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Tribal Wars

Tribal Wars

Tribal Wars

If a murder occurred among the Arabs, the murderer’s closest relative would be responsible; and since the murderer's family used to support him, a bloody war would be inevitable. These wars would start over minor things and usually lasted for years. An example was the Bas£s War between the two tribes of Ban£-Bakr and Ban£-Taghlib both of whom belonged to Rab¢`ah. This war lasted for forty years. The source of the conflict was the arrival of a camel of the former tribe into the reserved pastureland of the other tribe who slaughtered it. The camel owner, a lady named Bas£s, belonged to the former tribe.[1]

Another war of the same nature broke out between Qays ibn Zuhayr, the chief of Ban£-Faz¡rah over a horse race. D¡¦is and al-Ghabr¡’ were the names of two horses which took part in this competition. The former belonged to Qays and the latter to °udhayfah. Both Qays and °udhayfah claimed that their horses won. This minor event culminated in a disaster in which many lives were lost.[2] These kinds of calamities have been termed Ayy¡m al-`Arab on which numerous books have been written.

Of course, on some occasions, camels would be paid to the family of the diseased one as blood money. In every tribe, it was up to the elderly people to solve such conflicts. Solutions were offered, but not imposed and the tribes would accept such peaceful solutions due to their involvement in the tiring wars. If the murderer's tribe submitted the murderer to the other tribe who had lost a member, wars could be prevented. However, such submission was not honorable. Therefore, they preferred to punish the wrongdoer. In the conceptualization of the desert dweller, keeping one’s face was the very essence of ethics.

These desert rules and regulations were carried out in the cities of °ij¡z, i.e. ±¡’if, Mecca and Medina. This is because these citizens resembled the desert dwellers in many ways: they were independent and free, as they obeyed nobody whatsoever. However, these prestige-keeping behaviors which manifested themselves in extremity within the desert were somehow moderated in Mecca due to the respect that they showed towards the Kaaba and because of the trade, contracts which were held in that holy place.[3]

The Holy Qur'¡n has condemned this sort of revenge-taking and stipulated justice as the basis for the protection of people. It emphasized the fact that Muslims should maintain justice even if this justice might endanger themselves or their parents.

O You who believe! Be maintainers and justify bearers of witness of Allah's sake, though it may be against your own selves or your parents or near relatives; if he be rich or poor, Allah in nearer to them both in compassion; therefore do not follow your low desires, lest you deviate; and if you swerve or turn aside, then surely Allah is aware of what you do. (4:135)

Manslaughter and Plunder

The desert-dwelling Arab did not show any love or sympathy towards anybody outside his own tribe. This kind of affection did not go beyond one's own family and tribe the members of which were close relatives. An Arab's field of thinking and understanding was within the narrow range of the tribe. The desert-dwelling Arab, like extremist nationalists of our time, cared for his own interests and those of his close relatives. This behavior was manifested by one Arab, who was still under the influence of his previous culture after the advent of Islam and said at the time of praying, “O God, bless me and bless Mu¦ammad; but do not bless anybody else.”[4]

The deprivation imposed by the severe conditions of the desert on the desert-dwelling Arabs forced them to engage in plundering. This was due to the fact that their land lacked the common assets of other lands. They used to compensate for this deprivation through plundering. They considered engagement in plundering the caravans a kind of bravery and honor in the same way that capture and besiegement of a city is considered honorable at our own time.[5]

Of course, one of the causes for plundering and wars was rivalry among tribes to capture the pastures. At times, bloody conflicts occurred for the attainment of chiefship. For instance, at the time of the death of an elder brother who used to be the chief, the younger brothers desired for that position, and the deceased chief's sons, too, wanted to get their father's position. Under such conditions, fight and struggles for power were inevitable. In such moments, poets also agitated people to be involved for more bloodshed. They chanted tribal prides, criticized other rival tribes and mobilized people to take revenge. Minor issues were the usual causes for such bloody conflicts, it was then up to the two antagonistic tribes to annihilate one another mercilessly.[6] Savagery and avoidance of civilized ways was among the reasons for their plundering. In the opinion of Ibn Khald£n, this nation was savage. Plundering and savagery were embedded in their very morale. For instance, when they needed stones to build a fireplace, they used to destroy buildings; they used to destroy buildings and castles in order to prepare woods required for erecting tents. They got their sustenance by means of swords; they would not be satisfied easily; they showed greed for plunder; they would grab any piece of wealth they could put their hands on.[7]

Plundering was one of their sources of income. When they attacked a tribe, they would confiscate their camels and enslave their wives and children. Still another tribe would carry out the same pernicious acts in a later time. When they could not locate an enemy, they would destroy one another. This is made clear through the poem of al-Qa§§¡m¢, a poet in the reign of the Umayyad rulers, who composed:

“It is our job to attack our neighbors and our enemies, and in those moments when we cannot locate anybody else except for our brother, we will attack him.”[8]

[1] Mu¦ammad A¦mad J¡d al-Mawl¡ Bek, `Al¢ Mu¦ammad al-Bajj¡w¢, Mu¦ammad Ab£’l-Fa¤l Ibr¡h¢m: Ayy¡m al-`Arab f¢ al-J¡hiliyyah, pp. 142-168; Ibn al-Ath¢r: al-K¡mil f¢’l-T¡r¢kh 1:523-539.

[2] Ibn Hush¡m: S¢rat al-Nab¢ 1:307; Y¡q£t al-°amaw¢: Mu`jam al-Buld¡n 1:268.

Ibn al-Ath¢r (in al-K¡mil f¢’l-T¡r¢kh 1:566-582) and J¡d al-Mawl¡ Beck (in Ayy¡m al-`Arab pp. 246-277) consider the owner of the two horses to be one person namely, Qays.

[3] Brockleman, op cit, pp. 8.

[4] ¯a¦¢¦ al-Bukh¡r¢ 8:327-8, H. 893. Similar to this is mentioned in Sunan Ab¢-D¡w£d 4:271.

[5] Gustav Le Bon, op cit, pp. 63,

[6] °asan Ibr¡h¢m °asan, op cit, 1:38.

[7] Muqaddimat Ibn Khald£n 1:285-286.

[8] A¦mad Am¢n, op cit, pp. 9; Phillip °itt¢, op cit, pp. 35; °am¡sat Ab¢-Tamm¡m, pp. 32, Calcutta: Leisi Publishing House, 1895 AD.

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