Tribes, Confederations, Ils and Ulus.
One of my pet peeves is the way some people throw around terms as if they have meaning but when you try to define what they mean they claim insult and refuse to clarify. Here I am speaking rhetorically and not singling out any particular pedant.
I once asked a prominent anthropologist and author why academics rarely use the word “Tribe”. I won’t mention his name for obvious reasons but his answer was insightful to say the least. He told me that when we use the term “Tribe” most people picture “black Africans hopping around a pot in a Tarzan movie”. Since identity is near and dear to us in the study of the weaving groups of Southwest Asia I thought I would lay down my thoughts on identity in weaving cultures.
The Qashqai are a well documented group that we can use as an example. The basic building block is the travel group. This is a voluntary association of 5 to no more than 25 families or tents. For general estimates a tent is considered to hold 5 people. So the smallest group ranges from about 25 people to no more than 125. When a group gets to 25 tents they are likely to split off into two or more travel groups. During good times a group can be larger but when times are tough the groups are likely to fracture. These groups tend to come from one ethno-linguistic sub-group and have a high incidence of close (genetic) kinship. Travel groups tend to have like grouping with like.
Travel groups make up clans which generally have a shared sense of identity. A Clan or Tireh normally speak one dialect and have a high incidence of genetic kinship.
A tribe is a voluntary association of clans or as the Qashqai say “tireh”. Even when they claim a shared ancestor it is rarely the case. There is a high incidence of shared ethno-linguistic identity but it is not unheard of to have slight linguistic differences between clans.
A confederation or IL is a group of tribes and here is where the real trouble starts in the study of rugs. Many of the most vocal of the Priesthood don’t get the subtle differences between tribe and confederation. A tribe is normally a voluntary group of like people who have a shared identity and language. A confederation can be something quite different.
A tribe which the Qashqai call a Tayefeh or Aymaq in Turki are built in a way first laid out by Ibn Khaldun the 14th century Tunisian (Arab) philosopher in what is now called the "Strong man" theory. Even in a 5 family travel group the group selects one man as a leader. He decides where to camp, how far to travel and so on. The leader is the defacto Strong Man. These groups looked to like groups for protection and thus clans formed and a leader is chosen again. The leader is chosen because he is the man among men to do the job i.e. he is the Strong Man.
At the tribe level there is normally an “elite” clan from whom the leader is chosen. In the Qashqai the leader is of the Shahilu family of the Shahilu tireh of the Amaleh tayefeh or tribe. At one point a Strong Man overthrows the old order and makes his clan the elite. Then the advantages of leadership make it possible to maintain that power in a small group. The authority to settle disputes such as grazing and water rights gave tremendous power to the elite to maintain their power.
While the Strong Man model works from the travel group to the tribe level in practice an IL or Confederation is very different. While at some point in the far past a confederation may have coalesced around a strong man for over 500 years tribal confederations are and have been a creation of the state.
Back to the Qashqai, Ismail Shah Safavi the first of the Safavid dynasty formed the Qashqai. Ismail Shah defeated and supplanted the Ak Koyunlu Turkmen dynasty that ruled Persia from Northwest Persia. The tribal leadership that supported the Ak Koyunlu was replaced with Kizilbash members of the same tribes who had backed this new Kizilbash confederation. Ismail Shah used an interesting strategy to over throw the Turkmen. He created a neo-tribal structure based on recruiting the out of power “Strong Men” into a brotherhood based in Sufi Islam. In every Confederation there are always those out of power seeking to grow stronger. Normally the inherent advantages in the established order are enough to perpetuate the elite. However in cataclysmic times the mighty can fall and a new elite can emerge.
The Safavi created a new system of Confederations that we know as the Kizilbash. These Confederations were a form of control mixed with tax farming. We in the west are used to thinking of state in terms of geographical boundaries. This is not a practical form of government when your people dwell in tents and can disappear over a border whenever they wish. So instead a tribal leader is established as khan of a group of tribes and he owes service and taxes to the state. In the case of the Chahar Aymaq (Four Tribes) besides taxes they had to defend the road between Herat and Kandahar. The Qashqai had to maintain a defensive buffer between Persian Fars and the Ottoman in Ottoman Iraq. Since there were many Arabs in that part of Persia a powerful military force friendly to the Shah was very important. Besides maintaining the road the Chahar Aymaq created a defensive bulwark against the Uzbek and their oft-times Turkmen allies to the north and the Mughals to the south.
Forgive me for rambling but it is a comprehensive area of study and I am going to break here for now and flesh this out more at a later day.