In a previous article, I discussed the tribe as the starting point of human social formation. In doing so, I demonstrated how the liberal idea of an individualistic state of nature was not a historical reality. One of the corollaries resulting from this conclusion is the undermining of the notion that the self-interested decisions of rational individuals drive history. But this raises the following question; what forces drive the historical cycles of the rise and fall of nations? In keeping with our theme of rethinking liberal assumptions, I would like to look at tribalism as one of the central forces driving history.
To do this, we will use the theory of Asabiyyah developed by the historian Ibn Khaldun. Asabiyyah is an arabic word which translates roughly to “group feeling” or “group cohesion”. Ibn Khaldun lived in north Africa during the 14th century. During this period the previously powerful states in the region had entered a period of decline and fragmentation. After spending many years as a functionary working in the courts of various rulers, Ibn Khaldun tired of court intrigues and went to live amongst the local Berber tribes. While there he began writing a history of the world titled the Kitab al’Ibar. In the introduction to the book, which came to be known as the Muqaddimah, he laid out a theory of history in which the concept of Asabiyyah played a central role. This article will relate some of the arguments presented in the Muqaddimah.
Ibn Khaldun begins his discussion of groups by giving different practical reasons for why Man lives in society and why the unchallenged authority of the state must govern society. These include the ability to produce more food and better tools by working together, and that only a powerful state can restrain Man’s natural tendency to do violence against his fellows. But interestingly, he also points out that beyond material considerations, nature itself shows us that social being is inherently hierarchical. Animals in nature who live in groups instinctively follow particular members of their group who can establish their dominance as leaders. Man is a combination of a rational aspect with a more primitive animal aspect; it is, therefore, an important insight to be aware of how sociality and hierarchy result from both sides of our nature.
Ibn Khaldun then explains that civilization is tied to the land. People groups are shaped by the land they inhabit just as they shape it with their habitations. The climate, fertility and topography of an area all shape the character of its people. For example, Ibn Khaldun notes that the deserts of North Africa never developed as much complex civilization as areas more to the north because of the hot and arid climate.
For example, he argues that people who live in hot climates and fertile areas tend not to worry so much about storing food because food is more plentiful. In contrast, people from cold climates tend to be much more diligent about storing food for long periods of time because securing food is much harder in those regions, and a harsh winter might kill them otherwise. Comparing Egyptians who live in a hot climate, and people who live in Fez (an area of Morocco) who live in a colder climate because of the hills which encircle the region, he notes that their different needs to prepare food stores for the future have affected their general character. He notes that Egyptians lived life with more levity than the more serious people of Fez.
He expands on the importance of diet and land by comparing the peoples who live a more primitive existence in deserts, plains or hills to peoples who live an urbanized existence on the coast or in cities. He argues that the difference between peoples who live closer to nature and urbanites is similar to the difference between wild buffaloes and cows that grow up in captivity. As an example, Ibn Khaldun compares nomads to city-dwellers. He argues the physical and mental condition of nomadic people is better firstly because of their diets. Nomads generally eat a diet of milk and meat because that is what they can get from the animals they herd. As a result, they tend to grow much taller and stronger than sedentary peoples whose diet consists mostly of the grains from surrounding farms.
The lifestyles of different peoples contributes to the development of their physical abilities and mental faculties. For example, Ibn Khaldun states that people who live off the land tend to have keener minds and healthier bodies than sedentary people because sedentary people become passive and coddled. People who live in cities and towns grow soft and fat and develop a pale unhealthy complexion because of the abundance of food and lack of physical activity. Moreover, in times of famine nomads are better able to cope because they’re used to struggling for food, whereas sedentary people die much more quickly as they’re not accustomed to going without.
Building on the distinction between living off the land and urbanized life, Ibn Khaldun argues that the deserts (by this he means the regions full off wildlands with no big cities) are the reservoir of civilization. Firstly because in order to secure the basic necessities of life, people must first live off the land. Only after a community has reached a certain level of development can it become urbanized and seek out luxuries beyond its bare necessities. But secondly, because the expansion of cities is largely driven by people migrating to them from the countryside.
