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Meinrad Calleja
Interested in philosophy, sociology, history, art, and literature.
Interested in philosophy, sociology, history, art, and literature.


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The Philosophy of Law- The Battle Roar of Silence - Foucault and the Carceral System

Chapter Three 

The Philosophy of Law

‘What counts in the historicity of knowledge is not opinions, nor the resemblances that can be established between them from period to period; what is important, what makes it possible to articulate the history of thought within itself, is its internal conditions of possibility.’ 


3.1 - Introduction 

In his towering work ‘Discipline and Punish’ Foucault elaborates that ‘the true objective of the reform movement, even in its most general formulations, was not so much to establish a new right to punish based on more equitable principals, as to set up a new economy of the power to punish, to assure its better distribution, so that it should neither be too concentrated at certain privileged points, nor too divided between opposing authorities; so that it should be distributed in homogeneous circuits capable of operating everywhere, in a continuous way, down to the finest grain of the social body.’ 

‘The reform of criminal law must be read as a strategy for the rearrangement of the power to punish, according to the modalities that render it more regular, more effective, more constant and more detailed in its effects; in short, which increases its effects while diminishing its economic costs, and its political cost. Reform, in the strict sense, as it was formulated in the theories of law or as it was outlined in the various projects, was the political or philosophical resumption of this strategy, with its primary objective: to make of the punishment and repression of illegalities a regular function, coextensive with society; not to punish less, but to punish better; to punish with an attenuated severity perhaps, but in order to punish with more universality and necessity; to insert the power to punish more deeply into the social body. ’

These notions of punishment were shaped by gradual scientific debate, trial and error, political concerns, economic efficiency, tradition, normative imperatives, cultural requisites, and social evolution. By looking closely at some of the theoretical frameworks we can gain an insight into ‘how’ and ‘why’ these theories appear plausible, and how plausibility was structured in a rationality and epistemological format. If we analytically examine the logic governing this plausibility we will be in a position to identify a number of epistemological obstacles that create irrationality, disequilibrium, unequal exchange, and social friction.    
This essay will not simply try to understand the evolutionary trajectory. Simply understanding ‘change’ is myopic and simplistic. Attempting to ground theory in objective valence can be equally deterministic. Retrospective analyses can obfuscate. Tracing origin tells us little. This essay hopes to analyse the latent and covert, the subjective and speculative, the aesthetic and poetic, to gain insights into the invisible and intangible. This chapter will prepare the necessary groundwork for this project.

Let us take a cursory look at some recent very rudimentary ‘theoretical’ aspects of Eurocentric punishment discourses. Anthony Duff   gives a concise genesis of some major recent theories of punishment. ‘In the period after 1945 the dominant orthodoxy was ‘consequentialist’ – a system justified by its consequential benefits. These benefits can be summed up as efficiency in preventing and reducing crime. Punishment should serve to: (1) deter potential and actual offenders, (2) incapacitate offenders, (3) rehabilitate or reform those being punished. 
I should like to examine the governing logic and plausibility of these three facets of ‘punishment’ before dealing with other intricacies, as I believe they ought to be eliminated from our discussion. As each of these dimensions will feature prominently in all discourse, I should like to make amply clear aspects of their irrationality. Each objective of these three facets can be extended both to those that ‘are being’ punished, ‘directly’, as well as those though not being punished but are being reached ‘indirectly’. Let us start by examining ‘deterrence’.

3.2 - Deterrence

One might be inclined to assume that ‘deterrence’ is equivalent to ‘crime reduction’. If we deter we seem to automatically dissuade potential offenders from committing a crime. Deterrence is always an objective of punishment. Deterrence discourse will feature in every possible context. Every ideology connected to punishment, law, or prison, will always include a deterrence aspect. Throughout this essay some notion of deterrence will always feature.
At first sight deterrence seems desirable and worthy of investment. However, how does one ‘deter’? Surely there must be more to this word ‘deter’? Are we to have blind faith in this symbol’s ‘signification’? Is this ‘proposition’ powerful enough to make sense? Does this lexeme at once announce its arrival and anticipate its force? Does this ‘sign’ patrol our consciousness? Is ‘deterrence’ brought about by the codification of ‘punishment’ or is it assumed in the neighbouring practises of value-belief-systems that establish notions of ‘guilt’ and ‘repression’ in support of ‘law’? 
Wittgenstein has demonstrated that ‘a sign does not determine a logical form unless it is taken together with its logico-syntactical employment.’  Does the sign ‘deter’ infer that it is to be understood as taken together with its ‘logico-syntactical employment’? If so, is ‘punishment’ an integral feature of this combination? Is this not a blatant contradiction? If deterrence seeks to avoid transgressions by using ‘punishment’ to add force to the signification of ‘deterrence’, the very fact that punishment receives its designation-role from a transgression implies deterrence was ineffective.  

A mere sanction would not deter in itself. Deterrence needs an authority to articulate and codify law; it requires plausibility of the dominant values encoded in law and in the supporting cultural matrix and normative order. Deterrence requires effective enforcement, certainty of apprehension, scientific guilt establishment technologies, and fair conviction. Deterrence then needs coercive punishment. Already the notion of ‘deterrence’ is somewhat depreciated. Deterrence seems to imply an emphasis on a coercive force that is embodied in, and integral to, punishment that is assumed irrespective of its material application. 

This emphatic notion of ‘deterrence’ bringing about or contributing towards a reduction in crime is impregnated in the very ideology of punishment. This is the coercive aspect of punishment. It can be traced to some cause/ effect binary opposition-division logic. Here, to achieve an end, or ‘effect’, a ‘cause’ is identified. The ‘cause’ is then converted into, or seen as, another end or ‘effect’, traced back to yet another ‘cause’. 

In short, the end to be achieved is ‘deterrence’, crime reduction or prevention. The very articulation and codification of law seems to infer crime is possible and attractive. To ensure this attraction and possibility is repressed and not actualised, punishment – by its presumed negation of the possibility of a crime - now becomes a ‘cause’ that should bring about an ‘effect’- that is ‘deterrence’. 
Really and truly, this notion of deterrence infers that the efficacy of the punishment envisaged in law is present in the proposition of punishment codification. The sole condition of this ‘deterrent’ is now transferred from the envisaged law to the concrete enforcement of ‘order’ that ensures punishment becoming effective. This makes the notion of ‘deterrence’ reductive.
Punishment articulates a ‘fear’. Derrida states ‘a fear can also render possible precisely what it appears to threaten’.  The codification of ‘laws’ articulates punishment as a ‘cause’ that ought to ensure the ‘effect’ of ‘deterrence’. This seems to imply the existence of a fear of crime. The coercive aspect of punishment attempts to enforce a fear that freedom will be lost when punishment is effected, or even by the mere codification of punishment as a sanction of compulsion. Does the fear of the loss of freedom render possible freedom itself? By defining punishment, are we defining compliance?

We need to remember the obvious fact that the lexeme ‘deterrence’ does not have its semanticty restricted exclusively to noble endeavours, but may, for example, also be deployed as part of the arsenal of despotism to dissuade consumers from claiming their fundamental human rights. So here we also need to focus on the very defence-worthiness of its objectives in specific contexts. In our case we are immediately concerned with what appears to be legitimate law codification of punishment.    

One might be tempted to give undue weight to ‘deterrence’ and tacitly approve of policies that are efficacious, even if these are ethically and morally uncertain. The first problem seems to be the possibility that in order to ‘deter’ as a primary objective of punishment, one may give less weight to the fact that the law or punishment it prescribes may be unfair, or the person being punished may be innocent. The fairness or justice of the law is often not dually accorded enough priority. The argument usually revolves around freedom not to commit a crime. If one commits a crime, the fault rests with the offender, not the law. Even if the law is unfair (possibly too draconian or disproportionate) nonetheless the offender should never have offended. 

Whether the accused is guilty or innocent will theoretically and practically have little bearing on the efficacy of the ‘deterrence’ factor embodied in punishment. If crime rates were to suddenly sharply fall because of swift sentencing that may have overlooked the innocence of those sentenced, (or draconian legislation), ‘deterrence’ would have achieved its objectives. We may ignore ‘guilt-establishment’ and simply benchmark ‘deterrence’ by assigning statistical / empirical criteria, for the primary aim would be ‘deterrence’. This logic is essentially flawed.   

Excessively harsh treatment to punish offenders, even if they are innocent, in the hope that this will deter others is known as ‘tellishment’,  and has often been used to buttress draconian legislation. Deterrence seems to make ‘tellishment’ appear plausible; while ‘tellishment’ seems to imply ‘deterrence’ will be more efficacious the greater the punishment. 

Combining strictly predetermined statistical benchmarks for ‘deterrence’ with harsh punishment may in some very rare cases and for extremely short periods reduce crime. However, empirical evidence defies any assumption of efficacy intrinsic in the relationship between ‘tellishment’ and ‘deterrence’. The causal nexus being assumed is, to draw on Wittgenstein yet again, mere superstition as expectations are only apparent. 
Here many jurisdictions make use of a fallacious type of logic - post hoc, ergo propter hoc – to appraise punishment. Many believe that if punishment is not achieving deterrence, then it is not coercive enough. Therefore, to secure better compliance and deterrence, one ought to increase the coercion, usually by increasing the length of the sentence and the harshness of the detention conditions, sometimes even accepting a deterioration in the standards of justice.  

This combination occurs is some jurisdictions, at particular junctures in history, for specific reasons, usually political responses to socio-economic problems. Discourses justifying ‘tellishment’ appeal to populist aspirations and fundamentalist, traditional, configurations of totalitarian and authoritarian power structures concerned with containing irrational emotions marshalled by crime. It has been alleged that in some rare cases this moral panic ironically may inadvertently or perhaps conspiratorially sometimes have been promoted by political interests towards specific aims, usually to distract people form other issues. Singapore and Malaysia, for example, seem to have introduced ‘tellishment’ for specific crimes like narcotic trafficking when its political economy was unstable. Muslim states introduced certain anachronistic features like ‘corporeal punishment’ taken from mis/interpretations of Sharia methodology or Islamic jurisprudence (Fiqh) as a response to political insecurity to accentuate their symbolic orthodoxy. Italy combined ‘tellishment’ and disproportional sentencing with other draconian legislation as a response to organised crime when it was experiencing political instability to thus appear more assertive. Columbia adopted draconian legislation when faced with a political legitimacy deficit to show that their law enforcement means business. The United Kingdom sporadically adopted similar provisions in response to ‘moral panic’ to appease tabloids. Some states in the U.S.A. have occasionally followed similar paths. Political parties in France actively participate in pre-election competitive bidding to define their zero tolerance to crime. Crime was not and will not be reduced simply due to more severe punishment. 

Here again, ‘efficacy’ is not a sufficient guide for justice. The logic adopted to gauge the statistical success of ‘deterrence’ is flawed. Nor can we state there is any certainty of crime reduction that is intrinsic to these methodologies. Draconian law has proved to sometimes do little to reduce crime. Even capital punishment does not deter, particularly if the chances of being apprehended and successfully convicted are low. Such naïve conceptions imply poor law enforcement potential. Our theory already resembles mere conjecture.

