What is Asil?

This aticle was originally prepared for Al Khamsa III, a publication of Al Khamsa, Inc. 

While there is as of yet no consensus within the academic community as to the precise original homeland of the Arabian horse, a fair number of zoologists and equine historians tend to locate it in the area extending from the plains of northern Syria and Iraq to those of southern Turkey. Still some contend that the breed originated in the fertile wadi (river valleys) of Yemen and Hadramaut, in the south of the Arabian Peninsula, thus echoing the belief, recurrent in Arab tradition, that everything “ancient” and “authentic” has to trace back to Yemen. Yet others still hold the view that the Arabian horse was once running wild in Central Arabian Najd, today a semi-arid plateau but an area believed to have received much more rain in prehistoric times. The latter view is the one generally carried forward by the oral traditions of the Bedouins (from the Arabic word badu, meaning “steppe nomads,” as opposed to hadar which means “settled”), those Arabic-speaking nomadic herders who are the earliest known custodians of the breed.Wherever its cradle, the area of maximum extension of the Arabian horse breed—its homeland—is the same as the area spanned by Bedouin nomadic migrations. This is because Bedouins are the only original breeders of Arabian horses. In other words, everybody else who had Arabian horses either obtained their horses or their horses’ ancestors directly from a Bedouin, or from someone who obtained them from a Bedouin, and so on. Conversely, Arabian horses are the only horses ever bred by the Bedouins (until very recently). Horses of other, non-Bedouin nomadic or semi-nomadic populations (Turkmen, Kurds, Lurs, Chechens, Tcherkess, etc.) who dwelled in the northern and northeastern fringes of the area spanned by Bedouin migrations are known as hajeen, an Arabic term which means “foreign” or “mixed with foreign.” Taken together, the two italicized statements above form a one-to-one relationship between Bedouins and Arabian horses. This exclusive relationship means that the Bedouins are the only ones who may identify and define the standards that make any given horse an Arabian or a non-Arabian. So what makes a horse an Arabian? Three standards. 

The first strandard: Asalah
First and foremost among these is the notion of Asalah, which means “authenticity” and “purity” at the same time. The term Asil as applied to an Arabian horse means both “purebred” and “authentic.” This standard is so important that it almost fully overlaps with the notion of “Arabian horse” itself, to the extent that saying or writing “Asil Arabian” is almost a redundancy. For the Bedouins, the terms “Asil” and “Arabian” as applied to their horses are equivalent, because to them there is no such thing as a non-Asil Arabian, or one that is “a little bit” Asil. In the Bedouins’ eyes, a non-Asil Arabian horse is simply not an Arabian. It is a kadish, the Arabic colloquial word for “mongrel.” The kadish is the result of the interference of a foreign (hajeen, see above) element with a line of Asil horses. The interference results in the “cutting” short of a line of Asil horses, as kadish originally comes from the Arabic word qateesh, meaning “he who is cut away (from something).” Once “cut,” a line of Asil horses loses its purity for good, and as far as Bedouins are concerned, breeding it back with Asil elements for twenty generations would not restore its Asil status. This is in contrast with Western modern teachings, which argue that the impact of foreign blood becomes genetically irrelevant after five generations. The irretrievability of an Asil line lost to crossing with foreign elements hence represents the first fundamental conceptual difference between Western and Bedouin notions of purity. A second fundamental difference is that in the West, a “pure” breed can be “created” by man, in part through the introduction of foreign blood into indigenous races, which results in the enhancement of the existing qualities of these races and the development of new ones—as was the case with the process of the creation of the English Thoroughbred. The implication is that in the West the genetic pool of a given breed follows an expanding trend, illustrated by the continuous addition of foreign blood to improve the breed, until the latter is registered in a closed studbook, which then becomes the guarantor of the purity of the breed. Even more, studbook registration often becomes synonymous with purebred status, as is the case with the (otherwise logically fallacious) World Arabian Horse Organization (WAHO) definition of an Arabian horse as a horse listed in a studbook accepted by WAHO.In contrast, the Bedouins contend that a pure breed cannot be “created” by man, nor can its original qualities even be “improved” upon; Bedouins can only “preserve” and “maintain” the breed, in their role as custodians. Preservation of purity of course means protecting the finite original gene pool that constitutes the Arabian breed from possible contamination resulting from the introduction of foreign elements, which would cause an irreversible loss of bloodlines. The implication of the Bedouins’ uncompromising understanding of purity is that the genetic pool of the Arabian breed is doomed to follow an ever-shrinking pattern, illustrated by the continuing loss of rare bloodlines of Arabians.

