An Islamic View of History - Ibn Khaldun and the Rise and Fall of Nations

August 18, 2018

By Paul Malvern |


Learning from Each Other

Islam is a difficult topic for many people to discuss in a rational manner – in large measure due to the strong opinions held by partisans on all sides of the issue. For example, for some Muslims, it is nothing short of blasphemy to discuss their religion with others in any way that does not recognize it as the last and perfect revelation from God. Then too, many Christians view Islam as inherently violent and an existential threat to their faith which must be resisted at all costs. And for those secularists who have an animus toward Christianity, accusations of Islamophobia represent a heaven-sent chance to engage in some good old-fashioned virtue signaling.

And then there are the terrorist attacks – which horrify everyone.

In such an emotion-charged atmosphere, discussing in any dispassionate way the world’s second biggest religion which boasts some 1.8 billion followers1 is challenging at best. To my mind this is a great pity since both Muslims and non-Muslims can learn a great deal from each other. And indeed a great deal of mutually beneficial knowledge transfer has occurred over the last 1400 years.

One good example must surely be the contact between Muhammed and the Christian monk, Bahira, (aka Sergius) who is said to have had a significant impact on the founder of Islam – and whom a number of scholars believe may have been responsible for the inclusion of those elements in the Qur’an that are close to Christian teachings.2 (Sadly for Christians, this particular monk was also a member of a heretical Christian sect – possibly Arianism or Nestorianism – which has caused difficulties for Christians ever since.) Later on, Christians continued to influence the early history of Islam – one very good example being the work of Christian intellectuals and administrators in Iraq who were held in high esteem by Muslim rulers following their invasion of that country. For, having a greater level of education and more administrative experience than their newly arrived Muslim rulers, they continued to teach at universities and other educational institutions and hold senior administrative positions in the new regimes.

For their part, Muslim scholars and scientists played an important role in enriching the knowledge-base of medieval Europe through their own research and through their work in transmitting the writings of classical Roman and Greek authors to Western Europe, where these manuscripts formed the foundation of European knowledge in the areas of science and medicine up until the Enlightenment.

Even now there is much that Christians and Muslims can learn from each other. For example, the West has a vast storehouse of scientific and technological knowledge that can be of great benefit to the Muslim world. And it has much to teach Islam about the importance of tolerance and protecting the rights of minorities (lessons learned in the West through hard experience over the last millennium) which could temper some of the worst human rights abuses seen in a number of Muslim countries. For their part Islam’s greatest minds have much to teach the West particularly in such areas as the centrality of God in human society and the importance of following His laws and trusting in Him – lessons which many in the West have rejected, much to their detriment.

Ibn Khaldun – A Universal Genius

One of those great minds must surely be the 14th century historian, sociologist, jurist, teacher, and statesman, Ibn Khaldun, whose magnificent work, The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, has much to teach us about human society even today.

My own introduction to this remarkable man and his ideas occurred when I was studying Arabic in Tunis, the city of his birth, where one of the streets near where I lived was named after him. During my time there, I heard frequent mention of the man and his many accomplishments – which is hardly surprising since Tunisians of all political and religious stripes are rightly proud of this great scholar. And well they might be, given the deep insights contained in his writings and the breadth of his vision of human society which transcends time, place and culture. For this was a man who in his role as a statesman and a jurist active in many quite different countries across the Muslim world saw firsthand what works and what doesn’t work in human society and government.

Much of what he has written and which has been written about his life reveals a complex and thoughtful man who was well placed to comment on the world of his time, given his close association with many of the key figures in Spain, North Africa, and the Middle East. Of special interest were his lengthy discussions with the Mongol Emperor, Tamerlane (aka Timur), whose empire stretched from India to what is now Turkey and who was responsible for killing 5% of those human beings living at the time.3 This close contact with the great military and political figures of his time provided him with deep insights into the nature of power, the functioning of societies, economies and political systems, and the stages of development through which nations and empires pass before eventually succumbing to their own vices, foolishness and internal contradictions. From his writings, it is clear that he used these encounters to great effect. And his detailed observations and his insistence upon employing a rigorous analytical methodology have caused many to call him the father of both sociology and economics.

Unlocking the Code

Of course, for many in the contemporary West the idea of reading the work of a long dead Muslim historian who lived in a very different time and place may seem daunting, if not ludicrous. After all, what can such a person possibly say of value to those of us living in the technologically advanced West? Well, quite a lot really! For while technology changes, human beings do not – which means that their motivations, behaviour and errors remain very much the same, no matter what the state of technological development might be.

