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Ibn Khaldun on the Origins of Society

To: Students of Supply-Side University
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Ibn Khaldun on the Origins of Society

This is a guest lecture first published here on April 24, 1998, one that I especially recommend to college men and women interested in the liberal arts, history and the political economy. I’d first heard of Ibn Khaldun, a 14th century philosopher, from Ronald Reagan, who loved to quote Khaldun’s observation that at the beginning of great empires tax rates were low, and at the end they were high. I began to take a closer look when I learned that Arnold Toynbee, one of the 20th century’s leading historians, believed that Ibn Khaldun had produced the greatest work on social science to come from the mind of man. After reading through a small piece of Khaldun’s work, I have to admit I am awed by the man’s genius. How could I have spent so much of my life in politics without being led to him before?

We’re going to spend the next three weeks on one segment of the massive history of philosophy that he produced. Ibn Khaldun is not an Arab neo-platonist, as his world view subsumes theirs and is an original one not previously expressed in the world. This singular breakthrough is not only awesome, but practically evidence of divine inspiration. What we will consider in the next three weeks are selected fragments from the sixth book of his philosophy of history. My aim is simply to allow you to be impressed with him and have you appreciate the foundation he presents, on which you can build your own designs of the way the world works. The following passages are presented with what at first seems almost childlike simplicity, until you realize he is building this foundation brick by brick, with seamless logic. In a way, the ancient philosophers become easier to follow after seeing how Ibn Khaldun knits together the fabric of society. My thanks to Cedric Muhammad, a young student at Supply-Side University, who recommended Khaldun’s Muqaddimah, a self-contained introduction to his mammoth world history.

An Arab Philosophy of History: Selections from the Prolegomena (Muqaddimah)
of Ibn Khaldun of Tunis (1332-1406), edited by Charles Issawi.

SOCIETY AND STATE

Origins of Society

Human society is necessary. Philosophers express this truth by saying that man is social by nature, i.e. he needs a society, or city as they call it. The reason for this is that...each individual’s capacity for acquiring food falls short of what is necessary to sustain life. Even taking a minimum, such as one day’s supply of wheat, it is clear that this requires operations (grinding and kneading and baking) each of which necessitates utensils and tools, which presuppose the presence of carpenters, smiths, potmakers, and other craftsmen. Even granting that he eat the wheat unground, he can only obtain it in that state after many more operations, such as sowing and reaping and threshing, to separate the grain from the chaff, all of which processes require even more tools and crafts.

Now it is impossible for an individual to carry out all the above-mentioned work, or even part of it. Hence it becomes necessary for him to unite his efforts with those of his fellow men who by co-operating can produce enough for many times their number. Similarly each individual needs the help of his fellow men for the purposes of defense. For God...gave to many brute beasts more power than to man. Thus the horse, the ass and the bull are more powerful than man, while the lion and elephant are many times as strong. And whereas enmity is natural between animals, He gave to each kind an organ of self-defense. To man, however, He gave the mind and the hand which, in the service of the mind, can apply itself to the crafts and produce tools which take the place of the natural organs with which other animals are endowed for self-defense. Thus spears replace horns; swords, claws; shields, thick hides; and so forth, as was mentioned by Galen in his book on the uses of organs.

But an individual human being cannot resist an animal, especially a beast of prey, nor is his tool-using capacity of any avail unless he join with his fellow men, for he cannot, unaided, make the many tools needed. And unless he so co-operate with others he cannot obtain the food without which he cannot live, nor defend himself, for want of weapons, but will fall a prey to the beasts and his species will be extinct. Co-operation however, secures both food and weapons, thus fulfilling God’s will of preserving the species. Society is therefore necessary to man...and it is society which forms the subject of this science....

[Here is a parallel passage from Aristotle’s Politics, written 1700 years earlier: "A social instinct is implanted in all men by nature, and yet he who first founded the state was the greatest of benefactors. For man, when perfected, is the best of animals, but, when separated from law and justice, he is the worst of all; since armed injustice is the more dangerous, and he is equipped at birth with arms, meant to be used with intelligence and virtue, which he may use for the worst ends. Wherefore, if he have not virtue, he is the most unholy and the most savage of animals, and the most full of lust and gluttony. But justice is the bond of men in states, for the administration of justice, which is the determination of what is just, is the principle of order in political society." Bk. One, Chapter 2 p.181.]

