Reading Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah, Part V

The third chapter of the first book of the Muqaddimah is the longest within the Introduction and the most widely read, influential, and studied of Ibn Khaldun’s writings.  While building off of his theory of group feeling established in Chapter II, the contents of the third chapter explore the relationship of asabiyyah (group feeling) and royal authority, the life cycles of dynasties, economics, spatial territoriality, and the dialectic of conflict, life, and death.


Remark 1: Group Feeling and Royal Authority

Building off of his previous elaborations of man’s aggressive and domineering nature, along with group feeling, Ibn Khaldun turns to how royal authority (political authority and order) has its roots in man’s aggressiveness and group feeling.  As he states, the reason for large-scale political power, attained by group feeling, “is because [man’s] aggressive an defensive strength is obtained only through group feeling which means affection and willingness to fight and die for each other.”

Here Ibn Khaldun outlines a very influential and important theory of the nation as rooted in what Westerners may better understand as the esprit de corps.  A nation is only a nation when its people, citizens, are willing to fight, die, and sacrifice for each other.  This is an anti-atomistic portrait of society, though atomism will set in and becomes one of the markers of civilizational decline in Ibn Khaldun’s life cycle theory.

Ibn Khaldun also asserts the political authority is something noble and good.  It is both noble and good in conjunction to the “pleasures of the body” and the “joys of the soul.”  That is because the establishment of royal authority (political authority) allows for the increase of wealth and material power and comfort (which is pleasurable to the body) but also because it fulfills man’s ontological feelings of belonging, community, and knowledge (man understands his role within life and the world when in a community defined by group feeling which demands bonds of duties and obligations to be acted upon, which, when acted upon, lead to ontological fulfillment).  However, over time, the pleasures of the body overwhelm the joys of the soul as comfort sets in and decline emerges.  This decline first arises through the collapse of group feeling in which, as Ibn Khaldun states, people forget the hardship, struggle, and sense of belonging to overcome hardship and struggle that was required in the formation of the nation in the first place.  They no longing know group feeling, they no longer know what life was like in the past, and, as a result, slip into a life of pure hedonism which marks the beginning of the decline of the nation which Ibn Khaldun is principally interested in understanding and elaborating upon in this chapter.

Tying this back to his understanding of human nature, we can see a dialectic at play between man’s domineering and aggressive side (seeking life) and man’s pleasurable and comfortable side (emerging after having attained a degree of comfort and security from his earlier domineering aggressiveness).  Thus, the tribe, person, or nation that is most aggressive and domineering will defeat the tribe, person, or nation that has fallen into hedonism which results in a life of seeking comfort and security.  In many ways, Ibn Khaldun’s “dead society” is Hegel’s victim or Nietzsche’s “last man.”  Rooted in an unescapable sense of “biology,” the aggressiveness and domineering side of man is when man is most vital – or in his prime so to speak.  Man’s comfortableness and weakness is rooted in the drift toward stagnation and eventual decline (leading to death).  These are natural cycles that man cannot escape.  Since society is man writ large, society also follows this life cycle wherein societies that are most committed to group feeling are in their vitalistic stage of growth, while societies entrenched in hedonism, comfort, and security, are in their stagnation and decline stage of life (leading to death).

There is much to consider within the first remark.  But the most important is that political authority is ultimately the consequence of group feeling.  The collapse of political authority is the consequence of the demise of group feeling.  The role of group feeling, or lack thereof, is also tied to human nature and life-cycle.

Remarks 2-3: The Eclipse of Group Feeling

As Ibn Khaldun continues his examination of royal authority, he notes that the eclipse of group feeling begins with the consummation of royal authority.  That is, group feeling leads to royal authority and not the other way around.  Thus, group feeling, leading to the unity of a people, and its willingness to fight, die, and sacrifice, eventually exhausts into royal authority as the people “settle down” so to speak.  At this point group feeling begins to exhaust itself as royal authority takes root.  But, in taking root, royal authority dispenses with group feeling.

Over time, through the collapse of group feeling, royal authority also becomes fractured as smaller parties and figures within the nation seek power and authority for themselves and advancement of their own interests.  As Ibn Khaldun states, this is when “small princes seize power.”  In more modern language we can understand this as the “elites” who take control of the political process and utilize it to their benefit rather than the benefit of the collective or wider whole.  This is when unitary royal authority, which was the result of earlier group feeling, dissipates and fractures into a multiplicity or subjugation of royal authority to smaller parties and factions that now wield power and direct the benefits of the political to their aims and ends.

