Studying Decline of Islamic Civilisation Using Theoretical Frameworks

Shahid H. Raja
6 min readMar 14, 2024

Introduction

The rise and fall of great empires have been a subject of fascination for scholars throughout history. Several renowned scholars have provided theoretical frameworks to understand this phenomenon, each offering a unique insight into the causes and processes involved. Some of the scholars who became famous for propounding theories about the rise and fall of great civilisations and empires are Ibn Khaldun, Arnold Toynbee, Will Durant, Oswald Spengler, Edward Gibbon, Paul Kennedy etc. Each scholar brings a distinct perspective to the table, offering varied explanations of the factors underlying the ascent and descent of civilizations and empires.

  1. Ibn Khaldun: Ibn Khaldun, a 14th-century Arab historian and philosopher, introduced the concept of “asabiyyah,” which refers to social cohesion and group solidarity. According to Khaldun, empires rise and fall due to the cyclical nature of asabiyyah. Initially, a society formed around a strong sense of solidarity led to the rise of an empire. However, over time, asabiyyah weakens, leading to internal conflicts, decadence, and ultimately, the collapse of the empire.
  2. Arnold Toynbee: Toynbee, a 20th-century British historian, proposed the theory of challenge and response. He argued that civilizations rise to greatness when they successfully respond to challenges, both internal and external. However, when they fail to adapt and respond effectively to new challenges, they enter a period of decline. The fall of empires, according to Toynbee, occurs when they lose the ability to innovate and adapt to changing circumstances.
  3. Will Durant: Durant, an American historian, examined the lifespan of civilizations in his work “The Story of Civilization.” He believed that civilizations go through a cycle of growth, maturity, decay, and eventual collapse. Durant attributed the fall of empires to a combination of factors, internal factors such as corruption, and moral decay, and external factors like invasions and economic crises.
  4. Oswald Spengler: Spengler, a German philosopher, introduced the concept of “cultural morphology” in his influential work “The Decline of the West.” He argued that civilizations have a finite lifespan and follow a predetermined trajectory. According to Spengler, empires decline when they exhaust their creative energy and lose their cultural vitality. He viewed the decline of empires as an inevitable outcome of the cyclical nature of history.
  5. Paul Kennedy: Kennedy, a British historian, proposed the theory of “imperial overstretch” in his book “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers.” He argued that empires collapse when they overextend themselves economically, militarily, and politically. According to Kennedy, the pursuit of imperial ambitions beyond a state’s capacity leads to fiscal strain, military overextension, and eventual decline.
  6. Edward Gibbon: Gibbon, an 18th-century British historian, is famous for his work “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” He attributed the fall of the Roman Empire to a combination of internal factors such as corruption, economic decline, and military incompetence, as well as external factors like barbarian invasions.
  7. Peter Turchin: Turchin, a contemporary Russian-American scientist and historian, introduced the concept of “cliodynamics” to study the rise and fall of empires. Cliodynamics applies mathematical and computational models to analyze historical dynamics. Turchin argues that empires collapse due to a combination of demographic pressure, elite overproduction, and state fiscal crisis.
  8. Joseph Tainter: Tainter, an American anthropologist, proposed the theory of “the collapse of complex societies.” He argues that empires collapse when they reach a point of diminishing returns on investments in complexity. According to Tainter, as empires become more complex to solve problems, they require increasing amounts of resources until they become unsustainable and collapse.
  9. Herbert Spencer: Spencer, a 19th-century English philosopher, introduced the concept of “social Darwinism.” He applied the principles of natural selection to societies, arguing that empires decline due to the survival of the fittest. According to Spencer, empires collapse when they fail to adapt to changing social, economic, and environmental conditions.
  10. Jared Diamond: Diamond, an American geographer and historian, proposed the theory of “collapseology” in his book “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.” He argues that empires collapse due to a combination of environmental degradation, resource depletion, climate change, and societal responses to these challenges.

In summary, the fall of great empires can be understood through various theoretical frameworks provided by scholars who highlight factors such as internal cohesion, response to challenges, cultural vitality, imperial overreach, internal decay, external pressures, demographic dynamics, complexity, adaptation, and environmental sustainability. as key determinants of imperial decline. While each scholar offers a unique perspective, their insights collectively contribute to a deeper understanding of the complex phenomenon of imperial decline.