Origins of the State

....Human society having, as we have shown, been achieved and spread over the face of the earth, there arises the need of a restraining force to keep men off each other in view of their animal propensities for aggressiveness and oppression of others. Now the weapons with which they defend themselves against wild beasts cannot serve as a restraint, seeing that each man can make equal use of them. Nor can the restraint come from other than men, seeing the animals fall far short of men in their mental capacity. The restraint must therefore be constituted by one man, who wields power and authority with a firm hand and thus prevents anyone from attacking anyone else, i.e. by a sovereign. Sovereignty is therefore peculiar to man, suited to his nature and indispensable to his existence.

According to certain philosophers, Sovereignty may also be found in certain animal species, such as bees and locusts, which have been observed to follow the leadership of one of their species, distinguished from the rest by its size and form. But in animals Sovereignty exists in virtue of instinct and divine providence, not of reflection aiming at establishing a political organization....

It is maintained by some that rule can be founded on a Divine Law, commanded by God and revealed by Him to a man whom He has so endowed with outstanding qualities that other men willingly and unfeigningly obey him and surrender themselves to him. But this proposition cannot be demonstrated: for human society can exist without such a Divine Law, merely in virtue of the authority imposed by one man or of the Social Solidarity which compels the others to follow and obey him. And it is clear that the People of the Book and those who have followed the teachings of the prophets are few in comparison with the pagans, who do not have a book and who constitute a majority of the inhabitants of the world. And yet these pagans have not only lived but have founded states and left monuments. And until this day they form societies in the extreme northern and southern zones. Their condition is therefore not one of anarchy, i.e. of men left to themselves without restraint, for such a condition cannot possibly exist....

State and Society

....The state is therefore to society as form is to matter, for the form by its nature preserves the matter and, as philosophers have shown, the two are inseparable. For a state is inconceivable without a society; while a society without a state is well nigh impossible, owing to the aggressive propensities of men, which require a restraint. A polity therefore arises, either theocratic or kingly, and this is what we mean by state.

The two being inseparable, any disturbance in either of them will cause a disturbance in the other; just as the disappearance of one leads to the disappearance of the other. The greatest source of disturbance is in the breakdown of such empires as the Roman, Persian, or Arab; or in the [breakdown of a whole] dynasty, such as the Omayyad or Abbaside. Individual rulers, such as Heraclius, or Anushirvan, or ’Abdel Malik Ibn Marwan, or Harun al Rashid, are merely successive rulers and guardians of society. The succession of such rulers does not affect society greatly for they resemble each other closely. Moreover the real force which operates on society is solidarity and power, which persists through [successive] rulers. Should such a solidarity disappear, and be replaced by another solidarity which acts on society, the whole Ruling Class would disappear and the disturbance thus caused be very great... [Vol. II, p. 264]

Political Sanctions

....We have already refuted the view [declaring that no society can be constituted without a Divine Law revealed by a prophet]. For one of the premises of this view is that a Sanction can only be provided by a Divine Law which is blindly obeyed by all because of their faith. Now this is false, for a sanction can be provided by the power of the king, or of a ruling group, without there being any Divine Law -- as took place, for instance, among the pagans who did not have a Revelation or Sacred Book. Nay, conflict may stop if every person is clearly aware, by the light of his reason, that he has no right to oppress his neighbour....Oppression and strife might therefore cease...if men undertook to restrain themselves.... [Vol. I, p. 345]

Social Solidarity Is Based on Kinship

Social solidarity is found only in groups related by blood ties or by other ties which fulfill the same functions. This is because blood ties have a force binding on most men, which makes them concerned with any injury inflicted on their next of kin. Men resent the oppression of their relatives, and the impulse to ward off any harm that may befall those relatives is natural and deep rooted in men. If the degree of kinship between two persons helping each other is very close, it is obviously the blood tie, which, by its very evidence, leads to the required solidarity. If the degree of kinship is distant, the blood tie is somewhat weakened but in its place there exists a family feeling based on the widespread knowledge of kinship. Hence each will help the other for fear of the dishonour which would arise if he failed in his duties towards one who is known by all to be related to him. The clients and allies of a great nobleman often stand in the same relationship towards him as his kinsmen. Patron and client are ready to help each other because of the feeling of indignation which arises when the rights of a neighbour, a kinsman, or a friend are violated. In fact, the ties of clientship are almost as powerful as those of blood.

