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Rise and Fall of Nations: Reinterpreting Ibn Khaldūn
Political Issues
Ali Salman


Rise and fall of nations follow a natural cycle of eminence and decadence. The points connecting this cycle are often reflected in the behaviour of rulers and the actions of the community. These cycles have always existed in human history but the point is to uncover the linkages and inter-relationships which constitute them. In the known history of human knowledge, this task was, first of all, undertaken by Ibn Khaldūn1 in his massive work ‘The Muqaddimah’2 ---An Introduction to History, about which Arnold Toynbee, the author of the masterpiece Philosophy of the History, said:

A philosophy of history which is undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has ever yet been created by any mind in any time or place.3

The life of Ibn Khaldūn was marked with political turmoil, wherein at the one hand, he gradually worked himself up to the seat of the prime minister and, on the other hand, was jailed for years many times due to allegations, and some times due to attempts of rebellion. His quarter-century political-administrative career is preceded with his in-depth learning of most of the knowledge accumulated in his times including the Qur’ān and its commentaries. This strange amalgamation of theory and practice helps in understanding the matchless genius of Khaldūn, and his tremendous insight into the phenomenon of social change, from which we have chosen the issue of RISE AND FALL OF NATIONS.

Rise and Fall of Nations

For Ibn Khaldūn, the principles of rise and fall of nations are alike for Muslims and Non-Muslims. He had studied the history of nations, which was available in his times, and had visited almost all the centers of power and prosperity of his age, which were mostly situated in the Muslim dynasties. This immense exposure to the theoretical and practical dynamics of the world has helped Ibn Khaldūn in coming out with strict criteria for historical judgements.

Pondering on the role of scholars, Ibn Khaldūn has criticised the ‘should-be’ style of teachings of note-worthy philosophers like Aristotle or Plato saying:

The ideal city (of the philosophers) is something rare and remote. They discuss it as a hypothesis.4 

He was of the view that these philosophers have only deliberated on how an ideal world should look like and have little to say something concrete about the mechanics of the real world. Ibn Khaldūn went on to say that to understand the governing principles of rise and fall, one must adopt an ‘is’ ie. see-the-facts style of study otherwise one will land into the world of utopias and wishful thinking, a behaviour leading to definite decadence. For this purpose he urges us to get complete information, track the historical incidents and then think deeply into the events of the age, which should help the sociologists in arriving at the truth.5

Principles of Rise and Fall

1. Spirit of the Age (Rūhi-‘Asr)

Ibn Khaldūn maintains that every century or age brings its own sociology, or the values of social change and it is the role of sociologists to discover these values and relate them with the problems of their nation. Events keep on happening in all the spheres of the society and at all levels of the community but for a scholar of sociology, these events become the source of laws, which govern the dynamics of rise and fall. These laws derived in one age may not be applicable in other periods of history. So sociologists must indigenously help in raising the standard of collective living by discovering and relating these laws with the actual problems of his society.

2. Strength of Life (Quwwat-i-Hayāt)

‘Number, weapons, and proper tactics may guarantee but the reason for victory in war is the result of imaginary psychological factors’ observed Ibn Khaldūn.6 This spirit, however, does not necessarily originate from a particular religion or a cult as each nation has its own spirit of life. This spirit may stem from religious convictions, as in the case of Muslims, and may also originate from the desire to conquer the world, as in the case of Alexander the Great.

3. Strong Bias (‘Asabiyyah)

Laying the foundations of what later was called ‘Sociology of Ethics or Morality’, Ibn Khaldūn has emphasized the importance of collective ethics or the ethics of the society in relation to the individual ethics. He maintains that the character of a nation can only be judged by the collective morality and the presence of noble characteristics in the individuals may not reflect the societal ethics. Ibn Khaldūn observed that the world-wide establishment of the Muslims was due to their character and more importantly, their conviction with their character or, as the historian puts it, ‘Asabiyyah i.e. a strong belief in and bias for the righteousness of their system.

4.Independence of Thinking and Knowledge

Ibn Khaldūn observes that the Muslim Ummah enjoyed glory and eminence all the world over as long as they were original and independent in their approach towards knowledge and thinking. These Muslim scholars laid the foundation of several new disciplines7 and inventions in both natural sciences like biology, chemistry, and astronomy and in social sciences like history or philosophy. Their independent thoughts helped their respective dynasties to flourish and establish their authority and supremacy over other nations. The world-acclaimed centers of knowledge, towards which scholars used to come from their respective nations, were situated in the Muslim countries. Ibn Khaldūn maintains that only riding with the dynamic tides of knowledge can ensure supremacy.

