For most seventh-century Arabians and their ancestors, the only source of protection for an individual was tribal affiliation and the ability of their tribe to seek vengeance to redress a wrong. Alliances would allow the obligations uniting individual tribes, or 'co-liable groups', to be extended more widely to increase protection for members of the alliance, either by confirming blood relationships, or by binding non-relatives into the 'co-liable group'. Such alliances also allowed temporary unity for specific common aims, such as military or economic cooperation. Thus, co-liable groups would not match tribal groupings based on agnatic descent - non-blood relatives were bound into the co-liable grouping through pacts and alliances.
Scholars of lineages (nasab) of Arabia identify seven (or six or eight) lineage strata for each place and tribe. These seven lineages go back to one ancestor from whom they started to divide into subdivisions who in turn could originate another new lineage stratum when they become wider and larger. (Suwidi, Saba'ik al-Dahab fi Ma'rifat Qaba'il al-Arab, p. 17)
For this reason, I will discuss the structure of Quraysh when the Prophet (saw) received the revelation and with the establishment of the Islamic dawla in Medina.
There are mainly seven strata (others add one or omit one) whose order is the following (the latter is the subdivision of the former and the former contains a number of the latter): Sha'b (the original substance), Qabeelah, Imarah, Battn, Fakhdh, Asheerah and Faseelah.
Scholars widely disagree on attributing a certain group (such as Quraysh) to a certain category so I will do my best checking the quality of each group and see where it more likely to fit.
Sha'b (plural Shu'ub) is the first and original substance of any given lineage. They are, as documented in Mu'jam al-Ma'ani al-Jami, a vast number of people going back to a very remote ancestor. This ancestor is similar to Adnan to the Adnani Arabs, Qahttan to Qahttani Arabs and Israel to the people of Israel.
It was named Sha'b (similar to the term "people") because, as fifth-century Nassab al-Mawirdi argued, every lineage is branched (yatasha'ab) from it. (al-Qalqashindi, Qala'id al-Juman, p. 14)
Scholars after a spread of this Sha'b of Adnan, the descendants of this are also considered Shu'ub. Adnan gave birth to a son (Nazar) who was the father of the Rabee'ah and Muddar (رَبِيعَة ومُضَر) – or even their sons have considered also Shu'ub – who were two Shu'ub of the original Sha'b Adnan. (Zubayri, Nassab Quraysh, p. 6)
Al-Qabeelah (plural Qaba'il) is the second stratum derived from one of the sons of the first previous ancestor. For example, Muddar was the ancestor of Qabeelah Sulaym, Hawazan and Ghattafan from Qays (the son of Muddar); he was also the ancestors of Qabeelah Huzayl, Tameem, Assad, Kinanah (Quraysh) and others.
Every Qabeelah has its own loyalties (Assabiyah) to its sub-ancestors from which they deduce their values, morals and etc. they are also considered a separate and independent social, economic and political entity. They have their own trades, wars, armies and so on.
It was defined in al-Ra'id lexicon (and similarly in al-Ghani) as:
كَيَانٌ اجتِمَاعِي اقْتِصَادِي سِيَاسِي يَضُم عَائِلَاتٍ تَجْمَعُ بَينَهَا رَوَابِطُ القُرْبَى
"A social, political and economic entity combines families related by kin."
Quraysh was one of these Qaba'il having the following subdivisions.
Al-Imarah or al-Amarah (plural Ama'ir) comprises other families who descended from the previous ancestor (Kinanah or Quraysh). (Mu'jam al-Ma'ani al-Jami)
The Ama'ir of Quraysh are Qusay (the Prophet's Imarah), Jamh, Sahm Adi, Mkhzum, Zahrah and others. They were also considered as Qaba'il in many ahadith and narrations because of the number of each one and how a certain entity is defined.
But this category is virtually similar to Qabeelah in the socio-political platform, but not identical. The famous historian ibn Mandhur defined it as:
الحيُّ العَظِيمِ الّذِي يَقُومُ بِنَفْسِهِ، يَنْفَرِدُ بِظَعْنِهَا وإِقَامَتِها ونُـجْعَتِها
"It is the great independent quarter where it has camps, settlements and hamlets." (Ibn Mandhur, Lisaan al-Arab)
So they were considered also a separate political, social and militarily entity who could engage in political and economic contracts providing harming not the master Qabeelah which is the only difference between them.
The Prophet (saw) in Medina (as a political leader) used to write letters to the kings and leaders of neighbouring areas. So, he used to write to the Ama'ir's leaders:
أَنّهُ كَتَبَ لِعَمَائرَ كَلْبٍ وأَحْلافَها كِتَابَاً
"He (the Prophet) wrote a book to Ama'ir Kalb and its allies." (Ibn Mandhur, Lisan al-Arab)
Al-Battn (plural al-Buttun- البُطون) are the descendants of the previous Ama'ir. The Buttun of Qusay (the above Imarah) are Banu Abd Manaf (the Battn of the Prophet), Banu Asad ibn Abd al-Uzza and Banu Abd al-Dar and others. (al-Qalqashindi, Qala'id al-Juman, p. 14)
It was also considered as a separate socio-political entity under the above Qabeelah and Imarah.
