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Framing Yemen’s Zaydi Shi‘a

Houthi demonstrators denouncing an airstrike of the Saudi-led coalition [Felton Davis - Flickr]

From a theological point of view, Yemen’s Zaydi Shi‘a are different from Twelvers Shi‘a of Iran. However, the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the rise of the Huthi movement narrowed this gap. A short history

Last update: 2019-07-29 10:54:14

This text is an adapted excerpt from: Eleonora Ardemagni, The Huthis: Adaptable Players in Yemen’s Multiple Geographies, Center of Research on the Southern System and the Wider Mediterranean of the Catholic University of Milan-CRiSSMA Working paper n. 25/2019, EDUCatt, Milano 2019, pp. 31-39.


The Zaydi religious elite, the sāda (sing. sayyid) claim direct lineage from the Prophet Muhammad (Hashemites[1]) and they would, especially in the eyes of Zaydi tribes, bring this blessing (baraka) to the community[2]. The Al-Huthi family is a Zaydi Shi‘a group: they are sāda and belong to the Hashemite social stratum. Therefore, “Huthi” is first of all the surname of a family, that of the founder, Husayn al-Huthi, and later became the term used to define the movement. The region of Sa‘da has always been the Huthis’ fiefdom (Marran is their first home); the ancestors of the sāda of Sa‘da came from Hijaz (Saudi Arabia), Iraq and Iran. Under the banner of the imamate (imāma, the rule of the Imam), the Zaydi Shi‘a elite governed the North of Yemen from 897 to 1962, the year of the republican revolution: Zaydis have not had an imam since that year. Imam (literally, “the guide”) is a polysemic term: it defines who leads the prayer in the mosque; the head of the Islamic community and, most prominently, the twelve infallible Imams of the Twelver Shi‘a, and, more broadly, a person with a major political-religious role. Zaydism has distinct features with respect to other Shi‘a branches, like Ja‘farism (Twelver Shi‘a), mostly spread in Iran, Lebanon, Iraq, Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia: for instance, Ja‘faris recognize twelve imams (the twelfth is the hidden Mahdī) and they have a clergy.


Furthermore, Zaydis have mixed theological references with Shafi‘i Sunni and they are quite different from the Twelvers’ beliefs[3]. Syncretism, rather than dogmatism, characterizes the Zaydi doctrinal elaboration, which is permeable, in modern times, also to Marxist-compatible ideas, for instance social justice. According to the Zaydis, the imam must be physically present in the political community and he must be a sayyid: this is another point of divergence with Ja‘faris. The Zaydi doctrine stresses the need for sāda’s righteous rule, with control over religious and social affairs. The imamate is a political contract: hereditary succession is practiced but not institutionalized[4]. Zaydism allows khurūj, rebellion against an unfair ruler, highlighting the distance from the quietist stance of other Shi‘a sects, such as Ja‘farism. In 1990, a number of Zaydi ‘ulamā’ signed a manifesto demanding the abolishment of the imamate, due to the changed historical context. According to several interpretations, Zaydis claim the primacy of reason above tradition (al-‘aql qabl al-naql), given also their relationship with the Mu‘tazila school of thought, promoted and studied by the Zaydiyya, which also allows ijtihād (hermeneutic effort) as a way to read the holy text[5]. In reaction to this, some voices of the Yemeni Zaydi community opened to the Sunna, seeking possible points of convergence, referring to the Sunni schools of jurisprudence to contest the legal-rational authority of the imam (marja‘iyya), as explored by the religious scholar Muhammad al-Shawkani (1760-1834).[6] Differently from the Twelvers, Zaydis don’t agree with the dissimulation of their faith in case of danger (inkār al-taqiyya), and with the return of the currently hidden Mahdī, which is conversely the pillar of Ja‘farism.


