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Middle East Tribalism

The Multiple Meanings Of Tribe

The fact that one word, tribe, describes a range of ideas about society and social forms throughout the Middle East, as elsewhere in the world, does not make these meanings intrinsically related. For example, take the notion of tribe, still prevalent in many archaeological discussions, as an organizational level between "band" and "state." This formulation implies that tribes are on an evolutionary ladder and independent of states. Yet in earlier historical periods and in the present, tribes and states coexist and overlap. The problem of misrecognizing tribal identities is further compounded by the views of some Middle Eastern urban intellectuals who have adopted nineteenth-century evolutionary views and assume that tribes exist only at the fringes of states or are residues of pre-state formations. Both now and in the past, however, ideas of tribe share "family resemblances," possessing partial and overlapping similarities and a shared cultural logic. Far from being a relic of the past, "tribe" in the Arabian peninsula and the modern Middle East can even sustain modern national identity.

Tribal identity, like other bases of social cohesion, including kinship, citizenship, and nationalism, is something that people (and sometimes ethnographers and state officials) create, and it changes with historical and political context. The first form that the notion of tribe can take is the elaboration and use of explicit ethnopolitical ideologies by people themselves to explain their social and political organization. These locally held ideologies of tribal belonging in the Middle East are generally based on a concept of political identity formed through common patrilineal descent. A major exception is the Tuareg of the Sahara, where tribal identity is based on matrilineal descent—descent traced through the mother.

People in such tribes sometimes hold that how groups align themselves in time of dispute is explained by tribal and lineage identities alone, but other grounds for political action coexist and overlap. In precolonial Morocco as elsewhere, coalitions did not necessarily occur along the lines of tribe or lineage. This is demonstrated by the patterns of resistance in which people from various sections and tribes aligned themselves against the French in the early twentieth century. Pre-colonial accounts of disputes in western Morocco also suggest that alliances followed more flexible lines than those predicted by formal classification.

In general, tribal names and chains of patrilineal genealogies provide a range of potential identities rather than a basis for sustained collective action in itself. Often there is strong resistance to efforts to write down genealogies or claims to tribal descent because writing, by fixing the relationships among groups, distorts the ongoing process by which groups rework alliances and obligations and "re-imagine" the past in order to legitimate actions in the present.

For example, when Moroccan tribespeople discuss tribe (Ar., qabila), they elaborate the notion in different ways depending on their generation and social status. Socially and politically dominant individuals use ideas of tribe and lineage to fix political alliances with members of other tribal groups and to enhance their own position vis-à-vis state authorities and their followers. Ethnographers working in tribal societies have frequently based their accounts of kinship relations and tribal organization on information provided by such socially and politically dominant individuals. In contrast, the notions of tribal identity maintained by ordinary tribesmen, not to mention tribeswomen, often differ significantly from such formal ideologies of politically dominant tribal leaders.

A second notion of tribe is based on its use as an administrative device in contexts as varied as the Ottoman Empire, Morocco, Iran, and other countries prior to, during, and after colonial rule. Administrative assumptions concerning the nature of tribes are generally based, to some degree, on locally maintained conceptions modified for political purposes. Thus administrative concepts of tribe frequently assume a corporate identity and fixed territorial boundaries that many "tribes" do not possess and give privileges and authority to tribal leaders that are dependent on the existence of a state organization and not derived from leadership as understood by tribal people themselves. In cases such as Morocco and the Sudan, colonial authorities formally promoted "tribal" identities and developed tribal administration to a fine art in an attempt to retard nationalist movements. In reaction, the postcolonial governments of these and other countries signaled an ideological break with the colonial past by formally abolishing tribes as an administrative device, although such identities remain politically significant.

A third meaning of tribe refers to the practical notions that tribal people implicitly hold as a guide to everyday conduct in relating to their own and other social groups. These notions emerge primarily through social action. Tribal people do not always articulate such notions in ordinary situations because they are so taken for granted and because the social alignments based on these notions frequently shift. Practical notions of tribe and related concepts of social identity implicitly govern crucial areas of activity, including factional alignments over land rights, pastures, and other political claims, marriage strategies (themselves a form of political activity), and many aspects of patronage. In Jordan and among Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and in Israel, for example, Arabic newspapers are filled with announcements indicating the settlement of disputes among lineage and tribal groups precipitated by disputes or even automobile accidents resulting in personal injury in which tribal leaders mediate a settlement that is then publicly announced.

A fourth meaning of tribe relates to the analytical conceptions of the term held by anthropologists. Anthropological conceptions are intended primarily to make sociological sense of tribal social relations and often parallel those held by tribal people themselves. They are not more real than tribal people's conceptions of tribe or superior to them; they are a more explicit form of knowledge intended to explain how societies work. The anthropologist's objective is to achieve as adequate an understanding as possible of how people in a given society conceive of social forms, use this knowledge as a basis for social action, and modify these conceptions in practice and over time.


Eickelman, Dale F. The Middle East and Central Asia: An Anthropological Approach. 4th ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2002. See chap. 5, "What is a Tribe?"

Khoury, Phillip S., and Joseph Kostiner, eds. Tribes and State Formation in the Middle East. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990. An indispensable review of the topic.

Peters, Emrys L. The Bedouin of Cyrenaica: Studies in Personal and Corporate Power. Edited by Jack Goody and Emanuel Marx. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. A classic reference.

Shryock, Andrew. Nationalism and the Genealogical Imagination: Oral History and Textual Authority in Tribal Jordan. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997.

Varisco, Daniel Martin. "Metaphors and Sacred History: The Genealogy of Muhammad and the Arab 'Tribe.'" Anthropological Quarterly 68, no. 3 (July 1995): 139–156.

Dale F. Eickelman

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Toxicology - Toxicology In Practice to TwinsMiddle East Tribalism - Tribes In Seventh-century Arabia, Tribal Identity And Political Metaphor, The Multiple Meanings Of Tribe