Tribal Arabia

From Anarchy In Action

Situated between the powerful Byzantine and Sasanian Empires, the tribes of pre-Islamic Arabia made decisions by consensus and lived without a state. With a pagan religion emphasizing fate, tribes strove for a virtue they called muruwah. Some scholars translate murwah as "manliness," but Karen Armstrong contends "it had a far wider range of significance: it meant courage in battle, patience and endurance in suffering and absolute dedication to the tribe."[1] Armstrong elaborates that murwah "encouraged a deep and strong egalitarianism and an indifference to material goods which, again was probably essential in a region where there were not enough of the essentials to go round."[2]

The word "tribal" should not give the impression that Arabia's tribes were all entirely nomadic. In fact, Arabia's population consisted of overlapping groups of sedentary, nomadic, and pastoral communities.[3]

Each tribe had a chief or sayyid who took command during times of battle. When someone in a tribe was murdered, the tribe would retaliate by killing a member of the murderer's tribe. Fear of these revenge killings could prevent inter-tribal murder, but the killings could also fuel perpetual cycles of violence.[4]

Born in 570 CE, the prophet Muhammad established a community of monotheistic believers whose beliefs came to form the Islamic religion. Some of his followers established the Ummayyad Caliphate (661-750 CE), extending as far west as Spain and as far east as India. In the process, many pre-Islamic traditions were uprooted, but others became incorporated into the new religion.

One tradition that Islam retained is the tribal use of consensus decision-making, Islamic law calls ijma. Wael Hallaq writes in The Origins and Evolution of Islamic Law, "The growth in religious values and the impulse of Islam, coupled with the development of technical legal thought, produced...the need to justify what came to be considered 'secondary' sources of the law, sources that did not directly issue from the Divine. Consensus, originating in pre-Islamic Arab tribal conduct, was one of these."[5]


  1. Karen Armstrong, A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam (New York: Ballentine Books, 1993), 133.
  2. Armstrong, A History of God, 134.
  3. Wael Hallaq, The Origins and Evolution of Islamic Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 16-17.
  4. Armstrong, A History of God, 134.
  5. Hallaq, The Origins and Evolution of Islamic Law, 112.