Imams of Yemen

Monarch of Yemen

First monarch al-Hadi ila'l-Haqq Yahya
Last monarch Muhammad al-Badr
Formation c. 897
Abolition 1962
Residence Dar al-Hajar, Sana'a, Yemen
Pretender(s) Ageel bin Muhammad al-Badr

The Imams of Yemen and later the Kings of Yemen were religiously consecrated leaders belonging to the Zaidiyyah branch of Shia Islam. They established a blend of religious and secular rule in parts of Yemen from 897. Their imamate endured under varying circumstances until the republican revolution in 1962. Zaidiyyah theology differed from Sevener or Twelver Shi'ites by stressing the presence of an active and visible imam as leader. The imam was expected to be knowledgeable in religious scholarship, and to prove himself a worthy headman of the community, even in battle if this was necessary. A claimant of the imamate would proclaim a "call" (da'wa), and there were not infrequently more than one claimant.[1]



The imams based their legitimacy on descent from the Prophet Muhammad, mostly via al-Qasim ar-Rassi (d. 860). After him, the medieval imams are sometimes known as Rassids. The first of the ruling line, his grandson al-Hadi ila'l-Haqq Yahya, was born in Medina. His fame as an intellectual as well as a leader of note, led to his invitation to Yemen. He was summoned to govern the highland tribes in 893 and again in 896–97. Al-Hadi introduced a multiude of policies and practices that evolved into the particular Yemenite Zaidiyyah brand. The efforts of al-Hadi eventually became the basic guidelines for the religious as well as political characteristics of Yemeni Zaydism. Al-Hadi, however, was not able to consolidate his rule in all of Yemen. He could not even create an enduring state in the highlands, due to the strong localism persisting in the region. There were revolts as well as segments of the population that did not accept his and his successors' pretensions to religio-political rule.[2]

Although he did not succeed in establishing any permanent administrative infrastructure, al-Hadi's descendants, and other Alid clans who arrived in his company, became the local aristocracy of the northern highlands.[3] It is from among them that the imams of Yemen were selected for the next one thousand years. The imams were usually chosen from the offspring of al-Qasim ar-Rassi and more specifically of al-Hadi, but on at least eight occasions they were picked from other lines descending from the Prophet's grandsons Hasan and Husain.[4]

Yemen throughout most of that period was only rarely a unified political entity; in fact, what was included within its frontiers varied widely, and it has not been governed consistently or uniformly by any single set of rulers except for brief periods. It existed as a part of a number of different political systems/ruling dynasties between the ninth and sixteenth centuries, after which it became a part of the Ottoman Empire.

Rivalries with other dynasties

After Imam al-Hadi's death in 911, his sons took over the imamate in turn, although it was not hereditary but rather elective among the descendants of Muhammad. From the 11th to the early 17th centuries, however, the imams were usually not chosen from the sons of the former imam, but the title rather circulated among the various Rassid branches. Meanwhile, a multitude of smaller dynasties and families established themselves in the highlands, as well as in Tihama (the low coastal plain) where the imams rarely gained influence. Among the better known of these are the Yu'firids (847–997), the Najahids (1021–1158), the Sulayhids (1047–1138), the Zuray'ids (1080–1174), and the Hatimids (1098–1174).[5] It was during this period, when the Fatimid state was influential, that a portion of the population was converted to Ismailism.

Beginning with the conquest of Yemen by the family of Salah ad-Din ibn Ayyub (Saladin) in 1174, a series of dynasties exercised a modicum of control and administration in Yemen for roughly the next 400 years; these are, in chronological sequence, the Ayyubids, from 1174 to 1229; the Rasulids, from 1229 to 1454; the Tahirids, from 1454 to 1517; and the Mamluks, from 1517 to 1538, when the Ottoman Empire took the Yemeni Tihama.[6]

During most of this period, the dynasties and their rulers were primarily engaged in familial, regional, and occasionally sectarian disputes. Ironically, the Sunni Rasulids, who eventually concentrated their rule in southern Yemen for precisely that reason, were the dynasty under which the region experienced the greatest economic growth and political stability.[7]

For part of the medieval era the Zaydiyyah imams were eclipsed by the lowland dynasties, and for long periods there would be no imam at all (especially in 1066–1138 and 1171–1187). From the end of the thirteenth century the political fortunes of the Zaydiyya imams revived somewhat. They were able to hold their own against the Rasulids and Tahirids and sometimes expand their territory. Often however, and especially after 1436, the imamate was split between several contenders.

