Ibn Khaldun, Part II (Sovereignty and Kingship)
Jude Wanniski
March 30, 2001


The first of three guest lectures (March 23) from the 14th century Arab historiographer, Ibn Khaldun discussed the origins of society and how bonds of solidarity formed to produce nations and states. The concept of sovereignty and kingship was boiled down to such simple terms that we are able to grasp their essential elements in new and insightful ways. Think now of the United States as the Global Sovereign, pondering how to manage 180 or more separate nations. Think of each as a tribe or band, some of whom will always be trying to outwit the sovereign, all of whom will resist being stripped of some measure of independence. It becomes clear we have barely begun to think through the architecture of a new world order, built around our kingship. Remember the following was written six centuries ago.

An Arab Philosophy of History: Selections from the Prolegomena (Muqadimmah) of Ibn Khaldun of Tunis (1332-1406), edited by Charles Issawi. 
Second portion of Chapter Six, "Society and State."


* Opposition of Tribes and Bands

* Nature of Kingship

* Concentration of Authority

* Need of the King for a Bureaucracy

* Changes in the Composition of the Bureaucracy

* Natural Ages of the State

* Transition From Nomadic to Sedentary Forms

* Growth of Luxury

* Luxury and Power

* Growth of Docility

Opposition of Tribes and Bands

It is rare that a state can be securely established in lands inhabited by many tribes and bands. The reason is that in such lands there will be a diversity of opinions and inclinations, each opinion or viewpoint being backed by a social solidarity to which it can appeal for protection. Defections and rebellions against the state then become frequent, even though the state itself be based on some solidarity, because each tribe feels itself secure and powerful.

Consider, for instance, what has been happening in North Africa and in Morocco from the Islamic conquest until today. The Berber inhabitants of these lands being grouped in well-knit tribes, the first conquests effected by Ibn Abi Sarh over them and the Franks were of no avail; for they repeatedly rose in revolt and recanted the Muslim faith, killing large numbers of Muslims. And even when the Muslim religion had been firmly planted in these lands, they persisted in revolting and rebelling and in adopting the heterodox beliefs of the Kharijites. According to Ibn Abi Zaid, "The Berbers of Morocco recanted Islam twelve times, that religion not being firmly established until the governorship of Musa Ibn Nusair, or even later." This explains the reported saying of Omar that "North Africa divided the hearts of its inhabitants." By this saying he meant that the great number of tribes and bands leads them to refuse obedience and reject leadership.

Iraq and Syria, at that time, were in a very different state, the garrisons consisting of Persian or Byzantine troops, and the masses, of spiritless city dwellers. Hence, once the Muslims had defeated these garrisons and wrested the land from the rulers, they encountered no further resistance or difficulty. The Berbers of Morocco, on the other hand, are organized in innumerable, well-knit tribes, all of them nomadic; hence no sooner is one tribe wiped out than another takes its place as a rebel and renegade, which explains the length of time it took the Arabs to establish themselves in North Africa and Morocco. This too was the position of Syria at the time of the Israelites. For the land was full of the tribes of the Canaanites, the Philistines, the children of Esau, the Midianites, the children of Lot, the Edomites, the Armenians, the Amalekites, the Girgashites, and, in the direction of Arabia and Mosul, the Nabateans -- an innumerable and diverse host of cohesive peoples. This made it very difficult for the Israelites to establish and secure their rule, as they had to face one disturbance after another. Nay, this state of unrest communicated itself to them, leading to factions and rebellions against their kings. Nor did they enjoy a secure, firm state during the rest of their history; being eventually conquered by the Persians, then by the Greeks, then by the Romans, and were finally dispersed in the Diaspora.

The position is just the reverse in countries where there are no cohesive tribes; for there it is easy to establish a state because, owing to the lack of disturbances and defections, the king can without difficulty restrain the inhabitants and secure the state without much solidarity on his side. Examples are provided by Egypt and Syria today, which are inhabited by sedentary people. Indeed Syria, which was a breeding ground of tribes and bands, is devoid of them today. In Egypt the state is very well established and meets only with docility, in view of the rareness of rebellions and opposing bands. It consists of a Sultan and his subjects, and rests on the armed bands of the Turkish feudal princes....

[Vol. I, p. 295]

Nature of Kingship

Kingship is a position natural to mankind. For, as we have shown, men can exist and survive only if they live in groups and co-operate in their search for food and the other necessities of life. Now congregation for the satisfaction of needs implies intercourse, which means that owing to the animal propensities of aggressiveness and oppression each will help himself to the possessions of his fellows. The person so attacked will hit back, spurred by pride and anger and enabled to do so by the strength he shares with other human beings. All this leads to quarrels and strife, which provoke unrest, bloodshed, and the loss of life, endangering the survival of the species whose preservation is willed by God Himself.

