Citation for Zaydīyah

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Hamblin, William J. , Daniel C. Peterson and Daniel C. Peterson. "Zaydīyah." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online. May 19, 2022. <>.


Hamblin, William J. , Daniel C. Peterson and Daniel C. Peterson. "Zaydīyah." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, (accessed May 19, 2022).


The Zaydīyah are a branch of Shīʿī Islam, often described as a “moderate” one, that diverged from other Shīʿī denominations because of a dispute over the succession to the imamate following the death of the fourth imam, ʿAlī Zayn al-ʿĀbidīn, in 713. Rejecting the claims of Muḥammad al-Bāqir, the Zaydīs instead chose Zayd ibn ʿAlī (d. 740), a grandson of the martyr Ḥusayn and a brother to al-Bāqir, as the fifth imam (hence the common name for the Zaydīs, “Fivers”). In Zaydī doctrine still today, believers, and particularly imams, are duty-bound to fight corrupt and oppressive rulers; thus, Muḥammad al-Bāqir's political passivity in the face of perceived Umayyad oppression cost him their support. By contrast, Zayd was the first of the descendants of Ḥusayn to rebel openly against the Umayyads, and this activist stance culminated in his violent death at Kufa in 740.


Although the details of their early history are obscure, Zaydīs were active in ʿAlīd uprisings following the death of Zayd. As many as eight different Zaydī sects or movements are noted in early Islamic heresiographies. Some Zaydī scholars played important roles in the development of Islamic thought in the first two centuries A.H. Independent Zaydī political power was first established when al-Ḥasan ibn Zayd (d. 844) founded a state in northern Iran. This imamate existed between 864 and 1126 among the Daylamīs and other groups of Tabaristan and the southern Caspian region. The most important intellectual figure of this dynasty was the imam al-Nāṣir al-Uṭrūsh (d. 917). The Shīʿī Būyid dynasty that ruled Baghdad from 945 to 1055 hailed from the same general area, and may also have been Zaydī in its orientation.

A more long-lasting state was established by al-Hādī ilā al-Ḥaqq al-Mubīn Yaḥyā ibn al-Ḥusayn (d. 911), grandson of a Hejazi Zaydī activist named Al-Qāsim al-Rassī. Al-Hādī was successful in uniting the feuding tribes of northern Yemen, converting them to Zaydī Islam, and establishing a Zaydī imamate around 893. He is noted in Zaydī tradition for his military prowess and his statesmanship, and as a leading jurist of the Zaydī school. Thereafter, various imams of this Zaydī dynasty (which ruled parts of the country from 893 until 1962) have remained a prominent force in Yemen, with their military power based on the allegiance of the warlike northern mountain tribespeople. Throughout these centuries, the power of the Zaydī imams was by no means absolute. They faced various internal feuds and revolts, as well as external invasions and competition from Fāṭimids (Ṣulayḥids), Ayyūbids, Rasūlids, and Ottomans. In the sixteenth century, and again in the nineteenth century, the Ottoman Empire controlled the cities of Yemen. But, even under the Ottomans, the Zaydī imams retained control of the tribal areas of northern and northwestern Yemen and, when opportunities presented themselves, they were occasionally able to extend their theocratic rule from their mountain strongholds into other portions of the region.


Although they have their own school of law based on the legal interpretations of Zayd and his successors, the Yemeni Zaydīs are otherwise the closest of all Shīʿī factions to the Sunnīs (and most particularly to the Ḥanafī school of Sunnī jurisprudence); this has often been interpreted by Western scholars to mean that they are “moderate” or practical. The Zaydīs differ from other Shīʿī denominations in that they accept the legitimacy of the caliphates of Abū Bakr, ʿUmar, and, at least partially, ʿUthmān. Moreover, in contrast to certain other Shīʿī groups, the Zaydīs do not view the imam as infallible, nor as a quasi-divine, inspired, or supernaturally endowed person representing God on earth, and, again unlike other factions, they do not require that he be divinely designated in any way. In Zaydī belief, the qualifications for the imamate include: descent from ʿAlī and Fāṭimah (though they do not require that it pass from father to son), absence of physical imperfections, and personal piety. The imam must be able to take up the sword, either offensively or in defense, which rules out infants as well as “hidden imams” of the type acknowledged by the Ismāʿīlīyah and the Twelvers.

Any person who meets the basic requirements can hold the imamate. There is, accordingly, no specially privileged line of descent beyond that of ʿAlī and Fāṭimah (and their sons Ḥasan and Ḥusayn), and there can theoretically be several imams at the same time, or none. The ultimate validity of an individual's claim to the imamate is demonstrated by his successful attainment of power and by his capacity to rule. The imam must be living and present, which leaves no room for any doctrine of “occultation” such as occurs in other Shīʿī groups. However, in addition to ʿAlīd descent and the sheer ability to take and hold power, Islamic learning is required to confirm a claimant's right to the imamate. Such learning is acquired in the normal human fashion; the imam has no miraculous powers and no supernaturally conveyed knowledge. Zaydī imams have been prolific authors of works on jurisprudence and other important Islamic issues.

