Table of Contents


In 2014, Yemen’s worsening socioeconomic, political, sectarian, and center-periphery tensions erupted into civil war. As the war expanded, religious education became an important tool for mobilization, socialization, and indoctrination among the warring Yemeni factions and their foreign backers.

A Zaydi movement supported by Iran, called Ansar Allah but better known as the Houthi movement, seized Sanaa in 2014. The next year, a Saudi-and-Emirati-dominated military coalition intervened against them, seeking out religious partners on the ground in Yemen such as Salafist groups and, for Saudi Arabia, the Muslim Brotherhood. These sectarian dynamics have increased the importance of religious allegiances into key drivers of the Yemeni conflict.

Notably, instrumentalization of religion in Yemen far predates this war, stretching back at least as far as the country’s Cold War–era division into north and south. In the late 1960s, the north fell broadly into the capitalist camp while the south’s government was communist. North Yemen’s struggle against communism saw the creation of a string of religious institutes and the politicization of religion, which peaked after the country’s 1990 unification. Then came the country’s 1994 civil war between the Socialist Party in the south and the Sanaa government in the north. Sanaa’s government used religious propaganda against the Socialist Party, issuing ifta (singular, fatwa, or a legal opinion on a point of Islamic law), declaring that supporters of the socialist government in the south were no longer Muslims.1

Maysaa Shuja Al-Deen
Maysaa Shuja Al-Deen is a resident fellow at Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies.

But today, the growing use of religion in a political battle coincides with a broader sectarian escalation in the region. In this context, religious schools and institutes are playing an important role in political and military mobilization in Yemen, where sectarianism is a powerful driver of military recruitment.

Overlapping Sectarian and Regional Identities

When it comes to the sectarian division in Yemen, it is important to understand that the division is predominately along regional-tribal lines. Yemenis largely fall into two sectarian groups: Shafi’i Sunnis, who make up roughly two-thirds of the population, and Zaydi Shias, who make up the rest. This division predated the arrival of Islam itself in Yemen.

The sectarian division in Yemen is predominately along regional-tribal lines.

Zaydi Shias live, by and large, in what is known as upper Yemen: the region between Jabal Samara, which is around 165 kilometers (100 miles) south of Sanaa, and the Saudi border. This area includes the territories of the Hamdan tribe, which in turn is divided into the Hashed and Bakil groups. Sunnis of the Shafi’i school dominate the rest of Yemen, including the coastal areas and most of the center, east, and south of the country. Residents of these areas include members of a larger tribe, the Madhag, which has numerous branches—most notably the Murad in Ma’rib Governorate and the Awaliq in Shabwa Governorate. There is also the Kinda tribe in Hadhramaut Governorate, but tribalism is less prevalent in coastal and central areas, which are less isolated and have more fertile land.2 These factors helped to stabilize the societies in the central, western, and some of the southern parts of the country, so they became less tribal and submitted more to the state. In contrast, the tribal structure remains relatively strong and dominating in the country’s east, in areas north of Sanaa, and in parts of the south.

Tribal and regional identities clearly overlap and have been at the core of struggles for political power in Yemen for decades. More recently, sectarian factors have become more pertinent, and religious education has played a growing role in political conflicts. This results both from interventions by foreign states in the region and from local actors’ growing and open use of religion as a mobilizing force. All this has given rise to new, unprecedented forms of religious education for military and political purposes.

Yemen’s Conflicts and Defining Identities

Development of Zaydism

It is important, therefore, to understand the history of regional conflicts in Yemen, which have had elements of sectarianism since the rise of Zaydism. Zaydism is an offshoot of Shia Islam. It was established by Imam al-Hadi Yahya bin al-Hussein in Yemen in 896 CE. Al-Hadi settled in Saada in Yemen’s northwest and established the first Zaydi state, a short-lived entity ending with his death in 911 CE. Despite its Shia roots, Zaydism does not differ markedly in doctrine from Sunni Islam. Some scholars view it as the fifth school of Sunni jurisprudence, and it is often seen as a crossover between Sunnism and Shiism.

Zaydism developed and survived in isolation, surrounded by Sunni-majority areas, without evolving its own doctrinal personality independent of Sunni schools.

