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The Political Thoery of Ibn Khaldun

Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) was an outlier of his time. A statesman of Maliki rite, he spent his life in different city states of Northern Africa and Spain. He lived through the era of transition. Based on his observation of rise of fall of states, he came up with a general principle related to power and governance of a society. In his book Universal History (Kitab al-‘ibar), he formulated the concept of umran(civilization) based on madaniya and hadara (settled urban life) in contrast with badawa (rural life). Hadara is synonymous with tamaddun or way of organized life in a city (madina), just as polis. His “new science of history” addresses the dynamics within groups. A significant thing to notice is that his ideas were influenced by religious values of Islam and the concepts umma as well as jama’a hold great importance for him. However, he has also includes modern concepts like humanitas and citizenship. All in all, he was way ahead of his time yet remained ignored for centuries.

In his work – especially the muqaddimah (prologue), Ibn Khaldun argues that state emerges as a result of natural need of association or ijtima – learnt from a man’s experience – for survival in terms of food, defense and so on. Civilization or umran is the product of human quest for the comforts of life. Both badawa and hadara are essential for this development and the latter emerges from the former. Life in comforts kindles the desire to have power and for it one needs likeminded group connected by blood and traditions. These traits create solidarity – asabiyya – among the group to stimulate a collective action to achieve a mutual goal which is mulk or dominance giving rise to states and dynasties. Ibn Khaldun argues that asabiyya alone does not satisfy the primary needs of men so mulk (statehood) becomes a necessity. Shria-state based Khilafa is the ideal form of government and the best way to achieve the communal goals. However, he suggested three types of states: siyasa diniya which is a government – or Islamic theocracy – based on divine laws or Sharia; siyasa aqlıya which is a government based on man-made rational laws; siyasa madaniya which is the state of the philosophers: madina fadila just as Plato’s Republic. The siyasa diniya is advantageous not only in this world but also the life coming after it while siyasa aqlıya serves the world affairs only. Siyasa madaniya, however, does not require governance as people are aware of good. Yet this type of in highly unlikely to exist – just an ideal type.

He adds that due to their evil nature, men would destroy each other. However, asabiyya creates a framework of restraining authority (wazi) and establishes hakim (governor) among the people who has power to prevent this mutual annihilation. Power, he says, is the base of state and inevitable to maintain order between human. Prior to a proper state, power is held in the form of riasa or participate by a rais – a primus inter pares. On the other hand, state being an urban institution is ruled by a sovereign monarch or mustabidd who relies on asabiyya and exercises his absolute monarchal authority – istibdad – which can be achieved during first, second or third generation of the rule. This ruler is not a philosopher king, but he is a sovereign backed by asabiyya and religion. For him, a state has a definite lifecycle like an organism and goes through five phases of transformation over four generations: conquest, building of the dynasty, touching the peak, decline and fall. It usually touches its peak in the second generation. In the first phase, rulers gain victory over enemies, defend their gained territory and do not distance themselves from citizens. Second phase rulers become sovereign – for which break down of asabiyya is a necessary condition – and parts away from his kinsmen by acquiring clients (mawali) and hiring mercenaries for defense. Rule is consolidated within a family. During the third phase, rulers focus on income via taxes, build monuments and has abundant to maintain a paid army. Fourth phase is marked with leisure and peace. Fifth phase is the one in which ancestors’ opulence on lust. State is plunged into ruin when unable people take great responsibilities; troops are scattered; subjects become rebellious; and plots of dismissing the ruler take place. Here, according to Ibn Khaldun, history repeats itself in a cyclic manner and one dynasty or political order is replaced by another.

The natural life of a state is three generations of 40 years each. The first generation progresses through uncivilized rural life or badawa marked by strong asabiyya, courage and partnership in authority. The second generation is a transition phases where partnership in authority transforms into autocracy, asabiyya weakens and badawa transforms into hadara or urban life. During the third generation, rulers get used to comfortable lifestyle with no reckoning of badawa, asabiyya declines to collapse finally and military skills of defense and assault disappear – to compensate which mercenaries are hired. Ibn Khaldun does not pay attention to the fourth phase as state has already been troubled. His concept of state is based on basic needs of protection and stability as well as economic factors. State is treated by Ibn Khaldun as an organism with a lifecycle of growth, maturity and decline.

His political doctrine is based on historical analysis of Almoravids and Almohads, who were African warring Berber tribes who took up urban life from a rural one. So, at the core of his theory is the distinction between badawa which is a life of ordeal, violence and ardour for power; and hadara which is a life of civilization marked with the desire of luxury, peace, pleasure and security. He also stresses greatly on the importance of economics for politics and according to Rosenthal, he was the first medieval scholars to highlight this. For him economic development is directly associated with state development. He discusses the role of markets, flow of money and taxation in details as an essential segment of a state. In badawa life taxes are low and incentives to produce are more but as the former transforms into hadara, taxes increase the support the state and sovereign needs – not to mention that demand becomes high. Due to urbanization and increased levy, people are less incentivized to produce which leads to decline in economy and state eventually. His conception of state – so far – is not one with Sharia based nomocracy but as a tool of egotist ruler. In such type of state, rulers and his associates are much likely to abuse the ordained power as compared to a state governed according to divine law. However, he does not condemn the rulers for their ill morality or political crimes and tries of find out the reasons behind decline. Though he does not appear to generalize the ideal of khilafa in his principle but he does consider the Shariah to be a perfect law – especially when it comes to economic affairs like taxation.