From a social point of view, the sāda stand at the top of the social hierarchy in Sa‘da, followed by the judges (qudāt, sing. qādī) and the qabilī (tribal men)[7]. However, the 1962 revolution altered consolidated social balances. During the civil war (1962-70), fought between the imamate’s supporters, backed by Saudi Arabia, and pro-republic revolutionaries, sustained by Egypt, the religious elite of Sa‘da opposed the republican forces: but they lost. From a regional perspective, the “Arab Cold War” indirectly fought between the Saudis and the Egyptians had its main theatre in the north of Yemen[8]. At that time, the sāda had apical roles in the imam’s army. Later, the Zaydi Shi‘a majority, including many sāda, accepted the new republican state. Nevertheless, from 1970 on, the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR), crafted in the footsteps of Nasserism, marginalized the sāda, who enjoyed a certain territorial autonomy and developed parallel economic networks (arms, cars, qat), also with southern Arabia’s tribal clans. On the contrary, the republican regime promoted a policy of neo-patrimonial co-optation with respect to the qabilī of Sa‘da, thus progressively alienating them from tribal bases. During the presidency of Qadi ‘Abd Al-Rahman Al-Iryani (1967-74) many northern shuyūkh (tribal chiefs, sing. shaykh) were appointed as heads of the regular army’s brigades, the so-called “Colonel shaykhs”[9].


The presidency of Ali Abdullah Saleh (1978-2011) continued Al-Iryani’s military policies with regard to northern highland tribes, coupled with promoting Sanhani men into the army[10]. Saleh also appointed relatives in apical positions, thus limiting the role of northern tribal chiefs in the upper ranks of the army, as a coup-proofing strategy[11]. During the six Sa‘da wars (2004-10) fought between the Huthis and government forces, the “Colonel shaykhs” led tribal militias that fought alongside the regular army against the Huthis, thus highlighting the hybrid security governance pattern shaped by the regime[12]. Moreover, such a policy nurtured multiple affiliations: many fighters were at the same time Zaydis, soldiers and inhabitants of the Sa‘da region. Yemen’s reunification, which occurred in 1990, fostered Zaydis’ growing involvement in party politics. Given the patronage function of the Yemeni parties, the Saleh-led GPC and Islah included a large number of Zaydis. But only two parties made clear reference to the Zaydi tradition: the Union of Popular Forces (UPF), founded in 1962, and Hizb al-Haqq, established in 1990. Husayn Al-Huthi organized the Believing Youth (al-Shabāb al-Mu’min) movement as a wing of Hizb al-Haqq, till the rupture in 1997, when Al-Huthi left the party. The Believing Youth movement was able to translate the theological discourse of Zaydi revival into education, cultural studies and social activism: these experiences paved the way for the emergence of the Huthi movement.


The Zaydi Shi‘a Revival. How the Huthi Movement Re-centred the Zaydi Tradition


From the 1970s, Badr al-Din Al-Huthi, Husayn’s father and a prominent Sa‘da cleric, supported Zaydi revivalism against Wahhabi influences: he studied in Iran, at the hawza of Qom (1994-97), elaborating on the Jarudi school of thought, which is the closest of Zaydi approaches to Twelver Shi‘a[13]. For the Huthis, the main legacy of the Islamic revolution in Iran is the anti-imperialist message developed by Khomeinism, rather than its strict theological core. The velāyat e-faqih theory (the government by doctors of religious law), extended by ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to the political sphere, unintentionally established a doctrinal bridge between Twelver Shi‘a (with a quietist tradition) and Zaydis (who believe in a community-engaged imam and allow khurūj). Therefore, Yemen’s Zaydism and Iran’s Ja‘farism are originally distant: but the post-1979 politicization of the Twelvers, coupled with the absence of a Zaydi imam, have contributed to narrowing the distances.


From the 1980s, Zaydi “ideological purity” was threatened by a combination of external factors, and this prompted Husayn Al-Huthi’s Zaydi revivalist movement. First of all, the brand-new Yemeni state, although not sectarian-biased, needed a shared religious narrative in order to coalesce different interest groups, enhancing the internal legitimacy of the state. For this reason, the regime had tried, from 1990 on, to build a republican discourse able to integrate and, at the same time, to neutralize particular Zaydi claims, such as the imamate. The Saleh-led regime attempted to assimilate Zaydism in the republican sphere, fostering a process of “modernization from within”.


