How do civilizations fall? Islamic thinkers had an image for it. Consider a civilization based upon a court in a thriving city— Baghdad, for example. Arts and the intellect flourish. But over several generations, as the great Islamic philosopher of the fourteenth century Ibn Khaldun put it, the civilized become decadent with luxury. They lose their sharpness and think only of the good and the beautiful. And then some tribe of fierce Bedouin, smelling out weakness, come thundering in from the desert and storm the city. As barbarians, they do not understand the usages of civilization. They stable their horses in the libraries and use sculptures as doorstops, pictures for target practice. Given a pillow, Ibn Khaldun tells us contemptuously, they suppose it to be a bundle of rags. In time, however, the power of a superior culture is felt, and these people adopt and sometimes extend the ways of civilization, until they too are overthrown in their turn.

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