The social structure of the Arabs before Islam

  December 06, 2021   Read time 3 min
The social structure of the Arabs before Islam
Now, let us talk about the Arab social concept of the Qabīla , ‘tribe,’ as it is the structural unit of pre-Islamic peninsular Arab society. Although the term is technical in the medieval literature on genealogy, its popular and scholarly use alike is loose.

Its meaning was often generalized to include smaller social structures. According to al-Qalqašandiyy (1355–1418) the Arabs divided al-’Ansāb (sing. nasab ), ‘genealogies,’ into six main divisions. Each of these divisions is a subcategory of the previous one. The top category is al-Ša‘b , ‘people.’ As far as this category is concerned, the Arabs saw themselves as the children of two main distinct peoples: the Qaḥṭān and ‘Adnān. Without going into too many interesting but needless details here, the Qaḥṭān were also commonly known as al-‘Arab al-‘Āriba , ‘the real Arabs’, whose origin is Yemen. The second people, ‘Adnān, were also commonly known among medieval Arabs as al-‘Arab al-Musta‘riba , ‘the Arabized Arabs’. Their origin was believed to have been northern, largely Syrian. Further smaller divisions of the Arabs always come back to one of these two peoples. Both peoples met and interacted on the main Arabian Peninsula north of Yemen in a deep and unknown point in the history of the Arabs preIslamic time.

Each of the two ša‘b is in turn divided into two qabā’il (sing. Qabīla ), ‘complex tribe.’ The ša‘b of Qaḥṭān is divided into Ḥimyar and Kahlān. Al-Qalqašandiyy lists the clans of these two tribes. Most of the pre-Islamic famous names among the Arabs as far as tribal preIslamic dialects were concerned come from these two large tribes. From Kahlān descends Ṭayyi’, one of the most eloquent Arab tribes as we will see later, according to the judgment of the medieval Arab grammarians. However from the same Kahlān comes Kalb, one of the tribes grammarians do not recommend collecting data from. The northern ša‘b of ‘Adnān is also divided into the two tribes of Rabī‘a and Muḍar. Al-Hamadāniyy states that to Rabī‘a belongs Asad, one of the three best tribes insofar as pre-Classical Arabic is concerned. Qays, another trustworthy tribe, belongs to Muḍar. The third and last trustworthy tribe is Tamīm, which is a division of Ilyās Ibn Muḍar. One of the tribes that Arab grammarians trusted parts of is Huḏayl, and it is also a branch of Muḍar.

All these branches of the four major tribes of the two peoples are technically called ‘imāra , ‘body.’ When we discuss the medieval Arab grammarians’ attitude towards dialects in preIslamic times, we will see that three full ‘imāras and parts of two ‘imāras are trustworthy and the rest of the Arabs are not as trustworthy as these were. As we can see from the previous paragraphs, these tribes, except for Ṭayyi’, come from the ša‘b of al-‘Arab al-Musta‘riba . This distribution supports the precedence of the genealogical criterion over the linguistic criterion in the defi nition of the Arabs and their understanding of who they were. The ‘imāra as a technical term is often ignored by the Arabs, scholars and laypeople alike, in favor of the broader term qabīla . This use of a broader term to designate the subcategory can suggest a diversifi cation of the clans a single tribe has and an expansion of their numbers.

‘Imāra is a metaphorical designation. It likens the social structure to the human body. So are the following subdivisions: baṭn , ‘belly,’ and faxiḏ , ‘thigh.’ Al-Baṭn is a subdivision of the ‘imāra , while the faxiḏ is a subdivision of the baṭn . Al-Azd is one ‘imāra under Kahlān. One baṭn of this ‘imāra is ġassān, which lives in the northwest part of Yemen to the south of Hijaz as we can see from Map 1.1 . This baṭn lived in different places in western Arabia, both in the northeast and in Hijaz proper, namely in Madīna ( Ṣubḥ , Vol. I, pp. 319–320). The final social subdivision is a faṣīla , ‘group.’ Technically the Aws and Xazraǧ of Madīna are each a faṣīla of ġassān. We know from different sources that these two entities were called tribes, which can be an indication of their large size. Another interesting indication not only of the size a social entity can be, but also of the widespread moving potential it can theoretically have is Azd.

Write your comment