The Middle East's Tribal DNA
Conflicts within the Middle East cannot be separated from its peoples' culture. Seventh-century Arab tribal culture influenced Islam and its adherents' attitudes toward non-Muslims. Today, the embodiment of Arab culture and tribalism within Islam impacts everything from family relations, to governance, to conflict. While many diplomats and analysts view the Arab-Israeli dispute and conflicts between Muslim and non-Muslim communities through the prism of political grievance, the roots of such conflicts lie as much in culture and Arab tribalism.
Tribalism and Predatory Expansion
Every human society must establish order if it is going to survive and prosper. Arab culture addresses security through "balanced opposition" in which everybody is a member of a nested set of kin groups, ranging from very small to very large. These groups are vested with responsibility for the defense of each member and responsible for harm any member does to outsiders. If there is a confrontation, families face families, lineage faces lineage, clan faces clan, tribe faces tribe, confederacy faces confederacy, sect faces sect, and the Islamic community faces the infidels. Deterrence lies in the balance between opponents. Any potential aggressor knows that his target is not solitary or meager but rather, at least in principle, a formidable formation much the same size as his.
Balanced opposition is a "tribal" form of organization, a tribe being a regional organization of defense based on decentralization and self-help. Tribes operate differently from states, which are centralized, have political hierarchies, and have specialized institutions—such as courts, police, tax collectors, and an army—to maintain social control and defense.
Understanding the influence of tribalism upon the development of both Arab culture and, by extension, Islam, requires acknowledging the basic characteristics and dynamics of Middle Eastern tribalism. Part of any tribesman's job description is to maximize both the number of children and of livestock. There are practical reasons for this: First, children aid in labor. Nomadic pastoralism requires heavy physical work. Workers are needed to conduct many tasks simultaneously. Family members are more committed to common interests than individuals recruited for reciprocity or pay. Large families also enhance political stature. Because technology remains constant across tribal societies in any given area, the factor that determines military strength is how many fighters an individual can muster. The man who can call on five or six adult sons and a similar number of sons-in-law to support him is a force with which to reckon. Cultural values underline this emphasis on progeny. A man is not a man if he cannot produce children, and a woman is not really an adult if she does not become a mother.
Maximizing livestock possession is also important. Livestock generate income of offspring, products, and services. They produce milk and meat. Camels offer hair; sheep supply wool, and goats provide underwool, all of which can be spun into yarn or woven into bags and food covers, and goat hair can also be woven into sheets and used as tent roofs. Camels enable distance travel. Sold at market, they supply money to purchase goods not produced locally, such as firearms, brass household goods, tea, and sugar. Their sale also provides funds to buy agricultural land, peasant villages, and urban villas.
There are also important social reasons to maximize livestock possessions. Upon marriage, the husband's family compensates the wife's kin with livestock. Any man with political aspirations should own animals. Slaughter of sheep or goats enables hospitality for guests. Loan or grant of livestock can establish or reinforce alliances with other families and create useful obligations to be repaid in provision of labor or political support.
Tribal success, though, counted in increasing progeny and livestock, strains pasturage, water, and arable land. To accommodate enlarged populations, it becomes necessary to expand tribal resources through geographical expansion, often at the expense of neighboring populations. Alternatively, some tribes may capture herds and seize pastures and water resources through predatory raiding. Such a strategy often appeals to young tribesmen who see it as a quick way to independence and prominence. Either way, tribesmen are ready to fight. Their tribal structure enhances feelings of unity and normalizes antipathy against outsiders. Challenging neighbors over territory and livestock not only feels natural and justified but is also desirable.
Raiding is the modus operandi of predatory expansion with the capture of livestock the first priority. Attacks on the human population tend to vary according to the cultural distance of the outsiders. Those close are treated with some consideration: Men are allowed to escape, and women are not harmed, nor is housing destroyed. Among Bedouin, women from other Bedouin groups are often left some mulch animals to support their children. But resistance is met by force, and injuries or deaths lead to blood feuds. Tribes can respond to blood feuds with large parties bent on vengeance. Conflict can thus escalate to all-out battle. Losers can escape by retreat, taking their household and livestock with them. This leaves the territory open for occupation by the winners.