Zaydism developed and survived in isolation, surrounded by Sunni-majority areas, without evolving its own doctrinal personality independent of Sunni schools. Fundamentally, the most distinctive feature of Zaydi thought is its view of government. Similar to other sects of Shiism, Zaydis see the political ruler as an imam, a religious term meaning the leader of prayer, and add the condition that this imam must be Ahl al-Bayt or Hashemite (terms designating lineage from the family of the Prophet Muhammad). Different, however, is that Zaydism sees battle as a legitimate route to power and is the only school of Islamic thought that rules in favor of waging war against an unjust ruler.

This Zaydi militancy has meshed with the tribal nature of northern Yemen, especially given the paucity of the region’s natural resources compared with other areas of Yemen. For example, the tribal regions of northern Yemen receive less than 250 millimeters (10 inches) of rain per year, while central and western Yemen receive between 600–800 millimeters (24–32 inches).3

Zaydism spread to several other regions, and its followers established a number of states throughout the Middle Ages. But it has only survived into the modern era in northern Yemen, where a succession of Zaydi imams proclaimed their rule over Saada and parts of the surrounding area, in a form of government known as an imamate. By the seventeenth century, they had managed to establish a state that controlled Sanaa and dominated the rest of Yemen for almost a century, until the south seceded.4 The imamate state remained in control of what became known as North Yemen until it was overthrown and the Republic of Yemen was founded in 1962.

The Yemeni revolution of September 26, 1962, started as a military coup. Staged by a group of officers from the Zaydi-dominated Yemeni army, it aimed to sweep away the imamate and establish a republic. Egypt backed the republican rebels against the imamate, which in turn was backed by Saudi Arabia, in a civil war that lasted for over seven years.

This conflict, between republicans and the imamate, was largely confined to Zaydi-majority areas between Sanaa and Saada. Both the elite and the masses in other parts of the country, dominated by Shafa’i Sunnis, enthusiastically joined the revolution.

Republican Yemen

Although the 1962 republican revolution in the north put an end to the Zaydi imamate, all five republican presidents who ruled were Zaydis. Accordingly, Zaydi hegemony in the military and security forces has remained even after the fall of the imamate. However, during the early years of the republic, Salafists began their activities in northern Yemen, backed by Zaydi—rather than Sunni—presidents. Two factors help explain this: firstly, the Zaydi principle of the imamate that required Hashemite origins for ruling imams threatened the legitimacy of the republican presidents, who were not Hashemites. Secondly, Saudi Arabia had immense influence over northern Yemen, which formed something of a buffer state between the kingdom and the communist People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen in the south. Even after Yemen’s unity in 1990, Zaydis maintained power, excluding the Socialist Party after its 1994 defeat and cementing Zaydism as a regional, rather than a sectarian, identity.

Accordingly, Zaydi hegemony in the military and security forces has remained even after the fall of the imamate.

The Zaydi dominance of northern Yemen continued until a 2011 uprising that overthrew president Ali Abdullah Saleh in February 2012. Saleh was followed by President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, who was the first non-Zaydi to rule Yemen from Sanaa. Though he still formally holds his title, Hadi’s rule did not last, as a Houthi-Saleh coalition toppled him in January 2015, and he fled from Sanaa in February 2015.

In spite of Saleh’s reliance on his tribe during his long presidency (1978–2012), his rule witnessed massive social changes, most prominently the weakening of the tribal system. This was for many reasons. First, Saleh attempted to monopolize power, so he tried to control and weaken all the political and social entities that could compete for his authority. Therefore, he used the money and authority of the state to weaken traditional tribal elders and foster others who were loyal to him. Second, the modernization and development of Yemen only extended to the main cities, where tribal elders lived in comfort, disconnected from fellow tribesmen who remained in remote areas lacking basic services such as electricity and water. This divide weakened the tribal system, under which tribes had pragmatically eschewed ideological approaches to conflicts. Over time this proved to boost religious groups.

Traditional Schools of Islamic Thought

Historically—apart from small Ismaili, Baha’i, and Jewish communities—Yemenis have followed three main schools of Islamic thought: Shafi’ism, which is associated with Sufism; Zaydism, which is generally associated with Shiism; and Al-Shawkani, which is primarily Sunni but with Zaydi roots. Each one has used traditional ways of teaching centered on study circles, where a teacher would deliver a lesson and discuss the school’s founding texts, such as the Shafi’i Kitab al-Um or the Zaydi Kitab al-Azhar.

