The British-Yemeni Society

News and events


Journal articles

Book reviews

About the Society

Society officers

Annual reports


Annual appeal



  Book review

Nur al-ma’arif, Lumière de la Connaissance: règles, lois et coutumes du Yemen sous le règne du sultan rassoulide al-Muzaffar 

Edited by Muhammad Abd al-Rahim Jazim

Two vols of Arabic text (pp.695 and pp.274) with a short introduction in French, published by the Centre Français d’Archéologie et de Sciences Sociales de Sana’a (CFAS), 2003 and 2005.

This is one of the most important books on Yemen ever published. It assembles much of the palace archives of the Rasulid Sultan al-Muzaffar, and provides an extraordinary and detailed insight into the administration, economy, foreign relations and international trade of the Rasulid state at its political, military and civilizational apogee. Many scholars will need to work on this incredibly diverse and detailed material before its wealth can filter down in new histories of medieval Yemen. But the publication’s importance goes far beyond Yemen; it will have to be taken into account for any future history of the Islamic world’s medieval economy; in particular it throws much new light on the international trade of this period, especially in the Indian Ocean. I do not hesitate to compare these two volumes in importance with the Cairo Geniza archive discovered at the end of the 19th century.

The editor, Muhammad Abd al-Rahim Jazim, has provided us with a printed text of fine quality. Whoever has to read or edit medieval manuscripts will be able to appreciate the meticulous accuracy of the editing. The footnotes – all the product of difficult and independent research – provide a wealth of insights. The value of this book cannot be overstated: Muhammad Jazim has made an indispensable contribution to our understanding of the medieval Islamic world.

In this review I only have the space to locate Nur al-ma’arif (the title chosen by Muhammad Jazim) in its historical context and to highlight a few key aspects.

At a time of great weakness in the central Islamic world, with the Mongol threat from the East, with the Crusaders on the offensive from the West, and with Egypt and parts of Yemen being ruled by the Shi’a Fatimids, the situation was ripe for an energetic new ruler, such as Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi (Saladin). In 1171 he dissolved the Fatimid caliphate in Cairo, and in 1174 assumed control of Syria and parts of Mesopotamia. Meanwhile in 1172/73, he had sent his brother Turanshah first to Nubia and then to Yemen, and thus it was that Aden, Ta’iz, Dhamar and Zabid became united with the Ayyubid state.

Ayyubid rule in Yemen modernised and radically transformed much of the country by introducing feudal and taxation systems which were continued under the Rasulids, as the Nur al-ma’arif testifies. When al-Malik al-Mas’ud, the last Ayyubid left Yemen in 1228, one of his feudatories, al-Malik al-Mansur Nur al-Din ‘Umar bin Ali bin Rasul, took possession of the whole of Yemen, and also Mekka, obtaining confirmation of his position as Sultan from Baghdad in 1234. The long reign of his successor, al-Muzaffar Yusuf (647–694 H 1249–1295 AD) was the most powerful and most splendid period of medieval Yemen, with its capital at Ta’iz. In 1278, Muzaffar Yusuf conquered Dhofar, whence Yemen controlled all the ports on the southern coast of Arabia. He also did repair work on the Ka’ba.

The Nur al-ma’arif was compiled at the end of Muzaffar’s rule in the 1290s, and must have constituted the collective archive of the state administration, possibly made for the Sultan himself. Al-Muzaffar Yusuf (according to Marco Polo, ‘one of the richest men in the world’ because of the income from the Aden customs) took a great personal interest in documentation and writing, being himself an author of works on medicine, astronomy, book-keeping etc.

The Nur al-ma’arif provides us with detailed information about Yemen’s main products: cotton, wars (a kind of saffron), madder, indigo, incense, swords, paper, books etc.; the country’s major imports (and re-exports to the North) such as pepper, cloves (twice the value of pepper), cinnamon, ginger, wood, and iron; and its export of horses, the indispensable war-machines of the time, to Persia and India (the export of horses from Aden was a government monopoly and included an elaborate credit system). The book quotes the prices, taxes and destinations. It also contains chapters on weights and measures in Yemen, Mekka, Cairo, Constantinople, Abyssinia and Gujarat. We learn how the cadaster worked, about book-keeping for the agricultural production of the country, about the building trade – in short about everything of relevance (including the fact that civil servants and the military paid 1% income tax).

We also get an insight into the widespread political influence exercised by the rulers of Yemen in Gujarat, Kanbay, Mangalore and in the ports of the Malabar coast from where Chinese products were imported. The convoys from and to India were escorted by Yemeni galleys (shawani). Their cargo was unloaded in Aden, whence it was trans-shipped to ‘Aydhab.

A subject I am much interested in is Yemeni jewellery and metalwork. The Nur al-ma’arif provides detailed statistics on the jewellery being produced in the suq in Sana’a, and the prices of the various items. The same for swords, copper and brass objects. It is thus clear that the fine tradition of Yemeni silver and janbiya-making can now be firmly traced back to the Rasulid epoch. Also that large decorated metalwork bowls of the ‘tasa’ type were already manufactured in Sana’a at that period, and not only imported from Cairo or Damascus.

CFAS must be congratulated on having made this publication possible.

Werner Daum