Research Focus

Belief Communities in Mediaeval South Arabia

This part of the project focuses on the dynamics between religious communities in the areas of today’s north-western Yemen between 900-1200 AD. These mountainous areas were rarely ruled by a unified central state and several Islamic groups and sects were active simultaneously. Some of these groups provided the ideology for short-lived religious “states” while others remained loosely organized networks of religious scholarship. All this took place in a context of local sedentary tribes, powerful lords and an increasing numbers of “Ashrāf” individuals and clans immigrating to Yemen from the Hijaz and from the area of modern Iran and Iraq. The Ashrāf were claiming genealogical connections to the Prophet and sought to establish themselves as a unified overarching regional group, living under protection of local tribes, but there were several competing clans among them and their religious hegemony was much weaker in this early period of Zaydism in Yemen than in later periods. This project part especially focuses on the relationship between two simultaneous strands of the Zaydiyya in South Arabia: The “mainstream” Zaydis called al-Mukhtariʿa by the second one, the Muṭarrifiyya.

Imam al-Hādī ilā al-Ḥaqq introduced the teaching of the Zaydiyya to Yemen in 897. However, the Zaydiyya almost disappeared when the state-like rule that al-Hādī and his two sons had set up collapsed after around three decades. What remained of the Zaydiyya were some descendants of al-Hādī in the areas of Saʿda and some of the religious scholars and local judges who spread Zaydi law and theology in the lands of Ḥāshid and Bakīl. In the following 300 years there was an increasing competitive situation between some of the Ashrāf families and a loosely organized network of non-Ashrāf scholars from tribal and low-status background, which later was called the Muṭarrifiyya, after its founder Muṭarrif b. Shihāb. The disagreement concerned the authority and the role of the religious leader, the so-called imam, including issues of taxation and combined with that, political loyalty. In many cases this disagreement took the shape of a discursive battle using theological concepts and arguments. Accusations of heresy were made and both sides claimed to be the true Zaydiyya, calling the other part al-Mukhtariʿa and al-Muṭarrifiyya respectively. Both sides allied themselves with local lords and tribes for protection and support. It was only between 1206-1214 that the powerful Imam al-Manṣūr ʿAbd Allāh b. Ḥamza managed to control the mountains west of Sanaa (al-Masāniʿ and Haḍūr) where he had the Muṭarrifiyya’s enclaves of learning (hijras) destroyed, thereby ending their influence.

Although the religious discourse between these two sides has been studied in recent years, more research is needed about the political role of the Muṭarrifiyya in opposing the authority of individual imams and the Ashrāf families who backed these imams. It is not only the conflict between the scholars Mukhtariʿa and the Muṭarrifiyya that we want to analyse, but also the interplay between other religious groups, tribal alliances, leading families and persons.

  • This project uses edited sources such as biographies (siyar) of imams and later chronicles (tārīkh) and also a biographic collection (tabaqāt work) in manuscript form written by Musallam al-Laḥjī, which presents us with various members of the Muṭarrifiyya from the founding fathers until the generation of al-Laḥjī. These primary sources are a mix of genres ranging from historiography via hagiography to legal and theological contents.
  • Among comparative contributions of this focus to the VISCOM project are the relationship between elites, be they religious and/or political, and furthermore the formation of religious scholarly networks, alliances and enclaves of learning. How these groups constructed competing visions of community is a central question for this focus.   

Researcher: Johann Heiss, Eirik Hovden

Last Update: 19.04.16