When Melodies Gather: Oral Art of the Mahra

Sacerdotal and Trade Lineages

There are a number of indigenous lineages parallel to the primary tribal lineages. Individuals who claim such a lineage are not perceived as appertaining to a tribe; however, since many of the lineages are associated with a specific trade or sacerdotal duties, they are accorded varying degrees of respect and honor in al-Mahra.

For instance, membership to a few indigenous, non-tribal lineages confers on their members the title of mšōyeḫ, an honor accorded to them at birth. The mšōyeḫ generally practice endogamy to preserve the unity of their aristocratic lineage and follow their own particular customs in marriage and other socioreligious observances. The mšōyeḫ are treated with respect across al-Mahra and have amassed social and economic capital through their work as merchants, ship captains, and navigators. The chief lineages of mšōyeḫ in al-Mahra are Āl Bā ʿAbduh, Āl Bākrīt, Āl Bā Ḥamīd, Āl Bā ʿIbād, and Āl Bā Ghashwa.

The maintenance of shrines and graves dedicated to saints (Ar. wālī, pl. ʾawliyāʾ)  has traditionally fallen on the lineage of Belḥāf, which is variably understood to be both a tribe and a sacerdotal clan. Because the guardians of shrines frequently oversaw oath-taking rituals, the Belḥāf lineage carries a degree of veneration among the Mahra.

Frequently called up to provide objective judgement in disputes between tribes or to provide religious guidance, members of the hereditary caste of ʾashrāf, known elsewhere in the Islamic world as “sayyids” (Ar. sāda), maintain their venerable status through their reputation for moral integrity and religious knowledge. Unlike the mšōyeḫ, the ʾashrāf  express their lineage not from one of the indigenous tribes of al-Mahra but from the Hashimite lineage of ʿAlawī bin ʿAbdallāh bin al-Sayyid ʾAḥmad bin ʿIsā al-Muhājir. Like the mšōyeḫ, the ʾashrāf  practice endogamy and follow their own rites in marriage. The ʾashrāf have historically owned land or been closely involved in trade and commerce in al-Mahra, whence they derive their primary income.

Many of the ʾashrāf lineages listed below (from al-ʾAhdal, 1999: 82) are found across southern Arabia and Oman; many of the ʾashrāf lineages in al-Mahra are found with particular frequency in Haḍramawt.
Name of LineagePlace of Residence
Āl Bayt ʿAlīal-Ghaydha
Āl Bayt al-Saqqāfal-Ghaydha
Āl Bayt Ḥafīẓal-Ghaydha
Āl Bayt Ḥurūf Bā ʿAbbūdal-Ghaydha
Āl Bayt Mazraʿ Bā ʿAbbūdal-Ghaydha
Āl ʿAlī bin Muḥammadal-Ghaydha
Āl Bā ʿAmrḤawf
Āl IbrāhīmḤawf
Āl al-BayḍḤawf
Āl al-JīlānīḤawf, Qishn
Āl al-MiḥḍārQishn
Āl al-ḤāmidQishn, Sayḥūt
Āl DuwaylahSayḥūt
Āl al-JifrīSayḥūt
Āl al-MiqdīSayḥūt
Āl al-Sayyid ShaykhSayḥūt
Āl Bā ʿAlawīSayḥūt
Āl al-ShaykhSayḥūt

Less venerable, non-tribal lineages appertain to specific, specialized trades. For instance, qarawīyīn lineages are believed to originate from Haḍramawt and are associated with skilled trades such as carpentry, house construction, and fashioning jewelry. Karrānī families supplied the literate clerks critical to the business and administrative functions in al-Mahra. Although they did not attract the same aura of veneration granted to the sacerdotal lineages, karrānīs were deeply important in the political administration of the ʿAfrārī sulṭānate. In fact, some Mahra have speculated that the ʿAfrārīs themselves were originally karrānīs who, thanks to their literacy and education, assumed the chief political function of governance in al-Mahra.  

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