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Gellner’s Islamic Nietzscheans

Gellner claims that by combining the insights of the two works the contradiction is ironed out. Yet the theory remains deeply psychologistic. References to social structures are introduced in a rather ad hoc fashion to shore up difficulties. Ibn Khaldoun is a sixteenth century Muslim historian whose theory is exclusively about communities and social environment. Geller argues that by combining his insights with Hume’s, a compelling vision of traditional Muslim society emerges.

Ibn Khaldoun thought that political, social and civic virtues were fostered by tribal life. Civilisation and refinement were fostered by urban life. The vision is tragic: you can have either civic values or civilization but not both. This is close to Plato : ‘We are to study not only the origins of society, but a society which enjoys the luxuries of civilization… We shall have to enlarge our state again… the territory which was previously sufficient will now be too small… we shall need a slice of our neighbour’s … this means the addition of an army…’ Both Plato and Ibn Khaldoun agree that civil society members don’t fight. Plato because of specialized division of labour and Khaldoun because civilization is inherently incompatible with social cohesion and the martial spirit.

The Ancient Greek city was the paradigm of community. An Islamic city is both the model and antithesis of community. It is a place for piety but confronts tribal community life. ‘Bedouin are closer to being good than sedentary people… are more disposed to courage than sedentary people…. The reason for this is that sedentary people have become used to laziness and ease. They are sunk in well-being and luxury. They have entrusted the defence of their property and their lives to the governor and ruler who rules them, and to the militia which has the task of guarding them. They find full assurance of safety in the walls that surround them, and the fortifications which protect them … Successive generations have grown up in this way of life. They have become like women and children, who depend on the master of the house. Eventually, this has come to be a quality of life’ writes Khaldoun. This is sharp contrast to Europe where peasants were there to be oppressed and burghers enjoyed a limited freedom.

Ibn Khaldoun doesn’t regard city dwellers as real citizens. Only tribes have community spirit and civic values. Urban civilization lacks these values. Ibn Khaldoun notes how they are combined. All tribesmen are warriors and carry arms. They are fierce. Tribesmen are prepared to fight anyone. The tribes are held together by religion. They live away from cities. They have their own chiefs. ‘Each of these little societies elects its own chiefs whom they call Sheiks and they jointly discuss their own affairs…’ They don’t disarm their tribesmen. ‘Their leaders needs them mostly for the group spirit that is necessary for purposes of defence. He is, therefore, forced to rule them kindly and to avoid antagonizing them. Otherwise, he would have trouble with group spirit, resulting in his undoing and theirs.’

The model is an alternative to the feudal European one. The tribes are nomadic pastoralists. Not tied to land, they were less easily enslaved and oppressed. You can’t tax people who can run away and hide, and who can carry with them their wealth in jewellery and other mobile capital. Peasants, tied to land, couldn’t do that. As Ibn Khaldoun notes: ‘the plough brings submission in its train. By contrast, pastoralism tends towards an at least relatively egalitarian society, which does not normally or seriously segregate a specialized stratum of warriors.’ A vocation of violence is rooted in raiding others for cattle and sheep. Tribal solidarity was a way of protecting yourself against raids from other tribes. Solidarity and civic values are imperative. Alone, you can’t survive a raid, nor mount one. Group spirit and tribal, kinship-based loyalty is what is important to these rural pastoralists.

Ibn Khaldoun stresses the interdependence of urban luxury and intellectual taste. This encourages literacy and worship of the uncreated Word. The written word was to nail a contract not convey a message. A town was where the rural pastoralist tribesmen went to get urban products. Merchants and artisans therefore clustered in the towns. Towns formed a matrix of literacy, which is both a skill and an endorsement of all the other skills clustered in a town. This constitutes urbanity. Literacy was able to provide a self sustaining and undelimited set of divinely uttered propositions, socially sustained by privileged class who are literate. Because revelation was closed those with access to its truth were able to use it as a charter of legitimacy without the threat of innovation.

Literacy flourishes best amongst specialists. It is capable of codifying the minutia of social life. Regulation like this is sharply contrasted with the uncodified regulation of the illiterate tribesmen. Unwritten regulation depends on stable, non-anonymous, non-urban populations. Literacy in the urban setting was divine, and so offered a link between the tribesman and the urban literary specialists, despite the differences. ‘So the cult of the Word is pushed to an extreme point where it endows the carriers with great moral authority and, at the same time, pastoralism is developed to a limit at which it endows pastoral mutual-aid collectives (‘tribes’) with great cohesion, and fatally weakens any polity other than one based on some coalition of such tribal collectives.’