Ibn Khaldun calls for the welfare of subjects and their good relations with the ruler. He dedicates a chapter to the idea that excessive severity leads to ruin of state. He suggests that good government is a kind one and takes care of the necessities of citizens. He opposes the views of philosophers like Ibn Sina and Al-Farabi who believed that prophecy and wazi based on Shariah is necessary for association. Ibn Khaldun provided a social and natural explanation by the means of asabiyya and its existence before the advent of prophets. He suggests that Shariah creates a wazi or restricting tendency within an individual yet this notion changed with when Shariah took shape of a science to produce restraining statutes. He rejects the ideas of Falasifa by proposing that wazi is not an external agency in Islam nor the prophet is a ruler. For him, prophet is mere lawgiver and his vicegerents – caliphs – rule in accordance with Shariah law which serves as an adhesive force for umma or community. He suggests a transformation of this political order on the basis of his model. The theocratic rule of first four caliphs – khulafa rashidun – was followed by a decline in religion which gave rise to mulk under Umayyads. It was also a time of transformation frombadawa to hadara on one hand and replacement of wazi of Shariah by the wazi ordained by the sovereign ruler. So since the very beginning, according to Ibn Khaldun, the political system of Muslims was mulkor siyasa awliya – despite of the fact that Shariah was the primary source of statutes. In the first phase of this transformation, the welfare of people in the light of divine law was prioritized and after mulkappeared advantage of sultan took priority, making public welfare of secondary importance – a feature that is shared by every kinship; Muslim or non-Muslim. The governance with Shariah and public wellbeing at its core became a point of reference of his thought.

In his observation, he noticed that khilafa – in some form – has survived within mulk and religion has continued playing significant part in the Muslim states. It is apparent that Ibn Khaldun gives more importance to asabiyya over religion to establish a political order, yet as a Muslim, he does highlight the role of Islam in creating a type of asabiyya – with material goals – within Muslims. He suggests that despite of the fact that weakening of religion leads to mulk, religion strengthens the asabiyya and gives birth to great empires. It also suppresses the animal nature of man – hayawaniya – to make him more cooperative. To illustrate his point, he gives the example of Almoravids and Almohads for whom religion served reinforcement of asabiyya. He adds that religion can prolong the life of a state by setting higher morals for both rulers and the ruled yet religion is dependent on asabiyya which will generate force for the enforcement of such higher ideals. He suggests that prophets was also guarded by the asabiyya of his tribe and in cases when ruler is disobeying God, asabiyya is needed to depose him. Ibn Khaldun adds that mulk is secondary to khilafa in Islam as even there Shariah plays a pivotal role – for it addresses both religious and worldly affairs. In other words, necessary elements of khilafa are sustained in mulk. For him asabiyya in religious term was a collective quest for truth and supremacy of Allah’s will; on the basis of which decline in Arab solidarity and its substitution with Muslim asabiyya can be explained.

He gives huge importance to the religion in the matters of (Muslim) states where law was – at least in theory – based on Shariah, though he observed huge discrepancies in the ideal and applied laws. Regardless of that, he brings in the concept of qawanin siyasiya or the political laws which are necessary for a states. These laws – either divine or manmade – not only regulate the conduct of people but also restrict the ruler in his selfish aims. In the absence of such laws, people might rebel against the rulers due to oppression of the latter. Law, according to him, completes the authority of a state and the nature of state depends on what laws it implements – something which has been discussed already. Among the laws, prophetic laws are the superior ones as they lead to salvation and regulate every aspect of human affairs. Ibn Khaldun also interprets the effects of law in the badawa and hadara lifestyles. He suggests that presence of mild and just laws increases self-reliance and courage in badawa while people in hadara lose their manliness due to restrictive laws which force them to obey and fear the authority. He explains that religious laws did not decrease the manliness of companions of Prophet (PBUH) as wazi was internalized by them but with the obedience of statutes in hadara communities, wazi is externalized and governments subdue their manliness. The political impact of law is not explicitly mentioned in Ibn Khaldun’s work.

One can find many themes in his work which are appealing even today. Excessive taxing, harsh legal implementation, appointment of irresponsible office holders, increase affection with leisure and so are the factors that cause the decline of modern states as well.  He views rationality as an inherent part of civilization and liberal policies of rulers give rise to sciences and arts. He suggests that much luxury destroys that aim of collective action and spiritual life. He argues that philosophy – though being beneficial – is dangerous to religion and society as it conflicts with the Shariah. Such opposition is again of political nature as for him, religion is the base of a healthy states. One need to master religious science first to understand philosophy and conserve the political order. He, being a believer, believes that prophetic law leads to happiness but such joy is not speculative for him. He successfully projects Islam as a universal civilization and addresses the political issues within Islam. Ibn Khaldun is also the earliest people to understand the importance of goal oriented collective social actions like state formation. In some aspects he can be compared with esteemed western philosophers like Machiavelli who came far later than him, yet both formulated relatively contrastable ideas.

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