effective solidifier and cultivator of an expansive ‘asabiyyah. In common with later thinkers like Machiavelli, Ibn Khaldun was all too aware of the power of religion to overcome differences and he said that: “Dynasties of wide power and large royal authority have their origin in religion based either on prophecy or on truthful propaganda.”[1]

Religion is critical because, instead of discord, disunity, mutual rivalry, and jealousy, the tenets of religious faith induce an asceticism, acceptance of the goals of the group and a willingness to co-operate for a higher purpose. There is a kind of ‘magic,’ a synergetic alchemy, that results from religious brotherhood. Clearly, Ibn Khaldun understands this religious asabiyyah in the Latin sense, religio as a ‘binding together.’[2] Religion fulfils a social function, while ultimately being based on a principle that inspires loyalty. Unity of meaning and purpose is crucial to Ibn Khaldun’s analysis, moreover, and ultimately this has its end in trading death for the benefit of the group. What separates those who drink from the religious group-feeling is the “willing[ness] to die for (their objectives)” while those who are attacked (assuming they are dissolute and irreligious) is a variation in purposes, and a fear of death accompanies lack of conviction and cohesion with regard to a shared ethos.[3]

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At the same time, military strength is also necessary for propagating religion. That Ibn Khaldun is no idealist is attested to by the following assessment of the role of the martial arts in a historical context.

Rulers and dynasties are strongly entrenched. Their foundations can be undermined and destroyed only through strong efforts backed by the group feeling of tribes and families … Similarly, prophets in their religious propaganda depended on groups and families, though they were the ones who could have been supported by God with anything in existence, if He had wished, but in His wisdom … He permitted matters to take their customary course.[4]

This ‘customary course’ indicating that arms backed faith. Religious belief alone cannot substitute for martial prowess, while martial prowess can either manipulate religious belief or promote a sincere faith. Ibn Khaldun gives two general examples of either a sincere attempt to reform religion which is dogged by a lack of political backing or, alternatively, a blatant misuse of religion for worldly ends, the latter which he (in contrast to Machiavelli) pours scorn upon.

If someone who is on the right path were to attempt (religious reforms) in this way [i.e. without material support], (his) isolation would keep him from (gaining the support of) group feeling … and he would perish. If someone merely pretends to (achieve religious reforms) in order to gain (political) leadership, he deserves to be hampered by obstacles and to fall victim to perdition. (Religious reforms) are a divine matter that materializes only with God’s pleasure and support, through sincere devotion for Him and in view of good intentions towards the Muslims. No Muslim, no person of insight, could doubt this (truth).[5]

Ibn Khaldun takes an Aristotelian turn in his thinking, because he sees social organization as being – not an attempt by selfish, calculating beings, strategizing for their own profit – but rather as representing innate needs in humans for social organization.[6] Also, his speculations on political organization based on religious group-feeling (siyāsa shar‘iyya or siyāsa dīniyya) are not ‘pie-in-the-sky.’ While he notes that rule based on religious tenets is both this-worldly and other-worldly, he suggests a kind of ‘political theology,’ in that people who live in a domain where governance is based on reason also hope for a reward from the ruler. Reason-based rule (siyāsāt ‘aqliyya) is divided into two types, the first where either the public interest is paramount and that where the ruler’s interest in ruling is balanced with the common good. This type of rule is something extinct, he tells us, but is based on a distinct philosophical outlook. Then, there is the second type which Ibn Khaldun says is practised by both unbelievers and Muslims, that of power politics where the interests of the public are secondary to the dynamic of rulership. While Ibn Khaldun claims that religious considerations are important for Muslims, it is also the case they may encounter the realities of political life.

[P]olitical norms here are a mixture of religious laws and ethical rules, norms that are natural in social organization together with a certain necessary concern for strength and group feeling. Examples to be followed in (the practice of) this (kind of politics) are, in the first place, the religious law, and then, the maxims of the philosophers and the way of life of rulers (of the past).[7]

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In addition to religiously based rule authorized by the institution of the Caliphate, and also the two types of rational rule, one of which was living and one extinct during his epoch, there is also the idealist version of politics which would dispense with group-feeling and hence political organization. This might have been an insight of the Prolegomena that was of little interest at the time, but if we are studying Ibn Khaldun today, his thoughts here surely have major relevance. In his presentation of political utopianism, Ibn Khaldun holds out a portrait of Platonic idealism, where people are led to moral perfection (presumably through education), and where the state ‘withers away’ in a Marxist sense.