Hence we arrive at further ironies and paradoxes that Ibn Khaldun is keen to press on.  That is, political authority originally emerges as an expression of successful group feeling.  The state emerges and embodies the interests of the masses.  However, in the state’s emergence it dispenses with group feeling because it is no longer necessary.  When this happens that unitary authority begins to collapse.  As it collapses, because of the lack of group feeling, smaller parties swoop in and take power for themselves and direct political aims for their benefit (at the exclusion of the broader population).  Thus, political authority which stems from group feeling, necessarily expires into a form of Balkanization with smaller cliques, groups, or people taking advantage of the lack of cohesiveness within the political and direct the energies of the political to their own benefit.  This process is inevitable according to Ibn Khaldun.

We can understand Ibn Khaldun as observing this:

  • Group Feeling is the willingness to fight and sacrifice (and die) for others.
  • This group feeling is necessary to survive and expand in a world that is harsh and where man is naturally aggressive and domineering (the strongest bonds of group feeling allow for the life of man to take root).
  • The success of group feeling eventually leads to the emergence of sedentary civilization.
  • The emergence of sedentary civilization leads to the formation of royal authority (political authority) which no longer needs group feeling as the world is “tamed” and enemies have been subdued.
  • Over time group feeling completely dissipates as wealth and luxury (the pleasures of the body) sink in.
  • The collapse of group feeling means that political authority is no longer interested in the “common good” and results in a fractured political system wherein smaller groups and individuals begin to consolidate power for themselves.
  • Such groups and individuals consolidate power for themselves because they are detached from group feeling.

Remarks 4-6: The Role of Religion and Propaganda on Royal Authority and Group Feeling

Turning to the topic of religion and religious propaganda, Ibn Khaldun offers notes on the role of religion within a nation and the political.  The key insights here are that religion is something that allows for a strong sense of group feeling and identity that is stronger than tribal bonds.  Religion, in other words, allows for the consolidation of a large bloc of people under a single banner in a manner that is even greater than the bonds of kith and kin that is the first and most natural fallback that man turns toward for justice and protection in a harsh world.

Religion, then, sits alongside group feeling as indispensable for the origins of royal authority and the willingness to fight and die for others.  Thus, Ibn Khaludn is suggesting that a nation with a strong sense of group feeling, paired with a strong sense of religious identity and direction, is what constitutes the most vitalistic and powerful moment of the life of a tribe or nation.  Group feeling, for instance, does not have the “belief” that “God is on their side” which gives an extra pop in the step of the people so to speak.  Religious belief is indispensable for enduring even greater levels of hardships and sacrifice than group feeling alone.  Therefore, when a people with a strong sense of group feeling meet a people with a strong sense of group feeling and religious fervor, the latter will defeat the former because it has an even greater willingness to sacrifice and a strong belief in fate or destiny which propels that greater willingness to sacrifice and strive for domination over others.

Within his commentary on religion it is important to remember that Ibn Khaldun, while offering a certain sociology (or observation) about religion and its influence on human life and culture, is also religious himself (he was a very pious, even if conflicted, Sunni Muslim).  That said religion is a group (or collective) affair and not an individual one.  Individuals who arise in religion and think of themselves as an individual messiah or reformer are often ridiculed, mocked, arrested, and meet eventual death (often by execution).  Religion is not a “private” or “individual” matter.  Rather, it is something deeply social.  In fact, the individualization of religion is something that is indicative of a culture, society, or nation in crisis and decline.

Thus, the decline of religion – in the sense of religious fervor – is also indicative of the decline of a culture and nation (on its life cycle spiral towards death).  In between the lines Ibn Khaldun is offering a withering critique of “Islam” in the 14th century as really being “Islamic in name only.”  That is, while the lands of North Africa, Southern Iberia, and the Middle East were culturally Islamic, there was no sincere belief in Islam anymore even if the majority of princes and residents therein identified with the religion and even prayed and had active religious life (but it had become so individualized even if, at face-value, there appeared to be a collective unity in the practices).  This helped explained why Islamic communities were being defeated by the Christian armies in Iberia, raided all along the North African coasts, and the Caliphate had fallen to the Mongol Invasion and now was being conquered by Timur and his armies making war on fellow Muslims.

Remarks 7-9: The Spatial Revolution and Political Territoriality

In remarks 7, 8, and 9, Ibn Khaldun continues exploring the longstanding theme of geopolitics and the role of geography and the environment upon history, the political, and nations.  Ibn Khaldun is asserting that, since man is a terrestrial animal, there are natural boundaries to nations and communities.  That is, there is a limitedness to expansiveness.

