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Lesson Plan: Yemeni Islamist Movements

Laurent Bonnefoy
CNRS Research Fellow in Political Science
Centre d’études et de recherches internationales/Sciences Po Paris

Course: Contemporary Middle Eastern Politics
Syllabus Section: Yemeni Islamist Movements
Intended Audience: Undergraduate college students

Learning Objectives:

  • Students will be able to define Islamism and its diverse branches
  • Students will enhance their knowledge of Yemeni history and society
  • Students will develop their debating skills as they relate to contemporary issues


The significance of Islamist rhetoric, shared or valued by large segments of the population, is without doubt one of the most remarkable features of the Yemeni political landscape. The country has been engaged since 2011 in a revolutionary process and a constitutional transition whose outcomes are still uncertain. It is difficult to deny that Islamists of various shades have played a prominent role since the start of the uprising and are likely to remain central players in the years to come.

The definition of Islamism has been the object of much controversy among academics. The purpose of this lesson plan is not to discuss issues of definition but to present the diversity of the Islamist field in Yemen. For purposes of this discussion, Islamism is defined in a broad way, as a rhetoric or a terminology rather than a specific ideology or essence. As such, Islamist movements can be defined as political actors whose proclaimed aim is to reinstate Islamic norms and who seek to legitimize their own actions and projects by preferentially using a vocabulary they label as Islamic and that is generally viewed as such by the public.


Teachers could first of all focus on the long history of Islam in Yemen and on the importance such a history has played in building a distinct Yemeni identity. Beyond the duality of Islamic identity in Yemen (divided between Shia Zaydism and Sunni Shafeism), religion is a structural component of the nation. Yemen is mentioned as a distinct entity in the Quran, and numerous hadith refer to Yemen and its people; these facts provide one of the foundations of Yemeni nationalism and, have been continuously instrumentalized by political and religious actors. The social and historical prominence of religious networks (including charity organizations) and traditional elites linked to tribal patronage structures make Yemen a largely conservative country in which the objective of (re)instating or (re)inforcing the prominence of the Islamic norm in public life is shared beyond Islamist parties and circles.

The absence of European colonization in the northern part of the country (where around three quarters of the total population reside) explains much of the centrality of Islam in society. For historical reasons (except in parts of the former South Yemen, where the socialist regime (1970-1990) attempted to sideline the religious norm and repress traditional actors but barely succeeded), the idea of Islam as a norm has never been put under much political pressure. As such, it has never been efficiently challenged and, to date, it remains a powerful political and cultural reference among most actors, including for instance many leaders of the Socialist party.

Following discussion of the above, teachers could analyze what is an apparent paradox: Despite not having been significantly challenged throughout Yemeni history, why is it that the defense of the Islamic norm appears to be so central in politics? The widespread perception that the Islamic world is subject to Western domination at the regional and global level is probably an important variable that explains much of this paradox. Another reason is linked to the cross-border dynamics of Islamist doctrines and to the profoundly transnational nature of the various movements, in particular the Muslim Brothers, the Salafis, and Sufis, but also Shia-related groups.

It is difficult to trace the intellectual origins of the various Islamist movements in Yemen. Interactions between Yemeni society and the main figures and thinkers of transnational Islamism in the 20th century have existed but have remained somehow limited. During the 1940s, the Muslim Brotherhood leadership in Egypt sent an envoy to North Yemen, al-Fudhayl al-Wartilani, and during the 1950s, Muhammad al-Zubayri , one of the leaders of the opposition to the monarchy, spent time in both Egypt and Pakistan. Abd al-Majid al-Zindani was educated in Egypt and then resided in Saudi Arabia during the 1980s. Founder of the Yemeni Salafi branch, Muqbil al-Wadii graduated from Saudi religious universities and maintained relations (although rather ambiguous) with the Saudi religious establishment. Despite these outside influences, Yemeni ulama and local dynamics have played a great role in structuring the various trends of Islamism in Yemen. As such, Islamism cannot be perceived as exogenous or as an imported product. Amongst the intrinsically Yemeni references, Muhammad al-Shawkani, can be regarded as the most influential. His teachings and his reevaluation of the importance of the hadith in the course of the late 18th and early 19th centuries have been instrumental in creating continuity between Sunni reformism, contemporary Islamism, and Yemeni history. He remains to date a pivotal figure valued by most trends of Sunni Islamism.


While one can consider that references to Islam have a positive connotation amongst the vast majority of the Yemeni population, this feature by no means implies that the exact content and definition of the "religious norm" is not the object of much debate and controversy.