By [“political utopianism” (siyasah madaniyah)] the philosophers mean the disposition of soul and character which each member of a social organization must have, if, eventually, people are completely to dispense with rulers. They call the social organization that fulfills these requirements the “ideal city.” The norms observed in this connection are called “political utopias” (siyasah madaniyah). They do not mean the kind of politics (siyasah) that the members of a social organization are led to adopt through laws for the common interest. That is something different. The “ideal city” (of the philosophers) is something rare and remote. They discuss it as a hypothesis.[8]

Utopianism, then as now, was understood as a root-and-branch transformation of human nature with the eventual, hoped-for result being that rulership – or domination – could be jettisoned, possibly for a mere governorship, or stewardship. What may have surprised Ibn Khaldun with modern utopianism is the extent to which it relied initially on economic arguments, given that his own realist theories were so grounded in the economic. While Socialism/Communism still relies heavily on economic foundations, the New Left proposes a cultural revolution to transform human nature, and this is something that Ibn Khaldun may have understood, although he wouldn’t have endorsed such idealism.

A religiously-based ‘asabiyyah conceives of group-feeling as existing beyond a tribal/nationalist basis. There are two elements to this; on the one hand, group-feeling is augmented by religion and, on the other hand, higher human virtues – those which pertain to an advanced civilisation – are benefits of a religious group-ethic. We can also infer, with some reason, that religion protects the morality of a human grouping when it is in its expansion phase and thus dampens blameworthy passions that are not only irreligious but politically destructive because of the jealousy and greed they wreak. ‘Asabiyyah derived from religion allows for civilisation to flourish without at the same time voiding the group feeling.  A charge often hurled at religious societies is that they encourage ‘fanaticism,’ not a totally untrue accusation, but one which seems to portray a loyalty to one’s own as something perverse. Nevertheless, it must be conceded that tribalism can uphold a narrow existence, whereas the dilution of fanaticism that occurs when a purely tribal ‘asabiyyah gives way to a more universal ideal can bind people of diverse backgrounds into the striving for a higher set of principles. Despite the necessity of diluting the group-ethic, it remains a social fact for Ibn Khaldun that religious ‘asabiyyah cannot emerge without strong tribal ties, but client-relationships can retain something of the nature of familial ties because of the closeness involved. In a sense, we may simply say that the higher virtues of religion require the more down-to-earth realities of zealousness, and it is also the case that merely maintaining blood-ties is simply inadequate in terms of maintaining and developing political dominion.[9] Ortega y Gasset wrote something of immense value on this point in his celebrated essay The Revolt of the Masses which goes some way to capturing Ibn Khaldun’s fluid theory of ‘asabiyyah. Here, the organizing principle was not that of the dynastic house, but that of the State, but the principle of organized expansion remains key:

[T]he reality which we call the State is not the spontaneous coming together of united by ties of blood. The State begins when groups naturally divided find themselves obliged to live in common. This obligation is not of brute force, but implies an impelling purpose, a common task which is set before the dispersed groups. Before all, the State is a plan of action and a programme of collaboration. The men are called upon so that together they may do something. The State is neither consanguinity, nor linguistic unity, nor territorial unity, nor proximity of habitation. It is nothing material, inert, fixed, limited. It is pure dynamism – the will to do something in common- and thanks to this the idea of the State is bounded by no physical limits.[10]

Religion thus serves as a substituting family bond for a group-feeling that is no longer purely tribal, but is an ersatz tribe, and we often hear devout people referring to those who they are not related to as ‘brother’ or ‘sister.’ And although the group-feeling is dampened, we are once more a million miles away from the calculus of profit and loss which would determine a purely liberal-economic world-view. Here we exist in the realm of belief and faith, and also, as Ibn Khaldun tells us, in a state where concern for others has a real manifestation.

As a state of narrow fanaticism wanes, as religious beliefs turns its face less to conquest and more to consolidation, the life of the sedentary increasingly turns to ‘health and safety.’ Dynastic protection provides the environment within which the entrepreneur and artisan can develop their own skills and buttress their lifestyle, although they mingle with the genuinely religiously inspired. What sustains the latter is not wealth, but their righteousness supported by the group-ethic. By contrast, those who have given themselves over completely to the ‘religion’ of the sedentary culture find it hard to be motivated to make even small sacrifices. Even the concept of public service becomes corrupted when higher principles beyond the individual wane.