Deterrence discourses may also induce ‘pre-emptive’ punishments of those deemed likely to offend: an aspect of ‘incapacitation’ which I will discuss in detail further ahead in this chapter. For the moment we are concerned only with ‘deterrence’ as an effect of punishment. Punishing those deemed likely to offend, even if they have not committed a crime, it is claimed would have the same effect in ‘deterring’ as punishing those that have offended. This is true irrespective of the criteria adopted to establish the potential risk or the ethical ramifications related to the maxim of ‘presumption of innocence’. Simply punishing those deemed likely to offend to ensure they do not offend may reduce crime, but it is certainly unethical and amoral, even if it may appeal to actual or potential victims of crime. The punishment of the innocent must be precluded, so this discussion is crucial. 

‘Deterrence’, it must be said, like all ‘punishment’ rationales, potentially has what I shall term a ‘duality-imperative’- it may be both at once ‘negative’ and ‘positive’. ‘Deterrence’ can be achieved by a ‘negative’ sanction as the aforementioned examples illustrated, in the cases we discussed some form of coercive ‘punishment’ was expected to induce ‘deterrence’. ‘Deterrence’ may also be achieved by a ‘positive’ sanction – not committing a crime to uphold a social contractual obligation, possibly guided by ethical or moral concerns defined ‘socio-politically’, or even ‘psychoanalytically’ through ‘guilt’ and other modes of ‘repression’. Accentuating the ‘negative’ sanctions is ethically and morally defeatist. The very articulation and codification of law is grounded in this ‘duality-imperative’ defined by a notion of ‘deterrence’ or ‘punishment’. 

The codification of law is actually the articulation of the boundaries of the normative order being promoted. Thus what is being ‘allowed’ should serve the official goals, while what is being ‘forbidden’ is assumed to be harmful. We are initiated into these ‘rules’ consciously and unconsciously. Our consciousness is psychologically conditioned. We ‘repress’ the pressures of the normative order. Feelings of ‘guilt’ assist this process. Deterrence in this light is also one of the psychological or psychoanalytical conditioning processes of this repression. 

We can already conclude that ‘deterrence’ is not sufficient. It may be an important objective, but perhaps not a ‘primary’ objective to be pursued as an end in it self in punishment. It should be a secondary effect or a contingent feature of punishment. Punishment should not be dependent on, or insist exclusively for, ‘deterrence’. 

Throughout the essay this theme will be elaborated further. A look at preventive punishment and incapacitation is now important to this debate.

3.3 - The Doctrine of Incapacitation – Risk Management

Diverse forms of punishment seek to incapacitate offenders by deploying confinement, surveillance, or deterrence - which are all to some extent restrictions on individual autonomy and liberty, and thus indirect forms of ‘punishment’. The concept of ‘incapacitation’ is always understood to be a feature of punishment and is quite straightforward. By punishing an offender one is incapacitating that offender. Prison punishment, for example, incapacitates the offender by confinement and the objectives confinement ought to strive towards. 

There are another three main forms of ‘incapacitation’ that we will now discuss: (a) pre-sentencing preventive detention of people charged before a competent authority with having committed a crime, (b) post-release incapacitation which is basically a form of punishment enforced on offenders after release, and (c) incapacitation of people assumed to be likely to offend even though no offence or evidence of any likely offence has been noted. All three will be discussed in this rubric to accentuate possible ethical problems.  

A major consequentialist concern is related to ‘preventive detention’. Many people merely accused before a competent authority (court/tribunal) of having committed a crime are often denied release from arrest and are kept confined prior to judgement, even at times for several years, usually in prisons used to hold convicted offenders. Pre-sentencing incarceration is often justified by prosecution agencies on the assumed potential risk the offender poses, whether those risks are related to absconding, interfering with the course of justice, contamination the procedures, or committing further crimes while on remand. Naturally there are amply demonstrated counter-legal arguments based on fundamental human rights that make most of these claims redundant. As this is not yet legally qualified as ‘punishment’, how is this unfortunately widespread practice justified?  

Pre-sentencing detention is most certainly a form of punishment, perhaps an even greater and more intense form of punishment than the post-sentencing punishment. Do we simply reduce ‘punishment’ to the infliction of legal judgements/ sentences, or do we accept pre-sentencing detention as a form of punishment? Do we accept ‘temporal’ benchmarks? If it is not a form of punishment, how do we justify it? If it should not be justified, why is this practise sustained?

When discussing ‘preventive arrest’ – pre sentencing detention- it is clear that we are in conflict with the ‘presumption of innocence’. Are accused presumed innocent? Is the presumption of innocence depreciated by prolonged preventive arrest? Empirical evidence suggests that prolonging preventive arrest induces the likelihood of conviction irrespective of the guilt or innocence of the accused. Prolonged preventive arrest and even a mere bill of indictment carry with them an aura of legitimacy that seems to infer guilt. Punishment and the presumption of innocence appear to be so loosely variegated that it is difficult to define whether punishment begins prior to sentencing, after conviction, or irrespective of it. Similarly, it is difficult to imagine how a person can be presumed innocent and yet kept in confinement, which is actually effective punishment, ergo those accused that are kept in preventive arrest are often presumed guilty.  

Alternative forms of punishment like community service, electronic tagging, parole or other forms of ‘supervised’ liberty are established forms of punishment. These forms of punishment assume the existence of a ‘risk’ or likely possibility of an offence being committed that they seek to avoid. These forms of punishment are usually part of a sentence delivered by a competent body to someone who was guilty of having committed a crime. Punishment is a debt that is in the process of being settled. However, we may even talk of ‘post-release’ punishment that is effectively enforced after an offender has already paid all outstanding debts. It is equivalent to charging ‘interest’ on a loan that has already been paid in full.  

Certain areas of crime (like for example sex offences) have prompted the introduction of diverse forms of control and vigilance which are effectively post-release or post-debt ‘punishment’. Certain jurisdictions , for example, extend punishment beyond incarceration for sex offenders who have completed their detention period. While other convicted criminals have access to (relative) problem-free integration, sex offenders, for example, are often ‘marked for life’. 

Offenders are often marginalised, ostracised, and discriminated against upon release after having served a custodial sentence solely because their past crimes assume an imaginary risk of further crime. Society is always sceptical about accepting offenders have been rehabilitated, reformed, or corrected. Prison rehabilitation or correction discourses inspire little public confidence. However, some government agencies are equally sceptical about the success of their own punishment policies. Some states in America, for example, avail information on sex offenders who have been released after serving their sentences on the pretext of a duty to inform the public about potential risks. This information is often very efficiently disseminated through state law enforcement agencies to the public at large. This problem is ubiquitous among sex offenders in spite of empirical evidence that amply demonstrates only less than 3% [of rapists] re-offend.     
The issue of incapacitation is often said to be related to ‘risk-management’. As certain offenders pose an assumed threat, incapacitation seeks to reduce those risks. The guiding principal is often articulated as a right law abiding society has to be informed of those risks to be able to take any necessary precautions.  
The issues I now wish to discuss concern the arguments deployed to justify not simply ‘supervision’, but the ‘detention’ of those previously convicted and legally ‘judged’ dangerous, even when they have absolutely no pending debts with society. A combination of the scientific rationality governing guilt-establishment and responsibility assessment, and the legal logic applied in sentencing and justifying punishment, seem to have ushered in discourses that may also appear to include the preventive incapacitation of further/ future offences. Just as punishment is often believed to assume ‘previous’ offences the offender may have committed which were not brought to light, some doctrines appear to justify the right to punish the assumption of a ‘future’ risk. 

The arguments to support ‘preventive detention’ of those presumed innocent have also been theoretically considered and applied in practise in strictly pre-emptive measures aimed at incapacitating those considered ‘potential’ offenders, even when the assumed offender had no pending debts for past offences. In other words, some agencies insist on  punishing someone who has not yet committed a crime, nor proven to have conspired to commit a crime, just on the basis of assumptions that s/he will ‘probably’ or even ‘possibly’ commit a crime in the future. 
Such doctrines, one assumes, are based on some sort of scientific rationality assessment that has empirically collated statistical ‘probabilities’ (that, for the moment it must be assumed, are more than mere ‘possibilities’ – I will deal with ‘possibilities’ later). These are necessarily unverifiable beyond mere plausibility and moral conviction. The basis of this moral conviction and plausibility, it is claimed, is shaped by an assumed causal relationship between correspondences. Naturally one will find an entire literature that claims scientific status in support of these doctrines. What we ought to remember is that ‘probability is a generalisation in default of certainty’ , so we already accept lack of certainty. One is in the realm of pure conjecture. 

Such preposterous notions of punishment are neither unique nor infrequent. Nor are they to be assumed to exist exclusively in jurisdictions where European democratic principles of justice are beyond reach. The United Kingdom, for example, has emphatically insisted on exercising the right to enforce pre-emptive punishment in strictly ‘criminal’, non-terrorist I hasten to add, cases. It has even insisted that such punishment should be determined by the executive political branch of government and not the judiciary. 
Speculative pre-emptive punishments doctrines for crimes that have not yet been committed are being inseminated in legal logic. The medical incapacitation of serial rapists, for example, is already a reality. Some governments insist on ‘voluntary’ incapacitation as though the offender’s acquiescence justifies the measure. Some agencies have used these notions to respond to terrorism. All these instances have ethical ramifications that should be considered. The extent of incapacitation is crucial. Let us take an example of the preventive arrest of a serial soccer hooligan. Let us assume that this preventive arrest, for example, is only for a determined period assumed to be the ‘high-risk’ period (an important football game). Our first question is how and who assesses the risks? 

The criteria adopted to assess ‘risks’ do not always fall into the orbit of strictly ‘legal’ or ‘judicial’ authorities. Can we reduce the debate to assessing which is the greater loss - the depravation of liberty (of the potential offender) or the assumed risk (of potential crime)? If we acknowledge that the ‘risk’ of an offence is greater than the temporary, and in this case relatively short, depravation of liberty we still cannot categorically grant this facility without careful consideration. This type of preventive arrest or incapacitation is effective punishment and thus has considerations that need to be objectively appraised. 
Let us discuss the frequently adopted soccer hooligan model. Are we to arrest and detain this suspect to prevent him/her from possibly committing an offence? What justifies such incapacitation? Under what conditions should a person be detained or incapacitated? If we treat this ‘suspect’ serial hooligan as any other offender and use facilities and means normally associated with established offenders, this infringes the rights of those presumed innocent. If we grant certain ‘concessions’ to the alleged potential perpetrator while in preventive detention based on the fact that this person has not yet offended then we acknowledge a contradiction. Or are we simply expected to create a new category of offenders and a new type of holding-facility? What if the risk is prolonged beyond the length of a football game? What if the risk is permanent? 

What are the long-term implications? Will this have any bearing on other areas in which this person assumes burdens and benefits? Should incapacitation be permanent? After the defined pre-emptive detention (or punishment) let us assume there is no evidence of any other recurring offence risk. The statistical probability of the offender committing a crime in future should diminish, yet we are not enlightened whether the pre-emptive measures are to remain in place. These are but a few of the problems of risk ‘incapacitation’. 

Adopting the same logic, there is no plausible reason why the potential offender should not commit other like offences in ‘other’ areas of crime. If a person’s socially dysfunctional behaviour is deemed a risk in a specific area of crime, - aggression vented during a soccer game,- what are the risks of that person offending in ‘other’ areas? What if this incapacitation (or denial of aggression) now fuels the likely offender to vent his/her frustrations in other areas? This means incapacitation has been arbitrarily applied. What criteria were adopted to arbitrarily specify the football pitch should be protected rather than the family? If s/he is regularly incapacitated each time a potential stimulus appears the system also assumes the person concerned is ‘permanently’ or ‘temporarily’ not envisaged to be a rational and autonomous agent. Incapacitation needs to be appraised judiciously for these doubts to be erased. 

