Why Should We Attend To Texts On Yemeni Tribal Law?


Marshall Building, Room 490
845 N. Park Ave.
85721 Tucson , AZ


Fri, 03/29/2019 - 3:00pm to Tue, 05/24/2022 - 5:38pm


Part of the Spring 2019 Middle Eastern and North African Studies Colloquium Series

Paul Dresch, Emeritus Fellow, University of Oxford
Yemen is unusual in having a long written record of law distinct from sharīʿah discourse. Ibn al-Mujāwir records the phrase ḥukm al-manʿ, meaning roughly “the law of protection”, from around about 600 / 1200. The phrase recurs in texts found by Ettore Rossi and R.B. Serjeant, the earliest of which dates to approximately 700 / 1300, and the principles apparent in such texts recur in documents and events close to our own time. Indeed, one sees the principles at work in ethnographic accounts of the last few decades. While scholarly interest in Islamic law from Yemen has blossomed, however, almost no-one has looked at Rossi’s material since 1948.

In the present talk, anthropologist Paul Dresch explores the nature of such texts and their importance.  Their contents (and indeed their existence) have a certain intrinsic interest, of course. Their vocabulary is at points archaic; reading them poses broader problems of interpretation that textualists and anthropologists share. But beyond all of this, and beyond Middle Eastern Studies, they exemplify a view of law and society very different from that of Europe’s state-centered, top-down jurisprudence, and on this score they deserve attention from anthropologists, historians, and theorists of law.

We shall start by introducing the sources, then explain some of the principles that inform what the sources state. We can then say something of what needs bringing to the texts to make sense of them.  (As any anthropologist will tell you, we have to half-understand what is going on before we can follow what is being said). Time allowing, we can then try to set out how radically the assumptions of this tradition of law differ from those of our own state-centered world and from its claims to truth and justice.


Paul Dresch is an Emeritus Research Fellow of St John’s College, Oxford. He has worked in the Gulf and elsewhere, but mainly in Yemen. His publications include Tribes, Government, and History in Yemen (1989), A History of Modern Yemen (2000) and The Rules of Barat; tribal documents from Yemen (2006), as well as edited volumes on other topics.