Sunday, June 22, 2008

My Dissertation

One question I had trouble addressing on the job market was the standard request for a brief statement as to the main argument of my dissertation. This was because in inspiration I was not so much addressing myself to a particular historical problem as I was dissatisfied on several different levels with the way early Islamic tribal history was being written. In common usage, the English term "tribe" is often understood as denoting some form of social organization seen as primitive, and has incorporated everything from Native American groups to Bedouin to the peoples of southern Africa. While Arabs embrace the term as the equivalent of certain Arabic words, people in other areas of the world, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, have rejected it as bigoted and pejorative.

Anthropologists have tried to derive from "tribe" a concept useful for cross-cultural comparisons, and produced a range of definitions too numerous to go into. In the Middle East and Central Asia, however, this has usually involved some sense of group solidarity and fictive kinship, or an ideology of descent from a common ancestor who often supplies the tribe with its name. There are also subdivisions which also express their relationship through genealogy. The best-known example of this is probably that in the Book of Genesis, where you have Jacob coming to be called "Israel" and his twelve sons as the twelve tribes of Israel. The Table of Nations, Genesis 10, is a tribal people's conception of the whole world as they knew it at a certain time in history, probably the Egyptian New Kingdom with a later emendation.

In any case, an issue that has occupied both anthropologists and historians of the Middle East has been the relationship between tribes and states. For my dissertation, I decided to focus on the particular case of the relationship of the early caliphate with Bedouin tribes. One problem I had with the existing historiography is that standardized anthropological models derived mainly from Central Asia and southern Sudan had been somewhat uncritically imported. The former has led historians to see tribes, conceived of chiefly, it seems, in terms of a solid group sharing an ideology of common descent, as creations of states, or at the very least of a world in which states were dominant. My own concerns approaching these issues were: 1.) The fact these Central Asian models didn't match the ethnographic studies of Bedouin in Arabia, the Fertile Crescent area, or North Africa 2.) A lack of clarity in the historiography as to the processes which led to the change their mentalities over time from a hypothesized tribal one to that of the agrarian high culture of the 9th century Middle East 3.) A need to, if I might use a buzzword, allow some agency to the tribespeople in their social organization 4.) The fact these models often didn't match the sources, which may indicate the sources were written based on suppositions of "what must have been" but may also indicate that something is wrong 5.) Doubt that the same broad theories could be applied throughout the territory of the early caliphate and 6.) In the case of some of the existing literature, the persistence of tribal labels and rivalries well past the point at which they had allegedly ceased to have importance.

My methodology was therefore to approach the sources informed strictly by Bedouin ethnography rather than comparative studies of other regions. There is some weakness here in that I'm using studies of the past 150 or so years to talk about events from over 1000 years ago, but I felt like just as moving across that space and time you saw lots of differences and particulars but still a family resemblance, so during the period under study would be recognizable as a member of that same family, the details of which would form part of my historical reconstruction. In any case, it did seem to match the sources I was reading. In delimiting matters, I decided to focus on a particular tribe, al-Azd, both for the amount of available source material and because they were important in the Gulf, an inchoate interest in which had led me to think about some of these issues in the first place.

The Bedouin ethnographies I was looking at focused on tribe, not as a solid group that ran around doing everything together, but as an identity agreed upon by individuals and smaller groups which conceived of themselves as free and who experienced tribal ties as assets, options, and obligations more than Emile Durkheim's mechanical solidarity. The bulk of the dissertation was a reading of Azdi history from the period before Islam up until the early 9th century, moving from pre-Islamic Arabia into the garrison towns of southern Iraq and from there to the Jazira region of northern Iraq and the Khurasan frontier region in what is now eastern Iran and western Afghanistan. What I said in my conclusion is:
"This dissertation has explored the ways in which the group of people identified as the Azd adapted to and exploited the changes of the seventh and eighth centuries associated with the rise of an ever more imperial caliphate occurring simultaneously with the massive and widespread settlement of the former peoples of the Arabian peninsula in the settled world. It has argued that the relation of tribe to state in this formative period cannot be understood through a simple logic of action and reaction, but rather as a set of dynamic processes in which each redefined itself as it sought to come to terms with the other. This type of relationship was not a new feature of the early Islamic world, but rather a continuation of patterns of interaction which had characterized late antiquity. If the economic and social content of tribal identity for a tribesman was an arrangement of assets and options, then the changing nature of state interest in tribally organized populations and the different ecological and cultural niches in which tribesmen found themselves led to transformations in the nature of the available assets and obligations, and hence to changes within the practice of tribesmen within the same conceptual identity framework.

