Renewal and reform are important dimensions of the historical experience of the Islamic world. Within this historical experience we can see a lengthy tradition of reform, which takes the form of a special focus on the purification and the revival of the fundamentals of the Islamic faith. An essential part of this renewal requires going against the tide and taking on the Goliath of the dominant views within a community.  Someone once said that the trouble with most of us is that we’d rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.   When I read this quote it resonated with me. Throughout my experience with the Muslim community, spanning over a decade, I have noticed those who excel within the community are those who massage the ego of the community and who often perpetuate its ignorance. But those who recognize its short falls and see worrying fringe elements within the community are treated with scorn and ostracized. There currently exists a particular brand of Islam that dominates the ‘practicing’ Muslim spectrum. On being criticized, it seeks to isolate individuals by promoting identity politics and the politics of the “other” in order to keep people from recognizing just how bereft of substance the said group actually is. Labels such as, “Modernist”, “Sellout”, “deviant” have always been a powerful tool to suppress alternative voices. Such delineations serve to undermine the willingness to challenge the Muslim status quo, as individuals fear being termed “other” and banished from the group.

Some view the call for introspection and reflection with suspicion and resentment. In light of rising anti Muslim sentiments, calls for introspection are often seen as attempts to appease the West or bend Islam to fit with ‘Western values’. It’s quite easy to empathize with the concern given the undeniable anti Muslim rhetoric that has permeated every aspect of society. However, the knee jerk insular reaction to such a threat is costing the Muslims greatly. Our current reaction might be dubbed a form of Muslim-tribalism. A classic example of such a mentality is when news reached about Boko Haram kidnapping over 200 girls and some prominent Muslims responded with condemnation. Those Muslims were treated as Western appeasers by some Muslim hardliners, who sought to point out that West was also guilty of crimes i.e drone attacks killing civilians. On social media you will notice an unspoken policy among puritanical Muslims who will not openly criticise or condemn Muslims, not matter how badly they may have behaved or how at odds their actions might be with Islamic ideals.   I recall one person saying “I wont condemn Boko Haram until Obama condemns drone attacks in Pakistan” or on another occasion a blogger stated, “I don’t usually condemn the actions of Muslims given the current situation Muslims are in, but on this occasion I have to condemn the actions of Boko Haram”. Now, I’m not suggesting the Muslims who argue in this way necessarily believe that the actions of the likes of Boko Haram are justified because of the actions of the US, however, whether intentionally or not, these counter examples of Western war crimes are somehow used in an attempt to vindicate the community. Ask yourself this, why should it make a difference to our perception of events whether Obama lives by moral standards or not, in what way should that affect our own moral integrity? Why would it make a difference what situation Muslims are in, whether Muslims are under fire or not? Isn’t right, right and wrong, wrong? Our moral compass isn’t determined by how other people live and whether they subscribe to moral standards. Does not the Quran command that we do not transgress even when we are angry? Worryingly, there seems to be this notion of unwavering support for ‘my community whether right or wrong’ developing. But this strikes at the heart of the Islamic message. Islam came at a time where tribalism was the structure of the society, with bonding based on the value of the tribe and the primary focus being on loyalty and identity. Each member had to subordinate his or her personal needs and desires to the well-being of the group and fight to the death if necessary, to ensure survival. If a person was killed or injured by members of another tribe regardless of whether they were innocent or not, any member of that tribe could be killed or injured in retribution. The act of retribution is a form of reclaiming or leveling the honour of the tribe. The late Ayn Rand described tribalism as an anti-conceptual mentality. Quite an apt description I would say. Where is the rationale in taking revenge on a random person simply because of an affiliation to a particular tribe? Simply said, there is none at all. One can identify current similarities with Muslim-tribal mentalities.   What is the rational link between US drone attacks killing innocent civilians, and the actions of Muslim extremists like Boko Haram? The answer is none, its basis isn’t conceptual, but tribal.   This juxtaposition of western war crimes with crimes by extremist Muslims, simply functions in a tribal vein, much like the arbitrary and non conceptual basis for taking revenge on a random member of a tribe to seek revenge. It’s a subtle attempt to redeem the honor of the Muslim community and establish loyalty to the group. The danger here is that we lose sight of Islamic principles in an attempt to ‘defend’ Muslims and lose any ethical credibility. This blind identification with one’s Islamic identity or brotherhood is fundamentally at odds with a major tradition in moral philosophy, which understands morality as essentially universal and impartial, which rules out local, partial attachment and loyalty. This type of Muslim-tribalism thinking is a type of group egoism, a morally arbitrary partiality to “one’s own”, at odds with demands of justice, which is by nature, universal. The Quran commands that we stand out firmly for justice emphatically stating “even if it be against yourselves, your parents, and your relatives, or whether it is against the rich or the poor…”. The message here was revolutionary at the time of the Prophet Mohammed. Mercy, generosity and justice were not just for your tribe, but for all. The greatest challenge for our community is to live by the standards of this very verse.

