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Yemen

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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

    Yemen

    Yemen is a country on the southwestern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, where the Red Sea meets the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. Sharing borders with Saudi Arabia and Oman, it occupies a key position on the route between the Mediterranean Sea and Asia. For thousands of years, local tribes have fought among themselves and with vast empires for control over Yemen. Struggles continue between the Sunni Muslims and the locally dominant division of Shi'i Islam called Zaydi. One of Yemen's islands, Socotra, contains sweet-smelling trees that led to its reputation in ancient times as “island abode of bliss.”

    History and Government

    Yemen has a long history of internal conflict and invasions by outside forces. Various Muslim dynasties occupied the region, and the Ottoman Empire and Great Britain struggled for control of Yemen's ports. Since the independence of North Yemen in 1918 , Yemenis have experienced revolutions, a civil war, and the reunification of their country.

    Power Struggle.

    As early as 1200 B.C.E. , Yemeni kingdoms ran a highly profitable spice trade between India and Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea. A series of local kings ruled Yemen before the Abyssinians, a Christian group from Ethiopia, conquered the region in 525 C.E. Fifty years later, the Persians overthrew the Ethiopians, dominating Yemen until the rise of Islam in the early 600s. Islam spread quickly among the Yemenis. By 628 Arab-Muslim armies had gained control over Yemen, which was ruled by Sunni Muslim caliphs for the next 250 years.

    The caliphs' rule did not go unchallenged. Tribes in western Yemen (San'a) rebelled against the caliph in 632 . In eastern Yemen (called Aden after its main port), local warlords still held some power in the countryside. In the late 800s, the Zaydis established a dynasty in San'a that played a leading role in government for the next thousand years. A Shi'i group from Iraq, the Zaydis accept Muhammad's great-grandson Zayd ibn Ali as the fifth imam and successor to the Prophet. Yemen experienced its golden age from the mid-1200s to the mid-1400s. Led by the local Rasulid dynasty, Yemen saw great achievements in science, literature, and architecture.

    In the early 1500s, Yemen fell to the expanding power of the Ottoman Empire. However, the Ottomans had no more success than the earlier caliphs in ruling Yemen, and by 1635 the Zaydis had driven them from the country. But Zaydi leaders were unable to hold Aden, which came under the control of local tribes. In 1839 the British seized hold of the port of Aden and the surrounding countryside, and shortly afterwards, the Ottomans reoccupied San'a.

    Independence and Reunification.

    The defeat of the Ottomans in World War I ( 1914 – 1918 ) led to the breakup of their empire. San'a gained independence as North Yemen—one of the only Ottoman territories granted autonomy immediately after the war. Zaydi imams ruled North Yemen until 1962 , when they were overthrown in a coup by members of the military. Soon after, the country fell into a civil war between supporters of the new government and those who wanted the Zaydis returned to power. Egypt and the former Soviet Union aided the new government, and Saudi Arabia and Jordan backed the Zaydis. The war flared on and off until Saudi Arabia and Egypt pulled back after the Arab defeat in the 1967 war with Israel. The two sides signed a truce in 1970 , establishing a democratic constitution. However, the military staged a coup four years later and suspended the constitution. Ali Abdullah Saleh , who became president in 1978 , gained the trust of the North Yemenis with improvements in the economy and government.

    Aden, meanwhile, remained under British control as the Aden Protectorate. The British finally withdrew their forces in 1967 under pressure from local nationalist groups. The South Yemenis formed the People's Republic of South Yemen later that year. However, a coup in 1969 brought a Marxist government to power and the country formed an alliance with the Soviet Union. Under the new regime, hundreds of thousands of South Yemenis fled to the north. This led to increased tensions between the two states. During the 1970s, North and South Yemen fought two border wars. They established more peaceful relations in the 1980s, however, after cooperating on key political matters.

    A brief civil war in South Yemen forced the president to flee the country in 1986 . Three years later, North and South Yemen agreed to merge into a single country to consolidate their oil resources and to avoid further conflict. The Republic of Yemen emerged in 1990 , and a constitution was drafted. However, the new country suffered from economic problems and poor relations with its powerful neighbor, Saudi Arabia. Civil war broke out in 1994 , a year after Yemen's first multiparty elections. The elected president Saleh quickly crushed the conflict, and new elections were held. Saleh won again, and in 1999 , he was reelected for a second five-year term.

    Culture and Religion

    Zaydi Islam has played a central role in Yemeni culture and politics since the late 800s. It rapidly became the most popular faith in the highlands of San'a, where tribes accepted its laws on morals, justice, family matters, and taxation. However, the tribes continued to use their own laws to settle criminal affairs. Zaydi ideas gained followers in some parts of Aden, although most southern Yemenis never accepted Zaydi rule. Over half of all Yemenis are Zaydi, with the other half consisting of Jews, Ismailis, and Sunni Muslims.

    This nearly equal division between Zaydis and other groups has led to many conflicts. Zaydi beliefs anger many Yemenis. For example, the Zaydis argue that only members of their group can serve as legitimate Islamic rulers. Even among this group, only a tiny fraction meets the 14 requirements that allow a Zaydi to become imam. Moreover, during their rule, many Zaydi leaders sought to suppress other forms of Islam. The Zaydis' domination of political power and their intolerance toward other religious groups contributed significantly to the overthrow of the last imam in 1962 .

    The Zaydis' battles were not limited to rival groups within Yemen, but extended to the larger Sunni Islamic world. The Zaydis refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the caliphate and clashed with Muslim rulers from a succession of dynasties. The Ottomans met fierce resistance when they tried to establish Sunni civil and criminal law in the highlands. One imam who made a deal allowing the Ottomans to control San'a in the mid-1800s was overthrown by his own people and killed by his successor. Despite their hatred of the Ottomans, however, Zaydi imams refused to aid the British in toppling the empire.

    After the independence of North Yemen in the early 1900s, Imam Yahya worked to limit the power of Yemeni Muslim groups, including some influential Zaydi families. He also imposed shari'ah over the country. This move offended tribal leaders who had always used their own laws to settle disputes. These policies led to Imam Yahya's assassination in 1948 . His son Ahmad took over the imamate, and Ahmad's son, Muhammad al-Badr , replaced him when he died in 1962 . Al-Badr reigned for a week before rebel factions deposed him. The last of the Zaydi imams, he agreed to go into exile in 1962 . Yemen became a republic, with some prominent Zaydis integrated into the government.

    Since 1962 Zaydi Muslims have faced a dilemma. In theory, the Zaydi community must have an imam to be considered legitimate. However, Muhammad al-Badr now lives in a London suburb and has not had any authority for more than 40 years. Nevertheless, many Zaydis are not ready to declare their community dead. Some support the creation of a constitutional imamate. However, even if some form of imamate returns to Yemen, it will likely bear little resemblance to the traditional office. See also Communism and Islam; Imam; Shi'i Islam; Zaydi.

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