Saturday, June 12, 2004

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

Bedouin tribes started pouring into the Fertile Crescent during the 7th century searching for new opportunities while the invading tribes moved forward to conquer further land west in north Africa, and east into Khorassan. During the rule of the first 3 Caliphs there were no proper regular armies, the invaders consisted of tribal warriors organised according to their respective clans, they even had their own seperate flags and banners, and would often turn against each other over land and booty disputes. Later on under the rule of the aristocratic Ummayids (Ummawiyeen), the army was regulated and selected from loyal tribesmen inhabiting the greater Syria region which was the stronghold of Ummayids. The early Caliphs at Medina realised that the perfect way to distract the tribes from revolting against the Caliphate was by continous invasion of new land. The tribal warriors and their leaders were granted carte blanche over the new occupied territories by the Caliph, they would divide the land among themselves and treat the natives as they saw fit.

Ibn Khaldoun describes the behaviour of the Bedouin when they first occupied Iraq. First they systematically pillaged the country, they thought camphor was salt and used it in their cooking, they took out the bricks from buildings and used them to put their large cooking pots on, wooden rods were used to erect their tents with. Shortly later they started building their own cities on the edge of the desert, Kufa and Basrah were the main two cities and many tribal Sheikhs settled in these. Each clan had its own neighbourhood and leader, and the blocks were designed so that tribesmen can still graze their flocks in the nearby desert. The natives, most of whom were Persians, Arameans, Jews, and older settled Arabs welcomed the Bedouin 'liberation', they had after all suffered from the oppressive Byzantine and Sassanid empires for decades, their Muslim occupiers promised religious tolerance but they had to pay taxes jizya in return for protection. Most of the natives chose to convert and they continued to tend their land on behalf of their new Arab landlords. The natives were called Mawali (allies) because they had to ally with tribes, generations later the Mawali became an undistinguished part of the tribes and were 'Arabised', they were also nicknamed hummr (reds) for their fair skins, or ulooj (non-Arabs).

Under Othman, the third Caliph who belonged to the aristocratic Ummayid branch of Mohammed's tribe Quraysh, the conquests ceased briefly. Othman attempted to properly adminstrate the new Islamic empire, and he assigned powerful family members from his clan to the provinces. The Ummayids (who were Muhammed's arch-enemies before they converted) siezed this opportunity and started consolidating their power throughout the Islamic empire getting even wealthier in the process. This did not appeal to other clans and tribes since the new adminstrators started pressurising them and exercising strict rule and scrutiny. Tribal leaders felt that their authority was waning especially since they were unfamiliar with governmental control back in Arabia. Some dissident tribesmen besieged Medina and assassinated Othman, after which they elected Ali Bin Abi Talib (Muhammed's cousin and son-in-law) as Caliph. Mu'awiya, the governor of Syria and a cousin of Othman, held Ali full responsibility for Othman's murder and he refused to recognise Ali's caliphate unless Ali turned in the murderers to him (Mu'awiya was head of the Ummayid family and Othman's next of kin and according to tribal customs had to avenge his murder). Ali of course declined causing other senior companions of Muhammed to turn against him as well and challenge his caliphate (most of those desired the caliphate for themselves). This marked the first Muslim civil war 37 years after Islam, also the start of the deep schism which divided Muslims into Sunnis and Shia.

Ali had to move to Iraq and wage controversial wars against several adversaries and in the end against Mu'awiya for a couple of years which turned into a stalemate. His followers, who came to be known later as Shia, also turned against him eventually because they were sick of wars. Ali was widely criticised by Muslim elders and tribal leaders for fighting other Muslims and dividing them. A mixed group of tribes who called themselves Khawarij (Kharijites) deserted Ali and plotted to assassinate him, together with Mu'awiya and his top army commander. They succeeded only in murdering Ali at Kufa. The Kharijites can be technically regarded as the first true Islamic fundamentalists. They scorned this earthly conflict over the caliphate, and called for Muslims to revert to the original Islam, 'there is no rule but that of Allah', they regarded any Muslim who didn't agree with their interpretation of Islam as Kafir and therefore should be killed. History books provide many examples of their atrocities carried out in the name of Islam.