It is, therefore, impossible for men to survive in a state of anarchy, without a sanction which restrains them from mutual aggression. This sanction is provided by a ruler, who is, by the very force of human nature, a strong and masterful king....

[Vol. I, p. 337]

Concentration of Authority

It is of the nature of states that authority becomes concentrated in one person. This is because, as we have said before, a state is founded upon solidarity. Now solidarity is formed by the union of many groups, one of which, being more powerful than the rest, dominates and directs the others and finally absorbs them, thus forming an association which ensures victory over other peoples and states....

This wider union and solidarity will be achieved by some group belonging to a leading family; and within that family there is bound to be some prominent individual who leads and dominates the rest. That person will therefore be appointed as leader of the wider group, because of the domination enjoyed by his house over the others.

And once this leader is so appointed, his animal nature is bound to breed in him feelings of pride and haughtiness. He will then disdain to share with any one his rule over his followers; nay, he will soon think himself a god, as human beings are wont to do. Add to this the fact that sound politics demands undivided rule, for where there are many leaders the result is confusion, and if there were other gods than God in the universe, there would be chaos.

Steps are therefore taken to curb the power and to clip the wings and weaken the solidarity of the other groups, so that they shall not aspire to dispute the power of the ruler. The ruler monopolizes all power, leaving nothing to others, and enjoys alone the glory derived therefrom.

And this process may be achieved by the first king of the dynasty, or it may only come about under the second or the third, according to the power and resistance offered by the groups; but come about it certainly must.

[Vol. I, p. 299]

Need of the King for a Bureaucracy

[In this passage, think of the United States needing a bureaucracy, which obviously suggests the United Nations. JW]

Know then that the King by himself is a feeble creature, on whom a very heavy burden is laid and who consequently needs the help of his fellow men. For if he needs their help in securing his livelihood and the necessities of life, how much more, then, does he need it in governing a society of human beings!

He whom God has chosen as a ruler must protect his community from external aggression, preserve order, and enforce the laws, in order to prevent the encroachment by any one on the rights of others. He must protect property by making the highways secure. He must seek to promote the interest of his subjects and hence, in order to facilitate transactions and make it easier for his subjects to earn their livelihood, inspect foodstuffs, weights, and measures, to prevent adulteration or fraud. He must, too, test the coinage which they use, in order to prevent counterfeiting.... [It is the United States which must set the unit of account... JW]

[Vol. II, p. 1]

Changes in the Composition of the Bureaucracy

Know then that the ruler requires both a civilian and a military establishment to aid him in carrying on with the affairs of state. At the beginning of a dynasty, when the rulers are consolidating their power, the need for the military is greater than that for a civilian bureaucracy; for the civilians are mere servants, carrying out the orders of the king, whereas the military are his partners and fellow workers. The same is also true of the period of decline of a dynasty, when old age has weakened social solidarity and caused the population to decrease, as we said before; in such a case, too, the need for soldiers, for the purposes of defence, makes itself as urgently felt as it had been during the period of consolidation of the state. In both those stages, then, the sword plays a more important part than the pen, and the military enjoy more prestige and wealth, and are granted richer fiefs than the civilians. [In the period ahead, perhaps for a decade or two while the world is getting used to US sovereignty, we must bear the expense of maintaining the military until it is clear the "tribes" will accept our sovereignty. JW]

During the middle period of the dynasty, on the other hand, the ruler is relatively independent of the military. For, his rule having been established, his main concern is to pick the fruits of domination, such as the collection of taxes, the recording [of income and expenditure], the rivaling [in ostentation] with other sovereigns, and the enforcing of his decrees. Now for all this it is to the [men of the] pen that he must look for help, hence their importance increases. The sword, on the other hand, is left unused in its scabbard, unless it be to meet some unexpected danger or incursion; otherwise there is no need for it. The civilians, in these circumstances when their services are required, enjoy more prestige, a higher rank in the hierarchy of the state, and more wealth; it is they whom the king calls into his councils and consults in his closet; for it is they whom he needs most if he is to enjoy the fruits of his rule....

[Vol. II, p. 40]

Natural Ages of the State

....And the ages of the state, too, may differ according to astronomical conjunctures. Nevertheless, generally speaking, it is rare that the age of the state should exceed three generations, a generation being the average age of an individual, that is forty years or the time necessary for full growth and development....

We said that the age of the state rarely exceeds three generations because the first generation still retains its nomadic roughness and savagery, and such nomadic characteristics as a hard life, courage, predatoriness, and the desire to share glory. All this means that the strength of the solidarity uniting the people is still firm, which makes that people feared and powerful and able to dominate others.

