Editor's note: Over the next few weeks Maydan will publish articles presented at the Sectarianism, Identity and Conflict in Islamic Contexts: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives conference held at George Mason University in April 2016. We hope this series will help the broader public to develop a healthier engagement with the concept of sectarianism, an often misunderstood phenomenon.
In the summer of 2016, Yemen’s national poet, Abd al-Aziz Maqalih, wrote to the warring Yemeni leaders gathered for talks in Kuwait, “there are no Rafidis in Yemen, nor are there Nasibis, but the lust for power, that is what will lead the country to the abyss.” The following account of Zaydiness reveals clearly the role the lust for power plays in Yemen today, but in the current conflict, religion is not simply a dressing for the warring factions. Religious and other social categories cannot be stretched beyond the limits of local historical imaginations. Shared history gives social categories their significance that cannot be easily rewritten.
The warring parties in Yemen today describe one another as Nasibi and Rafidi, Arab and Persian, takfiri and putschist, northerner and secessionist, state builders and coupists. Each description draws upon a reservoir of common meanings to color the conflict in a particular way. For the eminent nationalist, Dr. Yaseen Noaman, the war is about the unity of the nation: “The project to destroy the Arab national state is in full swing driven by Iran for its own behalf and others, and people come to us saying that the conflict is between Sunni and Shi‘i—we do not accept that characterization of the conflict because at root the struggle is between the project of building a national state and the project of destroying the state.” In contrast, Yemen’s military Chief of Staff, Mohammed Ali al-Maqdashi, uses ethnicity rather than nationalism or sect to highlight the alliance between Saudi Arabia and his Yemeni forces against those helping Iran: “Yemen is under the control of militias supported by Iran that strive to establish a Persian empire.” Dr. Yaseen Noaman wants to build a civil state, whereas Mohammed al-Maqdashi wants to reinstate the power of true Arabs in Yemen.
While each choses particular language and draws the boundaries of group identity in particular ways, the meanings of social categories are not infinitely flexible, molded into whatever ends the protagonists envision. Social categories derive meaning from historical memory, and protagonists may not be able to escape their own categories.
“While each choses particular language and draws the boundaries of group identity in particular ways, the meanings of social categories are not infinitely flexible, molded into whatever ends the protagonists envision. Social categories derive meaning from historical memory, and protagonists may not be able to escape their own categories.”In the example below, a doctrinal category, Zaydi, should be fairly recognizable: A Zaydi is someone who follows the practice of Zaydi doctrine, a set of texts and practices defined by a field of scholars, even when the boundaries and meaning of the doctrine itself may not be so clear (Maqalih , for example, argues that Zaydi is not Shi’i, but closer to Mu‘tazila philosophy). But the meaning of Zaydiness is also determined by social practices far from the debates of religious scholars. For most people who do not have much interest in the scholars, the difference between Zaydi and Shafi‘iis is constituted by small details of ritual such as the position of the hands during prayer, a single word in the call to prayer, and the word “ameen” during prayer, to which Yemenis do not attach much significance. In Yemen, mosques are not designated by sect: Zaydi and Shafi‘i will share the same mosque, and Zaydis will pray behind a Shafi‘i imam and Shafi‘i behind Zaydi. In the case below, the meaning of Zaydiness is construed not by small details of ritual but by the recent political history of Yemen. Two prominent leaders in Yemen, Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar and Muqbil al-Wada’i, (d. 2001) are known for their affiliation with religious groups doctrinally opposed to Zaydism, yet both have the distinction of also being considered Zaydi in Yemen. Thus, in Yemen we find the strange anomaly of a Zaydi Salafi or Sunni Shia—Salafi by doctrine, but Zaydi by society.
The Meaning of “Zaydi”
In her stimulating conceptual discussion of the Houthi movement in Yemen, political scientist Lisa Wedeen calls Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, the right hand man of former president Ali Abdallah Saleh, a “nominal Zaydi” (Wedeen 2008, 165). Wedeen’s use of “nominal” is significant, but not because Wedeen sees Ali Muhsin as a false Zaydi, a Zaydi in name only, or that in the current conflict that kind of Zaydiness is the cause of the conflict and Ali Muhsin is a Zaydi but has betrayed his Zaydiness to fight for the other side. Instead, Wedeen’s use of the adjective nominal to describe Ali Muhsin’s Zaydiness stems from the fact that Ali Muhsin is a Zaydi for those who understand Zaydi to mean an inhabitant of the northern highlands of Yemen, a cultural meaning of Zaydiness given significance only by Yemen’s modern politics. Ali Muhsin’s “nominal” Zaydiness has nothing to do with his religious practices, quite the contrary, and everything to do with perceived grudges that non-highlander Yemenis harbor against highland residents, grudges mobilized by the political leaders pushing for the middle region’s regional political autonomy, as promised in the National Dialogue of 2014.
