StudiesAnimal Sacrifice as an Alternative Violence: The Anthropology of “Hajar” Among Yemeni Tribes

26 November، 2021by Ahmed Al Tars Al-Arami

The practice of sacrifice seems as if it aims to assuage violence, and return to communion with God.

Ahmed Al-Taras Al-Arami

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The tribe represents the primary unit of Yemeni society. It is a social system whose members are linked by a set of economic, social and geographic ties and governed by customary law. These laws or norms deal with conflicts between members of the tribe or between clans within one tribe, as well as between different tribes. These norms are inherited, orally and by application. While the norms potentially remain relatively stable, aspects are nevertheless subject to development and change. Generally, they are concerned with life affairs, some of which constitute basic pillars as multi-functional and context-driven traditions, such as: “al-taHkiim” (arbitration), “al-Sawaab”, “al-hijra”, “‘ayb”, “al-‘aqiira”, “al-hajar”, and so on.

“Hajar” is the strangest of these provisions, which is defined as the slaughter of one or more animals (cows, sheep, camels) as a punishment for one of the parties to the conflict, and as a kind of restitution or apology to the other party. This customary rule is applied in many cases; it is so common and widespread that it replaces some provisions of the official law and assumes the role of judicial rulings. It remains highly impactful in tribal society, although cultural changes have made it the subject of questions by the educated and urban residents, some serious and others sarcastic, but revolving around this point: why are cows slaughtered for a sin they did not commit?

This paper argues that Hajar functions as an alternative to potential violence—that is, it functions like provisions of the law in maintaining peace and group cohesion by stopping, mitigating, or avoiding violence, goals which lie at the core of the functions of the tribe as a social entity. It also achieves the same purpose for which the modern judicial system was established. To analyze this function, this research is based on what René Girard contends about ritual slaughter, or sacrifice, as an alternative to human violence. Hajar seems to be the ideal model of this substitution, as it manifests as the most explicit form of sacrifice by expressing it visually to stop violence before it begins. Or Hajar stops the cycle at some point by displacing potential violence that could strike the group and compensating for it through animal slaughter.

The Sacrificial and Substitution

In his book Violence and the Sacred, René Gérard sees that violence is inherent in man, but human societies have sought, in order to distract it from it, to place the responsibility for evil on  a particular person, as a prelude to ridding society of it, in such a way that resembles the ​​“scapegoat”: protecting the society from physical violence through symbolic or substitutionary violence, or what he calls “sacrificial substitution” that compensates for potential violence. His  explanation for the function of sacrifice, or the sacred sacrifice, differs from what other scholars contended, such as Joseph de Maitre, who sees “in the ritual sacrificing an ‘innocent’ creature that is punished for an act committed by one of the ‘sinners’”[1]. On the contrary, Rene Girard argues that we should look at the act of sacrifice on a grounded separate basis that nullifies the moral difference: “It does not establish the connection on the basis of guilt and innocence between the potential victim and the actual victim. If society is threatened by violence, it seeks to deviate it from its members whom it intends to protect at any cost, towards a relatively neutral victim, a victim worthy of sacrifice”[2].

René Girard monitors the function of sacrificial substitution by tracing the ritual of sacrifice in the ancient Greek and Jewish civilization, as evidenced by the legend of Cain and Abel in the Torah. He cites the story of Abraham and Isaac (Ismail in the Qur’an), when the sacrifice of a son is replaced by an animal sacrifice[3] . In Girard’s view, this substitution gradually moves from human violence to animal sacrifice to purely symbolic violence. By sacrificing one of the individuals who is blamed for the violence and evil that happened, peace and serenity return. This act constitutes what he calls the first sacrificial substitution, when the victim is a human being. Because the danger of violence remains, sometimes because of the first sacrificial act, and for fear of its return due to the continuation of the simulated desire mechanism, the group establishes a second sacrificial exchange that substitutes the sacrificial victim from within the group with a ritual victim from outside of it. Prisoners of war, the marginalized, and outcasts such as the sick and demented are often chosen. Then we reach the stage that substitutes the animal sacrifice for human sacrifice[4] .

Such an interpretation is important when analyzing ritual sacrifice in Yemen, as sacrifices constituted an important element of religion in the ancient southern Arabian Peninsula. In the Musnad inscriptions, the word slaughter means sacrifice, slaughter, and the act of slaughtering. Cows, bulls, sheep and goats are among the most common animals slaughtered among Semitic peoples; these sacrifices are presented to mark special occasions such as the completion of a building, thanking and praising the gods, for a wish that has been fulfilled, or on occasions such as Hajj or religious celebrations[5].

However, sacrifice occurred according to the Musnad inscriptions, “as a punishment imposed on those who do what necessitates deprivation and is prohibited, and some inscriptions mention that sacrifices, such as sheep and others, are given as an atonement for the gods”[6].

