Thursday, June 10, 2004

Iraq's tribal society: A state within a state (part one)

Understanding the tribal aspect of Iraqi society is essential for any outsider seriously interested in Iraqi and ME affairs. Not much attention has been devoted to this subject in the Western media, and all the related articles published on the web are shallow and do not reflect the true picture nor the importance of the historical role of tribalism in Iraqi (and Arab in general) society.

First you have to take in consideration the unique geographic location of Iraq, in that it is surrounded and enclosed by mountains in the north and east, while from the west and south it lies on the northern edge of the largest source of Bedouinism, the Arabian Desert. The land that is today called Iraq has been exposed for millenia to waves of
Bedouin migration from the south for purposes of either military conquest (such as the Arab Muslim invasion during the 7th century), searching for water and pasturage to graze their flocks, raiding and looting (such as the Wahhabi raids on Shi'ite holy cities during the 18th century), or settlement. Iraq was also known to be the cradle of
civilisation, and the spread of tribal social values brought by the successive Bedouin waves contributed much to the decline and destruction of this civilisation at different times in history. Whenever the tribal influence diminishes over a few centuries and
civilisation slowly flourishes again, a new wave of fresh desert tribes moves to the area and disrupts the process all over again.

Iraqis therefore have been conditioned (for centuries) by this ongoing 'clash of cultures' to follow two different (and often antithetical) sets of social values; urban values derived from their own ways of life and history as the cradle of civilisation, and tribal values imposed upon them by the Bedouin influence. Urban Iraqis cannot remain totally unaffected by the spread of tribal values and eventually they have to pick up from them in order to defend themselves and adapt to their new environment, the newly settled tribes on the other hand cannot indefinately retain their Bedouin culture which was only suitable for desert life and have to reshape it in order to coexist with the
original inhabitants. This has resulted in a form of duality or 'cultural ambivalence' in the Iraqi personality which is easily recognised by Westerners and they may therefore incorrectly describe Iraqis as being 'two-faced', when in fact Iraqis are unaware of their inconsistent behaviour and have had no choice in it. This duality is also evident on different scales in other Arab countries such as Syria, Palestine, Libya, Algeria, and to a lesser extent in Egypt.

Tribalism originated in the Arabian peninsula in order for the inhabitants to survive the harsh desert nature. No individual can survive on his own in the desert, this realisation led to the formation of primitive forms of clan society. A group of nomad families sharing a common ancestry is more likely to deal with the challenges of the
desert. All for one and one for all. Blood kinship is important in clan societies, it is the bond that unites all clan individuals and which also defines the relationships with other clans. A tribe is composed of several clans also sharing the same lineage, tribal groups or confederations are also made of several different tribes which trace back their origins to one forefather. Arab tribes before the advent of Islam fell into two larger groups, Adnaniya or northern Arabs who trace back their ancestry to Ishmael son of Abraham, and Qahtaniya or southern Arabs inhabiting Yemen, and to this day Arab tribes follow this classification although they have later intermingled with different cultures and ethnic groups throughout the Arab world.

Clan members had two main methods of survival, grazing their herds and raiding of neighbouring (usually weaker) clans. Later they served other functions such as the protection of trade caravans passing from Yemen to Iraq and Syria at the behest of the Roman Byzantine and Persian Sassanid empires. During dry seasons they would roam the desert in search for grazing areas (often clashing with competitive clans in the
process) or migrate further to the fertile north. Land ownership was nonexistant in the Arabian desert, instead there was collective control over the oases, pastures, and wells, and mostly the stronger clans controlled the best territories. Clan societies were lead by Sheikhs, the term Sheikh in Arabic means a 'male elder' and is not
neccessarily restricted to tribal leaders. The Sheikh, usually elected by the clansmen, acts as judge to the clan or family, decides on matters of war and peace, assigns duties to clansmen, and mediates during disputes between the clan and other clans. Each smaller family and clan has its own leader or Sheikh, and consequently each tribe and tribal confederation has its own Sheikh. Some of these leaders of large tribal groups were regarded as kings before Islam and even fought wars against the surrounding empires. Within each tribe there is a Council of Sheikhs of different clans who would assist and advise the leader and at certain occasions replace him with another Sheikh when he fails
his duties, is unworthy of leadership, or when his actions threaten the welfare of the tribe. So tribal Sheikhs were not exactly tyrants, and were easily replaceable by force of sword if neccessary.

