The law of the desert

Reputation and honor are at the core of the Beduin legal system.

By CONN HERIOTT
April 2, 2010 16:07
4 minute read.
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bedouin law 58. (photo credit: .)

 
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Beduin Law from Sinai and the Negev
By Clinton Bailey | Yale University Press | 400 pages | $70

In a society with no central government and no law enforcement agencies, what legal system could hope to stand the test of time? By what means might it operate? How does a seminomadic society maintain peace and impart justice? And, indeed, what are the prevailing notions of peace and justice for a culture shaped by the desert conditions of Sinai and the Negev?

The Beduin have lived in these unforgiving regions for many thousands of years. That achievement begs intriguing questions about their unique legal system. With this book – the fruit of 40-plus years of scholarly research and firsthand experience of Beduin life – we are offered an expert’s insight into this fascinating subject.

Clinton Bailey considers the binding threads of Beduin society, and traces how they weave through the legal framework. He pays heed to the fact that every legal system is based on a very small number of perceived necessities. Thus, this fresh-perspective examination of Beduin life examines and reexamines the same themes, the same cases and the same legal instruments, each time from a different angle. We learn that for the Beduin it is vital to maintain one’s reputation – and that of one’s clan, tribe and confederation – for strength and moral uprightness. We also learn much about how the Beduin conceive of “honor, might, violence, religious faith and clan solidarity.” In example after example, Bailey illustrates how such core social themes are in fact the system of Beduin law.

This portrayal is satisfyingly balanced. Time and again, the reader feels abhorrence at the barbarism of the society depicted. Then suddenly a new point of view is revealed, and one begins to think that Beduin law is actually quite sophisticated and just. The effect is of a realistic legal system and society, with positive points, flaws and logical reasons if we care to see them.

For example, that oaths are heavily relied upon in Beduin courts seems to offer a loophole for liars. However, one’s concern for reputation and religion generally prevent corruption. This is impressive – and yet an oath can be “bought.” Instead of swearing by his testimony, the defendant can vouch for it with money proffered by a friend. This is, of course, very suspicious, recalling the medieval Catholic practice of papal indulgences.

But Bailey assures us that buying an oath is often a defendant’s most morally sound option. In such cases, if the defendant outright refuses to take the oath, it may be believed that he is guilty but trying to evade Allah’s wrath. And if his reputation is not respectable enough, people may not trust the defendant’s oath, causing further damage to his reputation. In such cases, to have a “guarantor” buy your oath is an upright statement of conviction – with material backing. If the defendant proves a liar, he will repay the oath price four times over. Can this really ensure honest testimonies?



The book does not delve into every interesting question it raises. The legal status, rights and duties of women are considered. Bailey discusses their lack of legal, social and romantic independence, and looks briefly at the subjects of domestic violence and indignity. Also considered are the laws for the protection of women, and the few instances in which a woman can legally take initiative.

But women are not discussed beyond the strict limits of their direct pertinence to law in what is traditionally a male-dominated society. It is not the goal of this book to satisfy our curiosity about every aspect of Beduin life. Equally, while Bailey initially hints that the history of Beduin law could well shed further light on ancient Middle Eastern societies and the origins of Shari’a, his focus remains firmly on the modern era.

Bailey has a deep understanding of the Arabic they speak, and he displays well the richness and style of that language. To cite one instance, he celebrates the poetry in how Beduin judges announce their verdicts. A certain man was found guilty of stealing another’s pipe. The judge fined him a female camel to compensate for the pipe owner’s lost pleasure of inhaling and a male camel for his lost pleasure of exhaling.

Most importantly, this densely argued and challenging study addresses some difficult questions about Beduin and the theory of law. For example, Bailey looks at the degrees of violence and theft this desert culture traditionally condones. He traces how, against the harsh backdrop of desert survival, Beduin law uses all the ingenious means at its disposal to deter injustice and conflict, and to channel enemies toward reconciliation. That is a wise, refreshing and constructive goal for a legal system.

When we are shown why – in a society without a police force – it is crucial to maintain a reputation for strength and moral uprightness, we follow with admiration this logic to the Beduin conclusion that “getting justice is for reputation, not for filling the belly.” Thus, in most cases when a litigant is awarded compensation by a court, he concedes most of the award. The restoration of his good name is his main concern.

This book has the potential to inspire, startle and entertain. Ultimately, the success of scholarly research is measured by its impact upon the public. Beduin Law from Sinai and the Negev is a firsthand study of high academic quality, a well from which all seekers of useful knowledge can draw.

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