Yemen: Understanding the Zaydi Revival
Co-authored by Brecht Jonkers
Portraying the modern Ansarullah movement as a straight-forward reaction to republicanism as the former President Ali Abdallah Saleh often did during his presidency, ignores that Zaydi revivalism emerged in the early 90s in opposition to the growth of Salafi-Wahhabi ideology. Far from being against the republican state, Ansarullah has always been supportive of the Republic, maintaining instead that the 1962 Revolution remains unfinished and incomplete.
Despite the republican revolution, Saudi religious influence permeated Yemeni society, thereby creating the conditions for the Yemeni state to nonetheless produce a powerful general like Ali Mohsen al Ahmar espousing the kind of Salafi politics that Saudi Arabia promotes globally, despite coming from a traditionally Zaydi family himself.
The father of Yemeni Salafism, Muqbil bin Hadi al-Wadi’i, was also incidentally of Zaydi heritage, but spent much of his life studying in Saudi Arabia, where he studied under Abd al-Aziz ibn Baz, a proponent of the “jihad” against the Soviet-backed Afghan government in the 1980. Incidentally, Osama bin Laden was a Saudi citizen of Hadhrami Yemeni heritage, his family hailing from Mukalla.
In 1979, al-Wadi’i was forced to return to Yemen after being accused by Saudi authorities of backing the Wahhabi seizure of the Grand Mosque of Mecca, and of ghost-writing the letters of the leader of that failed coup, Juhayman al Utaybi, who was beheaded a year later. According to al-Wadi’i, the Saudi regime was illegitimate because its leaders were corrupt, were unable to trace their lineage back to the broader Quraysh tribal confederation of Mecca to which the holy prophet belonged, and were allies of “Christian powers”. The radical Wahhabis who had taken over the Grand Mosque also shared these opinions.
This highlights one of the main contradictions about the relationship between Wahhabism and Saudi Arabia, which is that although the kingdom promotes Salafi ideology abroad, the ideological school itself considers Saudi rule illegitimate too. This however isn’t a major problem for the kingdom because there’s no money in fighting against Saudi Arabia, rather the money is in fighting against the enemies of Saudi Arabia, specifically Muslim majority countries with left-nationalist governments.
Like countries across the ‘Muslim world’ seduced by the Saudi-backed “jihad”, Yemenis also went to fight in Afghanistan, and when they returned, planted the seeds for the eventual emergence of Al Qaeda in the late 1990s.
Upon returning to Yemen, al-Wadi’i established the Dar al-Hadith al-Khayriyya in Dammaj, Sa’ada governorate, which would grow to be one of the main teaching and training centres of Wahhabism worldwide, rivaling even the schools in Saudi Arabia itself. During his tenure here, al-Wadi’i is estimated to have taught tens of thousands of “students” from all over the world, undoubtedly contributing greatly to the growth of Wahhabi terrorism globally. And despite his troubled relations with his former Saudi masters, al-Wadi’i continued to be funded by Riyadh for a long time.
During the six Sa’ada wars (2004-10), the Yemeni state would actively recruit fighters from the Salafi centre in Dammaj in their attempts to wipe out the Ansarullah movement militarily, however by 2011 the tables had turned.
Ansarullah had demanded the centre hand over its weapons, they refused, fighting ensued for two months killing at least 830 people on both sides, ending in a decisive victory for Ansarullah who had been on the receiving end for the past decade, a reality conveniently omitted from narratives that seek to present the losing side as pure victims of Shia/Zaydi intolerance.
That this happened with full support and protection of the government of the former President Ali Abdallah Saleh, added to the fact that al-Wadi’i’s “school” was positioned right in the middle of the Zaydi heartland of northern Yemen, just fifteen kilometres from the “Zaydi capital” of Sa’da itself, was always considered deeply provocative, and came to symbolise Saudi hegemony in Yemen.