The Shafi’i school, one of the world’s major Sunni doctrines, was the most widespread in Yemen. Zaydism ranked second, but it only survives in northern Yemen. Only a small Zaydi community lives outside the country.

The Al-Shawkani school is a strand of Sunnism with Zaydi roots, marked by an open attitude toward other schools of jurisprudence. As early as the fifteenth century, a trend emerged of Zaydis adopting Sunnism, a tendency that peaked with the rise of al-Imam al-Shawkani (who lived from 1759 to 1834). From then onward, his followers supported successive leaders. Unlike traditional Zaydism, al-Shawkani’s teachings did not encourage permanent struggle by pretext of calling for rebellion against unjust imams.

Since the 1970s, these traditional schools have almost disappeared, as Al-Shawkani schools did, or have been marginalized, like Sufi, Shafi’i, or Zaydi schools have been. Instead, Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist schools have flourished.

Since the 1970s, these traditional schools have almost disappeared, as Al-Shawkani schools did, or have been marginalized, like Sufi, Shafi’i, or Zaydi schools have been. Instead, Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist schools have flourished. Since 2000, a new Zaydi teaching connecting to the political doctrine of the Houthis has also emerged.

The following sections will examine each of these schools of thought and the changes and transformations they have undergone.

Sunni Schools

The Shafi’i school of jurisprudence in Yemen, which is Sunni, has also been associated with Sufism since the thirteenth century. More recently, this linkage has developed to the point where it is nearly impossible to find a Shafi’i school in Yemen not linked with Sufism. The main Shafi’i teaching centers are in Zabid on the northwestern coast, Al-Baydha in central Yemen, and Tarim in the Hadhramaut valley in the south.5

The Al-Shawkani school has retained its special status in Yemen, where it enjoyed extensive political clout thanks to official support. This continued even after the fall of the imamate and the founding of the republic. North Yemen’s second president, Abdul Rahman Yahya al-Eryani (who ruled between 1967–1974), was educated at an Al-Shawkani school, as were the republic’s first two muftis, Mohammad Zabrah and Mohammad al-Amrani.6

The influence of the Al-Shawkani school had started to decline by the mid-1970s as the Yemeni government began to support the Salafist school. Thus, the role of the traditional schools declined, with the exception of a few individual Sufi and Zaydi schools, while Salafism has dominated in Yemen ever since. This was due to the instrumentalization of religion in the conflict sparked by the birth of the republican regime in the north and the Marxist regime in the south in the 1960s.

Scholastic Institutes

The first modern religious schools in Yemen were the ma’ahid ‘ilmiya (scholastic institutes) created by the state in the north in 1974. It is important to note the political context of this decision, which followed the end of the civil war in 1969. Yemen was divided into two states: the Yemen Arab Republic in the north, created in 1962, and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen in the south, established after the end of British rule in 1967, which adopted a Marxist social, political, and economic system in 1969.

The rise of the first communist regime in the Arabian Peninsula meant North Yemen became a buffer against the spread of communism elsewhere in the region. This made the northern republic important to other Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia, which quickly formed close ties with northern leadership.

The danger of communism threatened the northern republic, which faced a leftist armed group known as the National Liberation Front. Backed by South Yemen, the National Liberation Front staged an uprising in the country’s central regions in the early 1970s. This resulted in successive North Yemeni presidents backing various religious groups, seeing them as the most effective ideological weapon against communism. Saudi Arabia supported this official policy and started to fund the different religious groups. The state in 1982 finally crushed the armed leftist group, with the help of the Muslim Brotherhood–affiliated militia known as the Islamic Front.7

Amid this political tumult, the first of these scholastic institutes for religious education was established in the Zaydi-dominated Khawlan region north of Sanaa in 1972, although the state did not officially recognize such institutes until two years later. Then, the number of institutes grew rapidly, with 500 such schools in operation by 1982. Two decades later, Yemen had 1,200 theological institutes with some 600,000 students.8 Despite their popularity, they were shut down in 2001 after the government decided to centralize the public education sector following the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole in Aden’s harbor and the beginning of the so-called U.S. war on terror.9

The ma’ahid ‘ilmiya formed a parallel education system that was dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and became one of the group’s key recruitment tools.