The second standard: Rasan
But how do Bedouins know whether a horse is an Asil Arabian? This brings us to the second of the standards that make an Arabian horse Arabian in the eyes of the Bedouin: the notion of rasan or “strain”. Every (Asil) Arabian has a strain by which he can be identified. The first question a Bedouin will ask another Bedouin about his horse is “What is his strain?” A horse without a strain cannot be considered part of the Arabian horse community. Conversely, one can only speak of rasan within the realm of the Asil Arabian horse; this notion loses its meaning outside this realm. For example, the result of the mating of an Asil mare of the Saqlawi strain with an Anglo-Arab or a Turkmen horse is not a Saqlawi, but a kadish. This is not the place to discuss the meaning of strains, nor the process of their formation, nor whether there is a relation between “strain” and “type.” Such issues will be dealt with elsewhere. Nevertheless a few words about the role of “strains” are necessary for the purpose of this discussion.Strains are typically a collection of names (Kuhaylan, Saqlawi, Ubayyan, Dahman, etc) that constitute the Bedouins’ means of identifying a horse and tracing its provenance. This would help them decide whether a horse is an Asil Arabian or not. Strains function very much like family names for human beings, and serve the same purpose. The only difference is that in horses, strains are transmitted through the dam, while in most contemporary societies human beings’ family names are transmitted through the father. The hypothesis for the reason why Bedouins decided strains should be transmitted through dams and not through sires is fascinating and will be explained in a subsequent essay. It certainly does not mean that the Bedouins considered the mare to be more important—in terms of genetic prepotency—than the stallion.

The third standard: Marbat
But is the strain enough for Bedouins to determine if a horse is an (Asil) Arabian or not? No, and that’s where the third standard comes in: the marbat (plural marabet). Note that Bedouins did not speak of sub-strain, which is a Western notion, but of marbat, which literally means “(the place) where the strain—or rope—is tied.” The marbat is the name of the Bedouin individual, family or clan who bred the horse. Together the strain and the marbat constitute a horse’s ID that gives it access to the Arabian horse community, at a time when and in a place where written records and DNA testing did not exist. As horses changed ownership frequently among the Bedouins, new marbat were created and old marbat either survived or disappeared. If the old marbat stayed more famous than the new marbat, then the name of the old marbat persisted, and would eventually become part of the strain itself. The name of the old marbat would be dropped if the new marbat became more notorious. Since it could take some time for a marbat to achieve recognition, both the old and the new marbat would be used during the transition time.   

Managhi Who?
Perhaps an example would help clarify how the notion of marbat: Managhi is a famous strain among Bedouins. Among its most famous breeders was the Hudruj (or Hadraj) clan of the Amarat tribe. This marbat was known after the clans’ name, as is normally (though not always) the case: Managhi Hudruji, which means “Managhi of Hudruj”. As time went by, horses from this clan went to other Bedouin individuals, clans or tribes, bred on, and formed new marabet there. Some of these marabet became famous, others not. Of the famous marabet that owned Managhi Hudruji was that of Ibn Sbeyel of the Sbaa tribe. Ibn Sbeyel’s Managhi Hudruji mares were the tribe’s fastest in the raids, and his stallions were tall, handsome and widely used for breeding. The Abbas Pacha Manuscript, p. 689, refers to one of them as: “One colt, born this year, mother the last mentioned mare; father Muniqi Hadraj belonging to ibn Sibil of the Sab’ah”: both marbats are used to properly identyfying the horse. A few decades later, the fame of the marbat not abating, Ibn Sbeyel’s Managhi Hudruji horses became known as Managhi Sbeyli, or “Managhi of ibn Sbeyel”. By then, his horses had become more notorious than the horses of the clan he originally obtained them from, and the reference to Hudruj was dropped because it could be done without. However, Ibn Sbeyel was not the only one who got his horses from the Hudruj clan. Ibn ‘Ufaitan of the Shammar for one also obtained Managhi Hudruji horses from the same source. The difference is that Ibn ‘Ufaytan’s marbat never become more famous than Ibn Hudruj’s, even though they were (and are still) very good horses. Ibn ‘Ufaytan was never in a position to refer to his Managhi Hudruji horses as Managhi ‘Ufaytani, or “Managhi of Ibn ‘Ufaytan”. Had he attempted to do so, people would have asked him to trace his horses to the next famous breeder, and he would have been forced to revert to the reference to Hadraj.[1]  