5. Perseverance

Glory of a nation is not a function of days and even years. Ibn Khaldūn has given the historical examples of the Abbasid Dynasty, whose mission stayed for almost ten years and did not attack until they gathered enough support through propaganda and consolidation of their force. Similarly, the mission of the Fatimidis persevered for more than ten years for victory over Aghlabids in Africa and then waited for thirty years to strike at the right moment against Egypt. This explains the importance of perseverance in rise of nations.

Implications and Relevance

Implications: the Qur’ānic Spirit

Ibn Khaldūn, unlike what most of the Muslim theologians would like to see, has adopted a non-religious style of history and has arrived at principles, which are applicable to all nations irrespective of their religion. He was not a historian or a philosopher in the ordinary academic sense of the word; he wrote on what he personally observed and about which he was a part and parcel. He refers to the Holy Script, the Qur’ān, then and there but never claims to have inferred Sociology, ‘Ilmu’l-‘Imrān, explicitly from Qur’ān, as a noted scholar on Ibn Khaldūn, Dr. Basharat Ali has tried to attribute8. For example, after deliberating on the importance of perseverance in the light of history, Ibn Khaldūn cites references from the Qur’ān such as: ‘And verily, you will not be able to change God’s way.’ (33:62) in the middle of the chapter which he wrote on ‘Gaining Power through Perseverance’9 and it is apparently no relationship between the topic and the verse. Similarly, in the chapter on ‘The Origin of New Dynasties’10, he cites: ‘God has the power to execute His commands’ (12:21). Here again, he has cited a universal principle of Allah, which, in specific terms, has nothing to do with the ‘Origin of New Dynastis.’

The point here is, of course, not to undermine the importance and relevance of the Qur’ān with our lives but to emphasize the original approach of Ibn Khaldūn towards knowledge and thinking. In addition, we should differentiate between the Qur’ānic spirit and the literal meanings of its verses. Orientation of literal meanings helps acquiring the Qur’ānic spirit but it may not necessarily imply a literal linkage of Qur’ān to some of our problems. This attitude should be followed by the Muslim scholarship in all the fields. ‘He will then inform you of that wherein you differ.’11

Relevance: the reinterpretation

1. Soul of Life: The Character

We have long estranged ourselves in discussing and discovering the basic spirit of our life: the basic motive behind our actions at both the individual and collective levels. We perceive that it is the Hereafter, which motivates our actions but in effect it is not. Sometimes it is greed of power, sometimes it is a lust for material progress, and sometimes it is (gaining acceptability in the community) humanity. We provide it with the cover of Islam and yet do not like to listen about the real motives. We are ready to give our lives for Islam but not the lifetime. Religiousness is on the rise as the number of mosques, and their attendance, is increasing; people going to perform pilgrimage are increasing but this form of religiousness is little to do with the spirit of the religion: the character. It is easy to go to Africa for preaching but difficult to exhibit a moving character for one’s neighbors for it is the character, which is the best form of preaching and, ironically, it is the character which we lack the most.

2. Collective Morality: Social Justice

Nations can survive and rise without religion but NOT without social justice. If we cannot provide our fellow-citizens equal access to the opportunities of education, health and employment, no prophecy is required to predict the disintegration of the nation.

3. Spirit of the Age: Democracy

Humanity, after the experiments of centuries, has reached the conclusion that only democracy, given all its imperfections and problems, is the most desirable state of government which can hold the diversifying and often conflicting forces in a society. This was not the case in the times of Ibn Khaldūn and for no reason, we should move in a backward direction. This age belongs to democracy12 -- tolerance and consultation for that matter -- democracy in politics, democracy in society, and democracy in religion. This is the only way towards progress and all the developed nations have learnt it the hard way but, as a nation, neither are we ready to adopt democracy nor are we willing to prepare ourselves for that. The basic reason of constant political failure of religious parties is precisely this: they are not ready to accept this spirit of the age and the result: this age is neither willing to elect them, and, paradoxically, by the same token, nor ready to accept Islam itself.

