The men surrounding me, in turbans, beards, long jamag shirts, and baggy shalwar pants, asked, “How big is your tribe?” They thought it must be large and powerful, to provide security for me so far from home. One asked, “Is America farther than Tehran?”

It was just about fifty years ago that I picked up a Land Rover at the factory in England, drove across Europe, Turkey, and Iran, to take up residence in Iranian Baluchistan, on the border with Pakistan.

After much support from Nezar Mahmud, the brother of the chief of the Shah Nawazi (formerly Yarahmadzai) tribe, I set up my baby blue canvas tent at the end of the line of black goat-hair tents of the Dadolzai brother-lineage, or brasrend. Descent-based groups were described by the term rend, literally meaning line, encompassing lineages of all sizes, from small families up to the tribe itself.

In this desertic, treeless land, we were surrounded by stony and sandy plains, and craggy, black volcanic hills, with the active volcano Kuh-e Taftan looming in the background.

When I told the men that we did not have tribes or lineages, they were puzzled.

“But what do you do if someone attacks you?”
“We go to the police.”

They burst out laughing. “Who would defend you against the police?” they wondered out loud. They knew that the police in Iran did not work for them; they worked for the state—and for themselves, of course.

What these Baluch tribesmen knew, they knew on the basis of their cultural premises and their experience in their sociopolitical environment. This is how most of us know. The broader perspective of the historian or the anthropologist is rare and mostly not very practical in everyday life.

The Baluch knew that without their lineages, life would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” as Thomas Hobbes put it.1 For them, the tribe was the largest group with which they identified, and within which they expected some degree of social and political solidarity. But the tribe was by no means the only descent group with which they identified and within which they expected solidarity.

Descent groups of all sizes, including the tribe, were called by the same term, rend, and each group from the small to the large claimed identity and solidarity. Though defined by descent from a common ancestor, the Dadolzai being the descendants of Dadol, these groups were only called into existence in a conflict with groups of a comparable magnitude and structural equivalence.

The commandments of tribal life are, one, always support your kinsmen; and, two, always support closer kin against more distant kin. The Baluch looked to their kinsmen for security and welfare. Lineage mates should always defend their kinsmen against attack, and seek restitution or vengeance for loss or injury. They should come to the aid of their kinsmen in need, whether from illness, economic loss, or bereavement.

Two cases that I observed:

The first was that of a Dadolzai, Baluch Shakar, who, many years earlier, had married a Kurdish woman and moved to Kurdish territory, on the slopes of Kuh-e Taftan, some fifty kilometers from the home territory of the Dadolzai.2 One of his adult sons, named Mahmud, had fallen into conflict with a Yarahmadzai from the Kamil Hanzai lineage, over a kid owed to his younger brother. There was an altercation, and Mahmud chipped a tooth, half a blood injury, and was said to have bled from his ear the next morning.

Baluch Shakar and Mahmud had no lineage supporters anywhere nearby, and were afraid that there would be further conflict with the Kamil Hanzai. All members of a lineage are considered responsible for the acts of any one of them, and retaliation can legitimately target any member of the group. Baluch Shakar decided that prudence was the better part of valor, so he would move back home, where his kinsmen would provide support and deterrence for potential attackers. With the help of a party of Dadolzai, Baluch Shakar and his family packed up their tents, rounded up their livestock, and moved back to Dadolzai territory, joining a herding camp there. He was accepted, for the Dadolzai recognized that they had to support his family in this conflict.

The second case was of another Dadolzai, Sab Han.3 Decades earlier, as a young man, he had left Yarahmadzai territory, a hard desert land where two out of every five were drought years. In 1935, the government had suppressed predatory raiding of caravans and Persian peasant villages, and the tribesmen at the time were struggling to survive. Sab Han had ventured all the way across Pakistan to the Sindh, where he took up work as an agricultural laborer. He married, had children, and got into debt. His kin, who had remained in Iranian Baluchistan, had improved their economic situation, and in the 1970s they hatched a plan to bring him back. They collected 10,000 toman from lineage mates near and far, and with this money they paid off his debt and set him up with household equipment. They loaned him livestock and arranged marriages for his daughters. And so in the spring of 1976, Sab Han and his family returned home to his Dadolzai kin and joined their herding camp.