For example, the Prophet (saw) dealt with them as a separate entity who is responsible for controlling their matter related to shari'ah rules, such as the blood money (diyah):
كَتَبَ عَلَى كُلِّ بَطْنٍ عُقولَه
"He wrote to every Battn (until the diyah) was taken from the Aqilah" (Muslim 1507, Ahmed, Nasa'i)
Imam Nawawi explained the meaning:
على العَاقِلَةِ وهُمُ العَصَبَات سَوَاءٌ الْآبَاءُ وَالْأَبْنَاءُ
"al-Aqilah: they are the close male relatives (asabatt) whether the fathers or sons." (Nawawi, al-Mihaj fi Sharh Muslim, vol. 10, p. 150)
So the Battn is an independent socio-political entity containing a number of other families (Aqilah or Afkhadh) representing the citizens of a given Battn.
Al-Fakhdh (plural Afkhadh) are the descendants of a certain Battn. The Afkhadh of Abu Abd Manaf are Banu Hashim (from which the Prophet comes), Banu Muttalib, Banu Abd Shams and Banu Nawfal. (Lisan al-Arab)
They are also considered a socio-political independent entity under the Battn. For example, the Afkhadh of the Prophet (saw) were Banu Hashim; when Quraysh agreed on a total boycott, Banu Hashim were involved as they considered an independent entity under the Buttun.
Al-Ashirah (plural Asha'ir): scholars here disagree on who are the Asha'ir. Some argue Ashirah is more likely the direct descendants of, for example, Fakhdh Banu Hashim who are the Ashirah of Banu Abd al-Muttalib (the uncles and paternal cousins of the Prophet) whom the Prophet (saw) invited to the banquet when Allah revealed to him:
وَأَنذِرْ عَشِيرَتَكَ الْأَقْرَبِينَ
"Warn your nearest kinsmen and lower your wing to the believers who follow you." (Qur'an 26:214-215)
The Prophet (saw) invited his Ashirah who were Banu Abd al-Muttalib and after eating he said:
ْيا بَنِي عَبْدِ المُطَلِب
"O Banu Abd al-Muttalib." (Tabari, Tarikh at-Tabari, Vol. 2, p. 322, Ibn al-Athir, al-Kamil fi at-Tarikh, Vol. 1, p. 259)
But it could also mean Fakhdh and even Battn because when the same verse was revealed ordering inviting Asha'ir, the Prophet (saw) went to mount Safa and called Banu Abd al-Muttalib along with the Buttun and Afkhadh of Lu'y, Murrah, Qusay, Abd Manaf, Fihr, Addi, and others who were not from Banu Abd al-Muttalib. (Razi, Mafatih al-Ghayb, Vol. 32, pp. 348-349)
Even some narrations of this event, such as Bukhari and Muslim, states he called the Buttun of Quraysh.
So the term may refer to the uncles and cousins as well as a broader term refers to Afkhadh and Buttun. It also sometimes called (rahtt - رهط ). (Lisan al-Arab)
Al-Mu'jam al-Wasett defined the term in a similar definition:
ُبَنُو أَبِيهِ الأَقْرَبُونَ وقَبِيلَتُه
"They are the close relative of his father and his tribe."
Al-Faseelah (plural Fasa'il) is the sons and daughters of the above uncles and cousins. For example, the Fasa'il of Banu Abd al-Muttalib are Aal (آل) Abu Talib (such as Ali), Aal al-Abbas (such as Abdullah ibn Abbas) and so on.
This term could also be exchangeable with Ashira and Rahtt or before them in order and others, such as Abu Al-Kalbi, considered it similar to Imarah. (al-Mu'jam al-Waseett, Lisan al-Arab)
Addressing Some Issues
The reason for the above confusion between the categories is the similarity between each category as they all are socio-political independent entities. In addition, there are many fathers who are not counted as a master ancestor by some while they are counted by others and there are many Shu'ub, Qaba'il, Ama'ir … etc. for each, but it depends where you start and for which group you are looking for its lineage.
The fifth-century leading Nassab al-Mawirdi argued:
إِذَا تَبَاعَدَتْ الَأنْسَابُ صَارَت القَبَائِلُ شُعُوبًا، والعمائرُ قَبَائِلَ، .. وتَصِيرُ البُطُونُ عمائرَ، والَأفْخَاذُ بُطُونا، والفَصَائِلُ أفْخَاذًا
"When the lineages became distant, Qaba'il becomes Shu'ub; Ama'ir becomes Qaba'il; Buttun becomes Ama'ir; Afkhadh becomes Buttun; Fasa'il becomes Afkhadh." (al-Qalqashindi, Qala'id al-Juman, p. 20)
There are main seven lineage strata for Quraysh and all of the Arab tribes. They are as following (the latter is the subdivision of the former and the former contains a number of the latter): Sha'b, Qabeelah, Imarah, Battn, Fakhdh, Asheerah and Faseelah.
Scholars disagree on the definition and the identification of each, but they all agree each category is an independent socio-political entity falls under another larger one.
Suwidi, Saba'ik al-Dahab fi Ma'rifat Qaba'il al-Arab
al-Qalqashindi, Qala'id al-Juman
Zubayri, Nassab Quraysh
Nawawi, al-Mihaj fi Sharh Muslim
Tabari, Tarikh at-Tabari
Ibn al-Athir, al-Kamil fi at-Tarikh
Razi, Mafatih al-Ghayb
Lisan ibn al-Khattib, al-Ihattah fi Akhbar Ghirnattah
Zubidi, Taj al-Arus
Ibn Mandhur, Lisan al-Arab
Mu'jam al-Ma'ani al-Jami.
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