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Manfred W. Wenner, Eric Vallet
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam


The establishment of the Zaydī power in the mountains of Yemen at the end of the ninth century CE is, after its conversion to Islam in 628, the most important political and religious event in Yemen. Although the fortunes of the Zaydī imamate fluctuated under Yemen's various Sunnī dynasties—Ayyūbid, Rasūlid, Ṭāhirid, and Ottoman—and never gained the complete support of the northern tribes, it established itself as the dominant authority in the highland areas, especially after the end of the first Ottoman occupation in 1636. Its views on matters of faith, morals, social organization, justice, taxation, and many other aspects of human behavior had come to dominate the lives of most highland Yemenis—though many criminal acts remained within the purview of tribal law (ʿurf )—Zaydī influence spread into some lowland areas as well through the efforts of particularly ambitious or capable imāms. Nevertheless, the predominantly Shāfiʿī population of the southern and lowland areas never fully accepted the legitimacy of Zaydī rule—a factor that was to play an important role in the dramatic political changes after World War II, including the creation of the Yemen Arab Republic in 1962.

The most important office in the Zaydī structure is that of imam, at once a religious and a political office; the imam aspired to the leadership of the entire Islamic ummah (community) as amīr al-muʿminīn (commander of the faithful). The fourteen requirements that must be fulfilled to claim legitimacy in the position effectively limited the field of candidates to a small fraction of the total Zaydī population; it was estimated in the 1950s that no more than 50,000 of the total estimated population of around 5.5 million were eligible. This group, who could demonstrate direct lineal descent from Muḥammad through his daughter Fāṭimah and her husband ʿAlī, were collectively known as the sāda (princes, the plural of sayyid) and constituted the pool from which the imam must be selected. However, in the past few centuries the imams invariably emerged from a much smaller group of families, such as Bayt Sharaf al-Dīn (1506–1572), Bayt al-Qāsim (1597–1849), and finally Bayt Ḥāmid al-Dīn (1890–1962), claiming the three last imams, al-Manṣūr Muḥammad ibn Yaḥyā (r. 1890–1904), Yaḥyā (1904–1948), and Aḥmad (1948–1962).

Although Zaydī tradition does not condone succession within specific families to the imamate, this has often occurred. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, one of these dynasties was nearing the end of its tenure in the office of imam, as well as its capability, effectiveness, dedication, and concern for the public good: Bayt al-Qāsim had taken over the imamate in the late sixteenth century from Bayt Sharaf al-Dīn. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, conflicts among family members had become intense, and one member (ʿAlī Manṣūr) who had served as imam on three separate occasions was killed in 1849. For nearly fifty years thereafter, there was no effective leadership. During this period, the various imams had to struggle with the rise of the Wahhābī sect on the Arabian Peninsula, with the activities of the Ottoman Empire and its putative agents, Viceroy Muḥammad ʿAlī and the Egyptian army, and with the attempts of local shaykhs to assert their independence.

The Second Ottoman Occupation.

The result was the occupation of the Tihama coastal plain by the Ottomans in 1849. The aftermath of these developments appears to have been anarchy in the highlands, including Sanaa, as various families and other factions competed for the imamate, for control of the city, and for whatever commercial activities were still viable. Finally, Ottoman troops entered Sanaa in 1872 and added the highlands of Yemen to the empire. There seems little doubt that the occupation was motivated largely by the increased importance of the Red Sea as a trade route after the opening of the Suez Canal, and by the fact that the British had already established themselves at the southern end of the Red Sea by taking Aden in 1839 and extending their influence as far as to the eastern sultanates of Ḥaḍramawt.

Ottoman rule, however, was not popular; both Zaydīs and Shāfiʿīs were offended by the corrupt Turkish administration as well as by the Turkish attitude toward Islam, which was perceived as too lax. Resentment and opposition grew; the selection of Muḥammad ibn Yaḥyā of the Ḥamīd al-Dīn clan as imam in 1890 was the occasion for a renewed outbreak of rebellion against the Ottomans. The empire sent a variety of administrators, but none was successful in eliminating the basic grounds for Yemeni resentment and opposition. The accession to the imamate of Muḥammad's son Yaḥyā in 1904 was the occasion for another outbreak against Ottoman rule. The next decade witnessed temporary agreements between the imam and the Ottoman authorities, culminating in the 1911 Treaty of Daʿan, which gave the imam undivided authority over the highlands.