He also equates a political entity to a natural organism insofar that it has a body, center (heart), and outlying reaches.  A nation is strongest at the center.  It is weakest at its outlying reaches.  This is analogues to how a human (or any organism) has a center (heart) which is the most important part of the body.  A living organism can survive without limbs (sometimes) or outlying parts.  But it will die once the heart is lost.

In much the same manner a nation can lose some of its outermost regions and still remain alive. He highlights a historical example in the Byzantine Empire which lost its outlying lands of Syria and North Africa to the Arab invasions but, since its heart was Constantinople, was still able to endure long after having lost its “limbs.”  The same was not true for the Persian Empire which lost its heart to the Arab Conquests and subsequently died as a result.

Thus, larger political bodies are able to survive longer than smaller ones because it can afford to lose “a leg” or “an arm” (so to speak) but still remain intact with its heart (center).  At the same time we can read into this that nations are like different bodies.  Some lifeforms are larger than others and able to sustain more damage and pain before dying.  Other lifeforms are smaller and, therefore, much easier to wound and die more quickly than others.  We can never be sure who is who.  Nevertheless, nations happen to situate themselves in the spatial revolution and spatial territoriality that is natural to them (the limits of their growth, e.g. conquests).

At the same time one of the problems that political organisms face is how the outlying regions are always the most vulnerable to conquest.  Thus, the people who live there are more filled with anxiety than in other places.  And since it is in the outlying regions where group feeling first manifest from (going back to Chapter II) it is in these regions where the sense of group feeling last the longest.  It is the outlying (border) regions that also feel the most strongly betrayed by the central government (royal authority) as the collapse of group feeling occurs in a nation.

It is precisely because of the dangerous nature of border regions in a nation as to why there is a strong retention of group feeling.  Since group feeling is necessary – according to Ibn Khaldun – for survival in a harsh world, it is in these regions where group feeling lingers longest because it is necessary for the people to combat the environmental harshness that they still find themselves living in and to combat the anxiety and fear of invasion and being overwhelmed by the foreign other who can, at any moment, cross the border and raid, pillage, and kill.

Keeping into consideration what Ibn Khaldun said earlier in Chapter II, it is, nevertheless, these regions that turn to the center (the city) for salvation because they have no other choice.  Often this leads to the subjugation of the rural regions to the metropolis as they are forced to turn to the political metropolis for their salvation.  However, we can also read into this – from a modern democratic standpoint – a contest between the values of the outlying regions (defined by their strong commitment to group feeling) against the values of the city (no group feeling and excessive hedonism).  The outlying regions are saying “don’t forget about us.”  Whether the city (the heart) hears and listens is another matter altogether.

Ibn Khaldun also discusses how political authority rarely succeeds in places where there are many tribes, peoples, and tongues.  That is because there are multiple group feelings that are a result of different lineages, histories, cultures, and languages, and also potentially religious convictions and beliefs.  (He is making a commentary on Islamic Spain in the ninth remark where he explores this idea.)  Because there is a pluralism of group feelings, a nation that finds itself suddenly ruling over a multiplicity of people with different beliefs, cultures, and languages, finds it difficult to maintain social cohesion.

Thus, one cannot overlook the importance of historical, cultural, and religious phenomenon that impact group feeling and identity.  Life, then, cannot be reduced to some universal “belief” or “idea” that “unites man” like moderns tend to think.  Life is defined by territoriality.  History.  Culture.  Religion.  Kith and kin.  Personal and historical experiences and circumstances.  All of these constitute competing group feelings which become impossible to manage for the nation that has overextended and finds itself ruling over a multiplicity of different people without a uniform culture, language, or religion to bind these different peoples and tribes together.

A nation that finds itself overseeing and ruling multiple cultures and peoples has overextended itself and will begin to collapse.  The alternative is that a nation has suffered invasion from another tribe or nation and now its outlying regions have been lost which causes greater anxiety from other border regions that see the fate of demise before their eyes and panic sets in.  Nevertheless Ibn Khaldun’s continued ruminations on geopolitics and the spatial revolution have many more implications that I have outlined here.

What does it mean that man is a terrestrial animal?  What does it mean that there are natural limits to states and empires?  What does it mean when a nation suddenly finds itself in contested lands with a multiplicity of peoples?  Is it necessarily true that a nation with a multiplicity of peoples (group feelings) has a hard time governing and is prone to internal division and fracture?  How does this speed up the process of the collapse of group feeling and the “balkanization” of politics?


This is the fifth part of a serialized explanation of Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah.  You can find the first post explaining Chapter I here, and the second part explaining parts of Chapter II here, the third part explaining parts of Chapter II here, and the fourth part explaining the final sections of Chapter II here.

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