Histories & Culture
General Introduction

The tribes in the Arab world follow a pattern of hierarchical structure: the basic tribal unit is a beit (house). The beit consists of all closely related persons living under one roof and dependent upon one another for their livelihood. Five generations of a beits form the unit called a fakhd.

The fakhd takes the name of the original beit or the name of a member who had distinguished himself in the affairs of the tribe. The head of a fakhd is a sheikh, acknowledged by all members of the tribe for his leadership qualities.

Several fakhds from a common ancestor form a ‘ashira. The sheikh of a ‘ashira is usually a member of its wealthiest and most powerful beit.

Several ‘ashiras from a common ancestor form a qabilah, a tribe, also under the leadership of a sheikh.

The sheikh, at each level, is drawn from the most powerful, wealthy, important house. He is the speaker for the tribe, and responsible for its welfare. His duties include maintaining a guesthouse for the benefit of his tribesmen, providing meals and advancing money to those in need.

All the units of a tribal structure are united by blood relation. The beits of a fakhd are bound together by mutual economic and familial obligations. In a tribe great importance is placed on the concept of honor (ird). Slight or injury to a member of a tribal group was an injury to all members of that group; likewise, all members were responsible for the actions of a fellow tribal member.
In cases of injury or injustice made by a member to a non-member, it is the collective responsibility of the entire fakhd to erase the slights and reach reconciliation by appropriate revenge or through mediation.

The sheikh of the ‘ashira has the responsibility to settle disputes between fakhds, and the sheikh of the qabilah has jurisdiction over all the sheikhs of the ‘ashiras.

Each level of tribal structure retains its autonomy until threatened by danger, in which case the sheikh of the qabilah assumes control. The claims of tribes having blood ties take precedence over any commitment to outsiders. All conflict in a tribe ceases when it is threatened by an outsider, be it another tribe or a government.

Arab tribal society obeys customary law, defiance means expulsion from the tribe and severing all family ties, which is considered a fate worse than death.

Legal disputes are referred to the sheikh who presents matter to a tribal council of men selected for their wisdom. If a council cannot reach a decision, then a specialist in tribal law is consulted. Sometimes disputes are referred to sayyids, holy men, whose verdict is respected.

Despite the near-disappearance of the nomadic way of life, tribal social structure and organization still has vestiges in society and group interactions in the Arab world.

There are tribes in Syria , Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait, Yemen, Libya, Morocco, Algeria and Sudan.

Origin of the Arabs

The Arabs, whether Muslim or Christian, trace their ancestry from the northern Arabian Qaysi (Ma'di, Nizari, Adnani, or Isma'ili) tribes or from the southern Arabian Yemeni (Banu Kalb or Qahtani) groups. The pure Arabs – the people of Qahtan – originally lived in the rain-fed highlands of Yemen and comprised many tribes, the two largest were Himyar and Kahlan, each comprised of several ‘ashiras.

Arab historians identify the first king of Yemen as Yar'ub bin Qahtan, who was succeeded by his son Yashjub, who in turn was followed by his son Abdul-Shams. Abdul-Shams was an early king of Sheba, and it was in his reign that the famous Ma'rib dam was constructed. That dam pooled the waters of the Yemeni mountains, and provided the basis of an advanced irrigation system to make this homeland of the Arab fertile and bountiful.

The Qahtan tribe established a number of states, such as Maeen, Sheba and Himyar. The rulers of Himyar were known as the Tubba.

The second group of Arabs are descended of mixed ancestry and intermarried with the Qahtan. These Arabs descended from the Prophet Ismail who had settled in Mecca. They are also known as the Adnani and the Nizari after their great-grandfather Adnan and their father Nizar bin Maad bin Adnan.

Among the prominent tribes of this group are the Madar, the Rabeea, the Iyad and the Anmar. These Arabs were concentrated in the upper region of the Arab Peninsula and were known as the northerners. One of the tribes which descended in this lineage was the Quraish into which the Prophet Mohammed was born.