Rivers of Ink: Ibn Khaldūn’s Historical Theory

How do underequipped insurgents manage to fight off resourceful superpowers? Previously I examined historian Ibn Khaldūn’s arguments against repeating historical accounts without critical engagement. The process of taqlīd meant medieval historians engaged in circular reporting, assuming the logical fallacy of appealing to authority. In this post I will draft Ibn Khaldūn’s Historical Theory which seeks to explain the lifecycle of dynasties and the fortunes of war. To understand this, we will need to examine the crucial mechanism behind it, aṣabiyya, or group solidarity.

What is aṣabiyya?         

The term aṣabiyya is connected to the Arabic word ‘asbah; which refers to cohesion among agnates.[1] According to Franz Rosenthal, Ibn Khaldūn may have had in mind ‘usbah, which pertains to a group more generally, although the foremost connection would be blood ties. ‘Aṣabiyya is driven by “[the feeling that] no harm ought to befall them [members of kin] nor any destruction come upon them”.[2] This was exemplified in the Biblical story of Joseph and his brothers, which was later transmitted into the Qur’an. When Joseph’s brothers had secretly plotted to kidnap him, they assured their father: “If a wolf were to eat him [Joseph] when there are so many of us, we would truly be losers!”.[3] We could think of aṣabiyya as group morale, mutual self-sacrifice, or in Peter Adamson’s words ‘team spirit’.[4]

Sacrifice on behalf of one’s kin plays a crucial component in the Historical Theory. Why is the group the chief unit of analysis for Ibn Khaldūn? The answer lies in Ibn Khaldūn’s awareness of nature which is illustrated by conflict and predation. Just as a lion has been given claws, God has provided man with the ability to think and hands in order to craft tools. Ibn Khaldūn dismisses the individual’s defensive capacity by asserting that the “power of one individual human being cannot withstand the power of any one dumb animal”.[5] Accordingly, for Ibn Khaldūn, human social organisation is a necessity derived from the requirement to protect against others.

An exposition of the Historical Theory

Just as human society represents the manifestation of nature, the lifespan of a political regime is a reflection of the aging of a human. The Historical Theory appears in Ibn Khaldūn’s Muqaddimah; where Ibn Khaldūn applies this cyclic explanation to several dynasties in order to explain regime formation and collapse. For example, a historical account sketches how the Umayyad Caliphate established power in Iberia using group solidarity, but regime senility led to the dynasty’s collapse – paving the way for reyes de taifas (local Spanish principalities) to overthrow them.[6] Like the Umayyads before them, the weakening of ‘aṣabiyya among the reyes de taifas presented an opportunity for the Almoravids from North Africa to attain control of the peninsula. Ibn Khaldūn believes his theory has a universal application to it and the cycle is both natural and predictable.

The theory can be divided into five parts and describes two environments; the nomadic desert and the sedentary city.[7]

  1. Conquest
  2. Consolidation
  3. Stable rule
  4. Senescence
  5. Dynastic collapse

The initial military victory by a nomadic tribe over a sedentary civilisation is possible because nomads possess a stronger ‘aṣabiyya than the inhabitants of the city. In the desert, the nomads need ‘aṣabiyya because of the harsh environment and intense competition between rival tribes. Threats here are only external to the tribe. As a consequence of this, ‘aṣabiyya is required not only to protect and defend the tribe, but also to press claims. The goal of group solidarity is to attain the glory of royal authority and the eventual aim for the nomad is to achieve a sedentary life.

After conquest, a consolidation process occurs where the numerous ‘aṣabiyya, including that of the victorious group and conquered realm, are subsumed under a single leader who now governs the city. Khaldūn argues that in the consolidation process, royal authority or mulk, can only be attained through group solidarity.[8] Politics, according to Ibn Khaldūn, requires a leader who is singled out among the group; where the new leader claims “all the glory for himself and does not permit the people to share in it”.[9] Consequently, the group can now “dispense with group solidarity” because it is customary to be obedient to the ruler who, commanding an economy and army, has little need for ‘aṣabiyya to maintain power.[10] During this phase the royal deals with external threats associated with outsiders’ group solidarity and challengers from within his own tribe who may vie for or contest his authority. Once consolidation has occurred, a period of stable dynastic rule emerges.

We should note that Ibn Khaldūn does not view the nomadic stage as an ideal, even if it embodies the strongest group solidarity. Ibn Khaldūn argues that complex culture and science production cannot occur in a nomadic lifestyle because resources are diverted to the tribe’s survival instead of entertainment or technological efficiency. For instance, Abbasid Baghdad featured the House of Wisdom; which contained uncountable original works, translated materials and even an observatory. This would not have been possible if the Arabs had retained their nomadic ways.  