Yemen played only a minor role in World War I; in effect, the Ottoman and British authorities agreed to a truce on their mutual frontier. The imam refused to join the anti-Ottoman alliance developed among the Arabs by the British, because he considered it inconceivable for Yemen to align itself with a Christian state against a Muslim one, no matter how atrocious the policies and actions of the latter. This commitment to Islam as a source of and a justification for public policy remains a consistent theme throughout Imām Yaḥyā's reign. The end of World War I brought the departure of the Ottomans and the de facto independence of North Yemen under the leadership of Yaḥyā. Upon independence, the imam set several goals clearly influenced by his position as imam of the Zaydīs.

North Yemen Independence.

Yaḥyā's first goal was to impose the sharīʿah on his entire realm. This was to prove very difficult, because it amounted to a direct challenge to the power, influence, and position of the tribes, who from time immemorial had used tribal law to resolve many of their disputes despite their nominal adherence to Zaydī Islam. Second, the imam wished to weaken the domestic political and military power of the tribes, primarily to make it difficult for them to challenge his authority in domestic matters. His third goal was to regain, by force if necessary, the territories that the imams saw as their legitimate patrimony, that is, parts of historic Yemen that had been alienated by the Ottomans or seized by the British, including Aden and its hinterland, Asir, and others. Finally, he sought to reduce the domestic power of the other families that had historically held the imamate and could therefore legitimately challenge the Ḥāmid al-Dīn for power. This involved the assertion of Ḥāmid al-Dīn authority in all areas of the state—geographic, administrative, military, and judicial—and the establishment of a real dynastic power. However, Yaḥyā's attempt to recover the northern provinces of ʿAsir and Najrān failed when he was forced to recognize, in the Treaty of Ṭāʿif (May 1934), de facto Saudi sovereignty over these regions after his military defeat.

This defeat roused increasing domestic opposition, in the form of an alliance of individuals and groups that were united primarily by their opposition to Imam Yaḥyā but were not in meaningful agreement on an alternative. Indeed, the opposition of the “Free Yemenis” ran the gamut from modernists who wished to institute an alternative vision of Islam (sometimes influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood), or merely to renew the Zaydī institutions by handing the imamate to a different family. They were briefly united in the movement which, after the assassination of Imam Yaḥyā in 1948, tried to set up a Constitutional Imamate governed by a “Sacred National Charter” under the leadership of a new and ephemeral imam, ʿAbd Allāh al-Wazīr.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the breadth of the coalition, it deteriorated immediately upon Yaḥyā's death in the face of the determination of Imām Yaḥyā's son Aḥmad to reassert the role of the Ḥāmid al-Dīn and the political power of the Zaydī tribes. Within weeks Aḥmad was recognized as the legitimate imam, and the political system reverted largely to the policies associated with his father. Over the next two decades a multifaceted opposition movement reappeared, led by prominent figures like the Sunnī “Professor” Aḥmad al-Nuʿmān and the Zaydī Qāḍī Maḥmūd al-Zubayrī, in the favorable context of widespread Arab nationalism. Imām Aḥmad's attitude toward this movement consisted of more than mere repression. He tried also to turn it to his own benefit, as when he decided to join the United Arab Republic in 1958 with Egypt and Syria. However, after the split of the UAR in 1961, the military opposition to the Imamate—called the “Free Officers”—grew quickly with the support of Nasserites. When Imām Aḥmad died in September 1962 and was succeeded by his son Muḥammad al-Badr, this group decided to act. One week after Aḥmad's death, al-Badr was deposed by the officers and the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) was proclaimed in Sanaa.

The so-called Northern Yemeni Revolution was not immediately successful. The strong Egyptian military support was seen by a large part of the population as a foreign intrusion. The modernist elite, represented by Aḥmad al-Nuʿmān and Maḥmūd al-Zubayrī, soon criticized the new regime led by a Free Officer, ʿAbd Allāh al-Sallāl. As early as 1962, the last imam, Muḥammad al-Badr, was able to organize many of the northern Zaydī tribes in opposition to the Republic, with the material support of Saudi Arabia. The motivations of these tribal elements were complex and frequently involved non-Islamic and even non-Zaydī factors. Those seeking to return the imam to power became popularly known as “royalists,” while those committed to the new government were known as “republicans.”

