When Melodies Gather: Oral Art of the Mahra

The Mahra and the ʾAyyūbids (1198-1213 CE)

Following the account of the military exploits of Mahri troops in Egypt and North Africa in the seventh century CE, historical documentation with regard to the Mahra and their core territories becomes meager, although the Mahra continue to be noted for their linguistic exceptionalism by Arab geographers and belles-lettrists such as al-Hamdānī, al-Muqaddasī, and others.  However, a historical record for southern Arabia and Ḥaḍramawt from the thirteenth century onward begins to take shape thanks to chronicles composed by South Yemenis and Ḥaḍramīs such as Aḥmad bin Shanbal (d. 1514 CE), ʿAbdallāh Bā Makhrama (d. 1540 CE), al-Ṭayyib Bā Faqīh al-Shiḥrī (d. 1562), ʿAbdallāh b. Muḥammad Bā Sanjala/Bā Sakhla (d. 1569), and ʿAbd al-Qādir al-ʿAydrūs (d. 1628). The absolute number of chroniclers should not be confused with the number of unique chronicles; virtually all medieval chronicles of southern Arabia are drawn from the work of a much smaller number of chroniclers, primarily Shanbal, Bā Makhrama, and Bā Faqīh (Muqaddam, 2005: 241-62).

While the aforementioned chroniclers are primarily concerned with events taking place in Ḥaḍrawmawt and its chief seaport, al-Shiḥr, the neighboring Mahri families and tribes influenced the political dynamics of the region as the rulers and subjects of the various polities and dynasties that arose in the region from the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries CE. The high point of Mahri political power occurred under the Bā Dujāna family in the mid-fifteenth century CE, which found them firmly ensconced in the port city of al-Shiḥr, and, along with their allies, capable of launching a naval attack on Aden.

However, the first inklings of muscular Mahri territorial ambition dates back to the twelfth century CE with the emergence of the Āl Fāris statelet (Ar. duwayla) in al-Shiḥr, the chief port city of Wādi Ḥaḍramawt. Given the uneven nature of documentation for South-Central Arabia in the twelfth century CE, it is difficult to ascertain the nature of the Āl Fāris’s constituency and origins, chief holdings, or even the precise chronology of events during the period of their ascendance (Bā Wazīr, 1958: 86-87; Ḥamdān, 2005: 33; al-Shāṭirī, 1994: 176). However, the founder of the Āl Fāris dynasty is generally resolved in the person of ʿAbd al-Bāqī b. Fāris b. Rāshid b. Iqbāl, although the succession of its leaders—and ʿAbd al-Bāqī b. Fāris b. Rāshid b. Iqbāl’s place among them—belongs to the realm of speculation. It is clear, however, that the Āl Fāris (also referred to as the Āl Iqbāl) overlapped with the Āl Rāshid sheikhdom (Ar. mashīkha) based in Tarīm, with whom they interacted alternately as regional rivals and allies against ʾAyyūbid efforts to extend their control to Ḥaḍramawt and its chief port, al-Shihr (al-Jidḥī, 2013: 147). Given the intertwined patronymics of both the Āl Rāshid and the Āl Fāris, it is possible that their relationship was based on a sense of consanguinity; indeed, many Ḥaḍramī historians do not acknowledge a distinct Āl Fāris lineage, family, or political unit that is independent of the Āl Rāshid. Interestingly, the first transmitter of the origin story of the Mahra during the Ridda War was one of the Rāshidī sultans of Ḥaḍramawt, Fahd b. Abdallāh b. Rāshid (Smith, 2008: 255, citing Ibn al-Mujāwir); this implies particular knowledge of the Mahra within the Rāshidī sheikdom.  

The Āl Fāris may have risen to preeminence in al-Shiḥr (and its outlying settlements of al-Rayda and Ḥayrīj) under the patronage of the Āl Rāshid at the end of the twelfth century. Once established in al-Shiḥr, the Āl Fāris seem to have broken with their former patrons, leading to the appearance of an independent statelet based in al-Shiḥr after 1191 CE, when Fahd b. ʿAbdallāh b. Rāshid al-Qaḥṭānī reclaimed al-Shiḥr from the ʾAyyūbid “Turks” or “Oghuz” (Ar. al-ghuzz). It is unclear whether Fahd b. ʿAbdallāh b. Rāshid al-Qaḥṭānī did so at the behest of Āl Rāshid or through his own initiative; regardless, by 1191 CE al-Shiḥr was free from ʾAyyūbid domination, and Āl Rāshid control—if indeed Fahd b. ʿAbdallāh b. Rāshid al-Qaḥṭānī paid fealty to the Āl Rāshid in Tarīm—was lightly felt. Local sovereignty under the Āl Fāris name in al-Shiḥr ended in 1219 CE when Ibn Mahdī marched on al-Shiḥr at the head of an ʾAyyūbid host and expelled the Āl Fāris (Muqaddam, 2005: 264-65). In the intervening years (1191–1219 CE), the Āl Fāris family was apparently riven by internal conflict, with descendants of the original ruling family - those coalescing around the ʿAbd al-Bāqī lineage - allying themselves with the ʾAyyūbids against their rivals, who were supported by Shaʿjana b. Rāshid of the Āl Rāshid. The latter seized control of al-Shiḥr and the proximate agricultural center, al-Rayda, and repulsed an ʾAyyūbid effort to retake al-Shiḥr in 1208 CE.  ʿAbd al-Bāqī b. Fāris, scion of the original founder of the Āl Fāris dynasty, was briefly restored to control in al-Shiḥr in 1211 CE with the support of the ʾAyyūbids. However, ʿAbd al-Bāqī b. Fāris’s control of al-Shiḥr continued to be contested by his rivals under the leadership of Fahd b. ʿAbdallāh; the latter were on the cusp of retaking al-Shiḥr when ʿAbd al-Bāqī’s mother reconciled the two rival factions. After a brief respite, fighting within the Āl Fāris family resumed until the ʾAyyūbids arrived in force in 1219 CE and took direct control of al-Shiḥr and the rest of Ḥaḍramawt (al-Jidḥī, 2013: 147-50).  

