There is a famous quote that states: “Hard times create strong men. Strong men create good times. Good times create weak men. Weak men create hard times. The quote is widely shared, but it’s original source or author remains hidden in the shadows of our ever-growing provision of knowledge and information. The concept, however, is centuries old, and goes back as far as Ibn Khaldūn’s cyclical theory on the natural rise and fall of sovereign powers. It’s interesting to expand on Ibn Khaldūn’s theory with regard to the Muslim world, and highlight some of the religious aspects related to this concept.
Without going to much into detail, I feel that touching on Ibn Khaldūn’s theory is a critical and necessary step when observing the course of Islamic history in its entirety. To Ibn Khaldūn, history is a cyclical process of almost organic dimensions in which sovereign powers are born, gain strength to expand and grow and eventually wither away, disappearing from the face of the earth or vanquished by other contemporary powers. He explains this development as the brittle equilibrium between, what he calls, ʿaṣabiyya and ʿumrān. For the 14th century scholar, this process in infinite until the end of days, like the lives and deaths of human beings, ultimately replaced by their own contemporaries. Because this is observably the case on the human micro-level, it should hold true on the imperial, dynastic macro-level.
Rise to power
In Ibn Khaldūn’s theory, aṣabiyya forms the main factor for a civilization’s rise to power, the so-called strong men creating good times. He definesʿaṣabiyya as a unity through social cohesion, group solidarity and tribal lineage strengthened by a shared religion and ideology. This, he states, makes people highly trustable and connected in harsh and meager conditions where one has to count on his peers in order to survive. This is what drives a people to grow and conquer, according to Ibn Khaldūn. ʿAṣabiyya would, in this case, bring people together to protect themselves against attacks, choose a strong leader trough blood ties or by choice and rule with force and power. The ultimate aim is to gain authority and to create a state, for which a stronger ʿaṣabiyya than one’s rivals is needed.
To have a strongerʿaṣabiyya, a social group should have enough power (military), a strong leadership and a prevailing religion or tradition. The downside of all of this is the ultimately destructive power of ʿaṣabiyya, i.e. the risk of it backfiring within one own’s society between different social groups and thus tearing apart the group. I believe that the above description is actually a very accurate explanation of many cases within the Islamic world. One might think of the Bedouin Arabs in the 7th century, the nomadic Mongol hordes of the Asian steppes in the 13th century or the Amazigh tribes of Northern Africa during the 11th and 12th centuries.
The yin to the ʿaṣabiyya’s yang in Ibn Khaldūn’s cyclical theory would beʿumrān, the outcome of one’s rise to power and control. ʿUmrān is the sum of all the factors triggered and stimulated by the social group’s ʿaṣabiyya. It’s the industrialization of protection, the commercialization of survival and the organization of authority. It’s the establishment and flourishment of one’s civilization, religion and, included in the concept of ʿumrān, culture. It’s what we would call a sedentary, civilized society and self-sufficient, law-abiding community. This ḥaḍāra, as Ibn Khaldūn calls it, or urban culture, transforms and elevates a people to a level of luxury, prosperity and well-being. People become settled, tend to their cattle and fields, expand their crafts and cooperation, share responsibilities and unite under a shared set of values and beliefs, codified in the rule of law. But, Ibn Khaldūn warns, this ḥaḍāra will keep expanding until it inevitably reaches a stage of ominous corruption, moral decay and the decline of lineage and kinship. This, he continues, is when a sedentary, civilized society gets overthrown by a society still based on ʿaṣabiyya, an event that completes the cycle of history, only to start all over again.
Indeed, Ibn Khaldūn regards the Bedouin, (uncivilized) nomad social groups as braver than those people of ʿumrān and ḥaḍāra. They are free from luxury’s corruption and the debilitating abundance of safety and livability. They aren’t protected by big walls to keep out the enemy, nor are they dependent on administrators and bureaucrats to organize law and justice between them, all of which makes sedentary people less brave and durable. Harsh as it may seem, it is actually quite recognizable. The Abbasid Caliphate at the eve of the Mongol Invasion during the 13th century, the disintegration of the Ottoman Caliphate due to an untenable multitude of internal ʿaṣabiyya and external rivals and the so-called ṭawā’if of Muslim Iberia in what is generally known as the Reconquista. Ibn Khaldūn was an amazing scholar to have established all of these sociological ideas as early as the 14th century. But is there an additional way we could relate all of this to God? What can we compare Ibn Khaldūn’s theory to, within the Holy Book?
Rise and fall of Arab rule
When the early Islamic warriors emerged from the vast Arabian desert, they conquered vast swaths of lands, effectively ending the old Sassanian ʿumrān and severely crippling the Roman one. These were the Arabs, chosen by God to lay the foundations of the religion and spread it around the world. Their martial culture, strict moral code and the harsh living conditions that dominated their life were bound to sweep aside the tired, luxurious and corrupt empires of yore. However, their ʿaṣabiyya backfired after the murder on ʿUthmān ibn ʿAffān and tore the first Muslim state apart, resulting in the establishment of the Ummayad caliphate and an eternal rift within the Muslim world. The Ummayads, in their turn, incurred the wrath of the ʿajam, the newly converted non-Arabs, who were at times subjected to harsh laws, additional taxes and Arab elitism. This gave rise to several revolutionary popular movements across North Africa and Central Asia, ultimately providing the fuel for the Abbasid Revolution of 747 AD.