The association of urbanization with the process of moving beyond mere subsistence to seek luxuries is a central concept for Ibn Khaldun. People of the cities live easy and soft lives compared to their counterparts who live off the land. Indeed he specifically highlights the importance of habit in reinforcing the dichotomy between urbanized and natural life. He points out that as babies, we have the potential of growing up into various lifestyles, and that moreover, how we grow up shapes our character. Spending one's life in an urban environment inculcates bad habits. In cities, people are drawn towards indulgence and the desire for luxury; thus, they lose all sense of restraint. Social bonds, which are naturally predicated on certain structures and codes of behaviour thus become frayed. People who live off the land might be as concerned with worldly affairs as urbanites, but because their lifestyle is centred around securing the basic necessities of life they are not drawn into indulgence as much. Since their way of life requires more restraint, there is less inertia towards vice, and the people do not allow their social bonds to become frayed.
As an example of this Ibn Khaldun argues that natural life produces more courageous people than urbanism. City life tends towards laziness and easy living, and for the most part, they entrust their protection to their ruler. They are generally unarmed and lack the knowledge of how to fend for themselves. Most of all, they lack the kind of tight-knit social group that can defend itself from outside attack. Thus, in cities, security and defense are undertaken by impersonal institutions like the police. Decisions are made for the citizens by bureaucrats who manage their lives. People who live off the land can fend for themselves. They’re able to work together with their community to secure sustenance and security.
The two groups each have a different relationship with the law. Generally, men must be ruled by someone else, but the ruler(s) can give laws which serve to educate and edify or laws which dictate arbitrarily. The law dominates urbanites who are ruled by impersonal bureaucracies. The ruling institutions function like a machine which dictates to them seemingly arbitrarily. Often this type of relationship to the law produces feelings of humiliation and the loss of a person’s internal fortitude. However, people who live lives of subsistence will tend to have a better relationship with the law because power amongst them will be personal. Living in communities far away from central authority, they must rely on one another for survival. Their leaders will be part of the community and accountable in a way that impersonal systems cannot be. Moreover, the group requires its members to co-operate to survive, and so the codes and norms of the group will be inculcated into people from a very young age. Things like religion and tradition do not take away the internal fortitude of the person because the person internalizes the teachings and believes them himself. Therefore he is not dominated by an impersonal force but directs himself according to the moral law.
Here we begin to see explicitly the way Asabiyyah, translated as “group-feeling”, is central for sustenance living in a way that it is not for urbanites. People in cities function as a mass of individuals; they cannot form a coherent group that can use action to pursue their ends. Instead, the ruler(s) of a city use impersonal bureaucracy to fulfil necessary functions. When an urbanized area must defend itself, it is these bureaucracies which put together a defense by hiring units of defenders whether from the population itself or the outside. For people who live off the land, defense is communal and based on family and tribal loyalties. Their elders will lead the young men to fight for their families and their community.
The critical difference between these two forms of martial organization is that the guiding principle in the case of tribal communal defence is personal ties to one’s family and one’s community. This produces in the men an innate drive to fight for their cause. For such men it is unimaginable to allow their kinsmen to be the victims of hostile attacks against them; an attack against any member of the group is an attack against the whole group. As Ibn Khaldun points out, family life is the basis of all social life. Those who do not have a strong degree of care for their family members will be less likely to care strongly for other groups to which they might belong. Ibn Khaldun continues:
“if danger is in the air on the day of battle, such a one slinks away and seeks to save himself, because he is afraid of being left without support and dreads (that prospect). Such people, therefore, cannot live in the desert, because they would fall prey to any nation that might want to swallow them.”
Indeed, fighting to defend a shared lineage and history gives men a shared future. It gives every man a stake in the cause. Moreover, as Ibn Khaldun points out, it provides the men trust in each other because they all share the same motivation and absolute determination to achieve victory. The trust produced by this shared determination is the essence of Asabiyyah.
We have countless examples from history of small, highly determined groups of men achieving victory even when faced with overwhelming odds. We might consider, for example, the Vietnamese national resistance to both the French and American armies through a series of wars that lasted decades. Or the Reconquista during which the Catholic Spanish kingdoms reconquered Iberia from the Muslim invaders during a period spanning 800 years.
However, Ibn Khaldun points out that while blood ties are the basis of group feeling in a person, a person can develop a shared group feeling with allies, subordinates and superiors as well. Even if a person is not related to the other members of a group, they can form a powerful group feeling with them. This can be seen in the camaraderie shared by men who served alongside each other in the army, and even the type of group feeling men form from being on the same sports team. In this case, shared struggle combines with a shared worldview to extend to create a motivated and cohesive group.
