The Political Economy of Ibn Khaldun’s Philosophy of History in the Muqaddimah
Eddie J. Girdner
This is an abstract of some major ideas in Ibn Khaldun’s philosophy of history. It is from the volume: The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History. It was translated by Franz Rosenthal and edited and abridged by N.J. Dawood. Published by Princeton University Press, 1967. As it takes some effort to read, it is perhaps worth highlighting the major ideas in a short form which might be of use to students.
Ibn Khaldun wrote mostly about North Africa, Spain and the Middle East, but meant the principles of his work to apply more generally. There are several insights in his dialectical approach that were to become important principles in later political thinkers, such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Karl Marx.
In a nutshell, Ibn Khaldun was concerned with the rise and fall of political dynasties and provided a theory of this historical process, from the sparse desert existence of Bedouins and Berbers to royal dynasties and their eventual decay and collapse. History evolves in cycles of some 120 years. Desert nomads bent on rape and pillage use savagery to ride out of the desert and come to power. Once they have established royal rule, they settle down in urban civilization, enjoy luxury, and become fat and lazy. They lose the virtues of the desert and the dynasty sinks into sloth. The youth forget their heritage in subsequent generations and eventually decay sets in. Conspicuous and wasteful consumption leads to bankruptcy of the regime. The people are over taxed to supply the conspicuous consumption of the ruling class. Unable to defend themselves against a new wave of savage invaders, the dynasty collapses. The seeds of destruction are contained in the rise of the dynasty. Therefore, the process is a historical dialectic that repeats itself. This is Ibn Khaldun’s theory in a nutshell, embellished by an encyclopedia of information about the world that he knew in the fourteenth century.
If dynasties have a natural life cycle, then this may also be true of empires, as studied by scholars such as Johan Galtung. Consequently, the model might usefully be adapted to explain the rise and fall of modern empires, such as the American Empire. Galtung has written about this recently. One can see many of the elements of decline in Ibn Khaldun in modern-day America.
Ibn Khaldun was born on May 27, 1332 in Tunis. His ancestors had come from Spain after the fall of Seville to the Christians in l248. His aristocratic family had been prominent in the leadership of Moorish Spain. His family was then attached to the court of the Hafsid Rulers in Tunis. In 1352, he began a government career in Tunis. In 1354, he left for Fez to serve the Merinid Sultan Abu Inan. Here he studied with eminent scholars, but was briefly thrown into prison when his loyalty was suspected. When Abu Inan suddenly died, he was released and served his successor Abu Salim. He finished his Introduction to History 1377 and became a professor of Malikite Jurisprudence in Cairo.
The Muqaddimah is a prolegomena or introduction to his four-volume universal history. Ibn Khaldun’s work is a radical departure from the historiography of the time. Rather than just chronicle events, he tries to discover a pattern in social and political change. He tries to explain history with a theory or philosophy. He attempts a rational, analytical, and scientific method, looking at events critically. As such, he is engaging in social science.
His concerns include the physical environment, an analysis of primitive social organization, the character of early leadership, the relationship of primitive human societies to each other, the relationship of primitive societies to urban forms of society, governments of dynasties in which the state is the highest form of human social organization, the government of the Caliphate, change in ruling dynasties, the character of urban life in relation to desert life, and an examination of urban life, including commerce, crafts, arts, sciences, languages and literature.
Ibn Khaldun uses a human centered approach. Man is dependent upon the physical environment and so the temperate zones of the earth are best suited for civilization. The environment shapes human character, appearance and customs. For human society to develop, human cooperation is necessary. This is made possible, since man can think and full cooperation results in urbanization or the polis. Following Aristotle’s assertion that “man is political by nature,” this is a natural development. There is a need for justice in society, but for this, restraint is required, by force if necessary. Social organization results in civilization and a sedentary culture. This is the highest form of social organization, but it contains the seeds of its destruction.
The process begins with “group feeling,” group consciousness or solidarity. This is a sort of primitive type of nationalism, as in a clan or tribe where people have common descent. This type of consciousness is necessary to achieve predominance. The group with the strongest “group feeling” or asabiyah will be able to become a ruling dynasty, which is equivalent to a “state” in modern terms. If the dynasty collapses, the state collapses.
