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Middle East Report 204: A Clash of Fundamentalisms: Wahhabism in Yemen, by Shelagh Weir

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MER 204 Table of Contents

A Clash of Fundamentalisms: Wahhabism in Yemen

Shelagh Weir

During the past two decades, a proselytizing, reformist, "Islamist" movement--mainly characterized as "Wahhabi"--has gained increasing popularity throughout Yemen. Wahhabism actively opposes both the main Yemeni schools--Zaydi Shi'ism in the north and Shafi'i-Sunnism in the south and in the Tihamah. It is closely connected with the political party Islah, a coalition of tribal, mercantile and religious interests that pursues a mixed social and political agenda.1

Though little is known of Yemeni Wahhabism, it appears to have a particularly strong following in the northern Province of Sa'dah where some of its leading figures are based. Given that this region is in the Zaydi heartlands of northern Yemen, the popularity there of Wahhabism is surprising. Nevertheless Wahhabism has flourished in the mountains of Razih in the west of the province precisely because it has successfully mobilized a hitherto dormant resentment of key tenets of Zaydism. Wahhabism may have been sown, as some suggest, with foreign finance and encouragement, but it only took root because the soil was fertile.

Wahhabism was introduced into the province of Sa'dah by local men who had converted while studying religion in Saudi Arabia or fighting with the mujahidin in Afghanistan. Upon their return to the Sa'dah region, they set up lesson circles, religious institutes and Wahhabi mosques.

Beginning in the mid-1980s, the tribally-organized communities of Razih became riven by sectarian conflict as a fervent and growing minority of Wahhabi-Sunni converts confronted the majority of Zaydi-Shi'a.2 The Wahhabis, as others dub them (or Sunnis as they prefer to be called), gained key positions in state schools, opened religious teaching institutes and established or took over a number of mosques. These activists were mainly young men (shabab) from a wide range of "tribal" (qabili) and low-status "butcher" families.3 These youths were attracted to Islah (which they equated with Wahhabism) because of its effective social welfare programs, and to Wahhabism because of its opposition to the Zaydi religious elite (sadah, singular sayyid), its direct, unmediated relationship to God, its egalitarianism and what they saw as its clear, logical doctrines. A major factor in their conversion was literacy; these shabab were among the first generation to attend secondary school. They had the skills, therefore, to study the plethora of religious publications flooding Yemen at that time.

In addition to the shabab, a minority of older men--mainly tribal leaders (shaikhs and others)--tacitly supported the Wahhabi-Islah movement in part because their traditional political positions were bolstered by Islah and its powerful leader, Shaikh 'Abdullah al-Ahmar, and in part because they approved of the anti-sayyid thrust of the movement. The relationship between tribal leaders and prominent sayyids has always been one of intermittent rivalry. Sayyids are, predictably, aligned entirely on the Zaydi side of the conflict and are supported by the national political party, al-Haqq,4 which was formed primarily to defend Zaydism against the Wahhabi challenge.

Although sayyids have not been revered indiscriminately in Razih previously, they and their claim to descent from the Prophet Muhammad through his son-in-law 'Ali have been respected by the majority of people. They maintained their high social standing despite the 1960s civil war which had aimed to eliminate their privileges. The Wahhabis primarily resented not the important official posts certain sayyids had secured under the Republican government, but their religious authority and influence, as well as their religious claims to nobility.

The Wahhabis accused the sayyids of blocking access to the "truths" of Sunni doctrine, of propagating superstitious beliefs and practices and of perpetuating social stratification by asserting their divinely-sanctioned social superiority. They accused them of reinforcing sayyid exclusivity by refusing to marry their daughters to non-sayyids--a particularly bitter point of contention. Razih, however, is replete with marriage prohibitions and preferences, and no tribe will yet intermarry with "butcher" families--an Achilles heel which sayyids were quick to exploit with reciprocal taunts of social prejudice.

Sayyids countered by accusing the Wahhabis of propagating their religion for money and of importing a religious school of thought from Saudi Arabia that was innappropriate for Yemen. Zaydism, they asserted, was an authentically Yemeni school, and they were its prime upholders. Although sayyids had formerly portrayed themselves as immigrant "northeners" (Adnanis) in contrast to other Yemenis, who were indigenous "southerners" (Qahtanis), in this new context they sought to emphasize their Yemeni identity.5

The Wahhabi opposition to sayyids and Zaydism also stimulated the emergence of a new generation of Zaydi `ulema' with non-sayyid, tribal status. These charismatic and ambitious young men vigorously championed the Zaydi madhhab through teaching and religious pamphleteering, and by encouraging Zaydi rituals. In so doing, they predictably found themselves in competition with the sayyids of their own sects.6

A striking feature of the sectarian conflict in Razih was the tremendous symbolic and emotional emphasis placed on spiritual and ritual matters, with each side accusing the other of heretical beliefs and practices. The greatest source of daily friction was the prayer ritual. Wahhabis made a point of attending Zaydi mosques and, while the majority of the congregation resolutely adhered to the customary Zaydi prayer stance with arms extended, the Wahhabis provocatively prayed in the Sunni manner, folding their arms during the prayer sequence, and, contrary to the Zaydi practice, chanting "amin" (like the Christian "amen").7

In 1991, a major Zaydi reaction to the Wahhabi challenge occurred during a public ceremony to mark the anniversary of `Id al-Ghadir when Shi`a Muslims believe the Prophet designated `Ali as his successor. The loud speeches, general clamor and celebratory gunfire of this ceremony, which attracted men from all over Razih, dramatically and defiantly flaunted Zaydi numbers and enthusiasm in the face of the leading Wahhabi activist of Razih, who lived near the ceremonial ground.

