Ibn Khaldun, civilizational cycles and a perspective on science

There is a so called “civilizational” debate that has been taking place in the last decades, with several voices emerging in the discourses that have dominated the media and the production of knowledge on an international level. Society’s notions of identity, as they are traditionally conceptualized on national lines, reveal the shortcomings of the heralded conflict, especially since the 1990s, because glaringly, the notion of self as it relates to the difference from the other, left the essential question unanswered – after all, the recent movements of identity politics that made themsleves noticed are nothing more than a symptom of a deep societal void, in which the state and the socialization forced by mass education are unable to fill. Benjamin Anderson would be correct when he spoke of “imagined communities”, about the emergence of nationalism.

In the context of the voices that were announcing conflict, Samuel Huntington responded to Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History” thesis (already problematic for several reasons, that we do not intend to address here) with the ‘’Clash of Civilizations’’. In this curious abstraction, the world would be divided into several zones, whose distinct identities would be the cause of conflict in the intermediate zones, that is, at the points where these identities intersect. Product perhaps of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, and the frequent human tendency to take an isolated event and try to derive from it universal truths, the proposed divisions surprise us by their stark simplicity, which in the end is nothing more than reductionism, whose explanatory power only circumstantially produces conclusions that coincide with reality. It is strange to think of the scientific character which is attributed to a work that completely inverts the scientific method, putting perception in front of facts, without considering that there is a manifest dimension and an ‘’invisible’’ dimension to reality, when the scientific ideal would be to transcend this perceptual limitation.

The question of the dynamic of civilizations is not new. Aristotle himself wrote extensively about it, categorizing people according to the climate zone of their origin. In the lineage of this author, several works have emerged, notably Ibn Khaldun, with his main work, al-Muqaddimah, or “the introduction”, describing the process of emergence, cohesion, expansion, decline and breakdown of civilizations. Born in present-day Tunisia, and of peninsular ancestry as his name al-Hadhrami demonstrates, or “that of Hadhramaut”, a province of present-day Yemen, Ibn Khaldun closely followed the rise and fall of various political powers in the Maghreb and the Middle East, noting historical patterns that were repeated in succession. People in areas of scarcity, united and hardened by the struggle for survival, repeatedly descended on people in areas of abundance, settling in, taking these regions to new economic and cultural peaks, and then settling down, losing the characteristic that made them conquerors, and subsequently being conquered by a new invader, often from the same place originally. To articulate this phenomenon, Ibn Khaldun used the Arabic term Asabiyyah, a kind of tribal solidarity, which would be the animus of these movements. Other authors like Lev Gumilev, who put forward the theory that today would be the backbone of authors as notorious in the field of geopolitics as Alexander Dugin, the well-known ideologue of Vladimir Putin, used similar concepts, which shows their importance. Gumilev would call it passionarnost, but this idea of ​​civilizational dynamics is transversal. There are geographical and economic factors that influence the group’s culture and experience. These dictate their actions in the world at large and are not drawn along simple lines in which conflict arises merely out of difference.

Ibn Khaldun’s contributions are not limited to the functioning of societies and the philosophy of history. Ideas such as the Laffer curve or the labor theory of value are rooted in Ibn Khaldun, and the clarity he demonstrates is notable when we realize how relatively early these ideas were in time, taking into account when they were adopted by other authors, and the importance that they have today. It could even be said that Ibn Khaldun’s thesis not only updates, but also corrects Samuel Huntington in his gaps in perspective, were it not for the fact that the former completed his work 600 years earlier. What is astonishing is the absence of the Maghrebi author from the curricula of so many international relations courses. If the goal is to understand the world, it is necessary to really look at it and not just a part of it, and that implies recognizing that there is a long-standing tradition in the production of knowledge, in places that we are not used to hearing about, that international systems were not always what they are now, and that humans reflect on the nature of things, whatever their experience and history are. Worse than taking a Hegelian position, and saying that the history of the West is the history of humanity and that no other civilization (a concept that seems problematic to me, when applied to such a diverse set of groups of individuals) has produced anything relevant, remarkable, or comparable to its achievements, is to pretend that nothing else exists besides Western civilization, wanting to understand, or even to contribute to the emancipation of the ‘’other’’, without ever validating or recognizing its existence.

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