By Chet Yarbrough
Asabiyyah: What Ibn Khaldun, the Islamic Father of Social Science, Can Teach Us About the World Today
Written by: Ed West
Narrated by: P. J. Ochlan
Ed West offers a brief introduction to the life of an ancient historian. His name is Ibn Khaldun. Khaldun describes the first known evolutionary theory of human origin. West also notes this 14th century scholar creates the first known socio/political theory of the rise and fall of civilizations.
Khaldun explains life’s origin as a congregation of chemicals and minerals that create organic life and, in turn, evolve into different species. West notes that Khaldun suggests humankind evolved from monkeys. This is four centuries before Darwin’s “Origin of Species”.
Ibn Khaldun is considered by some to be the first person to write foundational theories for modern sociology, economics, and demography. West notes that Khaldun explains how nations are formed, maintained, and destroyed by sociological, economic, and demographic forces.
Khaldun offers councel to the great conqueror, Amir Timur (aka Tammerlane), who plans to resurrect the 13th century Mongol empire built by Genghis Khan. (Timur is said to have caused the death of over 17 million people in the effort.)
West suggests that Khaldun explains how Timur and other rulers, from the Roman empire to Genghis Kahn to Timur successfully conquered great areas of the known world. His explanation is “Asabiyyah” (aas-sah-bee-ah), a theory that all successful conquerors establish a social environment that creates solidarity among a group of people through shared understanding, purpose, and achievement.
West explains that Khaldun expands “Asabiyyah” to a theory of civilization’s rise and fall. As evolution grows and humans proliferate, tribes form based on family affiliations. Religion widens family relationships to create tribes that become a congregation of different families with common beliefs. Tribes grow into larger groups based on evolved common beliefs. At each step of widening common interest, a leader rises from the ranks. With an accretion of social ties, villages, towns, and cities are formed with a leader at its head. As the ties that bind continue to expand, nation-states are formed.
West shows that Khaldun goes on to explain how civilizations decline. First, Khaldun notes that sons and daughters of great leaders rarely exceed their parent’s leadership success. Khaldun posits the current social and scientific belief of “reversion to a mean”. Each subsequent offspring of a great leader comes closer to the average of a civilization’s population. Leadership diminishes in succeeding generations.
Second, Khaldun suggests diminished common beliefs lessen a civilization’s cohesion. Religious differences rise, economic circumstances change, social groups fracture, family ties reassert themselves as ties that are more important than community. The example that Khaldun gives is Rome’s decline as a world power. West suggests the same may be said of the United Kingdom’s decline.
West’s “Asabiyyah” makes one think of America. Does today’s political conflict reflect diminishment of commonly held nation-state belief? Is the increasing gap between rich and poor destroying the social fabric of America? Has the American Dream become a lie few believe in? Are elected officials withdrawing to their families at the expense of nation-state’ leadership?
According to West, Khaldun believes nationalism is critically important for a civilization to remain strong. Is that true today, or are we crossing a threshold where the principal of nation-state needs to be expanded to include a wider community? Is the next step reflected by the E.U. or some similar congregation of nation-states?
In the time of Khaldun, there was no vehicle for common beliefs except a leader’s influence over conquered nations. Today, there is an internet. It seems the human family may once again, be expanded. Nation-states may not be prepared for “space-ship-earth” but there may be an interim step.
That interim step was tried during the cold war with the U.S.S.R. It failed. The E.U. is facing challenges today. America appears to be regressing with emphasis on making itself great again. The leading question is whether civilizations are competing to be in decline or ascendance?
Of course, leadership is key to any future. Right now, there seem few leaders that can make civilizations grow beyond their borders. Khaldun seems as relevant today as he was in the 4th and early 5th centuries.