This paper was given June 2005 at a history conference under the title Citizen and State in the Islamic Caliphate: Ibn Khaldun’s Vision of Unity. The suggestions, criticisms and crash-testing here first were a real help.
A Failing Empire
Historians of empire
have two major problems addressing those outside their fields. One, we find ourselves at the moment in a world without empires (despite occasional rumblings from unnamed White House
officials). We have in their stead, unions, commonwealths, leagues and confederations. Second, in most circles, if empires are discussed, the judgment is almost always negative. They seem at best authoritarian
; at worst, exploitative
. However, as several historians have recently pointed out, until sixty years ago, the empire was the standard for much of the world’s population. Empires were the rule, rather than the exception. For centuries they governed the lives of millions.
Being a citizen of empire, as a general point, seems taxing. As Aristotle
remarks in the Ethics
, to be a good citizen
was one thing, a good person quite another, and it’s often tricky to be both. 1
The private letters of eminent Romans and Victorians speak to this. Livy
certainly grumbled, as did Kipling and Churchill. But it is one thing to be citizen in a stable imperium, quite another to be subject in one collapsing on all sides.
I’d like to focus on a particular model of empire today, and one particular historians vision of it. The historian was Ibn Khaldun
. The empire was the Islamic Caliphate
, established in the early 7th century and surviving in various forms until 1256, when Baghdad
was assaulted and the Caliph
executed by Mongol
Ibn Khaldun was born in Tunis
, at the beginning of Ramadan
, 732 A.H. (May 27th, 1332). A succession of disasters – the Christian Reconquest of Spain, the Mongol Invasions of Persia
and the spread of the Black Death
into North Africa 2
– had all battered the House of Islam over the preceding century. The time of plague was known as “the Days of Annihilation” in the western portion of the Arabic-speaking world. Anywhere from a third to a half of the Maghribi population was said to have died. In the middle 8th century, the territory of the Caliphate spread from the Sind
to the Pyrenees
east to west, and from Yemen
north to south. 3
A century later, the Caliphate enclosed roughly 10 million square kilometres and may have had 36 million people. 4
Its economy was roughly double the size of the Byzantine Empire
– and dwarfed Carolingian
By the age of Ibn Khaldun
, however, this empire had vanished. Citizenship, it turns out, was a central problem. The House of Islam had become vast – stretching from Granada
. Political disunity had become the norm. The Caliphate split first into two, then three, then five, and finally a dozen distinct jurisdictions. 6
In writing the historical work for which he is best known, the Muqaddimah
, Ibn Khaldun sought the source of the Caliphate’s collapse. The relation of rulers to the ruled – and subjects to one another – was pivotal to that historical analysis. Citizenship
– though not named as such – was very clearly on his mind.
Ibn Khaldun viewed the Caliphate’s history and institution from a privileged position. He served the state as a diplomat
and jurist 7
but also fell victim to its political snares. He spent two years in jail for politically disloyalty in Fez
– interesting as treason is unusual for historians, and a fate usually reserved for poets and philosophers. Like many other great authors in jail, however, he used his time well. He planned a singular historical work, and on his release set to it. His Muqaddimah
sketched the cultural and political architecture of the Islamic empire from origin to eclipse.
The manuscript of the Muqaddimah
had not even been edited or copied before word of new troubles came to Ibn Khaldun. The dynasties of North Africa
, the Maghrib, had suffered from political instability for centuries. The political order he had lived under, served and described was pressed on all sides. Schism
, wars of succession and invasions had toppled rulers from Persia to Spain. 8
The Strength of the Caliphate
The Caliphate, as referred to by medieval Muslims, was an ideal concept - but notoriously difficult to maintain. As an overarching polity
, the Caliphate had dealt with instability from birth. Centralized political authority was resented, especially in an empire populated widely by nomadic tribes. Elites were viewed as distant, uncaring and corrupt. Local customs and traditions were at odds with values professed by authority. Taxes were often viewed as onerous. Laws seemed unjust.
features a long list of complaints. As an imperial and universal vision, the first Caliphs faced dynastic feuds, tribal conflicts, regional succession, ethnic uprising, open schism and secretive heresy. 9
These elements rippled across the Caliphate for its first three centuries, but never completely severed one end of the imperium
from the other as had occurred with Rome. As an official judge, Ibn Khaldun heard cases from Fez to Cairo. Mitigating conflict in the House of Islam was his livelihood; his historical writing, he reconstructs and expands upon those problems.
