The desert and the city. Two stories.

[This essay, on Ibn Khaldun and contemporary Arabian politics, was first published by SaudiDebate.]

There are more similarities than one might think between these two anniversaries. Both Osama bin Laden and Ibn Khaldun have roots in the Hadramut region of Yemen, and both men travelled widely in the Muslim world, and drew on their experiences to formulate wide ranging theories.

There the direct comparisons stops. For while bin Laden took the path of violence, Ibn Khaldun was born in Andalusia, and during a nomadic career held political positions all over the Muslim world. Out of this experience emerged a work that has led him to be regarded as “the father, or one of the fathers, of modern cultural history and social science.”(3) In the Muqaddimah(4), Ibn Khaldun constructed a theory of history centred on the relationship between sedentary and nomadic life. Today such a theory might seem to be of only academic interest – how could reflections on camel herders help us understand modern problems?

More than one might think.

In a time when the problems of Saudi Arabia are being explored through the lens of the expectations of Western states, it comes as no surprise that a great Islamic and Arabic thinker whose concerns seem so distant to our own is being marginalised. Part of the reason for this is how deceptively familiar the Muqaddimah seems. His emphasis on the importance of personality is reminiscent of Weber’s notion of charisma, and the cyclical aspect of his ideas about history seem superficially similar to Vico. All too often the tendency has been to relegate Ibn Khaldun to an antecedent of later western thought, robbing him of his specificity as an Arab and an Islamic thinker, and removing him from the intellectually fertile era in which he lived.

The gamble of this essay is that perhaps, in his reflections on Arab politics in the fourteenth century, there is something which can explain the Saudi Arabia of today – perhaps not a repetition of times past, but at least something that rhymes.

History starts in the desert

The discussion of human civilisation in the Muqaddimah begins with a description of Bedouin life. In Ibn Khaldun’s analysis, the Bedouin are strong and self-reliant, interested “only [in] the necessities of life and not [in] luxuries or anything causing, or calling for, desires and pleasures.”(5) This internal cohesion introduces one of Khaldun’s most important notions, asabiya, translated by Franz Rosenthal as group feeling. Such a notion seems similar to the idea of organic solidarity in Durkheim – the semi-mystical bond that holds society together – but such a comparison would be misleading. Asabiya is a complicated term; it encompasses both the “the cohesive force of the group, the conscience that it has its own specificity and collective aspirations, and the tensions that animate it ineluctably to seek power through conquest.”(6) Asabiya then, is a feeling of belonging, but it is also a feeling of belonging to something which is expanding, and the only way this can come about is through looking up to a leader. The feeling of asabiya is thus also tied to the leader of the community – “the goal to which group feeling leads is royal authority.”(7)

There is a strong asabiya among nomadic populations. The self-reliance fostered by living with the elements means that they are able to achieve superiority over other tribes and found dynasties. With this increase in wealth and status comes a move into the cities. The cities have much to recommend to them – specialisation and diversification of labour, luxury products, and a thriving intellectual life. However, for a dynasty to live in the city requires luxury, and the army is reduced to pay for the allowances of the royal family. With luxury and ties with strangers comes the breakdown of the asabiya that led the dynasty to achieve power – people start to get soft. At this point Ibn Khaldun states that the dynasty will be overturned by those who are younger and still have a strong asabiya, for by the third generation of a dynasty, they will have “completely forgotten the period of desert life and toughness “(8) – it is timely to remind ourselves that King Abdullah is the fourth king on the Saudi throne (though only of the second generation).

So if Ibn Khaldun’s theory was applicable we should be seeing the House of Saud becoming senile – he compares the live of a dynasty to the life of an individual – and the coming to power of other dynasties, whose lives have not been corrupted by luxury. But, one of the notable aspects of Khaldun’s work is that it is not determinist – these cycles are not inevitable, but depend on the “the degree to which particular collectivities employ their God given reason to place themselves in contexts where the forces of history may assert themselves,”(9) as Rosen notes in an excellent essay. Ibn Khaldun does not have an abstract theory that can be applied to all civilisations; his ideas emerge from a particular historical context. Indeed, for Ibn Khaldun, there is no theory without practice. Our task then, is to understand whether such a cyclical idea of history is applicable today.