A dynasty or state occurs only where there is civilization, marked by towns and cities. Luxury develops. Social surplus is produced. There are services, crafts, arts, sciences, and trade, but in a dialectical fashion, this luxury leads to the eventual decay and disintegration of the dynasty.
When the ruling group grabs power and begins to monopolize resources and wealth, a contradiction emerges between the ruling class and the people, who have group feeling. The ruling group relies upon royal authority and the military, imposing taxes, and pushing aside the interests of the people. The group feeling, or perhaps the cementing ideology, gets weaker and the dynasty loses its grip on power. An outside group with a new group feeling is able to supersede the dynasty and found a new dynasty. This process results in dynastic cycles. Dynasties decay, disintegrate, shrink inward and collapse and then a new dynasty comes and the process repeats itself.
The less civilized groups on the periphery tend to imitate those within civilization and want to be in the seat of power.
Ibn Khaldun uses mostly Arab historical examples. While he relies upon empirical evidence and mostly material factors, he does not question religious belief. It is not clear if he really believes in God and religion or if he is only using it to cover himself from critics, similar to Thomas Hobbes later on.
Ibn Khaldun makes the assertion that history must be rooted in philosophy. This is because the objective is to get to the bottom of things, to the truth and the deep knowledge of the how and why of events. Like Karl Marx, later on, he wants to go the root of things, and he generally grounds this in material facts. He scoffs at contemporary histories that merely record events and are full of gossip, invented tales, and false stories, and do not look for the real material causes. These writers are not critical and they put blind trust in tradition. The write in a dull way, copying their predecessors and lack critical insight. Sometimes, however, he is hoisted on his own petard by attributing things to “God.”
Another problem is that historians do not take account of the change in society. They give no explanation of what brought a dynasty to power and why it collapsed. What are the principles of organization? Why do dynasties clash and succeed each other? What leads to their separation or contact with each other? Ibn Khaldun promises to “lift the veil” on these questions, beginning with the Arabs and the Berbers with his original historical method.
The work includes four books. The first covers civilization, royal authority, government, gainful occupations, crafts and sciences, and reasons and causes in history. One can see that Ibn Khaldun is writing a sort of early political economy of the world.
Book Two covers races, the dynasties of the Arabs, the Nabataeans, the Syrians, the Persians, the Israelities, the Copts, the Byzantines, and the Turks.
Book Three covers the history of the Berbers, the history of the Zanatah (a branch of the Berbers), the royal houses and dynasties of the Maghrib.
Finally, he added the histories of the Persian and Turkish Dynasties.
In the introduction to Book One, Ibn Khaldun stresses that a historian must have sources and knowledge and a speculative mind to avoid errors. He needs to know customs, the fundamental facts of politics, the nature of civilization, conditions governing human social organization, how to compare ancient material with the contemporary world, how to check sources using these principles, how to use the yardstick of philosophy based on the nature of things, he must use speculation, and have historical insight.
Most historians have strayed from the truth. For example amounts of money and numbers of soldiers in battle are often exaggerated. He gives the example of al-Masudi’s account of the army of Moses. He says the number of six-hundred thousand soldiers in battle is absurd because an army of such a size would not be able to march or fight. Moreover, the territory of Israel is not big enough to raise such an army. So sensationalism can easily cause errors.
In writing the history of the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties of the Arabs, historians generally follow the traditions, without trying to understand the dynamics and include many pointless things. They just imitate others, such as listing the elements of the dynasty such as the rulers sons, wives, the engraving on the seal ring, surnames, judges, the vizier (minister) and the doorkeeper. This does not explain anything.
He also criticizes the practice of historians to memorize facts without understanding them. The stress on memorization is a weakness, which still exists today, for example in Turkish Universities. Students are expected to memorize facts, but not necessarily understand them.
