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Tribe

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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

    Tribe

    Tribes—networks of extended families or clans—have always played a significant role in the Islamic world. In the 600s, warring clans dominated social, economic, and political life in Arabia. Muhammad challenged tribal leaders with his claim of prophetic authority and spoke out against the inequalities of life in tribal society. He promoted the rights of widows and orphans, encouraged fair business practices, and organized systems of charity. Muhammad also denounced tribal members for their polytheistic beliefs. Not surprisingly, many Arabs rejected his teachings.

    In 622 persecution by the Umayyads (a clan in the powerful Quraysh tribe) forced Muhammad to move from Mecca to Medina, where he helped resolve a dispute between rival tribes. With the help of his supporters, Muhammad launched several battles against the Umayyads. His victories inspired many clans to declare their loyalty to Islam. By 630 Islam had become the dominant power in Arabia. Although Islam created a sense of a common identity that transcended tribal loyalties, tribes continued to play a significant role as the religion spread beyond Arabia.

    Tribes and Muslim Empires.

    Several Muslim empires emerged from tribal dynasties or confederations. The Umayyads ruled the caliphate from 661 to 750 and greatly expanded the Islamic state. The Oghuz, a confederation of Turks, created the Ottoman Empire in the 1300s. By the 1500s, the Ottomans had become the most powerful force in the Islamic world. The Ottomans' rival, the Shi'i Safavid dynasty, owed its rise to the support of strong warrior tribes. In the 1900s, several Arabian groups backed the Saud family in creating the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

    Certain tribes have played large roles in the Islamic world. The North African Berbers helped the Muslims conquer Spain in the 700s, and they founded the Almoravid and Almohad empires in the 1000s and the 1100s. Although the Berbers readily adopted Islam, they retained tribal organization and clan loyalties. Bedouin herders inhabited Middle Eastern countries such as Arabia and Syria. Those who herded camels had the most prestige, followed by sheep or goat herders, and then cattle herders. In medieval times, Bedouin tribes frequently warred among themselves and raided nearby villages. After World War I ( 1914 – 1918 ), they had to submit to the rule of local governments. Some became integrated in urban society, taking jobs in construction or in the army. However, many still maintain a tribal lifestyle.

    Tribal Composition.

    Tribal groups range from nomad societies to settled agricultural communities. They often organize around a certain resource, such as land, water, or trade routes. These groups encourage a sense of identity by promoting unique customs and rituals. Members establish local ties through marriages or political arrangements.

    Tribal organization varies. Some are small, decentralized, and loosely organized. Local elders head these groups. Other tribes have a strong centralized hierarchy and extend across many regions. The leaders of these groups are usually wealthy elites who have ties to the national government. Small tribes sometimes merge with larger groups when threatened by hostile forces. Conversely, large tribes may split into smaller groups to escape state regulation.

    Tribal leaders, often called shaykhs, fulfill many important roles. They represent the tribe to government authorities and convey state regulations to tribal members. Shaykhs have four specific functions: resolving disputes, offering hospitality and giving gifts to important individuals, leading the tribe in times of war, and dealing with state governments. Before the establishment of modern states, shaykhs had a great deal of political power. They imposed taxes on peasants, charged escort fees to caravans passing through their territories, and owned large tracts of land. They also gained revenue from regional governments seeking their loyalty. In many tribes, the title of shaykh has continued down the same family line for centuries.

    Tribal and State Relations.

    Tribes in the Islamic world serve many functions. They enable members to defend themselves from foreign armies and government oppression, and they provide members with political influence and economic opportunities. Many tribes play significant roles within the state. Before the mid-1900s, Muslim leaders often needed tribal support for tax collection and national defense. At times, a strong tribe ensured the survival of a state. Governments rewarded loyal tribal elites with authority and wealth. Rulers sometimes even shared power with tribal leaders.

    Several modern Muslim governments have incorporated tribal leaders into their administrations. In Jordan, for example, tribal leaders hold positions in the legislature, serve as government ministers, and dominate the upper ranks of the military. In the Arabian Peninsula, they control vast oil reserves, and in Yemen, they rival government leaders in controlling foreign and domestic affairs.

    Certain tribes, however, attract opposition from state governments. For example, Kurdish tribes have met with much resistance in trying to form a homeland. Living in parts of Iran, Syria, Turkey, and Iraq, Kurds have repeatedly tried to gain their independence. Military campaigns in Iraq in 1988 and 1991 led to the deaths of tens of thousands of Kurds and caused millions to flee from their homes. The Turkish government also killed thousands of Kurds after terrorist attacks in 1992 . Clashes between Turks and Kurds continue in the southeastern part of the country. See also Iraq; Jordan; Muhammad ; Ottoman Empire; Safavid Dynasty; Saudi Arabia; Titles, Honorific; Turkey; Umayyad Caliphate; Yemen.

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