This explains the saying of the Prophet Mohammad, "Learn your genealogies to know who are your near of kin," meaning that kinship only serves a function when blood ties lead to actual co-operation and mutual aid in danger -- other degrees of kinship being insignificant. The fact is that such relationship is more of an emotional than an objective fact in that it acts only by bringing together the hearts and affections of men. If the kinship is evident in acts as a natural urge leading to solidarity; if it is based on the mere knowledge of descent from a common ancestor it is weakened and has little influence on the sentiments and hence little practical effect. [Vol. I, p. 235]

Ties of kinship come out most clearly among savage peoples living in wildernesses, such as the Bedouins and other like peoples. This is because of he peculiarly hard life, poor conditions and forbidding environment which necessity has imposed upon such peoples. For their livelihood is based upon the produce of camels, and camel breeding draws them out into the wilderness where the camels graze on the bushes and plants of the desert sands; as we mentioned earlier. Now the wilderness is a hard and hungry home, to which such men adapted their nature and character in successive generations. Other peoples, however, do not try to go out into the desert or to live with the nomads and share their fate; nay, should a nomad see the possibility of exchanging his condition for another he would not fail to do so. As a result of all this, the genealogies of nomads are in no danger of being mixed or confused but remain clear and known to all... [Vol. I, p. 236]

Proximity and a Common Life as the Basis of Solidarity

....Clientship and the mixing with slaves and allies can replace kinship [as the basis of solidarity]. For although kinship is natural and objective it is also emotional. For group ties are formed by such things as living together, companionship, prolonged acquaintance or friendship, growing up together, having the same foster parents, and other such matters of life and death. Such ties once formed lead to mutual help and the warding off of injuries inflicted on others; as can be commonly seen to occur. An example of this is provided by the relation of dependence. For there arises a special tie between a patron and those in his service which draws them close together so that although kinship is absent the fruits of kinship are present.... [Vol. I, p. 332]

Solidarity in Tribes

....Aggressiveness and the lust for power are common characteristics of men and whenever a man’s eye dwells on the goods of his neighbour his hand is apt to follow it, unless he be checked by some restraint.... As regards towns and villages, their mutual aggressiveness is checked by the governors and the State, which restrain their subjects from attacking or oppressing each other; in other words, the power of the rulers preserves the people from oppression, unless it be the oppression of those same rulers. External aggression, for its part, is warded off by means of walls and fortifications, which protect a city by night, prevent surprises, and moreover supplement an otherwise inadequate defense; while the garrisons of the State carry out a prepared and prolonged resistance. In nomadic societies, intragroup aggressiveness is checked by the chiefs and elders, owing to the prestige and respect with which they are regarded by the tribesmen. Aggression from outside, aimed at their possessions, is warded off by those of their young men who are noted for their bravery. And such defense can succeed only when they are united by a strong social solidarity arising out of kinship, for this greatly increases their strength.... [Vol. I, p. 233]

Transition From Tribal To Village and City Life and Consequent Weakening of Solidarity

....The above [i.e. purity of race and tribal solidarity] holds true only for nomadic Arabs. The caliph Omar said: "Learn your genealogies and be not like the Nabateans of Mesopotamia who, if asked about their origins reply: ‘I come from such and such a village.’" Those Arabs who took up a more sedentary life, however, found themselves, in their quest for more fertile lands and rich pastures, crowding in on other peoples -- all of which led to a mixture [of blood] and a confusion of genealogies. This is what happened at the beginning of the Muslim era, when men began to be designated by the localities [in which they dwelt]. Thus people would refer to the military province of Qinnasrin or the military province of Damascus or that of al ’Awasim. The usage then spread to Spain.

This does not mean, however, that the Arabs were no longer designated by their genealogies; they merely added to their tribal name a place-name which allowed their rulers to distinguish between them more easily. Later on, however, further mixture took place, in the cities, between Arabs and non-Arabs. This led to a complete confusion of genealogies, and a consequent weakening of that solidarity which is the fruit of tribal kinship; hence tribal names tended to be cast aside. Finally, the tribes themselves were absorbed and disappeared and with them all traces of tribal solidarity. The nomads, however, continued as they had always been. "And God shall inherit the earth and all that are upon it." [Vol. I, p. 237]

Solidarity in Cities

It is evident that men are by nature in contact with and tied to each other, even where kinship is absent; though, as we have said before, in such cases such ties are weaker than where they are reinforced by kinship. Such contact may produce a solidarity nearly as powerful as that produced by kinship. Now many city dwellers are interrelated by marriage, thus forming groups of kinsmen, divided into parties and factions, between which there exist the same relations of friendship and enmity as exist between tribes.... [Vol. II, p. 267]

