Ibn Khaldoun: Smithian Before Smith

Peter Mentzel for AdamSmithWorks

May 22, 2020

Abd al-Rahman bin Muhammad ibn Khaldun (born in Tunis 1332, died in Cairo 1406) was an Arab polymath who, among other accomplishments, wrote a multivolume world history, only the introduction (Muqaddimah) of which is available in an English translation. The edition used here, prepared by the famous Orientalist Franz Rosenthal, was published by Princeton University Press in 1967.  A masterpiece at the time of its publication, some of its language and historical perspective have become rather dated.  Nevertheless, it is, for the time being, the only complete English translation available.   
In the Muqaddimah, Ibn Khaldun lays out his overall social scientific methodology as well as theories about political economy, anthropology, and sociology. His work is not only an interesting window into Islamic intellectual history, but it is also an example of the kind of social science that can be conducted in an Islamic context. Moreover, the similarities of many of his insights to those of eighteenth-century Enlightenment figures (e.g., Adam Smith) and the continued relevance of his work to social scientists (including the profound impression his work made on the anthropologist Ernest Gelner) contribute to his continued importance.
Besides his important insights into History, Sociology and Anthropology, Ibn Khaldun was also remarkably prescient when it came to economics. He described not only supply-side economics but even the Laffer Curve. Anticipating Smith and the classical economists many centuries later, he worked out a labor theory of value, even while he anticipated the Austrians by hinting at the subjectivity of value. He also presents a detailed description of how prices emerge from the workings of supply and demand.
While Ibn Khaldun very self-consciously brings in examples and case studies from all over the world (as it was known to him), his theory of history is strongly influenced by the time and place where he lived. The Islamic world of his day had barely recovered from the devastation of the Mongol conquests of the thirteenth century. While North Africa had been spared the direct ravages of the Mongol armies, the reverberations from their conquest of the Middle East, coupled with the ongoing wars of the Reconquista in nearby Iberia, had completely destabilized the area. It was within this chaotic milieu that Ibn Khaldun developed his cyclical theory of history.
One of the aspects to first strike many modern readers of Ibn Khaldun is the interesting relationship in his work between an acknowledgment of Divine Providence and a firm belief in the supernatural on the one hand, and a tough, uncompromising materialism in his investigation and analysis on the other. Does this represent some sort of paradox in his methodology? What seems to be the role of God’s will in the course of history?  God is clearly important in his account of the origins of human society, and indeed God remains present in worldly affairs, and human events transpire in accordance with His Will.  Yet, the extent to which He is an active participant in the particular outworking of history is extremely unclear. The complex political economy and anthropology that are at the foundation of Ibn Khaldun’s historical account seem to operate independently of any divine interference, or even direction. For Ibn Khaldun, the laws of history are seemingly examples of God’s will working its way out in the physical world. 
In the Muqaddimah, Ibn Khaldun outlined a socio-anthropological theory according to which history is cyclical and involves a tension between the tribes of the Desert and Steppe on the one hand, and the cultivated artists and merchants of the City, on the other. City life leads eventually to decadence as the rulers levy increasingly heavy taxes on their subjects to pay for ever-higher levels of luxury and military upkeep. The tribesmen, full of vigor because of their rough lifestyle, are then able to conquer the city and set themselves up as the new rulers. After three or four generations, however, they themselves become soft and depraved and are no longer able to defend themselves from the next wave of tribesmen from the desert.
This brief summary gives the outlines of Ibn Khaldun’s theory of history, but the details are considerably more complex. Indeed, one of the most remarkable aspects of this remarkable work is its very modern tone (despite the sometimes archaic translation). Early in the Muqaddimah, for example, Ibn Khaldun devotes considerable time and energy describing his methodology. He mercilessly attacks other so-called “historians” of his time as simply repeating hearsay, rumor, and sometimes sheer nonsense without hard evidence and often in clear violation of common sense. He sums up his own rigorous approach in the “Forward” to his work: “The inner meaning of history … involves speculation and an attempt to get at the truth, subtle explanation of the causes and origins of existing things, and deep knowledge of the how and why of events.” (Vol.I, 6)
Ibn Khaldun posits two sociological categories: settled civilization and nomadic tribesmen (translated by Rosenthal as “Bedouin”). It is difficult to tell exactly whether one of these groups is antecedent to the other, or if they both have, in some sense, always existed. The latter view, though strongly implied in his text, would seem to be in opposition to the linear narrative of history embedded in Islam (and in Judaism and Christianity, for that matter) but would be consistent with the cyclical theories of the classical philosophers. In any case, he provides detailed descriptions of the anthropologies of these two groups. In particular, he stresses the material comforts of civilization and contrasts these with the tough life of the Bedouin.
