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  Book review

Islam, Memory, and Morality in Yemen: Ruling Families in Transition 

by Gabriele vom Bruck

Palgrave Macmillan (Contemporary Anthropology of Religion), 2005. Foreword by Fred Halliday. Pp. xix 348. Illus. Appendices. Notes. Bibliog. Glossary. Index. Hb. £42. Pb. £14. 99. ISBN 1-4039-6665-6. 

Any traveller in the Islamic world from Morocco to Indonesia will inevitably come across sayyids, whose historic role and changing status in Yemen is the subject of this book. 

Although sayyid is used in modern Arabic to translate the English ‘mister’, the word was originally used in a genealogical sense to mean a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad through his daughter Fatima. In all Muslim societies, Shi’a and Sunni alike, sayyids (Arabic: sada) are given respect because of their august lineage. In Yemen they have taken on a special significance because for over a thousand years the ruler, the Imam, was recruited exclusively from within their ranks. He headed the Zaydiyya, a branch of Shi’a Islam which believed in an imam who was visible to all and who ruled territory. So the Zaydis differ fundamentally from the ‘Twelver’ Shi’a, the majority branch of Shi’ism, who maintain that the last imam, al-Mahdi, although alive on earth, has been in occultation since the late ninth century. Zaydis also differ in other respects: their imam is neither sinless nor infallible although he is chosen for his piety and knowledge, amongst other attributes; and the presence of an imam at any particular time is not deemed a necessity. This clashes with the dogma of both ‘Twelver’ and Isma’ili Shi’a. 

The Zaydi imamate was established in Yemen in the last decade of the ninth century by a sayyid, Yahya b. al-Husayn b. al-Qasim, who arrived in Sa’da from Medina and declared himself Imam with the honorific al-Hadi (rightly guided). Historically, Zaydi Shi’ism has only flourished in Yemen, but it was also found in Iran before the emergence of the ‘Twelver’ Shi’a Safavids in the early 16th century. 

The September Revolution inYemen put an abrupt end to the Zaydi imamate with the deposition of the last Imam, Muhammad al-Badr. InYemen today there are thousands of sayyids who claim descent from one imam or another. How have they adjusted to life in republicanYemen without an imam?This, in a nutshell, is the question which the author seeks to address. She is no armchair orientalist. Possessing an innate fondness for Yemenis and their culture, she has, over the years, made friends inYemen with many families: shehas lived in theirhouses and has discussed with them every aspect of their lives. These factors give a rare flavour of authenticity to her research. Moreover, as a woman she had access to the intimate family detail so copiously recorded in her book, which, in Yemen’s conservative society, would have been denied to a man attempting to cover similar ground. 

The complex status of the sayyids, who continue to exist at every social level, is well brought out. Not every sayyid sided with al-Badr in the Civil War in the 1960s; many supported the Republic and rose to high office. Only male descendants of Imam Yahya were banned from returning home after the reconciliation between republicans and royalists in 1970. The prevailing atmosphere of tolerance, which this reviewer remembers from his travels in Yemen in the early 1970s, changed dramatically in the 1980s with the growing influence of extreme salafi (or Wahhabi) doctrines propagated through the recently founded religious colleges known as ma’ahid ‘ilmiyya. Previously such influence had made little inroad in Yemen. In the North around half the population were Sunni, while South Yemen was overwhelmingly Sunni. Zaydis and Sunnis prayed in each other’s mosques and often intermarried. But even sayyids in Hadramawt (who are Sunni not Zaydi, and it should be emphasised that this book is about Zaydi sayyids) became the target of salafi abuse. 

Marriage is an issue which is discussed in detail. In Imam Yahya’s time women of sayyid descent, namely sharifas (Arabic: shara’if) could not marry non-sayyids. But since the Revolution such marriages have increasingly taken place, although there are still sada who cannot accept that their grandchildren should be other than members of the Prophet’s house and who therefore refuse to ‘marry their daughters out’. Similarly, there are some shara’if who would prefer to remain spinsters rather than marry a non-sayyid. Even a well-to-do Yemeni but one lacking the appropriate lineage would have great difficulty in marrying a sharifa. 

A particularly interesting section is that dealing with the professional history of two sayyid families, Bayt Zabara and Bayt al-Wazir, spanning some three generations. 

The details are carefully set out in more than ten pages of Appendix II. They show how the sayyids, despite their loss of political and social status, are determined to excel in every field of modern life. For example, their willingness to seek careers in trade and commerce is in marked contrast to attitudes prevailing in pre- Revolution days when such occupations were usually shunned as unbecoming. A chapter entitled ‘Snapshots of Childhood’ poignantly relates the memories of a member of the al-Wazir family going back to the 1940s and 50s, and those of two sharifas who were among the first girls in Yemen to go to school; it shows how these children ‘learnt about their social location, the diversity of religious affiliation and notions of righteousness’. 

The above are just some of the many facets to this important and truly fascinating book. But the author’s recourse to dense anthropological jargon is a sad blemish; there are passages in this book which will be unintelligible to the non-specialist and difficult even for the specialist to fathom. And the book’s lack of a consistent system of transliteration involving macrons and diacritics is regrettable when its pages are so laden with proper names and toponyms. 

Many of the minor errors of fact which litter the text could have been avoided with more careful attention to historical detail on the part of the author. For example, the founder of the Zaydi imamate, al-Hadi, was not descended from ‘Abdullah b. al-Hasan (p. 32) who was the brother, not the father of al-Hadi’s ancestor, Ibrahim b. al-Hasan [al-Muthanna]. The words muharram’urfi (p. 148) are translated as ‘habitually unlawful’, instead of ‘unlawful according to custom’, their correct meaning. Vom Bruck states (p. l06) that the Prophet grew up in ‘Ali’s household, whereas the opposite of course is the case. ‘Ya Sin’ and ‘Tabarak’ cannot be described as ‘verses’ of the Qur’an (p. 100); they are chapters (suras), respectively nos. 36 and 25 (which is also known as al-Furqan). 

The author’s choice of photograph for the front cover, showing the historian Sayyid Muhammad b. Muhammad Zabara with his son, the late Mufti Sayyid Ahmad, was an inspired one, and there are several delightful illustrations enriching the text. But a map of the Zaydi areas of Yemen, including towns (e. g. Shahara, al- Suda, Kawkaban and Mahwit) and tribal areas (such as Hashid and Bani Matar) which are mentioned, would have been welcome. 

Vom Bruck admits that the position of the sayyids within republican society remains ‘fraught with tension’. Indeed some Yemenis regard the sayyids as foreigners, overlooking the fact that most in North Yemen are descended directly from Imam al-Hadi, or close kin of his, who arrived in the country more than a thousand years ago! Historically, the Zaydi branch of Islam has been distinguished by its intellectual diversity and dynamism. It embraces within its ranks intellectual giants who are by no means of one mind, for instance Imam al-Hadi himself, the 14th/15th century Sayyid Muhammad b. Ibrahim al-Wazir, the (17th century) Salih al-Maqbali, and al-Shawkani. The late Mufti, Sayyid Ahmad Zabara, once told me that he did not believe that the imamate should be restricted to the descendants of the Prophet. And I sense a cautious optimism when Vom Bruck notes that certain sayyids of eminent families seek to reconcile Zaydi concepts of the imamate with the Republican constitution, while many others have been involved in efforts ‘towards building a prosperous democracy’. These points are well made and deserve wider recognition. 

A. B. D. R. Eagle