Al Muqaddima Explains Why States Rise and Fall

Ibn-Khaldoun’s preface first to adopt materialistic methods

While the 13th and 14th centuries delivered Europe to the Renaissance, they delivered the Arab world to its dark ages. The cultural flourishing that dominated the Middle East in the eighth, ninth and 10th centuries was ended by the carnage of the Crusades and the Mogul raids during the 11th and 12th centuries. The tolerance Islamic sects had for one another for most of Islamic history diminished. Diversity was seen as one of the causes of weakness. Since in medieval Middle East political power was mainly based on religion, different interpretations of religion naturally yielded many political systems that were in continuous conflict. The advent of the Crusaders and then the Moguls, accentuated the need for unity. This drive for political unity however resulted in a drive for cultural unity, thus paralyzing the process of interpreting and re-interpreting religion. And since different interpretations of religion were mainly the products of different interpretations of the religious text, the paralysis was extended to all disciplines that deal with interpretation of texts ­ literature.

Very few great works of literature, history, or jurisprudence were produced during those two centuries. One great exception though was Ibn Khaldoun’s Al-Muqaddima.

Ibn Khaldoun was born in Seville, in Muslim Spain, to a family of professional politicians. He had moved from one court to another in North Africa, occupying all sorts of positions from a vizier to a prisoner. He had been everybody’s man to the extent that few princes in the region trusted him and he was exiled in a fortress in central Algeria. There, he started thinking about the bases of political power, the reasons behind the rise and fall of empires and the patterns of human social behavior. He decided to write a history of North Africa and the Middle East, in the preface he decided to lay down his theoretical conclusions. The preface, Al-Muqaddima in Arabic, became much more important then the voluminous book.

Ibn Khaldoun started by making the link between the economic activities of societies and their socio-political, ethical and aesthetic norms. He made this link almost 600 years before Karl Marx. He argued that the history of the Middle East, up until his time, had revolved around nomadic tribes locked in conflict with settled agricultural societies. Bedouins, who live off grazing and hunting, have to be mobile. Their mobility prevents them from constructing a specialized economy, thus, a hunter is also a fighter. The mobility also creates the tribal ethic of assabiyya (could be roughly translated as kinship, or tribal solidarity). This ethic militarizes the whole society. The large tribes, then, become large armies. In the time of Ibn Khaldoun, these tribes would be larger than the hired armies specialized in defending the settled cities. When the Bedouins conquer the agricultural societies they start to acquire agricultural ways of production. Here, Ibn Khaldoun goes one step further than Marx, when he states that culture and ethics like assabiyya can actually result in changing the modes of production, since it was assabiyya that yielded enough strength for the tribe to conquer the agricultural lands. As they become more and more settled, the assabiyya ethic withers away. The sheikh of the tribe, who was dependent on his tribesmen, now owns land, and his tribesmen are but peasants that he can replace; the tribal solidarity is broken. A specialized society emerges, and this society becomes vulnerable to Bedouin raids from those who still inhabit the desert.

It is worth noting that Ibn Khaldoun’s explanation was the first in Arab Islamic history of thought to adopt such materialistic methods. Of course, Ibn Khaldoun acknowledged the role of religion, ignoring it would have been simply impossible while explaining Middle Eastern history. However, he treats religion as a worldly bond equal to that of assabiyya, people bond with one another, either through links of blood or through links of creed. But he insists that settling in agricultural lands and acquiring more secure sources of wealth generate tyrannical tendencies among those who rule, because they become less dependent on their biological or even ideological kinsmen.

Ibn Khaldoun was trying to understand the crumbling political system of Islamic states in front of the sweeping Mogul attacks. The fact that the Moguls were the closest thing to Bedouins supported his theory.

Later in his life he was invited by the Mamlouk sultans of Egypt and Greater Syria to live in the east; to him this was a good chance to escape a hostile North Africa. Yet, even in his new home, he was still trying to be everyone’s man. When the Moguls, who by that time had embraced Islam, attacked Syria, he tried to have links to them. In a sense, his tendency of saving his own skin by being everyone’s agent is understandable. Reading through his Muqaddima, one finds a pessimistic and sometimes cynical world view.

“States are like men,” he wrote. “You cannot revitalize them when they begin to die.”

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Tamim al-Barghouti is a Palestinian poet. He writes a regular feature for The Daily Star

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