Sacrifice is still strongly present in Yemeni popular culture as part of many traditions and occasions, such as the sacrifices for rain, construction or completion of a new building, birth, death, and marriage. Some of these are called “fado”, thereby including a sign of redemption. In every new building, people make a sacrifice, and hold a feast to serve the meat, which they call “wakeira,” and they believe that it is necessary to avoid evil living in the new house. Moreover, in cases where the residents of a house repeatedly fall ill, they believe that the house is haunted by “evil spirits” or demons, and then they sacrifice an animal every year and hold a feast called “Hadra”.

Such a belief is present after death: in many Yemeni regions, the deceased’s family is keen to slaughter one or more sacrifices. In some areas, they call it “Qafi,” and believe that if they do not do so, a member of the family, village, or clan will be injured, as if death visited them thirsty for blood, and unsatisfied by a single victim, must be satiated with a substitutionary sacrifice. There are some families in the village of Adhamour in Ta‘az governorate who, until recently, were close to a grandfather of a demon named “Medham”: when a new baby was born, in order to protect him or her, they slaughtered a sheep on the outskirts of the village, and left it after cutting off its head and removing the guts; they believed that if the grandfather did not offer Medham this sacrifice, he would react violently, and destroy the life of the newborn[7].

The practice of sacrifice here seems as if it aims to assuage violence, to pacify it, and return to communion with God. Violence in such cases is as Gerard tells us exactly: “Polarized by the sacrificial killing, violence is appeased. It subsides. We might say that it is expelled from the community and becomes part of the divine substance, from which it is completely indistinguishable, for each successive sacrifice evokes in diminishing degree the immense calm produced by the act of generative unanimity, by the initial appearance of the god”[8].

Whatever the case may be, the task of avoiding potential violence, which is desired through the act of the sacrificial victim in ancient religious rituals and beliefs, is achieved in hajar more clearly and openly. The potential violence is relieved from the community’s shoulders, by displacing it little by little to alternative spaces, which are certainly symbolic and  spaces of compensation [9]; the group chooses a suitable victim from outside the community to ward off violence from within. Hajar and the accompanying rituals show us the game of violence’s progression from the material to the symbolic.

Sacrifice as Law

Among the provisions of the customary law system of the Yemeni tribes, hajar resolves disputes and reconciles disputants, in which one or more members of the tribe apologize, admit guilt, atone for the sin, and rehabilitate one or more members of the same tribe, or other tribes, through a tradition in which the apologizing group offers an animal sacrifice, such as sheep, cows or camels, the number of which is determined according to the size and nature of the crime committed, and according to what is approved by a third party (often an arbitral tribunal), and sometimes approved by the second party if it is arbitrated, and this may be done on the initiative of the first party at his discretion, or in accordance with the established traditions of custom.

Mutahhar Al-Eryani defines hajar by saying: “Hajar: in disputes is a form of satisfaction, by which a judgment is passed on the invalidator or the wrongdoer in order to please the one against whom the wrong or error has fallen, and in return for his regard and dignity, usually executed on sheep, or more than a sacrifice of cows and oxen in particular” [10].

The tribesmen resolve their differences and disputes, from fights to wars, and from property disputes to bloody revenge issues, through several means. Among the most prominent of these is the offering of one or more animal sacrifices in what is known as hajar, as a foundational act of reconciliation between two conflicting parties. This is not limited to issues of conflict between individuals but extends to conflicts between groups. Moreover, it is not limited to a specific offense. Hajar is a ruling in response to many offenses, such as displaying a weapon, using a weapon (such as stabbing), or a non-fatal injury. Additional offenses include insults that affect dignity: slapping, insulting honor, insulting women, theft, adultery, and murder. Hajar is stipulated in war settlements between tribes and nascent or chronic issues of revenge.

For example, hajar may be one provision in response to the use of a deadly weapon during a quarrel between two people or parties: “Whoever hastened to hold the handle of the jambiya (dagger) without unsheathing it, and whoever unsheaths it partially or completely, hajar is implemented. Stabbing has its own conditions and provisions, and hajar may be included among them. Additionally, fights and clashes with hands, sticks and batons have their provisions, but slapping on the face is one of the biggest crimes, because it is insulting and breaking the law, and therefore hajar in it is great” [11].

Likewise, when two parties fight over property, each case or issue has its own customary rulings, but hajar is judged in moral issues; that is, it pervades disputes of abuse, insults, or moral transgressions, like “one of the parties is sentenced to hajar, either as a form of  satisfaction because he was the instigator, or out of regard for the other party and their dignity. Or if he utters words against the other during conflict, or attacks him by hand, even just as a threat. Hajar is also issued in verbal disputes for those who begin directing what they consider insults or affronts to dignity; and if two parties exchange harsh words, arbitration occurs between them and a judgment of hajar is imposed on those who exceeded limits with their words” [12].