Intermediate parties, however, managed to keep good relations with both sides. Every camp sought to gain the strongest tribal support. In 1965, Maḥmūd al-Zubayrī tried therefore to create a new party—God's Party (Ḥizb Allāh)—to reconcile the main tribes with the Republic, just before his assassination in the northern highlands. This initiative resulted some months later in the Khamir conference, held in the fief of ʿAbd Allāh al-Aḥmar, paramount shaykh of Ḥashīd and main tribal supporter of the Republic. This meeting emphasized the growing opposition to the Egyptians. Moreover, defeat by Israel in June 1967 weakened Nasser's position in Arabia substantially. The imam's supporters, who were unable to recapture Sanaa in 1968, finally agreed to compromise in 1970 under the presidency of Qāḍī ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Iryānī: the new state would be a Republic, but some prominent royalists would be integrated into the government. The imam agreed to go into exile, thus ending more than a thousand years of the Zaydī imamate in Yemen.

In the South, Yemeni nationalism explored other directions, not without contradictions. Political forces, mainly the National Liberation Front (NLF) created in Aden in June 1963, but also the Aden Trades Union Congress, tribal groups, and anticolonial members of ruling families, fought the British colonial presence, but strong differences developed among them. South Yemen independence in November 1967 did not put an end to these internal quarrels. This situation led to a more radical regime with the creation of the Popular Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) in 1970 and the enactment of strict agrarian reform.

Two Yemeni States.

Two states were thus established in Yemen at the beginning of the 1970s, the YAR in the North and the PDRY in the South. Both were legitimate manifestations of Arab nationalism but were nevertheless founded on weak social bases. Until unification in 1990, both states developed on their own paths, with the implementation of modern institutions—growing local and national administration; schools and universities (Sanaa, 1971; Aden, 1975); even rural cooperatives in the north during al-Ḥamdī's presidency (1974–1977). The Yemeni economy underwent healthy changes, especially in the northern YAR, with a boom in migrant labor—12 percent of the northern population in 1975—resulting in the transfer of huge sums from the neighboring countries to the highlands of Yemen ($1.2 billion in 1982). Rural and urban populations develop new forms of consumption. The elites abandon city centers for the more comfortable and modern houses of the growing suburbs. Throughout the country, qāt becomes the main facilitator of socialization and a powerful means of reallocating resources between the cities and the countryside. The spread throughout Yemeni society of these green leaves, chewed by many men and women each afternoon, was possible only with the development of a highway network connecting the regions of production and consumption: qāt symbolizes the growing integration of Yemen's internal markets.

With the creation of an administrative and commercial middle class, old hierarchies in Zaydī society are fading away, even though some tribal institutions continue to function. Moreover, during the 1970s the northern tribes had challenged the army as the main political actors in the YAR. The modernist program of President Ibrāhīm al-Ḥamdī, who tried to limit tribal powers, failed in 1977 with his assassination. ʿAlī ʿAbd Allāh Ṣāliḥ, another officer from the Sanḥān tribe (south of Sanaa), succeeded in taking power in 1978 and holding on to it, thanks to a compromise with the tribal forces led by Shaykh ʿAbd Allāh al-Aḥmar. The large gathering of North Yemeni political forces in the General Popular Congress (GPC), founded in 1982 to support Ṣāliḥ's power, was not challenged until the foundation of the Islamist Reform Party (al-Iṣlāḥ) in 1988.


From 1970 to 1990, North and South Yemen each claimed to be the only supporter of Yemeni “unity.” Several wars even broke out at the frontier in 1972 and 1979, but the context dramatically changed in the 1980s. While the discovery of oil in Maʿrib (1985) offered new opportunities to the YAR, the PDRY economy collapsed after the Aden civil war in 1986 and the end of Soviet support. These events and an effective political opposition in the North led the two regimes to negotiate unification on May 22, 1990, in the new capital, Sanaa. ʿAlī ʿAbd Allāh Ṣāliḥ became President of the new Republic of Yemen, and ʿAlī Sālim al-Bīḍ (general secretary of the Yemeni Socialist Party and former leader of the PDRY) was vice-president.