From his pulpit, al-Wadi’i began denouncing Zaydism, especially the core concept of khurruj (that it is a duty to rebel against unjust rulers), countering it with the classical Sunni disposition towards political conservatism and defending the status quo. In stark contrast to khurruj, Sheikh al-Wadi’i openly argued that sinful and corrupt leaders must be obeyed always by the Muslims, stating that advising the leader must be done by the learned scholars in private. Additionally, according to al-Wadi’i, Muslims are commanded to endure hardship and be patient until Allah removes the burden of an oppressive ruler for that of a better one.
The Sheikh, by commanding Muslims to blindly obey their rulers, no matter how oppressive or corrupt they were, and to await their reward after death, epitomised the historic use of religion as a tool of the ruling class, the “opiate of the masses” as Karl Marx called it. Catholic ruling classes in Europe used essentially the same argument, as does the promise of being born into a better place in society in the next life in the Indian caste system.
For the Zaydi and many Shia like them, their duty as Muslims was to rebel, drawing inspiration from the Prophet Muhammad who had revolted against the unjust rule of the Qurayshi elites of Mecca. It was not just the polytheism of the Quraysh that Islam emerged in opposition to, but for a major part also their corruption, their greed, and their exploitation of the poor.
The rapid spread of Islam after the Prophet’s death was for a major part due to its egalitarian ethos which to the oppressed masses stood in stark contrast to the entrenched hierarchies of power and wealth of the Byzantine-Roman and Persian-Sassanid empires that had exhausted each other through war, often pitting their Arab Christian populations against each other.
Muqbil al-Wadi’i and his school gained the popularity of the ruling classes of the Gulf monarchies, and in Yemen with President Saleh as well. Al-Wadi’i was also openly hostile towards South Yemen, and famously stated that according to him, the independence of South Yemen from Britain was worse than British colonialism, because it resulted in the formation of a socialist government (Meijer, 2009).
Al-Wadi’i justified this position by referring to a famous aphorism by Ibn Taymiyyah (i.e. the “founding father” of Salafism), a 13th-century theologian who argued that, “sixty years under an oppressive imam are preferable to one night without a sultan”, a stance derived from Ahmad ibn Hanbal’s saying that “sixty years under a tyrant is better than one night of anarchy” - unsurprisingly the official ‘version’ of Islam prevailing in Saudi Arabia is the Hanbali school of jurisprudence.
This ultra-conservative disposition gained popularity during the 12th and 13th centuries when the Islamic world was threatened by Mongol armies that slaughtered millions across Persia, Iraq and Syria, and burned down the Abbasid capital of Baghdad. In this context the conservative Salafi disposition towards defending the status quo was objectively strengthened by the emergence of a far more intimidating foreign threat in the form of Hulagu Khan’s genocidal armies.
To reduce Ansarullah to the Shia equivalent of Sunni extremism ignores that these ideologies developed in opposition to each other in the interests of opposing social forces.
In the context of Yemen’s long-standing subjugation by Saudi money, power and influence, Ansarullah represents a rationalist theological revival against the socially regressive (to say the least) Wahhabi “theological revival” that preceded it, and to make matters more complicated, the Yemeni state sided with the latter for reasons that can only be explained by a long history of Yemen’s rulers like Saleh & Hadi being co-opted by Saudi Arabia, the far wealthier financial patrons of that socially regressive revival.
Roel Meijer, 2009, Global Salafism: Islam's new religious movement
“Building on Ibn Taymiyya's aphorism asserting that “sixty years under an oppressive imam are preferable to one night without one”, Muqbil ibn Hadi al-Wadi‘i says that the independence of South Yemen from British rule in 1967 was worse than colonialism since it brought to power a socialist government and led to the death of fellow Muslims.9 Consequently, power must be respected, even if it is corrupt; Muslims should be patient and, God willing, wait for better times. In that context, the ‘ulama can only intervene in the political field by giving reverential advice to the ruler.”
Original source, Muqbil ibn Hadi al-Wadi‘i, Ijabat al-sa’il ‘ala ahamm al-masa’il [Answer to Those Who Ask The Most Important Questions], San‘a: Maktabat al-Athariyya, 2004, p. 229.