Ibn Khaldun and Royal Authority

This is the last 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.

‘Umran is the consequence of the primal drive of ‘asabiyyah. It is, however, an unintended effect. The aim of ‘asabiyyah is that of royal authority, the dominance of one house over all others, along with the legitimation and institution of elitist hegemony. Where there is political organization, there is hierarchy. To bring this hierarchy into being, there must have been ‘asabiyyah. Only if the political will exists, can ‘asabiyyah be of any historical significance. Even pipe-dreams about perfect societies or projects for classes or nations to band together for peace and prosperity remain meaningless if there is no concrete realisation of these through authority and power. With the harvesting of structures of power and authority come the consequent material sophistications, and there is a feedback effect (at least for a time), one strengthening the other.[1]

For Ibn Khaldun, dynastic power/royal authority has the same relation to the evolving civilisation as form has to matter. Culture is formed by the dawlah. Without authority and a state of governance, culture is still-born, only existing as a possibility.[2] This is an important point because there is a tendency to believe that the sophistication of a civilized society somehow exists separately to a group-ethic. In our day, republics have gained vast power in the world, both political and economic, and a certain belief has descended in some quarters that governments can be run in the same manner as economies. Thus, it may be tempting to draw analogies between the acquisition of political power and someone who acquires through commerce, but this is a false comparison. Five and a half centuries after Ibn Khaldun wrote his Prolegomena, Carl Schmitt would state that:

There are certainly analogies between a monarch, the absolute master in the state, and a capitalist, who (naturally in a completely different sense) is the absolute master in his business.

However, while the masters of trade deal in hard finance, and they essentially live to a large degree in the world of numbers (profits and losses), those who master others in a political sense rule according to a different set of values.

There are possibilities on both sides for participation by the subordinates, but the form and content of authority, publicity, and representation are essentially different. Finally, it would also contradict every rule of economic thought to apply by way of analogy political forms which have been created on very different assumptions to modern economic conditions, or, to use a well-known economic image, to transfer the construction of a superstructure onto an essentially different substructure.[3]

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Ibn Khaldun makes an important distinction between leadership and authority. An authority figure is necessary because human beings partake in social organization. Therefore, there must be hierarchies, and given that people are ambitious, rungs on the hierarchy will be contested. Therefore, the authority figure must command loyalty so that he can exercise a restraining influence. When it comes to the leader, however, Ibn Khaldun merely says that he is a chieftain who is obeyed but whose opinions have no force.[4] He seems to mean that the leader is obeyed merely within his own group, but what if there was a conflict between the leader and the ruler? Ibn Khaldun does not explore this point.

Whatever his views on this matter, Ibn Khaldun is clear that military strength, law and order, as well as civilisation in general, is made possible by group-feeling.

Group feeling produces the ability to defend oneself, to offer opposition, to protect oneself, and to press one’s claims. Whoever loses (his group feeling) is too weak to do any of these things.[5]

We could not imagine a position much further away from the Lockean view that the State protects claims of private property that existed before agreement on political form.

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Those who have royal authority have a special monopoly over the use of force. When they are in a position of strength, the very thought of rebellion does not occur to would-be competitors, Ibn Khaldun tells us. Those who own wealth prior to the rise to power of the dynasty have to share their gains and property with the new Crown. Whatever taxes and customs are levied are then distributed amongst the tribes and because of the strength of the dynasty, there is a state of subservience and acceptance of the ‘way things are.’ Members of the lesser tribes can become satisfied with prosperity, luxury, and imitation of the leading house. They pay taxes and imposts, and Ibn Khaldun asserts that no one who is proud will meekly hand over their wealth for peace and security. This satiation is corrosive, and certainly, on Ibn Khaldun’s analysis, never something which inspires a will to fight for political power. At the same time, the leading house can become corrupted by its life of ease and plenty. Consequently, other families can prey opportunistically on its decay.[6] In particular, he says that “luxury is an obstacle on the way toward royal authority”[7] and that holds whether a house is in the driving seat or not.

