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  Book review

Salafism in Yemen: Transnationalism and Religious Identity

by Laurent Bonnefoy, C. Hurst & Co.(Publishers) Ltd., 2011. Pp.xxi  + 307. Glossary. Bibliog. Index. Pb. ISBN: 978-1-84904-131-7.

Despite frequent sensationalist headlines, Islamist movements in Yemen – of all varieties, militant and non-militant – is a topic treated surprisingly little in academic texts, and even in more popular literature (while disclaiming that this review limits itself to material available in the English language). Laurent Bonnefoy’s Salafism in Yemen is the most recent contribution on the topic, and a substantial addition to an un-crowded field.

The Yemeni Salafi movement originates in the 1970s, and its principal figure Muqbil bin Hadi al-Wadi’i (d. 2001) founded the Dar al-Hadith centre in Dammaj, in the northern governorate of Sa’dah, after returning from Saudi Arabia in the early 1980s. Dar al-Hadith continues to be a major centre of Salafi learning in Yemen, with many hundreds of students a year passing through its doors. [1] Salafism in Yemen provides the reader with a detailed biography of al-Wadi’i, chronicling his life and ideas through a close reading of his books and speeches.

Salafism is a creed focused on purifying Islam from local particularities and innovations, returning to the Islam of the Prophet Muhammad and the Companions, and Yemen’s ‘Muqbilian Salafism’ is particularly characterised by political quietism. Most Yemeni Salafis theoretically reject almost all forms of political engagement or even organised charitable activity, although more recently some splinter groups have taken a more active role, even founding a political party – the Yemeni Rashad Union.

The Salafi movement emerged into a turbulent age, and social and political changes have led to religious identity becoming an increasingly contested arena in Yemen. The growth of the Salafi movement has been both a cause and consequence of social upheavals. After the 1962 revolution in which the Zaydi Imam Badr Hamid al-Din was deposed and replaced by a republican government, many Zaydis – the Shi’a sect who are dominant in the Northern highlands – felt Zaydism to have been deliberately weakened; the subsequent rapid and sometimes aggressive spread of the new creed of Salafism has caused many Yemenis to consider it alien, and a product of deliberate state-sponsored Saudi proselytising. Non-Salafi Yemenis frequently consider Saudi ‘Wahhabism’ and ‘Salafism’ as interchangeable.

Salafism is an international phenomenon – Salafi groups and political parties have recently, for example, become especially prominent in Tunisia and Egypt – but through Salafism in Yemen Bonnefoy sets out to make the nuanced argument that while Yemeni Salafism is a product of ‘transnational processes’ , these are largely ‘bottom-up’ processes occurring at the grassroots. As well as noting that there is little evidence to support claims that Saudi Arabia bankrolls the movement, Bonnefoy uses the example of a small Salafi centre in the village of Lab’ous, in the remote southern region of Yafi’, where he conducted several years of fieldwork delving into the lives and religious practice of the centre’s students. Migration to the Gulf countries and especially to Saudi Arabia is one of the few routes to prosperity for the young men of Lab’ous, but one which is nevertheless out of the reach of most. Bonnefoy argues that it is not direct migratory experience which encourages the uptake of Salafism – none of the faculty of Lab’ous had themselves lived in Saudi Arabia – but aspiration to the ‘Saudi way of life’. He also finds that in the context of economic stagnation, the sense of group belonging in the Salafi community becomes ‘a powerful means of integration’ for those marginalised by unemployment.

Muqbil al-Wadi’i’s Salafism was not the only religious revival movement to take root in Yemen in the 1980s and 1990s. The anthropologist Gabriele vom Bruck has written extensively on Zaydi communities and her recent article Regimes of Piety Revisited: Zaydi Political Moralities in Republican Yemen (2010) offers a useful description of the changes Zaydism has undergone since 1962. She focuses on the consequences of the state’s attempt to transcend doctrinal differences – in particular between the biggest sects in Yemen, Zaydi Shi’a and Shafi’i Sunnis – in order to create a ‘unified’ Islam, and the consequent Zaydi revival movement which appeared in the 1990s.

In The ‘Tariqa’ on a Landcruiser: The Resurgence of Sufism in Yemen (2001) Alexander Knysh describes the Sufi revival movements in south Yemen. Knysh discusses what he refers to as the ‘neo-traditionalist’ movement of Habib ‘Umar and the Dar al-Mustafa centre in Tarim, Hadramawt, which has drawn upon local Hadrami beliefs and practices which fell out of favour (or were banned) in the socialist era. These include the veneration of saints’ tombs and observing respect for the sada, descendants of the Prophet. However Knysh points out that Habib ‘Umar’s movement caters to modern tastes – and reacts to Salafi critiques – by ‘[minimizing] the importance of miracle narratives, ecstatic behaviour, and mystical experiences that figure prominently in the medieval Yemeni hagiographic collections.’ 

Bonnefoy dedicates a chapter to the question of authenticity, arguing that Salafism, rather than representing the ‘Saudisation’ of Yemeni society, has itself undergone a ‘Yemenisation’ process: while belonging to a wider, pan-Islamic reform movement, Yemeni Salafism is adapted to the Yemeni environment. The particular emphasis by al-Wadi’i and his followers on rejecting hizbiyya (roughly translated as ‘factionalism’) and the consequent commitment to political quietism is depicted as a direct reaction to the Zaydi principle of khuruj, the obligation of ‘rising’ against an unjust ruler.

Other scholars argue that Salafism has deep roots in Yemen: Bernard Haykel, in Revival and Reform in Islam (2003), his biography of the influential reformist scholar and judge Muhammad al-Shawkani (d. 1834), draws a direct link between al-Shawkani’s legacy and the development of the Salafi movement in Yemen. Al-Shawkani was a Zaydi who became what Haykel describes as a ‘Traditionist’, rejecting established Zaydi interpretations of Islamic doctrine in favour of the individual scholar’s ability to understand Islam through direct reading of the prophetic hadith. Al- Shawkani rejected several key tenets of Zaydism – including that of khuruj – but was patronised by the Qasimi dynasty of Zaydi imams who ruled in Yemen from the 17th to the 19th century.

Al-Shawkani’s approach was not dissimilar to other Islamic reform movements in the 18th and 19th centuries including Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia, and his important legacy acts as a counter-point to arguments that Salafism is a purely ‘imported’ creed. While the emergence of Salafism in Yemen no doubt belongs to a regional, even global trend for religious revival movements – prompted by such forces of modernisation as increased literacy rates, the influence of mass media and the individualisation of religious practice – it is also clearly rooted in the Yemeni political and religious context. As much as other contemporary revival movements such as that of Habib ‘Umar in Tarim and recent Zaydi activism, Yemeni Salafism is a product of Yemen’s rich intellectual history. Salafism in Yemen is an excellent contribution to the literature on Islamist movements in Yemen, and while this review is not comprehensive – in particular it does not consider studies of Yemen’s mainstream Islamist party Islah, such as Jillian Schwedler’s book on Faith in Moderation: Islamist Parties in Jordan and Yemen – the topic is far from being exhausted.


[1] Theo Padnos includes mention of Dar al-Hadith and the experiences there of foreign students like himself in his journalistic account of his time in Yemen (Undercover Muslim, 2011).