When Melodies Gather: Oral Art of the Mahra


Due to the fact that the Mahri language is essentially an unwritten language, historical documentation for the Mahri tribes is less than it is for their Arabic-speaking neighbors in Ḥaḍrawmawt and Dhofār. And yet, despite a paucity of historical documentation and the fact of their relatively small population, the Mahra have played unexpectedly significant roles at a few important moments in the regional politics of South Arabia and in the broader arena of the Arab–Islamic world.

What follows is meant not to provide a comprehensive chronology for al-Mahra but rather to draw attention to those moments in time when the Mahra emerged into the historical record by playing a role in shaping the broader geopolitics of the the region. Until recent years, the historical record of al-Mahra was compiled by Arabic monolinguals from southern Arabia and Ḥaḍramawt, and as a result, the Mahra appear in the historical record only insofar as their actions impinge on their Arabic monolingual neighbors to the east and west, and the core territory of al-Mahra—roughly equivalent to the modern Yemeni Governorate of al-Mahra—remains largely unaccounted for. As a result, the history of the Mahra can be perceived only at incidental angles: historical accounts are never focused directly on al-Mahra but typically reflect it at an oblique angle. This characteristic of Mahri historiography has changed in recent years, thanks to excellent work by Mahri historians such as ʾAḥmad Saʿīd ʿAlī Muqaddam (2005), Saʿd b. Sālim al-Jidḥī al-Mahrī (2013), and others who have undertaken to provide an indigenous account of al-Mahra’s history, culture, and language.

It is worth mentioning that individual Mahri speakers or those tracing their descent to Mahri forebears have risen to preeminence in the Arab and Islamic world. (One example is Sulaymān al-Mahrī [d. 1550 CE], navigator and author of ʿUmda al-mahriyya fī ḍabṭ al-ʿulūm al-baḥriyya.) Biographies of prominent individuals bearing the patronymic “al-Mahrī” is a popular topic of research among Mahri scholars who advocate for the recognition of individual Mahra from among the Prophet Muḥammad’s peers (ṣaḥāba), transmitters of ḥadīth, and Islamic juristsHowever, I have elected to focus on those occasions in which the Mahra as a community have entered into the historical record rather than on individuals whose sole point of affiliation with al-Mahra may be their genealogical lineage. Outside of southern Arabia, I have related only instances where the Mahra are mentioned in sufficient numbers that their language might have been maintained in the face of a general tendency to adopt Arabic.

A final caveat is necessary: usage of the labels “the Mahra” as a collective tribal or linguistic identity or “al-Mahra” as a distinct and cohesive geographical entity is a fairly recent phenomenon. In premodern medieval texts in particular, individual Mahri tribes—Mḥōmed, ʿAfrār, Zwēdī, etc.—are the general unit of reference and not “the Mahra” as they are collectively understood today.  Indeed, the Mahra did not constitute a cohesive political or social entity until the dissolution of the ʿAfrārī Sultanate of Qishn and Soqōṭra in the late 1960s and the establishment of an administrative regional unit that claimed to represent the totality of the Mahra in Yemen: muḥāfaẓat al-Mahra (“Governorate of al-Mahra”). Thus, a medieval chronicler may mention a Mahri tribe without any presumptive affiliation to the totality of Mahri speakers. Further, Mahri tribe names are frequently Arabicized by Arabic chroniclers, making their unique linguistic identity a matter of insider knowledge. For instance, the Arabic-sounding “Ziyād” tribe referenced in medieval Arabic sources is the Mahri-speaking Zwēdī tribe, a name which is phonetically impossible to represent in the Arabic script. Alternately, when the labels “the Mahra” (the people) and “al-Mahra” (the land) are used in premodern texts, we should not understand this to include every Mahri-language speaker from al-Shiḥr to Dhofār or the territorial extent of the modern Governorate of al-Mahra; rather, it includes only that portion of either entity that directly impinges on the specific interests of the chronicler. For instance, when Ḥaḍramī chroniclers use the phrase “the Mahra,” it should be understood that only Mahri speakers and Mahri tribes bordering on Ḥaḍramawt (such as the aforementioned Ziyād/Zwēdī) are intended. In a similar vein, the political entity popularly remembered as the “Sultanate of al-Mahra” was in fact practically limited to Qishn and Soqōṭra as indicated by its official title, the ʿAfrārī Sultanate of Qishn and Soqōṭra. Although popular imagination may conflate this sovereign state with the contemporary Governorate of al-Mahra, the extent of its actual political dominion was much less.

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