The code of tribal custom details rights, or “the net limit of Shariah” in three rights that cannot be neglected, which are: human blood, honor, and money. As for the ruling on money, custom stipulates that it should be returned. As for honor and blood, there are many rulings, but hajar is inseparable from the judgment process and present in many of its stages; hajar varies according  to the judgment’s type, circumstance, and degree [13]; it accompanies the process of conciliation and arbitration, even in those cases in which Deya—blood money—is required. Sometimes before the ruling is issued, the offender’s family, for example, goes to the victim’s family with ‘aqiira, before discussing details; he also deals with legal rights that could lead to revenge. For example, the cases in which it is decided, according to the modern judicial system, that a party provides material compensation for insults and defamation, it is often ruled, according to tribal custom, with hajar.

This works to remove the causes of tension, reconcile the relationship, and remove grudges—an atmosphere which results in tolerance and peace, of course. “When the perpetrator  goes to the wronged person’s house in broad daylight, in front of him is the sacrifice or sacrifices that have been decreed for him, so he slaughters them in front of his house, and here everyone knows that whoever is exposed to error and falsehood has been completely satisfied. Thus, the conflict is completely removed, for the one wronged is satisfied no matter what sin is committed against him, just as the perpetrator does not feel resentment, but rather finds in that a way out of the embarrassment that befell him when he was angry. Also, the one to whom hajar is brought may suffice with that; when the wrongdoer and the sacrifices arrive at the door of his house, he may appear and say: hajar is acceptable and confirmed, meaning that he exempts the person from slaughtering. Then, he who did not slaughter becomes like one who did slaughter to satisfy the other [14].

This is the direct function of hajar in its simplest meanings and forms; it is the most obvious form of sacrifice in expressing the human groups’ quest to avoid violence from within a community through alternative victims from outside it, which can achieve cohesion and peace within the group.

We may not find an explanation for how an “animal sacrifice” can satisfy one or two parties, and put an end to their disagreement, except that in every dispute or conflict is an opportunity to breed a succession of violence, in which each side will be, as is the case with both brothers in the Old Testament and Greek myths alike, “driven by a compelling inevitability to exercise violence against the other”[15]. To stop this, violence is deceived by a sacrifice, or a third victim from outside the group as “the last victim of violence without causing new revenge” [16]. Hence, violence becomes legitimate or legalized violence aimed at stopping reciprocal violence, meaning that it is equivalent to a bridge to nonviolence, or stopping violence at a certain point.

The effectiveness of hajar is reflected not only in that it is a customary law that works directly in removing the causes of tension between the conflicting parties, but also in that it works on sensitive issues in particular, issues that are likely to spark destructive violence. Moral abuses, which are usually judged with hajar, are very serious acts for a society based on the concept of honor and tribal fervor; therefore, it is one of the hotbeds of tension that may lead to violence.

Actions such as “slapping”, “besmirching honor”, ​​“insulting women” and others disgrace the person who has been subjected to them, and may push him to retaliate, and retaliation is only an action parallel to the first act (such as a slap in response to a slap), or greater than it (killing in response to a slap). Thus, it becomes very easy for ordinary quarrels or simple disagreement to transform into armed conflict, where killing under the pretext of vengeance naturally leads to more killing under the pretext of vengeance itself. Every very act of retaliation calls for new acts of vengeance, to the extent that retaliation, in Girard’s words, constitutes “an endless process, which hardly springs up from a certain point within the group until it tends to spread in the entire social body, presaging a chain reaction whose dire consequences quickly unravel in a small-scale society, or petty disagreements to turn into armed violence, and armed violence into long-term revenge”[17].

Therefore, the tribal custom stipulates that there should be no retaliation in matters of “arguments of honor”: “There is no need for justice in honor,” meaning that “crimes related to honor do not require retaliation of the same type, but rather as a disciplinary punishment”[18]. In the case of a slap, punishment is animal sacrifice, or hajar. Thus, it is a form of  “redemption” for the group in order to avoid violence that could strike its members and disrupt the group’s very structure; it has a “realistic function in which the issue of substitution is raised at the level of the whole group, as the victim is not a substitute for specific individuals. It’s not a substitute for those under threat in particular, and it is not a blood offering to a specific individual who is superior to all other individuals, but it is a substitute for all members of society and a gift for them and by all of them”[19] .