Comparatively little is known about the medieval Zaydi imams and their efforts to establish themselves and develop some form of administration (including tax collection), or their success in promoting Zaydi goals during this period. From the available evidence, there was very little continuity and a great deal of competition among the Zaydi families and clans. For example, in a presumably representative two-hundred-year period from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries, there appear to have been more than twenty different candidates for the imamate, representing more than ten distinct clans.[8]

The Qasimid state

Eventually the Europeans entered the Middle East, specifically the Portuguese and then others, in the effort to control the Red Sea trade. For the Zaydiyya imams, however, the Ottomans constituted the greater external threat. Ottoman expeditions managed to defeat the highland tribesmen in the mid decades of the sixteenth century. From the early 17th century al-Mansur al-Qasim, belonging to one the Rassid branches (later known as the Qasimids), raised the standard of rebellion. His son al-Mu'ayyad Muhammad managed to gather the entire Yemen under his authority, expel the Turks, and establish an independent political entity. For a time, the imams ruled a comprehensive territory, including South Yemen and areas even further to the east. Their economic base was strengthened by the coffee trade of the coastal entrepot Mocha. Unlike in the previous practice, the Qasimids ruled as a hereditary dynasty.[9]

The power of the imamate declined in the 18th and 19th century, especially in the wake of the Wahhabi invasions after 1800.[10] The territory controlled by the imams shrank successively after 1681, and the lucrative coffee trade declined with new producers in other parts of the world. The Qasimid state has been characterized as a "quasi-state" with an inherent tension between tribes and government, and between tribal culture and learned Islamic morality. The imams themselves adopted the style of Middle East monarchies, becoming increasingly distant figures. As a result, they eventually lost their charismatic and spiritual position among the tribes of Yemen.[11] The imamate was further eclipsed by the second coming of the Turks to lowland Yemen in 1848, and to the highlands in 1872. However, the Ottoman troops were never able to entirely quell resistance against Turkish rule. The occupants were eventually driven out by 1918, by a Qasimid side-branch which inaugurated the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen.

Modern history

For the next 44 years North Yemen was ruled by two powerful imams. Yahya bin Muhammad Hamid ad-Din and his son Ahmad bin Yahya created a kingdom there much as the kings of England and France had done centuries earlier. The two imams strengthened the state and secured its borders. They used the imamate to insulate Yemen and revitalize its Islamic culture and society at a time when traditional societies around the world were declining under imperial rule. While Yemen under the two imams seemed almost frozen in time, a small but increasing number of Yemenis became aware of the contrast between an autocratic society they saw as stagnant and the political and economic modernization occurring in other parts of the world. This produced an important chain of events: the birth of the nationalist Free Yemeni Movement in the mid-1940s, an aborted 1948 revolution in which Imam Yahya was killed, a failed 1955 coup against Imam Ahmad, and finally, the 1962 revolution in which the recently enthroned imam Muhammad al-Badr was deposed by a group of nationalist officers and the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) was proclaimed under the leadership of Abdullah al-Sallal.[12]

The first five years of President Al-Sallal's rule, from 1962 to 1967, comprised the first chapter in the history of North Yemen. Marked by the revolution that began it, this period witnessed a lengthy civil war between Yemeni republican forces, based in the cities and supported by Egypt, and the royalist supporters of the deposed imam, backed by Saudi Arabia and Jordan. In 1965 Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser met with King Faisal of Saudi Arabia to consider a possible settlement to the civil war. The meeting resulted in an agreement whereby both countries pledged to end their involvement and allow the people of North Yemen to choose their own government. Subsequent peace conferences were ineffectual, however, and fighting flared up again in 1966.[13]