Senescence of the regime occurs because the city’s inhabitants become dependent on luxuries; leading to debt and spiritual avarice. This is compounded by the waning of ‘aṣabiyya as loyalty to the king grows. “[Royal authority] requires superiority and force, which express the wrathfulness and animality of human nature” and this creates an atmosphere of disloyalty among the citizens.[11] ‘Aṣabiyya weakens because the group lacks the will and ability to share power with the sovereign. The lifespan of the regime is generally thought to be three generations, roughly amounting to one hundred and twenty years. Ibn Khaldūn had a neat trick to identify regime senility: observe for the presence of decorative orange trees because it demonstrates a society’s dependence on impractical luxuries.

Grande rue à Kairouan, Maurice Rodieux, via Wikimedia Commons

The final phase of dynastic collapse sets the stage for the civilisation to be captured by nomads who personify the ‘aṣabiyya long lost by the sedentary citizens. An alternative means of dynastic collapse may involve internal dissension where an unpopular leader is replaced by a revolt from within the elite; with the newly enthroned leader closer representing the overall ‘aṣabiyya of the group.

To summarise, ‘aṣabiyya is a causal mechanic in the Historical Theory; whose strength and weakness determines the rise and fall of dynasties. The willingness to sacrifice oneself for one’s kin is much stronger within the desert than in the city. This is because, in the city, the increasing loyalty to a ruler and reliance on luxuries steadily erodes ‘aṣabiyya to a point where it ceases to exist. Hence, the tribe can no longer press their claims, nor defend themselves from external threats.

Testing the cycle

Ibn Khaldūn saw a pattern among the historical regimes he had studied; the sacking of Baghdad in 1258CE provided a very recent case to test his theory. After a failed negotiation with the Abbasid Caliphate, the Mongols sieged Baghdad. The House of Wisdom was not spared:

In one week, libraries and their treasures that had been accumulated over hundreds of years were burned or otherwise destroyed. So many books were thrown into the Tigris River, according to one writer, that they formed a bridge that would support a man on horseback[12]

It was said the Tigris River ran black with ink and red with citizens’ blood during this calamity. Of course much of the Mongols’ ire was aimed at Caliph Al-Musta’sim who dithered during the crucial negotiations. Having taken the city, the conquerors were reluctant to spill noble blood for fear it would trigger an earthquake. Instead, in one account, the Abbasid caliph was wrapped in a rug and trampled on by elephants, whereas another claims he was locked in his palace – forced to stare at his treasures as he starved.[13] For Ibn Khaldūn, the intricacies of the siege and its outcome did not matter. Instead, he would ask us to step back to realise it was a mere repetition of a naturalistic cycle; just another nomadic group overpowering a decadent regime.

The imprisonment of Caliph Al-Musta’sim, “Le Livre des Merveilles”, Marie-Therese Gouss, via Wikimedia Commons

Modern takes on group solidarity

We can argue the Historical Theory is somewhat deterministic, especially considering the relative stability of modern-day polities. However, the concept of ‘aṣabiyya is useful in explaining why nationalism tears apart multi-ethnic empires. Ibn Khaldūn would have pointed out that the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia were destined to collapse as each constituent nationality had its own ‘aṣabiyya yanking away at the peripheries. Similarly, he would argue the relative stability of western Europe was because group solidarity was largely placated by national borders; which roughly coincide with the ethnic groups living within them. The separatist sentiment of Catalans and Scots may yet prove that ‘aṣabiyya is a critical factor which determines how borders are drawn and re-drawn.

Additionally, if we inspect modern conflict, the causal mechanics of nomads conquering empires would fail because of technological and economic advances. It would be unfathomable to imagine Central Asian wanderers overpowering a nuclear-armed Russia. Nonetheless, group solidarity is an important facet of morale and has assisted modern history’s underdogs many times over. We need only glance at the Viet Cong’s resistance in the face of American B-52s, Israel warding off seven Arab armies and the Afghan defiance of three superpowers.


Featured image: Conquest of Baghdad by the Mongols 1258. Dschingis Khan und seine Erben (exhibition catalogue), München 2005 via Wikimedia Commons

[1] Rosenthal, Franz. “The Muqaddimah.” An Introduction to History 3 (1958). “Translator’s Introduction”, lxxii

[2] Ibn Khaldūn, (2015). The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History-Abridged Edition; Translated by Franz Rosenthal; Abridged and Edited by NJ Dawood. Princeton University Press, chap. 2.7., 98

[3] Haleem, MA Abdel, ed. The Qur’an. OUP Oxford, 2005., p.146

[4] Adamson, Peter. Philosophy in the Islamic World: A history of philosophy without any gaps, Volume 3. Oxford University Press, 2016.

[5] Ibn Khaldūn, chap.1., 45-46  

[6] Ibid., chap. 3.2., 124

[7] Adamson, chap. 28., 204-205

[8] Ibn Khaldūn, chap. 3.1., 123

[9] Ibid., chap. 3.10., 132

[10] Ibid., chap. 2.1., 123-124

[11] Ibid., chap. 3.23., 154

[12] Harris, Michael H. History of libraries of the western world. Scarecrow Press, 1999., p85

[13] Neggaz, Nassima. “The Many Deaths of the Last ‘Abbāsid Caliph al-Musta ‘ṣim bi-llāh (d. 1258).” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 30, no. 4 (2020): 585-612.