Popular culture alludes to this function in a popular proverb that is circulated or invoked in the context of hajar. The proverb says: “From his money, not from his blood”. That is, requiring the offender to pay money is easier than requiring him to pay in his blood.  The “fine” being paid here specifically means hajar, as an animal sacrifice, as if the meaning of the proverb is: “From the blood of his money not from his blood”, since animal blood is less burdensome than human blood, provided that the financial fine is part of the rule of hajar. In tribal custom, a third of the value of the sacrifice is ruled as financial compensation (just like compensation for defamation in modern law) and from here it is excluded that the original purpose of the hajar was monetary fine. Although cows in Yemeni agricultural society are considered wealth, as the household (family) economy depends on them along with the land, the rule of hajar does not consider this, not in number, quality, nor the ownership of it or lack thereof; evidence for this is that most people do not own cows, so they go buy them with their money, which may be divided between the family or tribe to which he belongs. In other words, the sacrifice is essential. To reiterate this point, the victim may take money (one-third as compensation), but he cannot take the cows. When an animal is led to him for slaughter, he has the choice between pardoning—here the cows are returned to their owner alive without being slaughtered—and accepting the sacrifice. Here he is not allowed to own the animal as compensation but must divide it between himself and the party that offered hajar; the matter requires slaughter, which means that it is essential.

Between Hajar and Hijra

Hajar works in a way to maintain balance within the group. It is one of the mechanisms of customary law in achieving this function, especially since its effectiveness is more embodied in legal rights, as the shedding of blood and sacrifice, in a way, indicates their holiness. This will become clearer through the linguistic meaning of hajar. What we will try to explore now is relate it to another customary tribal term—Hijra—a provision related to establishing peace. This appears to be the first time the link between the two terms has been indicated, despite their strong relationship in terms of linguistic meaning and customary legal function.

It is said about hajar: “So-and-so implements hajar for another person, so one implements hajar, and the other receives hajar; the sacrifice or sacrifices are hajar”[20]. And we do not know the direct significance of the root of the word itself, but we know that it differs from the meaning of the root in Arabic dictionaries, where it means “the opposite of al-wasl.” Al-wasl  means to migrate, move, and leave one country for another. Hijra is a purely tribal term whose meaning is directly related to tribal customs, and therefore it can be understood through the root’s meaning in Yemeni dialect, namely through the customary law known as  “al-hijra”. al-hijra is the closest Yemeni tribal law and custom to hajar, semantically and linguistically, in  addition to the root “hajar” in the language of southern Arabia.

In tribal custom, [21] al-hijra means: a place, person or persons to whom the tribes recognize the rights of non-aggression and exposure to any harm; the tribes protect the group, and exposure to harm in turn exposes the perpetrator to heavy judgment, and is considered a repulsive defect, with dire consequences. Those deemed hijra are not allowed to use or carry weapons, instead relying on the area’s tribes for protection. Lands deemed hijra are places determined and announced by tribes, and usually these areas are either public squares, markets, holy places, symbolic cities (such as Sana‘a’), or cities of knowledge, and the approval of their description as “hijra” in tribal custom. Hijra means these places should not be invaded or exposed to battles bloodshed meant as revenge. As for people deemed “hijra”, they are religious figures, jurists, and descendants of the Prophet, all of whom have a religious position. There are those in a tribal position and therefore considered customary tribal figures, or they are unable to bear arms. Describing them as “hijra” means that they do not bear arms and arms are not used against them; they do not participate in war, and they do not defend against an assault [22].

In the hijra, it is said, “The tribe, the group, or the region of ‘Bani’ so-and-so are in state of hijra, so they are hijrat, and their country, village or home is a hijra”[23] . Hijra’s meaning here may be safety, in terms of its direct function, which means the prohibition and criminalization of aggression. It seems that there is something that no one has paid attention to before, which is the link between this meaning of hijra and the meaning of hajar “sacrifice”; this connection goes beyond the verbal similarity in the triple root “h-j-r”; it’s a moral and functional relationship represented in the exclusion of violence, its restriction, and its connection to the idea of ​​the forbidden or the sacred. Each of them works to restrict and legalize violence, and even works in sensitive areas that resemble sanctuaries or holy sites.

Hijra works in categories and places that are sacred or related to the sacred, and it seems that this goes back to a tradition as old as the Yemeni tribe, as it includes rulers, clergymen and jurists, cities, temples, markets and villages designated as a place of knowledge (the hijra of Yemen and its strongholds), and other things that are covered by the hijra law from places to people. This is reminiscent of rulers, priests and some classes of society that work in their service and the service of the gods in ancient Yemen, who lived under certain conditions, including the prohibition of aggression, and this includes privileged places such as markets, temples, cities, and major centers that were in the protection of tribal deities. And so, al-hijra acquires a sacred image. The term hajar was mentioned in the inscriptions of the Musnad, referring to a kind of city: “Every people had a city (hajar) that represented the center of their agricultural, commercial and religious activity; and the name of the people may be added to the city, such as the people of Sarwah and the city of Sarwah”[24] . And it seems it was agreed upon that these centers avoid violence, and that they would be fought for and protected. Hence, the term’s origins are wordly in that these centers were linked to the interests of the tribe and its leaders; yet they garnered privileges from their association with deities in some way [25]. In Islam they are called Hurum, that is, they enjoy a privileged position and sanctity, and are forbidden to be touched by any act that violates its sanctity, including violence or bloodshed.

