The Tariqa on a Landcrusier: The Resurgence of Sufism in Yemen

By Knysh, Alexander | The Middle East Journal, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

The Tariqa on a Landcrusier: The Resurgence of Sufism in Yemen


Knysh, Alexander, The Middle East Journal


The article examines the resurgence of Sufi-oriented religious movements in contemporary Yemen with special reference to the province of Hadramawt. One such movement, centered in the city of Tarim, has become particularly prominent and popular due to the efforts of its able leader, a young sayyid scholar named Habib 'Umar. Habib `Umar and his followers advocate a modified version of traditional Yemeni religiosity that encourages pilgrimages to the shrines of local saints and prophetic figures, collective recitations of Sufi poetry, celebrations of the Prophet's birthday and ascension to heaven. The movement's educational philosophy emphasizes a total submission of the disciples to the spiritual authority of the mentor and reverence for the descendants of the Prophet, who are represented locally by the Ba `Alawi family of sada (sayyids). In conclusion, the author addresses some broader theoretical implications of this Sufi resurgence, including the tensions between the "nativist" and "imported" interpretations of Islam promoted by various groups of Yemeni Muslims.

In her recent article, Dr. Ulrike Freitag of the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London has predicted "a possible revival of Sufism" in a south-eastern province of the newly unified Yemeni state.' David Buchman of the State University of New York, Stony Brook, has made a much more cautious assessment of Yemeni Sufism's potential as a religious movement, emphasizing the strong opposition to it from many Yemeni religio-political parties and factions.2 As the Yemenis in 2000 celebrated the tenth anniversary of their country's unification in a relatively open and democratic political atmosphere,' it is appropriate to examine new trends in the country's religious and political life in general, and Sufi-based movements in particular, in order to ascertain the accuracy of these predictions.

Several important caveats are in order here. First, Freitag's and Buchman's observations refer to different parts of Yemen. While Freitag's statement is limited to Hadramawt-a large eastern province of the Republic of Yemen, Buchman's research is somewhat broader in scope. It encompasses the capital Sana`a' and the regions of Ta`izz and al-Hujariyya with occasional excursions into other areas of the country. Second, my own observations rest, for the most part, on my field work in the southern areas of the country, especially in Hadramawt, where I conducted my research both before and after the country's unification in 1990. My data on the north is relatively sketchy and confined mostly to the cities of Ta`izz and Ibb and their environs. I have no field data from such traditional Sufi centers of North Yemen as Zabid and the region of the Tihama, which remain outside the scope of this article. Third, before discussing the vicissitudes of Sufism in Yemen I must point out that the associations that this word invokes in the mind of an average Yemeni citizen do not necessarily correspond to those of a Western Islamicist or even a Muslim from another part of the Islamic world. Since various aspects of Yemeni Sufism will be highlighted in the course of this article, I limit myself here to a few general remarks.

Historically, in Yemen, Sufism was associated primarily with the informal network of groups of disciples aggregating around a reputed Sufi master. The latter could reside in a remote rural/tribal area or in an urban center.4 This is still very much the case in contemporary Yemen. In these circumstances, the direct and unmediated relations between the shaykh and his murids (disciples) have been the mainstay of Sufi training in Yemen until today. In any event, these relations were never as formalized or hierarchical as they were in the large Sufi brotherhoods spread in the rest of the Muslim world, especially in Egypt, the Maghrib, Anatolia, and the Indian Subcontinent. For a number of reasons that are too complex to be addressed here, the large centralized Sufi brotherhoods that were so prominent in these areas have never gained ascendancy in Yemen or, for that matter, in any other part of Arabia, with the possible exception of Mecca-the headquarters of many powerful Sufi brotherhoods (turuq). …

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The Tariqa on a Landcrusier: The Resurgence of Sufism in Yemen
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