Mahri Poetry Archive

The Mahra


Who are the Mahra?

from Bertram Thomas’ “Arabia Felix” (1932)

The following are a few descriptions (some quite speculative) to be found in Arabic-language sources concerning the Mahra, their language and their origins.

Shams al-Dīn al-Muqaddasī (d. ~1000 CE): “At the borders of Ḥimyar is a tribe of Arabs whose speech no one understands.” (ʾAḥsan al-taqāsīm fī maʿrifat al-ʾaqālīm, p. 96).

Abū Muḥammad al-Hamdānī (d. ~956 CE): “According to Ptolemy: The people of the desert – that is to say, the Mahra – share it with the lions and the sun.  For this reason, they have robust constitutions and merciful hearts, are avid for star-lore, revere the sun from amongst all of the stars and prostrate themselves before it” (ifat jazīrat al-ʿarab, p. 73).

Jamāl al-Dīn ibn al-Mujāwir (d. 1204 CE), quoting ʾAḥmad b. ʿAlī b. ʿAbdallāh al-Wāsiṭī: “The origin of al-Mahra can be found amongst the remnants of ʿĀd.  When Allāh destroyed that nation, [some] of its people sought refuge and settled in the mountains of Dhofar, the island of Suqūṭrā and the island of al-Maṣīra.  They are a tall, good-looking people who have a language of their own that no one understands but them.  They are called al-Saḥara and this name can only be derived from the word ‘sorcery’ (al-siḥr) since they are ignorant of Islam but have common sense and a touch of superstition (min al-junūn).  They eat the bounty of Allāh without praising or thanking Him and worship other than Him” (Ṣifat bilād al-yaman al-musammā bi-taʿrīƒ al-mustabṣir, p. 271-272).

Abū ʿAbdallāh al-Idrīsī (d. 1166 CE): The natives of the Kuria Muria islands (Khartān wa-Martān) near the southern coast of Oman are an Arab people, yet they speak an ancient ʿĀdite language which “no Arabs of our time can understand” (Nuzhat al-mushtāq fī ʾiƒtirāq al-āfāq, vol. 1, p. 52).

Ibn Sallām al-Jumaḥī (d. 846 CE), quoting Abū ʿAmr b. al-ʿAlāʾ: “The language of Ḥimyar and the far reaches of Yemen (ʾaqāsī al-yaman) is not like our language and their ʿarabiyya is not like our ʿarabiyya, so then how could it be otherwise for poetry from the time of ʿĀd and Thamūd?” (Ṭabaqāt fuṣūl al-shuʿarāʾ, vol. 1, p. 11).

Nashwān b. Saʿīd al-Ḥimyarī (d. ~1178 CE): “The Mahra are a Yemeni tribe, stemming from Quḍāʿa.  They are the progeny of Mahra bin Ḥaydān bin ʿAmr bin al-Ḥāf bin Quḍāʿa, from whence the Mahri camel takes its lineage” (Kitāb shams al-ʿulūm [Muntakhabāt fī ʾakhbār al-yaman], p. 100).

Sālim Yāsir al-Mahrī: “The inhabitants of al-Mahra are the original Arab tribes that settled in the south of the Arabian Peninsula in a region known in antiquity as ‘al-ʾAḥqāf’ or ‘The Land of the Mahra.’ These tribes descend from Ḥaydān and their ultimate progenitor was known as Mahra bin Ḥaydān bin Qaḥṭān bin Yaʿrub.  These tribes were contemporaneous with a number of the kingdoms of ancient South Arabia such as the Kingdom of Qitbān and the Kingdom of Ḥimyar” (al-Mahrī, 25).

Khayr al-Dīn al-Ziriklī: “There are other accounts concerning the identity of their forefathers.  Most agree that they are descendants of Qaḥṭān.  It is said that there was a king from the land of al-Shiḥr between Oman and Yemen whose children – or a group thereof – descended to the coast of the Red Sea where they were killed by the descendants of ʿAdnān” (al-ʾAʿlām vol. 5, p. 118).

Louis Malouf (Luwīs Maʿlūf): “Mahra: A region in the south of the Arabian Peninsula between Hadramawt and Dhofar.  This name is also given to the area between Hadramawt and Oman.  In ancient times, the Greeks knew it as the land of incense” (al-Munjid fī-l-lugha wa-l-ʾaʿlām, p. 69).

ʿAmr bin al-ʿĀṣ (d. 664 CE), quoted by Ibn ʿAbd al-Ḥakm: “As for the Mahra, they are a tribe that slays but are not slain” (Futūh miṣr wa-ʾakhbāruhā, 76-77).

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