Ibn Khaldoun recognized that this fusion of the pastoralism and scripturalism is the classical world of Islam. It inverts European assumptions. Rural units are strong because the state is weak. Khaldoun assumes that rulers are corrupt. They are born in the desert, recruited to protect the scripturalist specialists in the city, and lead only so long as they can hold their group together. ‘Leadership exists only through superiority, and superiority only through group feeling.’ Government is by tribe, ‘the gift of the tribe to the city’. Soviet anthropologist Khazanov noted that ‘nomads become less egalitarian in proportion to their involvement with the state… The capture of the political citadel by a tribe or group of tribes then constitutes the extreme position along this spectrum: the tribe becomes extremely stratified in so far as one of its number becomes the sultan, and his clan his ministers, who also constitute the pool of his potential successors. At the same time, its political institutions, having been intermittent or ‘dispositional’ in their natural habitat – only activated into being by the need arising from conflict – acquire a state-like permanence and continuity.’ Education and law-abidingness are useless for authority in this context. ‘Those who rely on laws and are dominated by them from the very beginning of their education and instruction in the crafts, sciences, and religious matters, are thereby deprived of much of their own fortitude. They can scarcely defend themselves at all against hostile acts. This is the case with students, whose occupation it is to study and learn from teachers and religious leaders…’ says Khaldoun the scholar. Education undermines social cohesion. ‘Only tribes held together by group feeling can live in the desert.’ The feeling is often expressed in terms of ‘kinship’ and ‘blood’ but that’s just a way of talking. ‘Clients and allies belong in the same category.’ These links only make sense, however, in a rough, ungoverned or ill-governed environment such as inhabited by the tribes.

The urban population needs the Bedouin pastoralists to defend them when they travel and to fight raiders of towns. ‘When sedentary people mix with the Bedouin in the desert or associate with them on a journey, they depend on them. They cannot do anything for themselves without them,’ says Khaldoun. But the Bedouin rely on the sedentary types of the cities economically: ‘ the Bedouin need the cities for their necessities of life, the urban population needs the Bedouin [only] for conveniences and luxuries. Thus, as long as they live in the desert and have not acquired royal authority and control of the cities, the Bedouin need the townsmen.’ Tribesmen then are dependent on urban artisans and literate religious specialists. Most of them, above the craftsman and below the religious nobility spurn specialisation.

So the tribesmen need the towns for economic reasons and the towns need the tribes politically, to protect them. The countryside is ordered by tribal society, whose members are all armed, whose leaders therefore can’t dominate them but have to rule through group feeling. There are three types, wolves, sheepdogs and sheep. The wolves defy authority and taxation and remain cohesive. Sheepdogs are drawn from the wolves and gain royal status, defending the town and its outlying regions. Sheep submit to authority and therefore show that they never had enough of the right spirit and moral fiber in the first place. Patronage networks are therefore a key to all this. Kin-patronage politics is the system even in modern conditions.

The system is dynamic. The group that through cohesion is strongest is able to take over the kingship role in the city. But this leads inevitably to corruption and the cohesion drains away. Mercenaries may be brought in to defend itself but eventually the ruling tribe is defeated and thrown out, becoming wolves again. The cycle is a four generation cycle from wolves capturing the city to dwindling and losing out to the next tribal wolf. This pattern predates Islam. It is a circular or reversible pattern of most arid zone topographies. A.M. Khazanov, an authority on the Scythians, writes: ‘In the course of nearly three thousand years, within the nomadic world of Eurasian steppes, circular developments clearly predominated over cumulative ones, and if the latter nevertheless had their place, this was largely due to stimuli emerging from the agrarian world.’ Another Soviet specialist on nomadism, G.E. Markov, writes: ‘ when we come to nomads, the facts bear this testimony: the transition in social organization from ‘communal-nomadic’ to the ‘military-nomadic’ and vice-versa are reversible phenomena. After the disintegration of nomad empires, new governments appear in the agrarian regions subject to them; with the mobile pastoralists, the communal-nomadic organization reappeared in one form or another.’

Fusing David Hume’s oscillation theory with Ibn Khaldoun’s model of traditional Muslim society eradicates the psychologicalism and contradictions of Hume. Particular social organizations prefers particular religious styles. The segmentary style explains the Bedouin tribal society. Sir Edward Evans-Pritchard elaborated this theory: ‘Each section of a tribe, from the smallest to the largest, has its Shaikh or Shaikhs. The tribal system, typical of segmentary structures everywhere, is a system of balanced opposition between tribes and tribal sections from the largest to the smallest divisions, and there cannot be any single authority in a tribe. Authority is discriminated at every point of the tribal structure and political leadership is limited to situations in which a tribe or segment of it acts corporately. With the tribe this only happens in war or in dealings with outside authority… There cannot obviously, be any absolute authority vested in a single Shaikh of a tribe when the fundamental principle of tribal structure is opposition between its segments, and in such segmentary systems there is no state and no government as we understand these institutions.’ In segmentary society the feud is a characteristic institution. Power isn’t always diffused equally. Big Men do arise. Sometimes they are big enough to be tyrannical. But not typically.

Marxists thought the theory was merely a description. So, for example, G. Badia and R. Gallisot write ‘… segmentary remains purely descriptive, and causes societies to hang in thin air, through neglecting the analysis of their productive activities.’ As good Marxists they presume that the explanation of the social springs from elsewhere, from the mode of production. But segmentary society is explained by the solution to a political rather than an economic problem: ‘How is order maintained in the absence of a central law-and-order enforcing agency?’

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, July 2nd, 2013.