The movement's theology was influenced considerably by the approach and doctrines of the Muʿtazilah. Theologically, they still resemble the Muʿtazilah, but differences emerged early between Muʿtazilī and Zaydī doctrine on certain points. Historically, Zaydīs have tended to favor relatively puritanical moral teachings and to disapprove of Sufism. They reject Twelver Shīʿī practices of taqīyah (prudential concealment) and temporary marriage.

Twentieth-Century Developments.

The Turkish occupation of various portions of Yemen from 1848 to 1918 provoked violent reaction among the Zaydīs. Rallying around their imam, Yaḥyā al-Mutawakkil (r. 1904–1948), the Zaydīs managed to retain control of much of northern Yemen. Turkish forces withdrew from the country in 1918, at the close of the First World War, leaving the imamate in a position of relative power but still not altogether unchallenged, and Zaydī imams ruled most of Yemen until the revolution of 1962. When Imam Aḥmad died in September of that year, his son al-Badr succeeded him. However, Imam al-Badr was the last Zaydī imam to wield political authority in the country. He was deposed shortly after taking power, and the Yemen Arab Republic was founded. Gamal Abdel Nasser's Egypt, then known as the United Arab Republic, sent troops to assist the forces of the new northern Yemeni republic in their struggle against continued resistance from those still loyal to the imamate, while the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan supported the “royalists” against the new regime and its Egyptian allies. Periodic conflict continued until Egyptian troops withdrew in 1967, and, despite the fact that armed conflict between supporters of Imam al-Badr and the Republicans did not wholly cease until 1972, a reconciliation of the factions had been substantially effected by 1968.

Although the revolution of 1962 resulted in the triumph of the Republic, the collapse of the imamate, and the partial suppression of the sayyids (Zaydīs claiming descent from ʿAlī and Fāṭimah), Zaydīs continue as an important social and religious force in contemporary Yemeni life. Various estimates put them at between 32 percent and 45 percent of the population of today's united Republic of Yemen. (Roughly a million live within the boundaries of Saudi Arabia, as well.)

In the early years of the twenty-first century, some of the old hostilities appear to have again taken violent form. The government of Yemen has been engaged in intermittent combat in the country's northwest with a Zaydī group calling itself the Shabāb al-Muʿmīn (Faithful Youth), which Yemen's president accuses of seeking to overthrow the republic. Several hundred soldiers and perhaps a few thousand civilians have lost their lives in the fighting.

See also SHīʿī ISLAM, subentry on HISTORICAL OVERVIEW; and YEMEN.


  • ʿAmrī, Ḥusayn ʿAbd Allāh al-. The Yemen in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries: A Political and Intellectual History. London, 1985. Basic survey of early modern Yemen, with discussions of the Zaydī role.
  • Arendonk, Cornelis van. Les débuts de l’imāmat zaidite au Yemen. Translated by Jacques Ryckmans. Leiden, Netherlands, 1960. Study of the origins of the Yemeni Zaydīyah.
  • Bayhom-Daou, Tamima. “Hishām b. al-Ḥakam (d. 179/795) and His Doctrine of the Imam's Knowledge.”Journal of Semitic Studies48, no. 1 (Spring 2003): 71–108. A glimpse of early thinking about the imamate in the circles out of which the Zaydīyah emerged.
  • Dresch, Paul. Tribes, Government, and History in Yemen. Oxford, 1989. Outstanding overview of Yemeni history, with numerous details on the Zaydīyah and a complete bibliography.
  • Halm, Heinz. Shiism. Translated by Janet Watson. Edinburgh, 1991. A good overall treatment.
  • Haykel, Bernard. Revival and Reform in Islam: The Legacy of Muhammad al-Shawkānī. Cambridge, U.K., 2003. A thorough study of a significant eighteenth-century Zaydī intellectual and his impact on the development of Zaydī thought and politics.
  • Madelung, Wilferd. Der Imām al-Qāsim ibn Ibrāhīm und die Glaubenslehre der Zaiditen. Berlin, 1965. Detailed account of Zaydī theology.
  • Momen, Moojan. An Introduction to Shīʿī Islam: The History and Doctrines of Twelver Shiism. New Haven and London, 1985. A good overall survey.
  • Serjeant, R. B.  “The Zaydis.” In Religion in the Middle East, edited by A. J. Arberry, vol. 2, pp. 285–301. Cambridge, 1969. The best short survey available.
  • Wenner, Manfred W.Modern Yemen, 1918–1966. Baltimore, 1967. Basic study of the rise and fall of Yemeni Zaydī imamate in the twentieth century.
  • Wenner, Manfred W.The Yemen Arab Republic: Develop-ment and Change in an Ancient Land. Boulder, Colo., 1991. Continuation of the former study through the reunification.

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