The concept of "honor" infuses raiding and predatory expansion. First, fulfillment of obligations according to the dictates of lineage solidarity achieves honor. Second, neutral mediators who resolve conflicts and restore peace among tribesmen win honor. Third, victory in conflicts between lineages in opposition brings honor. Violence against outsiders is a well-worn path for those seeking honor. Success brings honor. Winners gain; losers lose. Trying, short of success, counts for nothing. In Middle Eastern tribal culture, victims are despised, not celebrated.
Nothing is more common in the history of tribes in the Middle East and North Africa than battles between tribes, the displacement of one by another, and the pushing of losing tribes out of their territories. Sometimes, losing tribes became dependents of stronger tribes, allowing them to continue to access territory while, at other times, losing tribes retreated to peasant areas from where they were absorbed into the peasantry, and lost their tribal nature.
While tribal organization facilitates the ability of Middle Easterners first to defend life and property and second to make a living through pastoralism, it also facilitates control over other people and their resources. The principle of alliance, with the closer against the more distant, applies both within and outside the tribe. Just as all members of a small lineage are obliged to unify and support the lineage against another lineage, all members of a tribe are expected to unify and support the tribe when it is in conflict with others. This does not mean that all members of the tribe line up in one gigantic regiment but rather that other members of the tribe see themselves as unified against outsiders and will provide material support if and when necessary. Tribal solidarity and balanced opposition remain powerful means of predatory expansion.
Tribal Influence on the Rise of Islam
It is against this backdrop of tribal interaction that Muhammad's actions should be considered. Prior to Muhammad's ascendancy, the tribes of northern Arabia engaged in raiding and feuding, fighting among themselves for livestock, territory, and honor. Muhammad's genius was to unite the fissiparous, feuding Bedouin tribes into a cohesive polity. Just as he had provided a constitution of rules under which the people of Medina could live together, so he provided a constitution for all Arabs, which had the imprimatur not only of Muhammad but also of God. Submission—the root meaning of the Arabic term islam–to God and His rules, spelled out in the Qur'an, bound into solidarity Arabian tribesmen, who collectively became the umma, the community of believers.
Building on the tribal system, Muhammad framed an inclusive structure within which the tribes had a common, God-given identity as Muslims. This imbued the tribes with a common interest and common project. But unification was only possible by extending the basic tribal principle of balanced opposition. This Muhammad did by opposing the Muslim to the infidel, and the dar al-Islam, the land of Islam and peace, to the dar al-harb, the land of the infidels and conflict. He raised balanced opposition to a higher structural level as the new Muslim tribes unified in the face of the infidel enemy. Bedouin raiding became sanctified as an act of religious duty. With every successful battle against unbelievers, more Bedouin joined the umma. Once united, the Bedouin warriors turned outward, teaching the world the meaning of jihad, which some academics today say means only struggle but which, in the context of early Islamic writing and theological debates, was understood as holy war.
The Arabs, in lightning thrusts, challenged and beat the Byzantines to the north and the Persians to the east, both weakened by continuous wars with one another. These stunning successes were followed rapidly by conquests of Christian and Jewish populations in Egypt, Libya, and the Maghreb, and, in the east, central Asia and the Hindu population of northern India. Not content with these triumphs, Arab armies invaded and subdued much of Christian Spain and Portugal, and all of Sicily. Since the Roman Empire, the world had not seen such power and reach. Almost all fell before the blades of the Muslim armies.
Conquest of vast lands, large populations, and advanced civilizations is a bloody and brutal task. Most accounts of Islamic history glide over the conquests, as if they were friendly takeovers executed to everyone's satisfaction. Boston University anthropologist Charles Lindholm, for example, wrote, "The Muslim message of the equality of all believers struck a cord with the common people of the empires, who, theoretically at least, were liberated from their inferior status by the simple act of conversion. The rise of Islam was both an economic and social revolution, offering new wealth and freedom to the dominions it assimilated under the banner of a universal brotherhood guided by the message of the Prophet of Allah." It may have been the best of all possible worlds, so long as one had not been one of the slain, enslaved, expropriated, suppressed, and degraded.
There are some accounts that address the Islamic conquests more frankly. Andrew Bostom, an associate professor of medicine at Brown University who edited a collection of primary source descriptions of jihad, provides lengthy quotes from major Islamic authorities, ancient and modern, verifying the obligation upon all Muslims to make holy war against infidels.
The Arab and Islamic conquests were not unlike tribal raids against distant, unprotected peoples, but on a much larger scale. One of the main characteristics of the Arab empire was the enslavement of conquered peoples. During conquest, men were commonly slaughtered while women and children were taken in slavery. Muslim invaders spared men who willingly converted but still enslaved their wives and children. In conquered regions, Muslim troops often took children from parents while along the periphery, it was normal to raid for slaves.
