views updated May 21 2018


ETHNONYMS: Aʿraab, Bedu (sing. Bedawi)


Identification. The term "Bedouin" is the anglicization of the Arabic "bedu." The term is used to differentiate between those populations whose livelihood is based on the raising of livestock by mainly natural graze and browse and those populations who have an agricultural or urban base (hadar ). Given that the opposition of bedu to hadar is a specifically Arab cultural tradition, it is arguable whether non-Arab-speaking pastoralists in the region should be termed "Bedouin." Most of these societies prefer expressions such as "ʿArab ar-Rashaayida" (the Rashaayda Arabs), or "qabiilat Fedʿaan" (the Fed'aan tribe), rather than the term "Bedouin." Among sedentary Arabs, another common term is "Aʿraab" which, since the beginning of Islam, has been synonymous with "nomad."

Location. Bedouin societies are found in the arid steppe regions of Arabia and North Africa and along the margins of rain-fed cultivation. In some areas rainfall is very unpredictable and measures less than 5 centimeters per year. Bedouin living in such areas tend to move camp irregularly, as dictated by the availability of green pasture and seasonal occult precipitation (heavy morning dew). Often they have access to small date gardens for short periods of the year. In areas where winter rainfall is less unpredictable (in the Arabian Badia and the Nejd and in parts of Sudan, Egypt, southern Tunisia, and Libya), Bedouin groups move their animals to areas where pasture is regularly found. Often these societies plant grain along their migration routes, which they harvest on their return to their winter camping areas. In areas where winter rain falls predictably on mountain plateaus (Morocco), the Bedouin practice transhumance, planting their crops near their permanent homes in the valleys at the onset of the rains and then moving their livestock to the highland pastures.

Linguistic Affiliation. Like other Arabs, Bedouin speak various dialects of Arabic, which belongs to the Semitic Language Group. Other living languages of this group are Modern Hebrew, Amharic and other spoken languages of Ethiopia (Harari, Tigre), Aramaic dialects (current in parts of Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq), and Maltese.

History and Cultural Relations

Agriculturists and pastoralists have inhabited the southern edge of the arid Syrian Steppe since 6000 b.c. (Fagan 1986, 234). By about 850 b.c., a complex of oasis settlements and pastoral camps was established by a people known as "Aʿraab." These Semitic speakers were the latest in a succession of farming and stock-breeding societies. They were distinguished from their Assyrian neighbors to the north, however, by their Arabic language and by their use of domesticated camels for trade and warfare. These Aʿraab were the cultural forerunners of the modern-day Arabs. They carried out a caravan trade with their camels between southern Arabia and the large city-states of Syria. By the first century b.c., they had moved westward into Jordan and the Sinai Peninsula and southwestward along the coast of the Red Sea. The creation of a powerful Islamic state in western Arabia in the middle of the seventh century a.d. gave a dramatic impetus to Arab expansion. Thousands of Arab Muslimsmany of them Bedouinleft the Arabian Peninsula to settle in the newly conquered lands around it. As a result, the bedu/hadar distinction was reproduced in those Arabized territories where such a regional division of labor was ecologically and geographically practicable.

Bedouin societies are always linked to other nonpastoral societies by economic, social, and political relations. In the local context, a "Bedouin" is a regional specialist in livestock breeding whose closest social and political ties are with his pastoral kinsmen. The sedentary Arab, by contrast, places less emphasis on relations with genealogically distant kin. During periods when premodern states were weak and large-scale irrigated agriculture declined, some settled cultivators increased their reliance on breeding of small stock and moved into Bedouin social circles. In modern times, strong centralized authority and the monetarization of the rural economy have prompted some Bedouin to seek wage labor in cities and become sedentary. Regardless of their occupation and residence patterns, however, they remain culturally Bedouin as long as they maintain close social ties with pastoralist kin and retain the local linguistic and cultural markers that identify them as Bedouin.


