Role of Tribes in the Prophetic Seerah

Reflections & Thoughts | To know more about this format called “Reflections & Thoughts”, please read the first two paragraphs in this post.

It is quite observable that the general community does not have much of an affinity with the Prophetic Seerah. Historically speaking there have been a few reasons for this, though whether those reasons can still be used to justify this lack of affinity today is something concerning. Very little thorough and analytical work on the Seerah has been done and it is only in recent times, particularly in Iran just before the revolution and moreso after it, that we begin to see some decent discussions emerging in this field. These discussions are not limited to specialists in the seminaries, but rather, academics from Iranian universities have also engaged in it and have contributed their findings and thoughts to it.

Like many students, when I moved to the seminary, I had no genuine interest in the study of the Seerah per say, but I did have a keen interest in keeping an eye out for the seminars and conferences that would take place around the city all year long. These conferences & seminars, on various different topics, where specialist scholars would come and present on a niche topic, were very common, even though in my experience, very rarely would foreign students attend these. These programs kept you up to date with the latest discussions happening in the seminaries, what the latest ideas are, and what debates were occurring between different camps.

It was while keeping an eye out for conferences, that I came across a series of seminars & workshops that took place in Madrassah Imam Khomeini just a year before I arrived in Qom in 2012. The topic of these workshops was “Fiqh al-Seerah”. The title intrigued me, as this was before I had even begun studying Fiqh and was not used to hearing the term Fiqh being extended to any other word, let alone the word Seerah. What exactly was Fiqh al-Seerah? My curiosity took me to the extensive summaries of these workshops and I began reading through them. Ironically, in the very first conference, the scholar confesses that while the Ahl al-Sunnah had written numerous works on the topic of Fiqh al-Seerah, listing out a brief bibliography of these works, the Shi’a have not written many works on this particular subject and in fact, have still not seen an urgency to write anything about it. As I kept reading through the transcripts of these 30-odd workshops, I did not only start to make note of the scholars presenting (I did not know the influence of some of those speakers in the seminary at the time – such as Shaykh Muhammad Taqi Subhani, Shaykh Yusafi Gharawi etc.), I was hit with a hoard of new concepts and terminologies that I either had a vague idea of before or had never heard before. Discussions on the relationship between theology and history, the relationship of the hadith literature with history, methods for investigating the seerah etc.

Fast-forward a decade and with a lot more reading into contemporary discussions, as well as having now taught it twice in two different seminaries, there are still many ideas and thoughts that are worth further investigating. More important than investigation, are questions regarding the implementation and application of the conclusions of these investigations. To share just a simple example, it is well attested by Muslim scholars that Islamic law was not revealed in Makkah – except the obligation of Tahara and Salat after the incident of Isra’ & Mi’raj. ʿAlī b. Shahrāshūb (d. 588/1192) summarizes this point very nicely in his al-Manāqib:

Acts of worship were not legislated during his stay in Makkah except Tahara & Salat, which was obligatory on him (p) & a Sunnah for his followers. Then the 5 daily prayers were made obligatory after Isra’, in the 9th year of his prophethood.

When he moved to Medina, the fast of the month of Ramadan was made obligatory in 2 AH in Sha’ban & the Qiblah was changed, Zakat al-Fitr was made obligatory & so was the Salat al-Eid. Salat al-Jumu’ah was made obligatory in 1 AH as an alternative for Zuhr. Then Zakat on wealth was made obligatory, then Hajj, ‘Umrah, and other obligations, prohibitions, precautions, permissibility, recommendations, detested acts, then Jihad, then the Wilayah of Amir al-Mu’minin (a).

Māwardī (364-450) in his work Aʿlām al-Nubuwwa – which is a refutation of the philosopher-physician Abū Bakr al-Rāzī (labeled mulḥid, ‘heretic’, in the text) and his Kitāb Makhāriq al-Anbiyāʾ (The fraudulent tricks of the prophets) – says something similar:

And nothing was made obligatory from the acts of worship until the Prophet (p) migrated to Medina, and through Islam he found a place of dwelling, and its residents become his Ansar. Then the first thing in Medina that was made obligatory after the five-daily prayers in Makkah, was the fast of the month of Ramadan in the 2nd year of Hijrah in the month of Sha’ban, and it was then that the Qibla was changed from Bayt al-Maqdas to the Ka’ba, and the Zakat al-Fitr was made obligatory and the Salat al-Eid was legislated. The Jumu’ah prayer was made obligatory in the first year of Hijrah as an alternative for Zuhr, then the Zakat on wealth once their strength began to show, then the Hajj and ‘Umrah. As for the rules that the intellect also dictates, such as the prohibition of killing and fornication, then these were legislated in Makkah as well, when he (p) was warning the people.

