Rise & Fall of Societies

Factors Responsible for the Rise and Decline of a Society

This brings us to the crucial question of why it is that Muslims first rose to great heights and then started to decline until they reached their present low position. There is no doubt that a number of moral, psychological, social, economic, political, demographic, and historical factors are responsible for this. Development economics, until recently, took only economic factors into account and considered all other factors to be exogenous and, perhaps, even irrelevant. However, there are a number of scholars, including Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) and Gibbon (1737-1794) in the past, and Spengler (1926), Toynbee (1935), Schweitzer (1949), Sorokin (1981), North and Thomas (1973), Kennedy (1987), and several others more recently who have not followed this line of thinking. They have, instead, taken all these factors into account. This is because human well-being or misery is determined by not just economic but also non-economic factors. There seems to be no reason, therefore, to ignore these other factors and take into account only economic factors in our analysis.

Of all the scholars mentioned above, this paper concentrates primarily on Ibn Khaldun’s analysis. This is because he was concerned primarily with the Muslim civilization, which was already in the process of decline during his lifetime. The Abbasid Caliphate (750-1258) had come to an end around three quarters of a century before his birth, after the pillage, burning, and near destruction of Baghdad and its surrounding areas by the Mongols. In addition, the Circassian Mamluks (1382-1517), during whose period Ibn Khaldun spent nearly a third of his life, were corrupt and inefficient. They followed policies that could not but accelerate the decline. As a conscientious Muslim, he wanted to see a reversal of this process of decline.

Being a social scientist, he was well aware that such a reversal could not be brought about without analyzing first the factors that led to the rise of Muslims and then to their decline. He was, accordingly, interested in knowing not only what had happened, but also why things happened as they did. He wanted to establish a cause and effect relationship between the different historical events so as to be able to suggest a remedy for the malaise of his society. The Muqaddimah is a reflection of this desire. In it, he analyzes scientifically the factors that are responsible for the rise and fall of dynasties and civilizations. It goes to his credit that, instead of relying on just one variable, he took into account a number of variables including moral, psychological, political, social, demographic and historical.

Ibn Khaldun's Model

The strength of Ibn Khaldun’s analysis lies in its multidisciplinary and dynamic character. It is multidisciplinary because it links all important socio-economic and political variables in a circular and interdependent manner, each influencing the others and, in turn, being influenced by them.

These variables are:

  1. The sovereign or political authority;
  2. Beliefs and rules of behaviour, or the Shari’ah;
  3. People;
  4. Wealth or stock of resources;
  5. Development;
  6. Justice.

Since the operation of this cycle takes place in his model through a chain reaction over a long period of three generations or almost 120 years, a dimension of dynamism is automatically introduced into the analysis and helps explain how political, moral, institutional, social, economic, demographic, and historical factors interact with each other over time to lead to the development and decline, or the rise and fall, of a dynasty or civilization. One of the variables acts as the trigger mechanism. If the other sectors react in the same direction as the trigger mechanism, the decay will gain momentum through an interrelated chain reaction in such a way that it becomes difficult over time to distinguish the cause from the effect. If the other sectors do not react in the same direction, then the decay in one sector may not spread to the others and either the decaying sector may be reformed over time or the decline of the civilization may be much slower.

What this model implies is that, even though the rise and fall of a dynasty or civilization depends on a number of factors, the most important of these is the human being himself, who is the end and the means of development. All the other factors are important because of the influence they tend to have on his/her behaviour and well-being. Two of the most crucial of these other factors are development and justice. The human being will not work hard and do his best until his well-being is ensured. This necessitates wealth as well as development. However, development will not take place until there is justice. Justice demands that there be certain rules of behavior or moral values. These are provided by the Shari’ah. However, these rules of behaviour will not be effective unless they are enforced. This is where the concept of accountability in the Hereafter, which the Shari’ah as well as other religions provide, becomes important. Since all people may not necessarily live up to the dictates of moral values, the role of the government becomes important in preventing negative behavior and ensuring justice. Hence, the roles of the people, wealth, development, justice, Shari’ah and government are all interrelated in his model. None of these can be ignored. Nevertheless, socioeconomic justice has a crucial position in the rise and fall of a society in Ibn Khaldun’s model.