The second generation, however, have already passed from the nomadic to the sedentary way of life, owing to the power they wield and the luxury they enjoy. They have abandoned their rough life for an easy and luxurious one. Instead of all sharing in the power and glory of the state, one wields it alone, the rest being too indolent to claim their part. Instead of aggressiveness and the desire for conquest we see in them contentment with what they have. All this relaxes the ties of solidarity, to a certain extent, and humility and submissiveness begin to appear in them; yet they still retain much of their pristine spirit because of what they have seen and remembered of the previous generation, with its self-confidence, pursuit of glory, and power to defend and protect itself. They cannot entirely give up all these characteristics, even though they have abandoned some of them. They still hope to regain the conditions prevailing in the previous generation, or even have the illusion that these virtues are still to be found in them.

As for the third generation, they have completely forgotten the nomadic and rough stage, as though it had never existed. They have also lost their love of power and their social solidarity through having been accustomed to being ruled. Luxury corrupts them, because of the pleasant and easy way of living in which they have been brought up. As a result, they become a liability on the state, like women and children who need to be protected. Solidarity is completely relaxed and the arts of defending oneself and of attacking the enemy are forgotten.

They deceive people by their insignia, dress, horse-riding and culture; yet all the while they are more cowardly than women. If then a claimant or aggressor appear, they are incapable of pushing him back. Consequently, the head of the state is compelled to rely on others for defence, making extensive use of clients and mercenaries, who may to some extent replace the original free warriors.... [Two years ago, I told friends in the People’s Republic of China that the reason I wish to help them grow strong is so they will provide competition for us, for without it we will become fat and lazy and arrogant. JW]

[Vol. I, p. 306]

Transition From Nomadic to Sedentary Forms

....The civilized form [of state], then, necessarily succeeds the nomadic one, as domination leads to luxury. For the rulers of a state, once they have become sedentary, always imitate in their ways of living those of the state to which they have succeeded and whose condition they have seen and generally adopted.

This is what happened to the Arabs, when they conquered and ruled over the Persian and Byzantine empires and took the daughters and sons of the Persians and Byzantines into their service. Up till then they had known nothing of civilization. Thus it is said that when presented with thin loaves of bread they mistook it for parchment, and when they discovered some camphor in the treasure houses of Chosroes they used it as salt in their dough, and did many other similar things. When, however, they had subjugated the populations of the lands they conquered and employed them in their households as servants and craftsmen, choosing the ablest in their different lines, together with their supervisors, they soon learned from them how to change their ways and to make the proper use of things. Nay, they even pushed these things to the point of refinement, especially with the improvement in their mode of living. Indeed, they reached the height of luxury in their way of living, their good food and drink, clothing, houses, arms, furniture, vessels, and household equipment....

[Vol. I, p. 309]

Growth of Luxury

It is of the nature of states to breed luxury. This is because when a people overcomes and dispossesses the inhabitants of a previously existing state, its wealth and prosperity increase and with them its wants, so that the bare necessities of life no longer satisfy, but only the amenities and luxuries....

[Vol. I, p. 300]

Luxury and Power

Luxury will at first increase the power of a state. This is because when a tribe secures domination and luxury, its birth-rate goes up and the number of its children increases, which provides a greater supply of armed men. At the same time, the members of the tribe make wider use of clients and dependents. And their children growing up in this atmosphere of prosperity and luxury will further increase and wax stronger because of their greater number of troops.

Once, however, the first and second generations have passed away, and the state has begun to decline, the clients and dependents are incapable of forming a state of their own, independently; for they never enjoyed independent action, but were always dependent on the rulers, whom they helped; once, therefore, the trunk has been removed, the branches cannot strike roots for themselves, but wither and pass away. The state, then, cannot retain its former power.

Consider what occurred to the Arab state, in Islam. At the time of the Prophet and the early Caliphs they [i.e. the Muslims] numbered some 150,000 [fighting men], including both Maturates and Qahtanites as we said before. When, however, luxury began to spread, under the later dynasties, their numbers began to grow with their prosperity. Moreover the Caliphs began to make increasing use of clients and dependents, so that the total rose to many times the above-mentioned figure...

[Vol. I, p. 313]

Growth of Docility

It is of the nature of states to breed docility and inaction. This is because a people can achieve dominion only by strife, which strife leads to victory and the foundation of a state. When these ends are achieved there is an end to strife....

Once, then, they have established their state they no longer make the strenuous efforts which they had previously exerted, but prefer rest and easy life and inaction. They now seek to enjoy the fruits of power; such as fine homes and clothes. They build palaces, draw waters to them, plant parks, and show great refinement in their dress, food, furniture and household goods, and, generally speaking, prefer a life of enjoyment to one of exertion. Soon they get accustomed to such a mode of living and transmit it to their descendants. And so the matter goes on increasing until God puts an end to it.

[Vol. I, p. 301]