Bedouin societies traditionally eschew permanent settlement, preferring portable shelters that allow them the flexibility that their pastoral nomadic way of life requires. Kin-related domestic units or households generally migrate together during the spring and summer months and tend to converge with other households of near kin during the winter months. In the past, Bedouin residence units were composed exclusively of tents (buyuut ; sing. bayt ). Depending upon the season of the year and, more specifically, the quality of surrounding pastureland, as few as three buyuut, and sometimes as many as fifteen, formed a camping unit. Among some Bedouin groups that spend the winter months in the same place year after year, stone houses (buyuut hajar ) are also common. In many cases, these winter encampments are only partially deserted during the spring and summerthe very young and the very old are left behind to benefit from government efforts to extend health care and schooling facilities to these settlements. In certain areas of North Africa where transhumance is practiced, the seasonality of movement is somewhat different, although the principle is the same. Structurally, the tent and stone dwellings are alike. Both are rectangular in shape and consist of twoor occasionally threesections. One section is the women's domain, kitchen, and storeroom. The other section is almost exclusively the domain of men and visitorswhere hospitality is extended to guests, clients, and kinsmen alike. Sometimes the Bedouin home includes a third section, where sick or very young animals are given care.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The primary economic activity of the Bedouin is animal husbandry by natural graze and browse of sheep, goats, and camels. This way of life, called pastoral nomadism, has been in existence for at least three millennia. At the core of pastoral nomadism is migration, the pattern of which is determined by a combination of seasonal and areal variability in the location of pasture and water. Because water and grass can be in short supply in a particular area at the same time that it is abundant elsewhere, survival of both herds and herders makes movement from deficit to surplus areas both logical and necessary. Pasture and water are seldom found randomly scattered about in a given region, but generally are distributed in a regular fashion in accordance with a particular seasonal pattern of climate. Since the 1960s, trucks and other motor vehicles have come to replace camels as beasts of burden; today a truck often serves to bring feed and water to the herds in the desert.

Industrial Arts. The pastoral adaptation to the ecological environment presupposes the presence of sedentary communities and access to their products. None of the essentials of metal or cured leather are produced by pastoralists. They are dependent on persons outside their own group for practically all specialized work. In some regions, roving Gypsy tinkers and traders provide specialized services and goods to Bedouin households.

Trade. There are several traditional means utilized by Bedouin to guarantee themselves access to grain and other sedentary produce. A household may, if its tribal land is close enough to rain-fed cultivation, sow and harvest crops. More commonly, rent from oasis or agricultural land owned by the group is collected in kind. At one time, khuwa (tribute) was exacted from sedentary farmers in return for protection from raids by tribes in the region. This tribute/raid relationship was a simple business proposition whereby the pastoralists received a needed product (grain) and the farmer acquired a scarce commodity (security). In principle, it was not very different from the most widespread relationship today whereby animal products are exchanged for dates and grain.

Division of Labor. As with most pastoral societies, the division of labor among Bedouin is determined by the type of animals that are herded. When both large and small domesticated animals are kept, the larger animalscamels and, in a few cases, cattleare the responsibility of the men. Women are often barred from close contact with these animals. It is generally the responsibility of the women and older girls to herd, feed, and milk the smaller animals (i.e., goats and sheep). When only sheep and goats are kept, men tend to be the herders, and women help with the feeding and milking of the flock.

Land Tenure. Each Bedouin group seeks to control a land area that contains sufficient resources to sustain communal life. Each has a definite zone with well-understood, though often variable, limits and has certain rights of usufruct denied to other Bedouin groups. Only in an emergency does a pastoral unit attempt to graze its herds outside of its traditional area, and this eventuality is often preceded by negotiations at a higher political level. Governments throughout the Middle East and North Africa no longer recognize Bedouin collective territory. These areas are now considered "state-owned" land.


Kin Groups and Descent. Like all Arabs, the Bedouin are patrilineal. Names consist of a personal name, the father's name, and at least the agnatic grandfather's name. Women retain their father's family name unchanged even after marriage. The smallest residential unit (bayt) is named after its senior male resident. Unlike settled peoples, however, most Bedouin are also members of larger patrilineal descent groups (buyuut), which are linked by agnation to form even larger lineages (afkhaadh ; sing. fakhadh ; lit., "thigh"), tribes (qabaaʿil ; sing. qabila ), and sometimes even tribal confederations (such as the ʿAnayza and the Shammar of northwestern Arabia). Bedouin frequently name more than five generations of patrilineal ancestors and conceptualize relations among descent groups in terms of a segmentary genealogical model. This model of nested patrilineal groups, each unit included in a larger one and itself including smaller units that are internally divided, provides the main framework for discussing marital alliances and for resolving legal disputes and violent conflicts.