The “Sunnisation” strategy also has a modern political function and objective, aimed at promoting a convergence of identities between Zaydism and Shafeism. This can be possible by emphasizing the role of the hadīth instead of jurisprudence (fiqh), thus stressing Zaydi scholars’ voices opened to the Sunni doctrine. Secondly, “Sunnisation” was fostered by Riyadh: since the 1970s Saudi Arabia had supported the spread of Salafism in northern Yemen to counter the Zaydiyya along the Saudi border, financing the opening of scientific institutions for education run by Salafis (ma‘āhid ‘ilmiyya) in the territorial core of Zaydism. Salafism was also a way to consolidate the existing status quo in upper Yemen, which marginalizes the sāda[14]. Therefore, the traditional sāda-qabilī class cleavage assumed sectarian tones, since many tribes adhered to Salafi thought and, among them, a consistent number of northern brigades’ militaries and government-allied tribal militias. Denouncing the dilution of the Zaydi identity in the light of the Shafi‘i-Zaydi convergence of identities, Husayn Al-Huthi (1959-2004), who was a Hizb Al-Haqq member of parliament (1993-97) and the leader of Believing Youth, left the party in 1997 to found the Huthi movement (2001). The Huthis (al-Hūthīyyūn) are also known as the Huthi movement (al-Haraka al-Hūthīyya) and Huthi partisans (Ansār al-Hūthī). The Huthis’ supporters also define themselves as Ansar Allah/Ansarullah (partisans of God).


The Huthis’ slogan (known as al-shi‘ār, the scream) was invented in 2000 to react against Israel while the Second Intifada had just begun. However, it was publicly shouted for the first time to denounce the alignment of Saleh’s foreign policy with the American war on terror in January 2002, during a conference held at the Imam Al-Hadi madrasa, in the Marran district (Sa‘da province): Husayn Al-Huthi invited militants to repeat “God is great!, Death to America!, Death to Israel!, A curse upon the Jews! Victory to Islam!”, which rapidly became the signature of the enigmatic Huthi rebellion[15]. As clearly emerges from this symbolic episode, Al-Huthi gave a strong political message to the movement’s claims, adopting a confrontational approach vis-à-vis the government and its international allies. Foreign policy rather than social policies was the first public subject of contention between the Huthis and the government. From a theoretical perspective, the “doctrinal indeterminacy” of Al-Huthi’s speeches designed a vague and flexible ideology providing the movement with “room to manoeuvre and adapt, without losing credibility”[16]. This would prove to be a resource in a Yemeni context marked by shifting alliances and multiple geographies. Looking at Husayn Al-Huthi’s social stance, he promoted marriage alliances between sāda and qabilī families, despite their dissimilar lineage, adopting a real marriage policy. Badr al-Din’s four marriages over several decades generated not only a multigenerational family (with brothers belonging to different generations), but also an example of a hybrid family intersecting different lineages[17]. Such cross-class choices produced networks of mutual support able to overcome different strata and unite rival geographical centres in the northern highlands, giving the Huthi movement outreach beyond its traditional fiefdoms[18]. Husayn Al-Huthi used to collect zakāt in Sa‘da[19]. From a doctrinal point of view, Al-Huthi opted for a dogmatic, strict approach to the holy text, thereby narrowing spaces for theological dialogue and contamination with Sunnism.


From a cultural perspective, the Huthi movement imported many celebrations and practices from Twelver Shi‘a, like an Iranian-style celebration of the ‘Ashura held in Sana’a governorates (al-Jiraf) since 2012 and the commemoration of the Islamic revolution[20]. As a matter of fact, Husayn Al-Huthi re-centred Yemen’s Zaydi tradition, shifting the focus on politics and opening a new period of confrontation with Yemeni central authorities. From a theological point of view, he affirmed a dogmatic approach to Zaydism, putting the imamate, also as a symbol, at the centre of debate.


