Yemen's Tribal Idiom: An Ethno-Historical Survey of Genealogical Models
The notion of an Arab tribe has been widely debated by anthropologists and historians. Whatever its relevance in specific social and historical contexts, it often serves as idiom of alleged genealogical descent. Arab scholars created a genre of nasab (genealogy) literature, most notably that of Ibn al-Kalbī (d. 819 CE). There is a substantial literature in Arabic discussing the terms used to describe tribal descent groups, but it is difficult to apply the models to what actually occurred on the ground. Yemen is a particularly important locus for Arab genealogy, not only for the continuing significance of a tribal idiom in contemporary Yemeni society, but also because so many of the early migrants in the expansion of Islam traced their ancestry to Yemeni tribes. In this article I examine the models proposed for the tribal idiom in Yemen since the time of the Yemeni scholar al-Hamdānī (d. 945 CE) to 19th and 20th century accounts by Yemeni scholars, Western travelers and anthropologists. The aim of the paper is to compare models recorded in texts with observations of tribal affiliation and identity making. Are these models artificial constructs of early scholars, reserve systems for political mobilization, or reflections of similarities in the dynamics of group formation across the region? To the extent models of tribal genealogy constitute an idiom, what do they express in differing political and ideological contexts?
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