Mahri Poetry Archive

Pre-Islamic Period and the Ridda Wars (632-633 CE)

The Mahra first appear in the historical record thanks to an Ancient South Arabian (specifically, Ḥaḍramitic) inscription composed in the monumental musnad script.  The text, JA 954/RÉS 4877, was discovered in al-ʿUqla in the Governorate of Shabwa and mentions a Mahri shaykh (“muqaddam”): “Šahrum, son of Wāʾilum, chief of the Mahra [ʾmhrn]” (Müller, EI, “Mahrah”). Epigraphic references to the Mahra are rare since the practice of composing monumental epigraphs common to pre-Islamic Yemen did not extend east of Haḍramawt (with the exception of the ancient Haḍramī trading outpost of SMHRM, 40 km. east of Ṣalālah). For this reason, the deserts and coasts of al-Mahra lack the epigraphic texts that would otherwise shed light on its pre-Islamic history.  Al-Mahra and the province of  Dhofar are fairly abundant in short graffiti; however, their translation has resisted the efforts of paleographers (al-Shahri, 1994).

The fact that JA954/RÉS 4877 refers to a collective “Mahri” community is in itself remarkable.   Even though Mahri-speaking tribes are reckoned as a single unit outside of their local context (as was the case during the Islamic conquest of Egypt and North Africa, see here), lines of confederation and affiliation in Southern Arabia can cut across the language boundaries.  Within al-Mahra itself, reference to a single community of Mahri speakers (“the Mahra”) is infrequently heard; instead, specific tribal or geographical origins are designated by Mahri speakers as being more pertinent descriptors of identity.  Non-Mahri speakers from further flung regions are more prone to using the label of “the Mahra”; this may have been the case for  JA 954/RÉS 4877.  The alternative to this possibility is that  “Šahrum, son of Wāʾilum” indeed represented a closely-affiliated community of Mahri-speakers – the Mahra –  that would dissolve into distinct – and often oppositional – lineages by the first centuries of the Islamic period.

The community of Mahri speakers fully emerge 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 “Shakhrīt of the Banī Shakhrah” who lived in the lowlands of al-Mahra and the more numerous Banī Muḥārib in the mountains, whose leader was al-Muṣabbiḥ.  Exploiting this division, ʿIkrimah entreated the Banī Shakhrah to re-embrace Islam and when they did so, the combined army  of ʿIkrimah and “Shakhrīt” defeated the Banī Muḥārib (al-Ṭabarī, 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:

“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-Siddīq (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 dowriesamharūhum] and married them and so their descendants are the Mahra” (Ibn al-Mujāwir, 271-272).

Ibn al-Mujāwir’s legendary account of the Mahra echoes a more recent account of the emergence of the ʿAfrārī Sulṭānate of al-Mahra following the near extirpation of the ʿAfrārī sulṭānly lineage at the hands of the Kathīrī sulṭān, Badr Bin Tawayriq, at the end of the 16th century CE.  The archetypal similarities between the two legends suggest a retelling of a trauma experienced by Mahri speakers at one or more points in their collective history.  This possibility is supported by the cultural anomaly of matrilineal reckoning amongst the Mahra, occasioned, perhaps, by the sudden loss of al-Mahra’s male, tribe-affiliated population.  The eradication of the male Mahri population certainly did not happen when (or to the degree) that Ibn al-Mujāwir describes since Mahri soliders 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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