Factors that Led to the Rise of Muslims

Let us now look at the factors that led to the rise of Muslim societies. A number of scholars, including Toynbee (1957), Hitti (1958), Hodgson (1977), Baeck (1994) and Lewis (1995) have argued that Islam served as the trigger mechanism in the rise of Muslim societies. This is because it is only the factor of Islam that is capable of answering the question of why a bedouin society, rising from scratch, was able to develop so rapidly against all odds. The primary characteristics of this bedouin society at that time were bitter internecine feuds, paucity of resources, a harsh climate and a difficult terrain. It did not possess any of the material assets that its powerful neighbours, the Sassanian and Byzantine Empires, had. Even though these empires had become nearly exhausted as a result of their prolonged and destructive wars with each other by the time Muhammad (PBUH) was bom, they were, nevertheless, academically, economically, and militarily far more powerful at that time than Arabia.

Hence, the question is: what did Islam do to bring about a transformation of this bedouin society in such a way that it did not only overcome its own handicaps but also brought about a revolutionary change in the societies that came under its influence? Without Islam, there would not have been, in the words of Toynbee, that “extraordinary deployment of latent spiritual forces by which Islam transfigured itself, and thereby transformed its mission, in the course of six centuries.”

What Islam did was to activate all the developmental factors in a positive direction. It gave maximum attention to the people, who constitute the primary force behind the rise or fall of a society. It tried to uplift them morally as well as materially, to make them better human beings, and to reform all the institutions that affected them. Its revolutionary worldview changed their outlook towards life by injecting a meaning and purpose into it. It gave them justice, dignity, equality, self-respect and a noble mission to live for. It provided sanctity to life, individual honor, and property. It created a balance between the material and the spiritual, considering both to be essential for human development and well-being.

Accordingly, it gave a higher and more respectable status to the farmer, craftsman and merchant as compared with what they had enjoyed in the Mazdean or the then-prevailing Christian traditions. It replaced loyalty to the tribe with loyalty to God and, thereby, enlarged the individual’s horizon to that of the ummah, all of whom profess the same faith, and to that of mankind, all of whom are brothers unto each other by virtue of their being members of the same family of God. The institutional requirements for development emphasized by the Nobel Laureate Prof. Douglas North were satisfied. Schatzmiller is, therefore, correct in stating that “all the factors which enabled Europe to succeed were available to Islam much earlier.”

The most important thing that Islam helped accomplish through its spiritually-oriented worldview was the realization of socio-economic justice par excellence. Cohen has rightly acknowledged this by stating that “the underlying tendency of the Qur’anic legislation was to favour the underprivileged.” The status as well as the well-being of the weak and the downtrodden improved in a revolutionary manner that it is hard to imagine. This brought about social solidarity of the kind that turned Muslims into a strong impenetrable wall (al-Qur’an, As-Saf 61: 4), something that would have been hard to realize even if an enormous amount of wealth had been spent for this purpose (al-Qur’an, Al-Anfal 8: 63). This was accomplished through moral and institutional reform that made the individual conscious of his obligations towards his fellow human beings. The government, of course, played a crucial role in this. It did everything it could to ensure the prevalence of law and order as well as justice. It established a judicial system in which the law applied equally to the high and the low. It is, therefore, not possible to overemphasize the role that socio-economic justice played in the rise of Muslims.

Factors Responsible for the Decline of Muslims

What triggered the decline of Muslims after reaching such lofty heights of achievement in all walks of life? The trigger mechanism was, according to Ibn Khaldun, introduction of political illegitimacy when caliph Mu‘awiyah, initiated hereditary succession by appointing his son, Yazid, to the caliphate (khilafah) in 676/77. This was in clear violation of Islamic teachings with respect to statecraft. Nevertheless, political authority did not deteriorate into despotism immediately after the abolition of the khilafah. The Shari‘ah continued to be a source of inspiration for the people and the government remained under pressure to ensure socio-economic justice. Unfortunately, the governments became more and more absolute and arbitrary with the passage of time. Accountability of the rulers and the political elite, equality before law, and freedom of expression began to decline in clear violation of the Shari’ah. Justice and development became the worst victims. The people suffered and their incentive to work, produce and innovate was adversely affected. The virus of political illegitimacy gradually infected all other aspects of the society and the economy through circular causation. The worst to be affected were socio-economic justice and development. Consequently, the Muslim world started losing the momentum of development that had been trigged by Islam and declined to the extent that it could not prevent its colonization by European powers.

M. Umer Chapra


Source: Essays on Muslims and the Challenges of Globalisation, Institute of Policy Studies, Islamabad. Republished with permission. 

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