“A stray bullet from the seventh century hit Yemen”: Anti-Zaydi polemics and the politics of genealogy in al-Ghobari’s Al-Qabīlah al-Hāshimiyyah
The Zaydi school of religious thought is deeply rooted in the northern parts of Yemen, and an estimated one third of its population adheres to the Zaydi madhhab. While scholarship on Yemen pays much attention to textual exegesis and interpretation of Zaydi written sources, much less attention is given to the political significance and social ramifications of this school of thought. These written sources are the products of a social elite and religious authorities, and therefore serve to produce and reproduce an elite discourse that was and is used to legitimize and stabilize a particular form of society, a particular system of rule, and a particular form of literacy and historiography. None of these were, and are, met with unanimous approval by the Yemeni people.
Departing from the anti-Zaydi and anti-Hashemite polemics of the Yemeni writer Sam al-Ghobari (Sām al-Ghubārī) in his book Al-Qabīlah al-Hāshimiyyah (Cairo 2019), this blog entry explores how these Zaydi principles and tenets resonate with non-elite Yemeni people. While not participating in the broader academic and theological discussions, it is they who negotiate the implementation of these sectarian policies on a local level, either by carrying them out or rejecting them. This recourse to locality highlights a fundamental principle in anthropology: that discussions surrounding religion, ideology, and national politics are primarily constructed, interpreted, and either upheld or rejected in specific locations and time periods. As Eickelman and Piscatori argue in Muslim Politics, despite popular perceptions of Muslim societies as pious, rigid, and hierarchical, there is always significant room for engaging in negotiation, dissent, protest, and manoeuvre among ordinary people, and it is they who shape and implement these realities on the ground.
The ongoing and heated discussion on the social and political implications of Zaydism among Yemenis showcases how Yemenis work towards negotiating their interests and securing their own goals and political outlooks. Among Yemenis, the main bone of contention is what recently became to be called “sayyid supremacy” (sulāliyyah) inherent in Zaydism and that sparked a discussion that is inspired by broader debates about power and race. Zaydi doctrine insists on righteous rule through the ahl al-bayt, who claim descent from the Prophet’s daughter Fāṭimah and his cousin and son-in-law ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib. Although al-Ghobari’s discourse is clearly aimed against the ahl al-bayt in Yemen, he prefers the more “global” term Hashemites, which denotes the entire group of descendants of the Prophet’s great-grandfather Hāshim b. ʿAbd Manāf, and which I will also use to refer to the ahl al-bayt in this blog. Al-Ghobari’s avoidance of the term ahl al-bayt might be explained by the fact that in northern Yemen these are also called sādah (sg. sayyid), the term meaning “masters” or “lords,” and thus conveying a notion of hierarchy and superiority over Yemen’s other social strata, including the tribes, non-tribal city dwellers, and various other groups. Since their arrival in northern Yemen in the 9th century CE, northern Yemen’s Hashemites have been working to position and maintain themselves as an external descent group and governing elite clearly distinguished from the other strata of Yemeni society. Until the September Revolution of 1962 in northern Yemen, the Hashemites occupied the position of the imām (the leader of the Zaydi community) as well as leading positions in religious life, government, administration, and the military apparatus.
Even though the Hashemites formed an important part of Yemen’s social fabric, due to their distinct genealogy and “foreign” origin many Yemenis considered them as an immigrant community of putative ʿAdnānī (northern Arab) descent living among the tribal and non-tribal communities of putative Qaḥṭānī (southern Arab) descent of the “original” Yemenis. The Hashemites’ practice of upholding genealogical distinction contrasted strongly with the practices of other leading dynasties, such as the originally Turcoman Rasulid dynasty, that came to Yemen in the wake of the Ayyubids at the end of the 12th or at the beginning of the 13th century CE. The Rasulid dynasty sought to root its legitimacy more deeply among the Yemeni people by linking its genealogy to the genealogy of Qaḥṭān and hence to strengthen the connection between the Rasulid Sultans and their people (qawm), the descendants of Qaḥṭān.
