size doesn’t matter

from “Daily life in the Medieval Islamic world,” here are some examples that show the contrast between (what i think are) innate feelings of individualism vs. clannishness — feelings which are connected to different sorts of altruistic drives (individualistic vs. kin-oriented). in other words, different sorts of peoples (outbred vs. inbred) feel differently about themselves and their place in the world and towards others (both related and unrelated) [pgs. 45-8]:

“American literature, film, and music are full of images glorifying the individual. Novelists and Hollywood directors have made fortunes portraying cowboys, frontiersmen, soldiers, and even intrepied CIA officers who, against incredible odds, are able to defeat perfidious enemies — Indians, Nazis, Russians, drug kingpins, Islamic terrorists, and even space aliens of all types…. And then there is Frank Sinatra’s famous hymn to himself, “My Way.” Americans know full well that such glorification of the individual is largely the stuff of fiction; nevertheless, we still like to dream of ourselves as capable of such heroics.

“Seventh-century Arabians, of course, produced neither novels nor films. What they did produce is a very rich tradition of poetry that conveys conceptions of manhood and womanhood that are very different from the American ideals of the rugged individualist, the self-made man, the solitary high plains drifter, or the autonomous woman who has sole control of her body and her sexuality. In jahili and early Islamic poetry we find men, women, and children who defined themselves not as individuals, but as kin. In short, whether one was an oasis dweller, a resident of the highlands of Yemen, a pastoral nomad, or someone whose way of life fell somewhere between settled and nomadic, it was kinship — one’s family, one’s clan, one’s tribe — that defined who one was. The issue of kinship remained important even in the cosmopolitan urban worlds of medieval Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo, and elsewhere. It continues to be important in many Islamic societies today.

“In seventh-century Arabia, this concern with kinship entailed more than just knowing the identity of one’s parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins. The bonds of kinship provided the means by which a family’s position in relation to its clan, a clan’s position in relation to its tribe, and a tribe’s position in relation to other tribes were made clear. In short, one’s name and the geneaology that it contained located a person in a complex pecking order of overlapping relationships immediately among one’s siblings, and more broadly within a potentially huge tribal confederation.

“In American society, family connections are certainly important, and the study of genealogy and individual quests for one’s ‘roots’ have long occupied many Americans for reasons of religion as well as simple curiosity. However, there are numerous institutions outside the family in which individuals can make names for themselves….

“Some of the most common themes that we find in jahili and early Islamic poetry deal with the courage and physical prowess in battle among the men of a family, clan, and tribe as well as the beauty and sexual purity of the women….

“The first poem was composed by a certain Abd al-Malik, son of Abd al-Rahman of the Banu l-Dayyan clan, the chief family of the Christian Banu l-Harith tribal confederation of Najran in the Arabian Peninsula. Abd al-Malik composed his verse in response to a woman how had belittled the Banu l-Dayyan because it was relatively small. As the poet sings the praises of his kin, he challenges any and all to find another that can equal the Banu l-Dayyan’s honor, prowess, purity, and generosity despite their small numbers.

She cast blame on us that our number was little to count and few:
I answered her — Yea: the count of noble men is little.
But not few canst thou call those whose remnants are like to us
— young men who vie with the old in the quest of glory.
It hurts us naught that we be few, when our friend by us
is safe, though the friends of most men beside be trampled; …
A folk are we who deem it no shame to be slain in fight,
though that be the deeming thereof of Salul and ‘Amir;
Our love of death brings near to us our days of doom,
but their dooms shrink from death and stand far distant.
There dies among us no lord a quiet death in his bed,
and never is blood of us poured forth without vengeance….
Pure is our stock, unsullied: fair is it kept and bright
by mothers whose bed bears well, and fathers mighty.
To the best of the Uplands we wend, and when the season comes,
we travel adown to the best of fruitful valleys.
Like rain of the heaven are we: there is not in all our line
one blunt of heart, nor among us is counted a niggard.
We say nay whenso we will to the words of other men:
but no man to us says nay when we give sentence….
Our Days are famous among our foeman, of fair report,
branded and blazed with glory like noble horses.
The children of ad-Dayyan are the shaft of their people’s mill:
around them it turns and whirls, while they stand midmost.

It cannot be overemphasized that kinship is the glue that held Arabian society together, nomadic or settled. [O]ne’s identity was subordinate to the honor (or shame) of one’s kin, whether immediate family, clan, or tribe…. According to Abd al-Malik, his clan, the Banu l-Dayyan, were honorable because the young men vied with the old in quest for glory, because they were eager to fly into battle and confront death, because the purity of their lineage was preserved by ‘mothers whose bed bears well, and fathers mighty,’ because they grazed their flock wherever they wished without opposition from any other group, because they were open-handed and hospitable, because they were subordinate to no clan but their own, and because their prowess was known far and wide….”

“eager to fly into battle and confront death” = innate kin-oriented altruistic behaviors.

(note: comments do not require an email. my way!)

Advertisements

4 Comments

  1. There’s an anglo-saxon poem called The Wanderer about some guy who’s lamenting being exiled from his kin which might fit neatly into the intersection between the later individualists and the earlier kin-glued.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Wanderer_(poem)

    I think you’re likely right that at least at the two ends of the spectrum the two types view the world entirely differently.

    Reply

  2. @g.w. – “There’s an anglo-saxon poem called The Wanderer about some guy who’s lamenting being exiled from his kin which might fit neatly into the intersection between the later individualists and the earlier kin-glued.”

    i JUST saw a reference to this in something i was reading the other day! i’ll be d*mned if i can remember where it was right now. (^_^)

    yes. from one of the in-betweeners. (~_^) if it’s from the ninth or tenth century and not earlier.

    cool! thanks!

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s