Solidarity Is the Basis of Sovereignty

The end of social solidarity is sovereignty. This is because, as we have said before, it is solidarity which makes men unite their efforts for common objects, defend themselves, and repulse or overcome their enemies. We have also seen that every human society requires a restraint, and a chief who can keep men from injuring each other. Such a chief must command a powerful support, else he will not be able to carry out his restraining function. The domination he exercises is Sovereignty, which exceeds the power of a tribal leader; for a tribal leader enjoys leadership and is followed by his men whom he cannot however compel. Sovereignty, on the other hand, is rule by compulsion, by means of the power at the disposal of the ruler. Now rulers always strive to increase their power, hence a chief who secures a following will not miss the chance of transforming, if he can, his rule into sovereignty; for power is the desire of men’s souls. And sovereignty can be secured only with the help of the followers on whom the ruler relies to secure the acquiescence of his people, so that kingly sovereignty is the final end to which social solidarity leads.... [Vol. I, p. 252]

Solidarity Is the Basis of Kingship

Kingship and dynasties can be founded only on popular support and solidarity. The reason for this is, as we have seen before, that victory, or even the mere avoidance of defeat, goes to the side which has most solidarity and whose members are readiest to fight and to die for each other. Now kingship is an honoured and coveted post, giving its holder all worldly goods as well as bodily and mental gratifications. Hence it is the object of much competition and is rarely given up willingly, but only under compulsion. Competition leads to struggle and wars and the overthrow of thrones, none of which can occur without social solidarity. Such matters are usually unknown to, or forgotten by, the masses, who do not remember the time when the dynasty was first established, but have grown up, generation after generation, in a fixed spot, under its rule. They know nothing of the means by which God set up the dynasty; all they see is their monarchs, whose power has been consolidated and is no longer the object of dispute and who do not need to base their rule any more on social solidarity. They do not know how matters stood at first and what difficulties were encountered by the founders of the dynasty.... [Vol. I, p. 278]

Once the State Is Established Solidarity Becomes Superfluous

Once consolidated the state can dispense with social solidarity. The reason is that newly founded states can secure the obedience of their subjects only by much coercion and force. This is because the people have not had the time to get accustomed to the new and foreign rule. Once kingship has been established, however, and inherited by successive generations or dynasties, the people forget their original condition, the rulers are invested with the aura of leadership, and the subjects obey them almost as they obey the precepts of their religion, and fight for them as they would fight for their faith. At this stage the rulers do not need to rely on a great armed force, since their rule is accepted as the will of God, which does not admit of change or contradiction. It is surely significant that the discussion of the Imamate is inserted [in theological books] at the end of the discussion of doctrinal beliefs, as though it formed an integral part of them. From this time onward the authority of the king is based on the clients and freedmen of the royal household, men who have grown up under its protection; or else the king relies on foreign bands of warriors whom he attaches to himself.

An example of this is provided by the Abbaside dynasty. By the time of the Caliph Al Mu‘tasim and his son Al Wathiq, the kings relied mainly on clients recruited from Persians, Turks, Deylamites, Seljuks, and others. These foreigners soon came to control the provinces, the Abbasides’ rule being confined to the neighbourhood of Baghdad. Then the Deylamites marched on Baghdad and occupied it, holding the Caliphs under their rule. They were succeeded by the Seljuks, who were followed by the Tatars, who killed the Caliph and wiped out that dynasty.... The same is true of the Omayyad dynasty in Spain. When the spirit and solidarity of the Arabs weakened, the feudal lords pounced on the kingdom and divided it up among themselves. Each of them set himself up as supreme lord in his region and, following the example of the foreigners in the Abbaside empire, usurped the emblems and titles of sovereignty....They upheld their authority by means of clients and freedmen and with the help of tribesmen recruited from the Berbers, Zenata and other North Africans.... [Vol. I, p. 279]

* *

In 700 years, nothing has really changed in how societies continuously are being shaped, about the nature of solidarity and sovereignty. Now that the United States alone is at the top of the global power pyramid, we can almost imagine the dynamics that will flow from this fact into the next century. The U.S. is the global sovereign power. All other heads of state are as chieftains of their national tribes. It is an intricate maze to organize, though, with many hundreds of languages and myriad religions, sects, ethnicities, national identities. It will take great skill to organize over the next several centuries.