The supreme Sheikhdom of each tribe is traditionally confined to one family, usually the elder male descendants of the distant forefather, and with time as families grew into clans and clans grew into seperate tribes with their own independent leaderships, a sense of superiority among the different tribes was established. Certain Sheikhs were
superior to other Sheikhs (either because of their heritage or personal glories), certain clans superior to other clans, and certain tribes and tribal groups superior to others, this eventually led the Arabs to believe that they were superior to all other people living in the region. The Bedouin still to this day look down at any other people
even urban Arabs considering them 'impure'. This also explains the absolute obsession of Arabs with genealogy, individuals or clans in the desert who were unaware of their lineage were outcasts, they would have to ally with another known tribe and later on would be 'adopted' by the tribe and assume its lineage. Almost every Sheikh today can proudly show you his family tree which would include thousands of names and would go up and up to Adam sometimes. My own family tree goes back to Qahtan, the forefather of southern Yemeni Arabs who is supposed to have lived around 2000 B.C.

This preoccupation with lineage and blood ties was also a source of hostility between different tribes as the famous saying put it 'Me and my brother against my cousin, and me and my cousin against the stranger'. Therefore it is not uncommon for clans of the same tribe to be at war with each other, and then suddenly unite against an outside
aggression or a common enemy, after which they would be back to fight each other. One would be shocked when taking a look at tribal wars throughout history for their absurd reasons. For example the famous Bessus war before Islam which lasted forty years was because a leader of one tribe killed a camel belonging to another tribe when he
noticed it was grazing with his flock, the Dahis wa alghabraa war was over cheating during a horse race. And the tribal tensions between Adnaniya and Qahtaniya continued for centuries in all Arab countries, up to the 18th century.

Tribal values can be summed up in three groups or complexes: loyalty (to one's tribe), militancy, and honour. Firstly, the tribe expects absolute loyalty from its individuals in return for its protection, no matter whether the tribe is right or wrong, tribesmen should rush to its support. Just as each tribesman expects the whole tribe to protect
him and guarantee his rights at time of need, the tribe also expects unequivocal support from each tribesman. It's a symbiotic relation. This complex also includes values such as Sheikhdom, tribal superiority, blood feuds, etc. Secondly, the individual tribesman in order to achieve a higher status and personal glory among his peers is expected to demonstrate great courage and valiance in battles, should be a gallant chivalrous warrior, and the larger the booty he gains from battle the greater he is respected within the tribe. Tribal society despises the cowardly and weak, they also despise craftsmen because they don't live by the sword. Last we have the honour complex which
includes generosity, hospitality, self-esteem, honesty, integrity, safeguarding of women, protection of the weak and the refugee, etc. Some of these values may seem contradictory to outsiders at first glance, for example a Sheikh may wholeheartedly offer a whole lamb to a guest for dinner, but at the same time he may argue ridiculously with a grocer over a few Dinars. To understand that you should know that it is not the money that the Sheikh is upset about, he argues because he feels he is being cheated and that is humiliating to him, he wants to be the cheater not the cheated, if the grocer later asks the Sheikh for an incredible sum of money the Sheikh would without any hesitation give it to him out of generosity because it would bring pride and a sense of
dominance to him. You can also attribute that to the sense of superiority, the Sheikh wants to be dominant, he enjoys being asked for anything, yet he hates with all his heart to ask anyone for anything even for directions, as that would be a sign of weakness. That also explains the tendency of most Arabs to bargain over almost everything.


Although there is mention of Bedouin raids in ancient Assyrian and Persian tablets in which the Bedouin were described as Areebi, the most significant historical Bedouin conquest of Iraq was that of early Islam during the 7th century. Muhammed had succeeded in uniting the Bedouin tribes of Arabia, ridding them of their pagan ways, and
utilising their traditions of raiding and looting into political conquest. Following the death of Muhammed there was no real design on invading the stronger Byzantine and Sassanid empires up north, it was rather spontaneous. During the reign of Abu Bakr, the first Caliph after Muhammed, most of the Bedouin tribes reverted to their old ways of intertribal warfare, and Abu Bakr had to wage war against them in order to return them to the flock. This was known as the redda wars (wars of apostasy), after shortly succeeding in subduing the insurgency the reconverted tribes started raiding southern Iraqi cities which were under the control of the Sassanids. Many of these incursions
brought great material gains for the tribal warriors, and since these cities were inhabited by older tribes (such as the Manadhira) which had settled earlier in Iraq, the warriors were met with little resistance, which encouraged them to raid and conquer more land up north along the Euphrates until they had beseiged Damascus. During the reign of Omar, the second Caliph, the Arab tribes had already beaten the two major empires in the region and occupied Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and Persia. This Jihad was less motivated by religious fervour than by ancient Bedouin traditions of raiding and warfare. Westerners often assume that Islamic conversion was forced by the sword, however the invading Arab tribes didn't care less if the conquered populations converted or not, they were just doing what they were good at.

to be continued...


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