Beyond the three standards of purity: Shubuw
Together the rasan and the marbat represent a necessary and sufficient condition for the Bedouin to determine the Asalah or purity of a horse, and hence whether it is an Arabian or not. There are, however, instances where the Asalah of a horse is in dispute, or cannot be proven beyond doubt. This is often the result of missing or incomplete information, or of conflicting accounts by different Bedouins about the origin or provenance of the horse in general, and its strain or marbat in particular. In such cases, the status of the horse and that of all its progeny as Asil is temporarily put ‘on hold’-—though not denied—until further information surfaces or until the disagreement is solved. In the meantime, if the animal concerned is male, he would not be used for breeding; if the animal is female, she would still be used for breeding, but none of her male progeny or descendants would. This is the origin of the notion of shubuw which means “to be mated,” from the word shabby, “to breed” in Arabic.  The discrepancy of information between one tribe or clan and another, and the difficulty of the flows of information in the desert explain why a strain or marbat is to be mated in one tribe or area, and not to be mated in another. This is especially the case in areas far distant from each other: the Tuwaisan, Wadnan or Jallabi families originating with Eastern Arabian Bedouin tribes were to be mated in Eastern Arabia (including Bahrain), but not in Northern Arabia, where tribes were less familiar with them. Similarly, the Haifi and Mimrah families were to be mated in Northern Arabia (home of the ‘Anazah tribes) but not in Eastern Arabia, because information did not always travel easily between these two areas. However, and unlike its status as Asil, the status of a horse or a matrilineal family of horses—a strain—as shubuw or not shubuw is reversible; whenever the previously missing information comes to light, the status as shubuw is restored, hence explaining why within the same tribe a strain or marbat is not to be mated at some point and to be mated at others—the story of the Saqlawi Ubayran strain is a case in point.  The notion of shubuw has actually proven to be a double edged sword to Bedouin Arabian horse breeding: while it helped ensure that the horses whose origin and provenance were known and widely agreed upon beyond the shadow of a doubt (Bedouins would say instead “to be mated in the darkest night”), it also resulted in inferior stallions—as to conformation—from strains “to be mated” being preferred to superior quality individuals from strains “not to be mated.” Such breeding practices are to blame for the degeneracy of the breed reported by Western travelers to Arabia towards the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth.In theory, and regardless of the temporary information asymmetries that cause a particular line to be mated or not, no strain or marbat of Arabian horses is superior to the other; they are all equal in their Asil status. There are however among Bedouins as well as others hierarchies of rasan and marbat, which tend to reflect considerations such as individual taste, family preference, sentimental attachment to a particular line, the opinions of people generally considered knowledgeable, and, above all, the social and political balance of power between the Bedouin tribes or clans. The fame enjoyed by the Kuhaylan Kurush towards the end of the nineteenth century coincides with the zenith of the military power of the Mutayr tribe that was famous for breeding it. The prestige enjoyed by the Kuhaylan Haifi (a strain bred and owned by the Fad’an tribe) at the beginning of the twentieth century is similarly correlated to the prominence of the Fada’an tribe in this period (there was even a short-lived Fadaan state after World War One between 1919 and 1921!). The same was true of the Managhi Sbayli strain of the Sab’ah tribe a decade or two later.

—Edouard Al-Dahdah, 2007

[1] The choice of the Managhi example and the reference to the Abbas Pacha Manuscript is mainly motivated by the need to counter those who claim that Managhi Sbeyli and Managhi Hadraji are two separate, different strains. The example shows that Managhi Sbayli is merely a subset of Managhi Hudruji. Obviously, the reverse is not true. 

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