Kinship Terminology. There are distinctive terms for kin on the mother's side and kin on the father's side in Ego's generation and the first ascending generation. All terms indicate the sex of the person designated.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage is normally contracted within the minimal lineage (bayt). The ideal marriage is to the closest relative permitted by the Quran (surah 4:23). This is between a man and his father's brother's daughter. Not only is marriage to the bint ʿamm (female parallel cousin) or the ibn ʿamm (male parallel cousin) preferred, but, in addition, the father's brother's son has a customary right to his cousin. Although the female cousin may refuse to marry her father's brother's son, she may not marry anyone else without his consent first. Although parallel-cousin marriage is actively favored, in many of these marriages the term "first cousin" is only a classificatory one. In many cases, the bint ʿamm or ibn ʿamm is actually a second or third cousin. Nevertheless, these cousin marriages are seen as reinforcing the unity and authority of the minimal lineage. Although plural marriage is permitted, the incidence of polygyny is not particularly high. It is generally limited to those older men who are wealthy enough to maintain separate households for each wife. Divorce is frequent and can be initiated by either the husband or the wife. In either case, the wife will return to her father's home for protection and support until her marital crisis has been resolved.

Domestic Unit. The three-generation extended family is the ideal domestic unit. Although this group, averaging between nine and eleven persons, may sleep under more than one tent or shelter, its meals are generally taken together. The newly formed nuclear family of husband and wife tends to remain with the larger domestic unit until it has sufficient manpower and a large enough herd to survive on its own. On occasion, a combination of brothers or patrilineal cousins will join forces to form a single domestic unit.

Inheritance. Property is divided in accordance to Quranic precepts: among surviving children, a son receives half, a daughter a quarter, and other near kin the percentage specified (surah 4:12). Among some Bedouin groups the division of the animal holdings of the deceased is complicated by the fact that women may not look after the larger domesticated animals. Thus, if a woman receives an inheritance of a number of camels, these must be put in trust for her and are generally incorporated into a brother's or cousin's herd.

Socialization. Children and infants are raised by the extended family unit. Parents, older siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins all take part in the rearing of the young. By the age of 6 or 7, the child begins to take on simple household tasks and soon thereafter becomes a full working member of the family. Adolescence is hardly recognized; by the early teens, the individual is accepted as a full working member of Bedouin society.

Sociopolitical Organization

In a sense, the Bedouin form a number of "nations." That is, groups of families are united by common ancestry and by shared territorial allegiance. The exploitation and defense of their common territorial area is effected through a universally accepted system of leadership. For centuries, these "nations" of Bedouin tribes and their leaders operated in the ecologically and politically shifting landscapes of the Middle East and North Africa. Only in the course of the twentieth century has their traditional flexibility and mobility been checked. Factors foreign to their universe have damaged the territorial mainstay of their societies, necessitating the adoption of new bases of identification with their "nations" and its leaders.

Social Organization. Bedouin society is organized on the basis of a series of real and fictive overlapping kin groups. The smallest unit is generally agreed to be the bayt (minimal lineage). Numerous buyuut, claiming descent from a common ancestor, form a fakhadh (maximal lineage). Theoretically, each male household head in a bayt or the larger fakhadh is the equal of all the other adult males. In practice, age, religious piety, and personal characteristics such as generosity and hospitality set some men above others in the organization of the group.

Political Organization. The buyuut are the basic social and economic units of Bedouin society, but the leaders of these units generally form a council of elders, directed by the head of the tribe. In some larger tribes with more centralization, the fakhadh head is linked to a subtribe (ʿashiira ) leader, who comes immediately under the direction of the head (shaykh ; pl. shuyukh ) of the tribe (qabiila). Thus, traditional chains of command link the individual groups ultimately to the shaykh. He traditionally exercises authority over the allocation of pasture and the arbitration of disputes. His position is usually derived from his own astute reading of the majority opinion. He generally has no power to enforce a decision and therefore has to rely on his moral authority and the concurrence of the community with his point of view.

Social Control. In the small-scale, exclusive communities that constitute Bedouin society, face-to-face (as opposed to anonymous) relations are of paramount importance. The concepts of honor and shame are thus a constant preoccupation and, to a large extent, serve to control the social behavior of individuals. Sharaf (honor), which is inherited from the family, has to be constantly asserted or vindicated. A man's share of honor is largely determined by his own behavior and that of his near agnatic kin. Sharaf can be subject to increase or decrease, to development or deterioration, according to the conduct of the person and his kin. There is an exclusive term, ird, for the honor of the women of a kin group. This is used only in connection with female chastity. Ird differs from sharaf in that sharaf can be acquired or augmented through right behavior and achievement, whereas ird can only be lost by the "misconduct" of the woman; once lost, it cannot be regained. At the community level, the threat of jalaaʿ (expulsion) as punishment for a grave social offense tends to be regarded with great seriousness.