One other powerful tool to thwart criticism is the appeal to “Muslim unity”. Often Muslims, many of them unaware of the schisms that exist within, try to quash critical discussions of the community, which are seen as divisive, by appealing to the concept of Ummah. Embedded within this term is the notion of the unity of Muslims. What I would argue is that this obligation of unity is misplaced. It seems to be unity for the sake of unity at the expense of truth and justice. Unity should never supersede one’s integrity. After the death of the prophet , a dispute arose concerning the assassination of the third caliph, Uthman. Two camps were formed in response. Ali, the cousin of the prophet, was on one side and on the other, two of the prophet’s prominent companions Talha and al-Zubayr who were supported by ‘A’isha, the prophet’s wife. This conflict divided the community and resulted in Islam’s first civil war. Were the companions, cousin and wife of the prophet not aware of this blind unity that we hear some Muslims calling for today? The answer is that if it had existed the companions of the prophet would have lived by it. It is clear that their understanding of Muslim unity was that unity is never at the expense of what one believes to be true or just. The Quran says that our Ummah is underpinned not simply by Muslim affiliation, but by its ideals. The Quran describes the Ummah as “the best community ever brought forth for mankind (in that) you command the proper and forbid the improper and believe in God.”

It’s easy to lose sight of one’s moral standards in adversity. But if we lose our moral integrity, as a community we lose ethical credibility internally and externally. As Ralph W Emerson quite poignantly said “Let me never fall into the vulgar mistake of dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted.”


9 thoughts on “Muslim-tribalism

  1. Lucid, logical and brilliantly written.

    I was preparing an article on the same malaise but it has been made redundant by this superb piece.

    1. A brilliant discourse.

      Dr Sir Muhammad Iqbal, philosopher and a poet of Indo-Pakistan, asks a question in one of his poetry verse, ” you can be afghan, wahabi, ahmady, shia or sunny. You can be all that but are you really a Muslim? “

  2. If tribes remained as tribes and behaved accoring to Islamic principles, would tribalism then be a positive thing? As we know family is very important and knowledge of one’s identity and heritage is also crucial in Islam. Perhaps we are wrongly looking at the word ‘tribe’ as a negative. In the same way a very extended family ( grandparents, parents etc living with adult children) is seen as an oddity in the western world so too does belonging to a tribe seem like a primitive trait. Quran does say that “We have made you into tribes that you might know each other”. Losing tribal identity may well be detrimental to social cohesion in the very long term.

      1. Arguing against which aspect of tribalism? 1 or 2?
        1. The state or fact of being organized in a tribe or tribes.
        2. The behaviour and attitudes that stem from strong loyalty to one’s own tribe or social group:

        Because we can say there are many commendable behaviours and attitudes associated with loyalty to ones social group.
        Better to identify each of the negatives ‘tribalism’ produces. I agree it certainly can produce some negatives among the ignorant. We can then address those definitively, rather than erroneously cast a slur on tribalism as a whole which cannot reasonably be open to question as it is a natural human trait in as much as family is a natural human trait.

  3. Thank you for this well articulated article, yesterday I was trying to explain that to a sister without being able to articulate it well …and here it is

  4. Ibn Khaldun saw the social cohesion or ‘asabiyya within a tribe as a positive. Surely this tribalism is what we would define in today’s day and age as community spirit, a basic form of humanistic altruism. I do not believe that ‘asabiyya is at fault, which I fear seems to be reflected in the article, rather the depths to which ‘asabiyya is applied may be critiqued. Furthermore, a group with similarities will by nature have more affinity for one another than one which does not. Thus naturally, some form of exclusive social cohesion will naturally form within this group.

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