Is All Fair and Lovely?

The best part about family gatherings is walking into a room mid-conversation and being privy to some gossip. Salacious subject-matter may include an aunt’s poor cooking skills, the financial woes troubling a distant relative and the minutiae of a conflict between cousins. Of course there would be times where you wish you hadn’t walked in. Once I’d chanced upon a discussion between aunts claiming they’d known their niece would grow up to be dark-skinned because, as a baby, her ears were swarthier than the rest of her body. The dialogue was shrouded with insidiousness and spite; denigrating her beauty due to her skin tone.

In spite of the racism faced by the South Asian community, there is a pervasive undercurrent of colourism and a self-hatred which stems from it. Whenever I’d visit Bangladesh, I would be bombarded with rose-hued billboards advertising Fair and Lovely, a skin lightening cream. The message, delivered with a model’s pearly smile, was clear; you’ll be more beautiful if you’re a shade lighter, or implicitly, you cannot be comfortable with your skin colour. Of course, seeing the blotched faces of those who bleached their skin was all the more distressing. As an ethnic minority living in Europe, this ostensible link between beauty and fairness privileged me with several insecurities. Ultimately, it played its part in fuelling a wider web of incessant despondency.

Beautifully translated by Elias Muanna, the ‘Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition’ is an encyclopaedia compiled by Mamluk-era historian Shihāb al-Dīn Ahmad bin ‘Abd al-Wahhāb al-Nuwayri. The book provides a medieval Egyptian’s insight into formulating love potions, reasons for not speaking louder than others (even if you have a desperately profound statement to make) and the unconscionable habits of hyenas around human corpses.

Nestled between such morsels of wisdom are poems devoted to beauty and I happened across two pieces which provide a pleasant remedy to colourism:

How can I not desire a gazelle

Grazing freely in the protection of a king

Its duskiness a mix

Of camphor and musk[1]

This poem, however, is my personal favourite:

O you who spends his wealth

Upon the love of this fine gold-skinned one

How can silent gold, spent profligately

Compare to gold that speaks?[2]

To those of you with at least an atom’s worth of self-doubt about your skin colour – I’d like to wholeheartedly assure you that I am, and as are you, the gold that speaks.


Featured image: Louise Catherine Breslau – La Toilette (1898)

[1] Al-Nuwayri, Shihab al-Din. The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition: A Compendium of Knowledge from the Classical Islamic World. Penguin, 2016. p.57.

[2] Ibid.

Copper Cities and Glass Submarines

Sometimes we may read a history book and find ourselves thinking, “hang on, this doesn’t seem right”. Ibn Khaldūn, a 14th century historian born in what is now Tunisia, had similar thoughts when he evaluated mediaeval historical accounts. Historical works prior to Ibn Khaldūn were narrated through a process known as taqlīd, where reports were reproduced because the authors trusted the authority of the historians before them. Consequently, new historical works were mere repetitions, devoid of critical engagement with their sources.

In order to demonstrate the limitations of taqlīd, Ibn Khaldūn recalls the historian al-Mas’udi’s claim of a desert city gilded in copper. He reasons this would be impossible considering the metal’s scarcity would limit its usage to utensils and it would be unthinkable for copper to coat an entire settlement.[1]

Additionally, Al Mas’udi’s recounting of a 13th century retelling of Alexander the Great’s efforts to build Alexandria did not go unnoticed. When the city was under construction, monsters rose from the oceanic depths, causing a nuisance to the architects and builders. Alexander authorised a plan where he entered a glass box attached to a rope. With pen and papyrus in hand, the box containing Alexander was lowered to the bottom of the sea where he could accurately sketch the creatures. Using these illustrations as a blueprint, the king instructed the workers and magical jinn to build metallic replicas of the sea monsters. Acting as colossal scarecrows, these effigies scared off the sea monsters, making possible the establishment of Alexandria.

16th Century Islamic painting depicting Alexander the Great, lowered in a glass diving bell. OAR/National Undersea Research Program (NURP); “Seas, Maps and Men”

Ibn Khaldūn  pointed out the absurdities of Al Mas’udi’s story asserting Alexander would most likely have suffocated in a submerged glass box. Additionally, Ibn Khaldūn contends:

Now, rulers would not take such a risk. Any ruler who would attempt such a thing would work his own undoing and provoke the outbreak of revolt against himself, and (he would) be replaced by the people with someone else.[2]

By evaluating these supposed retellings it is clear why critical reflection of sources was necessary. For Ibn Khaldūn, in order to accurately understand history, it is not sufficient to merely criticise the personality of the historical transmitter, but also to have knowledge of the true nature of civilisation. This raises a plethora of questions which I will explore in greater detail in an upcoming post.


Featured image: ‘Der el Ber Tunis’, Ludwig Hans Fischer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

[1] Ibn Khaldūn, (2015). The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History-Abridged Edition; Translated by Franz Rosenthal; Abridged and Edited by NJ Dawood. Princeton University Press. 37.

[2] Ibid., 36.