History once again gives us numerous examples of this. The Bolsheviks in Russia were a small faction within the Russian Social Democratic party at the time of the revolution. But because they had a superior Asabiyyah to the other political groups, they were able to seize power during the October revolution and create the Soviet Union. The early Christian church gives another example of a small group of people united by a common faith ultimately overcoming hundreds of years of persecution to dominate the previously pagan roman empire.
Ibn Khaldun continues that the power of a leader comes from a strong group feeling. Often historians focus on the role of great individual men in making history. But Ibn Khaldun points out that these men owe their rule to the group of allies and supporters who are loyal to him. Power comes from the superior leadership qualities a man demonstrates. A leader must also demonstrate a particularly strong sense of group feeling. His superior abilities, combined with his care for his group, will be recognized by his group and make them follow him.
While many men may claim to have prestige from holding important positions or descending from a powerful family, these are meaningless without Asabiyyah. It is only in a group with a strong group feeling that the recognition of position and prestige will inspire men to serve their leader. People in such a group recognize a man’s lineage and social position as meaningful to their culture and history, and this to their own identity. In a city, people might recognize someone’s position in the social hierarchy as a matter, of course. Still, the social bonds between a city’s inhabitants are too weak to create the kind of loyalty a group with strong Asabiyyah will have to their leaders.
Asabiyyah as a force is directed towards the expansion of the power of the group. Asabiyyah will seek to dominate another group’s Asabiyyah, and the stronger of the two will triumph. The victorious one will absorb the defeated Asabiyyah. Thus by conquering others, Asabiyyah may strengthen itself to take on increasingly greater challenges.
However, Ibn Khaldun warns that a tribe in ascendance can be bought off by the sovereign they threaten to overcome. Seeing their increasing strength, a sovereign might share a portion of his wealth and luxury with the tribe and thus absorb them into his sphere of influence. Abandoning their previous pursuit of expansion and power, the tribe might accept this offer. By sharing in this luxury, the tribe will begin to abandon the virtues they developed through their traditional way of life. Most importantly, a life of luxury will dissolve the very Asabiyyah, which is the source of their strength. By adopting his decadence, the tribe will become like the rest of the subjects of the sovereign whose power they once threatened. Thus, as Ibn Khaldun says “the greater their luxury and the easier the life they enjoy, the closer they are to extinction”.
Another destructive path a group can take is to become docile in the face of outsiders. Ibn Khaldun explains that docility to outsiders is a sign that the group-feeling of a group is lost. Without group feeling, people lack the will and the ability to defend themselves. Thus in the face of external pressure, their only option is to submit.
Ibn Khaldun gives the example of the Israelites in the Sinai. God commanded Israelites to go to the promised land. But during the journey the Israelites lost hope and started worshipping a golden calf, thus reverting to the pagan religious practices of the Egyptians who had dominated them. Once they got to the borders of the promised land, the Israelites were fearful of the people living there, and most of them refused to continue the journey. As a punishment, God made them wander in the desert for 40 years, and even then, only a new generation was allowed to reach the promised land. Ibn Khaldun interprets this as an example of a group who had lost Asabiyyah. Even though God had freed them from slavery Egypt, mentally, the Israelites were still submitting to outside groups. When God made them wander in the desert 40 years, it was not just punishment; it also gave the Israelites 40 years of harsh living which made them strong and developed group feeling amongst them. Thus the new generation that was allowed to finally take the holy land had been fully freed from their mental shackles and had been strengthened in their group-feeling and trust in God.
Speaking further on conquered groups, Ibn Khaldun notes that members of a conquered group will begin to imitate the customs and mannerisms of the group who dominate them. This is because of the natural human tendency to admire those we perceive to be superior to ourselves. This admiration can be based on legitimate respect or a false perception of the rulers’ superiority. This effect occurs even in free nations where the common people copy the elites. Ibn Khaldun cites a saying common in his day: "the common people follow the religion of the ruler." He likens this effect to a son looking up to his father. There are numerous historical examples that attest to people mimicking their rulers in this fashion. Whether we consider the conversion of the Franks to Christianity by their King Clovis or the conversion of the Rus to Christianity by their King St. Vladimir the Great, we find that foundational aspects of national identity are born out of popular imitation of rulers.