The people that overthrew the Zaydi Imamate in 1962 and supported the Republic came from all regions of Yemen. The Imamate’s palace guard, mostly Zaydi, spearheaded the coup, and key tribes of the predominantly Zaydi highlands led the Republican forces against the Saudi-backed Royalist forces of the Imam. The people of the middle regions, the populous, fertile, and predominately Shafi‘i area around Taizz and Ibb, played a prominent role in the founding of the Republic. For these Republicans, the Imamate did not represent Zaydism so much as it represented backwardness; their struggle was against theocracy, not a particular doctrine of Islam to be replaced by another. The Zaydi elevation of the Hashemites, those that claimed descent from the Prophet’s family, was attacked but individual Zaydi sayyids were allowed to participate in the Republican regime as long as they accepted the idea of equal citizenship. However, in the 1980s and 1990s, when the regime of Ali Abdallah Saleh concentrated power in certain tribes and clans from the highlands, people in the middle regions began to argue that it was highlanders that oppressed the middle regions, and these highlanders were Zaydis. The regional politics of Ali Abdallah Saleh’s Republic was no different from the politics of the Zaydi Imamate. The cause, some argued, must have something to do with the highlander’s religion. Religion was conflated with geography. The middle regions are predominantly Shafi‘i, so for the middle regions, equating Zaydi with highlander did not cause much cognitive stress, though perhaps some ten percent of the middle region residents are Zaydi, many arriving during the reign of Imam Ahmad whose capital was in Taizz in the 1950s.
For those in the middle regions, residents of the highland are not only Zaydi but also tribal. Tribalism, geography, and Zaydism all combine to distinguish the highland resident. For those in the middle regions, highlanders are an impediment to the creation of an effective civil state; tribes usurped the state’s authority. The self-conception of the middle regions is built on a contrast with the lawless, tribal, provincial highlander—the middle region is civilized, settled, cosmopolitan, and supports the building of a modern state with equal citizenship for all. This self-conception is, of course, an argument, a position, not a reality.
“For those in the middle regions, highlanders are an impediment to the creation of an effective civil state; tribes usurped the state’s authority. The self-conception of the middle regions is built on a contrast with the lawless, tribal, provincial highlander—the middle region is civilized, settled, cosmopolitan, and supports the building of a modern state with equal citizenship for all. This self-conception is, of course, an argument, a position, not a reality.”The middle regions are tribal, tribal sheikhs and tribesmen are prominent in local society in the middle regions, and in the highlands, many of the sons of powerful sheikhs go off to complete doctorates in European or American universities. Furthermore, Zaydi scholarship historically opposed itself to tribes and tribal custom in the highlands, so equating Zaydism with tribalism makes no sense- but coherency is not important in the violence of social categories. In the context of the Saleh regime’s concentration of power among highland tribes and the seeming geographic continuity with the regime of the Zaydi Imams, elites of the middle region are able to gain significant political support by characterizing the problems of the middle region as a result of its domination by highlanders.
Other regions of Yemen, such as the western coast of the Tihama, not just the middle regions, and foreign researchers as well will also transpose Zaydiness on the highlands. The common estimate of the number of Zaydis in Yemen is about thirty-five percent This figure is based upon the (quite erroneous) assumption that everyone in the highlands is Zaydi and calculating the proportion of highland residents to total population, but this estimate only holds if we adopt the middle region’s geographic definition of Zaydiness. If we understand Zaydiness to be related to religious doctrine, we find a very different picture. The highlands have seen very significant doctrinal developments since the foundation of the Republic in 1962. Highlanders welcomed Salafi and Wahhabi versions of Islam in large numbers.
