Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1123, 22-28 November 2012-
Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Issue 1123, 22-28 November 2012-

Ahram Weekly

Between tribalism and statehood

The style of political Islam that is dominating the contemporary Arab scene is opposed to the state inherently, because it is tribal fundamentally,
writes Tarek Heggy

Al-Ahram Weekly

The sociology of the Arabian Peninsula tribes is the key to understanding the Arab character and mentality. In order to trace the historical features of that character and mentality, we must try to imagine the way of life in the inland wastes of the eastern regions of the peninsula over the last 20 centuries. But why the eastern, not the western regions? I shall explain why after presenting a panoramic survey of the historical features of the character and mental make-up of the tribes inhabiting the eastern regions of the Arabian Peninsula, specifically the tribes of the hinterland, not the coastal areas.
For the past 20 centuries, the tribes living in the eastern regions of the Arabian Peninsula have been leading a pastoral life as opposed to a settled life, roaming in search of pasturage and water. As a result of this lifestyle, the attitude of the Arab tribesman living in those regions to such notions as loyalty, objectivity and neutrality cannot be understood in isolation from the sociology of nomadism, the culture pattern of Bedouin tribes forced by their environment to move constantly in search of sustenance.
Their unconditional loyalty is reserved for the sheikh of the tribe; objectivity is an alien concept and neutrality akin to treason. As the eminent Egyptian critic Galal Al-Ashri noted in his treatise on Arab creativity, the only creative area in which the Arabs excelled was poetry. That is the only form of artistic expression they produced for reasons we shall not go into here. They did not produce theatre, novels, epics, music or other creative forms like the Greeks and, before them, the Egyptians and the Sumerians.
The poetry composed by the poets hailing from the eastern regions of the Arabian Peninsula is a mirror reflecting the value system of the tribes of the region, their mores, concerns, behaviour and thinking. The image reflected by their poetry has remained unchanged for centuries. An ode written in classical Arabic over 10 centuries ago by a poet from Najd reflects the same values and worldview as one written in the vernacular by a poet living in Najd today. Most of the poetry of the region, old and new, resounds with the cadence of stirring imagery, its main themes pride and the superiority of the Bedouin, who is always victorious, never defeated, who bows to no one and stands high above all others.
In fact, the word for “lofty” in Arabic is nouf, from whence the proper names Nayef, Nouf and Nawaf. This then is the message that thousands of odes by poets from Najd, Hasa, Al-Qassim and Al-Hofouf have tried to convey ever since the Arabic language in its present form came into being and up to the present day. This view of life as reflected by the poetry of the region encapsulates the sociology of its nomadic tribes.
The reason we are focussing on the eastern inland areas of the Arabian Peninsula rather than on the eastern coastal areas and the region of Hejaz is that the inland areas were the crucible in which the brand of Islamist thinking known as Wahhabism was forged. During the second half of the 20th century, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia spent hundreds of billions of dollars to spread this doctrine, which had by then become influenced by three external factors: the ideas of Abul-Ela Al-Mawdoudi, Sayed Qutb and the Soroureya School of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Syrian chapter.
But these factors did not dilute the essence of the Wahhabi understanding of Islam. On the contrary, because of the simplistic thinking of Mohamed Ibn Abdel-Wahab in comparison with the schools of Al-Mawdoudi, Qutb and the Soroureya, they helped to reinforce it and swell the ranks of its adherents.
The tribal Arab mind-set formed in the inland deserts of the eastern Arabian Peninsula took over leadership of intellectual life in Arab and Muslim societies after the failure of the stage of liberalism and the blend of socialism and Arab nationalism that had at one time held sway. However, the degree to which Arab and Muslim societies have come to be influenced by the tribal mentality born in the harsh eastern wasteland of the Arabian Peninsula differs from one society to another in proportion to each society’s historical and cultural legacy and according to its political and socio-economic conditions. Thus, while its influence was most strongly felt in the inland regions of the Arabian Peninsula, it was weaker in the coastal cities of the peninsula and weaker still in societies like Egypt, Morocco, Syria, Iraq and India that enjoy a richer legacy of history, civilisation and culture than the Arabian Peninsula.
Still, the Bedouin worldview forged in the barren deserts of the eastern Arabian Peninsula and expressed in the poetry produced by poets from the region is the most important key to understanding the ways of thinking prevailing in many Arab and Muslim societies. The culture pattern that formed the Bedouin worldview is in total contradiction with the concept of statehood. Loyalty to the sheikh of the tribe is personal by its very nature while loyalty to the state is a more abstract notion. In the tribe, obedience to the wishes and instructions of the sheikh is the counterpart to the modern citizen’s adherence to the constitutional and legal rules of the state.
According to the sociology of the tribal mind-set, the specificity of which has been described in some detail in this article, the Other is perceived as an enemy or, at best, as a potential enemy to be neutralised. In the modern state system, on the other hand, the Other is regarded as a natural expression of the diversity of life, inspiring neither rejection nor enmity. In a tribal environment there can be no discussion of such issues as diversity, acceptance of the Other, engaging in self-criticism and accepting criticism, the universal nature of knowledge or the recognition that it is the collective legacy of humanity as a whole, all fruits of the modern, progressive, civilised state.
Indeed the very notion of humanity is alien to tribal society. If we borrow from the great philosopher Ibn Khaldoun his theory on the distinction between urban and Bedouin societies, we can say that the contemporary Islamic mind-set (not Islam itself) is conditioned by a brand of Islam as understood, presented and propagated over the last half century by the Bedouin tribes living in the inland deserts of the eastern Arabian Peninsula. Given that most of the Islamic centres and schools established in North America, Europe, Australia and in non-Muslim regions of Asia and Africa were set up at the initiative and with the funding of representatives of this insular tribal mind-set, it is not hard to understand why the world today sees itself locked in a major confrontation between humanity and Islam.
In truth, however, the confrontation is between humanity and a model of Islam presented, financed and propagated by the Bedouin, or Najdi, mind-set. One of the most alarming developments of the last five decades is that the Najdi mind-set did not stop at monopolising Islamic centres and schools throughout the world but expanded its sphere of influence to include the mass media both within and outside Arab and Islamic societies. Its tentacles also spread to venerable Islamic institutions in countries like Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco and Syria, eroding their original features and replacing them with its own. Thus while in the past we knew when listening to the Friday sermon in Egypt that the speaker was either a Shafite or a Hannafite, and in Morocco or Tunisia that he was a Maliki, we now hear an altogether different tune, a single Hanbalite note set to the music of Ibn Taymiyah and Ibn Abdel-Wahab.
Although of all the Islamic jurists Ibn Hanbal was the most zealous proponent of orthodoxy and tradition, allowing little if any room for deductive reasoning (he accepted tens of thousands of the Prophet’s hadiths as apostolic precept contrary to the great jurist Abu Hanifa, who accepted just over 100), he was a natural product of his time. It was a time the Islamic Empire was reeling from the onslaught of the Moguls and the Tatars, and he cannot be blamed for ideas that were appropriate to the age in which he lived. The blame lies with those who, living in a different time and place, base their ideas on those of Ibn Hanbal. Finally, Mohamed Ibn Abdel-Wahab is by no means a jurist but merely a proselytiser seeking converts to the Najdi model of Islam which needs to be understood in the context of its tribal, Bedouin, insular, desert origins.
Had it not been for the fact that oil was discovered in these regions, this model would have remained a prisoner of geography, locked behind the sand dunes of Najd which produced no art, music or literature but only poetry devoted to a single theme: the glorification of the tribal values of Najd.

The writer is a political analyst.

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