If we take the case of sexual offenders further problems arise. Let us assume the incapacitation of a person we depict to be a potential sex offender can be an efficient medical/anatomical intervention that [chemically/ biologically] incapacitates a specifically identified sexual stimulus that had previously triggered the sex offence. DNA genetic engineering possibilities already pose ethical problems in this regard, so this is not merely hypothetical. 

Our first dilemma is whether incapacitation should be ‘permanent’. If it is permanent, this will necessarily imply the offender cannot be rehabilitated. If it is not permanent, the enforcer will have to establish (1) the duration of incapacitation, or, (2) the potential risks after incapacitation has ended. Should we therefore dispense with alternative punishments altogether and simply punish by incapacitation, or should incapacitation also have other concomitant forms of punishment like incarceration? 

We will also have to establish whether incapacitation should be ‘voluntary’ or ‘enforced’. If it is voluntary, would this not imply that those that have volunteered should be given a reward, while those that have ‘not’ volunteered should be punished further? Would this not create further disparities and discrimination? If we do enforce incapacitation, we will have to establish ‘when’ this should come into force. Should we enforce incapacitation on the ‘first’ offence, this would imply we do not have enough empirical evidence to establish the likelihood of re-offence. If we establish a benchmark, we also grant a concession to offend with a degree of impunity from incapacitation. So already the problems of preventive incapacitation are to be seriously considered. 

If we apply these arguments to the incapacitation of drug offenders our debate reaches an obvious impasse that I will accentuate to reveal an obvious issue of ‘rights’. If we take a person we depict as an incorrigible drug addict, we must assume that only the offender’s narcotic habit ought to be incapacitated. Yet this offender may have only committed crimes that were not directly drug related, like, for example, theft. Let us assume the offender’s crimes were only committed in support of a drug-taking habit. Incapacitating that habit should imply the offender will not commit any further crimes. This cannot be sufficiently proved. 
Also, this inconsistency shows that ‘incapacitation’ is limited in scope and difficult to define. Moreover, it discriminates against the rights of those who ‘cannot’ be incapacitated. By limiting incapacitation to certain specific fields of punishment, like responses to terrorism, sexual offences, violence and serial offenders, we are discriminating both against those operating in those fields as well as against those outside them. 

We may even stretch the argument to establish a fundamental right to be incapacitated, shifting the onus of responsibility on to the legislator or enforcer, and possibly forming a victim/ offender partnership. Genetic determinism, buttressed by DNA dogmatic absolutism, is rendering ‘criminal responsibility’ extremely fragile in this regard. Scientific studies have already pointed towards a possibility that the root causes of crime may be biological and not social.  This sort of research demolishes notions of ‘criminal responsibility’ and thus raises questions of ethics in the areas of incapacitation that require re-examination. 

We have not yet entered into the realm of ‘how’ the risks are to be determined. In the case of ‘terrorism’, for example, problems are more likely to exist because public opinion and other strictly ‘political’ dimensions will reduce objectivity. Liabilities such as non-judicial external interference are easily identifiable in areas such as ‘terrorism’. These liabilities are often over-determined or erroneously amplified because the strictly political implications exert pressure on government security. As legislative agencies must respond to these tacit pressures, they are often inclined to overlook blatant human rights abuses in favour of draconian laws that are not always consonant with established legal principles. Too much focus is directed at emotionally charged misinformed public opinion ignoring fundamental human rights. (I shall be discussing these in later chapters – see Chapter Five) This leaves the judiciary to sort out the collateral or contingent issues of rights. Here incapacitation is often justified merely on the pretext of ‘possibility’, not ‘probability’, and still appears plausible. 
The ‘doctrine of pre-emption’ is already quite firmly in place as a strictly ‘political’ means of military incapacitation. It has gained particular currency to neutralise post-9/11 potential terrorists. We have already seen a tacit approval of the ‘ticking-bomb’ rationale that even allows certain types of ‘torture-warrants’ directed to ‘torture-friendly’ jurisdictions if there is an assumed valid urgency for risk-incapacitation, as though we ought to accept the possibility of ‘offshore punishment centres’. Even such notions as ‘zero-tolerance’ or ‘three-strikes-out’ bills appear to be founded on this sort of ‘incapacitation’ logic, or the utopia of ‘risk-management’. The same logic guides the use of economic and political sanctions, and direct military incapacitation, like those mustered by the United Nations Security Council against the former Yugoslavia or Balkan states, Serbia, Libya, Cuba, North Korea, Iran or Iraq. The criteria guiding these doctrines leave much to be desired. They are politically and ethically far too weakly structured, granting far too much flexibility to manoeuvre within. This doctrine has crucial human rights ramifications. Legislators must consider how they will reconcile the doctrine of pre-emption with not only the re-calibrating of balances between burdens and benefits, but, perhaps more importantly, re-calibrating human rights and invasive enforcement criteria. 

Unfortunately such logic contaminates, and is then applied arbitrarily in, other areas of preventive punishment. The residue effects of gradually or even immediately accumulated plausibility pollute legal thinking with strictly ‘political’ concerns that permeate practise and logic. This sways the balance of the scales of justice in a direction of arbitrary (political) discretionary power inclined to increase the risks of human right abuses. That is why public opinion allows such manifest transgressions of the presumption of innocence.

The risks involved in ‘war crimes’ or ‘terrorism’, for example, already seems to be open to interpretation. The arbitrary jurisdictional autonomy availed to those designated as ad hoc ‘war’ or ‘military’ courts has obfuscated rather than delineated judicial powers, rationality, and practises. These ad hoc courts have now established precedents that are difficult to dissuade. Who ultimately decides whether an offender is to be tried by a military /war court or a conventional one? Look at terrorist suspects detained in America, Europe, Guantanamo Bay, Libya, Egypt or Iraq. Accepting these standards entices people to accept generally lower standards all round. 

Notions like the ‘presumption of innocence’ are seriously undermined by preventive punishment rationales. The assumed causal nexus between empirical evidence and future potential offence risks cannot neutralise the fundamental human right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. What is essentially ‘effective punishment’ must not come into force, or be allowed to be ‘smuggled in’, prior to guilt being established. Incapacitation is more than simply incapacitating those held in prison for a determined period in which they are unlikely, though not necessarily, in a position to commit further crimes during this incarceration.  Which brings us to our next issue: assessing what ‘punishment’ ought to seek to achieve. 

3.4 - Rehabilitate or Reform

The above mentioned points led to the establishment of, or at least a movement in favour of, the ‘retributivist’ principle. This states punishment is justified only if it is deserved for some past, or well-established intended actualization of some future, wrong doing. That principle would now play a negative role in the justification of punishment, portraying guilt not as a ‘sufficient’ condition for punishment, which positively justifies the punishment of the guilty, but as a ‘necessary’ condition which forbids the punishment of the innocent and the excessively harsh punishment of the guilty.’ 

The ‘retributivist’ principle will gradually lead to the accentuation of the notion that the guilty have rights to be treated fairly while no effort must be spared to protect the innocent. This reduces ‘deterrence’ to a secondary role rather than a primary objective. ‘Deterrence’ will still feature, but it will not be over-determined as an end in itself, though it ought to still retain its positive sanction potential. ‘Deterrence’ will always be an objective, perhaps to an even a greater degree than readily admitted or acknowledged. One may be inclined to accentuate one aspect of the ‘duality-imperative’ rather than another, while both are actually at work concomitantly. 

Notions of ‘tellishment’, punishment of the innocent and unregulated arbitrary incapacitation will be officially downgraded. The downgrading of ‘deterrence’ also led to a greater emphasis on crime prevention and more secure and swift judicial procedural practises. Potential offenders are deterred because of the efficacy of law enforcement and justice agencies that secure punishment of the guilty. It is not simply any form of punishment, including harsh punishment of the innocent, which ensures ‘deterrence’. ‘Certainty’ – in all its manifold possibilities from ‘enforcement’ to ‘guilt-establishment’ - had to be emphasised. 

This paradigm shift gradually led to a greater emphasis on ‘rights’ not only of those presumed innocent, but even those deemed guilty. ‘The 1970’s saw criticism of this consequentialist orthodoxy fuelled principally by a renewed concern for ‘rights’ as opposed to ‘utility’, claiming that the rights of the guilty were being ignored. The guilty were being denied the status of responsible agents. Rehabilitative indeterminate sentencing was unfair, their rights not to be used as a means for social ends like crime ‘prevention’ or ‘deterrence’ was being abused of. Justice should be limited to fair retribution rejecting ‘rehabilitation’ while granting space to the idea of deterrence as a secondary feature. The debate now shifted to the arena of the justification of present punishment for past crimes, with each proponent defining and justifying a different logic for ‘new retributivism’. 

The most familiar version holds that ‘new retributivism’ restores the balances between ‘burdens and benefits’ between the criminal and the law abiding citizen. This account takes cognisance of such factors as: (i) determining and measuring these burdens and benefits, (ii) looking closely at sentencing policies as corrective instruments, (iii) the socio-economic / political conceptions involved, (iv) a scientific body of knowledge to share in appraising the criteria for judicial punishment decisions and guilt-establishment technologies, and (v) the ontological and social value the individual has within society as far as conceptions of punishment are concerned. 

Another version of retributivism maintains that punishment is a clear, ‘expressive’ statement to all concerned. It condemns crime and often focuses on harsh punishment as a tangible form of condemnation that should also deter only as a consequential benefit. There is an emotivist aspect to this, as to some punishment is also an emotional response. Criminals are thus held accountable as moral agents for their actions and must, as the cliché goes, ‘do their time’ irrespective of efficacy or feasibility.  
Some theorists have attempted to ground punishment as an ‘educational’ mechanism that should ideally allow the condemned to see their errors and mend their ways. This method should educate the offender in the dominant values and respect for law. Here a distinction must be made between a number of the concepts: (1) ‘consequentialist’ conception of punishment simply detaining the criminal to attempt to ensure positive changes irrespective of means, intentions, will, and conviction, as opposed to (2) the ‘educative theorist’ who sees the criminal as a responsible agent that must be persuaded ‘freely’. 

Duff states ‘the end to be achieved is understanding, not merely (willing) obedience, and the means must accord the criminal the respect that is due.’  The debate also had to attempt to ascertain (a) whether society or the state had a responsibility to pursue this task, (b) what specific type of punishment was the most efficacious methodology to be employed, (c) whether such a undertaking was feasible, and (d) what criteria were to be considered to define ‘feasibility’ (economic, scientific, political, social).        

In short, we are conceptualising a notion of punishment that is seeking to clearly define its goals and methodologies. Punishment is not simply securing an offender for a determined period of time within spatial enclosures, with all the limitations on liberty and autonomy that this entails. The very idea of confinement ought to present some opportunity for rehabilitation or reform. This approach will now present an opportunity not only for the offender but also for an entire prison industry and scientific professional collegiality which I will discuss in chapters further ahead. This approach also involves ‘assessments’ of the offender. An obvious appraisal would be ascertaining the offender’s ‘rationality’ and ‘autonomy’, which I will discuss in the next chapter.   