History has to conform to the particular age. Things change radically. In the Maghrib, for example, the situation changed radically when the Berbers were replaced by the Arab influx in the eleventh century. Then there was a plague in the fourteenth century that wiped out much of civilization. Dynasties were weakened and wiped out entirely. His work will provide a new model.
The beginning of Book One reminds one of George Plekhenov’s statement that “Man makes history in striving to satisfy his needs.” He gives importance to how people go about making a living in civilization.
What does history deal with?
1.The conditions affecting the nature of civilization.
2.The factors of savagery and sociability.
4.How one group achieves superiority over another.
6.The dynasties and ranks within the regime.
8.Ways of making a living.
9.Sciences and crafts.
10.Institutions that arise within civilization.
Errors are frequently introduced by the following. First, prejudice and partisanship leads to transmitting falsehoods. The critical faculty is obscured. Secondly, the transmitters of information are sometimes not reliable. They distort information. Thirdly, is the practice of giving praise to high-ranking persons which can be false. Fourthly, is ignorance about the nature of conditions which arise in society. Fifthly, the transmitting of absurd information. Ibn Khaldun is establishing a social science which is “new, extraordinary, and highly useful.” (p. 39) Other writers have attempted this, he says, but failed.
Ibn Khaldun gives the example of the story about the sea monsters that prevented Alexander from building Alexandria. Another tall tale is the story about the “copper city” which is implausible.
What distinguishes man from other living things? First, man has the ability to think, which leads to the development of sciences and crafts. Secondly, man needs strong authority or restraint. This is similar to the views of Thomas Hobbes. Thirdly, the needs of man leads to ways of making a living. Fourthly, civilization arises from the “negation of civilization” in desert life and can develop once social surplus is produced in towns and cities.
The first chapter deals with human civilization in general. Ibn Khaldun begins with the famous observation from Aristotle’s Politics. “Man is political by nature.” (p. 45) Man cannot do without a polis or social organization. This is civilization and enables man to obtain food and other needs. Much cooperation is required to supply the manifold needs of man in civilization.
Unlike the animals, man also needs cooperation for security because he is weaker than the animals. He uses his thoughts to develop swords and other weapons for defense. But man also needs “royal authority” or political authority. This requires obedience to a leader, as later stressed by Thomas Hobbes.
Ibn Khaldun proceeds to a section describing the earth and its characteristics. He certainly did not think that the earth was flat. He describes the spherical nature of the earth and the zones from the equator to the north and south poles. Due to climate, there are cultivated and uncultivated regions. He describes the seas and major cities such as Constantinople, Venice, Rome, and Tangiers. He describes the major rivers such as the Nile and the Euphrates. The temperate zones, with moderate heat, lead to greater civilization. The geography of the zones influence the color of skin of the inhabitants. Temperate zones are conducive to a better life in terms of health of bodies, color, character and general living conditions, such as houses, clothing, food and crafts.
Having black skin is not a curse of Noah, as was commonly said, but simply results from geography, the hot climate. He believes that the climate also influences human character. As a result, he says Negroes demonstrate levity. They are excitable, emotional and prone to dance. He says this is because the heat expands the animal spirit producing joy. It is like taking a hot bath. Also near the sea, people are more joyful because of the brighter sunlight and warmth. People who live in cold and mountains tend to be sad and gloomy. In Cairo, the people exercise no concern for the future, but in Fez, they worry about the future.
Also people are affected by the food supply. In some places, the soil is good and there is an abundance of grain and fruits. Cultivation is abundant. In other rocky places, like the Hijaz and Yemen, few plants grow. Where there are few plants, people substitute milk for wheat. But in these sparse areas, people are actually more healthy. Their minds are keener, as seen in the Berbers and Arabs of the desert.
He says great amounts of food is not good because it produces too much flesh, It make people ugly and it is difficult to think. The result is stupidity. On the other hand, hunger improves the physique. One can see the same with animals. Desert people are also more religious and ready for worship and practice abstinence from pleasure. But people in towns and cities tend to be less religious. They eat a lot of meat, seasonings, fine wheat, and live in luxury. But they die more quickly when there is a drought or a famine. On the other hand, the Arabs in the desert can live on dates and survive. They can live on barley and olive oil. Food is a matter of custom. In general, hunger has a favorable effect on health and the intellect. These are generalizations which are obviously not always true.