Moreover, close to this sanctity is the sanctity of the scope in which hajar operates, since hajar, as a customary rule, is implemented to deal with moral and sensitive issues, most of which are related to honor and blood, which are criminalized in many religions and cultures .

Honor and blood are more like moral sanctuaries as opposed to physical sanctuaries in holy places where it is forbidden to shed blood, and which must not be desecrated or violated. From here, it can be said that the linguistic root hijra approaches the linguistic root Haram in Arabic, which is indicated by the two cases of hajar and hijra together. Yet the relationship between these two laws or customs goes beyond that, to their shared sacrificial mechanism: to the extent that honor and moral issues are “Muhajjara” (they are ruled by hajar), the regions and groups that are described as “hijra” are, for all practical purposes, also “Muhajjara”. In other words, in many cases when hijra is violated, hajar/sacrifice is the judgment, thereby reinforcing the affinity between hijra and hajar. The linguistic root links “hijra” to safety and peace as a clear and basic goal behind the practice of conditional violence; generally, the purpose of “hijra” provided the framework through which cities and civil life were established, just as the purpose of hajar provided the framework for which laws, customs, and the judicial system were established; yet the sacred appears to be an origin of both.

Hajar and Sacrificial Violence

Hajar provides us with an important model of sacrifice through which we can understand the sequence that René Girard puts forward for sacrificial substitution, as he sees that the sacrifice began as “human”, choosing a “scapegoat”, who carries all evils and is sacrificed, and then gradually progressed until it reached the animal sacrifice, before ending with symbolic violence. In the traditions of hajar, this idea is strongly reinforced. In tribal custom, when a person wants to avoid what may ensue from continued conflict, and express his deep apology, he goes to the other party asking for reconciliation and peace. When he arrives in front of the person or his house, he says to him: “I offer you my son as hajar”, or one of the children; sometimes he leads one of his sons, and offers him in front of the other’s house, or throws him at the feet of the other party and gives him the right to slaughter him. This is the greatest form of seeking reconciliation, although it is not called hajar in the common sense of animal sacrifice, because slaughter is not usually done in this context, but it is the most severe form of propitiation or acknowledgment of guilt, and this succeeds in removing tension and grudges, and the victim is satisfied and pleased. People view pardoning his crime or liability with a sympathetic eye; they praise the offender’s manner of apology (or the one responsible for him).

This indicates that the sacrifice began with the selection of a human victim, as if the guilt falls on the victim, because parents in Yemen take the offender’s son, or the one who committed the crime, although this is not always the case. Children and young men are often chosen in cases where the offender is a father or adult, as children can represent here a model of sacrificial substitution—as victims of less importance—for a society that recognizes full manhood in those who are able to bear arms.

This substitution is evident, but within the framework of surviving evidence of human sacrifice, and such was known in ancient Yemen, but it was applied to prisoners of war, the marginalized, and slaves. The sacrifice of sons is well-known in ancient societies, and perhaps the legend of Abraham and Ismail is the most famous example. In hajar, an animal sacrifice is made to substitute for the son. So, we consider hajar’s origin to be the idea of “the scapegoat” and fathers bringing their children as a hajar offering. There is no doubt that hajar aims to divert violence from the group, but the matter may become reversed. That is, it may breed and sustain violence, and the tribesmen fear that the sons they present to appease the offended party will be slaughtered as hajar[26] . Consequently, animal sacrifice represents the best alternative to stop destructive and reciprocal violence. Thus, whenever a party wants to appease another party or apologize to them, they will bring a cow or more, for hajar, to satisfy the aggrieved party. In fact, in cases where one party seeks to please another, he may bring hajar on his own accord, and reach the yard of the victim, and slaughter it directly; he may throw his son over the sacrifice’s body or over its blood, and say: Beyond this, I offer my son to you as hajar.

In hajar, animal sacrifice is combined with potential human sacrifice; hajar represents the lowest level of sacrificial violence, given that slaughter befalls an animal  considered  less important than humans, and as a substitution for reciprocal violence. However, it is clear that the societies that practiced sacrifice were imagining that, in order to achieve their goal, the chosen sacrifice must be, in their eyes, closer to the human race. Meaning, the animals chosen for sacrifice are those in close and harmonious relationship with the community that practices the sacrifice.

We understand, then, why Yemeni tribes often choose a cow as hajar, for in this agricultural society, cows are considered superior to other animals. Peasants among the tribes allocate to them the first floor of their dwellings, as if they were part of the family. On top of that, they give their cows human names analogous to humans. They also acquire human classifications: there are the Bakilite cows in relation to the Bakil tribe, the Hashidiya cows in relation to the well-known Hashid tribe, and there are Al-Rad’iyyah, Al-Riyashaiya, and others. This appears in the inscriptions[27], which implies that there is a perception in Yemeni society—like the perception of other societies that practiced sacrifice and preferred the sacrifice of cows in particular—that there exists a cow society parallel to that of human society[28] .

