‘Every dynasty has within itself the seeds of its own downfall’? Dr Georg Christ discusses what economists can learn from the medieval writings of Ibn Khaldûn


Morroccan stamp featuring Ibn Khaldûn courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
In August last year, I attended the World Economic History Congress in Kyoto where I presented a paper on Ibn Khaldûn (1332-1406), the Arabic historian, lawyer and polymath. I was tasked to look at medieval thoughts on state intervention in the economic sector. I thought Ibn Khaldûn could be a good match as his ground-breaking work, the Muqaddima, is famously concerned with how successive ruling dynasties imperilled the prosperity of the communities they conquered by ultimately sacrificing the communities’ welfare to the maintenance of their own lifestyles.[1] Thus, ‘every dynasty has within itself the seeds of its own downfall’ is one of the key teachings of the Muquaddima.

II thought this worth exploring in more detail with regard to state intervention, of which the North African scholar had a fairly negative view (and so he was even endorsed as an authority in Reagan’s economic policies of the eighties).[2] Ibn Khaldûn associates state intervention not with the Islamic polity (the ensemble of Islamic institutions such as qâd’î, muh’tasib, imâm etc.) or international order (i.e. empire) but with rulers/dynasties and their governmental apparatus including the army, (secular) tax administration, and disciplinary judiciary. Ibn Khaldûn denounces attempts of the ruler/dynasty to make money and to prevent their downfall in sharp tone. According to him the downfall is inevitable and the ruler should modestly accept it and nurture but one aspiration: to be just. For if the ruler is just, property rights are protected, the economy thrives and people make money. Hence they also pay taxes — which, however, would not over-burden them — and thus benefit the ruler.

Is Ibn Khaldûn thus propagating a weak state and a laisser-faire economic order? Not quite. The ruler should uphold justice and thus also protect the Islamic polity. This would create the conditions for a society to thrive. In this way the market inspector can impose the necessary rules on commerce preventing speculation and hoarding. The Islamic treasury alimented by the zakat (a religious donation of wealth to the poor and needy) can finance social services. The q’âd’î can impose contracts and the rule of law. His point is about division of labour and clear distinction of functions. The state, i.e. the ruler and his military should abstain from top-down economic interventions while the Islamic polity, seen as the bottom-up community of civilians- lawyers and merchants engage in economic activity and self-regulate it within the framework of Islamic law.

This is a good example how historians and economists can learn from each other: the economic problem of state intervention opened new views on Ibn Khaldûn’s take on governance, which in return scratches on one of the main narratives about “the rise of the west”: that the rule of law, competition between strong institutions was a prerogative of the West. Well, it was not – at least not conceptually.

At the same conference the economic historian Patrick K. O’Brien spoke about the problems of communication between economics and history. The former is becoming more and more mathematical and statistical in approach and the latter, even more worrying for him, more and more esoteric and less positivist. Indeed I would find that both disciplines share a detachment from their roots – the German historical school which took them off in different directions making communication between them at times cumbersome.

Indeed, the division between historian’s and economist’s economic history was palpable throughout the conference. And although it covered a wide range of topics, I felt that the bulk of contributions concentrated on (early) modern and contemporary history. Of course, there were some interesting papers on medieval and ancient topics, a notable example being the outstanding paper by Stuart Borsch on Mamluk economics. However, the use of ‘models’ featured prominently. These models seem to be based on a puzzlingly narrow and short sample of history- often of less than the last two hundred years of history. England was also very prominently present. It appeared frequently as the standard ‘model’ for industrialisation. The English fleet and the linked double endowment with “coal and colonies” would explain smaller divergences (i.e. between England and the Netherlands) or the so-called “Great Diversion” (between England and China or between England and the Middle East for that matter). Would examples of land-locked industrialized regions barren of coal somewhat challenge this?

Similarly Tilly’s fiscal-military state was a model eagerly applied (also in conjunction with or as another necessary precondition in narratives of industrialisation). Similarly, awkward cases come to mind. Some states were neither particularly military nor fiscal but survived well into the revolutionary period (for instance Venice) and some states were very much fiscal and military did not make it into modernity. Take the Mamluk Empire, in which Ibn Khaldûn last lived and which he had in mind while compiling the latest version of his famous Muqaddimah. It was very much a fiscal and very much a military state. Contrary to common assumption it had a naval policy (and to an extent a fleet) and managed to maintain a world system providing much of the advantages minus some of the disadvantages of a colonial system. It also had strong institutions, a civil society, and a stronger rule of law than one might perhaps assume. Why did the Mamluks not industrialize but, rather, de-industrialize? Was it really the coal that made the difference? Or was it rather the case that Mamluk Egypt for the better or the worse was a satiated, post-industrial, open, knowledge society that could not be bothered by industries because people made their money in services and thought they might go on with this forever?

These would be interesting discussions to have but it would require that people from different scholarly tribes with different specialisations come together and talk. That would be important. Because only if we do talk, exchange notes, we can widen our horizon and draw case studies from a broader range of history, geographically, culturally and temporally. Only then can we test assumptions more holistically and perhaps even dare to come up with explanatory frameworks and models. If we do not, we probably best should abstain from forging models and be cautious even with explanations. Even so this can be good history.

A conference can be a good opportunity to expand our horizon and to talk to colleagues with different specialities and the WEHC was (for me at least – arguably less so for those who come routinely to it as to their regular tribal gathering). But the good news is that you don’t have to go to Kyoto. Another perfectly good opportunity can be the university. At the University of Manchester we have, for instance, thriving groups of economic and world historians (and not to forget: economists, anthropologists, political scientists etc. in other departments). The pub or coffeehouse, however, is perhaps the best venue for discussions. Sometimes we go there with colleagues but end up learning most from people we expect it the least, people with radically different expertise and sets of experiences. Let’s talk to people from other tribes then. It expands our horizon, makes our conclusions more modest, perhaps, and our models hopefully wiser – and it is fun.


[1] cAbd ar-Rah’mân Ibn Khaldûn, The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, 3 vols. Ed. and transl. by Franz Rosenthal (New York: Pantheon Books, 1958); see also the more recent French ed. by Cheddadi, Abdesselam, Le livre des exemples, vol. 1: Autobiographie / Muqaddima 2 vol,  Bibliothèque de la Pléiade 490 ([Paris]: Gallimard, 2002). Cheddadi also announced a (long over-due critical Arabic ed.).

[2] Yassine Essid, “Ibn Khaldūn und die wirtschaftlichen Vorstellungen im Islam”, in Vademecum zu dem Klassiker des arabischen Wirtschaftsdenkens, ed. by Bertram Schefold, (Düsseldorf: Verlag Wirtschaft und Finanzen, 2000), pp. 55–90, here 63 seq..

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