Friday, October 20, 2006

Tayib - A History Lesson For Badger

In his posting Tale of two so-called "nations" "Badger" says:

"The writer explains that in pre-Islamic times, there was a ceremony of washing the hands in perfume (Tayib) before making important alliances, and there are aspects of the old stories that apply here, supposedly giving the name resonance and importance. (If I could follow the details I would offer them here, but I fear getting it wrong)."
It's a good posting and it covers a good article, so perhaps you should take the time to read it. But I want to use for something else. It is a perfect example of the difficulty faced by translators from and to Arabic (or indeed any other language.) Sometimes you need to know a lot of context and or history. So here, as you read his posting, covering the article in Al-Ghad is what you need to know. Once you know it the article makes even more sense. As I say 'though - I want to make a larger point though and I do so at the end of this posting:

The Tribe Of Quraish

The Quraish were descended from the Prophet Ishmael. About 400 years after Jesus' death a man from this tribe called Ksay, married Hubba, the daughter of Hulayl who was chief of the Khuza'ah. Hulayl was killed in a skirmish that was resolved through arbitration. Inter alia The parties agreed as follows:

  1. Ksay should become the new governor of Makkahh.
  2. Ksay should become the custodian of the Ka'ba.

Ksay's family then settled them near the Ka'ba. Amongst the members of Ksay's family were:

  1. His brother Zuhra.
  2. His uncle Taym.
  3. His cousin named Makhzum.
  4. Various other cousins but the three people above were the most significant.

Those three together with their families became known as the "Quraish of the Valley." The more distant members of his family settled themselves outside Makkah in the surrounding hills and glens and became known as the "Quraish of the Outskirts."

The House Of Assembly

Ksay governed fairly and seems to have been genuinely loved by his people. He took being the custodian of the Sacred House very seriously and instituted several reforms. The most important of these was that he raised the standard of living of those who tended the Sacred Houseby replacing their tents with permanent dwellings. He also built a spacious house for himself in which he conducted the tribal meetings. The house was also used for other important events (such as weddings) it also became a point of departure for caravans. This is why Ksay's house became known as "The House of Assembly."

Provision For Pilgrims

Pilgrims came each year to Makkah to offer their pilgrimage. Clearly amongst them would have been many very needy people. As custodian Ksay was responsible for ensuring that their needs were met. Specifically that should neither suffer hunger nor thirst. While he was wealthy his wealth proved insufficient to cope with the ever increasing number of pilgrims. He therefore called a meeting at which he asked the people of Makkah to pledge a small annual contribution based upon the worth of their flocks. The Makkahns agreed to this and the arrangement ensured that when the pilgrims arrived for the Greater Pilgrimage there was enough food and water to meet their needs.

Ksay was determined to do the best he could for the pilgrims. So he also commissioned a trough made of leather at Mina. I don't have time to check exactly how many kilometres Mina is from Makkah but it lies on the route to Makkah and is in a particularly arid part of the desert.

The income raised through the pledge was more than adequate to meet the pilgrim's needs. The excess was used to purchase the first covering for the Ka'ba from fine Yemeni cloth. That's important because:

  1. It is a further indication of the centrality of the Ka'ba in Arabian life.
  2. Archaelogical and historical evidence both indicate that Yemen was very prosperous and had achieved a high level of cultural and economic sophistication by this period. (The Yemenis are the people referred to as the Sabaeans.)

The Succession

Ksay had four sons all of them very capable leaders, of these however Abdu Manaf was particularly capable and determined. However Ksay chose the eldest of his sons Abd Ad-Dharr to succeed him. There are various speculations as to why did this but the one that many Westerners settle for, primogeniture - the succession of the eldest - is plainly wrong as that wasn't ever used in Arabia at that time.

Before he died Ksay called for Abd Ad-Dharr and gave him the House of Assembly. He told Abd Ad-Dharr that he was going to decree, inter alia, that:

  1. Nobody was to be allowed to enter Ka'ba unless Abd Ad-Dharr opened it for them.
  2. No pilgrim was to be allowed to draw water in Makkah unless Abd Ad-Dharr permitted them to do so.
  3. Abd Ad-Dharr and Abd Ad-Dharr alone was to provide food for the pilgrims were to eat.