From the desert born…

“Man is a child of the customs and the things he has become used to. He is not the product of his natural disposition and temperament.”(10)

Khaldun argues that “the Bedouin are of all nations the one most remote from royal leadership.”(11) He holds that the Bedouin are more savage and more closely attuned to desert life than any other nation, and thus they find it hard to restrain themselves sufficiently to maintain power. However, as we saw in the quote that begins this section, Ibn Khaldun believes that man is determined by his customs. He argues that the Bedouin can become dynasties once their nature has been transformed by religion.

Such a process was started in 1744, when Muhammad al-Wahhab, the founder of Wahhabism, agrees with the emir of the Najd tribe, Muhammad ibn Saud, to a deal exchanging protection for religious support. This led to the establishment of the first dynasty of the House of Saud. During the 19C, two Saud dynasties fall, but the Muhammad ibn Saud who rides out at the turn of the 20C to restore the rule of the house of Saud and establish the modern Saudi state traced his lineage directly back to that fateful meeting. As I have noted in earlier articles, Saudi Arabia continues to be driven by this uneasy alliance between the House of Saud and the Wahhabi religious institutions which both legitimise and constrain the royal family.(12) This connection between Ibn Khaldun’s theories and Saudi Arabian politics is cemented by the notion of citizenship in Saudi Arabia, where Okruhlik notes: “loyalty to the family structure is linked with loyalty to the state under the al-Saud; the private family reinforces the public family”(13) – this is exactly the type of structure we would expect in a Khaldunian dynasty structured by ties of kin, or by ties of loyalty that resemble them.(14)

It would be correct to object that the House of Saud is not properly a Bedouin tribe – ibn Saud first settled in Deraiyya before moving to Riyadh. But they do rely on the type of strong kinship ties (and religious purity) that are characteristic of nomadic asabiya. The territorial expansion of the House of Saud in the 30′s would not have been possible without their alliance with the Ikhwan,(15) a religious and military brotherhood derived from Bedouin tribes. Furthermore, the political organisation of Saudi Arabia seems to support the applicability of Ibn Khaldun’s theories. Okruhlik(16) has noted the extent to which the political economy of the country is run, even today, broadly on tribal lines, and where access to networks of power is necessary for political advancement. Moreover, these ties are personalised; it is not your role as much as your personality which determines your advancement. Similarly, in Khaldun’s ideas about history there is no emphasis on the institution, but solely on the personality of the leader. As Rosen has argued, this reflects a very different conception of the individual to the one we see underlying Weber’s theories of the state, which emphasise the important of anonymous functionaries fulfilling roles; such a conception of the role of the individual in politics might be of help in explaining Saudi politics today.

To the desert we return…

These similarities have not gone unnoticed before. While the House of Saud managed to appease many of the older Shia leaders after the 1979 uprising, many young activists fled into exile. They started an influential magazine in the 90′s, Al Jazira Al Arabiyya, which made continuous reference to the theories of Ibn Khaldun. It became so influential that part of the conditions of an amnesty agreement reached with the House of Saud was the end of its publication.

During the 90′s, the magazine drew attention to the long urban tradition of the Shia in Saudi Arabia, and their marginalisation by the Najd. In a leader article, Abdullah al-Hasan(17) criticised the regime for promoting tribal asabiya at the expense of a national identity.

Al-Rasheed(18) has called Saudi Arabia a pastiche state, and what this means can be best comprehended through Ibn Khaldun. In the Muqaddimah, conquered tribes and nations will quickly assimilate themselves to their conquerors – Khaldun gives the example of the Spaniards and the Galicians(19). Whether this easy assimilation ever actually took place is a question for another article, but it is certainly almost impossible today. The demand of a nation state is to create a notion of national identity that is in someway abstract – removed from ties of kinship and subjection. The House of Saud is able neither to command control through methods that might have been effective in Khaldun’s era, nor are they able – due to their reliance on kin based asabiya, to construct an embracing notion of national identity. Thus they remain between the two worlds – a pastiche state not able to command its people.