Even so there is a bit of cultural translation that is required for Western readers dipping into Ibn Khaldun’s thought. One such problem involves the many names, places and events cited in his book plus some of the specialized terms he uses. Coming as they do from the Arabic, Persian or Berber languages, these can be a bit daunting for those not previously exposed to these languages. In my experience, one of the best ways to address this difficulty is by simply glossing over such names and words – very much as people do when reading Dostoevsky’s novels. For what most readers are interested in are the concepts, not the nitty-gritty of North African, Arab, or Persian politics and linguistics in the 14th century.

Another much more important problem involves an issue which lies very much at the heart of Ibn Khaldun’s historical analysis – namely, the conflict between affluent city dwellers and those barbaric or semi-civilized tribes living on the periphery of civilization. Living in the 14th century Islamic world where nomadic tribes (e.g. Bedouin) could be found living close to many settled population centers, such a tension would have been obvious. However, for those of us living in the industrialized West, such a tension may not be instantly apparent. Still, before we dismiss this concept out of hand, it is important to note that for much of human history this tension has been a more or less universal reality. And indeed this conflict is a matter that many historians continue to discuss – the most famous being the great historian, Arnold Toynbee, who refers to these groups of poor and sometimes violent people living on the border of rich countries and empires as the ‘external proletariat’. While Toynbee is talking about largely the same phenomenon as Ibn Khaldun (namely, masses of poor people looking enviously at societies that resemble huge treasure troves of poorly guarded wealth), his term for the phenomenon has a more familiar ring to those who have studied sociology or been exposed to the ideas of the Left. And it’s safe to say that this particular concept now seems more credible than it used to in light of daily news reports dealing with the masses of poverty-stricken migrants flooding into Europe, the United States and now Canada. All of which suggests that our current world may not be all that different from that of Ibn Khaldun.

With that out of the way, let’s take a look at some of the key concepts in Ibn Khaldun’s vision of human history and how they may apply to the world in which we live.

Ibn Khaldun’s Great Work – An Introduction to History

While Ibn Khaldun’s literary and scholarly output encompassed a wide array of topics ranging from logic, to theology, law, and the history of the Arab and Berber peoples, the book for which he is best known must surely be his multivolume work, The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, which attempts to track the history of the world as he understood it up to the time of writing. The power of this masterpiece, which weaves together philosophy, psychology, sociology, economics and history, to reach across the centuries and national borders is shown by the wide array of intellectuals and public figures who have sung its praises. This includes such famous individuals as former U.S. President Ronald Reagan, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, economist Arthur Laffer, science fiction author Frank Herbert and British philosopher Robert Flint. One of his greatest admirers, historian Arnold Toynbee, declared Ibn Khaldun’s book to be, “undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has ever yet been created by any mind in any time or place.”4

The Task of the Historian

Part of the book’s success lies in Ibn Khaldun’s vision of what history is and how historians should undertake the writing of history. In the world in which he lived, many – if not most - historians confined themselves to chronicling dynasties, rulers, and important events. For Ibn Khaldun, this approach was a sterile exercise which missed the most important point about history – namely, that it is about people and how they behave both as individuals and as members of society. Given this understanding, he held that historians should seek to explain the underlying economic, societal and cultural forces that cause events to unfold as they do. And since the study of history embraces all of life, he believed that it should draw upon a wide range of disciplines to discover the forces that drive human history.5

The Importance of Group Cohesion

One such powerful force that played a central role in Ibn Khaldun’s thinking was what he calls Asabiyyah – a difficult term to translate into English which can be roughly thought of as unity, group cohesion, a sense of common purpose, social solidarity … or all of the above.

According to Ibn Khaldun, possessing a strong sense of social solidarity and a common purpose has over the ages allowed many weak, less-advanced, and numerically smaller groups of people to conquer large, rich, powerful and technologically advanced nations that have become decadent and corrupt. For having lost their sense of social solidarity and group cohesion, such wealthy nations become soft and lack courage and patriotism – thus fatally weakening their will to fight and their ability to defend themselves. To support this thesis he points to a very striking incident in history where a small, ill-equipped Arab army, whose members possessed a powerful sense of group cohesion due to their shared religion and common desert origins, was able to defeat a much larger and better equipped Persian army with a weaker sense of group identity.

Recent history suggests that this principle continues to be valid today. Take for instance the defeat of Soviet forces in Afghanistan which were forced to withdraw from that country in the face of dogged resistance by ragtag bands of ill-equipped guerillas often armed with little more than rifles and grenades. Or the experience of American forces in Vietnam which, while vastly superior in equipment and technological prowess, suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of a much less sophisticated army made up largely of peasants.