Cow is not the only animal species from which the hajar is chosen by the Yemeni tribes: there are sheep and camels. It seems, however, that blood is a very important condition, specifically the blood’s similarity to human blood, as animals such as fish and birds are not for hajar. This corresponds to the traditions of the practice of sacrifice in ancient Yemen. Despite the large number of animals sacrificed by the ancient Yemenis, such as jackals, tigers, rams, ewes, oxen, sheep, goats, and camels, “no animals such as fish and chickens were presented, so that they were not mentioned in the sacrifice lists that appear in the Yemeni inscriptions.” These animals are a less valuable sacrifice, as a sacrifice must shed blood [29].

And blood is essential in sacrifice in general, as it is in hajar, where it represents the most appropriate alternative to human blood; there is no sense in sacrifice if it does not simulate the human violence that replaces it. According to René Girard, there is an imitative desire behind the creation of alternative worlds of violence that are less burdensome to the community, where: “humans cannot live in the midst of violence, nor can they live long in oblivion of violence”[30]. This can be achieved in the constant quest to simulate violence; its circumstances and rituals; and its justifications.

Hajar Rituals and the Game of Alternative Violence

Social peace, according to the anthropology of sacrifice, requires transforming the dangerous and destructive game of violence from the actual, real level to the alternative symbolic level. Its special social function is to transform the paths of violence into non-human or unreal spaces. The game of substitution continues to gradually be embodied in a symbolic level more than the sensory level represented by slaughter.

In fact, this is what is achieved in the traditions, procedures, and rituals accompanying hajar, starting from tribal judgment, and followed by issuing and implementing the judgment (equivalent to legal pleading to implementing the judgment). Hajar works as an alternative space and arena for playing the game of violence.

Meaning that the hajar ruling is, in most cases, preceded and accompanied by practices and rituals that represent the alternative “symbolic violence” game (war), which completes the cycle of exemplifying or simulating violence.

Thus, the resolution of many disputes in which hajar may be judged begins by choosing an arbitration committee represented by the two parties or a third party—a sheikh, ruler, or social figure—and each of the two parties symbolically acknowledges authorizing the third party to judge. They symbolically acknowledge the third party by providing a weapon, or more, which serves as guarantee for both parties to implement the arbitral tribunal’s judgment. These are symbolic guarantees, because, in material terms, the judgment was often less than the fines or costs imposed by the judgment. However, there are special contexts and cases—when the dispute or issue is very big—in which “justice” or guarantees are “heavy”, and greater guarantees are required to ensure that the litigants implement the judgments[31].

The “judgment” or “justice” represents the honor of the person who wronged him or his tribe, and his evasion or inability to implement the ruling represents a breach of this honor, and in that it expresses a symbolic battle of a kind, moving from physical violence to a symbolic moral space, from the realm of physical ability or military competence, for example, to the realm of material ability, where the honor of each of the two parties is subject to a conflict or a non-violent fight. The challenge involved in the game of destructive or real violence, is contained by  the arbitration process. Like litigation, which also includes alternative violence, it is a struggle with arguments and evidence rather than weapons. However, in tribal custom the issue is communicated through the strength of its symbolism. The guarantee expressed by the surrender of arms is the instrument of violence itself, and it is related to the honor of its owner and surrendering his weapon as guarantee to the arbiter represents an implicit commitment to refrain from violence; it is like an open truce until the arbiter pronounces a judgment, which then often eliminates all opportunities for violence.

Before the arbiter, or arbiters, renders a judgment in a case, there is “a long process that includes examining the evidence, conducting dialogue and holding separate sessions (barzah) with each of the parties to the dispute separately. Each party has the right to appeal the ruling twice before other tribal sheikhs before it becomes final and binding”[32]. In many cases, specifically in moral abuses in which hajar is ruled for both parties, each argument is matched with the appropriate number of cows according to the extent of the argument. Thus, the first party may be judged, for example, seven cows, and the second party is judged five cows, each of them according to his wrongdoing against the other party. The cows alone are driven to slaughter. And sometimes all of them may be brought, and the process takes place ritually, or during the last meeting, for the sentence’s execution.

The scene or the meeting in which the slaughter process takes place is a form of symbolic violence; the meeting is perhaps the most representative of the symbolic violence parallel to the fighting. This is in a public context, in which the most important personalities from both fighting parties usually attend, and each of them invites his family and men closest to him. The two groups meet in a selected arena. The meeting is dominated by showmanship, in which the members of each group appear arranged in rows and wearing their tribal uniform, with their weapons on their shoulders; the two armies meet on the battlefield, including a parade, crowd, and prestige, a representation or embodiment of war or fighting. Perhaps that is why this combination is called “al-mahjam” (the attacker), as this name relates to the word “attack”, a word that comes from the core of war’s semantic field.

