Here is the second of my ‘On Afghanistan’ posts that delve into some interesting Political-Economy of one of the poorest places on earth. Here we look at traditional models of ‘tribes’, and how they can and can’t work alongside more modern western liberal democratic models. Something that can be transposed to many, if not all, modern nation-states that have interacted with indigenous groups.

Defining a ‘Tribe’

A general definition of a ‘tribe’ or ‘tribes’ are outlined by Ahmed and Hart as ‘rural groups that have a name and distinguish between members and non-members, which occupy a territory, and which within that territory assume either all responsibility, or at least a significant proportion of the responsibility, for the maintenance of order’ (Ahmed and Hart 1984: 1). 

The notion of a tribe in contemporary Middle Eastern societies should be regarded as a political body that has relations with the state, this also means that ‘it is sensible to extend the term ‘tribal’ even to groups which have but recently lost the capacity for political and military action, or rather have been deprived of it, but which could easily resume it if the central state slackened its hold’ (Ahmed and Hart 1984: 1). 

Furthermore, perceptions of what the ‘tribe’ is can be held differently, for instance by the participants identifying themselves as part of a tribe or by an external observer of the tribe such as an anthropologist. 

In order to get an idea of the confusion when analysing ‘tribes’, four principle factors that create tribal identity and definition in the Middle East are used by Eickelman; these are ‘the elaboration and use of explicit ‘native’ ethnopolitical ideologies by the people themselves to explain their socio-political organization; concepts used by state authorities for administrative purposes ; implicit practical notions held by people which are not elaborated into formal ideologies; and anthropological concepts’ (Eickelman 1981: 88). 

For the purpose of this study, tribes will be regarded as similar to the definition by Ahmed and Hart in that they are rural, have a distinct name, adopt some responsibilities for the maintenance of order, and appear visible even if superseded by the presence of a state system.

Gellner on Tribal Segmentary Opposition

In describing Muslim societies Gellner draws on segmentary structural opposition as initially conceived by Evans-Pritchard (Evans-Pritchard 1940).  A definition of segmentary tribal structure by Gellner ‘is a system of balanced opposition between tribes and tribal sections from the largest to the smallest divisions, and there cannot be any single authority in a tribe.  Authority is distributed at every point of the tribal structure and political leadership is limited to situations in which a tribe or a segment acts cooperatively. 

With a tribe this only happens in war or in dealings with outside authority…’ (Gellner 1981: 37).  Gellner does acknowledge from this that the segmentary system should not be viewed as perfectly egalitarian, although he does feel that it provides a broad-brush picture of segmentary tribal Muslim society. 

What is clear by Gellner though is his emphasis on segmentary tribal organisation when characterising Muslim society, for instance he states that the essence of Muslim lands contain ‘decentralisation, diffusion of power, generalised participation in violence and order-enforcement, mutual opposition of groups similar in scale and occupation, and occurring simultaneously at a number of levels of size, the absence of a specialised and more or less permanent class of warrior-rulers – all of that is what predominates, and justifies the segmentary picture’ (Gellner 1981: 39).

Gellner also expands on the idea of segmentary social organisation in discussing tribes when he emphasises the importance of economic and material factors, and in particular the consequences of herding animals for a living (Gellner 1980). 

For example he uses the process of segmentation to outline the political strategies of shepherds in their self-organisation into tribes when he states that, ‘the shepherds organise into a small number of co-operating defence groups, which again are helpless against large groups so they too combine into larger groups and so forth’ (Gellner: 1980: 189).  

The key difference for pastoralists made by Gellner is that they can easily move their wealth with them if they are under threat.  This mobility for Gellner means that pastoralist societies are not particularly conducive for state-building as they can fight and then run away and are thus difficult to tax; the result is a tribe that has the ability to fight but without the capacity to form a state.

Gellner’s explanation of segmentation in this way does have its limitations though, for instance the notion of equal tribes is conceded when he states that ‘their inequality varies proportionately with their involvement in the state’ (Gellner 1980: 189). 

Furthermore, he has to discuss tribes as having different levels of egalitarianism, for instance the pastoralist and nomadic tribesmen are seen as more egalitarian than the agrarian townsmen because ‘in pastoral societies, men basically are very similar to each other’ (Gellner 1980: 190).  A

Also, there appears to be no acknowledgement that pastoralist social organisation may have changed over time as technical equipment used by the tribes changed.  What these criticisms tend to highlight is that the model is rather basic, especially when drawing conclusions that segmentary tribal organisation can explain political fragmentation. 