Bostom and other scholars provide historical accounts of such jihad. One Greek Christian account describes the Arab invasion of Egypt as "merciless and brutal." Not only did the Muslim invaders slay the commander of the Byzantine troops and his companions, but they also put to the sword all who surrendered including old men, babes, or women. Similar slaughters occurred across Palestine and Cyprus. Muslim troops were particularly brutal toward non-Muslim religious institutions. During the caliphate of Harun al-Rashid, many Christian monks were put to death. One Muslim historian estimated that Arab armies destroyed 30,000 churches throughout Egypt, Syria, and other central lands. An Armenian historian reported that, following a rebellion in 703, General Muhammad bin Marwan invaded the province, massacring and enslaving the populace. He wrote a letter to the nobility, giving guarantees of safety in return for surrender. They surrendered, at which point the Arab invaders shut them in churches and burned them alive.
While writers today depict the Muslim civilization in medieval Spain as tolerant, a Grenadan Muslim general from the late thirteenth century wrote that "it is permissible to set fire to the lands of the enemy, his stores of grain, his beasts of burden, if it is not possible for the Muslims to take possession of them." He further advised razing cities and doing everything to ruin non-Muslims. Muslim generals instituted similar practices in Afghanistan and India.
Tribesmen can treat non-members with disdain. Tribal identity coalesces in opposition to the "other." Common Muslim attitudes toward non-Muslims reflect the influence of these tribal values. The historical evidence for the degradation of Christian and Jewish dhimmi [subjugated religious minority] in Muslim lands is overwhelming, both in quantity and near unanimity in substance. Much is documented in Bat Ye'or's Islam and Dhimmitude: Where Civilizations Collide. In eleventh-century Al-Andalus, for example, Abu Ishaq, a well-known Arab poet and jurist of the day, expressed outrage at the presence of a Jewish minister in the court of the ruler of Granada. He argued that the Muslim leaders should "[p]ut [the Jews] back where they belong and reduce them to the lowest of the low … Do not consider it a breach of faith to kill them." Soon after his call, local residents slaughtered approximately 5,000 Grenadan Jews. Such sentiments were not exceptions limited in time and scope. Egyptian president Anwar Sadat spoke in closely parallel terms to Abu Ishaq's when, on April 25, 1972, he declared, "[The Jews] shall return and be as the Qur'an said of them: ‘condemned to humiliation and misery.' … We shall send them back to their former status."
Arab Muslims frequently subjugated their non-Muslim brethren across the width and breadth of the Muslim world. The Spaniard Badia y Leblich traveled in Morocco at the end of the nineteenth century as a Muslim named Ali Bey and reported the Jews there to be "in the most abject state of slavery." William Shaler, the U.S. consul in Algiers from 1816 to 1828, described the Jews of Algiers to be "a most oppressed people," not even permitted to resist any violence from a Muslim and subject to conscription for hard labor without notice. Contemporaneous chroniclers describe the Jews of Tunis and Benghazi similarly.
Such treatment is rooted in the Muslim belief that Islam was God's word and God's way and any other religion or belief was false. Muslims believe Judaism and Christianity to be superseded by Islam. All non-Muslims were infidels who should be subject to Islam. Jews and Christians were to be allowed to live as inferiors and subordinates, dhimmis, but with obligatory, legally-mandated humiliation; other infidels, such as Hindus and pagans, could choose between conversion to Islam and death although, in practice, many Muslim conquerors preferred to derive economic benefit from their enslavement.
The theological foundation of the Arab empire was the supremacy of Islam and the obligation of each Muslim to advance its domination. The relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims is thus defined by Islamic doctrine as one of superiority versus inferiority and of endless conflict until the successful conquest of the non-Muslims.
Islam also reflects tribal notions of honor with regard to women. Within the Arab tribal society in which Muhammad was born, women's reproductive capacity was necessary for lineage strength. The ability of the lineage to allocate women where needed most for strategic purposes, whether endogamously to contribute to the number of offspring or exogamously to establish or maintain an alliance, required obedience. The close attention of community members to the sexual behavior of women reflects not only a concern for fulfilling community norms but also a keen self-interest in rank competition and the way different groups may rise or fall.
