inigo montoya sm

asabiyyah. it’s a word that was used by ibn khaldun in his work on history entitled Muqaddimah or Prolegomena (“Introduction” — here’s a version on google books).

asabiyyah often gets translated simply as “group solidarity” or “social cohesion” or “group feeling” which has led many a westerner to think that it can be applied to any old group, but that is just not so. this “group feeling” that khaldun was writing about was specifically the solidarity found in arab or arabized clans and tribes. other thinkers of the islamic golden age, such as al-farabi, also discussed the concept of asabiyyah. al-farabi, however, used the word more in its (apparently) original sense — clannishness. i kid you not! [pg. 171]:

“According to Muhsin Mahdi in his authoritative work, ‘Ibn Khaldun’s Philosophy of History’ (London: George Allen and Unwin, 195), 263 n. 1, Ibn Khaldun’s use of ‘asabiyyah differs from Alfarabi’s. The former views ‘asabiyyah both as a source of division *and* as a source of unity; the latter views it merely as a source of division. Thus, Mahdi translates ‘asabiyyah in his book on Ibn Khaldun as ‘social solidarity’ rather than as ‘clannishness.’

“But perhaps Iban Khaldun has not departed from Alfarabi in the respect Mahdi suggests. For Alfarabi, although ‘asabiyyah is a source of division between different clans, it is certainly a source of unity within the clan (or *dunasteia*). The common purpose of fighting common enemies unites the members of the clan. Once the law has unified clans into a city, the city’s common fighting purpose still derives from the ‘asabiyyah of its citizens, especially of its leading clan. Is ‘asabiyyah really a greater source of unity than this in the ‘Muqaddimah’? As Mahdi himself notes, Ibn Khaldun never identifies what he calls the ‘natural rule or governance (*mulk tabi’i*) in which one clan rules a group of other clans by virtue of its superior ‘asabiyyah without the assistance of a law (divine or ‘rational’) as a ‘regime’ (ibid., 264-265). The reason why he does not refer to it as a regime is obvious: The result of this kind of rule is not the minimum of internal peace necessary for political life but ‘constant war [i.e., civil war] and confusion’ (ibid., 265).”

asabiyyah, then, is the “group solidarity” or “social cohesion” of the clan or the tribe. it is not the social cohesion that held medieval arab/arabized societies together. asabiyyah was, in fact, the force that divided those societies — and is dividing iraq and syria today. the problem for arabized societies is not having too little asabiyyah, it’s that they have too much.

according to khaldun, part of the trick to maintaining a state full of independent clans each with their own asabiyyah is for the ruling clan to develop some sort of supra-asabiyyah and in that way reach a state of iltiham or coalesence [pg. 285 and pg. 32 here]. this is easier said than done, since each of the clans/tribes at least theoretically wants to be the one on top — if they can get there. islam itself was an excellent uniting force early on for arab tribes. until mohammed died and the infighting over who’d be in charge started (i.e. the origin of the sunni-shia split). maybe some form of radical islam will work today — perhaps whatever al-qaeda or isis has on offer. the problem is, all of the asabiyyah in arab societies is always pulling it apart.

another trick to running a country full of clans while maintaining your own clan on the top is to give enough favors to other clans to keep them happy in their subordinate positions. these are just patron-client systems writ large. this is exactly what the ruling clans did when the arabs first invaded iraq. i wrote in my last post on the arabs in iraq how the clans and tribes set themselves up in separate streets in separate neighborhoods. well, most of these newly relocated clans received stipends from the clans in charge to compensate them for their services during the invasion. this was their booty, in other words. and the financing for these stipends came from taxes — in part from the jizya payed by the non-muslims in iraq. you may have heard about jizya. [see morony on all of this.]

the patronage system — with nepotism to boot — is how arabized states are still run today. it’s the only way, because otherwise the asabiyyahs of all the different clans would tear these countries apart [pgs. 3-4]:

“Ibn Khaldun claims that power (*mulk*) is not based in the [arab] city as was the case in Greek tradition, but is instead based on an essential regroup of key ‘asabiyyah concepts. These are emotional links and blood relationships (*silat-ar-rahem*) — both tribal and familial — driven by sociological narrative rather than citizenship in public space. The roles of brothers, sons, uncles, half-brothers, wives, daughters, and mothers of the leader are defined via ‘asabiyyah in Arab political systems. These elements of analysis, beyond their anecdotal dimensions, introduce us to the heart of how authoritarian dynastical rule functions. ‘Asabiyyah acquires an incomparable force by controlling the state apparatus and carrying out public politics.

“This type of ‘asabiyyah was particularly visible in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, mainly within the security and intelligence apparatuses. It is obvious today in the republican-style authoritarian regime of Asad. We also find ‘asabiyyah applied in the Arab Gulf countries, led by large families who dominate ‘departments of sovereignty’ (*wizarat as-seyadah*), meaning all key positions in the state. Saudi Arabia could be cited as the singular example in which dynastic succession functions through internal cooptation of the al-Saud clan, but it can also be understood as a rotation of the top matrilineages — the clans of origin of the princes’ mothers.

“The princes that belong to the first circle of power and lead departments of sovereignty or hold the governorates of important provinces tend to enter exogamous marriages (which is contrary to the norms established for preferential Arab unions). The women of the al-Saud clan typically enter endogamous marital unions. The clan is therefore a taker, rather than a giver, of women, which both expresses and helps perpetuate the dominant position it holds. Here, matrimonial strategies ensure the clientelism of other clans in the country. In a tribalized and a poorly integrated society, such as that of Saudi Arabia, the paternal clan’s grip on power ensures the cohesion and stability of the ruling group.”

…by keeping subordinate clans happy by sharing with them some of the “spoils” (in the case of saudi arabia or the uae or qatar — oil money!).

some of the confusion some (many!) westerners have about what asabiyyah refers to comes, i think, from the fact that they overlook which populations khaldun was talking about. he specifically looked at the arab states in spain and north africa [pg. 214] and contrasted them with kurdish and bedouin and berber tribal populations [pg. 45]. by the time that khaldun was writing in the fourteenth century, all of these groups were well-arabized and probably had been practicing father’s brother’s daughter (fbd) marriage for several hundred years and, so, would’ve been very clannish [see, for example, the previous post on iraq]. the arab states repeatedly fell apart, not because they ran out of asabiyyah, but because those in charge didn’t manage to hold together their state in the face of all the different asabiyyahs of the various clans/tribes within their states. the invading groups — the kurds, bedouin, and berbers — of course held together by the promise of riches if and when they succeeded in conquering the settled arabs.

most importantly, though, the lessons learned from these populations can’t be applied most other places, because different peoples are different. so, for instance, i think peter turchin’s got two out of three right: 1) yes, you need a charismatic leader to unite clans/tribes (think: mohammed); 2) yes, you need some sort of ideology to create that iltiham (islam worked great back in the day) — even better if you can throw in some spoils; but 3) no, you cannot just go to the desert, either literally or figuratively, in order for your group to acquire asabiyyah. (although dune is an awesome novel/movie! so turchin’s actually got three out of four things right….) you need to be a real clan to do that with real (close) genetic ties and enough time to allow natural selection to select for asabiyyah. the problem is, what to do with it once you’ve got it?

update: see also asabiyyah ii – clannishness and the abbasid caliphate

(note: comments do not require an email. asabiyyah.)

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