Of course, the power of group cohesion is not restricted just to the realm of warfare. For it can also operate in the realm of politics – as seen time and again these days in Europe and North America where minorities and small, cohesive and highly motivated groups of people daily exercise influence far out of proportion to their numbers. Good examples include the powerful influence exercised by African-American politicians at all levels of government in the United State and the remarkable ability of Quebec to impact the Canadian national agenda. Even more striking is the disproportionate influence enjoyed by small, cohesive groups of LGBT and feminist activists - not infrequently with funding from wealthy donors and with the full support of our political and judicial elites - who have succeeded in overturning centuries-old customs and laws dealing with marriage, adoption and abortion, often contrary to the wishes of the great majority of the population.

The Rise and Fall of Regimes, Nations and Empires

Of particular interest is Ibn Khaldun’s use of the concept of Asabiyyah in explaining the rise and fall of regimes, nations and empires. According to Ibn Khaldun, nations go through stages of life similar to those experienced by human beings. They are born. They mature. They grow old and become senile. And then they die – only to be replaced by others.

At the heart of this societal or dynastic life cycle, he believes, is the strength of group consciousness, which he views as critical to the health and survival of nations. For as he points out, “Group feeling produces the ability to defend oneself, to offer opposition, to protect oneself, and to press one’s claims. Whoever loses it is too weak to do any of these things.”6 Unfortunately for nations and dynasties and those who live in them, group feeling varies in strength over time. Initially, when power is first seized, it is at its height. Over time it declines, as those in power become more individualistic, self-centered and corrupt. Eventually this group feeling and sense of solidarity becomes so weak that citizens and their rulers lack the courage and will to defend themselves and their state. At this latter stage those disenfranchised or external groups who possess strong group consciousness and a sense of common purpose seize the reins of power and the cycle begins again.

In Ibn Khaldun’s view, the strongest and purest form of group cohesion exists among nomads (or the ‘external proletariat’ to use Toynbee’s term) – because such people are forced to maintain close ties with those around them if they are to survive. And because they live in a very challenging environment, they are forced to become tough and courageous. (In part, I suppose, because they have little to lose by dying in battle.) Once in power these people and their descendants change for the worst over a number of generations (usually about three) and the cycle of history begins yet again.

The Sociological Critique

In Ibn Khaldun’s view, as successive generations become more and more accustomed to wealth, material comfort, and sedentary living, they also become less noble, less virtuous, less honest and more interested in the pleasures of life. And for him one particularly troubling expression of this phenomenon is a general decline in morality.

One area in which he detects such a trend is the economic sphere where people are now willing to do whatever it takes (no matter how dishonest or corrupt) to get the money needed to support their increasingly sophisticated lifestyle. Over time this reaches the point where, “People are now devoted to lying, gambling, cheating, fraud, theft, perjury, and usury.”7 While this moral laxity may initially be limited to relatively small numbers of especially greedy or unethical people, it quickly spreads to the population as a whole as competition for wealth increases and as people “adopt the qualities of their environment and company.”8

This growing wealth of society also disposes people more and more toward pleasure-seeking and overindulgence. While this may initially take the form of trying out new culinary delights, he also believes that it eventually expands to the “diversification of the pleasure of sex through various ways of sexual intercourse, such as adultery and homosexuality”.9 In Ibn Khaldun’s view these new forms of sexual expression come at a cost to society. For example, adultery results in confusion as to who the father of a child might be – with the result that “the natural compassion a man feels for his children and his feeling of responsibility for them is lost.”10 And homosexuality denies society those children who might otherwise have been born and who as adults would have contributed to the general well-being.

However, most troubling of all is the fact that this growing affluence also corrupts religion – which in Ibn Khaldun’s view has a profoundly negative impact on a nation. For as he points out, “When the strength of a man and then his character and religion are corrupted, his humanity is corrupted, and he becomes, in effect, transformed into an animal.”11

The Economic Critique

Judging from the lengths to which Ibn Khaldun goes in discussing economic issues in his multivolume work, he clearly believes that money plays a powerful role in influencing human behaviour and determining the fate of regimes and nations.