They consider their allowances the government’s payment to them for military service and support. No other thought occurs to them. (But) a person would rarely hire himself out to sacrifice his life. This (situation) debilitates the dynasty and undermines its strength. Its group feeling decays because the people who represent the group feeling have lost their energy. As a result, the dynasty progresses toward weakness and senility.[11]

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It seems to be one of the tragedies of the political that zealousness in a primal state must give way to a more sophisticated culture, if the dynasty wants to thrive, but this complexity then ‘comes back to haunt’ the dynasty. Nonetheless, with Ibn Khaldun, there are ‘optimal’ points in the life of dawlahs (i.e. a word which the equivalent of States in Arabic) whereby the gifts of sedentary culture meet the vitality of ‘asabiyyah. When in a low level of civilisation, ‘asabiyyah disposes itself to be, for want of a better word, ‘tribal.’ At a later date, this tribalism is insufficient and religiously based ‘asabiyyah displaces, without supplanting, the familial bond. At this stage, sedentary culture is highly developed, but can corrode the self-reliance and strength initially generated by the group-feeling. Nonetheless, the fruits of civilisation do not simply end, although the dynamism of the nurturing dynasty, and hence the immediacy of its particular culture, is dissipated.

Interplay of the group-ethic, civilizational perfection, political structure, and the economic was given life by Ibn Khaldun in a five-stage model which somewhat mirrored the life of a human being who lives to a natural length of years. In the first stage, there is the decisive victory of the dynasty, coupled with the defeat of the old guard. Group-feeling means that the head of the dynasty enjoys the confidence of his people. He defends property, is just in collecting taxes, and is trusted with military affairs. Because taxes are only imposed for what is necessary, there is often a surplus in the public purse.

When the dynasty follows the ways of group feeling and (political) superiority, it necessarily has at first a desert attitude … The desert attitude requires kindness, reverence, humility, respect for the property of other people, and disinclination to appropriate it … except in rare instances. Therefore, the individual imposts and assessments, which together constitute the tax revenue, are low. When tax assessments and imposts upon the subjects are low, the latter have the energy and desire to do things. Cultural enterprises grow and increase, because the low taxes bring satisfaction. When cultural enterprises grow, the number of individual imposts and assessments mounts. In consequence, the tax revenue, which is the sum total of (the individual assessments), increases.[12]

Nonetheless, while there is a determined effort to realise principles of the party of ‘asabiyyah through martial exertions, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact either that concrete, material interests are being defended. However, at this stage those interests are obscured by the more ephemeral loyalties of the group.

In the next stage, the ruler becomes power-hungry and less inclined to share power with his former allies. At the same time as he excludes the old guard from power, he gains new followers and clients as replacements. In this way, he is able to cut off the former supporters who could press legitimate claims to authority, while also buttressing the power of his closest family members. At this stage, a tendency of the first stage is ‘reversed’; while initially, outsiders were kept away and close tribal members brought close, now outsiders are brought in from the cold and members who share in ‘asabiyyah but who are slightly removed from the core of power are kept at arms length. We can say that initially, there is a less technical-bureaucratic approach to rulership, while later on governing and ruling becomes more a matter of administering. In the beginning,

a ruler can achieve power only with the help of his own people. They are his group and his helpers in his enterprise. He uses them to fight against those who revolt against his dynasty. It is they with whom he fills the administrative offices, whom he appoints as wazirs and tax collectors. They help him to achieve superiority. They participate in the government. They share in all his other important affairs.[13]

Yet, in the second stage,

the ruler shows himself independent of his people … claims all the glory for himself, and pushes his people away from it with the palms (of his hands). As a result, his own people become, in fact, his enemies. In order to prevent them from seizing power, and in order to keep them away from participation (in power), the ruler needs other friends, not of his own skin, whom he can use against (his own people) and who will be his friends in their place. These (new friends) become closer to him than anyone else. They deserve better than anyone else to be close to him and to be his followers, as well as to be preferred and to be given high positions, because they are willing to give their lives for him, preventing his own people from regaining the power that had been theirs and from occupying with him the rank to which they had been used.[14]

Public offices are filled with the new followers, and even titles which are the preserve of the monarch are given to new supporters. However, even at this stage, dangerous enemies are made. Actions of the ruler “announces the destruction of the dynasty and indicates that chronic disease has befallen it, the result of the loss of the group feeling on which the (dynasty’s) superiority had been built.”[15]

Then the third stage is the one where economic considerations dominate. The consequence is that of

the things that human nature desires, such as acquisition of property, creation of lasting monuments, and fame. All the ability (of the ruler) is expended on collecting taxes; regulating income and expenses, bookkeeping and planning … expenditures; erecting large buildings, big constructions, spacious cities, and lofty monuments … presenting gifts to embassies of nobles from (foreign) nations and tribal dignitaries; and dispensing bounty to his own people. In addition, he supports the demands of his followers and retinue with money and positions. He inspects his soldiers, pays them well, and distributes fairly their allowances every month.[16]

Whereas before there was a surplus from taxation, the lavishness enjoyed by the ruling house no longer can be met by ordinary taxation. So, taxes rise to meet the shortfall. But the complexity of civilization, and the fact that there are large groups of people under the wing of the ruler means that the injustices and corruption can be hidden from view.

