Issue 117 / May - June 2017
Ibn Khaldun on Luxury and the Destruction of Civilizations
“At the beginning of the empire, the tax rates were low and the revenues were high. At the end of the empire, the tax rates were high and the revenues were low.”
Former US President Ronald Reagan proudly referred to Ibn Khaldun’s above quote in an article for the International Herald Tribune in 1993 titled, “Excuse me Mr. Clinton, I must have misheard you” (February 21, 1993, p. 4). Reagan did not quote Ibn Khaldun first time in 1993. Actually he quoted him many years earlier, at the beginning of his term in the White House, as a support to his economy politics, so called Reaganomics. Although, some historians  saw no connection between Reaganomics and Ibn Khaldun’s theories, Reagan caught people’s attention with his reference to this notable, but mostly forgotten (at least in the West), scholar. The name was foreign to many ears, and for many Americans, it was the first time they had heard of him.
Who was Ibn Khaldun, really? Was he an economist? According to many accounts, he came up with many economic concepts 400 years before Adam Smith. Ibn Khaldun was the inspiration behind the concept popularly known as the “Laffer Curve.” Nevertheless, he was not an economist, per se.
Was he a historian? The famous historian Arnold Toynbee declared that Ibn Khaldun’s book, Muqaddimah, is the greatest book of its kind. But still others contend that he was mainly a philosopher and a political scientist.
Today, the consensus among scholars is that Ibn Khaldun was all of those things, yet today, he is primarily known for being the founder of sociology. In fact, Ibn Khaldun’s own accounts confirm this view. In his ground-breaking book, Muqaddimah, often translated as “Prolegomenon,” he declared that he had established a new science. In his own words:
¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† “It should be known that the discussion of this topic is something new, extraordinary, and ¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† highly useful. Penetrating research has shown the way to it.” (Baali 1988)
This article is a tribute to Ibn Khaldun, the great fourteenth-century Muslim scholar. It briefly introduces his life and the sociological perspective of his contributions, specifically his ideas on luxury and its impact on the weakening of asabiyyah, or group solidarity. This is one of the most important concepts in his writings and is regarded as the seed of his famous cyclical theory of the rise and fall of the nations.
Abd al-rahman ibn Muhammad, generally known as Ibn Khaldun (the name came from a remote ancestor), was born in Tunis (North Africa) on May 27, 1332, to an upper class family who had fled from Seville, in 1248, to escape the Christian conquest of Andalusia. His family had witnessed the rise and fall of Muslim power in southern Spain.
As a privileged child, Ibn Khaldun had a thorough education in Aristotelian physics and philosophy, as well as mathematics, religion, geography, and poetry. His teachers were prominent scholars of their time. In the fourteenth century, in an era of unrest and political instability, he began his carrier as a seal bearer and then became a political official. He worked as a statesman, ambassador, and jurist in cities from Fez to Granada.¬†
In 1375, growing exhausted of the politics of his time, Ibn Khaldun confined himself to the Salama Fort, near Constantine, for four years. From this seclusion, he emerged having written one of the greatest studies on history, his magnum opus, Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History.
Drawing on both his personal experiences and the regional history of North Africa, he identified a cyclical pattern of the rise and fall of civilizations, and he then analyzed the factors contributing to such patterns.¬† He studied the dynamics of group relationships and argued that asabiyyah, or group solidarity, is vital to political power and to the ascent of a new civilization. He maintained that the sedentary lifestyles of urban city life introduce luxurious habits into people’s lives, thus gradually causing a deterioration in the asabiyyah and creating the conditions for civilizational collapse. According to Ibn Khaldun, a particularly strong ruler can delay this destruction; nevertheless, the asabiyyah will decay ‚Äď generally within five generations ‚Äď as events inherently follow a cyclical process. Every nation contains within itself the seed of its own destruction.
