Does the west need to know more about Islamic philosophy? I’ve recently had a short ebook published on the great medieval philosopher Ibn Khaldun, who I’ve come to feel is hugely underrated in the west. We live in a society where intellectual appreciation of the past has declined somewhat, but even those with a fuller appreciation of our philosophy, of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas and the various Catholic medieval scholars, might still be ignorant of Ibn Khaldun; however as much of the world crumbles in the 21st century his ideas are more important than ever, especially his concept of asabiyyah, or group feeling.
Born in Tunis on May 27, 1332, Ibn Khaldun pioneered the fields of sociology and history, as well as touching on economics, and served as an ambassador and supreme justice in North Africa, travelling across the Islamic Mediterranean from southern Spain to Arabia, eventually dying in Egypt in 1406. His history book The Muqaddimah puts him up with Herodotus and Thucydides as one of the fathers of that discipline, while Jonathan Sacks, the former British chief rabbi, said of him that “He has every claim to be called the world’s first sociologist. Not for another 300 years would the West produce a figure of comparable originality.”
Ibn Khaldun was very much a product of the pan-Islamic world, which was then coming to the end of its golden age. His ancestors had originated in southern Arabia in the 9th century before moving to Spain, and had fled from Seville following its capture by the Christians in 1248. His family held office under the Berber Hafsid dynasty that had come to power in North Africa in 1229, but his father and grandfather had retired from public life – and Ibn Khaldun’s turbulent life would suggest their decision to be wise.
As a boy, Ibn Khaldun was taught by some of the best scholars in the Maghreb, learning the Koran as well as Islamic law, grammar, rhetoric, mathematics and philosophy. Among the Muslim thinkers he studied were Avicenna, the eleventh-century author of the Book of Healing who produced hundreds of works during the peak of Islamic intellectual flourishing; Averroes, the great philosopher of medieval Cordoba, who promoted the work of Aristotle; and the Iranian Fakhruddin Razi, who first posited the multiverse hypothesis in the 12th century. Ibn Khaldun would also have read much Greek philosophy, which had been translated into Arabic in Mesopotamia by Syriac-speaking Christians fluent in both languages.
The Hafsids were the latest in a series of Arab and Berber dynasties that had come to power in North Africa as the strength of previous rulers had faded, until their burst of energy eventually burned out in turn, a cycle that would influence Ibn Khaldun’s thinking. The Hafsid kingdom occupied modern-day Tunisia and parts of Algeria and Libya, with its capital in Tunis, built close to the site of old Carthage, and would last until the late 16th century, when the Ottoman Turks conquered the area.
At the age of 20, Ibn Khaldun began an eventful political career, working for the Tunisian ruler Ibn Tafrakin as a ‘katibe al-Alamah’, a job that consisted of writing in calligraphy the introductory notes of documents. It was here that he acquired his first taste of the workings of court and of government, which he later defined as ‘an institution that prevents injustice other than such as it commits itself’.
Ibn Khaldun therefore had a long and turbulent career that took him to both sides of the Straits of Gibraltar, and was even offered his ancestral land back by King Pedro the Cruel of Castile if he worked for him. Eventually in 1375 he ended up being sent by the Sultan of Tlemecen out to be meet difficult Berber tribes in the west of modern-day Algeria; they gave the Arab and his young family refuge in a castle near to modern-day Oran, where he spent three years, mainly to escape court intrigue. It was here that he wrote his great book of history over five months in the year 1377, ‘with words and ideas pouring into my head like cream into a churn’, only returning to Tunis to find the necessary texts for research.
A great traveler, Ibn Khaldun was went further with his imagination; the historian Arnold Toynbee described his historical tome The Muqaddimah (literally ‘The Introduction’ – it was supposed to be part of a larger volume, the Kitab al-Ibar, or ‘Book of Lessons’) as ‘undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has ever yet been created by any mind in any time or place’.
Ibn Khaldun charted the story of the world from creation, which began with ‘the minerals and progressed, in an ingenious, gradual manner, to plants and animals’ and onto human history. Anticipating Darwin, he wrote: ‘The animal world then widens, its species become numerous, and, in a gradual process of creation, it finally leads to man, who is able to think and reflect. The higher stage of man is reached from the world of monkeys, in which both sagacity and perception are found, but which has not reached the stage of actual reflection and thinking. At this point we come to the first stage of man.’
Human society, he argued, has laws like any other science and for that reason Ibn Khaldun is widely considered the father of sociology, or as he called it ‘ilm al-’umran, ‘the science of culture’. He wrote: ‘Human society is necessary since the individual acting alone could acquire neither the necessary food nor security. Only the division of labour, in and through society, makes this possible. The state arises through the need of a restraining force to curb the natural aggression of humanity. A state is inconceivable without a society, while a society is well-nigh impossible without a state. Social phenomena seem to obey laws which, while not as absolute as those governing natural phenomena, are sufficiently constant to cause social events to follow regular and well-defined patterns and sequences.’
He also covered the sphere of economics, among his most famous quotes being that “it should be known that at the beginning of the dynasty, taxation yields a large revenue from small assessments. At the end of the dynasty, taxation yields a small revenue from large assessments.” This formed part of his essentially cyclical view of history and society, and would inspire the Laffer Curve, as coined by the economist Arthur Laffer in the 1970s, who later credited Ibn Khaldun with the idea.