Nevertheless, this effect takes on a less healthy form in conquered groups. In order to gain some of that superiority and status for himself, a member of a conquered group will begin to adopt the outward traits of the ruling group. The dominated person will adopt everything from the manner of dress to the style of speaking of his rulers. In some cases, people even adopt the beliefs of their conquerors. However, trying to achieve a superficial similarity to the dominant group conceals the true source of their power which, according to Ibn Khaldun is their Asabiyyah.
He continues by arguing that nations that are conquered and ruled by another nation will not maintain their existence. He explains that this is because when a people lose control over their affairs, they become apathetic. And in their apathy, they lose hope. Without hope, people lose the energy that animates what Ibn Khaldun calls the “animal powers of man”. Thus, the people in a conquered nation will stop doing the basic tasks that are required for the maintenance of a society. They will stop having children, and productive economic activity will decline. Such a people will lose the ability to defend themselves and will be the victims of anyone who tries to dominate them. He illustrates his point by comparing conquered nations to wild animals held in captivity. Such animals often do not reproduce and are much less healthy than their fellows in the wild.
Ibn Khaldun then turns to discussing the centrality of religion for group success. He notes that uncivilized groups are very fractious and have trouble organizing themselves into a cohesive whole that can expand its influence because different factions in these groups often spend most of their time infighting when not faced with an outside threat. This is notable because Asabiyyah, the driving force of group success, and thus history, is strongest amongst such groups. Therefore, a shared faith is crucial because it gives them a set of shared values and mission to which they must all subordinate themselves. Furthermore, when faith is deeply held, it moulds the members of a group, and thus religion has the capacity to restrain their bad qualities and develop good ones.
When Ibn Khaldun wrote this, he was thinking of the history of his own Islamic civilization. When Islam first came to the Arabs, they were a fractious group of desert tribes. But the religion united them and made them into a powerful nation that was able to conquer land from India to Spain. However, something notable in all our historical examples of Asabiyyah is the presence of religious faith at the centre of group life. This may sound strange considering the fact that communism for example is an atheist ideology, yet the Bolsheviks had Asabiyyah. However, my use of religious faith in this context takes on a very particular meaning. Firstly it refers to the psychological relationship of the believer to the worldview. And secondly, it refers to the grand metaphysical claims made by the worldview. From this definition, we can indeed say that both the early Christian and the Bolshevik militant had absolute faith in their respective doctrines. As Eric Hoffer points out in his book The True Believer, both those doctrines make strong claims to explain everything from the meaning of human history to the basis of ethics. Thus both the early Christian church and the Bolsheviks cultivated in their believers an attitude of unyielding resolution, and a conviction of their ultimate victory as well as the righteousness of their cause
It is important to make clear that as a Christian I believe Christianity is true, and I am not trying to claim that all these other worldviews are equal to it. The point I am making is simply the observation that insofar as a worldview has the characteristics I described above it can have the effect of creating strong groups that are capable of being victorious in their struggles against other groups.
Finally, Ibn Khaldun concludes that as long as uncivilized groups do not take power for themselves, they must always be subservient to the sovereign who rules the urban regions. The urban areas possess things the uncivilized groups want or need, so they must have a way of obtaining these things. Moreover, for security purposes, the sovereign must retain power over the uncivilized groups in his domain and on its borders. So he will either persuade them by sharing some of his wealth with them. Or he will enforce his dominance by the direct application of force, or by turning one faction of the group against another.
There are innumerable lessons to be drawn from a consideration of Ibn Khaldun’s work. Many readers will already have made connections between the principles of human society that he describes, and the political and social trends that are occuring today. For Ibn Khaldun Assabiyyah was the mechanism underlying the development of historical cycles. If we are to understand and effectively act in our present historical moment we must never underestimate the importance of Asabiyyah. As the decline of our present system proceeds apace, new factions will rise from the peripheries of society. It is an open question whether anyone of these groups will take power for itself in the end, or be co-opted by our current elites with promises of luxury. What is certain is that the future belongs to those who have strong group cohesion within their community, and are prepared to fight to ensure their group overcomes all challenges presented by other groups. Anyone interested in coming out on top during turbulent times will be wise to make note of Ibn Khaldun’s dictates for what makes strong groups and strong people.