Most Muslims know, or should know, that Ibn Khaldun was one of the greatest of social theorists, who lived at a time in the fifteenth century when the Islamic civilisation was perceptibly in decline. He pondered the causes of this sad state, and came up with a cyclical theory of degeneration. This relates to the general tendency of ruling elites to become effete and personally corrupted, so that they lose the ability to cope with crises and eventually even to govern. The story is well told in the Biblical narrative of Saul the warrior, David the king, Solomon the emperor, and finally his sons who fell into degeneracy and civil war. In industrial Lancashire, the same cycle was told as ‘clogs to clogs in three generations’, where the grandson of the ambitious worker ended his days wearing clogs back at the mill, having squandered the inheritance of his forbears.
There are two time-frames for this cycle. The first, most familiar, is that of civilisations, which take generations to work through. But in modern times we have seen a similar cycle in revolutions, where the route from liberation to renewed tyranny is traversed in decades or less. Since the ‘Arab Spring’ has significance at both levels, we can consider them both, the long-term cycle and the short.
The relevance of Ibn Khaldun’s story is that in many ways the European empire seems to be in serious decline. For Muslims the natural hope is that as the West goes down, Islam, as a community and way of life, has at last a chance of a renaissance. But whether Islam does indeed rise again in triumph, or whether there will be an unstable or fluid period when all non-Western cultures struggle to regain strength and confidence, is really beyond the scope of this essay. I will simply explore some of the evidence for a decline, try out various explanations, some along Ibn Khaldun’s lines, and finally indicate some grounds for hope that the future will not simply repeat the mistakes of the past. I will focus on the ‘Arab Spring’ which we are just now celebrating.