A Marginalized Religious Community in Yemen Enjoys a Revival

By King, James R. | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, January/February 2011 | Go to article overview

A Marginalized Religious Community in Yemen Enjoys a Revival


King, James R., Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


A sophisticated and increasingly aggressive al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has propelled the Republic of Yemen to the top of the Obama administration's war on terror priority list. Yet amid this news-catching and billion-dollar geopolitical struggle against religious extremism, Yemen is experiencing another important religious phenomenon.

Zaydism is a branch of Shi'i Islam distinct from its counterparts in Lebanon, Iraq, Iran or elsewhere. The story of Yemen's Zaydi community begins in the late 9th century, when the Zaydi scholar Al-Hadi was invited by tribes in Yemen's northern highlands to resolve their intractable disputes. Accepting Al-Hadi's governance, these tribesmen ultimately were absorbed into a Zaydi universe, embracing Zaydi political authority, theology and law, in addition to their local tribal customs. In this part of Yemen, temporal power and religious doctrine were united in a uniquely Zaydi form of theocratic rule known as the Imamate. Though never permanent and rarely stable, at its pinnacle the Imamate's influence extended from present-day Saudi Arabia in the northwest, to the Gulf of Aden in the south, to western Oman in the east. Particularly in Yemen's northern highlands, history was defined by the activities of Zaydi rulers, judges, scholars and tribesmen.

For over a millennium, the Zaydis of Yemen enjoyed an unparalleled history of political rule, intellectual production and pious devotion.

This all changed dramatically with the Sept. 26, 1962 Republican Revolution. This decisive moment in Yemen's modern history unleashed an eight-year civil war in North Yemen-South Yemen remaining under British control until 1967-between "nationalists" supported by Gamal Abdel Nasser's Egypt who sought a new direction for the country, and "royalists" who continued to back the ruling Imam, supported by Saudi Arabia. Ultimately, it led to the Zaydi Imamate being replaced with a distinctly Republican and nationalist government, complete with modern bureaucratic institutions and a pronounced antagonism toward the former ruling Zaydi tradition.

The Revolution inaugurated a volatile era for Zaydi adherents in Yemen, and today this community sits on the fringes of Yemen's public arenas of culture, religion and politics. For a tradition that once dominated large parts of Yemen, its present-day irrelevance is remarkable.

This marginalization has coincided and been reinforced by the "Sunnification" of Yemen. Over the last 40 years, the country has seen the growth of a loose but powerful alliance of political parties and ideological groups that share a commitment to Republican nationalism and Sunni-based reform. With roots in the Imamate period, this movement has promoted anti-Shi'i attitudes and built a potent wave of opposition to Zaydi thought and adherence throughout Yemen. Unlike al-Qaeda, these groups operate within the mainstream of the country's religious, social and political spheres.

The most dramatic consequence of this phenomenon is the turning of large numbers of individuals and communities in historically Zaydi regions toward Sunni Islam. These range from what might be called "Zaydis in name only"-nominal Zaydis with minimal commitment to Zaydi Islam's tenets and history (President Ali Abdullah Saleh being one example)-to aggressive opponents of Zaydi thought and practice. Significantly, this retreat from Zaydism has been part and parcel of the official state-building effort in Yemen, as the new Republican government sought to weaken the former ruling group and foster a national religious identity that transcended traditional boundaries and identifications. In doing so, it has consistently promoted alternative religious and political visions, while pushing the Zaydi tradition to the periphery of Yemeni society.

Whether in schools, media or the political sphere, this process continues today.

In fact, the very future of Zaydi Islam in Yemen is in question.

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A Marginalized Religious Community in Yemen Enjoys a Revival
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