Most famously, of all his ideas, Ibn Khaldun popularised the notion of asabiyyah, a pre-Islamic word that translates as ‘group feeling’ – solidarity or social cohesion, the literal root being ‘nerve’, as in the sinew by which a group is held together. It prefigures the concept of social capital that was coined by sociologist LJ Hanifan at the beginning of the 20th century, while Alexis de Tocqueville touched on a similar theme in the 19th.
In The Muqaddimah Ibn Khaldun described asabiyyah as the basic force of history, responsible for the rise and fall of kingdoms and dynasties and the reason why civilisations eventually collapsed. Although he saw the greater scheme of the universe as an almost proto-Darwinian evolutionary process, human history was very much circular, and the rise and fall of kingdoms and dynasties was marked by what he called the ‘Asabiyyah cycle’.
The Asabiyyah cycle begins with nomadic groups living out in remote regions (or the ‘lands of insolence’, as the Moroccan rulers rather charmingly called their tribal areas). At this stage, Ibn Khaldun wrote in The Muqaddimah, group feeling is strong, “since everybody’s affection for his family and his group is more important (than anything else). Compassion and affection for one’s blood relations and relatives exists in human nature as something God put into the hearts of men. It makes for mutual support and aid, and increases the fear felt by the enemy.” People without family to defend them “cannot live in the desert, because they would fall prey to any nation that might want to swallow them up”.
In the earliest days of the cycle the group is held together easily because it is tied by kinship. Ibn Khaldun wrote that “Group feeling produces the ability to defend oneself, to offer opposition, to protect oneself, and to press one’s claims. Whoever loses it is too weak to do any of these things.”
But as these conquering tribes go from nomadism (badawah) to civilization (hadharah), the natural cohesion fades, and individuals and families begin to look after their own interests. Social solidarity collapses. At some stage kingdoms come to rely on mercenaries or slave armies, which to Ibn Khaldun is sure proof that the dynasty in question no longer commands asabiyyah. In the words of one scholar of Ibn Khaldun: “When only those compelled or paid to fight will die in your name the end is near.”
Settled, urbanised societies therefore become vulnerable and may be conquered by another group with stronger asabiyyah. Thus we have the cycle, from growth to riches to ruin, a process that occurred most famously in the Roman Empire but also within the Islamic world itself; Greeks and Persians were replaced by Arabs who established dynasties in Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo, but who were in turn conquered by Mongols and Turks, while the Berber Almohad dynasty overran the Almoravid in Spain and the Maghreb. Further afield in India and China ancient, settled civilizations were conquered by less sophisticated nomads. Some, of course, may see disturbing echoes in modern Europe, where social solidarity has collapsed, along with any will to control borders.
Asabiyyah is strongest in those sharing a common ancestry, but this is not necessary, nor even adequate for such cohesion. Asabiyyah starts with the family, Ibn Khaldun scholar Lenn Evan Goodman wrote, ‘but by various fictions and extensions the relation grows to encompass wider groups, the clan and the tribe; and by skilful management in the hands of the politically adept, it may be transmuted to a bond of loyalty among strangers, a traditional, rational, or charismatic basis for a built-up civilization’.
In modern societies asabiyyah has often been built around an idea of patriotism, but as Ibn Khaldun suggested perhaps the most powerful engine of group feeling is religion. Faith is extremely powerful, precisely because it can mimic the oxytocin-inducing feelings of fraternity that are usually only found in closely related groups. Islamic fighters from Sussex will lay down their lives alongside Chechens or Algerians with whom they have no blood link, nor any real cultural similarity aside from Islam. This is nothing new: the twelfth-century crusader Fulcher of Chartres wrote of his experiences fighting the Muslims that “if a Breton or German wished to ask me something, I was completely unable to reply. But although we were divided by language, we seemed to be like brothers in the love of God and like near neighbours of one mind.”
Today intellectuals in the West have come to dismiss national identity as an imagined community, in Benedict Anderson’s famous phrase, yet the human imagination is powerful. And as recent events in Syria and elsewhere show, a group with asabiyyah can conquer those without (in Mosul ISIS kicked out the demoralised, divided Iraqi army, despite being outnumber at least 40 to 1).
Yet group feeling, whether it’s motivated by religion or by patriotism, remains central to the human experience, and one often ignored by analysts and commentators, whether it’s discussing the Middle East or the European Union or various other issues where economics is not the only concern.
In the introduction to his great work Ibn Khaldun listed seven mistakes regularly made by historians, among them “partisanship towards a creed or opinion” and “a mistaken belief in the truth’, chastisement deserved by almost all political commentators today (this author included). The worst, however, was ‘ignorance of the laws governing the transformation of human society”, and that was what he set out to redress. This is a mistake still frequently made by people in positions of power, and for this reason his work remains hugely relevant today.
The successes and failures of human societies in the 21st century will remain dominated by asabiyyah, and without recognising its importance we will continue to waste men and money in the pursuit of hopeless causes, and mistakenly see our world only in terms of economics, ideology or religion. We cannot ignore asabiyyah, for as Goodman wrote, “the laws of asabiyyah will be the laws of history”.
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