4. Independence of Thinking: Indigenization of Knowledge

Supremacy depends on access to and expertise in knowledge. Humanity has entered the information-era, where the capital belongs to knowledge, while we are still wondering in the premises of agrarian and industrial ages. The reality, therefore, is that we have lagged behind, and the power of change rests with the West. We sometimes follow the change half-heartedly and sometimes simply wonder and get shocked. We fall flat in the arena of nations but think that we are not only standing but also believe that we can still lead the world to a better path. This is wishful thinking, to say the least. But this is a natural and historical phenomenon too and the Qur’ān gives no exception to Muslims13. Nations have risen and fallen. But the point is to realize that we have fallen and must think deeply on the reasons of our fall. When the West, during its dark ages, realized this, they went on their knees before the Muslim scholarship in all the fields, transferred the work done by the Muslims in their languages, indigenized it, and presented it to the world as if it were their own. They did the right thing but we Muslims, on our turn, declined to accept this reality and condemned the West and its contributions, consciously or unconsciously sending them to Hell and Fire. Our self-centered ego not only caused us material loss but we also committed the sin of ignoring an explicit instruction of the Holy Prophet (sws):

Words of wisdom is an awaited possession, or inheritance, of a believer; thus wherever he may find it he is most deserving of adopting it.14

This historical lesson speaks volumes of importance of assimilation of knowledge with an objective and an un-biased approach and to indigenize it according to our own needs and problems. Today, through educational and research institutions, probably we cannot do much about democracy or the character of a nation. But we can do a bit of useful work as far as Indigenization or Islamization-- as we would like to call it—of knowledge is concerned. I, therefore, would devote some more space to this issue. 

We are often tempted to formulate things like ‘Islamic Democracy’ or ‘Islamic Economics’ and take pride in this Islamization. This is wishful thinking, to say the least. We have politicized the whole idea of Islamization and take no academic pains in the subject matter.  No wonder we are flouted and laughed at. As a matter of fact, we should not waste our energies in Islamizing the whole body of knowledge, but we should work diligently in developing our own worldview and an indigenous philosophy of knowledge. A noteworthy scholar Seyyed Vali Reza Nasr has the following insight to offer:

The world is the creation of God, and as such, is inherently and by definition Islamic. Science also, in the same vein, possesses a sacred quality, for it is predicated upon observation of the attributes and the work of the sacred. Therefore, Muslims can aspire to Islamize not the sciences or the social sciences, but the philosophy of these disciplines.15

Principles of government such as power, equity, authority, justice, legitimacy, domination, or subjugation – for instance, were not an Islamic invention, which could be termed as distinctly ‘Islamic’. They had predated Islam in Arabia, and have existed in other sociocultural milieu since then. The Holy Prophet (sws) adopted these principles and subjected them to the writ of Islamic law and worldview. He never claimed to devise a government or governance anew, as some of the contemporary Muslim thinkers believe it to be possible and incumbent on them.”16

To Allah belongs the East and the West: whithersoever ye turn there is the presence of Allah.17

5. Perseverance: Wait

We have become short-tempered: both in our dealings with our fellow beings, and in our expectations of results. Change never comes overnight: no matter how much democracy we allow, how strong we may build our character, how knowledgeable we may become, and how much social justice we may establish, even then we will have to wait; have to persevere to prove ourselves deserving of Nusrat – the divine help. Only consistent application of these principles at an increasingly wider scale in our society, and subsequently in the Ummah at large can bring about positive and concrete changes.


Progress of the Muslim Ummah, provided all the above conditions have been met, will take decades, if not generations. The path is long, the destination is far, yet we must hold our ground. In times, when instead of opening the doors, we are closing some of them, for example that of democracy, it takes a blindly optimistic fellow to predict a near date of change.  We should, however, instead of lamenting or wondering, concentrate on doing our bit, say in the sphere of Indeginization of knowledge, to help bringing that date nearer, to help covering some distance. Allah says: ‘Then shall anyone who has an atom’s weight of good see it! And anyone who has done an atom’s weight of evil see it.’18

Let’s do our atom’s weight of good!