But have Muslims carried down views expressed in the fourteenth century C.E. to the present day? Here anthropologists contribute to the discussion. E. E. Evans-Pritchard, later professor of social anthropology at Oxford University, had close contact with the Bedouin of Libya during World War II. In his studies of eastern Libya encapsulated in The Sanusi of Cyrenaica, he observed that the Bedouin saw it as their special religious responsibility to carry out holy war, jihad, leaving others to pray and study the Qur'an. When the Italians invaded Libya early in the twentieth century, the Bedouin of Cyrenaica were unwilling to accept Italians as rulers under any terms, no matter how generous. Although the Bedouin were heavily outgunned, they chose to fight for decades until they were virtually exterminated.
From a political point of view, Islam raised tribal society to a higher, more inclusive level of integration. But it was not able to replace the central principle of tribal political organization. Framing Muslims in opposition to the infidel preserved the balanced opposition. As with tribal lineage, affiliation and loyalty became defined by opposition.
The basic tribal framework of "us versus them" remains in Islam. The conception "my group, right or wrong" does not exist because the question of right or wrong never comes up. Allegiance is to "my group," period, full stop, always defined against "the other." An overarching, universalistic, inclusive constitution is not possible. Islam is not a constant referent but rather, like every level of tribal political organization, is contingent. People act politically as Muslims only when in opposition to infidels. Among Muslims, people will mobilize on a sectarian basis, as Sunni versus Shi‘a. Among Sunni, people will mobilize as the Karim tribe versus the Mahmud tribe; within the Karim tribe, people will mobilize according to whom they find themselves in opposition to: tribal section versus tribal section; lineage versus lineage, and so on.
The structural fissiparousness of the tribal order makes societal cohesion difficult. Affiliation places people and groups in opposition to one another. There is no universal reference that can include all parties. Oppositionalism then becomes the cultural imperative. While the tribal system based on balanced opposition effectively supports decentralized nomads, it inhibits societal integration and precludes civil peace based on settlement of disputes through legal judgment at the local level.
Islam's Bloody Borders
What does this mean today? The tribal notion of balanced opposition has profound implications on modern conflict. The Arab-Israeli debate is polarized and almost every "fact" contested by the other side. Too often, though, Western academics, journalists, and policymakers focus on the debate without reference to how Arab culture shapes and impacts the conflict.
Any outside observer without any prior knowledge of the Arab-Israeli conflict would find the unrelenting rejection by Arabs of Israel to be confusing. It would be difficult to fathom why Arabs who currently struggle to get along with one another would not look with enthusiasm to neighbors who could and would assist them in bettering their circumstances. The Arab situation, compared to Israel's, is bleak. In all spheres of life except for religion, Arab society and culture has declined in importance and influence. In global competition with other societies and cultures, Arabs have for centuries been losers. Israel, on the other hand, is a parliamentary democracy with established civil liberties. It is perhaps the most multiracial and multicultural state in the world, gathering as it has Jews from all corners of the world. It has also accepted and, albeit imperfectly, incorporated a substantial population of Arab Bedouin and Palestinian Arabs, both Muslim and Christian. Israeli science and technology makes major contributions to medicine and high technology. IBM and Intel each have three research and development centers in Israel while Microsoft and Cisco Systems have built their only non-U.S. facilities there. Motorola has its largest research and development site in Israel. Israelis are close cousins of the Arabs. Hebrew and Arabic are both Semitic languages. And, even religiously, Jews are a fellow "people of the book."
Rather than accept any Israeli contribution—even Arab countries at peace with Israel refuse, for example, to accept disaster relief from the Jewish state—the Arab rejection of Israel is close to absolute. Four factors contribute to Arab rejectionism: (1) conflicting material interests, (2) use of Israel as an external enemy by Arab leaders to diffuse internal discontent, (3) Arab organizational principles based on opposition, and (4) the challenged honor of the Arabs. These last two factors are perhaps the most important. Not by coincidence, they derive from Arab tribal culture and are now incorporated as general principles in Arab cultures.