He believes that if one eats camel meat, they will become patient, persevering, and able to carry heavy loads. They will have a healthy stomach. I suppose that by the same token, if one eats a lot of chicken, one should go around flapping their wings and cackling. This is silly, but he seems to seriously believe that eating camel meat makes one act like a camel. This could be good news for the Department of Homeland Security in the US, but I doubt that they would put much credence in it.
Also Ibn Khaldun is not a materialist, if he believes what he says. He believes in God and supernatural perception. He believes that God chose certain people to be prophets and “to keep their fellow men out of the fire of hell.” (p. 70) He believes certain people are capable of working miracles and the revelation of the Quran is one such miracle. So the world is made up of the material and the spiritual realms and the soul can become part of the “angelic species” On the other hand, soothsayers are inspired by the devil. He also believes in the visions in dreams. Some come from the angels, but the confused dreams come from the devil. Or maybe just eating too many beans?
In Chapter Two, Ibn Khaldun introduces a sort of cycle of history. He is describing Bedouin Civilization, and other savage nations and tribes. He says that society begins with the simple life style of the desert and moves to luxury and the sedentary life of the city. Desert life involves an agricultural existence, dealing with plants and animals. One lives at a subsistence level in the desert. But when a surplus can be produced, urban life begins and a life of luxury and civilization is possible.
Urban life is marked by splendid clothes, crafts, castles, mansions, high towers, and other large edifices. Life becomes sedentary and people live by crafts and commerce. Both Bedouins and those in urban sedentary life styles are “natural groups.” But Bedouins are more like “dumb beasts of prey.” They are “the most savage of beings.” In this category, he also includes Kurds, Turkomans and Turks. They have come a long way since the fourteenth century.
When Bedouins become rich, they settle in the city and adopt a life of luxury. But Bedouins in the desert are closer to being “good.” In the case of sedentary people, their souls are blameworthy and often evil. This is because luxury and success, along with worldly desires, makes them “lose all restraint.” (p. 94) They then become lazy and live in ease. They are “sunk in well being and luxury.” (p. 94) They become secure inside the city walls and depend upon the ruler for protection. They lose the courage which the Bedouins have in the desert. In the city, sedentary people rely upon the brute force of the laws and this breaks their power of resistance.
When people are punished by the laws of the dynasty, this creates humiliation in them and then they grow up in “fear and docility.” (p. 96) Bedouins in the desert, on the other hand, are not subject to laws and have greater fortitude. Sedentary people cannot defend themselves. This is the effect of laws of the government. Their souls are weakened. They are restrained by force in government authority. This is true, except for religious laws, he says.
Among Bedouins in the desert, it is the group feeling coming from blood relations which makes them ready to fight. Purity of lineage is typical of desert society. In this descent from a common ancestor, they are given prestige. “Nobility is the secret of group feeling.” (p. 102) This group feeling is lost in the cities. It is talked about, but is only metaphorical. When there are clients that are ruled, nobility is derived from the nobility of the masters.
Nobility arises from outside the leadership, such as in a desert group that seizes power, but then it generally lasts for four generations or less in the lineage.
First, the builder of a dynasty has the family’s glory. He knows the cost of the struggle and keeps these noble qualities. Then in the second generation, the son learns from the father. He shares the glory, but the strength is inferior to that of the father. In the third generation, the ruler relies upon imitation and tradition, and cannot exercise independent judgment. Things begin to go quickly downhill. By the fourth generation, the ruler has lost the noble qualities and despises them. He does not know how respect for the ruling family originated. He just takes it for granted. He separates out from those who share the same group feeling and lacks humility and respect for their feelings. People begin a revolt against the ruler as the original family decays. The ruling dynasty collapses and power is transferred to a new group with a strong group feeling. The process starts all over again.
