Wandering in Yemen

Yemen Is More Nuanced Than ‘Sunni’ & ‘Shia’

Religion, just like most things in Yemen, is often confusing to the outside observer.

Those with a passing interest in the Middle East will generally know of the main schism in Islam, that between Shias and Sunnis. The conflicts we see in the Middle East today, whether they be in Syria, Iraq, Bahrain or Lebanon, are often largely framed in the manner of disputes between adherents of Shiism and Sunnism. Sometimes, it is even portrayed as the continuation of a 1000 year old ‘war for Islam’, which is useful for anyone trying to whitewash the role of colonialism and little things like the Iraq War – they’d have been killing each other anyway!

Enter Yemen. In the north of the country, a group known as the Houthis, but also now known as Ansar Allah, variously described as ‘Zaydi Revivalists’, ‘Shia militants’ and ‘pro-Iranian fighters’, have been fighting with what seems like just about everyone over the last ten years. They’ve taken on the Yemeni state in 6 wars starting in 2004, fought Yemeni and foreign Salafis, skirmished with the Saudi army, and most recently battled with the al-Ahmars, the leaders of Yemen’s most powerful tribal confederation, Hashid.

Kudos to them, they’ve performed relatively successfully, and now sit in an enviable position, largely controlling the areas lying between the Yemeni capital Sana’a and the Saudi border.

Who are they? Well, calling them ‘Shia’, ‘Zaydi’ and ‘pro-Iranian’ is fine, but will always lack nuance, and some understanding of the Yemeni situation. That is not to say that it is wrong to describe them as this in the media, it’s very difficult to devote a paragraph or two in each article about the Houthis to their ideological background (/impossible).

So Yemen’s religious make-up. The two ‘religious groups’ to start with here are Zaydis and Shafi’is.

Zaydism (Zaydiyyah) is a school of thought within Shia Islam. It is named after Imam Zaydi Bin Ali, who was killed in an uprising against the Ummayyads. Although it was once found in places such as Iran and North Africa, Zaydis are now only found in significant numbers in Yemen. A Zaydi Imamate¬†ruled many part of northern Yemen for 1000 years, up until the last Imam was overthrown in 1962. Traditionally, places like Sana’a, Dhamar, Hajja and Amran are Zaydi, and the heartland is Sa’dah. A common saying referring to the Zaydis is that they are “the Sunnis of the Shia, and the Shia of the Sunnis”, indicating that there is not a huge difference doctrinally between Zaydis and Sunnis (or at least it has been perceived that way).

Shafi’ism (Shafi’iyyah) is a school of thought within Sunni Islam. It is named after Imam al-Shafi’i, and is one of the four main schools of thought in Sunni Islam. Shafi’is are found across the Muslim world, such as Egypt, Syria, Indonesia and Somalia. In Yemen, Shafi’is predominate in all the areas not mentioned as being ‘traditionally’ Zaydi, and they are the majority in the country. However, some have old grievances regarding the way that the ruling class of northern Yemen during the Imamate was Zaydi.

Now, the important thing to note here, and this might sound suspicious to people looking at the rest of the Middle East, Zaydis and Shafi’is have traditionally gotten along just fine. For example, although a mosque may be affiliated to one group or the other, no one will bat an eyelid if a person from another sect comes in to pray, and people pray together. The only difference you’ll notice is that some people pray with their hands to the sides (Zaydis) and others with their hands folded (Shafi’is). An example – my local mosque’s Friday sermon is delivered by an Egyptian sheikh from al-Azhar (a Sunni), the Zaydi call to prayer is given, the Imam leading the prayer is Zaydi, and the congregation is evenly split. My own family are split between Zaydis and Shafi’is, and those that prefer to call themselves just Muslim and leave the details to one side. And all was good…

Well, until politics got involved.

What we’re seeing in northern Yemen today, in terms of fighting between the Houthis on one side, and various armed groups on the other, definitely does have an element of the sectarianism that can be seen across the wider region. However, it’s a lot more confusing. For one, it’s wrong to simply say that Houthis = Zaydis, and, say, al-Ahmar = Shafi’is. Or even worse, Houthis = Shias, and al-Ahmar = Sunnis. For one, the al-Ahmars are traditionally Zaydi, just like the Houthis. I can’t vouch for the religious identification of each individual Ahmar, but I’d say that many of their tribal fighters will still, at least loosely, identify as Zaydi. Ali Abdullah Saleh, who fought 6 wars against the Houthis, was also Zaydi. So is this Zaydi on Zaydi fighting? A Zaydi civil war?

Well, no. To put it very simply, you can say that the religious element behind the Houthis is, for want of a better word, more ‘hardcore’ Zaydism. I was told by a Houthi that I met in Sa’dah that “the Zaydis in Sana’a have forgotten how to be Zaydi.” Many Houthis believe that they are reviving Zaydi traditions and beliefs, that have been suppressed in the years following the 1962 revolution (despite all presidents of North Yemen in that period having been Zaydi). They see people like Saleh and the al-Ahmars as Zaydi in name only.

On the other side, the al-Ahmars, and Saleh in the past, have accused the Houthis of secretly not being Zaydi anymore, and instead being Twelver Shias (a la Iran). This then easily feeds into the wider paranoia in the region of the spread of Shi’ism and Iranian power. Although there are Twelvers who are Houthis, and many of them are newly ‘converted’, the vast majority of Houthis would still self-identify as Zaydi.

To further complicate things, many of the al-Ahmars are members of the Islah Party. The al-Ahmar Godfather, Sheikh Abdullah al-Ahmar, was the head of the Islah Party. Now, Islah are commonly known in Yemen to be the ‘Muslim Brotherhood’ party. A Muslim Brotherhood group that is led by a Shia? Absurd. But one led by a ‘Zaydi’? Or at least one who isn’t that doctrinally strict? Not so absurd. And by painting the Houthis as ‘Twelvers’, it is easy for Islah/Ahmars to paint themselves as the defenders of Yemen (and Zaydism) against foreign ideas.

It’s complicated, is the best way to put it, and to really understand the nuances of the Yemeni religious scene you need to have studied all the different religious schools for years, and then the politics on top of that. Just remember, it might be tempting to simply see what is going on in Yemen in the wider context of the sectarian troubles that are going on in the region, but any analysis that simply looks at it through that prism is bound to be extremely lacking.


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