3.5 - Conclusion

The scope of this chapter was to discuss three central features of punishment – deterrence, incapacitation, and reform of offenders. The importance of these three features of punishment in Eurocentric jurisprudence cannot be overstated. They will be accompanying us throughout this essay. 
The punishment discourses we have just examined cannot be taken out of context or examined in isolation. However, they are crucial to any conception of punishment and are grounded in real and concrete doctrines. The idea of discussing punishment rationales is in it self reductive. Punishment is defeatist. One overlooks the actual problem.

Marx seems to have anticipated some of these issues. ‘Punishment, coercion is contrary to human conduct. Under human conditions punishment will be nothing but the sentence passed by the culprit on himself. The crime must not be punished in the individual but the anti-social sources of crime must be destroyed.’  Punishment discourses cannot be assumed to allow a parallel discussion on ‘the anti-social sources of crime’ while still pursuing punishment rationales. This is another irrational aspect of punishment. 

The three features of punishment discourse are sustained by an elaborate ‘language’ that includes codes of grammar and syntax (rules), lexicon, semantics or vocabulary (meaning), and logic (plausibility). Without these rationales punishment would appear illogical, unfeasible, implausible, and irrational. All ought to appear ‘certain’. These examples show how powerful ‘language’ actually is. To be able to make propositions like ‘deterrence’ or ‘guilt’ effective enough to be understood, and to base some form of psychic and social repression on this meaning, illustrates that ‘language’ forcefully permeates consciousness through meaningful propositions, and that consciousness is language. However, this also alerts us the possibility of ‘language’ also serving covert and latent functions that may be both ideological and hegemonic.    
One would be inclined to assert that ‘language’ can be measured according to the truth-status of the propositions being made against a background of objective reality. This is not necessarily correct. We know from Wittgenstein that ‘a tautology leaves open to reality the whole- the infinite whole- of logical space: a contradiction fills the whole of logical space leaving no point of it for reality. Thus neither of them can determine reality in any way. A tautology’s truth is certain, a proposition’s possible, a contradiction’s impossible.’  In this light, we ought to be cautious about claims of ‘certainty’ and appreciate that the ‘possible’ are merely propositions. This essay will attempt to illustrate that the deficiencies in punishment rationality are essentially best understood as ‘language’ phenomena. 

This essay will examine the very ‘rationality’ of punishment. I will attempt to destabilise or ‘desacralize’ the governing rationality by depreciating its ‘certainty’- ‘certainty’ not in the narrow sense of certainty of punishment, but certainty of plausibility and rationality. I believe I have already alerted some basic aspects of this irrationality and shown the consequences of this irrationality; consequences that are moral and ethical, as well as social, economic, and political. 


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A Comparative Study of Two Semitic Verb Structures: Arabic and Ethiopic


This essay shall discuss aspects of the verb structures in Arabic and Ethiopic and compare and contrast both. This study shall reveal the importance of combining both diachronic and synchronic approaches to any comparative grammar.

Main Terms:  diachronic, synchronic, verbs, moods, aspects, tenses, isogloss, morphology, forms, roots, stems, morpheme, and consonantal system.


At the outset it is imperative that certain points related specifically to this study, and broadly to other linguistic studies, are clearly delineated. Our terms of reference need to be clearly spelt out.

Such an undertaking is premised by the fact that both languages under consideration, Arabic and Ethiopic, are genetically related. We need not enter the labyrinth of these genetic relations. Seeking to enumerate chronologically or geographically to create a taxonomy of these relations or any issue of genealogy is self-evident and practically a tautology. We accept as a matter of fact that both groups and their respective ‘isoglosses’ as the linguistic geographical boundaries of their respective linguistic traits are members of the Semitic family. Each group is subject to further subdivisions as outlined in the text. 

One needs to acknowledge that any academic linguistic study based on secondary sources, as this one admits to being, is ultimately at the mercy of a shortage of specialised updated literature, and wide variations and conflicting conclusions within the available stock. Many studies are forlorn by potential lacunae in the field that appear to be filled by speculative postulates that fit in neatly to the field in question. We have to be on the alert to separate the wheat of professional academic research from the chaff of amateur enthusiasm. Our ‘References’ reveal this and we acknowledge that the core of our work is based on Lipinski’s work ‘Semitic Languages Outline of a Comparative Grammar’. 

As we are dealing with a comparative study of the ‘verb’ – basically a ‘morphological’ study – we need to acknowledge that such a vast area of competence needs to be rationalised for the purpose of our study. The field itself is complicated by further subdivisions, regional and group idiosyncrasies, and both internal autonomy and external dependency, that make any attempt to devise some coherence in demarcating the parameters of our circumscription a cumbersome task.

These liabilities are best surmounted by accepting the limitations of our mission and pragmatically ensuring our approach is flexible enough to touch upon the core issues that cannot be overlooked. While finding ways to weave our study into a coherent tapestry, we need to be cautious and vigilant enough not to transgress the boundaries of reason that the wide latitude of generalisation grants.

The possible hegemony of Arabic over Ethiopic, and the geo-political core over the periphery within each group, are also lurking in the background shaping the way we see the ‘verb’, particularly the dominant schemes and patterns of verbs, sometimes sacrificing life for detail. Again, unless we are a priori granting such a linguistic market primacy to one language over another by acknowledging a predetermined premium by way of a declaration of bias, any swaying of balances must not be influenced by deficient scales. In the field of academic linguistic research there are no demand and supply dynamics. Naturally, some languages are more diffused than others, and indeed more important, but this does not imply ipso factum any degree of competition, rivalry, or superiority. 

The rule that the larger the number of users of a language, the more important that language is, is possibly fallacious.  A language need not be more important than a dialect. There need not be any intrinsic value in the linguistic medium itself other than mere demography, and, more often than not, diffusion and assimilation by force rather than reason or passion. As Weinreich put it, ‘a language is a dialect with an army and a navy.’ (Kaye, 2003:830) So yes, by these standards and criteria Arabic is more important than Ethiopic, yet for the purpose of this study both will be democratically treated as equals.

As we are dealing with the ‘verb’ we may establish the fact that Semitic verbs share a common denominator in as much as they are easily schematised with quasi mathematical or geometric precision. This makes our task somewhat easier. One could even simply make a comparative study of these ‘forms’ by way of ‘tables’ that in juxtaposition would graphically reveal comparisons and contrasts greatly facilitating our study. Indeed, such a contribution will be made in the text to enhance progress, as our Appendix reveals. However, we do not intend limiting our study to these graphics.

One must also be on the alert for potential superimpositions whereby verbs are innocently but erroneously morphologically accommodated to fit the scheme even if they were actually exceptions. Here a closer look needs to be afforded. One needs to understand both the dominant scheme as a totality, as well as those verbs that have been made to fit in, and the conspicuous exceptions that simply cannot be accommodated. Then we need to understand why, when, and how this occurs.

This study makes use of both ‘diachronic’ and ‘synchronic’ linguistic studies in its approach to how it will tackle the specific field of comparing the Arabic verb to the Ethiopic verb. Put simply, synchronic studies look at static states, while diachronic look at change. This requires due diligence on two counts. Firstly, while both ‘diachrony’ and ‘synchrony’ are present in all Semitic languages and offer detailed comparative analysis, one need not over-determine either. Secondly, one cannot provide hierarchies bound by either outcome. It would not be plausible, for example, to afford ‘grammar’ a value that is superior to ‘syntax’, or ‘morphology’ as being greater than ‘semantics’ simply because we are dealing with a ‘verb’. We may do so only within the limits of our study without any further inference being deduced.

The mathematical or geometric structure of the verbs in both languages must be seen as a convenient scheme that grammarians devised partially a posteriori in abstract, but taken always from factual reality of language as a means of ‘productive’ communication. People making use of the language itself always take precedence over rule-governed academic appraisals seeking to schematise reality. The distinctions between colloquial and official languages is never greater that when one studies complex comparative linguistic studies.

A philosophical observation is warranted. Semitic grammar particularly observing the verb attests to an uncanny capacity for linguistic productivity within the confines of logical schemes. In our case, the study of the ‘verb’ is particularly seemingly prone to appear to be succumbing to pressure of academic incumbency. However, the realistic ‘fertility’ of Semitic languages allows the ‘morpheme’ as the smallest meaningful unit in a language to pattern the verb and its derivatives to appear ‘productive’ to the point that we may legitimately suspect a conceptual paradox. Is this ‘productivity’ due to the fact that Semitic languages naturally lend themselves to finding when and where possible derivatives taken from available stocks as a logical outcome of ‘forms’ and ‘laws’? Or does this internal production display a linguistic syndrome of insularity or hyper-protectionism imposed mechanistically by parochially obsessed grammarians? In this case, are we dealing with perfectly logical schemes and real uninhibited and creative ‘productivity’, or are we dealing with finite sterility that has been enhanced by linguistic ‘fertilisers’ geminated by grammatical rule-governed demands?

The hierarchies within Arabic, particularly the dominance of Classical Arabic and fu due to the obvious importance of the Qur’ān, furnish us with prerequisites that at times though seemingly simply archaic or intransigent, may even be thought of as ideological. As these issues are beyond the primary scope of this essay they are simply acknowledged as present and no further elucidation is necessary. However, these facts despotically impinge on the sufficiency of our study.

This introduction attempted to thrash out these details. We need to ensure that certain inherent limitations are not misunderstood or swayed for convenience sake to allow us to pay scant detail or dismiss altogether peripheral points as mere digressions. Nor would we like to inflate the relevance of what is easily graphically demonstrable by way of mechanistic tables and parrot work, at the cost of sacrificing evidence that is more difficult to prise out and understand. Our linguistic road-map is thus spelt out; whether we get to see all the sites is something else.

The Semitic Group

The Semitic languages group are that core of languages that share genetic relations and that originated in the area now referred to as the Middle East from contemporary Israel up to Iraq, down to the Yemen, and across on to Ethiopia and Eritrea, extending across Africa. This group has the longest recorded history with Akkadian, for example, often considered the first attested cuneiform writing as far as the third millennium B.C. according to findings in Iraq. Terminology is quite varied and one finds interchangeable terms like Proto Semitic and Afro Asiatic, used indiscriminately through various texts.   

The actual geographic configurations are also uneasy and where one group starts and another ends has been the source of much contention. Constantly shifting scenarios leading to refutations of former hypothesis based on accelerated technological innovation, scientific research, archaeological and inscription findings, and even mere discovery of human error have led to extensive paradigm shifts in arranging these linguistic clusters and obviously changes in correlative terminology.   For example, demographic movements originally thought of as linear migrations from Arabia to Africa now actually acknowledge the possibility if not probability of a prior reverse routing. So we can accept to report what is cited without the anxiety of choice. 
Contemporary academia is broadly comfortable with separating ‘South Arabian’ from an inferred ‘further’ Northern Arabian with an intermediary group assumed in between.   The Afro Asiatic groups has been referred to as Afroasiatic, Hamito-Semitic, or Semito-Hamitic. Three major divisions are often made; Eastern Semitic, North Western or Western Semitic, and South Western or Southern Semitic. We are primarily interested in this last group. 

Some sources use the groupings East Semitic (Akkadian), West Semitic, [Central] Assyrian, Neo Aramiac, [South Central] Arabic, Caananite Hebrew, and [South] Ethiopic.  It is held that there are five branches of Afro-Asiatic languages, Berber, Cushitic, Egyptian and Chadic. Other more plausible recent studies add ‘Omotic’ to include South West Ethiopic and West Cushitic, while they also separate a zone as ‘Semitic’ withn the group to include Syro-Palestine, Mosopotamia and Arabia.   This essay looks at the Semitic Languages as having two primary divisions – West and East Semitic. East Semitic includes Akkadian: Assyrian/Babylonian, West Semitic is Divided into North: Canaanite (Hebrew, Phoenician), Aramaic, Arabic, and South: (Arabic), Old (Epigraphic) South Arabian, Modern South Arabian, and Ethiopic.   Again, this is the group we are interested in. 

