When Melodies Gather: Oral Art of the Mahra

The Mahra and the Rasūlids (1355 CE-1445 CE)

Whereas the fortunes of the Āl Fāris are unclear, the Mahri Bā Dujāna family achieved unequivocal dominion over al-Shiḥr and its environs; moreover, the historical trajectory and mixed fortunes of the powerful Bā Dujāna family are rendered more clearly in the historical record. The Bā Dujāna family name first appears one century before the establishment of the Bā Dujāna statelet in 1355 CE, when Sheikh ʾAḥmad ʿAbdallāh Bā Dujāna was dispatched by the Rasūlid governor (ʾamīr) of al-Shiḥr, Dāʾūd b. Khalīl al-Hikārī, to pursue and retake a ship that had been stolen by fugitive Indians who had slipped their bonds in al-Shiḥr, swam out to the craft, and piloted it to Soqotra. ʾAḥmad ʿAbdallāh Bā Dujāna recaptured the ship and returned it al-Shiḥr; the fate of the Indians is unclear (Muqaddam, 2005: 269, citing Shanbal). In this way, we find that the Bā Dujāna family already enjoyed some measure of preeminence in al-Shiḥr by the middle of the fourteenth century CE, serving as the enforcers for the ruling ʾamīr. Indeed, the same shaykh ʾAḥmad Bā Dujāna achieved sufficient status that his death warranted specific mention one year later in Shanbal’s terse chronicle (Muqaddam, 2005: 270, citing Shanbal).

In the years immediately subsequent to Sheikh ʾAḥmad Bā Dujāna’s naval adventure, the picture of al-Mahra and the ascendant Bā Dujāna family loses focus, although one consistent theme emerges: rivalry and conflict between a faction of Mahra coalescing around the Shamāsa family based in Ḥayrīj (roughly 200 km. east of al-Shiḥr, near the present town of Sayḥūt at the mouth of Wādī Masīla) and the Rasūlid governor of al-Shiḥr from 1378 to 1392 CE, Muḥammad b. Thawr b. Ḥasan al-Kurdī al-Quḍāʿī (alternately referred to as “Bin Thawr” or “Bin Bawz” in Arabic historical sources). For instance, in 1388 CE, ʿAbd al-Raḥmān b. Shamāsa plundered the fort of al-Rayda and killed three of Bin Bawz/Bin Thawr’s people there. This led to an engagement between the Mahra under Ibn Shamāsa and the Rasūlids, which ended in a lopsided defeat for Ibn Shamāsa: thirty Mahra were killed, including two from the Banī Maḥāwib [sic? < Mḥāreb?], two the Banī Shaḥāwir [sic? < Sharāwiḥ?], three from Banī Ḥasḥas [sic? < Saḥsaḥ?], one ʿAlī b. ʾAḥmad Bā Dujāna, and one ʿĪsā b. Fāris from the Banī ʿAlī b. Fāris (Muqaddam, 2005: 270, citing Shanbal and al-Ḥāmid). Coincidentally, the latter two names echo the patronyms of two politically sovereign Mahri families, the preceding Āl Fāris and subsequent Bā Dujāna, perhaps an unconscious effort to project the nativist tendency in al-Mahra onto a few prominent families. This local conflict had broader political repercussions: looking to undermine their Rasūlid rivals, the Zaydī imām offered refuge to ʿAbd al-Raḥmān b. Shamāsa after his defeat at the hands of Bin Bawz/Thawr.

In 1392 CE, the Mahra under Saʿd b. ʾAḥmad b. Shamāsa al-Shuʿaybī, apparently affiliated with the Bin Shamāsa group responsible for the first razzia against the Rasūlid governor, Bin Bawz/Thawr, ambushed a squadron of troops sent by Bin Thawr/Bawz to collect a tax of dates from the gardens and orchards of al-Rayda to the east of al-Shihr. This time, the Mahra were successful and killed forty of Bin Bawz/Thawr’s enforcers. Fearing for his life, Bin Bawz/Thawr fled to Sana’a, where he sought and received the protection of the Zaydī imām—an ironic turn of events. Having removed Bin Bawz/Thawr from the picture, Saʿd b. ʾAḥmad b. Shamāsa wrote to the Rasūlid sulṭān, al-ʾAshraf Ismāʿīl, requesting that he be appointed the governor (ʾamīr) of al-Shiḥr. This request was humored as long as it took the Rasūlids to send a new governor, Muḥammad b. ʾAḥmad Qarājā, to take control of al-Shiḥr (1394 CE). In the same year, the Rasūlid governor of Dhufār, Shihāb al-Dīn ʾAḥmad ʿĀmir al-Harrānī, was murdered—according to some accounts—by the Mahra (Muqaddam, 2005: 272, citing Shanbal). If this occurred subsequent to the appointment of Qarāja, one wonders whether this murder was meant as a message to the Rasūlid sulṭān about the dangers of double dealing.