Wahhabism and Salafism in Yemen
Wahhabism and Salafism came to Yemen in various ways. Wahhabism probably first came to the north through Saudi teachers in the Scientific Institutes, in the course of the basic education provided by the Saudis beginning during the regime of al-Hamdi in the mid-1970s. The Yemeni state did not have the resources to provide for basic education, and the Saudis agreed to fund the ‘Scientific Institutes’ in the north. Instruction in the institutes had a large religious component, so much so that detractors called them Wahhabi indoctrination centers.
But Salafism also has indigenous roots in Yemen. The founder of Salafism in Yemen, Muqbil al-Wada’i, was expelled from Saudi Arabia because of his suspected ties to the occupation of the Grand Mosque, a fact that does not sit well with the notion that Salafism is an arm of Saudi foreign policy. Al-Wada’i was from the Wada’i tribe in the far north in Sa’adah, the geographic heart of Zaydism in Yemen. In his telling, he tried to become a scholar of Zaydism, but Zaydi scholars rejected him because he did not have the pedigree of a sayyid, a descendent of the Prophet through Fatima and Ali. In Zaydi doctrine under the Imams of Yemen, as it is commonly understood, the leader of the Muslim community must be a descendent of the Prophet. Al-Wada’i was a tribesmen, a member of the southern Qahtan tribes, an original inhabitant of the Arabian Peninsula (after the floods of the Abrahamic tradition).
True or not, al-Wada’i’s story is socially significant in Republican Yemen. The Republican regime, though nominally Zaydi in Wedeen’s terms, distrusted the Zaydi families of the north. For the Republicans, the Zaydi families were the ancien régime, the Romanovs of Yemen, who represented a threat to the Republic. The prestige of the Zaydi families depended to some extent upon their pedigree that gave them special status in Zaydism. The Wahhabi and Salafi doctrines rejected not only the many branches of Islam, but also the idea that blood was of any distinction in Islam (ironically so, since their origins are in the Saudi monarchy). This aspect of Salafi Wahhabism was politically convenient for Republicans.
Saudi foreign policy also played a role in promoting these new versions of Islam in the north. For the Saudis, Yemen is a vulnerability. Yemen is poor and unstable, and can be a threat as a united country—the population of Yemen is greater than the population of Saudi Arabia—and Yemen can be a threat as a failed state, unable to contain its poverty stricken chaos or police its long desert border with Saudi Arabia. So the Saudis want to make sure that they are the most influential foreign power in Yemen – a fact that explains in part the extreme Saudi reaction to Iranian support for the Houthi.
“Saudi foreign policy also played a role in promoting these new versions of Islam in the north. For the Saudis, Yemen is a vulnerability. Yemen is poor and unstable, and can be a threat as a united country—the population of Yemen is greater than the population of Saudi Arabia—and Yemen can be a threat as a failed state…”
Ali Muhsin is a key leader of the Islah party. He is a military man, the second in command during Saleh’s regime, but Ali Muhsin was always identified with Islamic currents. Reportedly, recruitment in Ali Muhsin’s forces was based upon adherence to Wahhabi, Salafi, or Muslim Brotherhood currents. This is why including Ali Muhsin among Zaydis is so striking. Not only do Ali Muhsin and those around him reject the doctrinal trend of Zaydism, but also the political movement, the Houthi movement, that pretends to represent Zaydis today.
Given the fact that Ali Muhsin and the Islah party are the prime enemies of the Houthi movement and they have fought destructive wars against one another for more than a decade, to include Ali Muhsin and Muqbil al-Wada’i in the category of Zaydi, as Wedeen does along with most Yemeni when they are thinking of the cultural or sociopolitical meaning of Zaydi, is almost comically ironic. Yet, this also shows that the meanings of religious categories can be construed by social and political criteria as well as religious factors. It also shows that social categories cannot be manipulated simply to fit the needs of a particular political movement. Ali Muhsin and Muqbil al-Wada’i would gladly submit their resignations from the doctrinal school of Zaydism, and their resignations would be most welcome by those following the doctrines of Zaydism, but Ali Muhsin and al-Wada’i’s histories prevent them from evading the cultural Zaydiness imposed by non-highlanders.
 Al-Maqalih, Abd al-Aziz. A Reading of Zaydi and Mu’atazil Thought. Beirut: Dar al-Awda. 1982