When Melodies Gather: Oral Art of the Mahra

The Ridda War (632-633 CE)

A community of Mahri speakers fully emerges in historical time during the Ridda (“Apostasy”) Wars in the first decade of the Islamic Era. Having converted to Islam during the lifetime of Muḥammad, the Mahra (along with a number of other Arabian tribes) rebelled against the first caliph, Abū Bakr (d. 634 CE). Under the command of ʿIkrimah, a Muslim army was sent to subdue the rebellious Mahri tribes. On his arrival to al-Mahra, ʿIkrimah discovered that al-Mahra was divided into the less numerous followers of Banī Šaḫrīt of the Banī Šaḫrah, who lived in the coastal lowlands of al-Mahra, and the more numerous Banī Muḥārib in the interior highlands, whose leader was al-Muṣabbiḥ. Exploiting this division, ʿIkrimah entreated the Banī Šaḫrah to re-embrace Islam, and, when they did so, the combined army  of ʿIkrimah and Šaḫrīt defeated the Banī Muḥārib (al-Ṭabarī, 1905, vol. 3: 263). The medieval historian Ibn al-Mujāwir (d. 1204 CE) adds a grim coda to this first chapter in the history of the Mahra (Ibn al-Mujāwir, 1986, 271-72):

ʿAlī b. Muḥammad b. ʾAḥmad al-Sāʿī informed me in al-Mafālīs: Fahd b. ʿAbdallāh b. Rāshid (the Sulṭān of Haḍramawt) informed me, saying: “The origin of al-Mahra is from al-Dabādib where no prayers were ever heard. So the Commander of the Faithful, Abū Bakr al-Ṣiddīq (RAA) sent an army to this district but the people of the village rebelled against them and when [the soldiers] were victorious over the people of the village, they set about with their swords and didn’t stop killing them until the blood congealed to the depth of a standing person, such that not a single one from amongst them survived except for three hundred unmarried girls, bedecked in anklets, bracelets and clothes. They stayed fast in some near-by mountains and when the mountain people saw them, they gave them dowries [ʾamharūhum] and married them and so their descendants are the Mahra.

While Ibn al-Mujāwir’s account of the near-extirpation of the Mahra is meant to provide an etiological account of their name (“Mahra” < Ar. ​mahr, “dowry”), it also echoes a more recent narrative concerning the near-extirpation of the ʿAfrārī sultanly lineage at the hands of the Kathīrī sultan, Badr bin Ṭuwayriq, in 1545 CE (see “The Mahra, the Kathīrīs, and the Portuguese”). The archetypal similarity between the two narratives suggests that an existential disquiet looms large in the Mahri popular imagination as a function, perhaps, of their precarious linguistic status. It is certain, however, that Ibn al-Mujāwir’s account is apocryphal because Mahri soldiers, presumably male, played an outsized role in the expansion of the early Islamic caliphate into Egypt and North Africa just a few short years after the Ridda Wars.

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