The Middle East's Tribal DNA
by Philip Carl Salzman
Middle East Quarterly
Winter 2008, pp. 23-33
Conflicts within the Middle East cannot be separated from its peoples' culture. Seventh-century Arab tribal culture influenced Islam and its adherents' attitudes toward non-Muslims. Today, the embodiment of Arab culture and tribalism within Islam impacts everything from family relations, to governance, to conflict. While many diplomats and analysts view the Arab-Israeli dispute and conflicts between Muslim and non-Muslim communities through the prism of political grievance, the roots of such conflicts lie as much in culture and Arab tribalism.
Tribalism and Predatory Expansion
Every human society must establish order if it is going to survive and prosper. Arab culture addresses security through "balanced opposition" in which everybody is a member of a nested set of kin groups, ranging from very small to very large. These groups are vested with responsibility for the defense of each member and responsible for harm any member does to outsiders. If there is a confrontation, families face families, lineage faces lineage, clan faces clan, tribe faces tribe, confederacy faces confederacy, sect faces sect, and the Islamic community faces the infidels. Deterrence lies in the balance between opponents. Any potential aggressor knows that his target is not solitary or meager but rather, at least in principle, a formidable formation much the same size as his.
Balanced opposition is a "tribal" form of organization, a tribe being a regional organization of defense based on decentralization and self-help. Tribes operate differently from states, which are centralized, have political hierarchies, and have specialized institutions—such as courts, police, tax collectors, and an army—to maintain social control and defense.
Understanding the influence of tribalism upon the development of both Arab culture and, by extension, Islam, requires acknowledging the basic characteristics and dynamics of Middle Eastern tribalism. Part of any tribesman's job description is to maximize both the number of children and of livestock. There are practical reasons for this: First, children aid in labor. Nomadic pastoralism requires heavy physical work. Workers are needed to conduct many tasks simultaneously. Family members are more committed to common interests than individuals recruited for reciprocity or pay. Large families also enhance political stature. Because technology remains constant across tribal societies in any given area, the factor that determines military strength is how many fighters an individual can muster. The man who can call on five or six adult sons and a similar number of sons-in-law to support him is a force with which to reckon. Cultural values underline this emphasis on progeny. A man is not a man if he cannot produce children, and a woman is not really an adult if she does not become a mother.
Maximizing livestock possession is also important. Livestock generate income of offspring, products, and services. They produce milk and meat. Camels offer hair; sheep supply wool, and goats provide underwool, all of which can be spun into yarn or woven into bags and food covers, and goat hair can also be woven into sheets and used as tent roofs. Camels enable distance travel. Sold at market, they supply money to purchase goods not produced locally, such as firearms, brass household goods, tea, and sugar. Their sale also provides funds to buy agricultural land, peasant villages, and urban villas.
There are also important social reasons to maximize livestock possessions. Upon marriage, the husband's family compensates the wife's kin with livestock. Any man with political aspirations should own animals. Slaughter of sheep or goats enables hospitality for guests. Loan or grant of livestock can establish or reinforce alliances with other families and create useful obligations to be repaid in provision of labor or political support.
Tribal success, though, counted in increasing progeny and livestock, strains pasturage, water, and arable land. To accommodate enlarged populations, it becomes necessary to expand tribal resources through geographical expansion, often at the expense of neighboring populations. Alternatively, some tribes may capture herds and seize pastures and water resources through predatory raiding. Such a strategy often appeals to young tribesmen who see it as a quick way to independence and prominence. Either way, tribesmen are ready to fight. Their tribal structure enhances feelings of unity and normalizes antipathy against outsiders. Challenging neighbors over territory and livestock not only feels natural and justified but is also desirable.
Raiding is the modus operandi of predatory expansion with the capture of livestock the first priority. Attacks on the human population tend to vary according to the cultural distance of the outsiders. Those close are treated with some consideration: Men are allowed to escape, and women are not harmed, nor is housing destroyed. Among Bedouin, women from other Bedouin groups are often left some mulch animals to support their children. But resistance is met by force, and injuries or deaths lead to blood feuds. Tribes can respond to blood feuds with large parties bent on vengeance. Conflict can thus escalate to all-out battle. Losers can escape by retreat, taking their household and livestock with them. This leaves the territory open for occupation by the winners.
The concept of "honor" infuses raiding and predatory expansion. First, fulfillment of obligations according to the dictates of lineage solidarity achieves honor. Second, neutral mediators who resolve conflicts and restore peace among tribesmen win honor. Third, victory in conflicts between lineages in opposition brings honor. Violence against outsiders is a well-worn path for those seeking honor. Success brings honor. Winners gain; losers lose. Trying, short of success, counts for nothing. In Middle Eastern tribal culture, victims are despised, not celebrated.
Nothing is more common in the history of tribes in the Middle East and North Africa than battles between tribes, the displacement of one by another, and the pushing of losing tribes out of their territories. Sometimes, losing tribes became dependents of stronger tribes, allowing them to continue to access territory while, at other times, losing tribes retreated to peasant areas from where they were absorbed into the peasantry, and lost their tribal nature.
