DICK LAWLESS considers the life of a religious leader and political reformer
This article was published in the British Yemeni Society's journal, 1993
One of the most colourful yet controversial personalities in the recent history of British-Yemeni relations is Sheikh Abdullah Ali al-Hakimi who was the leader of the Yemeni communities in Britain in the late 1930s and 1940s and who returned to Aden in the early 1950s to become president of the Yemeni Union. Sheikh Abdullah was a merchant and a sufi. He appears to have met his spiritual guide, Sheikh al ‘Allawi, in Morocco in the late 1920s and to have been appointed a muqqaddam or leader within the ‘Allawi tariqa. In the years before the second world war the ‘Allawi religious brotherhood had extended its missionary activities beyond North Africa and had won many disciples among Yemeni seamen in European ports. Sheikh Abdullah had lived and worked in France and Holland before arriving in Britain in 1936. He founded what was known as the ‘Zaouia Islamia ‘Allawouia Religious Society in the United Kingdom’ and established zawiyas (small mosques) in Cardiff, South Shields, Hull and Liverpool, the main ports where Yemeni seamen had settled since before the first world war.
He set about his work with great energy and his arrival brought about what can only be described as a religious revival among these small Yemeni seafaring communities. Religious life was regularised and dramatized. New rituals and practices were introduced and elaborate and colourful processions through the streets were organised to mark the major Muslim fesitvals. In addition to celebrating the Id al-Fitr and the Id al-Adha, a third festival was introduced to commemorate the death of the founder of the ‘Allawi tariqa who died in 1934. On these occasions many of the seamen discarded their European clothing for Yemeni dress or the Arab dress of North Africa. Special attention was given to the religious instruction of children born to seamen and their Welsh and English wives. Classes in Quranic studies were organised for both boys and girls and also for those wives who had converted to Islam. These women held Sheikh Abdullah in high esteem and responded enthusiastically to his teachings. One of the wives commented, "Before the Sheikh came, we felt that we were only Arabs’ wives, but after we felt differently. We felt better. We had our own religion and priest and we were proud of it."
Sheikh Abdullah’s activities appear to have been welcomed by the British authorities and to have received their support. For his part, Sheikh Abdullah diligently cultivated contacts with local government officials in both Cardiff and South Shields and he also enjoyed good relations with some senior British officials in Aden, in particular with Tom Hickinbotham who became governor in 1951 after many years of service in the colony’s administration. Throughout the 1930s unemployment among Arab seamen at British ports remained acute and many were destitute. Unrest was always a possibility. Support for Sheikh Abdullah’s efforts to strengthen the religious organisation of these communities did not challenge the status quo and self-control was a useful supplement to social control. As far as the British authorities were concerned, the energies of seafarers were better spent in pursuing their religious ambitions than associating with radical political movements such as the Communists. At a dinner given by Sheikh Abdulla in Cardiff in July 1950, attended by the Deputy Lord Mayor and other leading citizens, the Assistant Chief Constable paid tribute to the law-abiding behaviour of the Muslim community under the leadership of Shaikh Abdulla.
In the early 1940s Sheikh Abdullah developed political ambitions. He became an outspoken critic of the Imam’s regime in the Yemen and one of the leaders of the Free Yemeni Movement which from the late 1930s had brought together many of the opponents of Imam Yahya. The movement called for material reforms in the Yemen, the building of roads, schools and hospitals, and an end to the Imam’s policy of isolation. One of the main sources of support for this movement came from Yemeni communities overseas. A printed manifesto of the Free Yemenis was circulating among Yemeni seafarers in Cardiff and South Shields as early as 1941. It is unclear exactly how Sheikh Abdullah became associated with the Free Yemenis. But when he visited Taiz in the summer of 1943, he was quickly arrested and expelled from the Yemen by order of Crown Prince Ahmad, suggesting that he was already identified as a member of the Free Yemeni leadership.