The ma’ahid ‘ilmiya formed a parallel education system that was dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and became one of the group’s key recruitment tools. They covered all stages of primary and secondary education, with additional courses on the Arabic language, Islamic studies, and the Islamic history of Yemen. They did not teach the philosophy curriculum at secondary level but did cover all schools of Sunni thought, including Zaydism, focusing on the Shafi’i doctrine.10

These schools were administratively and financially independent from the Education Ministry, although they received huge amounts of funding from a range of sources, including the North Yemen state, the Saudi government, and private donors. A former Yemeni official said that “the Yemeni state was at one point spending six times more per student” at these institutes than at public schools.11 The ma’ahid ‘ilmiya hosted some 13 percent of the total public school student population.12

Opponents of the schools were multiple, including leftists, liberals, and Zaydi scholars and figures. Such groups saw these institutes as dens of recruitment for the Muslim Brotherhood and as part of a Saudi effort to spread Salafism and extremism in Yemen. But their supporters saw them as an ideal way to overcome sectarian differences and unify Yemenis under a common religious framework.

Yet the claim that the schools were conduits for recruitment into the Muslim Brotherhood was not far from the truth. At morning assemblies, the national anthem and cheers for the republic were replaced with songs of the Brotherhood, such as the song “Wal-haq Yahshudu Ajnadahu” (“the rightful path mobilizes its soldiers”13) by the movement’s leader Sayyid Qutb, and the cheering of Brotherhood slogans, such as “Allah is our purpose, the Prophet is our example, the Quran is our constitution, [and] death in the service of Allah is our desire.”

The schools, along with summer camps for male students, placed great emphasis on concepts of dawa (Islamic proselytization) and jihad. For example, they included lectures on the stages of the Prophet Muhammad’s life and revelation. There were also lessons on the history of jihad and prominent Islamic fighters, as well as a focus on Sunni concepts such as loyalty to al-jama’a (the Islamic community) and obedience to the ruler.14

These theological institutes accepted Muslim Brotherhood–exiled individuals from Egypt, Sudan, and elsewhere as students, teachers, and administrators. There is little doubt that the schools had links with the Muslim Brotherhood and were transformed into recruitment centers for the movement, something confirmed by a former student.15

The curricula invariably followed hardline teachings close to those of Salafism.

The curricula invariably followed hardline teachings close to those of Salafism. For example, these schools banned music and imposed complete segregation between the sexes, from students to teachers to administrative staff. If there was a shortage of female teachers for the girls’ schools, as was frequently the case in the countryside, this gap would be filled by older men.16

The schools were highly popular during the 1980s and 1990s, especially in rural areas, due to the long, difficult journeys involved in reaching public schools in rural areas or villages. The ma’ahid ‘ilmiya even provided food and boarding facilities to male students from remote areas. They also had a good reputation for the moral discipline and behavior of their students, as well as their heavy emphasis on physical activities for boys, including activities as tough as mountain climbing, as well as theater and singing of anashid (religious anthems).17 Girls’ activities included handicrafts, cooking, anashid singing, and dawa, but no sports.18 All of these facilities, reputations, and activities encouraged more students to enroll in these schools.

It is worth mentioning that graduates of these religious schools were not accepted into public and private universities. However, they could enter the High Institute for Teachers and earn a primary school teaching degree. This meant the influence of the ma’ahid ‘ilmiya extended to public schools via former students who disproportionately became teachers.19

This was one of Yemen’s most significant experiments in religious education in terms of the numbers of students involved; the duration of the practice (from 1974 to 2002); and the material, organizational, and administrative resources involved, which resulted in hundreds of schools across North Yemen. Furthermore, after Yemen’s unification, the religious education experiment extended to the south. The schools not only bequeathed a generation of teachers, who continue to spread their ideas via Yemen’s public and religious schools, but also deeply influenced a whole generation with the ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Salafist Education

The first Salafist institute in Yemen was founded by Sheikh Muqbil bin Hadi al-Wadi’i after he returned to the country in 1979, having been released from prison in Saudi Arabia. He had been held on charges of taking part in Juhayman al-Otaybi’s seizure of Mecca’s Grand Mosque earlier that year. Al-Wadi’i, widely recognized as the founder of Salafism in Yemen, was a Zaydi religious teacher from the Wada’a tribe in Saada. He had settled in Saudi Arabia in the 1950s, where he became Salafist after coming to oppose the fact that Zaydi doctrine distinguishes between the descendants of Banu Hashim (the clan of the Prophet Muhammad) and other tribesmen.20

Upon his return, al-Wadi’i set up an institute called Dar al-Hadith, in the village of Damaj, in the lands of his tribe in Saada Province, the heartland of Zaydism. Due to the anger of traditional Zaydi authorities, he sought and obtained tribal guarantees of protection.21

The institute’s name was significant. Salafist thought leans heavily on the hadith, the sayings of the Prophet, as well as al-jarh wal ta’dil (assessments of the reliability of those who memorized and passed along those sayings). Salafists apply similar assessments to people alive today, a tool they often weaponize against their opponents.

