SHAFAQNA – “…I found that endurance thereon was wiser. So I adopted patience although there was pricking in the eye and suffocation (of mortification) in the throat. I watched the plundering of my inheritance.” – Imam Ali, sermon ash-Shiqshiqiyah.
Since war broke over the skies of Yemen (March 25, 2015), this poorest nation of Southern Arabia has sat in the middle of a heated sectarian discourse while powers have argued religious identity and history to better rationalise political legitimacy.
Yemen’s fate as it were, is reminiscent of that of many others across the Islamic world since, faith has long been used as military banner, and not as it should a rallying cry for justice.
Exploded by design along those sectarian lines which for the most part never really were, Yemen’s war theatre has been painted as one of religious divide and theo-imperialism – another manifestation of the infamous Shia-Sunni divide, Iran versus Saudi Arabia. Only such a binary analysis of both the region, and in this particular case Yemen, fails to encompass the complexity, fluidity and pluralism that is Yemen, the nation-state.
Yemen’s religious identity cannot be reduced to a sectarian label – not if we are serious about understanding those dynamics, which, for well over 14 centuries, have torn communities apart over competing allegiances.
It is Yemen’s allegiance today which stands the real battle-ground.
Set aside geopolitics and military hunger to consider, even if for a brief moment, that Yemen’s war echoes in fact of a drawn-out battle in between the House of Islam, and those who wished to deny its appointment, to better rise themselves king over God’s Message.
Another domino to have fallen to Saudi Arabia’s religious exclusionism, Yemen has been denied the courtesy of its heritage so that its communities could be absorbed into a political construct that claims itself sanctified – Wahhabism.
But Yemen’s history and the ties it bears to Islam are not so easily broken; especially if we consider how the sons of Hamdan, those men and women no armies could ever tame to their rule, came to bow to Islam, never to relent in their pledge.
The First Imam and the tribes of Yemen
Allow me to take you back in time, back when Yemen met not his match but its maker. I insist here you shed all manners of prejudices and bias as to better appreciate Yemen’s truth. While many may still sneer at the idea of God, Yemen’s devotion to the Scriptures has moulded and shaped the nation so absolutely that one cannot possibly understand Yemen, without learning of its religious walk.
Where nations across the Middle East exploded in a grand yearning for democratic reforms, 2011 came to crystallise Yemen’s religious revival – or rather a people’s desire to return to a system of governance it judges more in sync with its own socio-political ambitions.
Driven by a need to reinvent their nation and more importantly the principles that command and define them as a nation-state following decades of blind nepotism, Yemenis rose in rejection of Wahhabism and its regional patrons, bent on reclaiming their heritage: Shia Islam.
From both a purely historical and religious perspective, such a revival of Shia Islam in Yemen has absolutely nothing to do with politics, or even power. Yemen’s return to its religious root needs to be appreciated from a philosophical perspective. For all the bile spent against its tenets and traditions, Shia Islam forever remains the expression of Justice, and Empowerment – together an inspiration, a liberation and a compassion onto people.
It is out of a need for social-justice and political emancipation that Yemen withdrew behind its religious heritage, and there, found a new centre for its national ambitions.
When I speak of Shia Islam, do not read in my words Iran. While Iran is in fact majority Shia, its land does not hold a monopoly on faith, nor did it ever claim to for that matter; that would be the tall tale one prejudiced Kingdom of Saudi Arabia taught the world so you would learn to fear its regional nemesis.
But who are Yemen’s Shia and is Yemen Shia at all?
The unruly and ferociously independent tribes of Yemen came to Islam over a millennium ago by way of Imam Ali, the Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law, cousin and appointed custodian to the Word. It is this link in between the House of the prophet: al Muhammad, and Yemen’s sons that has long troubled Riyadh’s clergy, for it is resistance against oppression such an allegiance ultimately testifies to.
While many emissaries were sent to Yemen to speak Islam into existence, and thus rally Arabia under one banner, only the First Imam proved capable of inspiring a nation to bow. To this day, and despite countless attempts to redact its history and remap its religious institutions Yemen has remained in a state of prostration before its Imam.
A lot can be said of the nature of Yemen’s allegiance if we consider that Yemen came to Islam by way of both the Quran and Ahulbayt: the two weighty things God urged all believers to hold on to, never to go astray.
“Peace be upon Hamdan,” were Imam Ali’s words. Within those words, Yemen found its centre and loyalty – never to stray or renege, never to break the promise made before the house of the prophet.
And If countries have waged bitter wars over Islam, if Shias and Sunnis have crossed iron to assert their respective paradigm, claiming their vision holiest over all, Yemen weathered all raging storms and changes of tides, its people having found a stout unity in their coming into Islam.
For all intents and purposes Yemen still echoes of the footsteps of the First Imam … As Yemen’s northern tribes are always keen to emphasise: “What the mind might have forgotten, the heart remembers, Yemenis will always be the people of Ali.”
Yemen’s conversion was more than a tale of religiosity, it was an awakening. Today Yemen is reclaiming its allegiance.
There could never be apostasy in the expression of such a pledge.
Throughout the early tribulations of the Islamic empire, when games of politics and thirst for power came to sully the message of Islam, Yemen, remained, unlike many others in the immediate region, true to the Prophet’s progeny – his appointed heirs and custodian of Islamic traditions.
The Shia of al-Muhammad
It is arguably Yemen’s loyalty to al-Muhammad that together sealed and defined the nature of its traditions, firmly sitting the nation within the borders of Shia Islam. Although it needs to be said that Yemen very much understand itself as Muslim, unburdened by those labels the powers that be have been so keen on dispensing communities to better divide them.
Yemen’s religious fate was sealed in the 8th century when it chose to rise a tide against the Ummayad Caliph: Hisham ibn Abd al-Malik (ruling 724-743 AD), thus setting a precedent for revolution against corrupt rulers. It might be said that Yemenis find it difficult to remain passive in an unjust world, or in the words of a modern influential Shia Muslim leader, Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, to “sit in their houses.”
Yemen’s alignment with Shia Islam was reinforced in 893, when Imam Yehia ibn al-Hussayn, a descendant of the Prophet of Islam, answered Yemen’s calls during a tribal dispute.
Acting a mediator in an inter-tribal conflict, Imam Yehia soon acted a catalyst for Yemen highlands folks when he denounced the unjust rule of the then-Caliph. It is then that Shia Islam rose a socio-political system which opposes tyranny, imperialism, and colonialism through legitimate leadership.
By accepting Imam Yehia as their leader then, Yemen’s northern tribes totally rejected the authority of the Sunni Caliphate, then based in Baghdad, thus for a second time professing their allegiance to Imam Ali.
Today, we are witnessing a resurgence of such sentiment.
Following decades of nepotism and sectarian-based segregation, Yemen, through its Resistance Movement, the last keepers of Shia Islam in Yemen, have returned to claim their heritage over extremism and radicalism.
As Yemen twists and turns, looking for a new direction, the Shias of Yemen have said to be determined not to allow Sunni radicals from taking over their homeland, so as to act a barrier once more against despotism.
By Catherine Shakdam for the Shafaqna Institute of Middle Eastern Studies