Conflicts in material interest—such as over land and water—are important, but they are common whenever people live together. Seldom do they become intractable. Arab rulers' diversion of internal discontent outward toward Israel is also important. But it is the balanced opposition drawn from tribalism that impacts enmity more. The Arab saying, "Me against my brother, me and my brother against my cousin; me, my brother, and my cousin against the world," holds true. Take for example the situation of Libya in the years prior to World War I: Prior to the Italian invasion of Libya in 1911, Arab Bedouin there fought Turkish overlords. But, rather than stay neutral or join the Italians, the Bedouin instead sided with their co-religionists against the Italians. For much the same reason, Arabs will unite in enmity to any non-Arab, let alone non-Muslim. In the conflict with Israel, the most basic Arab social principle is solidarity with the closer in opposition to the distant. "Right" and "wrong" are correlated with "my group" (always right) and "the other group" (always wrong). The underlying morality is that one must strive always to advantage one's own group and to disadvantage the other group.
For Arab Muslims confronting Jews, the opposition is between the dar al-Islam, the land of Islam, and the dar al-harb, the land of the infidels. The Muslim is obliged to advance God's true way, Islam, in the face of the ignominy of the Jew's false religion. Islamic doctrine holds that all non-Muslims, whether Christian or Jewish dhimmi or infidel pagans, must be subordinate to Muslims. Jews under Qur'anic doctrine are inferior by virtue of their false religion and must not be allowed to be equal to Muslims. For Muslim Arabs, the conceit of Jews establishing their own state, Israel, and on territory conquered by Muslims and, since Muhammad, under Muslim control is outrageous and intolerable. As Fouad Ajami of Johns Hopkins University and an expert on Arab politics explains, "Underneath the modern cover there remained the older realities of sects, ethnicity, and the call of the clans." There is no way, in this structure, to reach beyond the Arab versus Israeli and Muslim versus Jew opposition to establish a common interest, short of an unimagined attack on both Arabs and Israelis by some group more distant. In this oppositional framework, it is impossible to seek or see common interests or common possibilities. Israel will always be the distant "other" to be disadvantaged and, if possible, conquered.
A corollary principle, also with roots in Arab tribalism, is honor. Arab honor consists of the warrior's success in confrontations against outsiders. Only the victorious have honor. The more vanquished are the defeated, the greater is the victor's honor. As Ajami observes, in the Arab world, "triumph rarely comes with mercy or moderation." Arabs are taught, and many have taken to heart, that honor is more important than wealth, fame, love, or even death. Imbued with such a sense, today's Arab finds himself in an untenable situation: Juxtaposing their recent history to the years of glory under Muhammad, Arabs can see only defeat visited upon defeat. First there was the breakdown of Arab solidarity and fighting among the Arabs themselves, then the Turkish Ottomans conquered the region. The decline and fall of the Ottomans led to conquest and occupation of almost all Arab lands by the Christians of Europe. Even their successful anti-colonial struggles turned into empty victories with Arab populations subject to power-hungry rulers, sadistic despots, or religious fanatics.
What honor can be found in defeat and oppression? And what self-respect can Arabs find without honor? In a world of defeat and failure, honor can be found only in resistance. Arab self-respect demands honor be vindicated through standing and fighting, no matter what the cost. In a 2006 interview, Pierre Heumann, a journalist with the Swiss weekly Die Weltwoche, asked Al-Jazeera editor-in-chief Ahmed Sheikh whether enmity toward Israel is motivated by self-esteem. Sheikh explained, "Exactly. It's because we always lose to Israel. It gnaws at the people in the Middle East that such a small country as Israel, with only about 7 million inhabitants, can defeat the Arab nation with its 350 million. That hurts our collective ego. The Palestinian problem is in the genes of every Arab." Lebanese poet Khalil Hawi echoes a similar theme in his 1979 volume Wounded Thunder in which he laments the failure of the Arabs to defeat Israel. "How heavy is the shame," Hawi asks. "Do I bear it alone?"
These four factors—the defense of honor, segmentary opposition, transference of discontent outward, and conflicting material interests—militate in favor of alienation between the Arabs and Israel and the tenacious rejectionism of the Arabs. The two cultural factors—honor and opposition—are influences deeply embedded in Arab character. What appears to be reasonable to Westerners will not appear reasonable to Arabs. Such is the power of culture.
The conflict between Arabs and Israelis, Muslims and Jews, is not the only major conflict between Muslims and others. On the contrary, military contests along the borders of lands dominated by Muslims are pervasive. Samuel Huntington, a Harvard political scientist, observed, "The overwhelming majority of fault line conflicts … have taken place along the boundary looping across Eurasia and Africa that separates Muslims from non-Muslims. While at the macro or global level of world politics, the primary clash of civilizations is between the West and the rest, at the micro or local level it is between Islam and the others." Among the conflicts enumerated by Huntington are the Bosnians versus the Serbs, the Turks versus the Greeks, Turks versus Armenians, Azerbaijanis versus Armenians, Tatars versus Russians, Afghans and Tajiks versus Russians, Uighurs versus Han Chinese, Pakistanis versus Indians, Sudanese Arabs versus southern Sudanese Christians and animists, and northern Muslim Nigerians versus southern Christian Nigerians.