What may be of use from Gellner’s model though is his ability to bridge ideas of political fragmentation with ideas relating to Islam.

Gellner on Islamic Tribal Segmentary Opposition

Gellner’s model incorporates ideas relating to Saints in order to allow ideological factors to enter his model of traditional Muslim society.  The saint can be seen as a mediator that enables a compromise more often within violent tribal society, this is due to their standing outside of feuds or alliance with tribes as they are part of a separate saintly lineage. 

The mediating role by the Saint that enables a compromise is seen more within rural areas, because they will be relatively more literate in comparison to those who he dictates the holy word to.  Contrast to this is seen in urban areas where ‘there is no need for mediators or arbitrators; for here the ruler assumes responsibility for justice, and appoints literate judges’ (Gellner 1981: 41).

In incorporating Islamic factors into his model of traditional Muslim society, Gellner highlights three major types of legitimate governance, ‘the book (including its extension by tradition), the consensus of the community, and the line of succession’ (Gellner 1984: 22). 

The book’s ability to transcend society due to its emphasis on the divine not being manifested in any one physical human or representative of it is seen as crucial to understanding political life both in Muslim societies and of the expansion of Islam. 

The book in essence is the legal framework and judiciary if put in Western terms, ‘the book is a repository of the divine word, publicly available, not incarnated in any one person, group, institution, or policy, and hence capable of sitting in judgement on any one of them’ (Gellner 1984: 23).  The book is not the complete legitimating factor though, as a consensus in the community is needed in order to complement the divine word. 

The need for community consensus creates a situation where no priestly caste can gain a monopoly over religious interpretation or legitimacy.  The third legitimising principle of Islam is through succession that can have either physical and/or spiritual links to such venerated families as that of the prophet Muhammad or his companions.  Physical succession can be made biologically as there is no requirement for celibacy for religious leaders, and spiritually as teachers can pass on their mystical doctrine on to their disciple. 

The crucial link of these three areas to traditional tribal society as Gellner sees it is the widespread illiteracy among its members and the association with physical and spiritual lineage succession being a more dominant force in political order. 

Gellner argues that there is an emphasis on holy lineages and succession in tribal society due to the contradiction formed by the divine word in ‘reality’ being not so divine when it is diluted by a Living Saint, the ‘word must be made flesh’ (Gellner 1984: 24). 

The resulting legitimate political structure is therefore formed from the ‘flesh’ of Saints, the successors of the founding Saint of a holy lineage, who ‘provide the cornerstone for the legal system (or perhaps one should say, arbitration system) of the lay tribes’ (Gellner 1984: 28).  By incorporating ideological factors into traditional tribal society in this way, Gellner’s model does attempt to give deeper understanding of the political structure of Muslim society.

Gellner’s model that distinguishes those who do and do not literally read the Qur’an, lead him to form two distinct variants in the faith.  The two variants formed are High Islam that is associated with a puritanical scholarly cultural understanding of Islam by those who are influenced by literate institutions, and Low Islam that is associated with folk or peasant cultural understanding of Islam by those who are influenced more by illiterate institutions . 

From these variants Gellner believes that High Islam will initially supplant Low Islam within the transition to modernity due to factors such as an increase in literacy.  The supplanting of the Low folk version by High Islam is seen when Gellner states that ‘The folk variant can be disavowed, blamed for cultural backwardness, or associated with the cultural a machinations of colonial oppressors, whilst the ‘purer’ variant can be identified all at once both with pristine origins and with a revived, glorious modern future’ (Gellner 1981: 5). 

For Gellner, despite Low Islam being supplanted by High Islam, conflict continues and Low Islam eventually restores the balance of power.  This cycle between the two variants in the ‘traditional world’ can be seen when Gellner states that ‘we have Umma at the centre, community at the periphery and in the lower levels of the social hierarchy. 

Periodically, conflict erupts between the two: the enthusiasts at the centre for a time prevail over the superstition at the margins, but social factors eventually restore the balance, and the circle repeats itself; in the traditional world, this goes on for ever, it would seem’ (Gellner 1995: 39).  It is the analysis of the ‘social factors’ in the cycle discussed by Ibn Khaldun that Gellner uses to explain the movements between High and Low Islam that are experienced ‘for ever’ in the traditional world.

The Khaldunian ‘traditional’ cycle involves the rise and decline of Muslim dynasties where ‘it is the court and government, which constitutes not merely the possible remedy, but also the initial cause of the down-swing of the trade cycle’ (Gellner 1981: 34).  The reasons for economic collapse of the pre-modern dynasty are seen to be due to tax revenues and expenditures being cut by the dynasty in times of economic depression. 