How are Arabic and Ethiopic isoglosses recognised? Though we have contrasting variations certain subdivisions appear to be more tangible. This essay will deal with two groups that internally incorporate other subdivisions. 

In the Semitic languages Arabic is subdivided as follows:

1. Pre-Islamic North and East Arabian
2. Pre-Classical Arabic
3. Classical Arabic
4. Neo-Arabic or Middle Arabic
5. Modern Arabic

Ethiopic is subdivided as:

1. North Ethiopic  
a) Ge‘ez
b) Tigre
c) Tigrinya

2. South Ethiopic
a) Amharic
b) Argobba
c) Harari
d) Gurage
e) Gafat

Unless elaborations are absolutely necessary, these subdivisions will be simplified as far as possible as simply Arabic and Ethiopic.

The Generic Semitic Verb

Lipiński warns us that the study of the Semitic verb is contaminated by numerous liabilities that complicate our task: 

‘The problems raised by the verb are among the most difficult in Semitic linguistics and the varying terminology used in grammatical studies bearing on the single languages does not help in solving them. Authors call corresponding verbal forms, e.g., “subjunctive” in one language, “jussive” in another one, “cohortative” in a third one, or “modal” elsewhere.’
(Lipiński, 1997:331)

We need not be deterred. The verb in Semitic languages has some common features that make a grammarian’s life easier. Both Arabic and Ethiopic are patterned and structured as a general rule according to easily recognisable morphology.

Our first point premises our structural approach. “The stem is a verbal pattern deriving from a root; it serves as the base of all the inflectional forms connected with a specific meaning. Each verbal root has a simple or basic stem . . . and a varying number of derived stems” (Lipiński, 1997:333).

Semitic verbs are made up of a succession of consonants that appear in the same order (root or stem), even if infiltrated by vowels or diactrical markers that perform the function of vowels as well as grammar. Each dominant verb structure is usually characterised by three consonants, i.e. it is ‘triconsonantal’. Before, within, and after each consonant one may find respectively prefixes, infixes, and suffixes. As the consonants’ order is coefficient, it stands to reason that verbs differ according to their vowels or diactrical markers, and additional pre-, in-, and su- fixes. The study of the verb may be focussed exclusively on these schemes. See our Appendix for all the relevant tables. 

If we were to study the diverse permutations of each model, and note the distinguishing features, and then correlate these distinctions to grammatical, morphological or syntactical structures, our rules of the verb would unfold clearly before us neatly patterned. Such models actually make the study of verbs more coherent. Indeed we will be annexing the most salient models of verbal patterns in Arabic and Ethiopic to explicate our findings in our Appendix.

Verbs that are not triconsonantal, and are either made up of one, two or even more than three consonants are either made to fit the triconsonantal scheme by increasing or reducing the number of consonants, or remain exceptions to the main pattern formations. Increases may be registered by way of direct increases, or doubling markers. Shortening may take place by way of direct dropping, or elision. As verbs in these languages are related to other forms, for example, verbal nouns or pronouns (See Appendix I & II ), these occurrences are also noted in other domains.

Change may actually occur for reasons other than morphological accommodation, normally associated with the way people speak. Lipiński’s (1997:192-199) demonstrates these crucial differences. We note such change as ‘metathesis’ – a transposition of sounds that may occur simply to make speech easier to pronounce. ‘Haplology’ – the omission of one of two contiguous, i.e. reduction, occurs for a number of reasons usually dictated by accelerated speech that seems to naturally prefer this reduction. ‘Prosthesis’ – disjoining of two consonant cluster to give a new syllable usually by way of a prefix is also related to facilitating speech. ‘Anaptyxis’ or ‘epenthesis’ is an insertion of supplementary vowel to disjoin second consonant cluster, again often introduced to smooth pronunciation of unreasonably lengthened consonants. ‘Elision’ is the suppression of part of a word and occurs in most languages by way of speech practices. Such features as ‘sandhi’ whereby an ending vowel may be dropped to make the connection to the next word more harmonious, is another example. We even have instances of ‘hypercorrection’ which makes a seemingly enhancing grammatical correction to a word that need not have been corrected at all just to appear more formal, and may be misleading, particularly in Arabic because of the assumed dominance of Classical Arabic. We have to highlight these human phenomena as though they may appear to be strictly grammatical, syntactic, and morphological, which they most certainly are in some cases, they are however also shaped by simple human needs and convention. Our study of both verbs needs to be aware of this appreciation. 

Obviously, these verbal pattern formations have a practical role. Each is indicative of some particular type of verb as we stated earlier. “The verb is the grammatical category which inflects for tense, for aspect, for mood, for actor, for stem, and for voice” (Lipiński, 1997:331). Semitic verbs are not to be understood as typical of other linguistic groups, and substantial differences do exist. (See Appendix XI)

The tri-dimensionalisation of time into past, present and future is not universal (Lipiński, 1997:332) so ‘tenses’ may differ and are to be understood only as arbitrary translations. In fact it must be pointed out that “Semitic languages have no tenses (except for the imperative, the preterite, and certain modern innovations), they only have ‘aspects’” (Lipiński, 1997:335). Yet “the essential function of the verbal base is to express, in grammatical categories, the distinction between a future action and a past action, . . . to tell us something about the relative order of events” (Lipiński, 1997:332). The Semitic ‘perfect’ as the past or present tense of verbs express ‘states’. (See Appendix XII)

Also, ‘aspects’ differ quite substantially. “The ‘telic/atelic’ distinction – ‘telic’ – process up to a well-defined terminal point (John is making a chair), ‘atelic’ – lacks a determinate goal (John is singing) – is of no use in the analysis of Semitic aspects” (Lipiński, 1997:332). 

‘Moods’ are also different. “The category of mood . . . denotes the manner in which the action or state is expressed.  The moods of Semitic verbs . . . are . . . purely grammatical-syntactic categories of coordination and subordination, unmarked or marked by affixes” (Lipiński, 1997:333).

There are five moods in Semitic languages (Lipiński, 1997:351):
1. Indicative suffixed
2. Subjunctive type 1. suffixed
3. Subjunctive type 2. suffixed
4. Ventive / Allative suffixed
5. Jussive (+ Energetic)
The ‘optative’ is precative and the ‘ventitive’ is prohibitive and both are prefixed. 

The ‘passive’ and ‘active’ forms are a matter of ‘voice’ and are delineated by way of vocal differentiation (Lipiński, 1997:334), particularly through the use of markers on otherwise indistinguishable pattern forms. The ‘indicative’ “notifies a fact . . . and is used essentially for statements expressed in main clauses” (Lipiński, 1997:333). There are three other basic moods:

1. An unmarked ‘jussive’ which derives from the ‘imperative’ called “apocopate(d)” in grammars of Arabic.
2. An East Semitic ‘subjunctive’ used in subordinate clauses.
3. A West Semitic ‘subjunctive’.
(Lipiński, 1997:333)

This generic outline touched upon some of the most salient characteristics of the verb in Semitic languages. We may now proceed on to more specific contrasts and comparisons of Arabic and Ethiopic verbs proper.

The Arabic and Ethiopic Verb

Forms  –  Each verbal ‘form’ will denominate a particular type of verb formation and a verbal noun, as well as corresponding ‘passive’ and ‘active’ voices, which are usually numbered for convenience. Certain particular pattern formations refer to particular characteristics. For example, Stem IX in Arabic verbs denominates verbs related to adjectives, usually colours or physical defects; e.g.  – “he became yellow”, from  – “yellow”; or  – “he became squint-eyed” from  – “squint-eyed”, with a similar formation attested in Ethiopic although not considered a derived stem as the verbs belonging to this category go back historically to a quadrilateral consonantal patterns formed after by dissimilation from triconsonantal roots.  (Lipiński, 1997:406). (See Appendix III)

Reduplicated last radical consonant stems are semantically and morphologically related to Stem II. 

E.g. Ge‘ez galbaba or Arabic ğalbaba, “he wrapped”, are derived from ğilbāb “garment”.  

Also, the combination of 2 stems is widely attested in modern Arabic colloquial and in Ethiopic languages. These are usually verbs with more than 3 radical consonants, many of the verbs with 4 radical consonants not via reduplication, are borrowed from a foreign language or via dissimilation, diphthongization, etc., from originally triconsonantal roots, or are simply denominative verbs.  (Lipiński, 1997:406). (For duplication see Appendix XIII.)

E.g. bäräkkätä  –  “he abounded”, is related to Ge‘ez  –  barakat, “blessing”, and Arabic  –  basmala, “he said  bismillāhi”.

Ethiopic and Modern South Arabian distinguish 2 moods: ‘indicative’ (enunciative clause) and ‘jussive’ / ‘subjunctive’ (volitive clause), (Lipiński, 1997:355-60). In Classical Arabic the jussive is operative only in determinate kinds of syntagms, while both in Classical Arabic as well as in Ethiopic the ‘stative’ which also becomes a ‘perfect’ has a 3rd person masculine singular in -a. (See Appendix IV & V)

Imperative  –  In Semitic languages the ‘imperative’ (Lipiński, 1997:335-6) stands outside any possible system of aspect and obviously refers to the future, as one cannot command the past or present which are already over. We do not find 1st persons, again as one does not command the self, or 3rd persons as these are not direct, and it is not used in negative clauses. The use of the ‘jussive’ / ‘subjunctive’ in Ethiopic is also extended to various subordinate verbal clauses. (See Appendix VI XV& XVI)

The basic pattern for both Arabic and Ethiopic is C1C2vC3.

Perfect  –  The ‘perfect(ive)’ (Lipiński, 1997:338-9) conveys involvement of the activity of the acting subject, characterised in both groups by a ‘t’ infix. The imperfective has a lengthened root by geminating the second consonant. (See Appendix VII)

Ethiopic  - yəqattəl  - “he kills”, “he will kill”, also assumed in Epigraphic South Arabian. 
The same pattern is applicable to the Modern South Arabian ‘imperfect’.
E.g. Mehri  –  yərōkəz < *yarakkaz  –  “he stands upright”.
arsūsi  –  yəlōbəd < *yalabbad  –  “he shoots”.  Note the doubling of the second consonant. 

In North Ethiopic the 2nd radical consonant is geminated, but is not geminated in South Ethiopic, (although the dialects do sometimes). By contrast, Modern South Arabian do NOT geminate in the imperfect. 

In-/Transitive  –  ‘Transitive’ verbs (Lipiński, 1997: 344) refer to the performance of an action on another person or thing (e.g. “to kill”). ‘Intransitive’ verbs refer to a complete action affecting the subject (e.g. “to lie”), or to a complete state or condition (e.g. “to be pleased”).

Here we find 3 stem vowel classes:  a-,  i-,  u-  class. (See Appendix VIII)

Intransitive Arabic  –    –  means “to go away”  –  a-class.

Arabic  –  yadbaġ, yadbiġ, yadbuġ  –  means “to tan”  –  three classes. 

Caution is warranted. Sometimes a change in class also brings about a change in meaning. 

