Notes on the Muqadimmah

Inspectional Reading


Author(s): Ibn Khaldun

Translator: Franz Rosenthal

Abridged Editor: N.J. Dawood

Published: Original - Ibn Khaldun (1377); Translation - Franz Rosenthal (1959); Abridgement of translation - N.J. Dawood (1967).

Genre: History, Philosophy, Sociology

Purpose: The Muqadimmah was the introductory volume to Ibn Khaldun's 7-volume series on world history. Rosenthal translated the Muqadimmah into English in 3 volumes totalling 1200 pages, and N.J. Dawood further abridged this into a single 400-word volume.

Summary Notes

  • The Muqadimmah begins with man's physical environment and it's influence on us, asabiya and early stage leadership of society, urban social relations, government (and the structure of the Caliphate), and how dynasties rise and decline. Ibn Khaldun also discusses urban life, such as professions and crafts, economic rules, commerce, arts and science.
  • Ibn Khaldun offers a systemic 'science' of history that revolves primarily around two concepts:
  • The Khaldunian Cycle: History is cyclical, generally going through 4 stages: rise, apex, decadence, decline. Dynasties have mini-cycles within the wider cycle of history. This differs from the post-Enlightenment theory of linear history stemming mainly from the ideas of Hegel.
  • Asabiya: This cycle is determined by the asabiya of a people - mainly based around their elite. Asabiya means 'group feeling', an intangible factor Asabiya is a mechanism for social organisation. For Ibn Khaldun, asabiya is the chief difference between competent and incompetent organisations, united people and disunited people, and strong dynasties and weak dynasties. People with asabiya, even if they are a poor civilisation, can overcome a strong (but decadent) civilisation were asabiya is weak. States are only held together by asabiya and disappear when asabiya breaks down.

Franz Rosenthal: Muslim historiography has at all times been united by the closest ties with the general development of scholarship in Islam, and the position of historical knowledge in Muslim education has exercised a decisive influence upon the intellectual level of historical writing....The Muslims achieved a definite advance beyond previous historical writing in the sociological understanding of history and the systematisation of historiography. The development of modern historical writing seems to have gained considerably in speed and substance through the utilization of a Muslim Literature which enabled western historians, from the seventeenth century on, to see a large section of the world through foreign eyes. The Muslim historiography helped indirectly and modestly to shape present day historical thinking.

N.J. Dawood: It can be regarded as the earliest attempt made by any historian to discover a pattern in the changes that occur in man's political and social organization. Rational in its approach, analytical in its method, encyclopaedic in detail, it represents an almost complete departure from traditional historiography, discarding conventional concepts and clichés and seeking, beyond the mere chronicle of events, an explanation—and hence a philosophy of history.

Analytical Reading

Main Body Notes

Introduction (by Dawood) and Kitab al-Ibar (by Ibn Khaldun):

  • Pp. 11-43 (pg 59/480 in the PDF)

Bedouins, civilisation, and asabiya:

  • Chapter 2; Pp. 91-123 (pp.107-138 in the PDF)

How and why dynasties are formed:

  • Chapter 3 up to, but not including, '23. The meaning of caliphate and imamate'; Pp. 123-154 (139-170 in the PDF)

Commerce and civilisation:

  • 36. Taxation and the reason for low and high tax revenues; up to: '41. Injustice brings about the ruin of civilization'; Pp. 230-238 (246-254 in the PDF)

Decline and disintegration of a dynasty:

  • 41. Injustice brings about the ruin of civilization; up to the end of chapter 3; Pp. 238-256 (254-274 in the PDF)

Additional articles:

Tanner Greer summarises the concept of asabiya.

The simplest and clearest description of asabiyah’s requirements is given by Lenn Evan Goodman in his essay “Ibn Khaldun and Thucydides”:

“The tragic fact of history, however, which Ibn Khaldun insists on bringing before us, is that in politics whatever can be demanded will be demanded. Thus ‘asabiyya, whether in the nation or the tribe, becomes a matter of willingness to die.’ It is because this is so that nations and tribes, and the families, states or dynasties which rule them, have finite lifespans. Unless individuals are prepared to die for their group, the group itself will die."

Correlation between this and Carl Schmitt's belief that the ultimate profession of loyalty (in his context, the state) is the command to die for it.

Asabiyah is a corporate possession, a shared loyalty or partisanship possessed by entire clans or peoples. Sovereignty, on the other hand, cannot be divided. It is possessed by one man and one man only. In the end it is to him, not to his clan or to his people, the kingdom belongs.

Royal authority is impersonal. It is deliberate and planned. It is upheld by the realm of bureaucrats and officials; it is enforced by law and the force of arms. It is, in simplest terms, coercion used to bring peace to the ruler’s realm and ensure that the ruler’s will is done inside it.