This reduced level of revenue and expenditure eventually leads to a reduction in the dynasties ability to strengthen its political power.  This is seen in contrast to the development of Western European states that drew revenue from a developed ‘middle class’ in times of recession.  The ‘middle class’ could be drawn from in the Western European model as they had wealth due to their greater propensity and ability to save. 

The result for Gellner in describing the Khaldunian cycle is the continuous rotation of ruling personal in a constant political structure, and thus the continuous rise and fall of dynasties within traditional Muslim society.  He states that ‘partly through the depression, the economic consequence of political decline, and mainly through the political weakening itself, the ruling personnel rotate, though the structure itself remains the same’ (Gellner 1981: 35).

If Gellner’s tribal analysis is to be viewed as a stable tribal structure that tends to equilibrium, in a similar way to the swinging of a pendulum, the pendulum is generated by a shift from Low to High culture as the Khaldunian cycle unfolds.  An unhinging of the pendulum is seen to occur by Gellner as modernity approaches, for example ‘when the central state is endowed with new and really unprecedented means of coercion’ (Gellner 1981: 85). 

This does not mean however that to understand tribal structure, theory relating to the modern state is not relevant.  I tend to agree with Gellner that even if problems may occur through the unhinging of the pendulum in the transition towards modernity, the ‘point at which the pendulum was located, helps explain the specific path towards new forms adopted by each Muslim land’ (Gellner 1981: 85), in this particular case for analysis the Muslim land will be Afghanistan.

Criticism of Gellner’s Model: Eickelman

Criticism of cultural tribal analysis on a general level is made by tribal Eickelman who states that ‘‘tribal’ identities do not occur in all Middle Eastern contexts, although there are significant nomadic and settled populations that are tribally organized throughout the entire region, from Morocco to Afghanistan’ (Eickelman 1981: 87). 

As well as the problem of generalising about tribes in all Middle Eastern contexts,  it is argued by Eickelman that tribal identity as understood by ‘natives’ and anthropologists can be different and ‘such patterns of meaning change with historical situations.  It makes a great deal of difference whether they occur in the context of strong or weak state organizations or a colonial society’ (Eickelman 1981: 87). 

From this it can be seen that Eickelman believes that the importance in gaining a firm understanding of state-building in ‘tribal’ society is to analyse it within a particular region at a particular point in the region’s history.  This contextual problem will be tested when using the case of Afghanistan and its application to Gellner’s model.

Furthermore,  merit is only given to Gellner’s model as a ‘native model of tribal society’, for example Eickelman states that ‘there is no question that segmentary ideologies provide a ‘native’ model of society, but the question remains regarding the extent to which it is an accurate analytical model of the social order of societies so charcterized’ (Eickelman 1981: 100). 

Eickelman draws out four key areas of weakness of the segmentary lineage model as used by Gellner, these in turn question whether it can be used as an acceptable model of analysis. 

Weaknesses mentioned are that segmentary groups are not in balanced opposition with each other where resources of land and herds are unevenly distributed; there is no acknowledgement that the presence of strong or wealthy leaders would conflict with lineage theory that assumes power is distributed throughout the entire tribal political system; considerable disparity in the political resources enjoyed by various groups, as opposed to rough equality of people and resources presumed; and segmentary lineage theory says little about ties of kinship created through women, such as important links through marriage ties (Eickelman 1981: 103). 

These objections lead Eickelman to conclude that segmentary lineage is important in terms of an ideology of social relations but not as a sociological model for understanding contemporary Muslim society. 

Despite these criticisms, I feel that a sociological model of tribal structure can be formed by incorporating these weak elements.  Also, his objections can be accommodated by adjustments or elaborations of Gellner’s model that will be shown in the next section on alternative theory. 

In summary, the basic model describes a mutual opposition of segmentary tribal groups with no permanent ruling class of warriors within Muslim society.  The ideological elements in Muslim society are further played out in the segmentary system, such as through the mediating role in traditional tribal areas by the literate Saints. 

Appropriation of power by the literate saints of High Islam is not seen to occur permanently as consensus by the traditional community of Low Islam is needed. 

The result is a pendulum swing between Low and High Islam as the Khaldunian cycle unfolds where the rule by tribal lineages and dynasties rise and fall due to their inability to extract tax and cooperate with a middle class as seen in Western European feudal societies. 

An elaboration of this model may therefore be made when discussing the point at which the pendulum is unhinged, for Gellner this is at the point where traditional Islamic society interacts with ‘modernity’.

More to come…