E.g. Arabic  –  yafil  –  means “to separate”, while  –  yaful  –  means “to depart”.

Changes in class by vocalic modification also show distinctions of ‘passive’ voice. Internal passives exist in Modern South Arabian and fully used in Classical Arabic (e.g. kutiba  –  ‘it was written’) but do NOT occur in Ethiopic.  

Arabic  –  active ‘u-class’  –  yabtur  means “to cut”, becomes passive ‘a-class’  –  yabtar  means “to be cut off”.

In Ethiopic the ‘i-class’ and the ‘u-class’ come together as mainly ‘transitive’ ə-class, while the ‘a-class’ is mainly ‘intransitive’. 

Im/Perfect – Perfect (Lipiński, 1997: 346) forms of verbs denoting feeling, thinking, speaking, acting must often be translated by a ‘present’. 
E.g. Arabic – ’alimtu  –  means “I know”. 
The ‘pluperfect’ in Arabic is in a class of its own as it combines the verb ‘to be’ (kān) “he was” in the ‘perfect’ with the ‘perfect’ of the other verb in a number of ways. 
E.g. kān katab  –  “he had written”. 
Or, the ‘perfect’ kān  +  ‘imperfect’  =  kān yəktub  –  “he was writing”. (See Appendix IX)
Or, kān  +  active participle  =  kān kātib  –  “he was writing”. 
The ‘imperfect’ yəkūn  +  ‘perfect’  =  future, e.g.  yəkūn katab  –  “he will write”.

In most Ethiopic languages, the ‘imperfect’ expresses the present and the future. In Tigrinya and West Gurage the ‘present’ is a simple imperfect, while the ‘future’ is an imperfect with affixes. Modern North Ethiopic languages make use of several compound tenses to distinguish ‘present’ from ‘future’, and simple present or past from continuous ‘present’ or ‘past’. (Lipiński, 1997: 349). (See Appendix X)

In contemporary Mansa‘ Tigre the ‘future’ is expressed by: 
Preposition  ’əgəl  –  “for, to”  +  jussive  +  copulative pronoun  tu  –  “he (is)”.
E.g. fağər Baə‘ ’əgəl nigis tu  –  “tomorrow we shall go to Massawa”.
The ‘imperfect’  +  halla  =  present continuous. 
E.g. əna hədāy nətfarrar hallena  –  “[only] we are going out to the wedding”.
Or, ‘imperfect’  +  ‘ala  =  past continuous. 
E.g. kaləb ’əb gabay ləs‘e ‘ala  –  “a dog was running on the road”. 

One may note a ‘semantic opposition’ between fā‘ala and fa‘‘ala in certain Arabic and Ethiopic verbs. (Lipiński, 1997:387). (See Appendix III)

Early Arab grammarians established fā‘ala and fa‘‘ala in a number of verbs, with the fā‘ala type becoming entrenched because of lack of internal germination in the South Arabian verbal system. In Ethiopic these are not felt as derived stems as the two coexisted as basic stems of different verbal roots.

Infinitive & Participle  –  “are two morphological categories of the verb lacking the indications of tense, aspect, mood, and actor that characterise the verbal inflection” (Lipiński, 1997: 415). These are to be considered as nominal forms of the verb, the infinitive being a verbal noun, used also in a construct state, and the participle a kind of verbal adjective, that can also be used in an ‘active’ and ‘passive’ sense, both in Arabic and Ethiopic. 
E.g. Classical Arabic  isābun  –   “to count”, or  halākun  –  “to perish”.
North Ethiopic   Ge‘ez  or  Tigre  qatil  –  “to kill”.

‘Tense’ distinguished from ‘Aspect’  –  occurs in both Arabic and Ethiopic through similar techniques. 
In Arabic the use of ‘perfect’ kān “he was” with an active participle may express the European ‘imperfect’, e.g. kān kātib, “he was writing”. If an independent personal pronoun is emphasised (as usually it need not be produced as it is implicit in the verb itself either by way of verb-ending or markers) together with the active participle this gives the ‘present’ tense. E.g. huwa kātib, “he is writing”. The ‘future’ may be expressed by way of the participle rāyi, “going”  +  imperfect. E.g. ana rāyi aktəb, “I am going to write”.  

Comparable developments occurred in modern Ethiopic languages. Compound tenses- participle  +  one of the auxiliary verbs halla, ‘ala, ana, “to be”, are used in Tigre to express the perfective present or past. (Lipiński, 1997: 425).

Perfective present  =  active participle  +  halla.
E.g. nəgus Kabasa mə (active participle) halla – “the king of Kabasa has arrived (and he is present)”. 
Dual forms that exist in Arabic do NOT exist in Ethiopic any longer. (See Appendix II, IV, & VII) 


This essay has taken a close look at the verbal system in Arabic and Ethiopic and compared and contrasted both. Both similarities and distinguishing differences do exist. Our Appendix has graphically explicated the verbal morphology by delineating the consonantal, stem, and root system in both languages revealing ‘contrasts’ and ‘comparisons’. Our tables were assembled to ensure that this juxtaposition can be easily availed to the examples referred to in the main text so that readers can make convenient cross-references and appreciate the morphology being scrutinised. 

It is clear that both groups share a similarly construed ‘morphology’. The ‘family resemblance’ between them is attested. We are dealing with the morphology of the verb within two genetically related languages. We also need to acknowledge that languages are concerned with conveying communication within a material world of human intercourse. In the last instance, whether one inflects an aspect or mood, or whether one duplicates an internal consonant or adds on a prefix, infix or suffix, tells us very little of this humanity. Much of our language is indeed produced mechanistically with minimal consciousness or articulation. 

In our ‘introduction’ we made it quite clear that we would not settle for anything less than going beyond the mechanistic features of ‘morphology’. The scope of this essay was to tackle the linguistic features of these languages related specifically to the verb structure. We may indeed reconcile our ‘morphology’ with basic human intercourse. Such studies do reveal the ephemeral and arbitrary nature of languages. They may also at once reveal both the idiosyncrasies and universal features of languages. Neither is to be taken for granted. Our respective linguistic universes point towards our common heritage as well as our uniqueness. They also expose the relativity of reality. This is where the value of such studies is positively compounded. This is where we appreciate the signification of the ‘signifier’ ‘comparative’. We hope our essay has made a modest contribution to this effect.        

Meinrad Calleja     

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1997 Comparative Semitic Linguistics, Indiana: Eisenbrauns
Reconstructing Quadriliteral Verb Inflection: Ethiopic, Akkadian, Proto-Semitic, in Journal of Semitic Studies XL 11/2 Autumn, 1997 

Hetzron, R. 1997 The Semitic Languages, London: Routledge

Kaye, A. 2003 Semitic Linguistics in the New Millennium, in Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol. 123, No.4 (Oct-Dec, 2003) pp. 819-834.

Lambdin, T. 2006 Introduction to Classical Ethiopic (Ge ‘ez), Indiana: Eisenbrauns 

Leslau, W. 1958 Report of Ethiopic Linguistics- 1946-1956, in Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol.17, No.1, (Jan 1958) pp.49-55: University of Chicago Press 

Lipinski, E. 1997 Semitic Languages- Outline of a Comparative Grammar, Leuven: Peeters

Ulendorff, E. 1955 The Semitic Languages of Ethiopia and their Contribution to General Semitic Studies, in Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, Vol. 25, No.2, (Apr. 1955) pp. 154-160, Edinburgh University Press

Versteegh, K. 2004 The Arabic Languages, Edinburgh University Press: Edinburgh

Weldeyesus, W. 2004 Case Marking Systems in Two Ethiopian Semitic Languages, in Colorado Research in Linguistics, June 2004, Volume 17, Issue 1, Boulder: University of Colorado. 

Yiman, B. 2006 The Interaction of Tense, Aspect, and Agreement in Amharic Syntax, in Selected Proceedings 35th Annual Conference of African Linguistics, ed. Mugane, J., et al, pp.193-202, Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Proceedings Project

The Sociology of Arab Tribes

Meinrad Calleja 


Sociology of Arab Tribes


This essay shall argue that the Arab tribe represents a socially constructed form of ideological institution that has a hegemonic role related to the unequal distribution of power. However, the Arab tribe is an important socio-political unit that is relevant within its own specific context. Understanding this context enhances communication. This essay shall first give a brief outline of the Arab tribe in its historical and cultural context, and then proceed to discuss its sociological features. The scope of this essay is to seek to understand what being a member of a tribe entails, and how tribes operate within their specific context. The conclusion of this essay will explicate the relevance of the tribe to both active participants, as well as those attempting to understand these dynamics and communicate within this environment.  

This essay is a brief analysis of the Arab tribe and acknowledges that a more exhaustive literature needs to be studied to gain further insights. As such certain limitations are acknowledged at the outset. However, the choices made were fashioned to cover as many facets as possible within these limitations.  

Key Words: Arab tribes, culture, meaning, identity, values, genealogy, power, authority, discipline.  


The Arab world consists of various political systems ranging from Sheikdoms, Kingdoms, Emirates, and Sultanates, to Republics and other more hybrid systems like the Libyan state of the masses (Jamahariya) system. All these systems acknowledge to some extent the Arab tribal system. The leaders of all Arab states regularly confer with tribal leaders granting these not only respect and tradition, but status and power, in exchange for their allegiance. Tribal membership or affiliation often appears on official documents and demographic census. 
Tribes constitute an important and relevant socio-political grouping in a number of jurisdictions.  As this social reality is context-bound, one has to pay particular attention to the reality of Arab tribes to understand facets of life that are not easily ascertainable. This ought to be done without recourse to Orientalism, Eurocentrism, stereotyping, reductive categorizing, or anthropological romanticizing. 

Arab Tribes

Tribes consist of groups of people that confer a particular meaning on their membership to a group bound by myths, tradition, protocol, identity, hierarchy, rites, incantation techniques, lineage, kinship, historicity, and common values and beliefs. Tribes focus on a ‘collectivity’ in which membership takes precedence over ‘individuality’, and to which one’s allegiance is more important than any other entity, even the nation state. 

Most Arab tribes are based on ‘patriarchy’ and usually membership takes into account ‘male’ members only. The size of an Arab tribe is based on its male members, broadly counted by numbers of males, resources, and historically, tents. The size of a tribe determines its strength. 

Elders within tribes earn a degree of status, and leaders of tribes usually prove themselves worthy of their power.  This is usually a system of selection that is based on the values of leadership proven to have achieved the most for the tribe. Leadership entails settling disputes, procuring resources, and other collective decision making.

Broadly speaking, there are three basic types of tribes, though they share one common denominator as a ‘group’.

‘Tribal groups are usually classified into nomadic, semi-nomadic, and sedentary tribes, their essential characteristic being that their members are distinguished by belonging to a specific group, and not a specific place, village or town. They retain this characteristic even when they constitute a fixed … community.’ (Awad,1970:135) 

Examples of nomadic tribes include the Awlad Ali in Egypt, the Hadendow of Sudan and the Ruwala of Eastern Syria; the semi-nomadic include the Jawabis of Western Libya; and an example of the sedentary tribe would be the Hawara of Upper Egypt.

Arab tribes have their own value systems that include ethical, moral, social and political values, with a complex accompanying culture that shapes ethos and the normative order, and the social practices that these reproduce. Each tribe will have its own idiosyncrasies that distinguish it from other tribes. These may include a particular historical narrative passed down over successive generations, particular dress codes, protocols, body markings like scars or tattoos, calendar events, consumption profiles, and even language codes.  For example, the Zarzis tribes in Tunisia wear exclusively distinguishing colour-coded clothes.