By 1967 the war had reached a stalemate, and the republicans had split into opposing factions concerning relations with Egypt and Saudi Arabia. In late 1967 Al-Sallal’s government was overthrown and he was replaced as president by Abdul Rahman al-Iryani. Fighting continued until 1970, when Saudi Arabia halted its aid to royalists and established diplomatic ties with North Yemen. Al-Iryani effected the long-sought truce between republican and royalist forces, and presided over the adoption of a democratic constitution in 1970. Imam Muhammad al-Badr, greatly disappointed by the Saudi recognition of the republic, emigrated to London where he died in 1996.[14]

In June 1974 military officers led by Colonel Ibrahim al-Hamdi staged a bloodless coup, claiming that the government of Al-Iryani had become ineffective. The constitution was suspended, and executive power was vested in a command council, dominated by the military. Al-Hamdi chaired the council and attempted to strengthen and restructure politics in North Yemen. Al-Hamdi was assassinated in 1977, and his successor, former Chief of Staff Ahmed Hussein al-Ghashmi, was killed in June 1978.[15] The lengthy tenure of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ruled North Yemen from 1978 until it merged with South Yemen in 1990, proved more stable. Saleh strengthened the political system, while an influx of foreign aid and the discovery of oil in North Yemen held out the prospect of economic expansion and development.

List of imams

There is no uncontroversial list of imams of Yemen, since many imams were not universally recognized, and sometimes eclipsed by the rule of lowland dynasties or by the Turks. The following list is fairly inclusive.[16][17][18][19]

For continuation of leadership after 1962, see President of Yemen Arab Republic.


Unlike many of the Imamis (Twelver and Isma'ili branches of the Shi'a denomination), the Zaidis do not ascribe divine or superhuman attributes to their Imams.[20]

See also


  1. Jane Hathaway, A Tale of Two Factions; Myth, Memory, and identity in Ottoman Egypt and Yemem. New York 2003, pp. 79–81.
  2. Cornelis van Arendonk, Les débuts de l'imamat zaidite au Yemen. Leiden 1960
  3. D. Thomas Gochenour, "Towards a sociology of the islamization of Yemen", in B.R. Pridham (ed.), Contemporary Yemen: Politics and historical background, Beckenham 1984, pp. 8–9.
  4. Enzyklopädie des Islam, Vol. III, Leiden 1936, p. 1216
  5. H.C. Kay, Yaman: Its early medieval history. London 1892,
  6. For the chronology of these, see Peter Truhart, Regents of nations, Vol. 3, München 2003, pp. 1090–1.
  7. Encyclopaedia of Islam, Vol. VIII, Leiden 1995, pp. 455–7.
  8. Robert W. Stookey, Yemen: The politics of the Yemen Arab Republic, Boulder 1978, p. 125.
  9. For their genealogy, see Robert W. Stookey, Yemen: The politics of the Yemen Arab Republic, Boulder 1978, p. 144.
  10. Robert L. Playfair, A History of Arabia Felix or Yemen. Bombay 1859, pp. 127–34.
  11. Vincent Steven Wilhite, Guerilla war, counterinsurgency, and state formation in Ottoman Yemen, PhD Thesis, Ohio State University 2003, p. 130.
  12. Paul Dresch, A history of modern Yemen, pp. 28–95,
  15. Robert W. Stookey, Yemen: The Politics of the Yemen Arab Republic. Boulder 1978, gives a general outline of the history up to the late 1970s.
  16. Ayman Fu'ad Sayyid, Masadir ta'rikh al-Yaman fial 'asr al-islami. al Qahira 1974, pp. 404–16
  17. R.B. Serjeant & Ronald Lewcock (eds.), San'a': An Arabic Islamic City. London 1983, pp. 72–95
  18. الأئمة الزيديون في اليمن (in Arabic)
  19. الأئمة الزيدية من 898 م إلى 1962م (in Arabic)
  20. Francis Robinson, Atlas of the Islamic World Since 1500, pg. 47. New York: Facts on File, 1984. ISBN 0871966298

Further reading

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