Ibn Khaldun and the role of asabiyyah
Ibn Khaldun, 1332-1406 CE, was a historian and philosopher 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 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.
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 Berber people 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 as 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. A people with mulk easily took over the far more effeminate, and internally divided, cities which they came across.
Yet the success of a conqueror would never last 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.