Middle East Tribalism
Tribes In Seventh-century Arabia
Tribal identities in the Middle East are best seen in the context of the wider social and economic networks in which they have played a part, from ancient empires to the present. Tribal, kinship, and genealogical identities also profoundly influenced religious and political formations in earlier periods of the Middle East. For example, studies of ancient Judaism now also take tribal relations more into account than did earlier accounts that relied primarily on textual exegesis. In all these cases, however, alternative forms of social and political identity were never entirely absent.
For example, in the Arabian peninsula at the time of the advent of Islam in 622 C.E., social position in both oasis towns and their hinterlands depended foremost on overlapping ties of family, kinship, and tribe. In this context, Islam offered a new form of belonging, the "firmest tie" in the language of the Koran (2: 256), binding believers to God and giving them a sense of individual responsibility. The Koran morally sanctions ties to family, kin, and tribe but the community of Muslims (Ar., umma), united in submission to the one God, takes precedence.
The sense of belonging as individuals to the community of Muslims as the principal social and religious identity broke with the primary loyalties of the pre-Islamic era, but in practice tribal structure and claimed descent remained essential to understanding political, social, and economic action from later historical periods to the present. Thus there are many early references to the prophet Muhammad as an arbitrator among feuding tribes, a role traditionally played by members of his descent group, the Quraysh, prior to the advent of Islam. Many tribal groups decided that their adherence to the community of Muslims ceased with Muhammad's death in 632 C.E., leaving them open to forge new alliances.
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