In my earlier piece I offered an examination of Ibn Khaldun’s theory of asabiyyah. In this piece I want expand on this and delve deeper into Khaldunian concept of asabiyah. As I mentioned before, Ibn Khaldun is best known for his conceptualisation of asabiyyah.

The term asabiyah linguistically is an abstract noun that derives from the Arabic root asab, meaning “to bind” or “to unite”. As a term, it was already in use in Arabia before the advent of Islam but it was popularised by Ibn Khaldun in his masterpiece, The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History which is a universal history of the Arabs and Berbers of North Africa.

Beyond a universal history, Muqaddimah is a theory of the rise and fall of communities, states, dynasties, societies, and human civilisations from which emerges Ibn Khaldun’s concept of asabiyah as a descriptor of “group solidarity”, “human cooperativity”, and “social cohesion”.

According to Simon (2002: 47), asabiyah refers to “‘the nature of the group’ or ‘groupdom’” and Baali (1988: 43) explains it is “to bind the individuals into a group (asabtun, usbatun, or isabatun)”. He goes on to note that:

Asabiyah is also a form derived from asaba, which designates the concept that is etymologically abstracted from the concrete form. … The term asabiyah has been translated as “esprit de corps,” “partisanship,” “famille,” “parti,” “tribal consciousness,” “blood relationship,” “tribal spirit,” “tribal loyalty,” “vitality,” “feeling of unity,” “group adhesion,” “groupdom,” “sense of solidarity,” “group mind,” collective consciousness,” “group feeling,” “group solidarity,” “feeling of solidarity,” and “social solidarity” (1988: 43).

Ahmed notes that “With ‘asabiyya, society fulfils its primary purpose to function with integrity and transmits its values and ideas to the next generation” (2002: 30). Jamal offers his own insight into asabiyah saying “Asabiyah is the force, which binds groups together, who share same culture, language and customs. It goes to varied levels from family, tribe, kingdom or nation as a whole.

It reflects the developments in the society” (2012: 79). For Turchin, “Asabiyyah of a group is the ability of its members to stick together, to cooperate; it allows a group to protect itself against the enemies, and impose its will on others” (2007: 91). In his definition of asabiyah, Turchin stresses the social role of asabiyah which resonates with Khaldunian notion of asabiyah as a social phenomenon.

It is clear that varied understandings and definitions of asabiyah exist in the literature. Consensus over its meaning is weak and for some even absent. What Ibn Khaldun meant by the term asabiyah precisely is not clear because although he uses the term quite extensively in his Muqaddimah, he never offers an explicit definition and this perhaps is due to the term being familiar and in regular use in his day.

Ibn Khaldun was concerned with discovering and explaining the basic laws and principles upon which society operates. He considered it necessary to have asabiyah in the construction of a strong social group. Thus, he explains the rise and fall of groups, communities, societies, and civilisations with the use of his concept of asabiyah.

For him asabiyah is “a social bond”, “a relational glue”, “solidarity”, “group belongingness”, and “social cohesion” that can be used to gauge the strength, stability, and progress of social collectivities. It enables individuals to identify with a group, pledge their loyalty to it, and relinquish their own personal interests for the sake of the group rendering the individuals subordinate to the group (Ibn-Khaldun 1967).

For Ibn Khaldun, the principal unit of analysis in his theory of human collectivity is umran (civilisation). In his worldview, umran, which would be in our understanding of the “social” was central. He divides civilization into two – nomadic/rural and sedentary/urban – and explains how there is a movement from one to the other, that is, a transition from umran badawi (rural) to umran hadari (urban). Umran, in Ibn Khaldun’s view is not something fixed or an artefact but rather a dynamic process.

Humans by nature, asserts Ibn Khaldun, are social beings who favour collective existence over individual living and therefore opt for living together, cooperate with one another, and be assistance to each other. He says, “… human beings cannot live and exist except through social organization and co-operation for the purpose of obtaining their food and other necessities of life (Ibn Khaldun 1967:151).

However, this is not always the case as individuals give into worldly temptations and motivated by self-interest, sometimes act against group interest and collective benefit thereby contributing to the weakening and destabilisation of the society. He notes that nomadic tribes lived together in a cooperative and unselfish manner manifesting strong social solidarity or asabiyah.

Nomads as umran badawi people essentially lead a very simple and natural life far removed from life of luxury, opulence, and lavishness. They are hard workers, display great bravery, and are connected together by their close ancestral or tribal bonds.

Although they can be fierce but overall possess good character and are subservient only to their tribal heads with outstanding character (Ibn Khaldun 1967). Asabiyah acts as a bridge to unite them together.

Although asabiyah manifests itself most clearly and prominently in consanguinal relations and in families and tribe than among sedentary people, it is not confined to nomadic or tribal people because asabiyah is a social value, a craft acquired through the process of socialisation.