The key aspect of human society, whether settled or nomadic, is asabiyah, a word translated by Rosenthal as “group feeling.” Based on the way it is described by Ibn Khaldun, this seems as good a translation as any. It is something less than what we would today call “nationalism,” but it seems to be stronger than simply the ties of family or friendship.  It is, in any case, a tricky word, even today. In modern Arabic it means something like “gang mentality,” or “prejudice.” In Ibn Khaldun’s time it also carried the implications of “fanaticism.”  Indeed, Ibn Khaldun has a strange attitude toward asabiyah, on the one hand admiring its ability to make a group strong but on the other hand recoiling from the savagery with which it is associated.
Yet, for Ibn Khaldun, asabiyah is the key element in a healthy society. It is what provides the minimal cohesion needed for group enterprises, especially war. As he explains it, group feeling is strongest among the Bedouin. Due to their harsh environment and life of privation, they need to cooperate and work together closely in order to survive. On the other hand, the luxury and soft living of civilized society, combined with the depredations of government, slowly erode the solidarity of group feeling among settled people. Eventually, they become too weak and depraved to defend themselves from the people of the desert, who overthrow the decadent ruling dynasty and establish a new one, thus resetting the cycle.
According to Ibn Khaldun, these cycles of conquest, consolidation, and decadence take, on average, three generations, and he meticulously describes the characteristics of each stage. The two crucial aspects of the rise and fall of civilization have to do with “group feeling” and political economy. Or, as Ibn Khaldun puts it, “Any royal authority must be built upon two foundations. The first is might and group feeling, which finds its expression in soldiers. The second is money, which supports the soldiers and provides the whole structure needed by royal authority. Disintegration befalls the dynasty at these two foundations.” (Vol.II, 119)
In the first stage of a new dynasty, group feeling is still strong, so society functions well and the City is able to defend itself against the desert tribes. People are vigorous and industrious. “When tax assessments and imposts upon the subjects are low, the latter have the energy and desire to do things. Cultural enterprises grow and increase, because the low taxes bring satisfaction.” (Vol.II, 89-90) By the second generation, however, group feeling has diminished due to the increasing wealth and sophistication of society. The dynasty in particular loses its feelings of solidarity with its subjects and becomes increasingly accustomed to luxury. The soldiers also cause problems: “At this stage, the soldiers have already grown bold against the dynasty, because it has become weak and senile as far as its group feeling is concerned.” (Vol.II, 123) In order to pay for these luxuries (and satisfy the soldiers), the dynasty has to raise taxes. During the third stage, the tax burden finally crushes society. Here is Ibn Khaldun’s description of what we nowadays know as the Laffer Curve:
“The assessments increase beyond the limits of equity. The result is that the interest of the subjects in cultural enterprises disappears, since when they compare expenditures and taxes with their income and gain and see the little profit they make, they lose all hope. Therefore, many of them refrain from all cultural activity. The result is that the total tax revenue goes down. … The total revenue continues to decrease, while the amounts of individual imposts and assessments continue to increase. … Finally, civilization is destroyed because the incentive for cultural activity is gone.” (Vol.II, 90-91) 
With the group feeling thus eviscerated, and society impoverished, the City cannot defend itself from the next round of invaders from the desert or steppe.
This straightforward yet powerful vision of cyclical history poses numerous, fascinating questions. Perhaps the most important is whether this cycle can be broken and, similarly, whether the individual has any place in this process. Sometimes, Ibn Khaldun’s account seems to be prescriptive, indicating that perhaps certain behaviors or policies can break the cycle. Note, for example, his conclusion to his discussion of taxes:
If the reader understands this [his description of the Laffer Curve] he will realize that the strongest incentive for cultural activity is to lower as much as possible the amounts of individual imposts levied upon persons capable of undertaking cultural enterprises. In this manner, such persons will be psychologically disposed to undertake them, because they can be confident of making a profit from them. (Vol. II, 91)
Yet, elsewhere, Ibn Khaldun makes the metaphorical connection between civilizations and living organisms as clear as possible. Consider the following gloomy assessment:
When a man has reached the age of forty, nature stops growing for a while, then starts to decline. It should be known that the same is the case with sedentary culture in civilization, because there is a limit that cannot be overstepped. … This should be understood. … The goal of civilization is sedentary culture and luxury. When civilization reaches that goal, it turns toward corruption and starts being senile, as happens in the natural life of living beings. (Vol.II, 291-291)
Where does this leave us? And how well, if at all, does Ibn Khaldun’s vision of a cyclical history of rising and falling civilizations map onto our current globalized world? Perhaps if our rulers take Ibn Khaldun’s advice on taxes and cease their ruinous pursuit of luxury and militarism, the group feeling of a new-world civilization based on individual liberty and free trade can develop enough strength to forestall inevitable “senility” and collapse. But who are the new “Bedouin,” the savage warriors of the desert and steppe, united by powerful group feeling, gazing hungrily at the wealth of the globalized world, and poised to destroy civilization and set up their new dynasty?