Adu Manaf's Obedience To His Father's Wishes

When Ksay died Abdu Manaf complied with his father's decree and accepted Abd Ad-Dharr as the new governor so for the first generation the succession ran smoothly. Discord about the succession arose during the next generation:

Discord In The Second Generation

In the next generation of Quraish dissatisfaction arose and was expressed by Zuhra's and Taym's descendants. The believed that Abdu Manaf's son Hashim was more capable and should have the rights transferred to him. The dissatisfaction spread and matters reached the point that ultimately only:

  1. The Mahkzum.
  2. A few distant relatives.
  3. Abd Ad-Dharr's near relatives.

Supported Abd Ad-Dharr.


Hashim and his supporters met in theKa'ba precincts. During the meeting Abdu Manaf's daughters prepared a bowl of perfume [perfume was very expensive so this represented a major sacrifice] and placed it before Ka'ba. Each of Hashim's supporters then dipped their hands into the bowl of perfume and as they did so swore an oath to never abandon one another. To reinforce and seal this pact each of them then rubbed his perfumed hands over the Ka'ba's stones. From that time onward they were referred to as the "Perfumed Ones".

The Alliance Of The Confederates

Abd Ad-Dharr's supporters likewise swore an oath of allegiance they are the people who became known as the "Confederates".

The Ka'ba's Sanctity And The Sanctity Of Its Precincts

The divisions deepened and becoame more embittered. Matters reached the point where it was clear that soon the two factions would be involved in a fight to the death. In the society of that time this was unthinkable because:

  1. The Ka'ba and its surrounding area (the perimeters of the sacred area extended for several kilometres) had always been held sacred.
  2. Fighting within sacred zone had been strictly forbidden from the time of the Prophets Abraham and Ishmael.
In order to prevent what would be both a spiritual and material calamity a compromise was proposed as follows:
  1. Abd Ad-Dharr should retain the keys to Ka'ba together with its rights.
  2. Abd Ad-Dharr should retain the House of Assembly as his home.
  3. Abd Ad-Dharr relinquished the right to collect the pledged contributions for welfare of pilgrims. The right to do this was henceforth vested to Hashim.

Afterword: The source for all of this is a quickly done translation into English* of my schoolboy history notes, and that's the point - schoolboy - granted it was a very good school, and granted that as the only westerner and only non-Muslim in that school that my teachers made special efforts with me to help me "get up to speed" nevertheless any reasonably well educated Arab would get the references and the point of the symbolism being invoked immediately. This is what makes translation such a difficult job and why if the two cultures are to co-exist we in the west need to get very serious indeed about studying other cultures with respect and, as far as possible, without preconceptions.

My compliments to Badger it's a good posting covering an important article in an important newspaper. I especially liked that when he didn't know enough to comment he said so. In my experience and I know that I can speak for markfromireland also when I say this:

Many, perhaps even most so called western "Experts" know just enough to get things dangerously wrong. A few weeks ago dad (mfi) got into a discussion with a historian who on the basis of a one year course studying excerpts not even the whole texts just excerpts and excerpts in translation not even in Arabic, felt that he was competent to pontificate on Sayyid Qutb. Once he'd admitted this, (and at least he was honest enough to admit it) Dad lost interest in further discussions. Life is too short to waste time on people like that. But all of us need to think about this, because it is a symptom of something that is terrifying, the man was arguing from almost total ignorance on one of the major sources of violent Islamist ideology and he was arguing on the basis of fragmentary and derivative knowledge. The frightening thing is that that man probably knows more than most so-called analysts and commentators.


* Or to put it another way I translated from one foreign language into another. Growing up multi-lingual has it's good points :-)

Update:I have made some corrections to the text. Blogger is having a lot of problems tonight so I have backed up and republished the entire blog.

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