Tribalism, Middle East

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The term tribe, derived from the Latin tribus, refers to a group of persons forming a community and claiming descent from a common ancestor. In the Middle East and North Africa, unlike many other parts of the world, claiming tribal affiliation often positively affirms community, identity, and belonging. In the mid-to late twentieth century, nationalist leaders in some regions rejected claims to tribal identity as "primitive" or potentially divisive to national unity. In the early twenty-first century in Morocco, Yemen, and Jordan, tribal affiliations figure implicitly in electoral politics in many regions, although other aspects of personal and collective identity also come into play. In the Iraq ruled by Saddam Hussein (19792003), the mention in public of one's tribal identity, outlawed in the 1980s in an effort to forge national identity, crept back into common usage and regime practice by the mid-1990s. Tribal identities remain important in many regions of the Middle East. They provide the basis for many forms of communal and political solidarity, although never exclusive ones, in many parts of the Arabian peninsula, Iraq, Jordan, Syria, among Arabs in Israel, and in the Palestinian areas.

Tribes in Seventh-Century Arabia

Tribal identities in the Middle East are best seen in the context of the wider social and economic networks in which they have played a part, from ancient empires to the present. Tribal, kinship, and genealogical identities also profoundly influenced religious and political formations in earlier periods of the Middle East. For example, studies of ancient Judaism now also take tribal relations more into account than did earlier accounts that relied primarily on textual exegesis. In all these cases, however, alternative forms of social and political identity were never entirely absent.

For example, in the Arabian peninsula at the time of the advent of Islam in 622 c.e., social position in both oasis towns and their hinterlands depended foremost on overlapping ties of family, kinship, and tribe. In this context, Islam offered a new form of belonging, the "firmest tie" in the language of the Koran (2: 256), binding believers to God and giving them a sense of individual responsibility. The Koran morally sanctions ties to family, kin, and tribe but the community of Muslims (Ar., umma ), united in submission to the one God, takes precedence.

The sense of belonging as individuals to the community of Muslims as the principal social and religious identity broke with the primary loyalties of the pre-Islamic era, but in practice tribal structure and claimed descent remained essential to understanding political, social, and economic action from later historical periods to the present. Thus there are many early references to the prophet Muhammad as an arbitrator among feuding tribes, a role traditionally played by members of his descent group, the Quraysh, prior to the advent of Islam. Many tribal groups decided that their adherence to the community of Muslims ceased with Muhammad's death in 632 c.e., leaving them open to forge new alliances.

Tribal Identity and Political Metaphor

Tribal genealogies and identities often employ metaphors such as the parts of the human body and the branches of a tree to symbolize stability, obligation, and belonging, but tribal and lineage identities in the Middle East are social constructs that change and are manipulated with shifting political and economic circumstances. Ibn Khaldun (13321406), the medieval North African historian and advisor to kings, recognized the flexible shape of tribal identities.

For Ibn Khaldun, "group feeling" (Ar., 'asabiyya ) exists when groups act cohesively, as if compelling ties of obligation hold them together to achieve common interests over extended periods of time. Thus belonging to a tribe does not depend on kinship or descent alone. In certain circumstances, individuals can change tribal, lineage, and clan affiliations. Dynasties and political domination were hard to sustain without such cohesiveness, especially present in tribal contexts. Group feeling is expressed in terms of presumed "blood" relationships, but in tribal contexts these are strong and compelling social metaphors for bonds of solidarity that take precedence over all other bonds of association. In Jordan, Iraq, Egypt, and elsewhere, tribal codes of responsibility and justice based on such cohesion often parallel the civil and criminal codes of state justice, and those of Islamic law, the shari'a.

The Multiple Meanings of Tribe

The fact that one word, tribe, describes a range of ideas about society and social forms throughout the Middle East, as elsewhere in the world, does not make these meanings intrinsically related. For example, take the notion of tribe, still prevalent in many archaeological discussions, as an organizational level between "band" and "state." This formulation implies that tribes are on an evolutionary ladder and independent of states. Yet in earlier historical periods and in the present, tribes and states coexist and overlap. The problem of misrecognizing tribal identities is further compounded by the views of some Middle Eastern urban intellectuals who have adopted nineteenth-century evolutionary views and assume that tribes exist only at the fringes of states or are residues of pre-state formations. Both now and in the past, however, ideas of tribe share "family resemblances," possessing partial and overlapping similarities and a shared cultural logic. Far from being a relic of the past, "tribe" in the Arabian peninsula and the modern Middle East can even sustain modern national identity.

