Ibn Khaldun's Civil Society

Maverick F. Fisher (mff9491@jeeves.la.utexas.edu)
Mon, 30 Oct 1995 15:33:59 -0600 (CST)

The concept of civil society has generated competing definitions for many
centuries. Large numbers of authors have joined the intellectual fray by
positing their own definitions for just what "civil society" means. Few of
these authors, however, have been in exact accordance as to the specific
criteria that represent a civil society. What one author finds beneficial
for the preservation of a civil society another sees as totally inimical
to civil society. Two thinkers with often divergent but sometimes si milar
conceptualizations of civil society are thirteenth-century Arab
"philosopher of history" Ibn Khaldun and modern day America's Robert
Putnam. While these two writers share many beliefs in common about what
constitutes civil society, they hold fundam ental differences about many
key criteria which in each author's conceptualization leads to the
presence of civil society. It at first might appear possible to write off
the contrasts between Khaldun's Muqaddimah and Putnam's Making Democracy
Work, Civic Traditions in Modern Italy as merely the product of the 800
year gap that separates the two works. Additionally, Putnam wri tes about
Italy, while Khaldun describes the "primitive" Arabs of the Maghrib. These
cultures are radically different, from their differing religions of Islam
and Catholicism to their racial stock. However, it is important always to
recall that both autho rs are addressing exactly the same issue; namely,
by what means and under what conditions it is that groups of human beings
are able to arrange themselves into relatively well functioning, cohesive
units. Both Khaldun and Putnam recognize civil society as having to do
with the cooperation of individual citizens. Putnam measures the health of
civil society by the number of private organizations in which the
citizenry bond. The "associativeness" of the citiz ens, whether it is
through bowling clubs or the elks, indicate just how civil a society is.
Khaldun sees the civility of society (umran) measured by a similar
standard, that of group feeling, or asabiyah. This feeling of group
solidarity causes the citize ns to adhere into the well-functioning whole
that is civil society.

Perhaps the oldest means by which mankind began organizing itself into
functioning groupings was along familial lines. The tribe, probably the
earliest recognizable society, arranged itself by ties of kinship. Rules
were obeyed and tasks were fulfilled be cause of the common blood that
each member of the tribe shared. Both authors address this oldest of
societies and whether it has a place in a modern civil society. Ibn
Khaldun enthusiastically views blood ties as an excellent means along
which a civil society can be arranged. He mentions family ties and
lineages at many points in his work, at one point employing the Bedouins
of North Africa to describe the effect of blood ties on the formation of
civil society. In chapter 2, Khaldun's eighth section asserts at the
heading that "Group feeling results only from blood relationship or
something corresponding to it," (p 98). People cooperate and help each
other according to Khaldun because "One feels shame when one's relatives
are treated unjustly or attacked," (98). Society is thus held together
along family lines, or with some kind of substitute. "...a client
relationship leads to close contact exactly, or approximatel y in the same
way, as does common descent," (98). According to Khaldun, non-familial
bonds that allow society to cooperate directly evolved from emotions
associated with kinship. Civil society is therefore formed by surrogate
blood ties; just as parents o f adoptive children can feel the exact same
affection for their adopted children as they would towards a blood child,
so members of society can "adopt" their fellow citizens and treat them the
same as they would their own blood kindred. Putnam, on the other hand,
takes an opposite position to Khaldun. In his comparison of Northern and
Southern Italy, a striking feature that he points out is the different
forms of associations that exist in the North and the South. In the
languishing Sout h, many associations are based primarily along blood
lines. Putnam presents the Mafia as an obvious example of this kind of
family organization. Along with crime syndicates, government is also
largely a family affair. Rather than, say, give a road contrac t to the
lowest bidder, a Southern official could very possibly decide to award it
to a relative. On the contrary, most organizations in the North are
unlikely to be formed along family lines. Citizens are able to look past
family bonds in their "associat iveness". Thus a citizen in the North
would be willing to cooperate along the lines of Putnam's weak ties with
almost anyone whereas his Southern counterpart would only be willing to
bond along much, much narrower lines. Putnam describes the different value
of family and non-family bonds thus: "'strong' interpersonal ties (like
kinship and intimate friendship) are less important than 'weak ties' (like
aquaintinceship and shared membership in secondary associations) in sus
taining community cohesion and collective action," (p. 178).