These two cases illustrate that, when you are in trouble, help, whether political or economic, is most likely to come from your lineage mates.

The Dadolzai was just one of the descent groups to which its members belonged. The Dadolzai was a face-to-face group, with a membership of between 50 and 150 souls, and so designated a brasrend, or “lineage of brothers.” The Dadolzai all knew each other personally, having interacted through a variety of activities over the years. Furthermore, the Baluch, like most Middle Easterners, are endogamous; Dadolzai had married among themselves. Members of the brasrend not only were descended from a common ancestor, but for the most part lived together, cooperated economically, prayed together, supported one another in conflict, and married one another. Many overlapping ties bound them together: descent through the male line, matrilineal ties through mothers, affinal ties to in-laws through wives, a common place of residence, common religious congregations, collaborative work groups, and common defense and vengeance groups.

The Dadolzai were also members of larger descent groups—defined by ancestors farther back in the genealogy—the Nur Mahmudzai, the tribal section Soherabzai, and the tribe, Yarahmadzai. At any particular moment, one might count oneself as part of one group or another; this depended upon who one’s opponents were. The relevant group would be of the same order as the opposing group.

A case I was on hand to observe will illustrate:

The Dadolzai were in their summer location at Gorani in the Mashkil, where they grew date groves. Mahmud Karim had laboriously cut down a date palm and prepared the trunk to be used as a roof timber for a mud brick hut he was building. He had left it behind, to transport later. But someone from the neighboring community, of the cousin lineage Kamil Hanzai, had taken the trunk. Karim was furious, determined to form a war party to retrieve his property. The elder of the Dadolzai, Jafar, ordered that a war party of a dozen men should retrieve the trunk, but without invading the settlement or confronting the Kamil Hanzai unless absolutely necessary. This was done and shortly thereafter the headman of the Kamil Hanzai came to see Jafar to find a resolution to the conflict. The incident was conceived as Dadolzai versus Kamil Hanzai, two cousin brasrend facing off against one another, with lineage war parties ready to fight.

At the same time, another incident of much greater import was taking place. It began with something small: a camel ate some dates off a palm. But this minor depredation did not pass unnoticed. The owner of the tree secured the camel and demanded payment when its owner came to collect it. Words were exchanged, and then blows. The camel owner came off worse.

What made this small incident dangerous was that the two disputants were from different tribal sections, the Soherabzai and the Rahmatzai.

But what really lit the fuse was the next encounter. Some Rahmatzai, angry at the treatment of their fellow, happened upon some Soherabzai who were waiting for a ride. Among those they roughed up was a distinguished and respected elder of the Soherabzai. The Soherabzai saw this as completely inappropriate and condemnable. The Dadolzai and the Kamil Hanzai, who had the day before been on the verge of fighting one another, now saw themselves as Soherabzai, ready to fight with the members of the offending Rahmatzai.

Word came that a party of Rahmatzai was forming to fight, and would meet them at a neutral mound outside of the grove settlements. The Dadolzai, Kamil Hanzai, and other Soherabzai gathered together a war party of perhaps a hundred men, old and young, infirm and robust, armed with sticks, rocks, brass knuckles, knives, and other low-level weaponry. I accompanied them, camera ready, both hopeful of seeing a genuine conflict and fearful that my friends might be injured. But the Rahmatzai never showed up.

Group identities are activated by who the opponents are. Anthropologists call this complementary opposition, or balanced opposition. Its function in a tribal, or segmentary, lineage system is to guarantee some degree of equivalence between opponents. It maximizes deterrence, in the interest of peace. Thus, in this case, men who may have thought of themselves as individuals or family heads one day, on the next day thought of themselves as Dadolzai, and the day after, as Soherabzai. Lineage groups are activated contingently, usually in the case of conflict and in response to the affiliation of the opponents.