It is also suggested that goodness and noble character are inimical to a life of wealth and luxury. Man desires royal authority because he is equally desirous of good things. ‘Glory’ requires that a person has corresponding characteristics that make him glorious in the sight of others. Imitation is a heuristic of glory; those who live under the shade of the glorious ruler or house seek to imitate its ways of living, dispositions of thinking, and belief systems. At the pinnacle of glory is that of royal authority. As Enan puts it:

The state comes into existence through tribal force and Asabiyah … and … has peculiar characteristics and forms which vary according to those who control it. Religious doctrine has its effect on strengthening the state, but such doctrine cannot also be upheld without Asabiyah … Sovereignty, like the state, has qualities, characteristics of which are: monopolizing glory, luxury, comfort and tranquillity – characteristics which, when rooted, bring the state to old age and then to downfall.[8]

While group-feeling is necessary for royal authority, prestige is not complete without good qualities being manifested by the ruler. Of course, the most salient characteristic of any holder of office, in any jurisdiction, is that of justice. With the just ruler possessing royal authority comes good laws that are also signs of Divine justice and power.[9]

He who thus obtained group feeling guaranteeing power, and who is known to have good qualities appropriate for the execution of God’s laws concerning His creatures, is ready to act as (God’s) substitute and guarantor among mankind. He has the qualifications for that. This proof is more reliable and solid than the first one.[10]

Ibn Khaldun’s espousal of royal authority was predicated on the natural tendency for humans to dominate and suppress one another. Mahdi characterized Ibn Khaldun’s opinions in this striking manner:

Man is by nature a domineering being; and his desire to overcome … others, and subdue and coerce them, is the source of wars and of trespassing the properties of others. It moves those desiring victories to struggle for political supremacy and for establishing the state in which they intend to be leaders. Those who are conquered and enslaved, on the other hand, wither away, since to be enslaved is contrary to human nature and leads to the loss of hope.[11]

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This does not wholly do justice to Ibn Khaldun’s depiction of history. It doesn’t quite convey to the reader the fact that Ibn Khaldun recognized the limits between power-politics and those realms where rulers must do justice or otherwise perish. Nonetheless, if we remember the idea that justice is an expression of domination – albeit in a velvet glove – the statement becomes closer to the intent of Ibn Khaldun.

Humans not only could not survive without the group in a material sense; they are incapable of living up to standards of Divine justice in the absence of group-feeling and authority. ‘Asabiyyah essentially supplants human ignorance by promoting civil association and the feeling of group solidarity motivates people to cling together. Ibn Khaldun had cynical views of human nature but also felt that organization could help men realise their potential.[12]

In keeping with his view that ‘asabiyyah represents a ‘pure’ mode of living, Ibn Khaldun lists out a number of activities inimical to those who have obtained royal authority. The authority-figure is liberal with wealth, generous to the weak, charitable, respects religion and customary law, supports morality, venerates sacred objects and persons, is fair to all and sundry, displays an open ear, is scrupulous with respect to obligations, and cracks down on all sorts of vice and corruption. The corollary of this is that a dynasty declines when these qualities are turned on their head.[13] The spread of vice and corruption is economic in nature, i.e. the lusting after luxuries, squandering wealth, and poor fiscal policy.

‘Asabiyyah ultimately aims at royal authority or superiority (dawlah) and it drives cultural activities which include propaganda. Religious propaganda requires ‘asabiyyah. So despite the universality of Islam or indeed of Christianity, these religions have to be realized in a particular context. ‘Asabiyyah must have a principle like religious devotion. For example, the Children of Israel lost their ‘asabiyyah because they forsook their covenant with God, the guiding principle of their group. Action is an outcome of true group-ethic. If political power doesn’t result from ‘asabiyyah, then legal activity, cultural activity, and mere survival are unable to flourish. Justice, good governance, and good administration depend on a vibrant group-feeling. Since cultures are complex, royal authority does not always have to be monopolized by one house for the group-feeling to be manifested.[14]


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[1] 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.

[2] Ibn Khaldun and Hegel on Causality in History: Aristotelian Legacy Reconsidered. Asian Journal of Social Science, 35(1), 47-83; 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; 235-236.

[3] Schmitt, C., & Kennedy, E. (2000). The crisis of parliamentary democracy. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press; 25.

[4] Ibn Khaldun,  A. A-R. b. M. (Rosenthal, F.; Trans.) (1958). The Muqaddimah [pdf version]. Retrieved from http://scribd.com; 185.

[5] Ibid.; 188-189.

[6] Ibid.; 185-189.

[7] Ibid.; 187.

[8] Enan, M.A. (1941). Ibn Khaldun: His Life and Work. Kashmiri Bazar, Lahore: Shaikh Muhammad Ashraf; 131.

[9] Ibn Khaldun. The Muqaddimah; 190; 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.

[10] Ibn Khaldun. The Muqaddimah; 190.

[11] Katsiaficas, G. (1996). Ibn Khaldun: A Dialectical Philosopher for the New Millennium. In Pan African Conference on Philosophy. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

[12] Ibid.; Ibn-Khaldun as a Modern Thinker. Area Studies Tsukuba24, 129-152.

[13] Ibn Khaldun. The Muqaddimah; 190-192.

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


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