Breaking the Pen: (of Sir Harold ibn MacMichael ibn Hicks) The Ja'aliyyin Identity Revisited

Contemporary research on the ethnic identity of theJa’aliyyin of the Northern Sudan directly challenges the indigenous genealogical tradition that took its present-day form in the tenth century sixteenth century AC. The indigenous tradition characterizes the Ja’aliyyin unequivocally as Arabs, who descended from al- 'Abbas, the paternal uncle of the Prophet Muhammad, (SAAS)' In contrast, MacMichael's A History of the Arubs in the Sudan, the baseline for all subsequent investigation argues that:

  • In so far as the Ja’aliyyin congeries can be regarded as a single whole its homogeneity consists in the common Berberine or Nubian strain that exists in a very varying proportion in all its component parts.

There is also a strong infusion of Arab blood more particularly in the Ja’aliyyin proper, but the error into which the native genealogists have willfully slipped consists in ignoring the Nubian element and finding the common race factor of the Ja’aliyyin in the tribe of Quraysh. The facts being as they are, it is impossible to specify any particular tribe of Arabia as being that to which the Arab element in the composition of the Ja’aliyyin group can be attributed in any exclusive sense.

Trimingham, too, describes an admixture of the indigenous folk (Nubians) and the Arabs, who settled in the Ja’aliyyin area from the fourth to the ninth century AH/ninth to the fourteenth century AC, as “either Semitized Hamites or Semitized Negroes (his italics) but more clearly as Semitized-Negroid- Hamites.” Nonetheless, Trimingham’s characterization of the process that evolved the hybrid identity of the Ja’aliyyin as the Arabization of indigenous groups and the indigenization of the immigrant Arabs  has been widely adopted. Hasan’s term “Arabized Nubians”say s it all very simply and has been widely accepted. Unfortunately, this contemporary discourse about the ethnic identity of the Ja’aliyyin has been, to a greater or a lesser degree, a misguided project. It began largely as a critique of the indigenous genealogical tradition and has not advanced very far beyond that initial point. Its strength is its scholarly disbelief in that tradition. Academic legitimacy lies in its political authoritativeness arising from its access to and use of knowledge as a “sacred resource.” In appropriating history and truth as its own, scholarship left “lore” and “myths” to the folk” who takes “pride in their fictitious nisba or tribal genealogy.”’ But to date scholars have merely created a second, separate “genealogical tradition” in its own right as it will eventually become clear.

MacMichael advised against taking the assertions of the genealogists as literal statements of fact. He was aware, however, of their considerable value “if understood in a figurative sense - if, in other words, they are taken as parable."' MacMichael only mentioned this concept in a footnote and never cared to elaborate it. Adams understood the “parable metaphor” as indicating the segmentary lineage system of the Arabs which functions as a system of non-government; that is, the fiction of universal kinship takes the place of formal government institutions?‘ The parable metaphor, however, proved to be peculiarly upsetting to subsequent researchers. Cunnison states:

here is little sign that MacMichael gave much thought to the problems which his justifiable skepticism raises. If the genealogies are incredible as literal statements of fact, what are they credible as? How are we to take statements liberally? What kind of meaning are we to extract from genealogies if they are parables? MacMichael stops short of telling us.

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