Possessing a keen eye for human behavior and a rare capacity for organizing his observations, Ibn Khaldun changed history by merely recording events and telling stories which could explain and predict human behavior. His methods grew from his belief that scientific research requires: (1) accurate observations; (2) logical and objective methods; (3) gathering data from the present and the past; (4) careful recording; and (5) the courage of careful description and reporting (Faghirzadeh 1982). Unlike most writers before him, he emphasized societal, economical, psychological, and environmental factors that governed events. This revolutionary approach laid the foundations for a new science: Ilm Umran (the science of society), as Ibn Khaldun called it in Muqaddimah. Explaining societal factors almost five centuries before nineteenth century classical social thinkers such as Comte, Marx, Durkheim, and Weber, he is considered the forerunner of sociology. And his profound insights and observations about the society in which he lived still inspire the sociological studies of our times.
Having written his book, Ibn Khaldun grew tired of seclusion, went to Cairo, and adopted a teaching role at Al-Azhar University. His reputation had preceded him there: Al-Azhar was crowded with students and many distinguished scholars who came to listen to his theories on social phenomena. While he was in Cairo, he learned the devastating news that his entire family had been lost in a shipwreck as they were coming from Tunis to join him. Except for his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1387, and a few trips to Damascus, he remained in Cairo for the remainder of his life, serving as a chief justice. He died in 1406 at the age of seventy-four, shortly after his sixth nomination for the judgeship.
He continued to write until the end of his life. Alongside Muqaddimah, the other volumes in Kitab al-Ibar, his book on world history, dealt with the history of Arabs, Persians, Europeans, Romans, Jews, and Greeks. In the last volume of his book, he initiated a new tradition by writing an analytical autobiography, known as Al-Tasrif.
Over the last two centuries, following the first complete French translation of the Muqaddimah by de Slane in 1863, Ibn Khaldun has been discovered by scholars in the West and acknowledged as one of the great thinkers of the Muslim world. Yet it was Franz Rosenthal’s first English translation in 1958 that allowed the Muqaddimah to achieve the most acclaim in the United States and abroad.
Asabiyyah and the cyclical pattern
Let’s look closer at asabiyyah. Derived from the Arabic root asab (to bind), the concept of asabiyyah is one of the most significant concepts in Ibn Khaldun’s writings. Although some suggested keeping the Arabic term, because it cannot be translated adequately, the English translation “group solidarity” comes close in meaning to the original term. Asabiyyah, in Khaldunian terminology, then, is a social bond of cohesion that is used to measure the stability and strength of social groups. The solidarity among group members is mainly due to the constant cooperation and interdependence of its members. In this respect, an individual’s identity is fused into the group of which he or she is a member, and they thus become “one of the others” (Ibn Khaldun 1967, 277).
According to Ibn Khaldun, this bond, asabiyyah, is the most important factor in the development of a society or a civilization from a nomadic tribe to a state. He argued that asabiyyah is strongest in the nomadic phase, and decreases as a civilization advances. The concept of asabiyyah fit under his general scheme of the cyclical process and the rise and fall of civilizations.¬†
From his perspective, every cycle has 5 stages: 1) invasion; 2) summit; 3) tolerance; 4) tyranny; and 5) decadence (decline). In other words, every society is created, approaches perfection, declines, and is replaced by another society. It is a strong sense of asabiyyah that leads to conquest, then to the sedentary urban life; it is, finally, a taste for luxury that leads to societal collapse. Thus, nomads, who once had a strong solidarity among themselves and were known for their bravery and hard-work become less brave, less hard-working, and far more individualistic urban city dwellers under the influence of luxurious habits. Ibn Khaldun summarized the whole process as follows in Muqaddimah:
As a result, the toughness of desert life is lost. Group feeling and courage weaken. Members of the tribe revel in the well-being that God has given them. Their children and offspring grow up too proud to look after themselves or to attend to their own needs. They have disdain also for all the other things that are necessary in connection with group feeling.... Their group feeling and courage decrease in the next generations. Eventually group feeling is altogether destroyed. ... It will be swallowed up by other nations. (Ibn Khaldun 1967, 107)
Ibn Khaldun placed emphasis on the power of religion to keep asabiyyah strong in a society. In his view, religion is not merely a set of moral laws, but determines all relations in a society. He maintained that if piety is replaced by ambition, and if the latter takes over human behavior in a society, then the treacherous desire to gain wealth will permeate people’s hearts. This will make a society and its people capricious, hence the corruption and eventual decline. As an example, he pointed to the time of Harun al-Rashid, and how after it passed, pleasure-seeking and corruption destroyed the strong asabiyyah of earlier Islamic civilization. They had abandoned the path of piety.