"At no point during the period under study was there a centralized leadership for all the Azd. In every period, however, there were individuals who had the natural ability or material resources to influence the behavior of others through combinations of persuasion, coercion, or enticement. Some of these, such as Sa’ad b. Safih ad-Dawsi, were known primarily for their military skill, perhaps with some ability to control a surplus from oasis farming or herding. Others, such as Dhu al-Taj Laqit b. Malik al-Azdi, added to their power by performing services for a state such as that of the Sasanians. This relationship, however, need not have been simply one of subservience, as the tribal leaders so empowered, and conceivably many of their followers, gained important benefits in terms of reputation and perhaps economic and military goods from a relationship they entered into freely. Mikhnaf b. Sulaym may be a similar figure in early Islam.

"The early caliphate enacted policies to make the tribesmen easier to administer and control, policies which played a crucial role in delimiting the tribe as an administrative unit. At the same time, state control was far from rigid, except perhaps in Khurasan where tribesmen were transferred by the central authority for military purposes in which they were continually engaged. In Kufa and Basra, however, the governors may have created tribal divisions, but they grew unevenly based on a series of independent decisions taken by tribesmen, both those who chose to migrate to lower Mesopotamia and seek association with certain groups already there, as well as the leaders of the garrison town divisions and others who chose to accept them. Furthermore, while the state could influence tribal leadership positions, this power was not absolute. The most important tool was using control of economic resources to enhance the quality of the assets a chosen leader could offer those whom he would lead, and occasionally to punish those who opposed him or the government. In the period under study, such leaders were always local.

"At the same time, the policies of the early caliphate often had a significant impact on the Azd in ways that were often incidental to their most important purpose. This often involved the empowerment of individuals who retained their tribal ties even though the reasons for and basis of the empowerment was focused elsewhere. One example of this was the Muhallabid family. Al-Muhallab b. Abi Sufra may have been appointed over Khurasan because the Azd were weak in that region. However, his career and those of his descendants were tied to their involvement in high politics, their military careers, and their success at establishing local and regional bases of power. During these processes, they often relied on Azdi support, using those linked to them by that tribal identity, however distant, as a base and thus introducing significant Azd populations to new regions. This also made of the Muhallabids important assets for those Azd who followed them to these new regions where they enjoyed some favoritism. In addition, the Muhallabids increased the honor of the Azd through their success and the ever expanding corpus of tales and fables lauding their virtues. Pseudo-‘Awtabi’s account of the family shows the role they came to play as heroes for all Azdis.

"A similar phenomenon is seen in the region of Mosul. Here policies of both Umayyads and Abbasids led to the creation of an urban elite of Arab heritage. At the same time, the ecological conditions in the region, both in the Jazira and the mineral-rich mountains to the north, led to a continuation of pastoral and/or semi-pastoral Bedouin existence. Connections continued between these populations and the urban elite, who maintained prestige amidst the rural population and could call upon them for support when urban politics erupted into military confrontation. A key to their continuing influence may have been their estates, though further research is needed to understand the nature of the ties involved.

"To argue for the continued importance of tribal identity in these contexts, however, is not to deny that there were other factors influencing people’s behavior and choices. Some older ideas concerning tribal behavior have led scholars to consider unflinching group solidarity the essence of tribalism, and thus to interpret individuals acting from other motivations, such as religious loyalty or individual economic gain, as signifying a decline in tribalism. More recent research, however, leads us to expect tribesmen to conceive of themselves as free, and to act on their own interests and ideas within their value system. Seen in this light, the theorized decline in tribalism during the early Islamic period would be in relative terms, long maintained as an ideal even in situations where certain individuals accrued so many other ideas and options that tribal connection seldom required attention.

"The fact that individuals who had become detribalized in the practical sense still maintained an allegiance to never-activated tribal values is one element in the development of the role of tribal identity among the literate elites of the imperial high culture mentioned above. Another is tied into the continuing prominence of tribe as a form of identity. People for whom tribal identity continued to provide ways of thinking and organizing the world intellectually frequently chose to define Arabness in the genealogical idioms of the tribal world and to adapt pre-Islamic tradition which once upheld tribal honor to bolster the Arab identity in a world of literate court culture. The result was not an imagined community of the sort associated with modern nationalism, but rather an extension of what was important about the tribal identities to the Arab intelligentsia of the eighth and ninth centuries."

The last point was important to some conclusions about the development of Arab identity in the context of the Persian- and Aramaic-influenced Middle East and the discovery in pre-Islamic Arabia of a glorious heritage for Arabs, often conceived of as "a nation of tribes," to set against the pride of the Persians in particular, who claimed cultural superiority despite their political subjugation and adoption of an originally Arab religion.

This, in any case, is the dissertation I've often referred to, though I was only able to recapture the big picture late in the progess, as in each chapter I was more concerned with a number of smaller historical problems such as garrison town administration, Sasanian influence in Arabia, and that sort of thing. This is also the main reason I never blogged about it, as taken comprehensively it seemed a lot to go into, while a number of the smaller issues were likely to be interesting only to specialists. That said, I hope it will make a contribution to our understanding of the development of early Islamic society and culture, as well as serve as a good beginning for my long-term projects.



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