One of his clearest assertions to his readers was that they lived in an dying empire: “The days of Arab rule are over…power was seized by others, like the Turks in the East, the Berbers in the West and the Franks in the North…entire nations cease to exist…their glory forgotten, their power no longer heeded.” 10
Ibn Khaldun’s ancestors lived under the Umayyad Caliphate
in Spain for over four hundred years, until conquistadors drove them from Seville
in 1248. A decade later, at the other end of the empire, Baghdad
fell to Mongol armies. Quite explicitly, the Muqaddimah
is in part a memorial to a culture and political life Ibn Khaldun knows may not survive. 11
Preservation of a legacy was not his main focus however; at root, his work seeks an explanation for the Caliphate’s demise. While never justifying God to man, he tries to deduce how a powerful empire, dominant for centuries, can be left a shadow. The loss of Spain serves as but his most immediate example. He judges the people of Spain to have been terribly weak in the face of Christian armies – passive
subjects, like cattle (ra’ăyă
). They lacked duty
No dynasty can afford a loss of unity and no empire can survive without common cause.
He then describes the long-standing fracture of interests and allegiances in the Maghrib
(West Africa) and Al-Andalus
(Spain) – from the subversion of the Umayyad to the rise of Murăbitun
, to the chaos of the reyes taïfas
) and Berber
lords, and finally the assaults of the Christian crusaders. Instability had drained the people of Spain of their communal spirit, what Ibn Khaldun names ‘asabîyah or group feeling14
, a preoccupation with self, had replaced it.
To return to the matter of citizenship, Ibn Khaldun then argues a sense of close community
and shared purpose (resulting from ‘asabîyah
) as crucial - for any polity. Group feeling can spring from several sources – tribal unity15
, shared faith16
, royal authority17
, even propaganda18
- so long as fellowship and loyalty is retained. Without ‘asabîyah
, Ibn Khaldun argues, no people can remained united or focused. Modest societies will remain weak, once great dynasties decay; “Individual desires must come together to press their claims and all hearts must be united.” 19
Ibn Khaldun argues to ensure unity, one temporal and spiritual leader is best, and that figure is called the Khalîfah
Holy war (jihad ) is a religious duty (fard al-‘ayn ) because of the universalism of the Muslim mission…the Caliphate and royal authority are united in Islam so that the Caliph can devote available resources to both…other religions have no universal mission, and the holy war is not a duty except in defence…their religious leaders are uninterested in politics – and among them power comes to those who are born to it, by fate, which has little to do with religion. 20
Leaving aside this mischaracterization of Christendom
(the Papacy in the 14th century being anything but apolitical), his point is basically this: Church and state
, pontiff and prince, are ideally not questions in the dar al-Islam
. Religious law unites the people under the Caliphate’s protection. 21
The perceived enemies to order were self-interest
) and individualism (nahniyah
), which Ibn Khaldun characterizes as primitive tendencies for any society. He is also dismissive of utopian
politics (siyāsah madaîyah
) where citizens are educated and socialized so well, they can “completely dispense with rulers.” 22
Philosophers might debate such an anarchic theory – but civilization could never organize itself this way.
The Subject of the Caliphate
So what finally was the status of a subject within the Caliphate? What rights and responsibilities might a Persian, or Berber or Spaniard have had under this system? Well-outlined is the first principle of protection – new clients to the Caliphate were expected to pay a tribute or poll tax
In return, Jews and Christians were granted religious liberty as fellow ‘people of the Book’ (ahl al-Kitab
) and were known as dhimmis
, or protected minorities. Secondly, provided they could learn Arabic – and there was certainly evidence many did in Spain, known collectively as the Mozarabs – new subjects were even encouraged to take up intellectual or administrative roles. 24
By permitting intellectual freedom
, commercial activity and everyday self-sufficiency, the Caliphate sought less to assimilate as accommodate new subjects.