In 1962, the September Revolution led to the overthrow of the imamate and establishment of the Yemen Arab Republic. Arab Nationalism and decolonization opened up new vistas of thought and agency in Yemen. Republican discourse identified Hashemite rule with oppression and reactionary backwardness and pledged to abolish social inequality and birth right privilege. The Republic worked towards creating a new national identity based on non-sectarian Islam and historic and tribal South-Arabian heritage. Under the new republican order, South Arabian descent became a central aspect of national belonging and identity politics, creating new inequalities for those who could not link their lineage to that of Qaḥṭān. Republican discourse delegitimized the Hashemites’ claim to leadership, not only for political and religious, but also for genealogical considerations. The belief that “true” Yemenis are descendants of Qaḥṭān, the eponym and symbol of unity of the South Arabian tribes, became invoked as the basis of northern Yemeni society.
Since the turn of the millennium, the steady rise of Anṣār Allāh, also called Ḥūthīs in deference to their leaders, has introduced new dynamics to this ongoing discussion. The Ḥūthīs emerged in the early 2000s as a local resistance movement against the rule of ʿAlī ʿAbd Allāh Ṣāliḥ, Yemen’s long-serving president from 1978 to 2012, and the onslaught of radical Sunnism in Yemen’s largely Zaydi north. The movement gradually radicalized and evolved into a repressive regime in which Hashemites once again assumed leading roles. Following the Ḥūthī expansion that commenced in 2004 and continues to this day, Hashemites first dominated the Ḥūthī movement and subsequently, after the conquest of Sanaa in 2014, controlled almost all of northern Yemen, effectively overturning the republican state and replacing it with a regime that appears to be inspired by the Iranian model.
In this context al-Ghobari’s anti-Zaydi critique takes effect. The rejection of Hashemite rule and their public representation as an “immigrant” community and “strangers in the house” is, as we have seen, a very old line of reasoning against the Hashemites that is already evident in the historical writings of al-Ḥasan al-Hamdānī (10th century CE) and Nashwān al-Ḥimyarī (12th century CE). However, al-Ghobari’s critique adds new aspects and dimensions to it. Referring to the origin of Shia Islam in the 7th century CE, al-Ghobari considers the current process of “reviving Zaydism in the subconscious of the Yemeni tribes” (p. 43) an anachronistic and regressive phenomenon, a relapse into a time that is past and believed to have been overcome. He likens the process of reinstalling Hashemite rule in Ḥūthī Yemen to “an outdated system [that] penetrated time like a stray bullet launched from the 7th century CE into the 21st century and hit the heart of Sanaa” (p. 46). This metaphorical illustration effectively conveys al-Ghobari’s belief that the reintroduction of Hashemite rule represents a backward-looking approach that has no place in modern Yemeni society.
Anti-Hashemite discourse in Yemen is marked by a rejection of the Hashemites’ status as “genuine Yemenis” (awlād al-balad) on the basis of their foreign, northern Arab origin. Al-Ghobari takes this line of reasoning a step further by denying them an Arab identity altogether. Alluding to the historical origin of the Zaydi school of law in what is now Iran, al-Ghobari likens them to “settlers” (mustawṭinūn; the term also used to denote Israeli settlers in Palestine) who “came from the jungles of Tabaristan” (p. 216) and established “colonies” among the Yemeni tribes. He believes that, under the guise of spurious integration into local society, they pursued their agenda, which he sees as “nothing but a family tree program” (p. 135) to ensue “the principle of Hashemite superiority” (mabdaʾ al-istiʿlāʾ al-hāshimī, p. 216).
This is a noteworthy analogy as it bears a number of similarities to anti-Semitism and conspiracy theory in its underlying motives, such as the element of spurious integration, malignant acculturation, and the belief in hidden agendas operating within society. Before 1962, according to al-Ghobari, the Hashemites could be clearly distinguished from Qaḥṭānī Yemenis by their distinct costume. Today’s Ḥūthī Hashemite dress, in contrast, imitates the tribal dress: “ʿAbd al-Malik Badr al-Dīn [al-Ḥūthī] does not appear dressed in Hashemite clothes – the tawzah [Hashemite dagger], the qāwq [cap], and the silken jawkh [robe] – but rather he wears the dress of the Yemeni tribes, the Bakīlī janbiyah [tribal dagger], the shawl placed on the shoulder, the regular coat, and the flowing, full-length thawb. This is an important message to the subconscious of the tribe that he is part of them, of their customs, traditions, style, and way of life” (p. 201-2). Moreover, and “as a kind of propaganda intensification to suffocate any attempt at thinking or rebellion, the Hashemites seized all the arts of popular literature in Yemen, and turned them into Hashemite voices”, including the zāmil, a popular tribal poetry genre, in an attempt to “draw from them their voices, their arts, their heritage, their civilization, and even their shapes, dress, and identity” (p. 201).