Returning to Britain after the second world war and establishing his headquarters at the Noor-el-Islam mosque in Cardiff, Sheikh Abdullah was active in spreading his political message among Yemeni seamen in Britain. When leading Free Yemenis announced the formation of the Grand Yemeni Association (GYA) in Aden in January 1946, the first Yemeni community overseas to voice its support was that in Britain. In November 1946 Sheikh Abdullah formed ‘The Committee for the Defence of Yemen’ which pledged itself to support the GYA cause, to send representatives to Yemeni communities in the USA, Africa and Europe, and "to set up a permanent delegation to visit Arab and Islamic capitals so that the leaders of the Arabs and Muslims will understand the need to help solve the Yemeni problem." The committee was still operating in 1948 and its members in Cardiff, South Shields, Hull and Liverpool continued to meet regularly. In January 1947 Sheikh Abdullah addressed a long letter to Ernest Bevin, the British Foreign Secretary, on behalf of the GYA in which he claimed to speak for the entire Yemeni nation. He pointed to the great suffering of the Yemeni people under Imam Yahya and declared that the time had come "to smash the bonds of tyranny and injustice which has burdened her for the last thirty years." Yemenis had only two choices, a happy life under a democratic government or "a glorious death for the sake of justice." He called on the British Government to support the GYA leadership in Aden which had sought protection under the British flag because the British Government was a a friend of the Arabs and "Fought injustice and tyranny carrying on her shoulders the guidance of the world." Throughout his life Sheikh Abdullah appears to have been a firm admirer of British democratic traditions.
In December 1948 Sheikh Abdullah began publishing his own newspaper, al-Salam, from the Peel Street mosque in Cardiff. Al-Salam was one of the first Arabic-language newspapers to be published in Britain and contained regular articles attacking the Imam’s regime. Most copies were destined for North Africa and the Middle East. Copies for the Yemen were smuggled across the frontier by obliging travellers and traders. In June 1949, Sheikh Abdullah, who styled himself somewhat grandiosely ‘Head of the Muslim community in the UK’, hosted what the local press referred to as "Britain’s first all world Muslim conference" in Cardiff where representatives from some eleven Islamic countries discussed the problems facing the Muslim world.
When Imam Ahmad succeeded his father, Yahya, who was assassinated in February 1948, he launched an energetic campaign to counter the influence of Sheikh Abdullah and the Free Yemenis among the Yemeni communities in Britain. The new Imam heartily disliked Sheikh Abdullah and feared his propaganda not only in Britain but among the Yemeni communities in the Middle East and Africa. In April 1950, for example, the Imam found copies of al-Salam in his bedroom and an ambiguous note pinned to his pillow wishing "peace upon him". Imam Ahmad was convinced that Sheikh Abdullah’s activities were supported and even financed by the British Government. A rival political organisation, loyal to the Imam, was established in Britain and liberally funded by the Imam’s emissaries. It was led by another Allawi sheikh, Hassan Ismael, who was also a Yemeni and Sheikh Abdullah’s deputy in Cardiff for many years. The bitter rivalries between the two opposing factions during the late 1940s and early 1950s rarely came to the surface and only once resulted in open disturbance, when the police were called to a meeting in Cardiff in February 1951, organised by Hassan Ismael, to resolve the differences between the two factions. The meeting was quickly dispersed and no real harm was done. Reports suggest that the pro-Imam faction succeeded in winning over the majority of Yemenis in Britain to their cause.
In May 1952 Sbeikh Abdullah announced that he was closing down publication of al-Salam in Cardiff and returning to Aden where he intended to relaunch the newspaper. By this time he had become something of an embarrassment to the British authorities who were anxious not to offend the Imam and to ensure that there were no grounds for allegations that Britain had supported any move to overthrow Imam Ahmad, Sheikh Abdullah’s request for a licence to publish his newspaper in Aden was therefore refused. When Sheikh Abdullah arrived in Aden in January 1953 be was welcomed by more than a thousand supporters of the Free Yemeni Movement who held him in high regard as both a religious and a political leader. However, a few days later when his luggage arrived, customs officials at Aden found arms and ammunition in one of his trunks following a tip-off from the Cardiff police. Sheikh Abdullah was arrested and sentenced to one year’s imprisonment. There was much speculation about whether the weapons had been planted by the British or by by someone in the pay of the Imam.
The sentence was later quashed after being referred to the Court of Appeal and Sheikh Abdullah was released from prison. In October 1953 he was unanimously elected president of the Yemeni Union, set up in 1952 by the Free Yemenis ostensibly to promote the social and religious welfare of Yemenis in Aden and elsewhere but widely recognised as a vehicle for propaganda against the Imam. He held the post for less than a year and the circumstances of his death are as mysterious as those surrounding his arrest for importing arms. According to one account, Sheikh Abdullah was admitted to Aden’s civilian hospital with a kidney infection in early August 1954 and was poisoned there by someone in the pay of the Imam. Others doubt this story and official British sources are strangely silent about his death. The local press in Cardiff merely reported that he had died "while travelling in the Middle East."