Mu'awiya having deposed of Ali announced himself as Caliph and moved the capital of Islam to Damascus where he was surrounded by loyal tribes, he resumed the conquests of North Africa to expand his empire, introduced civil laws and government control, bought off most tribal leaders by bribery and intimidation, and started preparing his son Yazid as his successor thus restoring the traditional Bedouin blood ties and ending the brief democratic era that Arab Muslims enjoyed for about 40 years, all in all he was the first official Arab dictator. The Ummayid Caliphs had to subjugate several revolts most of which started in Iraq and the Arabian peninsula which was losing its importance as the birthplace of Islam. Yazid sent an army to Medina which ruthlessly slaughtered hundreds, and the next year he sent another army to fight Hussein bin Ali at Karbala(who also like his father was lured to Iraq only to be abandoned by the Arab Shia tribes). Abdul Malik bin Marwan had to lay siege to Mecca and bomb it with stonethrowers when Abdullah bin Al-Zubair (one of the last surviving companions of Muhammed) rebelled with the backing of several Bedouin tribes, he also sent his strongman Hajjaj Bin Yusuf to control the disorder among Iraqi tribes. Hajjaj massacred thousands of people and forced military conscription. Iraqis to this day tell tales of his violent rule, and Saddam Hussein was always compared to Hajjaj in his ruthlessness. Hajjaj called Iraqis ahl alshiqaq wal nifaq or 'the people of disunity and hypocricy', one famous story was that during a curfew on Kufa, his guards brought him an old Bedouin who had entered the town unaware of the curfew, he implored Hajjaj that he did not know about the curfew and that he just came here from the desert, 'I know you are innocent' Hajjaj replied, 'But killing you is for the best interests of the umma, hang him on the city walls guards!'. A later Ummayid Caliph, Walid Bin Yazid had to send an army to Khorassan to fight Zaid Bin Ali Bin Al-Hussein (another of Ali's rebelling descendants). All this internal turmoil and the weakening grip of the less experienced Ummayid Caliphs on the expanding empire (which now extended from the borders of China to southern France) led to their fall one century after they assumed power.

The Abbassids (descendants of Al-Abbas, an uncle of Muhammed) came to rule the Islamic empire after a short rebellion against the Ummayids which started from Persia. The Persians constituted the bulk of their army and its military leaders. No more would Arab tribes have the upper hand in the Islamic empire. The Abbassid caliphate also marked the golden age of Islamic culture and sciences, Baghdad was built and the ME became the center of civilisation back then together with Constantinople. Tribalism now only existed where it belonged, in the desert. Three centuries later however, the Abbassid empire started weakening under the threat of different tribes this time, Buwayhid Persians and later Seljuk and Mamluk Turks. The Berbers in North Africa seperated from the Abbassid empire, and the Fatimids (descendants of Ali and the ancestors of Ismaelis or Shi'ite Seveners) in Egypt appointed their own caliphs. Crusaders invaded greater Syria and the Abbassid caliphate after recieving several blows was now restricted to a small area around Baghdad, with tribal emirates controlling the rest of the country and Arabia. Although all Muslims recognised the Abbassid caliph as a spiritual figure, he no longer held any political control over anything. Caliphs were even put under house arrest and were sometimes replaced by whoever controlled Iraq. Tribalism returned with a vengeance since the state was extremely weak, and later when the Mongols under Hulagu finally ended the Abbassid dynasty and plundered Baghdad in 1258.

During the following century Baghdad was controlled by Mongol Sultans from the Jala'iri and Ilkhan tribes, while the rest of the country was practically run by Arab tribes which revolted against the Mongol adminstrators when they attempted to impose taxes on the tribes. One of the most powerful Arab tribes in southern Iraq was Tai' (which exists to this day around Mosul), their leaders from the Al Fadhl clan established a tribal emirate called 'Emarat Al-Arab' which extended south as far as Bahrain, they also collected taxes from other tribes and often raided Mongolian trade caravans. The Mongols also employed systematic looting in order to compensate for the stagnation of their economy. In 1401, Baghdad was plundered again this time by Tamerlane driving the country into further chaos. During the fifteenth century, Mosul and Baghdad were ruled by two rival Turkomen tribes (Qara Quweynlu and Alaq Quweynlu), and southern Iraq was divided between four or five main tribal confederations, the Al Fadhl and Rubai'a clans from the Tai' tribes, Bani Assad, Jash'am, Al-Muntafiq, and Bani Lam. These were the earliest Bedouin tribes that had settled in Iraq during the late Abbassid caliphate through a second wave of Bedouin migration, all still exist today and are considered as the oldest known Iraqi tribes.

to be continued...