While Islam is an important determinant, many of these values pre-date, transcend, and even contradict Islamic doctrines. In fact, the ascendancy of Islam was originally tentatively perceived as a system that challenged the hegemony of the dominant Meccan tribes. The Qur ‘an (23:101), for example, emphatically states ‘And when the trumpet shall be blown, no kinships shall be on that Day, nor shall they question each other about them.’ The concept of an ummah, one Islamic community of equals before Allah, seeks to neutralize and transcend the tribal system.  Academic research (Arkoun, 2002:230) also maintains that: 

           ‘it is true that historically that Muhammad spoke and behaved as the ‘Lord of tribes’ in the strictly historical, anthropological meaning…. When the Qur ‘an says ‘O you people’ (ayyuha-l-nas), or uses the word translates as ‘individual’ or ‘human person’ (insan), the form of address is certainly directed to the group present during the initial delivery, or more often to the members of the clan or tribe.’ 

            The dualistic Islamic terms ‘dar al harb’ (state of war), and ‘dar al islam’ the state of peace for one Islamic community, for example, seem to be framed in plausibility through tribal codes akin to a confederation of tribes in relation to those tribes outside this sphere of mutual understanding. Islam acknowledges tribal ideology.

Over time successive political machinations progressively secured and consolidated the tribal system, even if officially attempting to discourage them. 

Various values are reproduced by the Arab tribe. The ‘muruwah’ value system, for example, promotes the values of strength, loyalty, honour, justice, leadership, and hospitality, and pre-dates Islam. Many Arab tribes value ‘simplicity and frugality, habit of freedom, dislike of control and limitation imposed by authority of any kind.’ (Awad,1970:141) The values of consultation (shura) and assembly (majlis) are tribal in origin. 
Arab tribal systems are reproduced mainly through tradition that is accorded a status of immutability and relevance similar to dogma. Indeed, the Arab tribal system is perhaps one of the most conservative social systems.  Literature, poetry, art, religion, tradition, and language secure this survival through constant transmissions. Poets were frequently commissioned to extol particular tribes, and to perform scathing critiques of other competing tribes. Such diatribes were usually orally transmitted from generation to generation as an integral feature of the tribe’s history. As Khalidi (1995:74) states, ‘knowledge of the past cannot be deduced or inferred; it can only be transmitted.’ 

This should not be considered as some archaic position defended intransigently. Much is at stake. Often ‘power’ and ‘identity’ ought to be factored-in. Some Arab tribes form alliances with both local and foreign ruling elites, consolidating their own power in the process both as administrators and intermediaries, as well as military and political partners. During various brands of colonialism, nearly all colonial power depended heavily on such alliances, and many of the contemporary Arab regimes trace their origin to political symbiosis forged through tribal ideology. 

Tribes that were loyal to the Ottoman Empire, for example, were replaced by others that resisted Ottoman rule as their Empire declined. The Hashimite tribes of what we refer to as Greater Syria (parts of today’s Lebanon, Jordan and Syria) were granted control of Iraq and Jordan, and the Saud tribe control of modern Saudi Arabia, for example, for their loyalty to Western colonial rulers. In some instances the ascendant tribes annihilated the tribes loyal to former rulers. Some Yemeni tribes loyal to the Ottomans were ethnically cleansed after the Ottoman decline. In contemporary Iraq, Sunni tribes from Tigrit loyal to the former Saddam Hussein would experience similar anxieties. Colonial powers took advantage of tribal systems in the Arab world to augment their own power base by divide-and-rule tactics that manipulated the antagonisms of contending forces. Contemporary politics in the Arab world depend extensively on tribal allegiances.    

Arab tribalism is also an important feature of ‘identity’. Membership to a tribe secures identity and this is linked to legitimacy and rights. Certain tribes actually secure access to resource allocation of different entities such as water, irrigation, freedom of movement, land entitlement, trade, and patronage systems, through their respective tribal loyalty, as an integral feature of their identity. This is why ‘all the protagonists defend positions commanded by their respective collective memories and their strategies in order to promote what would today be called their ‘identities’.’ (Arkoun, 2002:231)

Genealogy - Nasab

The above begs the question, how are such tribal identities ascertained and legitimized historically? Arab tribal archaeology and genealogy form a science in their own respect that has taken on many forms throughout history. Such a science has never been unilinear or always coherent as history has been doctored, filtered, and percolated according to expediency. However, no distance from the truth or any tumultuous change was strong enough to obliterate the legitimacy of the Arab tribe from the Arab genetic memory bank.    As Khalidi (1995:49-50) demonstrates: 

‘Attention to genealogy (nasab) appears to have been prevalent among the Arabs since very early times… In general, nasab must be thought of first as an organizing principle, an epistemic instrument which relates history by arranging it in a family-tree structure. Secondly, nasab emphasizes the fuhul… which among other things meant ‘producers of progeny’… [It was in the Abbasid period] that genealogy as an historical science achieved a degree of development as if it were a criterion of Arab identity in an increasingly multinational empire.’

This development has a multiple aetiology. First of all, in the context of a multi-ethnic multi-racial political milieu, as the Abbassid period experienced, the division of society into ‘tribes’ facilitated logistics and organization. Many military battalions were arranged, accommodated, and housed as tribes. Naturally, a division of labour also finds the tribe a useful and functional unit of organization. This also secured an esprit du corps which was sufficiently intrinsic in itself. 

The rapid expansion of the Islamic Empire brought about a lack of linguistic, ethnic and racial harmony or homogeneity. This increased a demand for one legitimate Qur ‘an, and, accordingly, a standard Arab linguistic idiom for its transmission (which are beyond the immediate scope of this essay). Here we note the rise in language schools and a science of linguistics (ilm al lugha), that tentatively tackled this issue. Accompanying this, we also find an extensive effort expended to compile an accepted authoritative codification of Qur ‘anic interpretation buttressed by sayings and memories attributed to the Prophet Muhamed and his major contemporaries. This gave birth to such doctrinal elaborations as ijtihad, ijma, hadith, isnad, and sunnah, that all attempt to extrapolate ‘meaning’ and articulate and codify Islam. The legitimacy of these sources was of paramount importance and needed a reliable status of genealogy, hence its historical importance becomes clearly demarcated and entrenched. Legitimacy is genealogically defined.

The major protagonists of this genealogical matrix of sources contributed to delineating and privileging the importance of genealogy in the Arab academia and intelligentsia, also shaping the Arab tribal mindset, endorsing their own traditional hierarchy of legitimacy in the process. Originally these genealogies were used specifically to legitimize religious/academic authority, and this was eventually extended to political power, both during the various Caliphates, and even in more recent political regimes. Khalidi (1995:55) states that ‘this new and pious scholarly elite is not only the ornament of the genealogical tree; it also determines truth, moral and historical’. The successive waves of Arabisation of new territorial acquisitions exported not only the Arab language and Islamic religion, but also the tribal ideology and methodology. 

The Arabic language has its own semantic accommodation of this genealogy and the fuhul. Just as linguistic research has established the ‘sapir wharf’ – allowing contextual subtle nuances to be distinguished through correlative semantics (for example, Eskimos can identify a number of different types of ‘snow’ or ‘whiteness’ only ascertainable within their specific context), Arabic has similar features of meaning. Due to polygamy and the importance of tribal genealogy, for example, Arabic offers more elaborate meaning for sibling terms like ‘brother’ – brothers by same mothers and fathers (Sha qiyq) are distinguished from brothers born to same fathers but different mothers (Ah). This is important for fuhul. Members of a tribe may refer to other male members as ‘brothers’ though these may not be biological brothers.  Genealogy compounds these semantic demands.  

Tribal Culture Code
Complex cultural traits are often enunciated through language communication – ‘language’ in its wide hermeneutical sense. Arab tribes have their own cultural language codes. Access to these codes requires hermeneutical and phenomenological resources. One must refer to the context and gloss to repair indexicality. In this rubric I will take a look at rhetoric that makes sense to Arab tribes and some of the cultural codes used for this communication. I will focus on marriage to elaborate on its importance within the tribal mindset.

When Saddam’s sons-in-law defected and sought political asylum in Jordan they made a serious breach of honour. Just as Jordanian Bedouins are culturally conditioned to defend family or tribal honour, if necessary by ‘honour killings’ of kinship that have afflicted dishonour on their tribal group, so too Saddam was obliged to inflict the harshest and most assertive of punishment on those that dishonoured his extended family and tribe. 
In most Arab tribal societies ‘marriage’ is considered a ‘collective’ responsibility and sanctions determine how and between whom marriage takes place. These decisions are taken collectively in line with a ‘collective conscience’ and the usual norm is marriage within the tribe. Such societies, however, sometimes use marriage within and among ethnic groups to consolidate inter-tribal relationships as a confidence-building measure aimed at wider ‘social-cohesion’. This form of marriage will obviously not always consider the wishes of those individuals concerned, but would base these unions on ‘collectivity’ requisites or imperatives. 

When after the Gulf war Saddam Hussein offered one of his daughters to Bill Clinton just after he replaced George Bush snr., in Arab tradition he was attempting to garnish a truce and steer confidence-building measures by forming an alliance based on inter-marriage between warring factions. His entire body-language conveyed the rhetoric and protocol for this social proscription made primarily for domestic consumption. Clinton’s refusal would insult the entire Iraqi nation, and marshal emotions to galvanize support for Saddam. 

The rota-leadership of Kuwait whereby the Emir is changed every five years within the ruling Al Sabah family, obliges the serving Emir to marry into certain key tribes to consolidate family power. The power sharing within the United Arab Emirates also mirror these tribal relations. Islamic ethos related to gender, marriage, divorce, dowry, and inheritance reflect this ideology. Islamic history accentuates ‘family relationships’ and indeed the first four rightly guided Caliphs hotly contested these issues.  

Marriage is thus conferred a moral, political, economic, and social dimension. Marriage will be codified accordingly. Fixed or arranged marriages within the tribe, or into other strategic tribes, appear plausible. ‘Adultery’ in such societies would imply a serious breach in confidence, a psychological trauma to one’s perceived ‘honour’ and ‘identity’, and a rupturing of relations between tribes. It would cause a legitimacy crisis of serious dimensions. Those held responsible would be severely sanctioned. ‘Honour killings’ are to be understood within this complex tribal code of conduct.  Societies that do not attach the same importance to marriage would not legally prohibit ‘adultery’. Some so called ‘liberal’ or ‘permissive’ societies may even be inclined to consider ‘adultery’ a mere inconvenience that can be offset with some sort of negotiation or equivalent licence, or may even be inclined to extol its positive aspects. 

As Deleuze and Guattari (1987:197) have pointed out, ‘a kinship system is not a structure but a practice, a praxis, a method, and even a strategy’ and all these forces come into play. When assessing translations from one context to another these contextual-specific facts have to be assessed. This makes the Arab tribal system more relevant and, indeed, a force to be reckoned with at a time when social-organisation is problematic and traditional units are experiencing a legitimacy deficit.   

Tribal Institutionalisation

Tribes may be considered to be institutions. To assure this point is understood we need to look at a precise [sociological] definition of an ‘institution’ and what ‘institutionalization’ entails. 