The symbolism of the confrontation is reinforced at al-mahjam, with a poetic debate by way of two folk poetry genres: al-zaamil and al-Haal, whose function is like the tragic debate in the Greek epics. Each party chants a zaamil specific to them, and the other party responds with their own zaamil. Al-Haal is performed by one person, usually a poet of the tribe. The tribe’s poet  expresses pride in his tribe, praises the host tribe, and refers to the event itself, i.e., the issue. Then,  the host tribe’s poet responds, glorifying his own tribe and praising the guest tribe, and comments on the case and ruling. However, if the poem is a zaamil, then although the tribe’s poet composes it, a group of people in two rows chants it, each row chanting a line.  And at the moment of his arrival, the host tribe’s poet responds to the guest’s zaamil. Two groups chant: there is a greeting to the guest and the host, and a comment on the issue for which the two tribes meet. These poems often include implicit ostentation, but do not neglect calls for reconciliation and peaceful resolution.

In both al-zaamil and al-Haal, what can be called alternative violence or symbolic conflict is manifested, where each poet stands as a representative of his tribe, and where the poetic battle between the two poets includes something similar to the fight of the two leaders of the two opposite armies. “The tragic sparring is a substitution in which the word alternates the iron sword in the individual duel”[33], which is evident in the poetic fight that permeates the al-mahjam, including a sign of the two opponents clashing and the balance of forces shown by such symbolic rituals.

All of this culminates in the act of killing, which is an inherent consequence of the war simulated by these rituals. But the killing here, however, in the traditions of the al-mahjam, is achieved through animal sacrifice, which completes the simulation board of the fight, but in a symbolic universe where clashes and confrontations are replaced by symbolic actions that implicitly carry the same meaning, just as human blood was replaced by animal blood. The behavior clearly and purely expresses the function of sacrifice and its significance. It mitigates violence and protects the group, and even represents foundational violence as a fundamental axis for establishing a group’s peace and stability.

Thus, hajar, although one of the earliest forms of tribal custom, functions to bring peace and displace violence from the group. This function is of particular importance because of its potential to build upon hajar to replace tribal customary law with modern law. Thus, transitioning tribal society from customary to modern law is the great challenge before the state and the judicial system.


[1] René Girard: Violence and the Sacred, translated by Samira Richa, The Arab Organization for Translation, first edition, Beirut, June 2009, p.: 22

[2] see the previous one, p.: 22.

[3] See previous, P: 23.

[4] See: Previous, p: 22 and beyond, p: 77 and beyond.

[5]  Asmahan Al-Jarru, Religious Thought among the Arabs of Southern Arabia (first millennium BC until the fourth century AD), Yarmouk Research Journal, “Series of Human and Social Sciences”, Volume 14, Number 1, 1998 AD, p.: 234

[6] Dr. Sultan Abdullah Al-Maani, Ibrahim Saleh Sadaqah, Sin and Atonement in the Sabian Inscriptions, Journal of Historical Studies, Nos. 61-62, September – January 1 – 1997 AD, p.: 57.

[7] Sadiq Othman, article published on Facebook, date of entry on the link: March 10, 2021, AD,

[8] René Girard: Violence and the Sacred, previously cited , p.: 446.

[9] This point was already made by Walter Dostal: Some remarks on the ritual significance of the bull in pre-Islamic South Arabia,)

[10] Mutahar Ali Al-Eryani: The Yemeni Dictionary _A_ ​​in Language and Heritage, about special vocabulary from Yemeni dialects, Scientific Press Damascus, first edition, 1996 AD, p.: 935, 936.

[11] Previous, p.: 935, 936.

[12] Previous, p.: 935, 936.

[13] Muhammad bin Ali Sayyad, Document of Customary Reference Rules for All Yemeni Tribes, “Bakeli, Hashidi, Madhhaji, Qudaai, and Hemisai,” Khalid bin Al-Walid Library, Sana’a, 1/2014 AD, p.: 52.

[14]  Mutahar Ali Al-Eryani, The Yemeni Dictionary, previously cited, p.: 935, 936.

[15] René Girard: Violence and the Sacred, previously cited, p.: 23.

[16] Previous, p: 154.

[17] Previous, p: 39.

[18] Muhammad bin Ali Sayyad, Document of Customary Reference Rules for All Yemeni Tribes, previously cited, p. 52.

[19] René Girard: Violence and the Sacred, previously cited, p.: 28.

[20] Mutahar Ali Al-Eryani: The Yemeni Dictionary, previously cited, p.: 934, 935.