Taking into account such diversity, the teacher could focus on the various branches of Yemeni Islamism. While overlap may exist between some of these groups, each branch, or ideal-type (defined in the sense of Max Weber, as categories for analysis), refers to different genealogies of scholars, doctrines, and sources, and develops distinct attitudes towards violence, the state, participation in politics, and inter-sectarian violence and stigmatization. As such, they tend to compete with one another within what can aptly be described as an Islamist political and religious field. The seven ideal-types are as follows:

  1. 1) Modernist Muslim Brothers comprising members of the Islah party who have engaged in the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP, ahzab al-liqa al-mushtarak) process with other opposition parties, including the Socialist party since the early 2000s. This trend, represented by Muhammad Qahtan, Muhammad al-Yadumi and Tawakkul Karman, has taken an active part in organizing the revolutionary uprising of 2011 and the transition.

  2. 2) Radical Muslim Brothers primarily comprising members of al-Islah who have criticized the JMP process and remained outside of it. During the revolutionary uprising, this branch called for the establishment of an Islamic caliphate. Its main figures are Abd al-Majid al-Zindani and Abd Allah Saatar.

  3. 3) Quietist Salafis who claim to stay out of institutionalized politics. Heirs of Muqbil al-Wadii (deceased in 2001) have remained loyal to Ali Abdallah Salih’s regime and have rejected, on religious grounds, the 2011 uprising and the trend towards greater politicization carried out by other Salafis. Tensions with "Houthi" rebels in the northern province of Saada grew increasingly violent and deadly in 2013 and favor a sectarian approach to Yemeni politics.

  4. 4) Politicized Salafis who had established charity organizations (in particular al-Hikma and al-Ihsan associations) during the 1990s eventually established a political party, the Rashad Union, in March 2012. This new party sought to legitimize its position as an alternative to al-Islah and the Muslim Brotherhood.

  5. 5) So-called "Jihadi" groups who value violence targeting mainly the state, its western allies, and certain minorities have gained influence, in particular in the Southern governorates. Claiming affiliation to al-Qaeda, groups like Ansar al-Sharia have developed guerilla techniques that are seriously challenging state control over parts of Yemen’s territory. Foreign support to the Yemeni government in the form of training and drone attacks is appearing as increasingly ineffective as it fosters popular support for the "Jihadis". The integration of Ansar al-Sharia in the political process through dialogue and negotiations was proposed by some Salafi leaders but still does not appear as a likely option.

  6. 6) Sufis, in particular those linked to the Ba Alawiyya tariqa, with strongholds in Hadramawt and Taiz, have witnessed a recent revival and had received support from the Salih government in the 2000s. They benefit from important international networks of supporters. The Dar al-Mustafa institute located in Tarim hosts students coming from Europe, South East Asia, and the Arab world. One of its leaders, Habib Ali al-Jifri, ranks among the most popular figures of contemporary Sufism internationally.

  7. 7) Zaydi revivalists, sometimes linked to the Houthi rebellion in the north of Yemen (that has been intermittently fighting the central state and its various allies since 2004), have become increasingly popular. While Zaydi identity appeared to be in decline during much of the 1970s, a new dynamic has developed around certain scholars. Badr al-Din al-Huthi, Majd al-Din al-Muayadi, or al-Murtada al-Muhatwari who, contrary to mainstream Zaydis for whom Zaydism is only a denomination, value the specificity of their own sectarian identity. The teaching institutes they established have fostered a significant revival. These Zaydi groups, amongst which the Shabab al-Mumin, headed by Husayn al-Huthi until his death in 2004, are at odds with the central republican state but also with Sunni Islamist movements. During the 2011 revolutionary uprising, Zaydi revivalists were on the front lines and united with other opposition movements. Some accepted reintegration in the political process by participating in the National Dialogue conference, while others ceased the opportunity to gain control over significant territory and develop as a de-facto separate entity around Saada.

Questions for Discussion

  • How significant is Islamism in Yemen?
  • To what extent is the Islamist field in Yemen structured by the Sunni/Shia divide?
  • How can one explain the alliance between quietist Salafis and the Yemeni state?
  • What have been the effects of the 2011 revolutionary uprising on the various Islamist trends and parties?
  • Why are "Jihadi" movements increasingly popular?
  • How can one explain the development of a Zaydi revivalist movement?
  • To what extent are the various branches of Islamism influenced by transnational dynamics?

Further Reading to Support Lesson Plan

Bonnefoy, Laurent. Salafism in Yemen: Transnationalism and Religious Identity. London: Hurst & Co., 2011.

Haykel, Bernard. Revival and Reform in Islam: The Legacy of Muhammad al-Shawkānī. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Johnsen, Gregory D. The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia. New York: Norton, 2012.

Messick, Brinkley. The Calligraphic State: Textual Domination and History in a Muslim Society. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1996.

Vom Bruck, Gabriele. Islam, Memory, and Morality in Yemen. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

Wedeen, Lisa. Peripheral Visions: Publics, Power, and Performance in Yemen. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2008.

Yadav, Stacey Philbrick. Islamists and the State: Legitimacy and Institutions in Yemen and Lebanon. London: IB Tauris, 2013.

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