Whatever the level and scope, however, lineage mates are obliged to stand together. Lineages that stick together are admired. They are patopak, with solidarity, as opposed to those that do not, which are considered beatopak, without solidarity.4

Tribes and lineages are security and defense groups. All men, except for a few religious figures, have security and defense obligations. All men are, therefore, warriors, ready to fight in defense of their lineage and their tribe.

Conflicts with surrounding tribes are not soon forgotten. The ancestor of the Dadolzai, Dadol, was among a number of Yarahmadzai ambushed and killed by members of the Rigi tribe, to the north. Clashes with the Kurds centered in Kuh-i Taftan gave the Yarahmadzai control of the Khash plain. There have been multiple conflicts with the Gamshazai, to the south.5 One measure taken to limit such conflicts is marriage between the chiefly families of neighboring tribes.6

Courage and willingness to fight are culturally embedded traits, and easily transferable from defense to offense. Before conceding to Reza Shah’s armies in 1935, the Yarahmadzai were great raiders. Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer titled his book about his Indian Army expedition against the Yarahmadzai Raiders of the Sarhad, and in it he asserted that “the tribes literally live by raiding.”7 From Baluch informants and from ample documentary evidence, we know that the Yarahmadzai raided Persian peasant villages in Kerman Province, as well as commercial caravans travelling between Persia and India and herders in the western border region of British India.8 They carried off grain, carpets, livestock, and captives.

In Baluchistan, even in good years, the land produced little, and drought was a regular feature. Any shortfall was made up by income from raiding. Some captives were kept as agricultural and domestic slaves, and perhaps sex slaves; others were sold in southern Baluchistan. A few captured young girls were married by their captors, who avoided paying bridewealth by this means. Walli Mahmud of the Dadolzai, an elderly man when I met him, had gone on a raid as a teenager, and carried back a girl that he married. She was, at the time of my fieldwork, a great-grandmother and a matriarch of the Dadolzai.

It would be misleading to say that the Yarahmadzai Baluch was a typical tribe, because tribes differ in important respects.9 Sizes varied, for example. The largest Baluch tribe was no more than 5000-strong, while the great Zagros tribes of western Iran, the Qashqai and Bakhtiari, ranged between half million and a million.10 There were other differences. The Baluch struggled in a stony desert, the Zagros tribes enjoyed a more temperate environment, and the Yomut Turkmen lived in a verdant plain.11 While the Baluch produced mostly for their own subsistence consumption, Zagros tribes and many Bedouin tribes were more market oriented.12 The degree of tribal engagement with, and control by, states also varied over time and circumstances, and from tribe to tribe.

However, all these tribes have certain features in common. Some I have already discussed. They are organized into corporate groups, commonly lineages based on descent through the male line. These groups are related through balanced opposition, in which closer kin unite to oppose more distant kin. And there are other features. The means of coercion—weaponry, fighting skills, riding animals—are distributed evenly throughout the male population. Men are jurally equal; group decisions are made collectively through discussion in each group. One of the primary capital resources, namely pasture, is freely accessible to all members of the tribe, as are natural water sources. Many decisions, for example in regard to livestock, are individual and left to the individual.

Tribal organization is collective, democratic, egalitarian, and decentralized. These are the important features, found among the Baluch, the Turkmen, the Bedouin, the Nuer, and many other tribal peoples.13

Tribal organization is also segmentary, which means that people are divided into many groups of the same size and characteristics. When such a society is based on descent, it is said to be a segmentary lineage system. Each segment is charged with security and can operate as a defensive and offensive military unit. Because these societies do not have a leader or ruler, they are called acephalous. There may, of course, be men of distinction, and a title to designate them: a Bedouin tribe might have a Sheikh, Baluchi tribes each have a Sardar, Persian tribes have a Khan.14 But mobile, armed tribesmen cannot be ruled by an individual or a family.15 At most, Sheikhs and other distinguished men are considered first among equals. Their function is mediation and the resolution of disputes, both internal and with outsiders. Mediation reduces the political friction that can be so dangerous to the unity of the tribe.