[21] Al-Eryani defines it by saying (and “Tahjir”: in social customs is granting a group or a family in its surroundings certain peculiarities, with certain characteristics, which makes them hijra, and makes their town hijra.

As for the idiosyncrasies they are granted, the most important of them are the exemption from tithe and the accusation, so they do not participate in a fine of fines, nor in war or in forced labor. For work or for war, except for those who volunteer. They are also given respect in the social records in appreciation and honor.

As for the characteristics that they have in order to be hijra, it is their understanding of religion, knowledge of social customs and traditions, to be a reference for people in matters of their religion, their disputes and their personal conditions, with adherence to benign behavior, and some publicity in clothing and the like, and among them are jurists and scholars, and they perform their hijra, as their hometown teaches and educates both resident and expatriate students.

As for the fact that their town or their homes are hijra, and it is called (hijra), this means that they should not be invaded and not be exposed to the battle of an army or a people, and that blood should not be shed in it in order to take revenge.

It is said: The tribe, the group, or the region left Bani so-and-so, so hijra, and their country, village, or home is an emigration. Mutahhar Ali Al-Eryani: The Yemeni Dictionary, previously cited, p.: 934, 935.

[22] See, Abdel Nasser Al-Mouda’, Tribal Military Custom, Descriptive / Analytical Study, Program for Supporting the National Dialogue in Yemen, 2013, p.: 30. Nadwa Al-Dosari, Tribal Governance and Stability in Yemen, previous reference, pp. 8, 9, 11. Likewise, Mutahhar Ali Al-Eryani, The Yemeni Dictionary, previous reference, p.: 934, 935

[23] Mutahhar Ali Al-Eryani: The Yemeni Dictionary, previous reference, p.: 934, 935.

[24] Dr. Noura bint Abdullah bin Ali Al-Naim: Legislation in the southwest of the Arabian Peninsula, until the end of the state of Himyar, King Fahd National Publication, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, 1420 AH / 2000 AD, p.: 85.

[25] Youssef Shalhoud, Building the Holy of the Arabs. Before and After Islam, Dar Al-Tali`ah for Printing and Publishing, Beirut, Lebanon, first edition, 1996 AD, p.: 155

[26] There is a story that was circulating in the writer’s hometown (Aram, which is one of the villages of the Anas tribe in Dhamar). The story says that one of the tribesmen slaughtered a child presented by his father to please him, and this happened after this child had slaughtered the sheep of the man who attacked a field his father, it was only from the father that he took him and took him to the owner of the sheep and threw him between his feet, in order to satisfy the man and stop his anger due to what happened to his sheep, but what happened was not expected, the owner of the sheep slaughtered the child, which prompted the father of the child to vigil for his son through killing the sheep’s owner, the killer of his son, this led to the outbreak of a bloody series of revenge between the two clans. We do not know whether this story is true or not, but even if it is not, that is, if it is a folk tale, it is still significant in relation to the sacrificial substitution.

[27] Hazaa Muhammad Abdullah Al-Hammadi, Offerings and vows in the ancient Yemeni religion, PhD thesis, Republic of Egypt, Cairo University, Faculty of Archeology, 2006, p.: 63.

[28] René Girard: Violence and the Sacred, op. cit., p.: 21

[29] Munir Abdul-Jalil Al-Areeqi: Architectural Art and Religious Thought in Ancient Yemen, previous reference, p: 280.

[30] René Girard: Violence and the Sacred, op. cit., p.: 450.

[31] See this also Nadwa Al-Dosari, Tribal Governance and Stability in Yemen, previous reference, pp. 9, 10.

[32] Previous, p.: 10.

[33] René Girard: Violence and the Sacred, previously cited, p.: 86


Ahmed Al Tars Al-Arami

Ahmed is co-founder and Executive Director of the Arabia Felix Center for Studies. He is a writer and researcher, with research focusing on social, political, and cultural transformations in Yemen and the relationship between political Islam groups and tribes. He is the author of “Yemen's Secret Religion, the Phenomenon of the wise farmer in Popular Heritage” published by Arweqah Foundation, Cairo 2019. He has many research papers on Yemeni folklore and its relationship to historical and cultural transformations, and he is currently attending a master's program at the Higher Institute of Folk Arts, The Academy of Arts - Cairo. Al-Arami worked as an Arabic literature teaching assistant at the College of Education and Science in Radaa - Al-Bayda University. Because of his views, he left this job after facing death threats in 2013 by extremists during the peak of Al-Qaeda activity, which saw the Qayfah region of Radaa as its stronghold. Al-Arami worked as a non-resident researcher at the Sana'a Center for Strategic Studies and contributed to reports on cultural policies in the Arab States. He also worked as a press editor in Maeen magazine and the Al-Thawra and Al-Oula newspapers. He has two poetry collections and is a member of the Yemeni Union of Writers.

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