The sphere of religion is another controversial issue for the two authors'
definition of civil society. What role religion can play sets Khaldun and
Putnam apart once again. For Khaldun, Islam was probably the most powerful
unifying force in the society of his day. Just a few hundred years
earlier, it was the cohesive power of the Prophet's religion that allowed
the desert hordes to swarm off the Arabian Peninsula and conquer
a large swath of the world. As Khaldun describes "the armies of the
Muslims at al-Qadisiyah and at the Yarmuk numbered some 30,000 in each
case, while the Persian troops at al-Qadisiyah numbered 120,000, and the
troops of Heraclius...numbered 400,000. Ne ither of the two parties was
able to withstand the Arabs, who routed them and seized what they
possessed," (p. 126). Khaldun describes Islam as a strong force holding
society together in his own times as well, praising how "...when they
(citizen's hearts) are turned toward the truth (i.e., Islam) and reject
the world and whatever is false, and advance toward God, they b ecome one
in their outlook. Jealousy disappears. Mutual cooperation and support
flourish. As a result, the extent of the state widens...," (p. 126, ch. 3,
sect. 4). Khaldun feels that religion strengthens society because
"religious colouring does away with jealousy and envy" and because the
people's "outlook is one and their objective one of common accord," (p.
126). For Khaldun, large scale religiousness among citiz ens is an
indicator of group feeling. Far from being incompatible with civil
society, religion does much to indicate the health of group feeling and
civil society. Putnam, however, takes an opposite tack. His uses as his
basis the difference in the strength of Catholic organizations in the
North and the South of Italy. In the South, the Catholic Church forms the
basis for much of the civic organizations. In the Nort h however,
Catholicism did not play much of a role outside of its own realm. By this
measure, Putnam determines that Catholicism, with its vertical ties of
authority, must somehow be an inhibiting factor on the growth and
existence of civil society. In this regard, he states that "organized
religion...in Catholic Italy, is an alternative to the civic community,
not a part of it," (p. 95). He then points out using statistics that
"...all manifestations of religiosity and clericalism--attendance at mass,
religious (as opposed to civil) marriages, rejection of divorce,
expressions of religious identity in surveys--are negatively correlated wi
th civic engagement. At the individual level, too, religious sentiments
and civic engagement seem to be mutually incompatible," (p. 95). He
concludes that "in today's Italy...the civic community is a secular
community," (p. 95). Putnam thus strongly rejects religion as a factor
that can aid civic society; organized religion is in fact completely
inimical to civil society according to him. The philosophies of Putnam and
Khaldun, with their differing notions of associativeness and asabiyah, can
be broadly applied to define where any society stands civically speaking.
Putnam could apply his concept of civil society to the Maghrib and
Khaldun' s theory could be applied to Italy.

Putnam sees Southern Italy trailing Northern Italy because of its lack of
associativeness; and, where the South has associations, they are based on
non-civilizing factors such as family and religion. When evaluating the
Maghrib (and the Middle East as a whole), Putnam would definitely find
fault with the strong tribalistic and familial bonds that exist throughout
the region. The Muslims fetish with lineages and descendants of Mohammed
make for unstable politics. Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and the other nations are
constantly wracked by inter-tribal fighting. Putnam would condemn these
family loyalties as the generator of instability and as hampering civil
society. Additionally, Putnam would see a cause of the Middle East's lack
of civil society in the prevalence of Islamist organizations. As we have
seen, Putnam states that religion and the public life must operate in two
separate spheres. Any commingling of the tw o realms will inhibit civil
society. Putnam would therefore not recognize any of the many
organizations associated with Islam as fostering the growth of civil
society in any way. In defense of his thesis, Putnam might employ the
example of Turkey, probably the most advanced Muslim nation in terms of
civil society. Despite serious problems with Kurds, Turkey is the only
Islamic nation that has a realistic chance of joining the Euro pean Union
in the near future. Putnam would no doubt credit the strong secularist
traditions instilled by modern Turkey's founder, Attaturk. Also, Turkey's
relative lack of tribalism would also be viewed as a definite plus for
civil society. In order to lead the Middle East out of its current funk,
Putnam would prescribe associativeness beyond family and Islam as the
cure. Only when the people of the middle east develop social capital by
bonding in sports clubs, red cross groups, veterans gro ups and the like
will civil society grow.

Khaldun (were he living) could in turn have much to say to Putnam, and his
conceptualization of civil society could be applied to Italy, as well. In
order to confront Putnam's assertion that religion inhibits civil society,
Khaldun could cite Toqueville, who describes the essential role that
Puritanism played in the formation of the United States. According to
Toqueville, religion played a key role in developing and preserving civil
society in the United States. Khaldun could thus show that religion and c
ivil society are not both mutually exclusive.

Khaldun could also respond to the role of family in civil society in
Italy. What Putnam describes as the suspicion in Southern Italy, the
unwillingness to unite in civic organizations beyond the family, Khaldun
could explain as a lack of asabiyah. Souther n Italians just have not
extended their familial bonds onto non-family members in the South, thus
creating group solidarity. Instead of condemning family, Khaldun might
speculate that the non-familial bonds in the North are just one step
further along the evolutionary trail of bonds. Northerners have just
gotten to the point where family ties have been extended to non-family
members, thus creating a greater level of asabiyah. By this logic, the
South cannot do without family bonds, because it is they that
will evolve into non-family bonds.

While Khaldun and Putnam often disagree on the nature of civil society,
they have both left behind great works that go along way to help explain
just what civil society is, and how it relates to nations today.