It is only when a tribe is part of a strong state that an independently-enforced hierarchy of chiefs can arise.16 It is at that point that stratification between the elite families and ordinary tribesmen emerges, and a chief can, to some degree, rule tribesmen. The power of the state imposes a hierarchy of authority on a tribe and weakens the tribal organization.

Tribal segmentary lineage systems provide order without a political hierarchy. Edward Evans-Pritchard famously described this arrangement as “ordered anarchy.”17 Social control is imposed through balanced opposition, and deterrence provided by norms of retaliation and vengeance.

Every society needs order. Only predictability allows people to gauge the consequences of their acts, and thus to act purposefully. Without order, neither social relations nor the production and exchange required for an economy are feasible. Tribal organization provides that order.

But tribal organization performs other important functions. It constrains conflict among members by imposing restrictive norms. There are, for example, limits on the kinds of weapons that can be used against fellow tribesmen. Women from the tribe are excluded from conflict. And tribal members are obliged to seek peaceful solutions, such as the payment of blood money, when it is a matter of conflict within the tribe. Another function is the defense of tribal territory, as well as, often, aggressive territorial expansion. Marshall Sahlins has even argued that segmentary lineage systems are themselves a mechanism for predatory expansion.18 This kind of organization allows social relations to be established among a large number of people spread across a wide territory. This is critically important for the many nomadic pastoralists in Africa and Asia who must move substantial distances across territory in order to find pasture and water for their animals. Arid lands are non-equilibrium environments in which rainfall, and thus pasture and water, are erratic over time and space, and thus unpredictable and unreliable.19 Nomadic movement, necessary in such an environment, is only possible if peaceful relations have been established among the mobile populations. Tribal ties establish those relations, and this is why tribes are always much larger than primary communities.

There is an alternative interpretation of the development of tribal organization according to which life in the third world was idyllic until Western imperialists introduced colonial exploitation and oppression.20 Drawing on Morton Fried’s argument that tribes only arose as secondary formations in response to the imposition of colonial states, postcolonial theory posits that there were no tribes prior to Western imperialism and colonial governance.21 In this view, prior to Western imperialism people lived in benign communities without boundaries, mixing and mingling without restraint, delightfully hybrid. Later, colonial administrations rigidified this free-flowing native life into clear-cut tribal political units, the better to control and administer. But this tale ignores much that extensive ethnographic and historical evidence tells us about tribes.

Tribes differ from states in their basic principles of organization. But not all states are alike. Consider the contrast between pre-industrial agrarian states and industrial states. Pre-industrial states arise when a group of individuals—or thugs, as Ernest Gellner characterizes them—captures a population, while claiming for itself the exclusive right to rule and apply coercion.22 Agrarian state elites always face a problem. They must find a way of supporting an elevated standard of living and advancing their projects, whether architectural or artistic. But the wealth that can be extracted from an agrarian population is limited because production levels are low. The extraction of wealth requires a bureaucratic and military apparatus, which must be paid for. There is just not enough money for everything.

A basic fact of pre-industrial life is that it is easier to take wealth away from others than to produce it oneself. This also applies collectively. It is easier to take wealth from other societies than to extract a sufficient amount from your own. For this reason, agrarian societies turn to expansion, sending military expeditions beyond their boundaries to strip wealth from other populations. Armies have to be paid with the spoils of conquest. Further expansion and conquest is thus necessary. It is a positive feedback cycle. Obvious examples are the Roman Empire and the Arab Muslim Empire.