While tribal organization facilitates the ability of Middle Easterners first to defend life and property and second to make a living through pastoralism, it also facilitates control over other people and their resources. The principle of alliance, with the closer against the more distant, applies both within and outside the tribe. Just as all members of a small lineage are obliged to unify and support the lineage against another lineage, all members of a tribe are expected to unify and support the tribe when it is in conflict with others. This does not mean that all members of the tribe line up in one gigantic regiment but rather that other members of the tribe see themselves as unified against outsiders and will provide material support if and when necessary. Tribal solidarity and balanced opposition remain powerful means of predatory expansion.
Tribal Influence on the Rise of Islam
It is against this backdrop of tribal interaction that Muhammad's actions should be considered. Prior to Muhammad's ascendancy, the tribes of northern Arabia engaged in raiding and feuding, fighting among themselves for livestock, territory, and honor. Muhammad's genius was to unite the fissiparous, feuding Bedouin tribes into a cohesive polity. Just as he had provided a constitution of rules under which the people of Medina could live together, so he provided a constitution for all Arabs, which had the imprimatur not only of Muhammad but also of God. Submission—the root meaning of the Arabic term islam–to God and His rules, spelled out in the Qur'an, bound into solidarity Arabian tribesmen, who collectively became the umma, the community of believers.
Building on the tribal system, Muhammad framed an inclusive structure within which the tribes had a common, God-given identity as Muslims. This imbued the tribes with a common interest and common project. But unification was only possible by extending the basic tribal principle of balanced opposition. This Muhammad did by opposing the Muslim to the infidel, and the dar al-Islam, the land of Islam and peace, to the dar al-harb, the land of the infidels and conflict. He raised balanced opposition to a higher structural level as the new Muslim tribes unified in the face of the infidel enemy. Bedouin raiding became sanctified as an act of religious duty. With every successful battle against unbelievers, more Bedouin joined the umma. Once united, the Bedouin warriors turned outward, teaching the world the meaning of jihad, which some academics today say means only struggle but which, in the context of early Islamic writing and theological debates, was understood as holy war.
The Arabs, in lightning thrusts, challenged and beat the Byzantines to the north and the Persians to the east, both weakened by continuous wars with one another. These stunning successes were followed rapidly by conquests of Christian and Jewish populations in Egypt, Libya, and the Maghreb, and, in the east, central Asia and the Hindu population of northern India. Not content with these triumphs, Arab armies invaded and subdued much of Christian Spain and Portugal, and all of Sicily. Since the Roman Empire, the world had not seen such power and reach. Almost all fell before the blades of the Muslim armies.
Conquest of vast lands, large populations, and advanced civilizations is a bloody and brutal task. Most accounts of Islamic history glide over the conquests, as if they were friendly takeovers executed to everyone's satisfaction. Boston University anthropologist Charles Lindholm, for example, wrote, "The Muslim message of the equality of all believers struck a cord with the common people of the empires, who, theoretically at least, were liberated from their inferior status by the simple act of conversion. The rise of Islam was both an economic and social revolution, offering new wealth and freedom to the dominions it assimilated under the banner of a universal brotherhood guided by the message of the Prophet of Allah." It may have been the best of all possible worlds, so long as one had not been one of the slain, enslaved, expropriated, suppressed, and degraded.
There are some accounts that address the Islamic conquests more frankly. Andrew Bostom, an associate professor of medicine at Brown University who edited a collection of primary source descriptions of jihad, provides lengthy quotes from major Islamic authorities, ancient and modern, verifying the obligation upon all Muslims to make holy war against infidels.
The Arab and Islamic conquests were not unlike tribal raids against distant, unprotected peoples, but on a much larger scale. One of the main characteristics of the Arab empire was the enslavement of conquered peoples. During conquest, men were commonly slaughtered while women and children were taken in slavery. Muslim invaders spared men who willingly converted but still enslaved their wives and children. In conquered regions, Muslim troops often took children from parents while along the periphery, it was normal to raid for slaves.
Bostom and other scholars provide historical accounts of such jihad. One Greek Christian account describes the Arab invasion of Egypt as "merciless and brutal." Not only did the Muslim invaders slay the commander of the Byzantine troops and his companions, but they also put to the sword all who surrendered including old men, babes, or women. Similar slaughters occurred across Palestine and Cyprus. Muslim troops were particularly brutal toward non-Muslim religious institutions. During the caliphate of Harun al-Rashid, many Christian monks were put to death. One Muslim historian estimated that Arab armies destroyed 30,000 churches throughout Egypt, Syria, and other central lands. An Armenian historian reported that, following a rebellion in 703, General Muhammad bin Marwan invaded the province, massacring and enslaving the populace. He wrote a letter to the nobility, giving guarantees of safety in return for surrender. They surrendered, at which point the Arab invaders shut them in churches and burned them alive.