Conflict. In the past, most tribal conflicts revolved about the rights to scarce pasture and water resources. Numerous tribal campaigns were once fought to acquire or defend pastures and watering holes. Since the middle of the twentieth century, however, the centralized political authority of the modern nation-states in the region has successfully pacified the Bedouin tribes.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Although a few Bedouin societies in Jordan have remained Christian since the early Islamic period, the vast majority of Bedouin are Sunni Muslims. The Five Pillars of Islam are the declaration of faith, the five daily ritual prayers, almsgiving, fasting, and the pilgrimage to Mecca. Most Bedouin societies observe the fast of Ramadan, perform the obligatory prayers, and celebrate the two major Islamic holidaysʿIid al-Fitr and ʿIid al-Adhha. Some groups endeavor to make the hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca) more than once in a lifetime, and individual piety is sometimes reflected in the number of pilgrimages an individual manages to undertake. The Bedouin societies throughout the region variously believe in the presence of spirits (jinn), some playful and others malevolent, that interfere in the life of humans. The "envious eye" is also very real to the Bedouin, and children are believed to be particularly vulnerable. For this reason, they often have protective amulets attached to their clothing or hung around their necks. Some Bedouin groups postulate the existence ogresses and of monstrous supernaturals (ahl al-ard, "people of the earth"), who are sometimes met by lone travelers in the desert.

Religious Practitioners. There is no formal clergy in Islam and no center of "priests." Bedouin societies have no formal religious specialists. Bedouin groups traditionally arrange for religious specialists from adjacent settled regions to spend several months a year with them to teach the young to read the Quran. These specialists are often called "shuyukh" (sing. shaykh). Other rural or settled religious specialists that Bedouin seek out for curative and preventative measures are variously called kaatibiin (sing. katib ), shaatirin (sing. shatir ), and mutawwiʿiin (sing. mutawi ).

Ceremonies and Rituals. In addition to the religious observances discussed under "Religious Beliefs," Bedouin ceremonies and rituals include elaborate celebrations of weddings, ritual namings of newborn infants, and the circumcision of children (boys universally, girls frequently). Those Bedouin who are influenced by Sufism (Islamic mysticism)for example, the Bedouin of southern Sinai and Libyaalso celebrate the Prophet's birthday and carry out pilgrimages to the tombs of saints. Hospitality is extensively ritualized. Whenever an animal is slaughtered for a guest, men ritually sacrifice it in accordance with Islamic law. Guests are ritually incorporated into their hosts' households; in case of armed conflict, guests must be protected as if they were family members. Other rituals contribute to the definition of household membership and household space. For instance, a newborn child is made a household member through rites of seclusion and purification, which new mothers observe for between seven and forty days after childbirth.

Arts. Simple tattooing of the face (and in some cases the hand) is practiced. Drawing on sand is sometimes engaged in, particularly among children. Women weave sheep's wooland occasionally goats' hairinto tent strips, rugs, blankets, saddlebags, and camel and horse trappings. Important artistic expression in design, color, and pattern is incorporated into these handicrafts. Most aesthetic expression, however, focuses on the recitation of poetry, some memorized and some composed for the occasion. Both men and women engage in contests of oral skills among their peer groups. Traditional musical instruments are mostly limited to the single-stringed instrument, various types of drums, and, in places, a type of recorder or wind instrument.

Medicine. Illness is attributed to a number of causes: imbalance of elements in the body and spirit possession, as well as germ invasion. Traditional preventative and curative measures include locally prepared herbal remedies, branding, the wearing of amulets, and the carrying of Quranic inscriptions. Western medical treatment is also sought out, particularly when traditional efforts fail.

Death and Afterlife. Islamic tradition dictates the practices associated with death. The body is buried as soon as possible and always within twenty-four hours. Among some Bedouin groups, an effort is made to bury the dead in one place (sometimes called the bilaad ), although often it is impossible to reach it within the strict time limit imposed by Islamic practices. Funeral rites are very simple, and graves tend to be either unmarked or undifferentiated.