A key element is the taking of slaves. The wealth gained is long-term labor that requires only the most minimal compensation. A society that can produce little needs to import labor that does not need to be compensated, or to be compensated only at very low levels. This transfers the wealth of its production to the elite and its apparatus. In ancient Athens and Rome, slaves counted for more than half the population. Indian civilization solved the production problem slightly differently, with uncompensated labor performed by the so-called untouchables.23

Agrarian states were thus hierarchical, centralized, and authoritarian, and the means of coercion were limited to the elite and its army as much as possible. But while the reach of the elite was strong, its scope was narrow. They wanted only two things from their subjects: crops and manpower. They controlled little else, and cared about little else. The welfare of their subjects was of no interest, except that they must be protected from predation by other states or tribes. And, to be sustainable, their own predation of their subjects had to be limited.

These pre-industrial, agrarian states were not large stable blocks of territory with effective state control and sharp boundaries. They were centers of power claiming control and authority over surrounding regions and populations. Over time, these states could vary in economic, political, and military power. Partly in response to the strength of their leadership, they waxed and waned, increasing their effective reach or seeing their control contract.

On the margins of their effective power, these states might make alliances with quasi-independent or independent populations, in most cases tribes. The priority of tribes would have been to remain independent and predatory. Failing that, they would have striven to remain independent, perhaps entering into some lucrative alliance with the state. In the case of an expanding state, the tribes in the path of that expansion would retreat, something fairly easy for pastoral nomads with mobile housing and capital. When a state was weak and began to contract, the tribes would reclaim their independence and return to predation.

This picture of states is accurate up to the eighteenth century, even in Britain.24 Until then, Britain and the states of Western Europe were ruled by autocrats or absolute monarchs, and their polities experienced constant attempted coups, civil wars, and invasions. It was only in the eighteenth century, not coincidentally the period in Western Europe of the modern agricultural and industrial revolutions, that the state changed. Its structure moved from top-down rule toward more general participation in decision making, and from tyrants toward governments based on law.

Modern states, particularly the liberal democracies of North America and Western Europe, have evolved from despotism. They have formulated and implemented constitutions which provide a legal foundation for the government and for society at large. They are now law-based, representative democracies in which competing parties succeed to government through popular vote, and can be eventually replaced, also through popular vote. Pre-modern states wishing to emulate them have copied their constitutions and legal systems, but without actually implementing them. They continue to operate on tyrannical or tribal premises. Pre-modern states with a tribal foundation, such as those in the Arab Middle East, combine autocracy and tribal loyalty, and both of these are incompatible with constitutions, rule of law, and democracy.

As we have seen, tribal culture, whether freely expressed in a tribal environment or constrained in a despotic state, has two premises. The first is that an individual owes his or her highest loyalty to kinsmen. The second premise is that one should always support closer kin against more distant kin. These premises are cognitive; they are ways of dividing up people in the world. They are also moral, because there is an obligation to act and people are judged on their implementation.

The consequence is that every kinship faction—from nuclear families through lineages, clans, tribal sections, tribes, and confederations—is in balanced opposition with other factions of the same order. There is no basis for an encompassing, inclusive nation; at every level, groups are in opposition. Judgments are based on particular rather than universal criteria. In tribal culture, one supports family, or lineage, or clan, or tribe, right or wrong.

Countries with tribal culture, such as Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Algeria, Libya, Morocco, and Yemen, can be ruled by despotism alone, or they will fragment along tribal lines, something painfully in evidence today.

In either case, they cannot be democratic or constitutional.

Islam shared with Bedouin tribal culture its structural premises: one’s first loyalty is to Islam, and one must always support Muslims against infidels. The balanced opposition here is between Muslims and infidels. The cathecting of Islam in the contemporary Middle East is not a step away from tribal culture, but a reproduction of it at a broader level. Islam in its current form is thus structurally incompatible with anything beyond a tribal culture.

There is no doubt that being a member of a tribe—as opposed to being the subject of an agrarian despotism—has many benefits: equality, autonomy, and democracy. Tribal culture was an ingenious human creation.

Its time has passed.