The Zaydi-Wahhabi rivalry intensified. Wahhabis attempted to take over the major mosque of Razih, which had become the centre for Zaydi activists. The Wahhabis imported skilled preachers from elsewhere in Yemen to deliver Friday sermons, tried to install their own mosque officials, and assertively prayed in the Sunni mode--all strenuously opposed by the Zaydis. In one incident, tussles took place over the microphone and when the Wahhabis aggressively intoned "amin," the Zaydi congregation defiantly bellowed "kadhabin" (liars) in response!

As the `Id al-Ghadir of 1992 approached, the Wahhabis waged a fierce campaign against Zaydi celebrations, threatening violence, and there were armed standoffs in the main mosque. This tense situation reached a bloody climax with the murder of the son of the leading Wahhabi on the eve of `Id al-Ghadir--a shockingly dishonorable crime by tribal standards, because it was disproportionate to the provocation.

Two years later, the leading Wahhabi on policing duties with the local governor, having pursued his investigation and satisfied himself on the identity of his son's assassin, returned to Razih and shot dead an obscure sayyid. Thus he avenged his son's anonymous and secretive murder openly and honorably. Eventually, this was deemed a revenge killing in accordance with shari`a and the matter was closed.

After this incident the conflict subsided. Both sides felt things had gone too far and wanted to avoid provoking further government intervention. Local conflicts were also overshadowed by the 1994 war between north and south Yemen, and a deterioration in the Yemeni economy. As people concentrated on economic survival, religious differences were de-emphasized and Wahhabis and Zaydis concentrated on promoting their respective madhdhabs through religious schools and institutes.8

The dramatic and confrontational aspects of this "clash of fundamentalisms" subsided because those divided by religious conflict are linked by economic interests among networks of close neighborhood and marriage. Leading sayyids have marriage links with leading Wahhabi families which predate this conflict. The social status of sayyids, however, may be vulnerable unless they modify their conduct and precepts, particularly their adherence to the principal of descent-based social primacy. In an early sign of such a compromise a female sayyid (sharifah) recently married a tribesman--predictably a wealthy merchant. The significance of this first small breach in the bastion of sayyid exclusivity did not go unnoticed. Crowds of men converged from all over Razih to celebrate, singing the following song:

Oh sayyids, you tricked us
With your turbans, remedies and charms
Whenever we proposed marriage, you said
"With a sharifah, a sayyid's daughter? It's not allowed."
God only knows whose book you studied!

Author's Note This article is based on information collected during 14 months of anthropological field work in Razih between 1977 and 1980, a further three months of fieldwork in the winter of 1992-93, a visit to Sana`a in 1994, and interviews in London. A version of the article was presented at the Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA) meeting in 1995. I am grateful to Gabriele vom Bruck, Sheila Carapico, Ianthe Maclagan and Madawi al-Rasheed for their helpful comments on earlier drafts.

Shelagh Weir, former Middle East curator for the British Museum, is an independent writer and researcher.


1 Islah gained 62 out of 301 parliamentary seats in the first Yemeni nationwide multiparty elections in 1993 (Sheila Carapico, "Elections and Mass Politics in Yemen," Middle East Report 23, November-December 1994, p.3).

2 There are no accurate figures to indicate the size of Wahhabi support in Razih, but according to figures provided by local informants, the Islah party received about 20 percent of the vote in the first national election in 1994 (with five parties standing).

3 People of qabili status comprise about 90 percent of the Razih population, "butchers" (who pursue a variety of occupations, not only butchery) about 5 percent, and the religious elite (sadah, singular sayyid) the remaining five percent.

4 After the 1997 elections, Islah lost all cabinet seats to the ruling party, while al-Haqq picked up a single post, the Awqaf (Islamic endowments) ministry.

5 I am grateful to Gabriele vom Bruck for pointing out this switch in self-identification.

6 See Bernard Haykel, "A Zaydi Revival?" Yemen Update 36/1995.

7 For the historical importance of prayer ritual for Zaydi identity, see Bernard Haykel, "Al-Shawkani and the jurisprudential unity of Yemen," in Michel Tuchscherer, ed., Le Yémen: Passé et Présent de L'Unité. Revue du Monde Musulman et de la Méditerranée (Edisud, 1994).

8 For the recent upsurge in formal Zaydi education, see Abdelmalik Eagle, "Yemeni Zaydis: the Imamate and its aftermath," Middle East International, June 1995, and Haykel, op.cit.


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