As for those matters to which the intellect does not give a judgment as to whether they must be done or must be avoided, then there was no religious ruling given for them whether it was obligatory, prohibited, precautious, permissible, recommended, or detested. Thus, nothing in Makkah was made Halal or Haram until he (p) migrated from there. After the hijrah, matters were made obligatory, prohibited, permissible, and precautious, because they were overpowered in Makkah with the authority of the Quraysh, and it was the land of polytheism, where one could not implement the laws of Islam. It was only in Medina that matters became obligatory and prohibited, in the land of Islam.

After the demise of the Prophet (p), Muslims considered Islam to be perfect and complete, where all of its laws had been delivered, and the onus was now on the community to uphold all of these regulations at all times. In other words, Islam legislated a series of laws, from Salat, Tahara, Zakat, Jihad, Sawm, and many other rules within already existing institutes such as marriage, divorce, business transactions, etc. Almost all of these laws were revealed in the last ten years of the Prophet’s (p) life in Medina. When a jurist derives law, their objective is to determine what Islam has to say about any given situation and what the responsibility of any given individual is. A jurist can then investigate these laws, which are expectations God has from every Muslim, compile thousands of these laws and regulations in a book and hand it over to a Muslim. However, what a jurist is not concerned with is the process of how these laws were revealed to the Muslim community. Clearly, the Prophet (p) did not hand over hundreds, if not thousands, of rules and regulations to the community in a few days, rather it was a process that took around a decade – if we do not consider the preparation that took place in the 13 years of Makkah. This is a question that does not concern a jurist.

A jurist’s job is tantamount to an architect, who can tell construction workers what tools, equipment, and material will be required to construct a new mosque. You will need a certain piece of land, tractors, certain types of bricks and wood, cement, electrical wires, screws, and hundreds of other items to build this mosque. However, if construction workers were to simply gather all these objects and throw them onto the piece of land, there is a good chance that the land will be ruined, and the construction of the mosque will be delayed, costing even more money. In reality, what ought to happen is that after architects have designed the mosque on paper and have highlighted all the material required to build a mosque, construction companies will identify where to start first. They must first dig the ground, and prepare the basement and the foundations of the mosque, before bringing in the bricks and electrical wiring. There is a process of construction and implementation.

This is a question worth investigating within the study of the Seerah as well. While jurists have derived thousands of laws, is there no room for discussion on the process of implementation, fulfilling, and upholding these obligations either as individuals or a community or even an entire nation? Is the Makkan era then a pointless era for Muslims – given nothing was legislated there except the Salat soon before the migration – despite the Prophet (p) living there for a much longer time, and around 75% of the Quran being revealed there? What about the gradual revelation of rules to the community in Medina over a period of ten years? Was there no wisdom behind this, and if so, is there a way to determine this wisdom and replicate it on communal levels ? This is a topic that has not been investigated at all.

I digressed too far from what I had intended to write about, but I guess that is the nature of these “Reflection” posts.

I wanted to share some thoughts regarding the presence and role of tribes within the Prophetic Seerah. This is yet another area scarcely studied. Tribes were an integral part of life in Arabia and there are some bibliographical works written on them, but detailed analysis of how these tribes interacted with one another, and the impact they had on the decisions the Prophet (p) would make, or even the decision later Imams (a) would make, have not really been elaborated on in length. Instead, we often flaunt the cliche that Islam came to end tribal society and structures. Someone who researches into the Seerah should realize that it does not seem like Islam came to end tribal systems at all, in fact, the Quran affirms Allah has created us in tribes:

[49:13] O humanity! Indeed, We created you from a male and a female, and made you into peoples and tribes (qaba’il) so that you may ˹get to˺ know one another. Surely the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous among you. Allah is truly All-Knowing, All-Aware.

This is similar to the cliche that says Islam came to end slavery, when no traditional Muslim scholar has ever believed in such a matter. To say slavery does not exist today because we as humans have decided to adopt another system, is different to saying slavery as an institute was made prohibited in Islam, or that Islam came to eventually prohibit it. What Islam seems to have come to eradicate is tribalism, meaning, considering one’s tribe as the end-all, criterion for truth and validity for their decision making. In this case, being obsessive with your tribe is no different than being obsessive with your wealth, children, family, fame, etc. all of which Islam came to balance our relationship with and see them as means to attaining greater monotheistic objectives. If Islam did want to end tribal systems, what would it have replaced it with? Our current system of citizenship within nation-states is a very modern phenomenon. Would it have replaced it with empires like the Sassanids or Byzantine Empire? Did Arab society even have the capacity for such political structures? When we look at modern city life where people identify themselves with cities such as “I’m from London, I’m from Toronto etc.” this was not commonly relatable practice to Arabs at the time of the Prophet (p) – their identification was through their tribe, regardless of which city they lived in.

