How should Arabs feel about Ibn Khaldun, a Medieval Arab evolutionary theorist?5 min read
Ibn Khaldun was a 14th century thinker who moved widely around North Africa and Islamic Spain, having been born in Tunis in 1332.
His varied career as a student, writer and diplomat took him to the Moroccan cities of Fès and Marrakech, Cordoba, the tribal hinterlands of what is now Algeria and Syria, before passing his final years in Cairo.
His writings, such as Al-Muqaddimah (or The Introduction), deal with the theoretical underpinnings of the historical method and were resurrected by the Ottomans before reaching Europe towards the 18th century. He is now one of the better known thinkers of the medieval Arab world and understood as a somewhat proto-modern historian.
The extent to which Ibn Khaldun is an “Arabised Amazighi” is unclear, but let’s assume for the sake of this argument that the North African was at least a socialised Arab.
Ibn Khaldun is often heralded as the first historian to work in a recognisably “modern” way but this is far from an uncontested view. He is seen as the father of social sciences and sociology[i] in particular due to his interdisciplinary understanding of history and society.
His method involved considering evidence and critically analysing historical changes.[ii] His was in some ways the scientific method before its time – refusing to accept divine, mythological or traditional explanation for its own sake.
Importantly, Ibn Khaldun sought to place historical events in their own multifaceted contexts acknowledging, amongst others, economic, political and cultural forces. In this way, we should certainly feel gratitude and admiration towards him as someone who helped paved the way alongside Western philosophers for how we think about social phenomena today.
Alongside the theoretical understanding of history which Ibn Khaldun pioneered, there seem to be two especially substantial ideas that we can consider now.
The first is his overarching model of civilisational change – that is, how and why nations rise and fall. Ibn Khaldun introduced a cyclical understanding of these sweeping historical movements. It revolves around the dynamic between urban and rural, between the settled city and its tribal hinterlands. In broad terms, the pattern he identified begins with a tribal group settling and forming a dynasty or regime.
Initially, this group has the will and unity to forge a strong polity and to defend and maintain it. After a couple of generations in this metropolitan mode, however, they would have become acquainted with the comforts and luxuries of prosperous urban life, thereby losing the robustness necessary to hold a state together.
By contrast, those living in tight-knit tribal or nomadic groupings in the harsher rural areas retain a hardiness and unity that provides a conquering advantage. Such a group will in turn take over the fallen city, and the cycle thus repeats itself. We can look to Ibn Khaldun’s own time for examples illustrating this worldview: when the Almoravids, having originated in the Saharan Maghreb, arrived in the cities of Andalusia… they were perceived by non-Muslim Arabs to have fallen into impious decadence when taking over.
The second idea worth outlining is ‘asabiyyah, roughly meaning group strength or unity. Ibn Khaldun saw this factor as a major motor of historical and civilisational change. It is the asabiyyah of the rural tribes that allows them to maintain the strength and unity needed to conquer and settle a new dynasty, and it is precisely this factor which dilutes in an urban environment.
This seems to reflect Aristotle’s attitudes on the family unit being a microcosm of wider society. Religion can therefore form a part of this unity, as well as the bonds formed facing the shared hardship of a harsh rural environment.
Both the cyclical model of civilisation and theory on ‘asabiyyah are useful and insightful historical models but we must consider how they contain the seeds of potentially dangerous ideas too. It seems to be a rarely made connection, but Ibn Khaldun’s thought also shares similarities with the German historian Oswald Spengler’s theory of the organic nature of civilisation.
Whether Spengler was directly influenced by Ibn Khaldun as Ibn Khaldun had been influenced by Aristotle is unclear.
Nonetheless, Spengler wrote The Decline of the West in 1918 in which he contrasts the rootless metropolis with traditional rural culture. This line of anti-metropolitan thinking can lead to a xenophobic, puritan conservatism which elevates tribalistic group unity over freedom.
One can almost imagine an analysis of the US Tea Party movement which fits neatly into Ibn Khaldun’s categories of urban-rural divide and group unity.
It is in this way, however, that we can again see the brilliance of his thought, as those very factors – the liberal yet atomised metropolis clashing with the neglected provinces – continue to dominate politics and culture today in such obvious examples as Trump and Brexit.
So, even if some Arabs were to reject more Darwinist theories of evolution, they should select key lessons from Ibn Khaldun that tells us how tribal mentalities can both be the core and demise of a functioning society. For those Arabs (Muslim or otherwise) that believe in evolution, this makes sense: group unity is a survival mechanism that can sometimes encroach on others’ wellbeing.
Ibn Khaldun may have therefore influenced suspecting atheists like Machiavelli. Indeed, there is much speculation on the religiosity of Ibn Khaldun himself.
Some scholars have cautioned against the simplification of Ibn Khaldun as a modern before his time.[iii] Of course, just like his own theoretical insights, we must treat his thought in the context of his time and understand that it cannot be whitewashed into a straightforward modern liberal sociology handbook. However, Ibn Khaldun’s critical analysis and his dialectical understanding of historical change – the way in which power contains the seeds of its own downfall – remain tremendously relevant.