Studying the Decline of Islamic Civilisation

Let’s examine how each of the theoretical frameworks proposed by scholars like Ibn Khaldun, Arnold Toynbee, Will Durant, Oswald Spengler, Paul Kennedy, Edward Gibbon, Peter Turchin, Joseph Tainter, Herbert Spencer, and Jared Diamond can be applied to understand the fall of the Islamic civilization:

  1. Ibn Khaldun: Ibn Khaldun’s concept of “asabiyyah” can be relevant to the fall of the Islamic civilization. During the early Islamic period, there was a strong sense of unity and solidarity among the Muslim community, leading to the rapid expansion of the Islamic empire. However, over time, internal divisions emerged, leading to conflicts between different factions within the Islamic world. These internal divisions weakened the social cohesion and solidarity that were essential for the empire’s stability, ultimately contributing to its decline.
  2. Arnold Toynbee: Toynbee’s theory of challenge and response can be applied to the fall of the Islamic civilization. The Islamic empire faced various challenges throughout its history, including external invasions, internal conflicts, and socio-economic changes. While the Islamic civilization initially responded effectively to these challenges, there came a point where it struggled to adapt to the changing circumstances, leading to its decline.
  3. Will Durant: Durant’s theory of the cyclical nature of civilizations can also be relevant to the fall of the Islamic civilization. The Islamic empire experienced periods of growth and prosperity, followed by periods of decline and instability. Factors such as corruption, political unrest, and economic decline contributed to the empire’s eventual collapse, echoing Durant’s theory of civilization cycles.
  4. Oswald Spengler: Spengler’s concept of cultural vitality and decline can be applied to the fall of the Islamic civilization. The Islamic world was known for its rich cultural and intellectual achievements during its golden age. However, over time, there was a decline in cultural creativity and innovation, leading to stagnation and decline within the Islamic civilization.
  5. Paul Kennedy: Kennedy’s theory of imperial overstretch can be relevant to the fall of the Islamic civilization, particularly during the later periods of its history. As the Islamic empire expanded, it faced challenges in maintaining control over vast territories, which strained its resources and administration. This overextension contributed to the empire’s eventual decline.
  6. Edward Gibbon: Gibbon’s explanation of internal decay and external pressures can be applied to the fall of the Islamic civilization. The Islamic empire faced both internal challenges such as political instability, religious conflicts, and economic decline, as well as external pressures from neighbouring powers and invasions from foreign forces, which eventually led to its collapse.
  7. Peter Turchin: Turchin’s theory of demographic pressure and elite overproduction can be relevant to understanding the fall of the Islamic civilization. As the Islamic empire grew, it faced challenges in managing its diverse population and maintaining the loyalty of its elites. This demographic pressure, combined with elite overproduction and internal conflicts, contributed to the empire’s decline.
  8. Joseph Tainter: Tainter’s theory of the collapse of complex societies can also be applied to the fall of the Islamic civilization. As the Islamic empire grew more complex over time, it became increasingly difficult to sustain its bureaucratic apparatus and manage its diverse territories. This complexity eventually became unsustainable, leading to the empire’s collapse.
  9. Herbert Spencer: Spencer’s concept of social Darwinism can be relevant to the fall of the Islamic civilization. The Islamic empire faced challenges from competing civilizations and struggled to adapt to changing geopolitical dynamics. This struggle for survival in a competitive environment contributed to the empire’s eventual decline.
  10. Jared Diamond: Diamond’s theory of collapse due to environmental degradation and resource depletion may have limited applicability to the fall of the Islamic civilization compared to other frameworks. While environmental factors may have played a role in certain regions, such as desertification in North Africa, the decline of the Islamic civilization was more significantly influenced by socio-political and economic factors.

In conclusion, each of these theoretical frameworks provides valuable insights into understanding the fall of the Islamic civilization, highlighting the complex interplay of internal and external factors that contributed to its decline over time. While no single framework can fully explain the collapse of such a multifaceted civilization, examining the various perspectives offered by these scholars can deepen our understanding of this historical phenomenon.

From the Ebook “Muslim Political Philosophy: A Hand Book”, published by Amazon and available at

--

--