Ḥaram and Ḥawṭah

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ARAM AND AWAH . Arabian society may be described as a conglomeration of individual tribal units normally in a state of war, truce, or alliance with other tribal units, whether these tribes are settled in villages and towns or are migratory herders. Unarmed traders, artisans, and peasants are subject to the noble (sharīf) tribes, who consider them weak (aʿīf) and ignoble. Occasions inevitably arise when tribes, even if at war, must meet on neutral ground in physical security: to attend markets, to make political arrangements such as a truce, and for purposes of religion. Since tribal lords find it hard to accept the authority of their peers, when it becomes necessary for someone to preside over tribal arbitrations, to provide a secure forum for their meetings and even to impose certain sanctions upon them, they require an authority with supernatural backing to preside in territory not subject to tribal law. Consequently, they turn to a family regarded as having holy attributes, deriving supreme authority from a divine source, and so exercising the functions committed to it through a prophet or saint.

The institution known in ancient Arabia as aram (and probably also maram ), and in parts of contemporary south Arabia as awah, is closely associated with such holy houses. It is a sacred enclave containing a shrine, administered in Shāfiʿī territory by a lord called a manab (or sometimes manūb ), subject to divine law and independent of the surrounding tribal territory (a-bā ). The inviolability of the sacred enclave is guaranteed by its tribal supporters (anār ) as in the case of Medina and, for example, Anār Mawlā al-Dawīlah in Wādī Haramawt. aram and awah, the terms for the inviolable sacred enclave, appear to be related semantically to majar and imā, terms for interdicted pastures: the root of each of these commences with the root letter āʾ. In addition, the imā of al-ā'if appears to have had religious associations.

The hijrah of northern Zaydi Yemen, while distinct from aram and awah, is an institution of related pattern. Although it is not attested in the first Islamic centuries, it seems to be foreshadowed in certain pre-Islamic inscriptions. For example, in the expression "wbʾshʿb dhhmdn whgrhmw wʾʿrbhmw" ("the tribes of Hamdan and their protected persons [hijar ] and their tribal [bedouin] Arabs"), the term hijar (sg., hijrah ) means both the protected persons and the place where they reside.

The sacred enclave in its most primitive form is probably exemplified by the awah of Mughshin (northeast of afār, on the edge of the Arabian sands), where to cut bush or to kill hares brings misfortune. As in the simple desert awah, bush may not be cut nor may birds or animals be slain in the Meccan aram, a highly developed institution.

rm and mrm, translated as "sanctuary," are attested in the Sabaic Dictionary (Louvain, 1982). Maram Bilqīs, the name the Arabs give to the ruins of the pre-Islamic temple of Ilumquh at Mārib, is well known. The sanctuary of the god Dhū Samāwī at al-azm of the Yemenite Jawf was set in a sacred enclave: the inscription identifying it refers to a maram and mnbt. Mnbt means a place of anāb or boundary stones which, as is known, marked the Meccan aram, and when Muammad founded the aram at Yathrib (the pre-Islamic name of Medina) he had its bounds marked out in the same way. Oaths were taken by the Anāb al-Kaʿbah and sacrifices made to them. The awah is also marked out with boundary cairns, and on entering it one dismounts out of respect for it.

Inviolability of the Enclaves

The tribes recognized the inviolability of the aram or awah to such an extent that in ancient times the Quraysh would raid outside Mecca but find safety by returning to its aram, a pattern also followed by the tribes of Musaylimah's aram. It cannot, however, be assumed that they thereby escaped scot-free, for, to judge from procedure at the awah in our times, a case would still be brought by the injured party against those tribes; this may indeed almost be deduced from episodes connected with Musaylimah's aram.

The deed of Muammad's foundation of the Yathrib aram, which subsequently became Madīnat al-Nabī, "the prophet's town," is conveyed in documents F and H of the "Eight Documents" (the so-called Constitution of Medina). The regulations they contain, along with those quoted by the historian Wāqidī and the geographer Yāqūt, can also reasonably be considered to represent the law of the pre-Islamic era. Document F states that "this writing does not intervene between a wrongdoer and one committing a criminal act." In his geographical dictionary the Muʿjam, Yāqūt says, "Whosoever enters it [the Meccan aram ] is secure, and he who commits an aggression in any other territory, and then takes refuge in it, is safe when he enters it and when he leaves it the punishments are applied to him." Similarly, the manab will take a murderer who has sought refuge in the awah under his protection and conduct the man back to his tribe; the two tribes affected will then have the case brought to the manab for arbitration.