The rivalry over representation and voice also plays out in the realm of historiography. It cannot be denied that Zaydi historiography is replete with rhetoric that expresses condescension, hostility, and contempt towards the tribes (oddly enough, for the tribes were always the Hashemites’ ultimate mainstay, and they entirely depended on tribal protection and support). The establishment of the Zaydi polity in northern Yemen in the 9th century CE marked the beginning of a long tradition of Zaydi historiography in which the tribes hardly appear except when they oppose or support a succession of imams. Zaydi historiography aimed to stamp out all references to South Arabian Qaḥṭānī culture and everything that had its roots in the old order before the arrival of Islam. As a result, tribal agency was obscured in historiography and the “Sabaean voice … faded in the dunes of the desert, as is the custom of the Yemeni tribe of forgetting its glories, so its legacy becomes a history that no-one remembers” (p. 64). Since the Ḥūthī seizure of power, al-Ghobari observed a return of the policy of “silencing the Sabaean voice” and erasing tribal agency in historiography. He notes that in Ḥūthī-controlled Yemen, essential republican literature such as the works of Muḥammad Maḥmūd al-Zubayrī and ʿAbd Allāh al-Baradūnī are not being reissued and are thus disappearing from the market, which is instead being flooded with Zaydi and Ḥūthī religious treatises. He thus suspects that Ḥūthī historiography is working to isolate the South Arabian tribes once again from their cultural heritage and splendid past, and to “impose a siege on all the values of Yemeni poetic creativity and national writing, and all that pertains to them in art, poetry, antiquity, and civilization” (p. 220).
The alleged warlike disposition of the Yemeni tribes is a well-known trope in Zaydi historiography and literary tradition, which seldom wearies to emphasize what it considers tribal backwardness, ignorance, cruelty, and treachery. Al-Ghobari reciprocates this line of argumentation and characterizes Zaydi history of Yemen as an age of darkness, conflict, and backwardness, during which the Hashemites exploited the tribes by imposing their domination, which came along with exploitation through harsh taxes and levies. Furthermore, the Hashemites involved the tribes in the “extreme ʿaṣabiyyah” (p. 16; often denoting “clannishness” or “cohesive drive against others”) prevalent among the leading Hashemite clans, and capitalized on the tribes to fight out their bitter rivalries. This is a noteworthy twist in argumentation, since ʿaṣabiyyah is a concept which has always been used (in a condescending fashion) to characterize tribal clannishness and factionalism. According to al-Ghobari, the Zaydi Hashemites’ “unbridled desire for violence and revolution” (p. 16) in league with the “invincible tribal armies” (p. 58) plunged Yemen into a millennium of war and conflict and “vengeful chaos” (fawḍā thaʾriyyah, p. 39). In this way, al-Ghobari argues, an unhealthy alliance between the Hashemites and the tribes came into being, which brought out and intensified the worst features in both sides. He argues that the Hashemites played a pivotal role in altering the “bright face” (p. 16) of the tribes and their “customs, traditions, arts, generosity, and courage” (p. 16) and “isolated Yemenis from their identity, just as the Palestinians were isolated from their territory” (p. 233).
Al-Ghobari’s anti-Hashemite polemics epitomize the discourse of a political resistance movement against the Ḥūthīs, which is becoming increasingly popular and vocal. This line of reasoning works through generalization and reductionism; many of its arguments are rather monocausal and do not convey the complexities of Yemeni society and history. It is evidently problematic to reduce the role and agency of the Hashemites, who have been based in Yemen’s north for more than 1100 years and form an important part of the social fabric, to that of an external hegemonic power. Given the often extreme differences in education, social status, wealth, and authority among the Yemeni Hashemites, they cannot even be spoken of as a monolithic group. In Yemen’s history, the Hashemites played essential roles in education, mediation, dispensation of justice and provision of community services, and there were periods when their relationships with the tribes were demonstrably constructive. Likewise, the descent-based stigmatization and discrimination as “strangers in the house” is problematic, as also the genealogies of the “indigenous” Qaḥṭānī Yemeni tribes are often the result of processes of fusion and fission with immigrant, non-Yemeni tribal groups, and tribal genealogies are often expressions of territorial proximities and/or political alliances rather that biological facts.
