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Nomads and Minorities

Nomads and Minorities
By Syed Manzurul Islam

[1]How can we know anything about the nomadic mode of life, let alone define it; and what do nomads themselves think, since they do not speak in 'our' arena of conversation? Meditating on the location of nomads in the unfolding of history, Arnold Toynbee became painfully aware of the irony that any such endeavour invariably entails. 'History of the nomads', he observes, 'has been written almost entirely by observers belonging to one or other of the sedentary societies with which the nomads have happened to collide.'1 No one writing about nomads, whatever innocence or noble intentions might inform their projects, can avoid this irony. Bruce Chatwin, feeling 'homelessness' in England and dreaming of 'homecoming' in the wonderland of other places, goes out in search of nomadic habitats. This takes him to Australia, to the outback of Aboriginal 'songliners', about which he writes: 'My reason for coming to Australia was to try to learn for myself, and not from other men's book.'2 He would discover how the Aboriginals, as they went out on their dream-time walkabouts, and in the course of their labyrinthine wandering, mapped the continent with their musical refrains. Yet, without being aware of the irony of his gesture, Chatwin tells his readers that his insights into the 'songliners' came from Arkady Volchok, an Australian of Russian origin, 'who was mapping the sacred sites of the Aboriginals.'3 What a perverse layering of representations we have here: Chatwin mapping novelistically Arkady's anthropological mapping of the Aboriginals' supposedly originary musical mapping. This raises the ethical dilemma of writing about nomads - where the position of the interlocutor, if not absent, is only provided by an ethnographic informer - which leads one to deal solely with the representations of representations. Yet, saying nothing about nomads is not a way out of this ethical dilemma as it requires a much more complex response. I will come back to this later in the essay. With this paradox in mind, I want to begin by attending to certain ways of mapping the composition of the nomadic mode of life, which might serve towards the formulation of an ethical position.

[2]1375: suddenly cutting himself loose from the dynastic power politics of Kashbah (fortified city) - of which he was a true Machiavellian prince - Ibn Khaldûn retreated deep into the solitude of the Sahara. Given sanctuary by a nomadic warlord at the citadel of Qalat Ibn Salamah, the would-be composer of universal history - perhaps looking far into the silvery simmer of the sand dunes into which Bedouin hordes would suddenly appear as a galloping organism - set out to shape his Al Muqaddimah, the finest piece of philosophy of history produced during the Middle Ages. But I don't want to talk about the life of the great Maghrebi historian - whose ancestors were the nomads of the Arabian desert, now exiled by the Christian Reconquista of 'Moorish' Spain- but about his analytic distinction between Umran Haradi and Umran Badawi. In other words, the distinction between sedentary and nomadic modes of life.

[3]For Khaldûn, Umran Hadari never simply designates a sedentary settlement tied to the land or enclosed by the walled cites, rather it results from the juridical and the pedagogical apparatuses functioning within the ambit of state formation. Frozen into stasis and 'oppressed by the law of restriction'4 the sedentary populace is moulded by the imperial state into, as Khaldûn says, domesticated gazelles, buffaloes and donkeys. How these figures of animals remind one of Zarathustra's reactive menagerie of camels, apes and asses! Strangely, for so many, the lure of sedentary life becomes irresistible, perhaps because it offers seductive compensations in the form of increased luxury and the refinement of art and knowledge. However, sedentary people not only lose their fortitude but are increasingly forced into 'remoteness from goodness.'5 In order to understand why such a cruel destiny - despite all the apparent success of city life, civility and a powerful state - befalls sedentary people, it is essential to pay attention to the concept of Asabîyah. The loss of fortitude and the distance from 'goodness' that sedentary people suffer, argues Khaldûn, are the consequences of their loss of Asabîyah. Although Asabîyah is generally translated as 'group feeling' or 'solidarity', it is also understood to be 'the vitality of the state' and 'the life force of the people' or 'Lebenskraft.'6 But before we can fully appreciate the concept of Asabîyah, it is necessary to explain the nature of Umran Badawi ( the Bedouin or nomadic mode of life).

[4]The nomadic mode of life, for Khaldûn, is linked dialectically to sedentary life both as its opposite and its precursor. If sedentary life is grounded in the stasis of the city, of the empire, of the body of the despot, then nomadic life seeks out the empty spaces of deserts and uninterrupted movement. Khaldûn writes : 'All customary activities of the Bedouins lead to wandering and movement. This is the antithesis of and negation of stationariness.'7 Movement allows the nomads to live without the 'laws of government, institution', which leads, argues Khaldûn, to 'a state of anarchy.'8 However, nomadic anarchy does not remain confined within the anonymous dunes of the desert, but spills over into the static tranquillity of sedentary regions. Having 'no homelands . . . and no fixed place', the nomads, writes Khaldûn, treat:

All regions and places [as] the same. . .  Therefore, they do not restrict themselves to possession of their own and neighbouring regions. They do not stop at the borders of their horizon. They swarm  across distant zones.9