Following on from this period of political stability, cultural glory, and economic prosperity, there arrives that of peace, consolidation, and imitation of tradition. There is both a fondness for past glories but also a sense of stagnation. Perhaps the words of Cardinal Newman are of relevance here: Growth is the only evidence of life.

Then there is the last stage. This is characterized by poor economic management. Corruption becomes rife. Incompetent individuals fill public office. Civil strife results from the inability of the ruler to either foster loyalty or discern who is friend or foe. Soldiers are annoyed by not being paid or by being denied access to the ruler. Taxes end up draining more from the public, but giving less return. Clients and followers who were ‘paid off’ to lend their support become put upon for money as the ruler attempts to re-assert control but these allies have become powerful in their own right and can challenge the ruling dynasty, even with a dip in their short-term fortunes. There is a kind of inverse proportional relationship between ‘asabiyyah and taxation, between zealousness and financial prudence. When the group-feeling is strong, taxes are low, and vice-versa. However, in an insight shared my many modern economists, the law of higher taxation is also the law of diminishing returns because enterprise is discouraged. Subjects no longer can afford to engage in non-economic activity (what we may call civic society), they grumble about the unfairness of the assessments, and they become increasingly decadent.[17] Eventually, with group-feeling all dried up, financial prudence also is jettisoned, with disastrous consequences.

In the later (years) of the dynasty, (taxation) may become excessive. Business falls off, because all hopes (of profit) are destroyed, permitting the dissolution of civilization and reflecting upon (the status of) the dynasty. This (situation) becomes more and more aggravated, until (the dynasty) disintegrates.[18]

Ibn Khaldun also warns against the ruler engaging in commercial activity. This happens when the dynasty is either in decline or has reached its peak and therefore when those engaged in business activity are under considerable pressure from being taxed. The wealth of the ruler is often greater than those he competes against, and he is also more secure because, where he needs to, he can procure additional capital. Furthermore, the monies invested must be realised immediately and so are not stored; this means that the ruler may compel other businesses to purchase from him and to do so at high prices. Business is about buying low and selling high, so these transactions put strain on businesses, possibly crippling them. It is a curious argument but not one which is wholly without application in today’s world, where governments often enter the market and are accused of engaging in inefficient or even corrupting business practices. Such intervention is in fact disastrous to civilisation in general if taken to extreme conclusions;[19] we know from the Communist experience how truthful such assertions are. Ibn Khaldun makes an economic argument which essentially states this law of diminishing returns:

Were the ruler to compare the revenue from taxes with the small profits (he reaps from trading himself), he would find the latter negligible in comparison with the former. Even if (his trading) were profitable, it would still deprive him of a good deal of his revenue from taxes, so far as commerce is concerned. It is unlikely that customs duties might be levied on (the ruler’s commercial activities). If, however, the same deals were made by others (and not by the ruler), the customs duties (levied in connection with them) would be included in the tax total.[20]

Ibn Khaldun goes on to warn against princes and other powerful individuals using their political prestige to engage in business after they come into contact with merchants and farmers. Once more, Ibn Khaldun’s sounding is prescient and of relevance to all those lamenting the close interaction of government with the economy.

Amirs (princes) and other men in power in a country who engage in commerce and agriculture, reach a point where they undertake to buy agricultural products and goods from their owners who come to them, at prices fixed by themselves as they see fit. Then, they resell these things to the subjects under their control, at the proper times, at prices fixed by themselves. This is even more dangerous, harmful, and ruinous for the subjects than the afore-mentioned (procedure). The ruler is often influenced to choose such a (course) by that sort of people – I mean, merchants and farmers – who bring him into contact with the profession in which they have been reared. They influence the ruler to choose this (course). They work with him, but for their own profit, to garner quickly as much money as they may wish, especially through profits reaped from doing business without having to pay taxes and customs duties. Exemption from taxes and customs duties is more likely than anything else to cause one’s capital to grow, and it brings quick profits. These people do not understand how much damage is caused the ruler by each decrease in the revenue from taxes. The ruler, therefore, must guard against such persons, and not pay any attention to suggestions that are harmful to his revenues and his rule.[21]

Despite the rigour with which he approached history, Ibn Khaldun did not propose that the rise and fall of dynasties, as he portrayed it, was an ‘iron law of nature,’ but rather a sort of ‘gold standard.’[22] The rise of fall of dynasties is essentially an anthropomorphic principle; just as humans move from weakness to strength to weakness, so do dynasties undergo a similar process.[23]  In a similar vein, there is often a tendency for humans to believe they will live forever, and States suffer from the same delusion.

