Until the republican revolution in 1962, the political history of Yemen was dominated by the Zaydi imamate. The imamate’s doctrine posits a revolutionary vision of rule by any Fatimid descendant of the Prophet Muhammad who has the qualifications to become an imam and is able to rise militarily against an unjust ruler. The last Zaydi imams to rule Yemen were of the Hamid al-Din family, who adopted a monarchical form of government in the 1920s and established the Mutawakkili Kingdom of Yemen, a political order that stood in tension with traditional Zaydism that had, in theory if not always in practice, rejected dynastic kingship. Yemen’s relative political isolation was broken in the first half of the 20th century when Yemenis were sent to study in Egypt and Iraq and thus were exposed to the political ideologies of Islamism and Arab nationalism, which they imported back home. In the 1940s an Algerian member of the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Fudayl al-Wartalani (d. 1959), arrived in Yemen at Hasan al-Banna’s behest with the aim of spreading this movement’s views. This appears to have had an effect on some Yemenis who in turn led the so-called Constitutional Revolution of 1948. Although Imam Yahya b. Muhammad Hamid al-Din was assassinated, this attempt at toppling the Hamid al-Din imams was quickly thwarted with the resumption of power by Imam Ahmad b. Yahya Hamid al-Din (d. 1962).
Nonetheless, the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence and presence continued in Yemen, represented formally since 1990 by important elements within a political party called the Yemeni Congregation for Reform (al-Tajammu’ al-Yamani li-l-Islah) and by ideologues such as Shaykh ‘Abd al-Majid al-Zindani. The Yemeni Congregation for Reform has been in and out of power in the guise of a coalition partner in government or in opposition in parliament, and the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood on Yemen’s politics has been nominal and symbolic, though it has been more significant with respect to the content of the school and university curricula.
The 1962 revolution in Yemen led to a civil war that ended in 1970 with the coming to power of a leadership (e.g., President ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Iryani) that adhered to the teachings of an indigenous Salafi movement, similar in many respects, but not identical, to the teachings of the Wahhabi movement in central Arabia. Historically, the two most prominent scholars of this movement were Muhammad b. al-Amir al-San‘ani (d. 1769) and Muhammad al-Shawkani (d. 1834), both of whose teachings are constitutive of the republican form of Salafism that was imposed in Yemen since the early 1970s. In terms of doctrine, this Sunni reformist movement advocated a literal interpretation and exclusive reliance on the Qur’an and sunna, shunning the taqlīd (emulation) of the four established schools of law in favor of an absolute form of ijtihād (independent legal reasoning). As to theology, it rejected the Mu’tazili doctrines that the Zaydis uphold as well as their doctrine of the imamate.
By adhering to this version of Salafism, the republican leadership effectively ended their conflict with the Saudi Arabian authorities, who had supported the Hamid al-Din–led Zaydis throughout the civil war. Furthermore, this Salafism constituted an ideology that the Republicans claimed would unite Yemenis around indigenous reformist teachings that allegedly transcended sectarian identities as well as jurisprudential and legal differences. The result of this, however, was that traditional Zaydis ended up being marginalized and at times persecuted by this government-sanctioned form of Islam. The Saudi Arabian authorities welcomed this turn of events and, since the early 1970s, subsidized a parallel system of Islamic education in Yemen, the so-called Institutes of Knowledge (al-ma’āhid al-‘ilmiyya), as well as sponsoring a Salafi revival in the country that had a transformative effect on the nature of religiosity and practice, in former South Yemen as well. A number of Salafi shaykhs emerged in the process, among whom Muqbil alWadi’i (d. 2001) was considered the most important.
The spread of Salafism, whether through Saudi Arabia’s sponsorship or that of the central government in Sanaa, led to forms of resistance from some Zaydis as well as from certain Sufis from the Hadhramaut and other regions of South Yemen. While not claiming to revive the legacy and teachings of the imamate, some Zaydis engaged in political efforts to protect their heritage and identity by creating a political party called Hizb al-Haqq. Others, known as the Huthis, engaged in an armed rebellion against the central government. The Sufis, mainly of the Ba ‘Alawi order, established educational institutions to preserve and spread their teachings. Among these was Habib ‘Ali al-Jifri, who established an institution called the Tabah Foundation in Abu Dhabi and through which he hoped to propagate a version of Islam more ecumenical and “modern” than Salafism.
See also al-Shawkani, Muhammad b. ‘Ali (1760–1834); Zaydis
Laurent Bonnefoy, “Salafism in Yemen: A ‘Saudisation’?” in Kingdom Without Borders, edited by Madawi al-Rasheed, 2009; Paul Dresch, A History of Yemen, 2000; Bernard Haykel, Revival and Reform in Islam, 2003; Barak Salmoni, Bryce Loidolt, and Madeleine Wells,