A wealth of monographs by Yemeni researchers, intellectuals, and authors such as ʿAlī al-Bakālī (2023), Aḥmad Muḥammad al-Daghshī (2022), Thābit al-Aḥmadī (2022), Laylāʾ al-Kindī (2022), Sālim al-Jaʿribī (2017), Sālim al-Ḥaḍramī (2017), and many more, either analyse or pursue comparable anti-Hashemite and anti-Ḥūthī lines of reasoning. Meanwhile, parts of the Yemeni public have organized themselves into a counter-movement called the Aqyāl movement (ḥarakat al-aqyāl). Qayl (pl. aqyāl) was the name for the tribal chiefs in Yemen’s pre-Islamic kingdoms. The term aqyāl invokes a Qaḥṭānite mythology and tribal identity and serves to delegitimize the Hashemites’ claim to represent and rule Yemen. By exploiting political identities based on genealogical thought, the representations activated by the Aqyāl movement aim at reviving the opposition between the “indigenous” Qaḥṭānī Arabs and the “immigrant” community of the Hashemites, with the aim of delegitimizing Hashemite leadership and thus countering the Ḥūthīs. The Aqyāl movement attracts a wide spectrum of Yemeni people, among them intellectuals, writers, journalists, media professionals, and political activists. Visually, it uses symbols of the iconography of the pre-Islamic kingdoms of Yemen, such as the ancient South Arabian script (musnad), and the ibex (waʿl). The ibex is an essential iconographic element of ancient South Arabia and enjoys a highly symbolic value with respect to the pantheon of the South Arabian divinities of old, as it was believed to be a sacred animal associated with these deities.
It belongs to the conundrums of the Aqyāl movement that it seems to reactivate a kind of visual Neopaganism, while at the same time attracting supporters from the religious spectrum of radical Sunnism, even if al-Ghobari carefully avoids all references to Salafism and the Muslim Brotherhood. Salafism in Yemen emerged primarily as a response to the prevailing religious hierarchies that favoured the Zaydi Hashemites. Within the Aqyāl movement, ordinary Yemenis close ranks with Sunni Islamists in their opposition to Yemen’s new Ḥūthī suzerains. Moreover, today’s Aqyāl movement is framed in postcolonial terms, as a struggle between indigenous, “subaltern” Yemeni social strata and the “foreign”, “immigrant” Hashemite rulers. The putative “indigenous” Qaḥṭānī part of the population sees itself increasingly excluded from the hierarchy of power and being degraded to a “subaltern” social class governed by the putative “immigrant” community of the Hashemites. The unease prevailing among many people is being reinforced by the reign of terror, fear, and intimidation that characterizes Ḥūthī rule in Yemen.
Al-Ghobari’s anti-Zaydi and anti-Hashemite polemics epitomize the current trend of “weaponizing” genealogy in Yemen. The Qaḥṭānite discourse overemphasizes the ethnic identity and culture of the South Arabian Arabs while radically rejecting external influences. Certain parallels to Western identitarian ideologies are obvious, which also prioritize the preservation of identitarian values and traditions. Qaḥṭānism, however, is not directed against foreigners, migrants, refugees, or people of other races per se. Rather, Qaḥṭānism is a discursive weapon aimed at challenging the (re)empowerment of the Hashemites within the emerging Ḥūthī state, a discourse of power and domination in the guise of genealogical thought.
A closer examination of Zaydism from a contemporary, bottom-up perspective and against the background of the war that is engulfing Yemen’s north since 2004 raises many questions about power, representation, identification, and participation. Al-Ghobari’s polemics demonstrate the continuing significance of genealogical representations as an aspect of identity politics and identity formation in Yemeni society. Moreover, they add new facets to contemporary phenomena of genealogically-framed identity politics in Arab societies at large. A similar surge in the importance of genealogical thought can also be observed in Saudi Arabia, where rapid changes in recent decades have led to a renewed quest for identity among its citizens, and here, too, the attempt to assert affiliation with historically recognized Arabian tribes became an integral aspect of social and political life, as well as the expression of a deep-seated desire for belonging.