Tribalism is the pernicious ideology that afflicts all human societies in every time period, originating in the worship of idols and reconstructing itself into many forms throughout the ages. In modern times, we know it as the specters of racism, xenophobia, and supremacism. In practice, it rears its ugly head in the shape of prejudice, bigotry, discrimination, and violence.
Allah has commanded us to uphold justice with all other human beings regardless of their race, religion, or identity.
يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا كُونُوا قَوَّامِينَ بِالْقِسْطِ شُهَدَاءَ لِلَّهِ وَلَوْ عَلَىٰ أَنفُسِكُمْ أَوِ الْوَالِدَيْنِ وَالْأَقْرَبِينَ إِن يَكُنْ غَنِيًّا أَوْ فَقِيرًا فَاللَّهُ أَوْلَىٰ بِهِمَا فَلَا تَتَّبِعُوا الْهَوَىٰ أَن تَعْدِلُوا
O you who believe, be persistently standing firm in justice as witnesses for Allah, even if it be against yourselves or parents and relatives. Whether one is rich or poor, Allah is more worthy of both. Follow not your desires, lest you not be just.
Surat An-Nisa 4:135
Tribalists, by contrast, reject universal standards of justice. They divide the world into the privileged in-group and the demonized out-groups, holding to the slogan “my people right or wrong.” Their love of their own people and hatred of different people causes them to rationalize and justify the unjustifiable.
Wathila ibn Al-Asqa’, RadiyAllahu Anhu, reported: I said, “O Messenger of Allah, is it part of tribalism that a man loves his people?” The Prophet, SallAllahu Alaihi Wa Sallam, said:
لَا وَلَكِنْ مِنَ الْعَصَبِيَّةِ أَنْ يُعِينَ الرَّجُلُ قَوْمَهُ عَلَى الظُّلْمِ
No, rather it is tribalism that he supports his people in wrongdoing.
Source: Sunan Ibn Majah 3949, Grade: Hasan
Love for one’s people is normal and healthy if it leads to good deeds, but such love that comes at the expense of justice is no true love at all.
Tribalism by this definition has been rejected by Islam in the harshest terms. Tribalism is a form of “blind following” whose adherents live in “ignorance,” an allusion to the pre-Islamic worship of idols.
Jundab ibn Abdullah, RadiyAllahu Anhu, reported: The Messenger of Allah, SallAllahu Alaihi Wa Sallam, said:
مَنْ قُتِلَ تَحْتَ رَايَةٍ عِمِّيَّةٍ يَدْعُو عَصَبِيَّةً أَوْ يَنْصُرُ عَصَبِيَّةً فَقِتْلَةٌ جَاهِلِيَّةٌ
Whoever is killed under the banner of blind following, who calls to tribalism or supports tribalism, then he has died upon ignorance.
Source: Sahih Muslim 1850, Grade: Sahih
The Prophet disowned anyone who lives by the ideology of tribalism or supports it in any way. Tribalists might be outwardly Muslims, but in reality Allah will not count them among the true believers.
Jubair ibn Mut’im, RadiyAllahu Anhu, reported: The Messenger of Allah, SallAllahu Alaihi Wa Sallam, said:
لَيْسَ مِنَّا مَنْ دَعَا إِلَى عَصَبِيَّةٍ وَلَيْسَ مِنَّا مَنْ قَاتَلَ عَلَى عَصَبِيَّةٍ وَلَيْسَ مِنَّا مَنْ مَاتَ عَلَى عَصَبِيَّةٍ
He is not one of us who calls to tribalism. He is not one of us who fights for the sake of tribalism. He is not one of us who dies following the way of tribalism.
Source: Sunan Abu Dawud 5121, Grade: Hasan
The Prophet delivered an instructive parable to use about the likeness of one who adheres to tribalism:
Abdullah ibn Mas’ud, RadiyAllahu Anhu, reported: The Messenger of Allah, SallAllahu Alaihi Wa Sallam, said:
مَنْ أَعَانَ قَوْمَهُ عَلَى ظُلْمٍ فَهُوَ كَالْبَعِيرِ الْمُتَرَدِّي يَنْزِعُ بِذَنَبِهِ
Whoever supports his people in oppression is like a dead camel that falls into a well and is pulled out by its tail.
Source: Musnad Ahmad 4141, Grade: Sahih
In another narration, the Prophet, SallAllahu Alaihi Wa Sallam, said:
وَمَثَلُ الَّذِي يُعِينُ قَوْمَهُ عَلَى غَيْرِ الْحَقِّ كَمَثَلِ بَعِيرٍ رُدِّيَ فِي بِئْرٍ فَهُوَ يَنْزِعُ مِنْهَا بِذَنَبِهِ
The parable of the one who supports his people upon other than the truth is that of a dead camel that falls into a well and is pulled out by its tail.
Source: Musnad Ahmad 3670, Grade: Sahih
The tribalist who falls into this sin is destroyed, just like a camel that plunges to his death inside a well. The corpse of his sin will poison the well for an entire town, while the townspeople must endure the hideous sight and stench as they remove his carcass from their drinking water. Like the rotting camel, all throughout history we have seen the deadly presence of tribalism in oppression, murder, and genocide.
Tribalism takes many different forms, but the mindset is always the same. When tribalists justify themselves in terms of race, this is classic biological racism. Sometimes tribalists justify themselves in terms of culture, claiming their culture must dominate others, in which case they are simply practicing cultural racism.