Murder in the aram or awah is a heinous crime: the murder of the caliph ʿUthmān in the Medinese aram was pointed to as a major offense by his relative Muʿāwiyah. In such a case the manab of the awah writes to the chief of the offending clan and the chiefs of all of the other tribes, making them responsible for dealing with the crime. The guilty clan hastily sends the manab a propitiatory gift, suqān (corresponding to sarf wa-ʿadl in the "Eight Documents"). All the awah tribes then assemble at the manab 's house, and the headman of the guilty clan, or even the manab himself, will take the murderer's dagger and slash his brow with it until it bleeds, to demonstrate that the man's honor (wijh ) has been besmirched. This symbolic action is referred to in a Minean inscription and also in the biography (sīrah ) of the prophet Muammad, where it is called tajbīh and is accompanied by blackening the face. To expiate the offense the guilty tribe must execute one of its own members, not necessarily the murderer, or else all of the other tribes will unite to attack it until atonement is exacted by slayings adequate to the seriousness of the crime of violation.

As any offense against the manab or persons under his protection is regarded as infringing on respect to him, an astute manab can attain great power by playing off one tribe against another. He may even succeed in forming a small theocratic state. Given the tribes' need for a supreme authority deriving power from a divine source, the theocratic state seems a natural development in Arabia, and it is thought that the pre-Islamic mukarribs ruled over theocracies. Leaving aside questions of revelation, there are obvious political parallels between this pattern and the process whereby Muammad established himself in Yathrib.


At this point the hijrah must be reconsidered in terms of its Yemeni usage and as Muammad's Hijrah, nowadays usually translated as his "migration" from Mecca to Medina. "Muammad's hijrah chiefly involves the concept of seeking protection with powerful armed tribes, even if hijrah does [also] mean one's physical transference from one place to another" (Serjeant and Lewcock, 1983, p. 40b). He left the protection of his own tribe, Quraysh, for that of the arms-bearing tribes of Yathrib. In the Yemen sayyids or others (e.g. the Mashāyikh Bayt al-Amar, who are the hijrah of the āshid confederation) may seek tribal protection. The tribes assemble and decide to grant hijrah on the basis of the applicant's sanctity, learning, and other qualities. A person thus protected does not fight or contribute to blood-wit or any levy (ghurm ) the tribe imposes on itself for war, blood-wit, or entertainment. The hijrah, if a man of religion, is considered an ultimate arbiter (marjaʿ ) and an example to be imitated (qudwah ), judging in quarrels, marriage, and divorce, and writing amulets for people and cattle. So hijrah s often become centers of religious learning. Sanaa city is muhajjar, that is, protected by seven large tribal groups in its vicinity. A tribesman slaying there must restore the city's respect (tahjīr ) by paying a fine and slaughtering an ʿaqirah ("sacrificial animal") at the gate of the city. The prophet Muammad became the ultimate arbiter (marjaʿ ) at Yathrib, exercising functions not dissimilar to those of the hijar sayyids and manab s of awah s, although he did not write amulets.

The pre-Islamic aram would be protected by the god whose shrine it contained. In Mecca this was the Kaʿbah, which the adīth suggests was a tent, probably a symbolic form of the square black tent known in the south as karbah. It was the sanctuary of Allāh of Quraysh, known as Quraysh Allāh. With the growth of Quraysh power in Arabia a pantheon seems to have accrued to the original cult. Infringement of the aram laws brought divine punishment because the aram was regarded as able to defend itself by supernatural means, as Yathrib did at the Battle of the Trench, following which the Prophet established his aram there.

The annual pilgrimage to the Meccan aram was the major event of the year; entertainment was provided through a tax levied for the purpose and through private contributions. The pilgrims came in chanting the talbiyah, verses addressing the god, as today they would call out "Ya Hūd!" and chant the tahwīd to the prophet Hūd at his annual pilgrim age. The Meccan pilgrimage was of a pattern common to the Arabian Peninsula to judge by an inscription which details regulations for the pilgrimage to Almaqah at Mārib. There the god Taʾlab is to receive tithes from which he will provide a banquet. Animals under Taʾlab's protection are not to be hunted.

Islam abolished the gods of paganism and left no partner to Allāh, but the sacred enclaves have remained, the awah s with their pilgrimages. Those pilgrimages are either annual events or are made out of season for special private requests of the saints whose tombs are usually found in the awah s: the pilgrims circumambulate the tombs, grasping the four corner-posts as they pass. To this day also the manab must provide from his revenues for a feast at pilgrimage time and entertain visitors throughout the year.


Kister, M. J. Studies in Jāhiliyya and Early Islam. London, 1980. A collection of articles, in which see especially "Mecca and Tamim: Aspects of Their Relations" and "Some Reports Concerning Mecca: From Jāhiliyya to Early Islam."

Serjeant, R. B. South Arabian Hunt. London, 1976.

Serjeant, R. B. Studies in Arabian History and Civilisation. London, 1981. A collection of articles, in which see especially "Hūd and Other Pre-Islamic Prophets of aramawt," "aram and awah : The Sacred Enclave in Arabia," "The 'Constitution of Medina,' " and "The Sunnah Jāmiʿah : Pacts with the Yathrib Jews and the Tarīm of Yathrib."

Serjeant, R. B., with Ronald Lewcock, eds. anʿāʾ; An Arabian Islamic City. London, 1983.

R. B. Serjeant (1987)