The term futuwwa refers to organized groups of youth adhering to a code of honor who devoted themselves to manly, noble virtues. By the twelfth century, futuwwa organizations appeared throughout the Fertile Crescent and Iran as organized entities with elaborate rituals and initiation rites.
Derived from the Arabic word for youth (fata, pl. fityan), futuwwa groups are mentioned in texts related to Sufi orders; they existed in Transoxiana and Khorasan and as akhis (brotherhoods) in Turkic areas, where they sometimes appeared as paramilitary fighters and had connections with artisan guilds. During the eighth through tenth centuries, individuals were referred to, such as Nuh al-˓Ayyar, a fata of Nishapur who adhered to an ascetic way of life, as groups of well-to-do fityan who lived apart from society and enjoyed each other's company. Some, when traveling to a new town, looked to men's organizations for musical entertainment, drinking, and self-indulgence.
Generally, however, during the periods of intermittent anarchy and competition for political power that characterized the Fertile Crescent from the ninth through the twelfth centuries, these societies were active in the cities, some forming paramilitary groups in Baghdad. Some of these groups included fityan and ˓ayyarun, often defined as vagabonds, who, at times, fought with the political regime, at other times defended local autonomy against the military invader, and frequently terrorized, plundered, harassed, and extorted the wealthy. In Syria, similar groups called ahdath formed urban militias and were used by important notable families for political purposes: as hired toughs to fight against each other or the regime in power.
Historians have disagreed about the origins and nature of these groups. Some see their antecedents in earlier versions of men's groups that existed in the Middle East such as Byzantine circus factions that originated in the Roman Empire or the Sassanid Persian fraternities ( javanmardi), whose wrestling devotees met at the "House of Strength" (zurkhaneh) in a master-novitiate relationship. Others look to their relation to Sufi orders or guilds of artisans.
By the twelfth century, chroniclers tell of the existence of futuwwa organizations in the Fertile Crescent that were distinctly men's clubs. Some were paramilitary organizations or youth gangs. Some were clubs devoted to sports such as crossbow shooting, wrestling, and training homing pigeons while some were mutual aid organizations. Members could include Muslims and non-Muslims. There were artisans and workers, but also the lower class or the marginalized—eunuchs and slaves. Women, tax collectors, wine merchants, fortune-tellers, magicians, diviners, astrologers, astronomers, and perpetrators and accomplices of any serious crime were excluded. There were members who practiced celibacy while some married; often groups lived together in futuwwa clubhouses or ate in a common mess hall.
Taking different forms in various locations, they nevertheless had common characteristics that set them apart from the rest of Muslim society. They wore special clothing and were invested with their futuwwa trousers and belt of honor (libas al-futuwwa) during an initiation ceremony when they drank the futuwwa drink, a cup of salted water. The members were supposed to adhere to the futuwwa code of honor: generosity, solidarity, courage, and hospitality toward those in their group, the last a virtue not necessarily applicable toward society at large.
Futuwwa groups were urban, consisting of groups of youth probably not large in number who formed associations. Some lived apart in special clubhouses, with novices under the supervision of and discipline of superiors. Each clubhouse (bayt) was distinguished from the others by a particular belief or opinion and there was often animosity between groups. Houses were subdivided into parties (hizb, pl. azhab), each under the supervision of an elder (kabir) with whom the members had a mutual bond. Members or companions (sing. rafiq) drank to the honor of the kabir who supervised their behavior and adjudicated disputes. If companions disagreed with the kabir, they could move to another house but not change elders within the same club to avoid dissension in the bayt.
In this evolving, mobile world, futuwwa orders provided a niche for men without social status or genealogical prestige. With their emphasis on personal qualities as a standard for nobility instead of Arab tribal kinship, religious lineage, or military prestige, futuwwa organizations provided marginal men with social links that crossed class and religious boundaries.
As part of his program to revitalize the Abbasid caliphate, in the face of military threats and competition for leadership, Caliph al-Nasir li-Din Allah (1181–1223) used the futuwwa as a mechanism to instill loyalty to the caliph. He became a member of a futuwwa group in Baghdad and in 1207 declared himself head of all futuwwa organizations in Baghdad and throughout the Islamic world. Creating an elitist, courtly version of futuwwa with privilege, he forbade pigeon raising and crossbow shooting except under his auspices, and issued decrees setting proper behavior for members. As the head of futuwwa, al-Nasir used the society and its codes of behavior to reduce endemic conflict in Baghdad; and, after initiating neighboring rulers into the order, to create diplomatic bonds between local dynasties and himself.
The new regulations bound by tradition were legitimized by ˓Umar al-Suhrawardi (1145–1234), al-Nasir's confidant and founder of pragmatic Sufi orders, and by Ibn al-Mi˓mar (d. 1248) whose Kitab al-Futuwwa was written to provide all those interested with information about futuwwa, noting that futuwwa was incorporated in the shari˓a, and that only a true believer can be a fata. Futuwwa advocates linked futuwwa ideals with pre-Islamic poetry, the Qur˒an, and the hadith. Often cited, these refer to the generosity of Hatim al-Ta˒i; the trust in God by the young men in the cave and Ibrahim's rejection of idolatry (Qur˒an 18:10 and 21:60); and a tradition about ˓Ali as the heroic fata exemplar: "There is no sword but Dhu al-Fiqar [˓Ali's sword] and no fata but ˓Ali."
By the late medieval period, futuwwa groups, guilds, and Sufi orders had become interwoven through institutionalization, membership, and adaptation of geneology, rites, and ritual. In modern times, futuwwa has denoted such organizations as the Iraqi paramilitary youth organization of the late 1930s and protectors of Cairo neighborhoods. The javanmardi of Iran maintain the religious and social connections closest to the medieval prototype.
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Cahen, Claude, and Taeschner, F. "Futuwwa." In Vol. 2, Encyclopedia of Islam. Edited by B. Lewis, Ch. Pellat, and J. Schacht. Leiden: Brill, 1965.
Floor, Willem. "Guilds and Futuvvat in Iran." Deutsche morgenlandischen Gesellschaft Zeitschrift 134 (1984): 107–114.
Reeva Spector Simon