Religion itself can be used to construct and justify an ideology of tribalism. If religion is used to violate the human rights of others and rationalize injustice against out-groups, it has become nothing more than religious racism.
Rather, the religion of Islam teaches us to uphold the rights of all human beings, to walk with humility, and to leave the divine judgment to Allah alone. Even our enemies deserve their basic human rights. In this regard, Allah informs us about the story of Moses, peace be upon him, when he accidentally killed the Egyptian man. Moses felt regret and sought forgiveness for his mistake, although the Egyptians at the time were oppressing the Israelites under the Pharaoh.
وَدَخَلَ الْمَدِينَةَ عَلَىٰ حِينِ غَفْلَةٍ مِّنْ أَهْلِهَا فَوَجَدَ فِيهَا رَجُلَيْنِ يَقْتَتِلَانِ هَٰذَا مِن شِيعَتِهِ وَهَٰذَا مِنْ عَدُوِّهِ ۖ فَاسْتَغَاثَهُ الَّذِي مِن شِيعَتِهِ عَلَى الَّذِي مِنْ عَدُوِّهِ فَوَكَزَهُ مُوسَىٰ فَقَضَىٰ عَلَيْهِ ۖ قَالَ هَٰذَا مِنْ عَمَلِ الشَّيْطَانِ ۖ إِنَّهُ عَدُوٌّ مُّضِلٌّ مُّبِينٌ قَالَ رَبِّ إِنِّي ظَلَمْتُ نَفْسِي فَاغْفِرْ لِي فَغَفَرَ لَهُ ۚ إِنَّهُ هُوَ الْغَفُورُ الرَّحِيمُ قَالَ رَبِّ بِمَا أَنْعَمْتَ عَلَيَّ فَلَنْ أَكُونَ ظَهِيرًا لِّلْمُجْرِمِينَ
Moses entered the city at a time of inattention by its people and found therein two men fighting: one from his faction and one from his enemy. The one from his people called for help against his enemy, so Moses struck him and killed him. Moses said: This is from the work of Satan, for he is clearly a misguiding enemy. Moses said: My Lord, I have wronged myself, so forgive me. And Allah forgave him. Verily, He is the Forgiving, the Merciful. Moses said, “My Lord, for the favor you have bestowed upon me, I will never support the criminals.
Surat Al-Qasas 28:15-17
Hasan Al-Basri (R.a.) commented on this verse, saying:
لَمْ يَكُنْ يَحِلُّ قَتْلُ الْكَافِرِ يَوْمَئِذٍ فِي تِلْكَ الْحَالِ لِأَنَّهَا كَانَتْ حَالَ كَفٍّ عَنِ الْقِتَالِ
It was not lawful to kill the unbeliever on that day in this situation, as the circumstances warranted restraint.
Source: al-Jāmiʻ li-Aḥkām al-Qurʼān 28:15
Thus, even if a group of people are considered our enemies and oppressors, that does not give us license to kill or harm individuals among them without a necessary just cause.
Moreover, as religious people we cannot make divine judgments about an individual’s status with Allah, let alone make sweeping judgments about entire groups of people. We would do well to remember the fates of the humble sinner and the arrogant worshiper.
Abu Huraira, RadiyAllahu Anhu, reported: The Messenger of Allah, SallAllahu Alaihi Wa Sallam, said:
كَانَ رَجُلَانِ فِي بَنِي إِسْرَائِيلَ مُتَوَاخِيَيْنِ فَكَانَ أَحَدُهُمَا يُذْنِبُ وَالْآخَرُ مُجْتَهِدٌ فِي الْعِبَادَةِ فَكَانَ لَا يَزَالُ الْمُجْتَهِدُ يَرَى الْآخَرَ عَلَى الذَّنْبِ فَيَقُولُ أَقْصِرْ فَوَجَدَهُ يَوْمًا عَلَى ذَنْبٍ فَقَالَ لَهُ أَقْصِرْ فَقَالَ خَلِّنِي وَرَبِّي أَبُعِثْتَ عَلَيَّ رَقِيبًا فَقَالَ وَاللَّهِ لَا يَغْفِرُ اللَّهُ لَكَ أَوْ لَا يُدْخِلُكَ اللَّهُ الْجَنَّةَ فَقَبَضَ أَرْوَاحَهُمَا فَاجْتَمَعَا عِنْدَ رَبِّ الْعَالَمِينَ فَقَالَ لِهَذَا الْمُجْتَهِدِ أَكُنْتَ بِي عَالِمًا أَوْ كُنْتَ عَلَى مَا فِي يَدِي قَادِرًا وَقَالَ لِلْمُذْنِبِ اذْهَبْ فَادْخُلْ الْجَنَّةَ بِرَحْمَتِي وَقَالَ لِلْآخَرِ اذْهَبُوا بِهِ إِلَى النَّارِ
Two men among the children of Israel were the opposite of each other. One of them was a sinner and the other would strive in worship. The worshiper would see the sinner and tell him to stop. One day he found him sinning so he said: Stop! The sinner said: Leave me alone, by my Lord, have you been sent as a watchman over me? The worshiper said: By Allah, Allah will not forgive you or admit you into Paradise. Later their souls were taken and they met in the presence of the Lord of the worlds. Allah said to the worshiper: Did you have knowledge of me or power over what is in my hand? Allah said to the sinner: Enter Paradise by my mercy. And Allah said to the worshiper: Take him to the Hellfire.
Source: Sunan Abu Dawud 4901, Grade: Sahih