The Mahra disappear from the written chronicles until 1421 CE when the town of Ḥayrīj—located further to the east of al-Rayda, near present-day Sayḥūt and the former turf of the Bin Shamāsa family—appears under the control of Saʿīd b. Fāris Bā Dujāna. From his base in Ḥayrīj, Saʿīd b. Fāris Bā Dujāna launched a maritime attack against Dhofār, governed by the regional rivals of the Mahra: the Āl Kathīr, who would later constitute their own state with its capital at Sayʾūn in Ḥaḍramawt. The attack was a disaster for the Mahra: their craft were caught in a storm, forty-five of the Mahra perished, and the survivors were cast up along the shores of Dhofār.  Another raid on Dhofār reached Jarḥāʾ, but Saʿīd Bā Dujāna’s men were forced back in the face of organized resistance (Muqaddam, 2005: 273, citing al-Kindī). While these unsuccessful raids appear fairly unremarkable, the patronymic “Bin Fāris” belonging to Saʿīd Bā Dujāna suggests that lineage is destiny in South Arabian historiography: not only do the patronyms “Bin Fāris,” “Bin Shamāsa,” and “Bā Dujāna” frequently occur together, but the Mahra bearing them often appear in South Arabian historical annals in revanchist roles.   
Slightly over a decade later (1432 CE), al-Shiḥr had fallen out of Rasūlid control and into the hands of the Bā Dujāna family. As a result, the Rasūlid sulṭān (a title indicating sovereignty), al-Malik al-Ẓāfir b. al-Malik al-ʾAshraf, was compelled to send an army to retake al-Shiḥr from Muḥammad b. Saʿd b. Fāris Bā Dujāna, possibly the nephew of the same Saʿīd b. Fāris Bā Dujāna who attacked Dhofār eleven years earlier. The Rasūlids failed in their attempt to recapture al-Shiḥr, and their army retreated back to Aden, only modestly enriched by plunder (Muqaddam, 2005: 273). This would mark the last Rasūlid military excursion along the Ḥaḍramī littoral and al-Shiḥr would remain under the control of the Bā Dujāna family for the next twenty-five years, with one challenge to their rule.
In 1445 CE, the reigning shaykh of the Bā Dujāna family, Shamāsa (or Saʿīd) b. Saʿd b. Fāris Bā Dujāna, died, leaving behind a son (or possibility a nephew) to succeed him. Sensing the vulnerability of the Bā Dujāna state in al-Shiḥr and emboldened by the decline of Rasūlid power, Sultan Abdallāh b. ʿAlī of the nascent Kathīrī state in Ḥaḍramawt launched a campaign to take al-Shiḥr from the Bā Dujāna family. Recognizing some incapacity on the part of the newly appointed leader of the Bā Dujāna family, the appointee’s mother, either a wife or a sister-in-law of Shamāsa (or Saʿīd) b. Saʿd b. Fāris Bā Dujāna, took control of the situation and led the defense of al-Shiḥr with the support of allies from the Mahri-speaking Bayt Mhōmed tribe. While the name of the queen regent of al-Shiḥr remains unrecorded, she successfully beat back the Kathīrī incursion and inflicted a serious blow to Kathīrī designs on al-Shiḥr. She also bought time—a little over ten years—for the named successor of Shamāsa (or Saʿīd) b. Saʿd b. Fāris Bā Dujāna to grow into one of Ba Dujāna family’s most storied leaders: Muḥammad b. Saʿd Bā Dujāna.

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