Tribalism in Pre-Islamic Arabia

Pre-Islamic Arabian society was tribe-based.
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Before the advent of Islam, Arab society included large kingdoms, agricultural communities, nomads and groups of people who lived in a system made up of tribes comprised of smaller clans. The Prophet Muhammad, for example, was born into the Banu Hashim clan, an honorable branch of the Quraysh tribe. This tribal system provided groups of families with structure as well as basic needs. Because people depended on each other for survival, loyalty and unity were of utmost importance, traits that can still be seen today in many Islamic cultures.

1 Protection and Warfare

Prior to Islam, Arabia was home to an array of cultures that included Bedouin (nomadic) groups as well as Christian and Jewish kingdoms. Various tribes also inhabited this area and, in response to feuds and the acquisition of resources, these tribes were involved in warfare with each other. As a result loyalty to one's tribe was imperative for it to be able to grow strong and fight off any external conflicts brought about by other tribes. A tribe's honor depended on the honor of individuals, thus any personal attacks were met with united force. Pre-Islamic tribal warfare was marked by the rule of karr and farr which, according to Majid Khadduri, consisted of "a sudden attack by the full strength of the army on the enemy followed by a quick retreat." This approach, meant to inflict damage and create confusion, was later adopted by Muslim armies.

2 Patrilineal Descent

Pre-Islamic Arabian tribes were based on patrilineal descent, thus lineage was traced through males. While Arabia during this time was quite culturally diverse with many Christian and Jewish communities, in tribal groups, males held great significance; for instance, men were allowed to have as many wives as they could afford. Men who had many sons were seen as particularly manly while those who had a lot of daughters were thought to lack virility. According to Donald Lee Berry, author of Pictures of Islam, "Women had few if any rights in Pre-Islamic Arabia." Women had to obey their father's word until marriage, after which they had to obey their husbands, and they could not receive any portion of their father's inheritance nor choose who they would marry. Some Muslim scholars like Hatoon al-Fassi argue that women enjoyed many rights in Pre-Islamic Arabia and could even negotiate their own contracts without the help of a male "guardian."

3 Leadership

Tribal leadership was crucial to a tribe's survival and was overseen by a sayyid. A sayyid's duties were many, although their principle responsibilities were to settle disputes within the community while looking out for his tribe's interests in relation to other tribes in the region. If a sayyid fulfilled these duties, his decisions had to be followed by the tribe's members, in other words, his position depended on how well he led since the people could decide to replace him. Other authority figures included shaykhs, or elders, and kahins, or soothsayers. These individuals could also be contacted if tribal members did not agree with a sayyid's decisions.

4 Camel's Importance

Many pre-Islamic tribes were nomadic in nature, thus while some groups raised sheep and goats near oases, many relied on camels, who needed less food and water and were therefore better suited for life on the move. Arabia's location between Africa, Mesopotamia and India made it an important point for trade, and in sandy terrain lacking paved roads, carts pulled by oxen, horses and mules were not a viable way to transport goods. Camels, on the other hand, could go up to a month without water, cover 20 to 25 miles per day, were strong enough to carry 600-pound loads and tall enough to cross shallow rivers. These animals are so well suited for this region, in fact, that they are used across Arabia to this day.

Jose Maldonado teaches literature at several colleges. He has contributed to various online publications and holds a master's degree in creative writing.