Sayyid Ahmad bin Muhammad Zabara, Mufti of the Yemen Republic,
who died in Sana’a on 23 July 2000 at the age of 92, was a member
of one of the most prominent sayyid families in Yemen. His
line extended back to al-Hadi Yahya bin al-Husain bin al-Qasim (a
scion of Imam al-Hasan, grandson of the Prophet) who, at Sa’da, in
the last decade of the 9th century, founded the Zaydi imamate which
survived until the revolution of 1962.
Sayyid Ahmad, like the great majority of inhabitants of the
northern regions of Yemen, was a Zaydi, a branch of Shi’a Islam
which derives its name from Zayd bin Ali Zayn al-’Abidin who was
killed in battle outside Kufa in Iraq in 740. His forebears had for
centuries served the Zaydi imams as provincial governors and judges,
and many members of the family were outstanding scholars of Islamic
law and the Arabic language. The family name of Zabara dates back to
Sayyid Ahmad’s ancestor Amir al-Husayn bin Ali, a military
commander under the 16th century Imam Yahya Sharaf al-Din, who came
from Zabar, a hamlet between the villages of Jahana and Dar
al-Sharif, in the upper reaches ofWadi Maswar, in the tribal region
of Khawlan al-’Aliya south-east of Sana’a. Al-Husayn’s son
Ahmad was a prominent supporter of Imam al-Mansur bi’llah al-Qasim
bin Muhammad (ancestor of the 20th century Imams) in his campaigns
against the Ottomans who had invaded and occupied much of Yemen in
the 16th century.
Sayyid Ahmad’s father, Muhammad bin Muhammad Zabara, was a
renowned historian and man of letters who compiled histories of the
Zaydi imams and biographical dictionaries of prominentYemenis, most
of which have been published.
Sayyid Ahmad (the oldest of his father’s 11 children) was born
on 25 January 1908 in the village of al-Kibs, south of Jahana, some
three years after the accession of Imam Yahya. At that time the
Ottomans, who had invaded Yemen for a second time in the 1880s,
occupied San’a’ and the main towns. When Zabara was still a boy,
his family moved to Jahana where his father had been appointed ‘amil
(governor); here he received a traditional education in Arabic
grammar, religion andflqh (jurisprudence). In the late 1930s he
accompanied his father to San’a’, now the capital of the
independent Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen, and there embarked on a
course of advanced studies in theology andflqh under some of the
leading Yemeni ulema (scholars) of his day, such as Qadi ‘Abd
al-Wahhab alShamahi, Qadi Husayn bin Ali al-’Amri, and Sayyid
Ahmad bin Abdullah al-Kibsi. A few years later he was summoned by
the Crown Prince, Sayf al-Islam Ahmad, to Ta’izz, where he taught
at the Theological College (al-madrasa al-’ilmiyya) and became
tutor to the Crown Prince’s son, Muhammad al-Badr, whose sister,
Amira Khadija, he subsequently married. Later, Imam Yahya appointed
him head of the Shari’a Higher Appeal Board, a post which he held
for 20 years; in August 1955 Imam Ahmad appointed him member of the
10-man Consultative Council headed by Muhammad al-Badr, now Crown
On the outbreak of the September 1962 revolution and the
overthrow of Imam al-Badr, Zabara was fortunate not to have suffered
execution, the fate of many who had held official positions under
the Zaydi imamate. Nevertheless, he was imprisoned for over a year
before being allowed to leave Yemen for Egypt. He eventually settled
in Beirut and remained there until late 1967 when Qadi ‘Abd
al-Rahman al-Iryani, by now President of the Yemen Arab Republic (as
it was then called), invited him back to San’a’ to assume the
new post of mufti (which had never existed under the imams).
This, in effect, made Zabara chief religious authority in the land.
Many believe that Zabara was instrumental in saving Iryani’s life
in 1948 (following the assassination of ImamYahya in the abortive
coup led by Sayyid Abdullah al-Wazir) by interceding with Imam Ahmad
on Iryani’s behalf.
||The Mufti during his visit to
Durham University, 1992.
Courtesy: A. B. D. R. Eagle
From the mid-1970s, Zabara taught Shari’a law and jurisprudence
at the newly established University of San’a’. As Mufti, he
represented Yemen at numerous Islamic conferences throughout the
world. He maintained close links with Muslim communities in the
former Soviet Union, and also visited those in China and Korea. His
official visit to Britain in 1992 included calls at the Middle
Eastern Department of Durham University, the Centre for the Study of
Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations in Birmingham, and on the
Archbishop of Canterbury at Lambeth Palace. He also visited Yemeni
communities in South Shields, Birmingham and Cardiff.
Although Sayyid Ahmad added to the historical and biographical
work of his father, his literary output was mainly poetry. This
included a composition (1987) of 360 verses covering the history of
Yemen from the time of ImamYahya’s father, Imam al-Mansur Muhammad
(1890-1904), through the revolutionary period, up to the current
presidency ofAli Abdullah Salih.
Zabara worked from his home in the Filayhi quarter of old San’a’,
and was accessible to all who needed advice or afatwa (religious
edict), including women who would come personally, or telephone.
Often when out for a walk (and he attributed his longevity partly to
his love of exercise) he would sit by the roadside dealing with
requests for advice, and stamping his written replies with his seal.
He detested any fanaticism in religion; once when there were
complaints about women bathing at Al-Hudayda on the Red Sea, Sayyid
Ahmad ruled that the sea belonged to God, and that those who feared
for their morals should avoid it! He was also adamant in his view
that women should not be forced into a marriage contract. In a
newspaper interview in February 1997, he described Islam as a
religion of tolerance which ‘accepts and respects all other
teachings brought to humanity by messengers of God who came before
the last Prophet, Muhammad . . . ’ The latter, he added, was the
supreme example of ‘tolerance and avoiding prejudice which is a
mark of ignorance’. The Mufti enthusiastically supported and
worked for dialogue not only among Muslims of various schools of
thought, but also between Islam and other faiths. It was his
intervention which greatly assisted the Bishop in Cyprus and the
Gulf to negotiate the restoration of Christ Church, Aden, as a place
of worship in the early 1990s; in 1996 the Mufti had an audience
with the Pope in Rome.
Although very much a traditionalist in dress and life-style,
Sayyid Ahmad held some radical ideas; he believed, for instance,
that the Zaydi imamate should not be restricted to the sayyids (Ahl
al-Bayt), which was the traditional Zaydi viewpoint, but should be
open to any Muslim with the necessary qualities and learning.
Meanwhile, he encouraged young sayyids to study for technical and
scientific careers rather than confine themselves to the judiciary,
administration and teaching, which had hitherto been the general
custom. A grandson of his was an engineer and one of his daughters
was trained as a mid-wife.
The Mufti’s funeral, which was marked by prayers at the ancient
Grand Mosque of San’a’, was attended by the President, senior
members of the government, and ‘ulema from all over Yemen. He was
buried at Majil al-Dimma, east of Bab al-Yaman, where his father had
been interred forty years previously He is survived by 4 sons and 3
daughters from three marriages (his first wife dying in the 1940s).
A. B. D. R. EAGLE