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The Islamic historian who can explain why some states fail and others succeed

3 August 2015

12:06 PM

3 August 2015

12:06 PM

I have a new Kindle Single out, an essay on the 14th century Islamic historian Ibn Khaldun, who can rightly claim to be called the ‘father of social science’.

Ibn Khaldun is underrated in the west, compared to the other great philosophers and historians of the ages, but he enjoys a cult following because his central theory of human society seems ever more relevant today – that is, asabiyyah, or ‘group feeling’. Group feeling explains why the individual-centred western worldview has proved so inadequate in explaining things since the fall of Communism, especially in the Middle East.

Born in Tunis on May 27, 1332, Ibn Khaldun pioneered the fields of sociology and history, as well as touching on economics and science, during his long life spent serving as an ambassador and supreme justice across the Islamic Mediterranean. His history book the Muqaddimah puts him up with Herodotus and Thucydides as one of the fathers of that discipline, while the Scottish theologian Robert Flint once said that ‘Plato, Aristotle and Augustine were not his peers, and all others were unworthy of being even mentioned along with him’. Jonathan Sacks, the former 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 family had originated in southern Arabia in the 9th century before moving to Spain, although they may have originally been Berbers who adopted an Arab identity in order to acquire status. They had fled from Seville following its capture by the Christians in 1248 and 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 energy eventually burned out in turn, a cycle that would influence Ibn Khaldun’s thinking. He saw that empires rise when their peoples have strong asabiyyah, but once established slowly begin to lose what might now be called social solidarity or social capital, and are then in turn overthrown by newcomers.

Ibn Khaldun would late travel across the Maghreb, Spain, Egypt and Syria, where he negotiated with the monstrous Mongol leader Timur (who killed an estimated 5 per cent of humanity, a record that makes Hitler and Stalin look like bumbling amateurs). However his most productive period came in 1375 when  the Sultan of Tlemecen sent him out to meet with the Awlad Arif tribe 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 the Muqaddimah over five months in the year 1377, ‘with words and ideas pouring into my head like cream into a churn’.

A great traveler, Ibn Khaldun was taken even further by his imagination; the historian Arnold Toynbee described 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 with 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.

But it is his concept of asabiyyah which remains most lasting. 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.

Asabiyyah is hugely relevant today because the nature of group feeling within a state dictates the nature of its government and institutions. Iraq is home to civilisation itself but as nation-building goes it was an impossible task because the country is beset not just by divisions between Sunni, Shia and Kurd, but also numerous tribes and clans. It is because asabiyyah is concentrated at a local level that Iraq came 170th out of 175 in Transparency International’s latest corruption index. And yet, focusing on religion, ideology or economics, most analysis before the invasion and since ignored asabiyyah.

As a result much of the country lies in the hands of religious extremists who have much stronger asabiyyah and were able to take Mosul despite being outnumbered 40 to 1 by Iraq’s well-equipped army. For as the great Arab historian observed: ‘Religious colouring does away with mutual jealousy and envy among people who share in a group feeling, and causes concentration upon the truth… They are willing to die for their objectives.’ (Much of this has been backed up by modern evolutionary psychology.)

Asabiyyah is the key to understanding why some states fail and others succeed, why democracy works sometimes but often not, and why the nation-state will remain the foundation of successful human societies. Whatever happens from now on, the outcome of the 21st century will be dependent on asabiyyah, which remains the fundamental reality of human existence.


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