[5]Despite their restless movement, anarchy, and destruction of the fruits of civilisation that sedentary people have built, Khaldûn treats Umran Badawi as possessing 'goodness.' Surely, this is an extraordinary position to be taken by a man of high learning and civil refinement, who spent much of his life in the sedentary politics of the Andalucian and Maghrebi courts. Moreover, despite having depicted their primitiveness and savagery, Khaldûn continues to attribute 'goodness' to the nomads' way of life. Behind such a positive evaluation lies the singular belief - which Khaldûn never tired of repeating - that of all people it is the nomads who are in full possession of Asabîyah. Imbued with Asabîyah as if drunk on the elixir of life, the nomads not only display extraordinary fortitude - or, when least expected, storm out of the desert like 'beasts of prey' - but are capable of undertaking the most arduous of collective actions. For Asabîyah is a dynamic force that enables lonely nomads to release their power of affection, thus drawing the multitude into a collective assemblage. Sedentary civilisation, as it develops by according primacy to the individual, loses its vitality, because, argues Khaldûn, it is 'denied the affection caused by group feeling.'10

[6]Whatever else Asabîyah may be, its most telling expression lies in its role as a political dynamic of collective power. Hence, argues Khaldûn, the nomadic formation is capable of founding great sedentary empires, states or dynasties. Historically, many nomadic tribes have indeed founded great imperial states on the strength of their Asabîyah. However, these forms and institutions of sedentary power politics do not agree with the nomadic Asabîyah. If a nomadic tribe acquires such powers, it not only becomes remote from 'goodness' but eventually also loses its capacity to sustain that kind of power. Despotic and royal authorities, with their demands for obedience to the law, and the consequent homogenisation and flattening out of difference, produce a form of power that never fails to be anathema to the nomadic Asabîyah. Left to themselves, the nomads form collective assemblages of democratic organisations, whose parts are never subsumed into one monolithic authority, yet are harnessed into a powerful composition that maintains a mobile and differential alliance between parts and whole. Khaldûn explains it in the process of expounding the mode of authority corresponding to nomadic and sedentary formations:

Leadership means being a chieftain, and the leader is obeyed, but he has no power to force others to accept his rulings. Royal authority means superiority and the power to rule by force.11

What is fascinating about Khaldûn's work is how contemporary his picture of nomadic mode of life appears, despite being more than six hundred years old. Yet Khaldûn's nomads were always tied to the barren landscape of the desert, and it is as if their particular mode of life could only have emerged in response to its harsh challenge. It seems that without a Sahara, a Kalahari or a Gobi there would be no nomads - as if dry sand were the prerequisite or determining factor of a wandering life. Given the fact that Khaldûn only knew the camel-nomads of the Sahara, it was perhaps inevitable that he couldn't conceive of nomads without the spatial inscription of the desert.

[7]Yet, despite proving a link between modernity and classical humanism, and despite inaugurating the modern materialist interpretation of history, Ibn Khaldûn is not a name that Western historiographers are familiar with - except a handful, amongst whom, surely, Arnold Toynbee has been the most prominent. Toynbee endorses much of what Khaldûn says about the nomads, without, however, judging their mode of life as closest to 'goodness' or seeing nomadic life as a dynamic formation because of its full possession of Asabîyah. For Toynbee, nomadic life simply reflects 'the tour de force' of geographical adaptation, where human ingenuity has devised a mode of survival in extreme circumstances. In spite of his admiration for the nomads' triumph in adversity, Toynbee, steeped in an 'Orientalism' which refuses to acknowledge dynamism to non-Western societies, arranges them among his taxonomy of 'arrested civilisations'. Hence the nomadic 'tour de force', despite its virtuosity and sheer endurance, can only be, as Toynbee says, 'a feat in the realm of statics and not in the realm of dynamics.'12 Yet, Toynbee has extended the nomadic range beyond the desert. He writes of the Polynesians who took up the challenge of the ocean, the Esquimauxs who took up the challenge of the ice, and the tribal bands of the grassy steppes: all nomads in their different ways. For Toynbee, the uncharted surface of the sea, the empty horizon of the snow-covered Arctic, and the endless waves of grass on the steppe are equivalent to the sand dunes of the desert. Since they are all nomadic habitats, their physical challenge give rise to - irrespective of the specific nature of their demands - a very similar wandering mode of life. Yet nomadic wanderings, contends Toynbee, are neither random nor wayward. Rather, in their motions, they are pulled along the same repetitious orbit as if stuck in the same groove of the vinyl, keeping them 'moving perpetually within these limits.'13

[8]If Toynbee's paradox of the dynamics of the static formation - where nothing seems to happen amidst a cornucopia of happenings - appears familiar to us, it is due to a long Orientalist tradition, of whose general tenor the following metaphor by Hegel is a typical example: 'the repetition of the same majestic ruin.'14 Yet, Deleuze and Guattari's 'affective' or 'minor' readings of Toynbee transform the paradox of the static-dynamic movement of the nomads into an intensive diagram of becoming. For instance, in A Thousand Plateaus, they write: ' Toynbee is profoundly right to suggest that the nomad is on the contrary he who does not move . . . Of course, the nomad moves . . . but in intensity.'15 I will explore their writings shortly.

the wiki-link for "Al Muqaddimah" above includes a link to A. M. Al-Araki's Ibn Khaldun: A Forerunner for Modern Sociology (University of Oslo). topic may also be related to Islamic Chronopolytics I: The Heresy of the Apocalypse and A note on the economic side of The Chronic - second link has two links related to the Quran system of banking and economics:


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