By Akbar Ahmed
The ideas of Max Weber, a German sociologist living in the university towns of Bismarckian Germany, and Ibn Khaldun, a sociologist of tribal societies born almost half a millennium earlier on the edge of the Sahara desert in North Africa but with experience of working in Europe, have interesting similarities and differences that are reflected in their lives and work. Their ideas continue to fascinate contemporary scholars and commentators.
Weber and Ibn Khaldun both lived in societies that were undergoing dramatic change. The German people had been traumatized as never before by the invasion and occupation of their lands by Napoleon Bonaparte early in the century in which Weber was born. By the end of the century, Bismarck, the Iron Chancellor, reversed the national humiliation that France had inflicted on the Germans by not only defeating the French but also crowning Wilhelm I the emperor of a newly united Germany in the Palace of Versailles, outside Paris. Thus Weber witnessed the birth of the mighty German nation as well as its subsequent defeat in the First World War and the collapse of the German monarchy.
Ibn Khaldun’s tribal world was also crumbling around him. He saw the rapid rise and fall of tribal dynasties. The Arab world itself was fading away from the world stage. There would be vast and powerful Muslim empires after Ibn Khaldun—the Ottomans, the Safavids, and the Mughals—but they would not be Arab.
Weber placed his work in the context of modernity. He saw himself as an economist and used economic arguments to explain social and religious behaviour. The title of his magnum opus, Economy and Society, published posthumously in 1922, makes explicit the connection between economics and sociology, and perhaps his best known work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), explains the growth of Northern European capitalism as the result of the Calvinist—that is, Protestant—work ethic.
Weber’s modernity was based on the twin pillars of rationality and reason: society chose to do things the way it did because they were the most logical and rational way of doing them. In contrast, IbnKhaldun’s tribal society organized and conducted life on the basis of tribal tradition and codes because of the assumption that this was the tried and tested way of previous generations and would be perpetuated in the succeeding ones.
Citizenship for Weber’s modern man in the ideal thus presupposed a democratic order and equality for all. In contrast, Ibn Khaldun’s tribesmen idealized group cohesion and, when they became the rulers of dynasties and empires, Islamic law, which does not favour one tribal or racial group over another and provides rights for religious minorities. In both cases, however, the assumptions and worldview of society, often unwritten and unstated, were normatively interpreted to reflect the dominant group. Thus minority groups in both political environments, whatever the theoretical arguments about equality, were dependent in some profound and often not-so-subtle ways on the goodwill of the majority population. The minority was therefore disadvantaged and constantly vulnerable to prejudice and even violence. Here was the chink in the armor of both modern and tribal societies, whatever the protestations of equality in the eyes of the state and the law, in the case of Weber, and Islamic compassion or the tribal code of hospitality, in the case of Ibn Khaldun.
There is an assumption in the writings of the sociologists of modernity like Max Weber that the modern nation-state, whatever its flaws, is the most advanced and therefore most desirable stage of human political evolution. Modern European societies, including, by extension, those influenced by them, as in North America, are analyzed and viewed in terms of modernity—that is, that they are essentially democratic, that their leaders are accountable and will uphold the principles of human rights, justice, and liberty, and that the electorate is the best judge of the nation’s destiny. In the ideal, neither blood, nor caste, nor class will sway decisions for employment and advancement. Such societies are deemed modern and progressive. In contrast, societies like tribal ones in other continents are cast by Western commentators as backward and primitive.
For Ibn Khaldun, the pressing question was to discover the principle that held tribal societies together and could prevent the disintegration of societies that he observed around him. At the heart of Ibn Khaldun’s analysis was the nature of tribal society, which is defined through shared bloodlines and held together by what he called asabiyyah, or social cohesion. Simply put, when asabiyyah was high tribal groups were strong, and when it was low they were weak. In his cyclical model of history, tribal groups with strong asabiyyah came down from their mountains and out of their deserts to cities to dominate city folk, whom he described as having become effete. In time, the new tribal settlers, too, became soft and after three or four generations were vulnerable to fresher and more united tribes from the mountains and deserts. Ibn Khaldun idealized tribal societies in being just and noble. They provided honor and dignity to their members. He presents a plausible theory of the principles that hold small-scale tribal societies together and allows us to see the processes over time that weaken these ties, thereby transforming communities.
There were fundamental differences in the approach to power and politics of Weber’s modern man as distinct from Ibn Khaldun’s tribal one. The former gained power to reinforce the law, the latter to provide patronage to the community and clan. To the former, not upholding the law was a perversion of normative values, to the latter not assisting kin was betraying the essence of social order. To both, these processes appeared natural and the only possible normative way of doing things.
However, Weber was intellectually ambiguous about modernity. He was fearful of the dangers of people having to live in “bureaucratic iron cages” and becoming mere “cogs in the machine.” He was aware that the pursuit of rationality and bureaucracy could lead to the curtailing of freedoms.
There are other differences between Ibn Khaldun and Weber beyond the obvious ones of two men living half a millennium apart and belonging to different cultural and religious traditions. Ibn Khaldun came from a self-consciously tribal background. He could trace his ancestry to one of the oldest tribes of the Hadramaut in Yemen, which was then and still remains a profoundly tribal society. Weber, on the other hand, was from a solid Protestant upper-middle-class family that provided him a comfortable life at home and, eventually, an established career as an academic. His father was a wealthy and senior civil servant with excellent contacts in government and academe. His mother was an orthodox Calvinist whose Puritan morality remained with Weber to the end, although diminishing in later life. In the life of Ibn Khaldun there is migration, danger, and disaster; he lost both his parents when still a teenager, and at one point he lost his wife, his family, and his entire library in a shipwreck. Weber’s life was relatively sedentary and free of adventure, although he did suffer what is generally known as a mental breakdown, not unheard of in the lives of highly intelligent and sensitive people.
Weber’s work needs to be seen in the context of his life: he was a turn-of-the-century German scholar who was born when Europe dominated the world and Germany dominated Europe. Implicit in Weber’s worldview is the classification of a static and otherworldly Orient in comparison with a rational, dynamic, progressive, and constantly improving Occident. The ancient societies of India and China were dominated by mysticism, asceticism, and otherworldly ideas, while European ones—which were in the process of intermeshing the two systems of capitalist enterprise and bureaucratic state apparatus—were essentially different.
(The writer is the IbnKhaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, School of International Service, American University, Washington, DC, and author of Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Identity.)