  • Peter Turchin applies the Khaldunian cycle of civilisation to the lifecycle of a corporation.
  • Ibrahim Oweiss draws parallels between Ibn Khaldun's thought and modern economic theory.

Syntopical Analysis

Ibn Khaldun and Productivity

Ibn Khaldun is mostly known for his work on the cyclical nature of civilisation, the concept of ‘asabiyya (group cohesion), and to a lesser extent, his theories on taxation. However, what is not commonly understood is that Ibn Khaldun was one of the first proponents of a sort of theory of productive power in the manner of Friedrich List (and others). This theory of productive power was the driving force behind Ibn Khaldun’s views on taxation.

The Khaldunian Curve was not just an attack on excessive expenditure driven by a bloated bureaucracy and decadent elite, but also on the rent seeking of these classes that diverted money away from productivity and innovation, thereby contributing to the decline of that particular society. Ibn Khaldun wrote at length about the inextricable links between moral and divine law, justice, good rulership, trade and economy and the health of a society. His famous Circle of Justice expresses this in artistic form:

Muhammad Umer Chopra, 'Muslim Civilisation: The Causes of Decline and the Need for Reform'
Muhammad Umer Chopra, 'Muslim Civilisation: The Causes of Decline and the Need for Reform'
Muhammad Umer Chopra, 'Muslim Civilisation: The Causes of Decline and the Need for Reform'
Muhammad Umer Chopra, 'Muslim Civilisation: The Causes of Decline and the Need for Reform'

All aspects of the circle must exist together. If one falters, then the circle as a whole begins to break down as expressed by the inner pentagon. The circle does not exist apart from his general theories. To achieve a circle of justice requires a just taxation regime and both are necessary to achieve ‘asabiyya. When the circle starts to break down, when the rulers start to unjustly tax the people, then ‘asabiyya breaks down resulting in disorder and chaos. This philosophy of rule is not medieval, it is primordial and applies across the space-time continuum; this is an ironclad scientific law of civilisation.

In short, Ibn Khaldun understood the connection between rent seeking as exhibited in increased taxation and the collapse of productive power in a society. Firstly, he distinguished tax rates from tax revenues. Secondly, he correctly perceived that tax rates would not only yield less revenues after an optimal point, but that the reason behind this was that this was a rent seeking activity by the elites that would then sap money away from being employed in productive economic activities by the citizenry.

At the beginning of a dynasty, taxation yields a large revenue from small assessment. At the end of a dynasty, taxation yields a small revenue from large assessment. The reason for this is that when the dynasty follows the way of the religion, it imposes only such taxes as are stipulated by the religious law, such as charity taxes, the land tax, and the poll tax. They mean small assessments, because, as everyone knows the charity tax on property is low. The same applies on charity tax on grain and cattle, and to the poll tax, the land tax and all other taxes required by the religious law. They have fixed limits that cannot be overstepped.

Ibn Khaldun and State Capitalism

A further element of Ibn Khaldun’s thinking that has been obfuscated was that he understood that mere consumption was not economic production and innovation. Therefore, it was not enough for the private citizenry to stimulate economic growth, this had to come from elsewhere. Ibn Khaldun articulated what many of the state capitalists of the 19th century would come to understand and implement; the state was the greatest source of revenues, expenditures, consumptions and gave reason for innovation.

The reason for this is that dynasty and government serve as the world’s greatest marketplace, providing the substance of civilization. Now, if the ruler holds on to property and revenue, or they are lost or not properly used by him, then the property in the possession of the ruler’s entourage will be small. The gifts which they, in their turn, had been used to give to their entourage and people, stop, and all their expenditures are cut down. They constitute the greatest number of people who make expenditures, and their expenditure provides more of substance of trade than the expenditure of any other group of people. Thus when they stop spending, business slumps and commercial profits decline because of the shortage of capital. Revenues from the land tax decrease, because the land tax and taxation in general depend on cultural activity, commercial transactions, business prosperity, and the people’s demand for gain and profit.

Here he quite clearly lays out the dynamic at play. Since the state is the largest allodial owner of land, property and resources of any actor in society, its role in stimulating economic activity by having requirements for merely existing is vastly larger than any other actor or individual in society. Of course, this is not enough. The state must then actively expand consumption and spending to trigger a virtuous cycle of growth. They need food, textiles, metals for war, gold for coin, animals for transport and so on. In the market, individuals see a business opportunity and provide any and all these services in return for payment. They in turn have requirements of their own, spending to acquire their needs (and wants), which others also seek to supply, and the cycle continues.

However, should the state stop spending, this causes a breakdown in the virtuous cycle and the beginning of a vicious cycle. As spending decreases, productivity economic activity decreases in relation to this decline in demand. This means less productivity in agriculture or trade, leading to less tax revenues for the state, which then leads to a raising of taxes to extract more revenue, and the longer this cycle continues, the greater the diminishing returns. The logic of seeking rents prevails until the entire economic order has become stagnant and decaying.