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A revolving door was in operation in human affairs and throughout history where power changes hands and often in unexpected and unforeseen way. This stands to reason; no one surely chooses to be less powerful than anyone else, but we often hear from many people that we have reached the end of history, that there will be no more advances in politics, that we are the climax of historical evolution, and the implication of this climax is that the days of fighting for hegemony have run their course because (in principle at least) no one accepts a monopoly on centralized power anymore, but also we are largely content with who is in charge at the moment. Such sentiment is an understandable human condition; everyone can be lulled into seeing the present circumstances as permanent and optimal. It took a certain amount of courage on Ibn Khaldun’s part to see past the smokescreen of temporary power, a smokescreen that tells us “it has always been thus and ever shall be” and blinds us to inevitable changes that will rock some people’s worlds and lift other boats.

Another observation of Ibn Khaldun’s, which again was courageous, was to state openly that power is unevenly distributed and that this is something that is not unjust or just (as this criterion is inappropriate for politics) but that is merely a fact of history. We do not like to admit that some cultures have superseded each other (albeit temporarily) and that the gaps between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ are immense.[24] Yet that is what we see when we look at the world and we observe what could be described as ‘order of magnitude’ differences between cultures. Here, we cannot any longer speak of legal rules that dictate this state of affairs. Instead, we must leave our world of ethics and enter the world of brute facts. Personally, I believe that Ibn Khaldun would have looked at the current cultural and political hegemony of North-Western European nations, who enjoy some primal family ties, as being a wholly natural expression of his sociological theories. His words speak to us across the centuries. On the other hand, notions that tell us that this is an ‘end of history,’ would have appeared to him as laughable.


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[1] Ibn Khaldun,  A. A-R. b. M. (Rosenthal, F.; Trans.) (1958). The Muqaddimah [pdf version]. Retrieved from http://scribd.com; 210.

[2] Gierer, A. (2001). Ibn Khaldun on Solidarity (“Asabiyah”) – Modern Science on Cooperativeness and Empathy: a Comparison. Philosophia Naturalis, 38, 91-104.

[3] Ibn Khaldun. The Muqaddimah; 211

[4] Ibid. 213

[5] Ibid. 213-214

[6] 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.

[7] Ibn Khaldun. The Muqaddimah; 388

[8] Ibid. 388

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

[10] Gasset, J. O. (1994). The revolt of the masses. New York: W.W. Norton; 162.

[11] Ibn Khaldun. The Muqaddimah; 224.

[12] Ibid. 352.

[13] Ibid. 244.

[14] Ibid. 244.

[15] Ibid. 127-132, 244; Mohammad, F. 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.

[16] Ibn Khaldun. The Muqaddimah; 233. “… for Rousseau the word slave has an entirely consequential meaning attained in the construction of the democratic state; it signifies those who do not belong to the people, the unequal, the alien or noncitizen who is not helped by the fact that in abstracto he is a “person,” the heterogeneous, who does not participate in the general homogeneity and is therefore rightly excluded from it.” Schmitt, C., & Kennedy, E. (2000). The crisis of parliamentary democracy. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press; 13-14.

[17] Ibn Khaldun. The Muqaddimah; 233-234, 244, 247, 358, 362-363, 374-378; Mohammad. Ibn Khaldun’s Theory of Social Change.; Gierer. Ibn Khaldun on Solidarity (“Asabiyah”).

[18] Ibn Khaldun. The Muqaddimah; 358.

[19] Ibid. 359-360.

[20] Ibid. 185.

[21] Ibid. 360.

[22] Salama, M. (2011). Islam, orientalism and intellectual history: Modernity and the politics of exclusion since Ibn Khaldūn. London: I B Tauris & Co; 84-86.

[23] Sumer. Ibn Khaldun’s Asabiyya for Social Cohesion.

[24] One could even go further than politics per se and note that is human life in general, there are those who excel and those who languish. Without making a moral case for fame, for example, we can see that some people overflow with correspondence and even hero-worship, whereas there are many in the world who struggle to string together a few friends. The celebrated name of uneven-ness in human affairs is that of Vilfredo Pareto.

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