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The Tribal Order

The Tribal Order

Prior to the advent of Islam, the Arabs of °ij¡z obeyed neither a government nor a political institution. For this reason, their social life differed greatly from that of the Iranians and Romans. This is because in these two countries, i.e. Iran and Rome which bordered Arabia, there were unified central governments which ruled all over the country. However, there was no central power in °ij¡z or in any other city (in the north or center of the Arabian Peninsula as a whole).

The tribe was the social unit of the Arabs and the tribal system prevailed everywhere. In such a system, the identity of individuals was determined only through their affiliation with a tribe. The tribal elements could be observed among not only the desert dwellers but also the city-dwellers. In that region, every tribe looked like an independent country and the interrelations among them resembled those among nations in the new world.

Racial Affiliation

In those days, nationality was not based on factors such as unity of religion, language or history. A tribe was defined as a collection of some affiliated families and the bonds which brought relatedness among them were the familial bonds, and the unity of common ancestors. This is because the members of a tribe considered themselves as of the same blood.[1]

The combination of some families would create a tent and a combination of several tents would bring forth a tribe. Even the composition of big association, such as that of the Jews, was based on consanguinity and common ancestors. These groups would set up their tents in such a way as to form tribes of several thousand people each. Then, they would migrate from one place to another, following their cattle.[2]

The Tribal Chief

The head or representative of the tribe was called Shaykh.[3] This Shaykh was usually the most advanced in age. He had this position because of his personality, experience, bravery, defense of the tribe’s interests and sometimes because of the abundance of his wealth.[4] In the election of the Shaykh, some traits, such as generosity, bravery, patience, wisdom, humility and eloquence, were taken into consideration.[5]

The Shaykh did not use force or coercion in judicial, military and other general affairs. He used to consult with the tribal consultative committees. This latter managerial body elected the Shaykh who continued to keep his job as long as his electorates were happy with him.[6] However, in accordance with the tribal tradition, everybody had to obey the head of the tribe. When a Shaykh died, either his eldest son or another elderly man who possessed the same traits would be the tribal leader.

Islam fought against the tribal system and did away with it. It did not consider race or clan as significant as it built the newly established Islamic society on the basis of “unity of faith,” which is the strongest social bond. In this way, Islam substituted common faith for consanguinity. Islam called all the believers as brethren (the Holy Qur'¡n, 49:10). In this way, the foundation of the Arab social structure was changed.

Tribal Zeal and Devotion

Extreme zeal was considered as the very soul of the tribe and showed that an individual was devoted to the tribal interests. As a general rule, tribal devotion among the desert-dwellers resembled extreme nationalism in the modern world.[7] Whatever a civilized man does for his country, religion or race, a nomadic Arab did for his tribe. He would do anything possible for his tribe; he would even sacrifice his own life for it.[8]

An Arab used to be over-protective of his family members, such as brothers, nephews and other relatives. He used to protect his relative be he good or tyrant. In the Arab's ideology, if anybody refrained from helping his brother or nephew, his honor would be marred and damaged. Regarding this, they would say:

Help out your brother whether he is an oppressor or oppressed.

An Arab has written the following poem in this regard:

When a man is asked by his brothers to help them, he would not delay helping them out.[9]

In this way, if a tribal member was insulted, the whole tribe would feel this insult. Therefore, all tribal members had to participate in obliterating this spot of dishonor.[10]

Islam has condemned this kind of nonsensical prejudice, dogmatism and harmful zeal and has called it irrational:

When those who disbelieved harbored in their hearts feelings of disdain; distain of the days of ignorance. (48:26)

The Holy Prophet has stated:

“Anybody who invites others to engage in a dogmatic piece of affair or bears prejudice stays out of Islam.”[11]

“Anybody who engages in prejudice or is shown irrational sympathy stays out of religion.”[12]

The Holy Prophet once said, “Help out your brother, whether he is an aggressor or is an oppressed.” People remarked, “It is evident that an oppressed one should be helped out? How should we help out an oppressor?” The Holy Prophet replied, “Stop his aggression.”[13]

Tribal Revenge

Since there was neither central government, nor any judicial system in those days in Arabia to settle people's conflicts and to establish justice anybody who was the victim of an injustice had the right to engage in the act of taking-revenge. If the offender belonged to another tribe, the oppressed had the right to take revenge on any member of the other tribe and this was a common practice with the Arabs of those days.[14] This was because one member's sin was considered collective, belonging to the whole tribe, and because of the whole clan and consanguinity. The act of taking revenge was carried out first by close relatives, and later on by the whole members of the tribe if it was felt urgent.

If anybody was killed, the act of taking revenge would fall upon the shoulders of the closest relative[15] and if the murdered one belonged to another tribe, the custom of revenge-taking would be carried out and any one of the murderer’s tribal member was at the risk of losing his life. This was because the dominating dictum of the desert would say: “Blood is washed off only with blood.” No blood-money was accepted.

Once, a nomadic Arab was asked, “Are you ready to let go of anybody who has wronged you?” He replied, “I will take revenge and then go to hell.”[16]



[1] A¦mad Am¢n, Fajr al-Isl¡m, pp. 225; `Abd al-Mun`im M¡jid: al-T¡r¢kh al-Siy¡s¢ li’l-Dawlah al-`Arabiyyah (Political History of the Arab State), pp. 48.

[2] Karl Brockelman, History Of The Islamic States And Peoples.

[3] He was also called ra'¢s (chief), am¢r (prince), and sayyid (master). See `Abd al-Mun`im M¡jid, al-T¡r¢kh al-Siy¡s¢ li’l-Dawlah al-`Arabiyyah, pp. 49.

[4] `Abd al-Mun`im M¡jid, al-T¡r¢kh al-Siy¡s¢ li’l-Dawlah al-`Arabiyyah, pp. 49.

[5] Al-ªl£s¢, Bul£gh al-Irab…1:187.

[6] Phillip °itt¢, The Arab History, pp. 39.

[7] Phillip °itt¢, The Arab History, pp. 38.

[8] Will Durant, Op cit, 4:200.

[9] A¦mad Am¢n, Op cit, pp. 10.

[10] °asan Ibr¡h¢m °asan, The Political History of Islam 1:37-8.

[11] Shaykh al-¯ad£q, Thaw¡b al-A`m¡l wa `Iq¡b al-A`m¡l, pp. 263; Shaykh al-Kulayn¢, al-U¥£l min al-K¡f¢, 2:308.

[12] Sunan Ab¢-D¡w£d, Ch. Al-Adab, S. f¢ al-`A¥abiyyah, pp. 332, H. 512.

[13] ¯a¦¢¦ al-Bukh¡r¢, Ch. Al-Ma¨¡lim, 2:66; Musnad A¦mad, 3:201.

[14] °asan Ibr¡h¢m °asan, the Political History of Islam, pp. 39.

[15] Brockleman, op cit, pp. 6-7.

[16] Al-Nuwayr¢, Nih¡yat al-Irab f¢ Fun£n al-Adab 6:67.

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