Wagner (1995:20) states that: 

‘in terms of their relative durability and solidity, it may be said that institutions shape and re-shape the individuals, that they imply certain modes of training and modification of individuals, not only in the obvious sense of acquiring certain skills but also in the sense of acquiring certain attitudes.’ 

This essay shall argue that Arab tribes seem to sufficiently fulfil these conditions. 

Arab tribes seem to also have a further dual role: one, they create social practices and sanction social norms, and secondly, they play a political role related to ‘power’. This also appears to have an institutional role.  Institutions are,

           ‘widely used to describe social practises that are regularly and continuously repeated, are sanctioned and maintained by social norms, and have a major significance in the social structure. [...] Political institutions regulate the use of, and access to, power. [...] Institutionalisation is the process whereby social practises become sufficiently regular and continuous to be described as institutions. The notion is a useful corrective to the view that institutions are given and unchanging entities, indicating that changes in social practise both modify existing institutions and create novel forms.’(Abercrombie, 1994:216)  

Berger and Luckman (1991:72-8) define the basic characteristics of an ‘institution’ and ‘institutionalisation’ as follows:

1. Institutionalisation occurs whenever there is a reciprocal typification of habitualised actions by types of actors. Put differently, any such typification is an institution. 

2.   Institutions always have a history, of which they are the products.

3.   Institutionalisation is incipient in every social situation continuing in time. 

4.   All institutions appear in the same way, as given, unalterable and self-evident.

5.  It is important to keep in mind that the objectivity of the institutional world, however massive it may appear to the individual, is humanly produced, constructed objectivity.  

6.  The institutional world requires legitimisation - that is ways by which it can be explained and justified.
The above cited six points are particularly adapt to describe Arab tribes. 
In some Arab jurisdictions the role of the tribe has at certain junctures slightly diminished. This social fact is also compatible with the historical evolution of institutions. 

‘Institutionalisation is not an irreversible process, despite the fact that institutions, once formed, have a tendency to persist. For a variety of historical reasons, the scope of institutionalised actions may diminish; de-institutionalisation may take place in certain areas of social life.’(Berger et, 1991:99) 

Certain aspects of modernity like, for example, political pluralism, education and urbanization, appear to de-institutionalise the Arab tribe. Certainly this is partially true. However, tribalism is so strong that it often morphologically incorporates aspects of modernity without actually changing its crucial features. To use some linguistic jargon, Arab tribalism has both ‘diachronic’ and ‘synchronic’ mechanisms to secure survival. 

A simple example should suffice. With the advent of mass urbanization, Arab tribes were faced with more assimilation of, and acculturation to, sedentary life. In modern conurbations of space, naturally the ‘tent’ could no longer be accommodated. Life in tents needed certain logistics that included the segregation of gender and the assurance of the grouping of the tribe. One would expect urban accommodation to somehow change the former tribal household organization formerly arranged in clusters according to tribal membership. 

One may have been inclined to suspect that modern housing would have upset the former system of group collectivity with tribes being spatially delineated and segregated. This was not always the case. Sociological research conducted by, for example, John Davis on Libyan tribes concluded that even the allocation of modern social housing (in apartments) was distributed according to the tribal system. Cluster analysis of housing in the Arab world supports this distribution system. Many urban quarters are actually divided on tribal lines. So though things may seem to change superficially, at the very heart of things nothing really does. (An aside which deserves to be said is that it is still common to see tents pitched outside multi storey buildings for social functions like marriage or funerals in major Arab urban centres.)   

We may conclude that tribes are prima facie compatible with ‘institutions’ in the broad sense described. 

Power, Ideology and Discourse

Edward Said stated that ‘ideas, cultures and histories cannot seriously be understood or studied without their force, or more precisely their configurations of power, also being studied.’(Said, 1995:5) He divides ‘power’ as moral, political, cultural and intellectual. We will proceed by discussing the issue of ‘power’.      

The Oxford English dictionary defines ‘power’ as ‘ability to do something; vigour, strength; control, authority; influential person or country. (OEM, 1994:399) Let us analyse the question: ‘what is ‘power’?’ in terms of tribal authority and obedience. 

In his essay ‘Basic Concepts in Sociology’ Max Webber links ‘power’ to ‘domination’ and ‘discipline’. 

‘Power is that opportunity existing within a social relationship which permits one to carry out one’s own will even against resistance and regardless of the basis on which this opportunity rests. Domination is the opportunity to have a command of a given specified content obeyed by a given group of persons. Discipline is the opportunity to obtain prompt and automatic obedience in a predictable form from a given group of persons because of their practised orientation towards a command. The concept of ‘power’ is sociologically amorphous. Every conceivable quality of a person and every conceivable combination of circumstances may put someone in a situation where s/he can demand compliance with his/her will. The sociological concept of domination consequently must be more precise and can only mean the probability that a command will be obeyed.’(Webber, 1993:117)

Giddens defines ‘ideology’ as:  

‘the shared ideas or beliefs which serve to justify the interests of the dominant groups. Ideologies are found in all societies in which there are systematic and ingrained inequalities between groups. The concept of ideology connect closely with that of ‘power’, since ideological systems serve to legitimise the differential ‘power’ which groups hold. [He goes on to define ‘power’] as the ‘ability of individuals, or members of a group, to achieve aims or further the interests they hold.’(Giddens, 1995:584)  

Arab tribal discourses are structured by a specific mode of rationality. This rationality is a ‘contingent social logic’ expressed legally, politically, and socially through its own discourse dissemination. Russell states that ‘the laws of social dynamics are only capable of being stated in terms of power in its various forms.’(Russell, 1938:13) Here, I am attempting to analyse the social dynamics of Arab tribes in terms of power.  

Arab tribes have historically secured their power base when in a position to do so. The dominant tribes have always played an important role in political life within the region. In 1830, for example, the Shayks (tribal leaders) of the Mawali and Anaza tribes negotiated peace with the governor of Aleppo. (Chambers & Polk, 1968:67) In fact the colonial elite ‘realised that the tribal identification was too well rooted in Arabian society simply to be abolished by decree or swept aside by a few measures that tended to transcend the exclusiveness of the tribal bond’ (McGraw, 1981:258) and ensured they took full advantage of the situation, using the tribal system to secure alliances with the leading tribes. The history of the region is linked to the history of the dominant tribes of Arabia.

Poulantzas defined ‘power’ as the capacity of one class to realise its interests in opposition to other classes.’(Abercrombie, 1994:330)   Arab tribes are not ‘classes’ in the classical Marxist sense, yet we may refer to them as classes when contrasting them to other referent groups that have ‘ingrained inequalities between them’. The Arab tribal system certainly does legitimise differential power. Ethnocentricity is the forlorn result of this ‘identity’ entrenchment. Discrimination against peripheral tribes is common in many Arab countries. How does this legitimisation take place? How is it reproduced?  Edward Said states,
‘for identity, while obviously a repository of distinct collective experiences, is finally a construction – involves establishing opposites and ‘others’ whose actuality is always subject to the continuous interpretation and re-interpretation of their differences from ‘us’. Far from a static thing then, identity of self or of ‘other’ is a much worked over historical, social, intellectual, and political process that takes place as a contest involving individuals and institutions in all societies. In short, the construction of identity is bound up with the disposition of power and powerlessness in each society.’(Said, 1995:332)   

Arab tribes thus may be regarded as institutions with their own socially constructed ideology that disciplines members to secure compliance. Tribes are arranged in hierarchies that are stratified according to power imperatives. Tribal members know their precise location both within their tribe and in relation to other tribes. These characteristics are reproduced. Even within basic Arab culture, these ethos are maintained at all levels of social intercourse. Status in, and only in, the Arab tribal system is ‘ascribed’ not ‘achieved’.  

For example, within a family unit the males dominate over female, and among males, order of age sets the chain of command. When Libya’s leader Gadaffi reconciliated his rule with the United States after years of anti-American rhetoric he referred to America as Libya’s ‘older brother’. His rhetoric was particularly astute. In tribal language, he meant someone you are obliged through duty to obey, even if reluctantly for he abuses of his power and bosses you around in front of guests.  Obedience, and its expression as loyalty or allegiance, is an important requisite of tribal structures. This perhaps best explains what Congrigg and Jankowski (1970:228) refer to as ‘introvert tribal loyalty’. Loyalty is equivalent to blind unquestioning obedience according to tribal duty that the ‘family’ as a basic unit of value-reproduction initiate members into. 

Gilles Deleuze makes it amply clear that we should not reduce ‘power’ to ‘obedience’. ‘Obeying is a quality of force as such and relates to power just as much as commanding does’ (Deleuze, 1996:40). I should like to make it amply clear that both power and obedience are equivalent in value, and both have their own merits and validity. Tribal power could not be secured without reliable and predictable obedience. Membership is based on this disciplined allegiance, and its exchange value. This fact cannot be overstated. Obedience, even on an individual level, increases the value of the collective tribe.

Such obedience would not be possible without a correlative form of socialisation that instils discipline. Discipline is achieved from childhood. All these forms of education initiate members on such issues as duty, values, honour and pride. Together these all contribute in making members prepare themselves for their duties. 

Arab tribes are supra national and many promote ‘statelessness’, as only the tribe is the final arbiter in all matters. In short, what the tribe says, goes. All else is irrelevant. All political institutions and all other contenders have failed miserably. Notwithstanding modernisation and industrialization, these features appear immutable in wide areas of everyday life in the Arab world. The urban centres like Cairo or Beirut are actually the exceptions that prove the rule. Tribes cannot be ignored. They have no spectre for they are alive and kicking. 


Though tribes are not an exclusively ‘Arab’ social unit, Arab tribes are important specifically because they have retained their strategic importance culturally, socially, and politically. The distribution of power is linked to this tribal system. 

This essay sought to explore the most salient features of the Arab tribal system. Understanding the dynamics of the tribe would also allow one to appreciate the Arab mindset. Terms like ‘membership’, ‘identity’, ‘loyalty’, ‘allegiance’, and ‘collectivity’ are seriously enhanced when one realizes the context within which they emanate. Eurocentrisim and Orientalism, as Said refers to them, ignore these realities by reductive analysis and over-simplifications to their peril.

Tribes are so ingrained in the Arab world that all attempts to undercut them or reduce their importance have failed miserably. The political parties and even the military regimes were forced to succumb to their demands for status and power. Ironically, Gadaffi’s ‘Green Book’ states, both naively and quite frankly, ‘who does not belong to a tribe?’, as though this reality were universal.  

It is interesting to note that Arab organisations labelled as ‘terrorist’, particularly those of an Islamic slant, are best understood through the dynamics of tribal ideology and the values these promote. Loyalty, obedience, and leadership would not be relevant without the dominant tribal ideology. Thus the study of the Arab tribe offers potentially important insights which cannot be overlooked. Organisations like the Muslim Brotherhood or Al Qaeda find their coherence in tribal ideology.  Many illicit organisations seem to find their appeal is based on romantic versions of tribal camaraderie and community values, not very different to ideologies of extreme ‘patriotism’ or ‘nationalism’. 

This essay sought to look at these social facts as objectively as possible. That many claim this is a subjective area that will change with economic development or democracy does not seem to have gained any currency. Many would be far better off understanding this phenomena rather than seeking refuge in a state of denial.       


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Philosophy Sharing talk on the philosophy of Michel Foucault - Meinrad Calleja, 2013.

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Talk given by Meinrad Calleja, hosted by Philosophy Sharing Malta, on the philosophy of Michel Foucault and the Battle Roar of Silence.
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