Two major tribes that existed in Arabia were the Qahtani and Adnani tribes. While we do not have a lot of details on the ancestry of Qahtani Arabs, as they were not from the lineage of Prophet Isma’il (a), the genealogy of the Adnani tribes is better preserved. When we analyze the history of Qahtani tribes, we find they are often engaged with fighting other tribes and non-Qahtani Arabs. Their wars were similar to two nations fighting, and they would often fight over wealth, land, mountains, bodies of water, as opposed to fighting civil wars between immediate families. However, in contrast, with Adnani tribes we see a lot of conflicts occurring between relatives and even blood relatives, for various reasons. Consider the conflict between the two brothers ‘Abd al-Shams (the progenitor of Bani Umayyah) and Hashim (the progenitor of Bani Hashim) and later the conflict between Abu Lahab and Abu Talib, who were both the sons of ‘Abd al-Muttalib. Even when it comes to the Prophet (p) preaching Islam, when he would deal with Adnani Arab tribes, it seems he had a harder time convincing them as they saw the Prophet (p) as an internal enemy and opponent. Some of the last tribes to convert to Islam were the Mudari tribes (whose progenitor was Mudar b. Nizar), such as Bani Sulaym, while the delegations that came to the Prophet (p) from Daba (now Dubai), Oman, Yemen etc. who were all Qahtani Arabs, very easily accepted Islam.

Throughout the Seerah, one notices that the Prophet (p) also uses tribal conventions upheld by society against society itself, to push his own objectives. For example, the protection of the chief of a clan is a key convention being utilized by the Prophet (p). It was under the protection of Abu Talib that he (p) was able to push his propagation to the limits in Makkah. When returning from Taif, tribal conventions dictated that a person could not enter the city of Makkah unless they were given protection by someone influential from a clan. The Prophet (p) who by that time had burnt ties with most influential polytheists and Abu Talib had passed away too, was still able to garner the support of Muṭʽim b. ʽAdi – a polytheist – to reenter Makkah safely. Even when we look at the list of Muslims that migrated to Abyssinia, one would think they would find the names of the weakest Muslims from Makkah escaping and migrating. Rather, you find names of some of the most prominent members of different clans – making most of them cousins of the Prophet (p) – such as Ja’far b. Abi Talib, ‘Uthman b. Affan, Zubayr b. Awwam, ‘Abdullah b. Jahsh etc. Why do we not find the names of vulnerable slaves and people not part of any significant clan in the list of people who migrated? Some speculate this is because the Prophet (p) was once again utilizing a tribal convention, sending multiple people from multiple clans, such that if any polytheist decided to attack a Muslim, their clan would be up in arms against that clan. In other words, if the Muslims were to be attacked by polytheists, all the different clans would have had to agree to allow their own family members to be physically harmed or killed – something many families would not have allowed. In this manner, the Prophet (p) also further cemented the identity of these Muslims to their new faith, as opposed to their clans.

The role of clans and tribal conventions is also very prominent in the life of Imam ‘Ali (a), particularly in the battles of Jamal and Siffin. Some researchers believe we have portrayed a very simplistic understanding of the Khawarij, as people who were religious men, engaged in praying and reading the Quran all the time, but eventually developed a misunderstanding about Imam ‘Ali due to their extremist attitudes. When one investigates, they will see that there are no Khawarij from the Quraysh. In al-Kāmil of al-Mubarrad (d. 286/899) there is a report in which a Khariji is brought in the presence of Hajjaj b. Yusuf. The Khariji tells Hajjaj that he is from the tribe of Kindah, and Hajjaj is surprised because there are no Khawarij from this tribe and this person was an outlier. Likewise, there are other tribes who did not seem to have any Khawarij, like Bani Khuza’ah. If the issue of the Khawarij was just a theological misunderstanding, then we would have seen Khawarij from many different clans and tribes, but this is not what we observe. Most Khawarij are from tribes such as Madh’hij (Qahtani Arabs), Bani Tamim (Adnani Arabs), Bajila (Adnani Arabs), Taghlib, Banu Hanifa, and Banu Shayban – the last three are subtribes of Banu Bakr – also an Adnani Arab tribe. Why were individuals only from certain tribes becoming Khawarij? What was the reason that we do not see Khawarij from a wide variety of tribes if the matter was merely theological? Perhaps there were tribal reasons, especially amongst the chiefs of these tribes, for why we see these differences.