Thinkers have long been fixated on finding cyclical patterns that can be used to predict important events. It’s easy to understand this fascination. If you can use quantifiable factors to predict some major occurrence — say, the rise or fall of a civilization — you can know the future before it happens. In essence, thinkers who deal with cyclical models aim to be oracles who can forecast the future and prepare accordingly.

In his book Ibn Khaldun: An Intellectual Biography, the Orientalist Robert Irwin explores the life and ideas of a Muslim scholar (and Sufi mystic, court adviser, writer, philosopher, and teacher, among other jobs) who tried his entire life to create a cyclical model of civilization. Professor Irwin shows us that Ibn Khaldun is as insightful as he is ambiguous. In fact, the greatest lesson of this roughly 200-page biography is that Khaldun’s theory about the cycle of decline hardly can be generalized to the world at large.

Group Unity and the Rise and Fall of Civilization

The story goes that Ibn Khaldun was standing among the ruins of some defunct civilization in North Africa. While he was gazing at the corpse of a city, once grand during the Golden Age of Islam, Ibn Khaldun thought of a question: why and how do great civilizations come to an end? 

Such a broad question rarely leads to a satisfying answer, but Khaldun managed to address it with his observations of current events and recent history. Khaldun noted that the ruling dynasties based in North African and Middle Eastern cities were often overthrown by nomads from the desert.

It may seem odd that desert nomads could end a dynasty, but it was perfectly logical to Ibn Khaldun. That is because the closeness and cooperation required by a group living in the desert caused people like the Bedouin to be extremely cohesive. Khaldun called this condition of extreme group unity ‘Asabiyyah.

To Khaldun, ‘Asabiyyah was more than a clever observation about solidarity among people. It was the factor that determines whether a civilization rises or comes to an end. With a sufficiently high level of ‘Asabiyyah, a group of nomads can act with common interest to usurp power from the ruling dynasty in a city.

If they successfully gain power, the group settles in the city and leaves the nomadic life behind. Over several generations, this group — the new dynasty — loses its ‘Asabiyyah as individual interests take priority over the collective interests. The bonds of the desert tribe are replaced by lust for wealth, status, and luxury.  Eventually, corruption and urban living diminish the dynasty’s ‘Asabiyyah to a point where the group is vulnerable to infighting. With the dynasty no longer a united force, an upstart group moves in from the desert and usurps power. And so the cycle continues.

The Cycle of Decline Cannot Be Generalized

Several scholars have attempted to apply Ibn Khaldun’s cycle of decline to other moments in history and the modern world. These efforts have not been met with success.

Cynical Bias

Ibn Khaldun’s cyclical theory does not extrapolate beyond the observations in the Muqqadimah because his conclusions are driven by some biases. First, Ibn Khaldun was a devout Muslim who believed that all things on Earth are fleeting, gradually withering away to death or ruins.

Of course, Ibn Khaldun’s belief in this flavor of fatalism cannot be solely credited to his reading of the Koran. Early in life, Ibn Khaldun lost his parents, teachers, and classmates to the Black Death. Later, he experienced a great deal of political failure and more death as his colleagues and family members died in tragic ways. Death and chaos were simply fixtures in 14th century North Africa; Ibn Khaldun cannot be faulted as naive for believing that decline was inevitable.

Though his cynicism is understandable, Ibn Khaldun’s theory of civilization is worse off because of it. Since his model is cyclical, Ibn Khaldun did not allow the possibility that continued progress is possible, Instead, old civilizations fall to ruin and new civilizations must start from zero. The impossibility of progress implied by this cycle is just not realistic.

Desert Nomads, North Africa, 14th Century

Anyone who wonders why the cycle of decline fails to explain the rise and fall of most civilizations should read the heading above one more time. The cycle is based around a concept of group unity that is strongest among desert nomads. Along with that, all of Khaldun’s observations are from 14th century North Africa.

At the base of Khaldun’s theory is a dichotomy between the austere desert and luxurious city. Some famous western thinkers argued that the city was the symbol of peak civilization. Ibn Khaldun believed just the opposite; the city was a gateway to decline and ruin.

His rationale goes back to ‘Asabiyyah. Desert living was spartan and brutal, but it offered few temptations for people to pursue individual wealth or status. Surviving in the desert was a collective goal. Therefore, groups that survived in the desert for several generations tended to have very high measures of solidarity. Once a group moved from the desert to the city, ‘Asabiyyah could only diminish.

In economic terms, you can think of desert living as saving ‘Asabiyyah and city living as spending ‘Asabiyyah. Once the dynasty exhausts its ‘Asabiyyah, the civilization declines until it is replaced by a newcomer.

It really should not be a surprise that Ibn Khaldun’s cycle of decline cannot generalize the rise and decline of most (let alone all) human civilizations. The driving forces behind ‘Asabiyyah are simply too rooted in a specific time and space.

The Trouble with Cycles

However, the main flaw of Ibn Khaldun’s cycle is not that ‘Asabiyyah is unimportant for most societies or is developed through traits unique to North Africa. Instead, the Khaldunian cycle’s vice is that it is a cycle at all. Ibn Khaldun — and many thinkers before and after him — set out on an impossible task to identify factors that will always cause the rise and fall of a civilization.

Human societies are complex systems. Their functions depend on hundreds of thousands of variables. Some of these variables are natural (geography, climate, weather) and others are social (religion, politics, economics). A field called econometrics tries to make sense of how these variables may influence each other, but confidence in any conclusion falls as you try to generalize.

For example, you may know that poor sleep causes you to be irritable. You are less certain that is the reason your family is irritable. You are even less certain that is the reason your coworkers are irritable. And you are definitely uncertain that is the reason people in your country seem to be in a bad mood.

The more we generalize, the more our certainty decreases. This is the issue with generalized models of human civilization; they take important variables from local contexts (the micro) and try to apply them to the world at large (the macro). Ibn Khaldun and other thinkers who try to create cyclical models of civilizations and human systems will almost always fail to generalize their conclusions.

Some things just cannot be known.