Luxury and the cyclical process
Luxury constituted a fundamental theme in the sociology of Ibn Khaldun, for to him it was the main factor distinguishing urban city life from nomadic life. He maintained that luxury in the cities follows certain economic factors. In cities, surplus labor is available to produce luxuries; thus, city people have higher incomes than people in rural areas, and this leads to higher standards of living in housing, clothing, etc.
Although a luxurious lifestyle initially causes prosperity in the city and adds to the civilization’s strength, Ibn Khaldun argued that such luxurious customs eventually become drawbacks. They create many demands and impose so many needs that the individual cannot earn enough to satisfy them. Furthermore, as a result of the additional taxes imposed by the government on such goods, the price of the various goods increases, and this in turn contributes to the cost of living, which consequently reduces the majority of people in the city to poverty. Thus, luxury increases the expenses of both the people and the state and leads, according to Ibn Khaldun, to the bankruptcy of the state.
Ibn Khaldun argued that luxury not only weakens the state economically, but also causes other physical, moral, social, and political disadvantages. Physically, it makes people weak and less immune to diseases, especially “when a drought or famine comes upon them” (Ibn Khaldun 1967, 177-182).6 Morally, luxury is destructive in the sense that it convinces people to value material comfort above all else and prefer their individual interests over the interests of others. Luxurious practices become indispensable. Desiring and obtaining luxuries eventually results in a degradation of the soul and breeds dishonesty and other immoral behaviors.
Moreover, it also destroys asabiyyah in the group since the pursuit of material comfort becomes the essential aim of most individuals. As a result of the disintegration of the group feeling, the group becomes easy prey for the next conqueror. The state’s leaders become increasingly lax and less disciplined, while also becoming more concerned with maintaining their power and lifestyle. Their ties to the peripheral group loosen, and asabiyyah turns into individualism and factionalism, and thus their political power diminishes. Under these conditions, they are susceptible to political disintegration, especially by the groups at the periphery. Thus, conditions for a new conqueror are ready and the cycle begins anew. Through this center-periphery model, Ibn Khaldun explained how each civilization has within itself the seeds of its own downfall.
Some may consider Ibn Khaldun’s approach to be a very deterministic perspective on history, and others may find nomadic invasions irrelevant to our age. His idea is obviously a theory, and every age and society have their unique social dynamics. What history is teaching us is that no civilization lasts forever, and certain aspects like group solidarity, religion, obsession with pleasure, and luxury do have roles in the ebbs and flows of nations. However, these dynamics and aspects have manifested in different ways across different times and cultures. Today, nations and cultures are interacting in different ways: through travel, the internet, immigration, etc. Ibn Khaldun’s theories do give us a perspective on how we can observe, contribute to, and be prepared for these ever-changing dynamics.
 Daniel Snell, a professor of history at the University of Oklahoma was one of them. For his criticism, see, http://www.nytimes.com/1993/03/07/opinion/l-reading-reagan-s-favorite-arabic-sage-
Baali, Fuad. 1988. Society, State and Urbanism: Ibn Khaldun’s Sociological Thought. State University of New York Press, Albany.
Faghirzadeh, Saleh. 1982. Sociology of Sociology: In Search of Ibn Khaldun’s Sociology Then and Now. The Soroush Press, Tehran.
Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History. Translation by Franz Rosenthal. 1967. Princeton University Press. Vol I