Abu-Lughod, Lila (1986). Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Asad, Talal (1970). The Kababish Arabs: Power, Authority, and Consent in a Nomadic Tribe. London: C. Hurst & Co.

"Badw" (1979). In Encyclopedia of Islam. Vol. 1, A-B, 872-882. New ed. Leiden: E. J. Brill.

Behnke, Roy (1980). The Herders of Cyrenaica: Ecology, Economy, and Kinship among the Bedouin of Eastern Libya. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Chatty, Dawn (1986). From Camel to Truck: The Bedouin in the Modern World. New York: Vantage Press.

Cole, Donald (1975). Nomads of the Nomads: The Al Murrah of the Empty Quarter. Chicago: Aldine Publishing Co.

Fagan, Brian (1986). Peoples of the Earth: An Introduction to World Prehistory. Boston: Little, Brown & Co.

Lancaster, William (1981). The Rwala Bedouin Today. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Marx, Emanuel (1967). Bedouin of the Negev. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Peters, Emrys (1968). "The Tied and the Free: An Account of a Type of Patron-Client Relationship among the Bedouin Pastoralists of Cyrenaica." In Contributions to Mediterranean Sociology, edited by J. G. Peristiany. The Hague: Mouton & Co.



views updated Jun 27 2018


The Bedouin are nomadic peoples of Arabia known in Arabic as bedu, ˓arab, and a˓rab. They are especially known for keeping camels, whose domestication in the third millenium made trade and raiding—their main occupations—easier. In addition, they keep flocks of sheep and goats, and more recently, engage in seasonal agriculture and work in state armed forces. Living in long, low-lying black tents made of camel and goat hair and wooden poles, the Bedouin migrate on a seasonal basis in search of pasture for their animals. The tent and its contents are individual property, but water, pasture, and land are the common property of the tribe.

Every tent represents a family, and an encampment of tents—hayy— constitutes a clan, or qawm. A group of kindred clans forms a tribe, or qabila, and ˓asabiyya is the unconditional loyalty of a clansmember to his or her tribe. A weaker tribe buys protection by paying the stronger tribe a price—khuwa.

Bedouin have been characterized historically by urban Arab writers as vengeful and destructive, finding the agriculture and craft of sedentary life distasteful. In his al-Muqadimma, Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406), the Tunisian philosopher-historian, hypothesized that civilizations have a predetermined life cycle; they fall prey to the nomads in the frontiers whose bonds of solidarity (˓asabiyya) are strong. However, others have described Bedouins by their well-known values of generosity and hospitality and high standards of poetic compositions.

As state power has infringed on Bedouin areas of control, moves to settle the Bedouin, to provide schools for children, and to employ adults in wage-labor have met with mixed success in Egypt, Jordan, Israel/Palestine, and the Arabian Gulf states. Bedouin strive to maintain their culture, social mores and traditions, while at the same time enjoying the benefits of technology, education, and health standards.

See alsoArabia, Pre-Islam ; ˓Asabiyya ; Ibn Khaldun .


Abu Lughod, Lila. Veiled Sentiments. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

Abu Lughod, Lila. Writing Women's Worlds. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

Baily, Clinton. Bedouin Poetry from Sinai and the Negev: Mirror of a Culture. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991.

Lancaster, William. The Rwala Bedouin Today. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Lewis, Norman. Nomads and Settlers in Syria and Jordan,1800–1980. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

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

Rochelle Davis


views updated May 18 2018

Bedouin Nomadic, desert-dwelling Arab peoples of the Middle East and followers of Islam. Traditionally they live in tents, moving with their herds across vast areas of arid land in search of grazing areas. Bedouin society is patrilineal. They are renowned for their hospitality, honesty and fierce independence. In the 20th century, many Bedouin have been forced to abandon their nomadic way of life, and now work in towns.


views updated Jun 08 2018

Bed·ou·in / ˈbed(ə)win/ (also Bed·u·in) • n. (pl. same) a nomadic Arab of the desert.


views updated May 23 2018

Bedouin a nomadic Arab of the desert; the word comes (via Old French) from Arabic badawīn ‘dwellers in the desert’, from badw ‘desert’.


views updated May 18 2018

Bedouin Arab of the desert. XIV (Bedoyn). — OF. beduin (mod. bédouin) — Arab. badawī. f. badw desert.