The tax money reverts to the people. Their wealth, as a rule, comes from their business and commercial activities. If the ruler pours out gifts and money upon his people, it spreads among them and reverts to him and again from him to them. It comes from them through taxation and the land tax and reverts to them through gifts. The wealth of the subjects corresponds to the finances of the dynasty. The finances of the dynasty, in turn, correspond to the wealth and number of the subjects. The origin of it all is civilization and its extensiveness.

The logic of the Khaldunian curve is to achieve the optimal amount of tax revenues while not inhibiting economic productivity in any way. The point is not about economic consumption: we do not want more wealth in society just so it may be spent on consumption, we want people to put that wealth into innovation and into productive sectors which make returns for the next few generations at minimum. However, the part of this theory that has been obfuscated by libertarians is that the role that state spending has to play alongside achieving optimal taxation to achieve the circle of justice and prosperity for the people. The level of economic activity stimulated by “the market” is not enough to stimulate massive growth.

Ibn Khaldun was writing in the 14th century. However, it was in the 19th century that his ideas came to be enacted into national industrial policy by some of the greatest early modern statesmen: Alexander Hamilton, Abraham Lincoln and Otto Von Bismarck (among others). The successful statemen of the 20th century (particularly in east Asia) followed the 19th century statesmen in this “state capitalist” tradition, among them Park Chung Hee (South Korea)and Lee Kuan Yew (Singapore).

These countries understood that you cannot have a laissez-faire economy. The state has to take an active role in economic life or a people will never rise from their position of achieving basic needs. The state must also guide its own investment and that of the markets towards productive sectors so as to avoid the debilitating effects of rent seeking. The successful economies of the 21st century will not look to Smith or Marx; it will be Ibn Khaldun, List and others who expounded upon the importance of long-term investment and an active involvement of the state in this. They also offer the possibility of transitioning towards an economy less saturated by interest and credit consumption.

Ibn Khaldun's Intellectual Heirs in the West - and their application of his theories to companies and investment

Some quotes by Tanner Greer of 'The Scholar's Stage' on Ibn Khaldun, institutions, and business. He summarises the switch from efficient, lean startups to bloated bureaucratic companies as thus: the asabiyah-driven switch from a business of knights to a company of knaves... similar cycles are present in all human organizations, including most bureaucracies. The lean, can-do OSS of the Second World War slowly morphs into the moribund CIA of today, and so forth. Only difference is that there are no Bedouin rival bureaucracies to push them out.

Instruments vs Institutions:

Mr. Quigley suggests that all human organizations fit into one of two types: instruments and institutions. Instruments are those organizations whose role is limited to the function they were designed to perform. (Think NASA in the 1960s, defined by its mission to put a man on the moon, or the NAACP during the same timeframe, instrumental to the civil rights movement). Institutions, in contrast, are organizations that exist for their own state; their prime function is their own survival. Most institutions start out as instruments, but as with NASA after the end of the Cold War or the NAACP after the victories of the civil rights movement, their instrumental uses are eventually eclipsed. They have then left adrift, in search of a mission that will give new direction to their efforts, or as happens more often, these organizations begin to shift their purpose away from what they do and towards what they are. Organizations often betray their nature when called to defend themselves from outside scrutiny: ‘instruments’ tend to emphasize what their employees or volunteers aim to accomplish; ‘institutions’ tend to emphasize the importance of the heritage they embody or even the number of employees they have.

Institutional Imperative and Bedouin Bureaucracies:

Carroll Quigley’s theory of institutional decay, termed in this discussion as the “institutional imperative.” According to this imperative, organizations are formed as a means to accomplishing a stated goal. These organizations are thus instruments whose role is limited to the function they were designed to perform. Over time these instruments tend to denigrate into institutions – organizations who exist for their own sake, devoting resources to protecting their position instead of directing resources towards the fulfillment of their designed role.” In the case of businesses, snazzy start ups with a clearly defined visions and strong corporate culture denigrate to over bloated, over bureaucratized, behemoths whose leaders are more focused on quarterly reports than customers.

What I find most interesting about tying the institutional imperative directly to asabiyah is cycles – or rather, the cycles within cycles. In the case of American business, you have the larger asabiyah cycle of American society as a whole (visible among our top executives today – they are far less ‘pro-social’ than their counterparts in the 60s), but then smaller cycles of specific organizations within American society itself (in this case individual firms).

The neat thing about free markets is that is allows “moribund corporations” to break apart without the dreadful consequences we usually associate with the collapse of nations and states. Indeed, because these corporations are usually replaced by their more instrumental peers, the business asabiyah cycle is a great boon to larger society.

- Tanner Greer's comments under Peter Turchin's Ibn Khaldun on the Rise and Decline of Corporate Empires