Indeed, everywhere along the perimeter of the Muslim-ruled bloc, Muslims have problems living peaceably with their neighbors. Muslims may only comprise one-fifth of the world's population, but in this decade and the last, they have been far more involved in inter-group violence than the people of any other civilization.
Muslim Middle Eastern countries, from Morocco to Iran, are dictatorships. None are ranked free, and some, such as Egypt, Iran, Libya, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, and Syria, are ranked not free, the lowest category. The propensity of Arab states and Iran to dictatorship also has roots in tribal culture. There is an inherent conflict between peasants and nomads. Peasants are sedentary, tied to their land, water, and crops while tribesmen are nomadic, moving around remote regions. Peasants tend to be densely concentrated in water-rich areas around rivers or irrigation systems while pastoral tribesmen, in contrast, are spread thinly across plains, deserts, and mountains.
To state leaders, cultivators are vulnerable and rewarding targets who cannot escape without sacrificing their means of making a living. In comparison to peasant cultivators, pastoral nomads are much less vulnerable than cultivators to state importunity. Both their main capital resource, livestock, and their household shelter are mobile. While farming follows a rigid schedule of planting and exploitation, nomadism requires constant decisions and initiative, which instill willfulness and independence. Mobility and guerilla prowess make tribesmen less vulnerable than peasants to state control.
States struggle to impose effective control over the nomads. State authorities do not, however, always take a modest, compromising attitude in dealing with tribes. The Ottomans tended to be a bit more stringent in their own heartland. If tribes in Anatolia were deemed to be too independent, the government responded rigorously. Ottoman authorities forcibly settled unruly tribes and, in the 1920s and 1930s, Reza Shah subjected and forcibly settled in villages Iran's nomadic tribes—the Qashqai and Basseri of the southwest, the Lurs of the west, the Kurds of the northwest, the Turkmen of the northeast, and the Baluch of the southeast. When occupying British officials deposed Reza Shah in 1941, many of the tribesmen reverted to nomadism.
In order for states to retain control over and exploit the production of their subjects, they must transform tribesmen into peasants. Governments cannot extract taxes and recruit soldiers from tribesmen, but they can do so from sedentary populations. Peasants are socially fragmented because the state has monopolized responsibility for collective action. Fast forward to the modern day. This tribal dynamic leads to dictatorship. Dictatorship occurs in one of two ways: In some societies, political leaders must use repression to stymie the centrifugal force inherent in tribalism. In countries, though, such as Libya or some Persian Gulf emirates, tribes are encapsulated in the national government. Tribal leadership morphs into the governing structure. Tribal notables become regional if not national elites. Either way, a rigid governing structure takes root.
What part does tribal organization and culture play in contemporary Middle Eastern life? Is it possible to say that tribes in the Middle East are primarily of historical interest with little influence in modern Middle Eastern societies, at least outside the state? After all, in the Middle East, there are established state organizations with governments, bureaucracies, police, courts, armies, and political parties. If Middle Eastern states are developed countries with modern institutions, then it might be easy to assume that the influence of tribes and tribal life and culture is minimal or nonexistent. It would then follow that the argument that Middle Eastern culture is imbued with tribal culture and organization and that balanced opposition underlies many aspects of contemporary Middle Eastern life must be heavily discounted or rejected altogether. Middle Eastern societies are not "modern," however, in the sense that European and American societies are. The tribal spirit holds sway. Its influence upon Islam permeates even the most cosmopolitan Arab states even if the tribal influences enshrined in the religion espoused or revealed by Muhammad are, almost fourteen centuries later, forgotten. Indeed, had Islam, whatever its many dimensions and complexities, not incorporated the balanced opposition structure of the tribal society that it sought to overlay, it is doubtful whether it could have been as accepted and successful as it was.
Philip Carl Salzman is the author of Culture and Conflict in the Middle East (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2007), on which this excerpt is based.
Fredrick Barth, Nomads of South Persia (Oslo: Oslo University Press,
1961), pp. 98, 104-11.
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