History of International Relations Textbook

The Muslim caliphates

Ibn Khaldun and the role of asabiyyah


Ibn Khaldun, 1332-1406 CE, was a historian and philosopher of history born in Tunis in North Africa but in a family which for centuries had been officials to the Muslim rulers of Spain. By Khaldun’s time, Muslim North Africa was in decline and the once powerful states had fragmented into a number of competing political entities. It was among these emirates that Ibn Khaldun looked for employment. He was well read in the Arabic classics, an expert in jurisprudence, and he knew the Quran by heart. He was, by all accounts, extraordinarily ambitious and perfectly convinced of his own intellectual superiority. He was also in the habit of plotting against his employers. The result was a life which alternatively turned him into a statesman and a prisoner. The fact that he survived until the ripe old age of 76 testifies not only to his political acumen but also to his luck.

In 1375, he took a prolonged sabbatical from his political career and settled in the Berber town of Qalat Ibn Salama in what today is western Algeria. Here he began writing what at first was meant to be a history of the Berbers but which soon turned into a history of the world, prefaced by a Muqaddimah, a “Prolegomenon,” in which he laid out his theory of history. Writing as a historical sociologists, Ibn Khaldun sought to explain what it is that makes kingdoms rise and fall. As far the rise to power is concerned he emphasized the role of asabiyyah, “social cohesion” or “group solidarity.” The Berbers provide a good example. They survived in the harsh conditions of the desert only because they stayed united and helped each other out. This sense of social solidarity provided them with mulk, “the ability to govern,” and made them into formidable conquerors which easily took over the far more effeminate, and internally divided, cities they came across. In making this argument Ibn Khaldun reinterpreted terms which traditionally had been given a far more negative connotation by Islamic scholars — asabiyyah was usually defined as “tribalism” or “prejudice” and mulk as “partisan rule.” Ibn Khaldun did not deny these interpretations — indeed, the Berbers, when they conquered a city were often ferocious in their destructiveness. Yet politics, Ibn Khaldun insisted, is a ruthless game and it follows a logic of its own.

Moreover, the success of a conqueror would never last for long. Once in power, the asabiyyah would start to dissipate as the new rulers became rich and began to indulge in assorted luxuries. Instead of relying on the solidarity of the group, the rulers employed mercenaries to fight their wars and bureaucrats to staff their ministries. In five generations, Ibn Khaldun explained, the mulk was gone and the state was ripe for take-over by someone else. Ibn Khaldun, that is, had quite a gloomy view of history. He lived at the tail-end of the Arabic Golden Age and when the Black Death was sweeping across Europe and North Africa, killing millions of people, including Ibn Khaldun’s own parents. Towards the end of his life he moved to Cairo where he wrote his autobiography and worked as a judge and a diplomat. Here too he continued to plot against both enemies and friends.