Alongside the revivalist choice, Al-Huthi focused on Zaydi social activism and political militancy, building an ideological discourse based upon the anti-imperialist stance of Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution, in the chronological framework of the politicization of the Shi‘a. Beyond general claims, the detailed agenda of the Huthis, a political movement and a militia, still remains vague and rich in ambiguities. Territorial autonomy for the northern highlands, religious freedom for Zaydi madrasa and participation in state revenues are the Huthis’ basic claims, even though their leaders frequently reiterate their allegiance to the Yemeni state.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation

[1] Hashemites are Arab descendants ofthe Prophet Muhammad through his daughter Fatima and her son Hasan. They trace their origin to Muhammad’s great-grandfather Hashim bin ‘Abd Manaf. One of their branch is the ruling family in Jordan. Hashemite dynasty.

[2] Yemen’s sāda are not only Zaydis: for instance, Sunni sāda are present in the southern region of Hadhramaut (also known as habā’ib; sing. habīb). In the South, Yemen’s sāda rallied against local sultans protected by the British.

[3] Zaydis generally recognize the legitimacy of the first four caliphs.

[4] Samy Dorlian, La mouvance zaydite dans le Yémen contemporain. Une modernisation avortée, Paris, L’Harmattan, 2013.

[5] The Mu‘tazila is a theological school of Islam that emphasizes the role of rational argument in religious discourse.

[6] The Marja‘ al-taqlīd is the source of emulation, the supreme religious authority to whom Shi‘a believers should refer for religious doctrine. For al-Shawkani, see Bernard Haykel, Revival and Reform in Islam, the legacy of Muhammad al-Shawkani, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2003. It’s also worth underlining that al-Shawkani stressed the need of ijtihād as a way to cope with the crisis of taqlīd and he was an outspoken critic of the schools of Sunni jurisprudence. After the 1962 Republican revolution in the North of Yemen, Yemen Arab Republic’s authorities saw in al-Shawkani “a figure who could still unite Yemenis after the demise of the Imāmic regime”. Refer again to Bernard Haykel, “Al-Shawkānī and the jurisprudential unity of Yemen”, Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée, 67, 1993, 1, pp. 53-65, quotation from page 1.

[7] Muhammashīn (marginalised) is the term adopted by institutions to replace the previous derogatory notion of akhdām (servants), referring to a caste-like system comprising street cleaners, beggars and black Yemenis.

[8] Malcom Kerr, The Arab Cold War: Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasir and His Rivals, 1958-1970, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1971.

[9] Marieke Brandt, “The Irregular of the Sa‘ada War: ‘Colonel Sheykhs’ and ‘Tribal Militias’ in Yemen’s Huthi conflict”, in Helen Lackner (ed.), Why Yemen Matters. A Society in Transition, London, Saqi Books, 2014, chapter 5.

[10] From Sanhan, Saleh’s tribal clan, belonging to the Hashid tribal confederation.

[11] A strategy aiming to prevent coups.

[12] In hybrid political orders “diverse state and non-state security actors coexist, collaborate or compete”, since “the state and its monopoly of violence are contested”. Robin Luckham and Tom Kirk, “The Two Faces of Security in Hybrid Political Orders: A Framework for Analysis and Research”, Stability: International Journal of Security & Development, 2013.

[13] Hawza ‘ilmiyya, “the territory of learning”, refers to a community of learning in a specific place.

[14] Marieke Brandt, Tribes and Politics in Yemen, op. cit., p. 348.

[15] “Allāhu akbar, al-mawt li-Amrīkā, al-mawt li-Isrā’īl, al-la‘na ‘alā-l-yahūd, al-nasr li-l-islām”.

[16] Alexander Weissenburger, “Vague and Flexible: Explaining the Houthi Movement’s Resilience”, in Eleonora Ardemagni (ed.), Trapped in War: Yemen Three Years On, Italian Institute for International Political Studies, ISPI Dossier, March 20, 2018.

[17] Barak A. Salmoni, Bryce Loidolt, Madeleine Wells, Regime and Periphery in Northern Yemen. The Huthi Phenomenon, RAND National Defense Research Institute, 2010, p. 132.

[18] Barak A. Salmoni, Bryce Loidolt, Madeleine Wells, Regime and Periphery in Northern Yemen, op. cit., p. 37.

[19] Sunnis collect the zakāt and then transfer it to the state, while the Shi‘a give it directly to the religious community.

[20] International Crisis Group, Yemen: Defusing the Saada Time Bomb, Middle East Report no. 86, May 2009, p. 10.

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