While not rooted in Ibn Khaldun’s world, the House of Saud are not entirely excepted from the problems he sees occurring to royal dynasties in his time. The distance of the royal family from the people, the possession of the land of citizens, allowing oneself to be dominated by a foreign power, deviating from one’s own religious legitimacy, indulging in luxury which removes your ability to lead, corruption – Ibn Khaldun sees all these processes occurring to a dynasty as it reaches senility, gradually sapping its strength and the asabiya of the group(20).

The King is dead?

Khaldun is fairly accurate at diagnosing the ills of the modern Saudi Kingdom. But his theory works less well at explaining how the House of Saud have managed to stay in power despite all these ills. It is not the case, as it might have been in Khaldun’s day, that when the monarchy declines another more vigorous power will rise up out of the periphery. The hegemony of the nation state has meant such challenges have more or less vanished in the middle east.

However, we would be doing a disservice to Ibn Khaldun if we tried to adapt his ideas without taking account of these different historical circumstances. Especially since, as we have seen, many of Khaldun’s ideas seem to explain the Saudi state far better than the Weberian ideas of a unitary state that underlie most analysis today.

Nomads in Ibn Khaldun occupy a complicated place. They are thought of as morally better, as they have not been corrupted(21) by luxury and bad habits. However, they are also thought of as savage. It is because of this savagery that they have sufficient asabiya to form dynasties. Nomadic civilisation is thought of as the precondition for the sedentary civilisation that they must inevitably become. But it is also nomadic civilisation – or those with a stronger asabiya, and thus those closer to it – who will in turn bring down one dynasty and found another.

A very similar process is at work today in Saudi Arabia. While the Bedouin are reduced to symbols of the nation identity,a mixture of religious puritanism and tribal strength is still the basis for Saudi Arabia. It forms the precondition for the state – it remains to be seen whether it can overwhelm it.

A recent article(22) by Al-Rasheed suggests a pattern to support this argument. She describes three individuals. Aysal al-Duwaysh, who challenged the authorities in 1927 over their capitulation to Britain, who at the time was drawing up colonial boundaries; Juhyman al-Utaybi, who took over the Grand Mosque in protest at the religious degeneration of Saudi Arabia’s rulers; and bin Laden. All three were a product of an asabiya that mixed religious indoctrination with strong kinship ties. Moreover, all three were a product of the royal family, and they all forsook a life of comfort and luxury for a life of hardship. It maybe that the pattern suggested by Ibn Khaldun continues today in a different form – as the royal dynasty get corrupt, they venture further and further from their religious legitimacy, and those on the outside rise up to overwhelm them.


3) Mahdi, M. 1968:Ibn Khaldun. In International Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences. New York: MacMillan. p. 56
4) Khaldun, I. 2005: The Muqaddimah: an introduction to history. Oxford: Princeton University Press. 2005 Edition. All references to the Muqaddimah shall be indicated M. followed by the page number; all references will be to this edition.
5) M.96
6) Talbi, M. 1973: Ibn Khaldun: Sa vie-Son Oeuvre. Tunis: Maison Tunisienne de l’Edition. p.44. Quoted from Bruce B. Lawrence in the introduction to the 2005 edition Khaldun, I. Muqaddimah: an introduction to history
7) M. 107
8 ) M.137
9) Rosen, L. 2005: Theorizing from Within: Ibn Khaldun and His Political Culture.Contemporary Sociology: A Journal of Reviews, Volume 34, Number 6, November 2005, p. 597
10) M.95
11) M.120
12) Okruhlik, G. 2002: Networks of dissent: Islamism and Reform in Saudi Arabia.Current History:
13) Okruhlik, G. 2005: The Irony of Islah (Reform). The Washington Quarterly. 28:4. p. 154
14) M.98
16) Okruhlik, G. 2005: The Irony of Islah (Reform). The Washington Quarterly. 28:4. pp. 153-170. 
17) p.128 Quoted in Al Rasheed, M. 1998: The Shia of Saudi Arabia: A Minority in Search of Cultural Authenticity. British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 25, pp. 121-138
19) M. 116. 
20) M.247
21) M.94