So it can be said that the four generations of a dynasty are (1) the age of the builder, (2) the age of those who had contact with the builder, (3) the age of those who rely on tradition, and (4) the age of the destroyer. The dynasty could last less than four generations, or up to six generations. But in the last case, the dynasty will be in decay after the fourth generation. Savage groups in the desert are better able to become superior. But when they settle in cities and have luxuries, their bravery fades away. They should be rooted in desert habits and have a strong group feeling. The goal of group feeling is royal authority, the power to rule by force.
One group feeling establishes its superiority over those with other group feelings, such as tribes. One group feeling will dominate the nation. Then a dynasty will be established. When it grows senile, another dynasty will take over. When royal authority is achieved, wealth and prosperity is established, but the toughness of desert life is lost. The group feeling weakens. Children grow up proud without the group feeling. They invite destruction. As luxury increases, they will be swallowed up by other nations.
“As long as a nation retains its group feeling, royal authority that disappears in one branch of society will, of necessity, pass to some other branch of the same nation.” (p. 114) Power could pass from one ruling family of the nation to another ruling family, for example. Those supporting the dynasty indulge in a life of ease. They sink into luxury and plenty. They have many servants and use them for their own interests. Many others are kept in the shadows of society. Eventually, the upper group falls into senility. The duties of the dynasty saps and exhausts their energy. Also luxury drains their vigor. A limit is reached that is set by human urbanization and political superiority.
As the ruling group loses its group feeling, another group with strong group feeling can claim royal authority and seize power. This continues until the group feeling of the whole nation is broken. “Luxury wears out royal authority and overthrows it.” This could also happen due to a change in religion or the disappearance of civilization. Defeated nations are taken over by apathy and lose hope. They disintegrate. Ibn Khaldun gives Persia as an example. The dynasty was taken over by the Arabs. He says that man is a natural leader and “a representative of God on earth.” When deprived of rule, he becomes apathetic.
One can only say that his attitude toward “negro nations” is what we would call racist today. He says that Negroes are submissive to slavery. They “have little that is (essentially) human and possess attributes that are quite similar to those of dumb animals…” The Bedouins plunder and destroy. It is easy for them to gain control of settlements in flat land, in raid, plunder and attack in the desert. However, they are of no use in the mountains. They are “the negation and antithesis of civilization.” They are a savage nation and ruin civilization. When they grab power, they force others who know craftsmanship to do the work for them. This reminds one somewhat of the way the Arab Gulf states work today.
Ibn Khaldun writes that “…labour is the real basis of profit.” (p. 119) This can be seen as a labor theory of value, as seen in Adam Smith and John Locke. Karl Marx too, used the concept in his analysis of capitalism. In the case of the Bedouins, they care only for profits and not for law, so they gain property through looting. They turn society into anarchy and ruin civilization. They cannot establish peace easily since there are too many chiefs and not enough Indians. They all want to be leaders. He says this is seen in the conditions of Yemen, Sudan, and Arab Iraq, which are in ruins. This observation seems to still have relevance today.
Bedouins, being rude, proud, ambitious and eager to be leaders can only be restrained by religion or sometimes by royal authority. They are the farthest from royal authority and tend to anarchy. But since desert life is inferior to royal leadership they can sometimes be dominated and forced to obey. At least for a while, it seems. Here, Ibn Khaldun is fighting a sort of early “war on terrorism.”
Ibn Khaldun’s theory of history is spelled out more clearly in Chapter Three which deals with dynasties, royal authority, the Caliphate and such topics.
Ibn Khaldun starts with a discussion of “group feeling.” This enables a dynasty to be established with “royal authority.” We can say the establishment of a state. Once a state is established, war and fighting necessarily follows. Once power is consolidated in the dynasty, group feeling is less important. Of use is propaganda, as a basis for royal authority, particularly religious propaganda. This is the importance of ideology to rule. Little has changed here. He says that revolutionaries, bent on overthrowing the dynasty, will succeed only of God wills it. However, he has given a material explanation for the overthrow of a dynasty, which has become weak and alienated the people. So he might just be bent on protecting himself from criticism.