Tribal identity, like other bases of social cohesion, including kinship, citizenship, and nationalism, is something that people (and sometimes ethnographers and state officials) create, and it changes with historical and political context. The first form that the notion of tribe can take is the elaboration and use of explicit ethnopolitical ideologies by people themselves to explain their social and political organization. These locally held ideologies of tribal belonging in the Middle East are generally based on a concept of political identity formed through common patrilineal descent. A major exception is the Tuareg of the Sahara, where tribal identity is based on matrilineal descentdescent traced through the mother.

People in such tribes sometimes hold that how groups align themselves in time of dispute is explained by tribal and lineage identities alone, but other grounds for political action coexist and overlap. In precolonial Morocco as elsewhere, coalitions did not necessarily occur along the lines of tribe or lineage. This is demonstrated by the patterns of resistance in which people from various sections and tribes aligned themselves against the French in the early twentieth century. Pre-colonial accounts of disputes in western Morocco also suggest that alliances followed more flexible lines than those predicted by formal classification.

In general, tribal names and chains of patrilineal genealogies provide a range of potential identities rather than a basis for sustained collective action in itself. Often there is strong resistance to efforts to write down genealogies or claims to tribal descent because writing, by fixing the relationships among groups, distorts the ongoing process by which groups rework alliances and obligations and "re-imagine" the past in order to legitimate actions in the present.

For example, when Moroccan tribespeople discuss tribe (Ar., qabila ), they elaborate the notion in different ways depending on their generation and social status. Socially and politically dominant individuals use ideas of tribe and lineage to fix political alliances with members of other tribal groups and to enhance their own position vis-à-vis state authorities and their followers. Ethnographers working in tribal societies have frequently based their accounts of kinship relations and tribal organization on information provided by such socially and politically dominant individuals. In contrast, the notions of tribal identity maintained by ordinary tribesmen, not to mention tribeswomen, often differ significantly from such formal ideologies of politically dominant tribal leaders.

A second notion of tribe is based on its use as an administrative device in contexts as varied as the Ottoman Empire, Morocco, Iran, and other countries prior to, during, and after colonial rule. Administrative assumptions concerning the nature of tribes are generally based, to some degree, on locally maintained conceptions modified for political purposes. Thus administrative concepts of tribe frequently assume a corporate identity and fixed territorial boundaries that many "tribes" do not possess and give privileges and authority to tribal leaders that are dependent on the existence of a state organization and not derived from leadership as understood by tribal people themselves. In cases such as Morocco and the Sudan, colonial authorities formally promoted "tribal" identities and developed tribal administration to a fine art in an attempt to retard nationalist movements. In reaction, the postcolonial governments of these and other countries signaled an ideological break with the colonial past by formally abolishing tribes as an administrative device, although such identities remain politically significant.

A third meaning of tribe refers to the practical notions that tribal people implicitly hold as a guide to everyday conduct in relating to their own and other social groups. These notions emerge primarily through social action. Tribal people do not always articulate such notions in ordinary situations because they are so taken for granted and because the social alignments based on these notions frequently shift. Practical notions of tribe and related concepts of social identity implicitly govern crucial areas of activity, including factional alignments over land rights, pastures, and other political claims, marriage strategies (themselves a form of political activity), and many aspects of patronage. In Jordan and among Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and in Israel, for example, Arabic newspapers are filled with announcements indicating the settlement of disputes among lineage and tribal groups precipitated by disputes or even automobile accidents resulting in personal injury in which tribal leaders mediate a settlement that is then publicly announced.

A fourth meaning of tribe relates to the analytical conceptions of the term held by anthropologists. Anthropological conceptions are intended primarily to make sociological sense of tribal social relations and often parallel those held by tribal people themselves. They are not more real than tribal people's conceptions of tribe or superior to them; they are a more explicit form of knowledge intended to explain how societies work. The anthropologist's objective is to achieve as adequate an understanding as possible of how people in a given society conceive of social forms, use this knowledge as a basis for social action, and modify these conceptions in practice and over time.

See also City, The: The Islamic and Byzantine City ; Identity: Personal and Social Identity ; Nationalism: Middle East ; Pan-Islamism .


Eickelman, Dale F. The Middle East and Central Asia: An Anthropological Approach. 4th ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2002. See chap. 5, "What is a Tribe?"

Khoury, Phillip S., and Joseph Kostiner, eds. Tribes and State Formation in the Middle East. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990. An indispensable review of the topic.

Peters, Emrys L. The Bedouin of Cyrenaica: Studies in Personal and Corporate Power. Edited by Jack Goody and Emanuel Marx. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. A classic reference.

Shryock, Andrew. Nationalism and the Genealogical Imagination: Oral History and Textual Authority in Tribal Jordan. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997.

Varisco, Daniel Martin. "Metaphors and Sacred History: The Genealogy of Muhammad and the Arab 'Tribe.'" Anthropological Quarterly 68, no. 3 (July 1995): 139156.

Dale F. Eickelman

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Tribalism, Middle East

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