After the end of the so-called Abbasid Golden Age in the second half of the 9th century, the caliphate increasingly gave under the weight of the enormous amount of wealth and safety enjoyed by its citizens. The state was no longer capable of upholding the faith, breaking apart in a fragmented patchwork of local umarāʾ, powerful slave soldiers, foreign nomadic rivals like the Turkic Seljuqs and corrupt or incapable rulers. The last piece of Abbasid centralized power that remained in Mesopotamia, was annihilated by the invading Mongol hordes during the Sack of Baghdad of 1258. The Abbasid dynasty had become weak.
After years of living safe and peaceful, the Arabs had grown accustomed to the idea of luxury and tranquility, investing their energy instead in internal squabble and earthly desires. In the final years of the Abbasid state, it could no longer fulfill its covenant with God it took upon itself when it inherited the Prophet’s leadership. It could no longer rise up to the values and ideals of the caliphate, and so God ended its existence, and with it, the rule of the Arabs. Already from the 12th century onward, God had selected other peoples to take over the scepter of Islam.
Replaced by another people
God said: “And if you turn away, He will replace you with another people; then they will not be the likes of you” [Chapter Muḥammad: 38]. And indeed, God granted the scepter of Islam to the Oghuz Turkic Seljuqs after the Abbasid power had declined, and from their ilk came the Kurdish Ayyubid dynasty to uphold the faith and defeat the Crusaders. And when their ʿumrān lost its ways, God brought glory to their Circassian slave soldiers, who took power and ruled as the Mamluk dynasty, further expelling the Crusaders and successfully halting the Mongol advance at ʿAyn Jālūt in 1260. And in the East, it was through God’s blessing that the vicious and mighty Mongol and Tatar hordes converted to Islam and established several powerful khanates all over Central Asia. And in the West, when the Cordoba Caliphate broke down in several different ṭawā’if (statelets) due to the vast luxury and wealth it became used to, God made the Amazigh Almoravid dynasty its successors, and the Amazigh Almohads after them.
This is the way God works. Every time the upholders of the faith become weak and corrupt, God replaces them and grants the scepter of Islam to another people. He thus creates an unbroken chain of power centers, removing those that failed and ended up humiliated and divided by those ready to sacrifice, defend and worship. The last ones to receive this torch were the Ottomans. After the Seljuq Sultanate of Rūm declined during the 13th century, Anatolia was divided in a patchwork of small Turkic Turkmen Beyliks. One of these small principalities of so-called ghāzī states, chivalrous warriors who earned a name living in the frontier with the Byzantine Empire, was the Ottoman dynasty. And it was God that gave them the glory of becoming one of the most powerful and organized Muslim empires in history, and it was by God’s decision that they became weak and fragile after centuries of might and power, corrupt and effeminate after centuries of efficiency and knighthood. And thus in 1923, Ibn Khaldūn’s cycle ended again, throwing the Muslim world in another era of fragmented and rival ṭawā’if.
Lessons to be learned
Will God change our current condition? Will God replace the Ottoman Caliphate by another powerful dynasty of believers to uphold the faith and protect our rights? Strong, pious, wise and just men, free from earthly desires, steadfast and firm. I truely believe that this will happen, as it happened time and again all throughout our history. This is the way of God, His sunnah. But this change, this replacement will only take place when the believers themselves deserve to be led by God. God says: “Indeed, God will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves” [Chapter al-Raʿd:11]. Those that live weak and humiliated will live in weakness and humiliation. And those that live strong and proud will live in strength and glory.
These are the characteristics of those that inherit the caliphate. These are the traits of those strong men that create good times, those warriors that emerged in the past to uphold Islam whenever their predecessor lost his way. While the Muslim world keeps blindly asleep hiding behind the walls of nationalism and tyranny while clinging on to the laws of neocolonialism and the man made, the opposite is true for those that retained the concepts of Ibn Khaldūn’s aṣabiyya. How else could one for example explain the remarkable survival and continued resistance of the Afghan people, except through God’s mercy? Do they not fit all the criteria of those strong men that rise to power and establish their power and civilization? And I regard them as the best example of this with regard to our recent history.
When the Muslims meet the conditions, God will grant them power. And God says: “And We made from among them leaders guiding by Our command when they were patient and certain of Our signs” [Chapter al-Sajda: 24]. And He says: “And We made them leaders guiding by Our command. And We inspired to them the doing of good deeds, establishment of prayer, and giving of zakāh; and they were worshipers of Us.” [Chapter al-Anbiyāʾ: 73]. Leadership, power and authority are immediately related to faith, worship and obedience to God. Although it’s not easy to balance between ruling one’s dunyā and ruling one’s soul, it’s the only way forward towards the recovery of the Islamic community.
Omer Sayadi (*1993) is a former student of the Catholic University of Leuven with a special love for the Middle East and North Africa. After receiving his Master’s degree in Arabic Language and Islamic Studies, he’s working with both refugees from the region as well as foreigners seeking to learn the Dutch language. He wrote columns on Islam in Europe and migration, and started MENA Symbolism as a means of combining everything history, politics, symbolism and society in one place