When the dynasty is established, there is a tendency toward luxury, quiet, and tranquility. Those who enjoy the benefits become lazy and the regime approaches senility. In the next generation, the group feeling declines. This could also be the ruling ideology in modern times. Many people become weak and lose their virtuous qualities. Incomes cannot keep up with the demand for more luxuries, one might call it the revolution in rising expectations. Allowances, today called entitlements in America, must be increased. This leads to new taxes. Military expenses become burdensome and the army is reduced. As the defense weakens, a new generation grows up in luxury and peace. The old desert savagery is lost. They forget desert life and their habit of rapacity. People get ever softer, losing their brave virtues. The regime may resort to mercenaries or slaves, such as the Turkish Mamelukes.
There is a natural life of the dynasty, and this is about 120 years, more or less, for Ibn Khaldun. About three generations. A life takes some forty years to maturity.
It goes like this:
1.The first generation is desert tough, savage, brave, rapacious and full of group feeling. They are greatly feared.
2.The second generation changes to a sedentary culture. They are too lazy to strive for glory. They obey the law and hope that the old virtues will return or they pretend that they still have them.
3.The third generation completely forgets the desert. They are controlled by force. Luxury has reached a peak and there is much prosperity and ease. They are like women and children and become cowardly. The dynasty is worn out and senile.
4.The fourth generation lacks prestige, which has been destroyed. Conspicuous consumption wastes mighty resources. If challenged, the weakened dynasty will collapse. Is this modern-day America? Johan Galtung thinks so.
The dynasty goes through five stages:
1.The first stage is the success of taking power. The opposition is overthrown. The ruler becomes a model basking in the glory.
2.In the second stage, the ruler gains complete control and claims all authority. He consolidates all the power into the family and keeps people at a distance. There is a small inner circle of supporters.
3.The third stage is marked by leisure and tranquility. People acquire property. Monuments are built, taxes collected, large buildings constructed, spacious cities expanded, and his followers gain money and powerful positions. There is a liberality in the spending of the state resources.
4.The fourth stage is one of contentment with past achievements. There is peace, but the ruler just follows in the footsteps of his fathers and follows tradition.
5.The fifth stage is marked by waste and squandering and spending on pleasure and amusements. The bread and circuses of Rome. There is generosity toward some. Affairs of the state come to be run by low-class followers who lack competence. Does this remind one of George W. Bush and the neocons? Clients of the regime are destroyed and come to hate the ruler and regime. Soldiers’ pay suffers while money is squandered on pleasures. This ruins the foundations of the dynasty and finally it is destroyed by senility.
There is much more in the book, but this is the heart of the historical theory of cycles of dynasties.
This approach is perhaps more modern than it would seem at first glance. Take China, for example, since the Revolution in l949. The established state has gone through roughly half of its life, in Ibn Khaldun’s terms. The first, the Maoist period, was marked by strong revolutionary values from the struggle for power. The second generation, under Deng Xiaoping opened up to foreign capital and exports and some considerable capitalist elements in producing for the global market. A new generation of middle class are fairly affluent today and rather comfortable and think little about the revolution. A few have become very wealthy. To a considerable extent, some are just pretending to be socialists. Whether the regime will grow senile and disintegrate is a historical question.
One might also usefully apply the model to Turkey, in the Republican period. Now, it is roughly ninety years since the establishment of the Turkish Republic. Two thirds of the life of the state, in Ibn Khaldun’s terms. The first phase was strongly Kemalist, up to the l950s. People shared in the glory of Ataturk. The second generation was marked by an opening to outside capital, somewhat, led by Adnan Menderes in the l950s and later Suleyman Demirel. Considerable force under the military was used to guard the Kemalist Revolution. The third generation, beginning with the era of the Justice and Development Party has been marked by a challenge to the original group feeling, or enforced secular ideology of the Revolution. One may see a dialectic taking place here somewhat characteristic of that which Ibn Khaldun was addressing.
April 23, 2013
Eddie J. Girdner lives in Seferihisar Turkey. He is the author of Socialism, Sarvodaya and Democracy (Gyan Publishing House, 2013). He has taught for more than twenty years in Turkish Universities.