1. Walīu’l-Din ‘Abdu’l-Rahmān Ibn Khaldūn, was born in Tunis on May 27, 1332 AD. His ancestors held successive high administrative and political posts under the Umayyad, Almoravid and Almohad dynasties while his father abandoned his political career and devoted himself to the study of theology, law, and letters. Ibn Khaldūn memorised the Qur’ān, studied its principle commentaries, and gained a solid grounding in Muslim law and classic Arabic literature. He wrote summaries of several books during his formal education. His first posting was at the Court of Tunis followed with a secretaryship to the Sultan of Morocco in Fez.  This was the bright beginning of young Ibn Khaldūn, who remained restless throughout his life, and kept on changing his employers, mostly kings and sultans. For some period he also served as the prime minister but for most of the time, he remained under either favour or disfavour of rulers. The latter type never hesitated even to jail the scholar, two years for the very first time. In 1375 AD, craving for solitude from the exhaustive business of politics, Ibn Khaldūn sought refuge with the tribe of Awlād ‘A^rif and took his family to a safe castle, Qal‘ah Ibn Salamah, near Algeria. He stayed there for four years and wrote his massive masterpiece, ‘The Muqaddimah’. A severe illness caused him to leave his refuge and he returned to Tunis where his life was again exposed to the instabilities of politics. He managed; however, to rescue himself towards pure scholarly work this time, which he, with some exceptions again, peacefully did throughout the rest of his life. Ibn Khaldūn, after living an eventful, exciting and rewarding life, died on March 17, 1406 AD and was buried in the cemetery outside Bābu’l-Nasr, one of Cairo’s main gates. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th ed., vol. 6, (New York: Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc, 1994), p. 222

2. ‘The Muqaddimah’ was written as an introduction to the history of Muslim North Africa in 1375 A.D. This introduction covers and lays foundation of General Sociology, Sociology of Politics, Sociology of Urban Life, Sociology of Economics, Sociology of Knowledge with ingenious observations on many issues and problems of the age. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th ed., vol. 6, (New York: Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc, 1994), p. 223

3. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th ed., vol. 6, (New York: Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc, 1994), p. 223

4. Franz Rosenthal (Tr.), Franz; The Muqaddimah, An Introduction to History, [Ibn Khaldun, Muqaddimah], 1st ed., vol 2, (New York: Bollingen Foundation Inc, 1958), p. 292

5. With this explicit observation, Khaldūn laid foundation of what is now known as the ‘Historical Method of Research’. His work is also considered of pioneering importance vis-à-vis empirical research methods. Dehalvī, Rāghib Rahmānī (Tr.), Muqaddimah Ibn Khaldūn, [Ibn Khaldūn, Muqaddimah], 1st ed. (Karachi: Nafīs Academy, 1978], p. 82

6. Franz Rosenthal (Tr.), Franz; The Muqaddimah, An Introduction to History, [Ibn Khaldun, Muqaddimah], 1st ed., vol 2, (New York: Bollingen Foundation Inc, 1958), p. 129

7. Dehalvī, Rāghib Rahmānī (Tr.), Muqaddimah Ibn Khaldūn, [Ibn Khaldun, Muqaddimah], 1st ed. (Karachi: Nafīs Academy, 1978], p. 78

8. Dehalvī, Rāghib Rahmānī (Tr.), Muqaddimah Ibn Khaldun, [Ibn Khaldun, Muqaddimah], 1st ed. (Karachi: Nafīs Academy, 1978], p. 78

9. Franz Rosenthal (Tr.), Franz; The Muqaddimah, An Introduction to History, [Ibn Khaldun, Muqaddimah], 1st ed., vol 2, (New York: Bollingen Foundation Inc, 1958), p. 130

10. Franz Rosenthal (Tr.), Franz; The Muqaddimah, An Introduction to History, [Ibn Khaldun, Muqaddimah], 1st ed., vol 2, (New York: Bollingen Foundation Inc, 1958), p. 130

11.  The Qur’ān (5:48)

12. Those who hearken to their Lord and establish regular prayer; who [conduct] their affairs by mutual consultation. The Qur’ān (42:38)

13. Verily never will Allah change the conditions of a people until they change it themselves. The Qur’ān (13:11)

14. Tirmadhī; on the authority of Abū Hurayrah (rta)

15. Sayyed Vali Reza Nasr; Islamization of Knowledge: A Critical Overview, 1st ed. , [Islamabad: International Institute of Islamic Thought, 1992], pp. 9-10

16. Sayyid Vali Reza Nasr; Islamization of Knowledge: A Critical Overview, 1st ed., [Islamabad: International Institute of Islamic Thought, 1992], p. 11

17. The Qur’ān (2:115)

18. The Qur’ān (99:7-8)

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