  1. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, reissue edition (London: Oxford Paperbacks, 2008), 1.3, Part II. 
  2. Philip Carl Salzman, Black Tents of Baluchistan (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000), 280–82. 
  3. Philip Carl Salzman, Black Tents of Baluchistan (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000), 216. 
  4. Philip Carl Salzman, Black Tents of Baluchistan (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000), 238. 
  5. Philip Carl Salzman, Black Tents of Baluchistan (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000), 285–88. 
  6. Philip Carl Salzman, Black Tents of Baluchistan (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000), 258–61. 
  7. Reginald Dyer, Raiders of the Sarhad (London: H. F. & G. Witherby, 1921), 42–43. 
  8. Philip Carl Salzman, Black Tents of Baluchistan (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000), 133–36. 
  9. Philip Carl Salzman, Pastoralists: Equality, Hierarchy, and the State (Boulder: Westview, 2004), Ch. 2. 
  10. For the Qashqai and the Bakhtiari, see, respectively: Lois Beck, The Qashqa’i of Iran (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986); Lois Beck, Nomad: A Year in the Life of a Qashqa’i Tribesman in Iran (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991); Gene Garthwaite, Khans and Shahs: A Documentary Analysis of the Bakhtiyari (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983). 
  11. William Irons, The Yomut Turkmen: A Study of Social Organization Among a Central Asian Turkic Speaking Population (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Museum of Anthropology, Anthropological Paper No. 58, 1975). 
  12. Edward Evans-Pritchard, The Sanusi of Cyrenaica (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1949); William Lancaster, The Rwala Bedouin Today, 2nd ed. (Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, 1997). 
  13. For the Baluch, the Turkmen, the Bedouin, and the Nuer, see respectively: Philip Carl Salzman, Black Tents of Baluchistan (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000); William Irons, The Yomut Turkmen: A Study of Social Organization Among a Central Asian Turkic Speaking Population (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Museum of Anthropology, Anthropological Paper No. 58, 1975); Edward Evans-Pritchard, The Sanusi of Cyrenaica (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1949); William Lancaster, The Rwala Bedouin Today, 2nd edn. (Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, 1997); Edward Evans-Prichard, The Nuer: A Description of the Modes of Livelihood and Political Institutions of a Nilotic People (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1940). 
  14. For the Bedouin, Baluch, and Persian tribes, see respectively: Edward Evans-Pritchard, The Sanusi of Cyrenaica (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1949), 59-61; William Lancaster, The Rwala Bedouin Today, 2nd edn. (Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, 1997); Philip Carl Salzman, Black Tents of Baluchistan (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000), Chapter 11; Fredrik Barth, Nomads of South Persia (New York: Humanities Press, 1964), Ch. V. 
  15. Philip Carl Salzman, Pastoralists: Equality, Hierarchy, and the State. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2004), Ch. 4. 
  16. Lois Beck, The Qashqa’i of Iran (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986); William Irons, “Why Are the Yomut Not More Stratified?” in Claudia Chang and Harold Koster, eds., Pastoralists at the Periphery: Herders in a Capitalist World (Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 1994). 
  17. Edward Evans-Prichard, The Nuer: A Description of the Modes of Livelihood and Political Institutions of a Nilotic People (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1940). 
  18. Marshall Sahlins, “The Segmentary Lineage: An Organization of Predatory Expansion,” American Anthropologist 63 (1961), 322–43. 
  19. J. Terrence McCabe, Cattle Bring Us to Our Enemies: Turkana Ecology, Politics, and Raiding in a Disequilibrium System (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2004), Ch. 2 & 3. 
  20. This remarkably ahistorical theory ignores the great Persian Empires; the Arab Muslim Empire, established almost exclusively by Bedouin tribal armies; the Mongol invasions; the Russian Empire; and so on. 
  21. Morton Fried, The Notion of Tribe (Menlo Park, CA: Cummings, 1975). 
  22. Ernest Gellner, Plough, Sword and Book: The Structure of Human History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990). 
  23. Hindu theology tended to support this uncompensated labor. We should not neglect the role of religion in controlling the underclasses. 
  24. Winston Churchill, The History of the English Speaking Peoples (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1956).