However, the balance of power did not favor the former PDRY: the North's population of about 11 million outnumbered the South's (2.5 million). Following the outbreak of the Gulf War in August 1990, the Yemeni government, which had not opposed Saddam Hussein's policies, suffered international isolation. More than a million Yemeni migrant workers were expelled from Saudi Arabia. This massive return caused an economic crisis, and the riyal plummeted against the U.S. dollar. In this recessionary context, the fragile compromise of 1990 was shattered. Hostility grew among the various political and tribal forces, leading to a new civil war in April 1994. The dominant northern forces, with tribal support, sacked Aden in July. The former Socialist leaders fled into exile, and the southerners felt they had suffered a true invasion.

The 1994 war strengthened President Ṣāliḥ's legitimacy. It revealed also the peculiar nature of the new Yemeni Republic. Militarily, its force was based on the coexistence of the army and the tribes. Ideologically, Ṣāliḥ's victory was supported by the main northern parties, GPC and al-Iṣlāḥ, and associated Arab nationalist and Islamist rhetoric. After 1994, Shaykh ʿAbd Allāh al-Aḥmar, leader of the dominant Ḥāshid tribes and of al-Iṣlāḥ and president of the parliament, became more than ever the symbol of this political balance. Nevertheless, the interplay of two major phenomena in the following decade progressively weakened Ṣāliḥ's hegemony and the military-tribal compromise. First, increasing international pressure related to the “war on terror,” led to closer cooperation with the U.S. and normalization of relations with Saudi Arabia (including the signature in 2000 of an agreement intended to stabilize the northern frontiers of Yemen). Second, the economic and social crises deepened and were not compensated for by increasing foreign aid. The greatest challenges for the Yemeni economy currently are population growth (to 21 million in 2005) and the increasing demand on very limited water resources. In this context, popular disaffection with Ṣāliḥ's regime has become progressively clearer: in 2006, the united opposition was even able to dictate the issues of the presidential campaign. Moreover, a new civil war began in 2004 in the vicinity of Saʿdah between the army and followers of the Zaydī leaders Hūsayn and Badr al-Dīn al-Hūthī supported by local tribes. This conflict had not been resolved by June 2007.

See also IMAM and ZAYDīYAH.


  • Burgat, François, ed.Le Yémen vers la République: Iconographie historique du Yémen, 1900–1970. Sanaa: Centre Français d’Archéologie et de Sciences Sociales de Sanaa (CEFAS), 2004. A good introduction to Yemen modern history through rare iconographic testimonies. Find it in your Library
  • Daum, Werner, ed.Yemen: 3000 Years of Art and Civilisation in Arabia Felix. Frankfurt-am-Main: Umschau-Verlag, 1987. Comprehensive survey of all aspects of Yemen history and culture. Find it in your Library
  • Dresch, Paul. Tribes, Government, and History in Yemen. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989. A reference tool in tribal anthropology and politics. Find it in your Library
  • Dresch, Paul. A History of Modern Yemen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Brilliant, expert account of the history of South and North Yemen in the twentieth century. Find it in your Library
  • Farah, Caesar E.The Sultan's Yemen: Nineteenth-Century Challenges to Ottoman Rule. London: I. B. Tauris, 2002. Find it in your Library
  • Haykel, Bernard. Revival and Reform in Islam: The Legacy of Muhammad al-Shawkānī. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Find it in your Library
  • Leveau, Rémy, Franck Mermier, and Udo Steinbach, eds. Le Yémen contemporain. Paris: Karthala, 1999. Thorough description of Yemen politics and economy in the aftermath of the 1994 Civil War. Find it in your Library
  • Mahdi, Kamil A., Anna Würth, and Helen Lackner, eds. Yemen into the Twenty-First Century: Continuity and Change. London: Ithaca Press, 2006. Find it in your Library
  • Serjeant, R. B., and Ronald Lewcock, eds. Ṣanaʿāʿ: An Arabian Islamic City. London: World of Islam Festival Trust, 1983. Thorough, scholarly, and fascinating survey of all aspects of Sanaa, including Islam and its impact on hygiene, diet, and urban development. Find it in your Library
  • Weir, Shelagh. A Tribal Order: Politics and Law in the Mountains of Yemen. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007. Find it in your Library
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