One of his most significant economic insights is that raising tax rates beyond a certain point actually reduces tax revenues while reducing tax rates spurs economic activity, thus increasing tax revenues overall. While such a phenomenon may seem counterintuitive to contemporary ‘tax and spend’ politicians, it has in recent years become widely accepted by many economists – with its theoretical foundations best explained by the now famous ‘Laffer Curve’ developed by American economist, Arthur Laffer. A good example of this can be seen currently in the United States where a potent combination of tax cuts, reduced regulation and the repatriation of manufacturing facilities has caused growth and employment to skyrocket. This ability of tax cuts to power growth and increase tax revenues was recently underlined by statistics from the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office which show that tax revenues for the first half of 2018 were $76 billion higher (a 9% jump) than those seen in the same period for 2017 - even though income tax rates were reduced in February of this year. This was supported by the Treasury Department which stated that it expects federal income tax revenues to continue to exceed last year’s figures for the rest of this year.12

Of course, this was not the only arrow in Ibn Khaldun’s economic quiver, for he also explored what happens when governments get overly involved in the functioning of the marketplace.

One such case involves the situation that occurs when a government or ruler becomes directly involved in the marketplace as an actual participant – an act he considers highly undesirable given its potential for harming the economy as a whole as well as the citizens who depend on it.

For example, because governments have much more money at their disposal, they can easily outbid private businesses when purchasing the resources, products and services needed to run a successful operation. And the power possessed by rulers and governments allows them to buy goods, resources and other assets at the lowest possible price - or even to expropriate them by force if necessary. Also, not wishing to offend those in power, many private sector businesses will be afraid to bid against their rulers or governments and may feel obliged to buy goods from them at an inflated price – goods which they may have to resell later on at a lower price due to poor market conditions. Plagued by these and many other aspects of unfair competition, a number of businesses will be forced into bankruptcy – which will in turn reduce the tax revenues received by fiscal authorities. Faced with lower tax receipts, governments may then succumb to the temptation to raise tax rates to make up the shortfall in tax revenues – which may in turn further reduce tax revenues for the reasons outlined above.

Finally, it is clear that Ibn Khaldun was a strong defender of property rights since he believed that attacks on private property represent an injustice which can bring about the ruin of a nation. He reasoned that attacks on people’s property remove their incentive to own and improve property – especially if they believe they are likely to have it taken away at some point in the future. And when the assets in question are commercial ones, this is particularly serious since it could negatively impact business activity. For the possibility of seizure would discourage people from setting up businesses – which in turn would reduce employment and take away people’s ability to provide for themselves and their families. When this happens, “the business of civilization slumps and everything decays.”13

Summing Up

These then are just a few of the important insights which this great Islamic thinker has passed on to us - insights that continue to be relevant even today. For example, the link he draws between great wealth and the decline in the moral fibre of a nation, patriotism, and religious feeling must surely give all of us pause to consider as we watch the world around us. And his observations on the impact of ‘tax and spend’ policies on the ability of citizens to provide for themselves and their families plus his defence of property rights should give all of us reason to be concerned as we watch governments of all political stripes continuing to pile up debt as if there were no tomorrow.

Still, while none of this makes for very happy learning, it nevertheless is learning that must be undertaken. For as the great philosopher George Santayana reminds us, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Ibn Khaldun has done us a great service by telling us what worked and didn’t in his world. We can return that kindness by taking these lessons from the past and applying them to our current world in hopes of making it a better place for those who will follow us.




[1]  Pew Research Center. Muslims and Islam: Key findings in the U.S. and around the world. August 9, 2017. Retrieved from: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/08/09/muslims-and-islam-key-findings-in-the-u-s-and-around-the-world/

[2] “Bahira”. Wikipedia. Retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bahira

[3] Ed West. “The Islamic historian who can explain why some states fail and others succeed”. The Spectator. August 3, 2015. Retrieved from: https://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2015/08/the-islamic-historian-who-can-explain-why-some-states-fail-and-others-succeed/

[4] “Ibn Khaldun”. New World Encyclopedia. Retrieved from: http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Ibn_Khaldun#cite_note-0

[5] Fida Mohammad. “Ibn Khaldun’s Theory of Social Charge: A Comparison with Hegel, Marx and Durkheim”. The American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences. Summer 1998. p.27.

[6] Ibn Khaldun. The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History. [Abridged ed.] Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, [2005]. p.111.

[7] Ibn Khaldun. The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, [1967]. Vol.2. p.294.

[8] Ibid. p.294.

[9] Ibid. p.295.

[10] Ibid. p.296.

[11] Ibid. p.297.

[12] “Income Tax Revenues Are Up 9% This Year — Is Trump Tax Cut Paying For Itself?” Investor’s Business Daily. July 11, 2018. Retrieved from: https://www.investors.com/politics/editorials/income-tax-revenues-trump-tax-cuts-economic-growth/

[13] Op. cit. The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History. [Abridged ed. 2005]. p.238.


Photo Attribution: Tunisian Community Center [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

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