A non-state political theory

27 Feb 2015 21:25

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Ibn Khaldūn

One of my favorite political theorists is the fourteenth century Arab scholar and juridical activist Ibn Khaldūn, because he theorized state politics without forgetting the politics of the steppes, desert, and wastelands.

Ibn Khaldūn was born to a family of Yemeni aristocrats and indigenous Berbers in Andalusia fifty years after the height of the Mongol Empire, which conquored a quarter of the world's population. He worked in northwest Africa during a time of intense political instability and worked in Cairo while the Turco-Mongol conqueror Timur beseiged and sacked Baghdad, Damascus, Aleppo, and Ankara.

At 32 years old, Ibn Khaldūn was put in charge of a mission from Granada to Castile to ratify a treaty between the Christian King Pedro the Cruel and the Arabs. Near the end of his life he met many times with Timur during the 1401 seige of Damascus and amazingly negotiated the release of Mamluk prisoners, though after he left Damascus it was brutally sacked.1 He was a thinker well-aware the power of many forms of state and non-state politics.


Ibn Khaldūn's basic political concept was asabiyah, which is something like solidarity/consensus. The word comes from the roots ‘asab ("to bind") and `asabah ("union"). The concept owes something to Plato and something to pre-Islamic Arabic tradition, but Ibn Khaldūn’s use of it is very original. Asabiyah is strongest outside the state among nomads and rural people (such as fourteenth century bedouins, slavs, turkomans, and barbarians). It is strongest among the camel-herders who range the greatest distance from the state. It requires blood-relation (real or mythical), and is tested in the ability of nomads and rural people to decisively defend their group against any threat that has a weaker asabiyah. "The asabiyah that unites a group of people against strangers simultaneously reinforces the values and norms of the group."2

Among primitive communist non-state actors, royalty emerges only on the basis of asabiyah. A person only becomes royal through eagerness to cultivate good qualities: "generosity, the forgiveness of error, tolerance toward the weak, hospitality toward guests, the support of dependents, maintenance of the indigent, patience in adverse circumstances, faithful fulfillment of obligations, liberality with money for the preservation of honor, respect for the religious law and for the scholars who are learned in it,"3 and a dozen more.

Royal authority in a state (city, kingdom, or caliphate) can maintain power through force; not so in the desert or steppes. Sometimes a non-state actor becomes strong enough that it sacks the state and takes it over. Within four generations any royal lineage with state authority becomes decadent and is overthrown.

The city and the desert

Ibn Khaldūn's political philosophy, with its acceptance of non-state politics, contrasts with Greek and Roman traditions in political philosophy.

Greeks and Romans…invented two forms of political life that the world had never before seen, the polis and the republic, and two concepts of law. In both cases what stands outside the law, either as a boundary or as an organization of alliances, is a desert. The law makes possible the world contained within the polis and the greater world that for the first time arose between formerly hostile peoples incorporated into the republic.4

What Ibn Khaldūn knew was that the desert beyond Greek and Roman law was inhabited.

I think it is widely understood today that the state does not have a monopoly on politics. The political and governing power of investment banks, insurance companies, narcos, tech/surveillance/defense industries, terrorist networks, big faith-based organizations, and powerful humanitarian organizations is too naked to ignore.

Anarchist anthropologist James C. Scott theorized the politics of dominated people. Is there a common-sense political philosophy today that, like Ibn Khaldūn's, provides robust concepts for theorizing the domination of a state by non-state actors?

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