Conquered communities as a whole were offered treaties protecting person, property and religion (provided the tax was paid) and became known muwallad
or clients within the wider Muslim umma
or brotherhood. 25
Having subsumed Persia and Egypt within the Caliphate of the late 8th century, rulers of North Africa and Spain had a working model of rule to employ in lands subsequently under their control. As Ibn Khaldun writes, “injustice
ruins civilization, whoever takes someone’s property, or uses him for forced labour, or imposes upon him a duty not required by law does an injustice…it is the dynasty that suffers from all these acts, as much as civilization.” 26
Unity and Greatness
Finally, the Muqaddimah
returns to the question of empire. After setting out how to found a dynasty – uniting people to a common vision, religion and community – Ibn Khaldun then argues how leadership can reinforce these elements. His conclusion is surprising – namely, leaders ensure nothing. It is the collective will of the people that must together sustain the effort; “know then that any ruler, by himself, is but a feeble creature, on whom a very heavy burden is laid and who consequently needs the help of his fellows.” 27
Or even more explicitly,
A ruler achieves greatness only with the help of his people. They are his family and helpers in any enterprise. He uses them to fight against those who revolt against his dynasty. It is they with whom he fills the administrative offices, whom he appoints as governors or tax-collectors. They are the government and share in all his important affairs. 28
Or finally, “know then that the use of the ruler to his subjects lies not in his person, his fine figure or features, his wide knowledge, his excellent penmanship or the sharpness of his intellect, but solely in his good relation to them.” 29
In all three passages, the people are the true locus of a culture’s success.
Ibn Khaldun moved on after his service at court politics in Fez
– to Cairo
in the winter of 1382. He became a teacher and settled down to write. Cairo was the last refuge of the Caliphate, and he again served as emissary to a conquering army. Not to Christians this time (as he had in Granada) but the Golden Horde
of Timur as it sacked Damascus in 1401. The Mongol general wanted to know more of the Mediterranean world – but Ibn Khaldun veiled the richness and disunity of the region. It was clearly intentional. The invaders receded, he returned to Cairo and resumed his writing until his death in 1406.
Little in his surviving work indicates Ibn Khaldun was ever truly satisfied – as either subject or agent – in any government he served. Despite acting as judge, court scholar and emissary – he still actively chose to live out the end of his life as a teacher. In that way, like Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy
or Augustine’s City of God
, the work can be read as much as a political ideal as a lament. 30
In a time of turmoil, his descriptions of the Caliphate were meant to enlighten and educate. Just as the image of empire he prays to be restored will better protect and guide its citizenry.
1 Aristotle, Ethics (V, II), 1130b30.
2 Ibn Khaldun, Al-Muqaddimah, 2nd edition, trans. F. Rosenthal (Princeton, 1967) – v. 1, p. 79; v. 2, p. 45-6, 278-9.
3 Freeman-Grenville, G. Historical Atlas of Islam (New York: Continuum, 2002)
4 Charles Issawi, “The Area and Population of the Arab Empire,” p. 381; from The Islamic East, 700 – 1900, ed. A. L. Udovitch (Princeton, 1981), pp. 375 – 396.
5 Michael McCormick, The Origins of the European Empire: Communication and Commerce, AD 300 – 900 (Cambridge, 2001), p. 582
6 Umayyad, Abbasid, Fatimid, Almoravid, Berber, Seljuk – followed by dozens on imamates, emirates and independent wazirs.
7 Ambassador to the court of Pedro I, King of Castile and Leon, in 1364 – they met in Seville, Ibn Khaldun’s ancestral home. He later served a Malikite grand judge in Cairo.
8 Mahdi, M. Ibn Khaldun’s Philosophy of History (Chicago, 1964), p. 26.
9 Ibn Khaldun, I, 43-6, 430-48.
10 Ibid, I, 57.
11 For example, traditional offices of government (I, 452-65) or administrative representatives (II, 11-35) of various dynasties receive close attention.
12 Ibn Khaldun, I, 61.
13 Ibid, II, 12.
14 Ibid, I, 391.
15 Ibid, I, 277, 287.
16 Ibid, I, 306, 319.
17 Ibid, I, 292.
18 Ibid, I, 314.
19 Ibid, I, 319.
20 Ibid, I, 473.
21 Ibid, I, 320.
22 Ibid, II, 138.
23 Ibid, I, 480.
24 Ibid, II, 8.
25 Ibid, III, 314.
26 Ibid, II, 104.
27 Ibn Khaldun, Prolegomena (Paris, 1858), ed. Quatremere, II, 1.
28 Ibn Khaldun (Rosenthal), II. 372.
29 Ibn Khaldun, Prolegomena (Paris, 1858), ed. Quatremere, I, 341.
30 Arnold Toynbee, Study of History (London: Oxford, 1953), v.3, 476. Toynbee was particularly attracted to the idea of ‘asabîyah – as a theory this volkgeist perfectly explained how a nomadic tribe could overwhelm an established empire.