This historical narrative relies on al-Jidḥī’s Tārīkh al-Mahra al-musammā al-tiṭwāf ḥawl tawārīkh wa-mashāhīr bilād al-ʾAḥqāf (2013). Unlike Muqaddam’s meticulously referenced, chronicle-style approach to premodern Mahri history, the sources that al-Jidḥī relies upon are not always evident, yet the basic outlines appear to be reconstructed from Sālim b. Muḥammad al-Kindī’s (d. 1892) Tārīkh Ḥaḍrawmawt al-musammā fi-al-ʿudda al-mufīda (edited and republished in 2003 by ʿAbdallāh al-Ḥabashī), which itself draws from the aforementioned chronicles by Shanbal and Bā Faqīh. Khamīs Ḥamdān’s al-Shiḥr ʿabr al-tārīkh (2005) and Muḥammad al-Shāṭirī’s ʾAdwār al-tārīkh al-ḥaḍramī (1994) provide confirmation of al-Jidḥī’s general narrative of a nominally sovereign statelet in al-Shiḥr under rulers from the Āl Fāris family that was undermined by internecine strife, leading to an eventual return of ʾAyyūbid hegemony (Ḥamdān, 2005: 32-35). Other Ḥaḍramī historians such as Ṣalāḥ al-Bakrī (author of Tārīkh Ḥaḍramawt al-siyāsī, 1956) and Saʿīd Bā Wazīr (author of Ṣafaḥāt min al-tārīkh al-ḥaḍramī, 1958) do not recognize an Āl Fāris lineage independent from the Āl Rāshid in Tarīm; in their telling, al-Shiḥr changes hands between the ʾAyyūbids and the Āl Rāshid without ever passing through an independent Āl Fāris family.

The question of whether the Āl Fāris were Arabic monolinguals or Mahri speakers is a matter of debate. Ḥaḍramī scholars generally assume that the Āl Fāris—stemming from the Āl Rāshid—belong to the lineage of al-Kinda from Central Arabia and, accordingly, that they share their maternal Arabic language (Ḥamdān, 2005 and al-Bakrī, 1956).  A number of contemporary Mahri scholars start from the assumption that the Āl Fāris were Mahri speakers distinct from the Āl Rāshid (Bākrīt, al-Jidḥī, Muqaddam), thanks to their long-standing presence in al-Shiḥr. They are supported in this by ʿAbd al-Raḥmān b. ʿUbaydallāh al-Saqqāf, the preeminent muftī of Ḥaḍramawt and Ḥaḍramī historian/geographer, who opines that the Āl Fāris are of Mahri origin (Muqaddam, 2005: 266-67).  This latter opinion carries particular weight because al-Saqqāf, a Ḥaḍramī scholar of great authority, cannot be assumed to have any reason to exaggerate the role of the Mahra in regional history. 

By all accounts, the Āl Fāris family is associated with al-Shiḥr, which formed the western boundary of the Mahri-speaking tribal domain in the premodern era (even if nowadays al-Shiḥr appertains administratively, culturally, and linguistically to Ḥaḍramawt). Like the Āl Fāris dynasty itself, there is debate as to whether the indigenous population of al-Shiḥr are Arabic monolinguals or Mahri speakers. Although al-Shiḥr is virtually Arabic monolingual at present, medieval Arab geographers were virtually unanimous in assigning al-Shiḥr to the Mahra and described how its population spoke a language other than Arabic (Ibn Durayd [d. 933], al-Hamdāni [d. 945], al-Masʿūdī [d. 957], and al-Idrīsī [d. 1165]). Later events under the Āl Bā Dujāna dynasty confirm the presence of large numbers of Mahri speakers and Mahri-speaking tribes in al-Shiḥr, suggesting that the port city once fell on or near the western margins of Mahri tribal (and thus linguistic) dominance. Presumably, the demographic composition of al-Shiḥr lost its Mahri-speaking component and shifted to Arabic monolingualism after the sixteenth century CE, when the Kathīrī state from Ḥaḍrawmawt absorbed al-Shiḥr.

However, before Mahri dominion of al-Shiḥr ended in the sixteenth century, the Mahra inhabiting its coastal environs would experience periods of sovereignty and subordination in accordance with the waxing and waning fortunes of two of Yemen’s most famous centralized political dynasties: the Rasūlids (1229-1454 CE) and the Ṭāhirids (1454-1517 CE).

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