The name of the institute is also linked to two other Salafist concerns. Firstly, Salafism bases all its rulings from previous religious writings or rulings by al-salaf al-saleh (the early Muslim community). The hadith thus broaden the scope of the texts considered sacred. Beyond this, any deductions or judgments by personal reasoning are prohibited, as the human mind is prey to passions. Salafists reject all forms of Islamic jurisprudence such as qiyas (analogies), ijtihad (independent reasoning in jurisprudence), and anything not based on a literal reading of these fundamental religious texts. The second Salafist concern is with purifying Islam and distinguishing between so-called real Muslims and non-Muslims. Thus, Salafists are inclined to rupture relationships and denounce those who cross redlines. Due to this rejection of difference, the sect quickly gives rise to disputes and rivalries, even among its own members.

Thus Dar al-Hadith, the institute created by al-Wadi’i, became one of the most important religious centers in Yemen.

Thus Dar al-Hadith, the institute created by al-Wadi’i, became one of the most important religious centers in Yemen, attracting students not only from across Yemen but also from Africa, the Americas, Indonesia, Western Europe, and Arab countries, mainly Egypt and Algeria. For example, by the mid-2000s, more than one hundred French citizens were studying there.22 The center also offered accommodations and food for some students.

Most of the institute’s teachers had studied at universities in Saudi Arabia and relied heavily on Saudi textbooks such as those of Ibn Baz, Ibn ‘Uthaymin, al-Fawzan, al-Lahaydan, and Rabi’ al-Madkhali.23 The institute also received money from Saudi preachers close to Saudi Arabia’s ruling family, including al-Madkhali himself.

This particular strand of Salafism urged its adherents to abstain from politics and focus their efforts on proselytization. It adhered to what it called as-salafiya al-’ilmiya (roughly translated as academic Salafism), which frowns on political party activity and promotes the Sunni concept of ta’at wali al-amr (obedience to the ruler or leader of a community). It strongly opposed jihadists on the basis that jihad was only to be waged on the orders of the ruler. Its opponents referred to this school of Salafism as Madkhaliyya, after al-Madkhali.

The institute enjoyed good relations with the Yemeni government during Saleh’s rule between 1978 and 2012. The state did not interfere in its curricula and ignored a complaint against it by Zaydis, who Salafists see as an aberrant sect. The government instead committed to protecting the institute.24 Accordingly, al-Wadi’i’s students soon founded their own institutes on similar lines, such as Dar al-Hadith in Ma’rib (built by Abu al-Hassan al-Masri or Al-Ma’ribi); Ma’had Ma’bar in Dhamar; and Ma’had al-Afyush in Aden (run by Abdulrahman al-Adeni).

After the death of al-Wadi’i in 2001, and despite a dispute over who would take his place, Dar al-Hadith continued its work—until the Houthis laid siege to the village of Damaj in late 2011. Damaj not only hosted an Islamic studies institute but also gave birth to a multinational community with austere and extreme religious leanings. Both Yemenis and foreign citizens resided in Damaj because of the strength of its educational institution. When the Houthis laid siege to the village, they used the presence of so many foreigners as a pretext for the siege and demanded their departure. This initial siege was followed by another onslaught in late 2013, enduring into January 2014, until the roughly 15,000 residents of the village had been evacuated.25

Hence, Saada was not the only place where the presence of Salafists created frictions, as it is the stronghold of Zaydism in Yemen. After the unification of Yemen in 1990, the Salafists also became active in the town of Tarim and in Hadhramaut Governorate, the latter of which is also a stronghold of Sufism. They set up their activities in several of the towns’ mosques (including Al-Tawhid wal Sunna, run by al-Ma’ribi, a student of al-Wadi’i). This created more friction, as the Salafists believe that Sufis are misguided or even polytheists.26

Throughout the 1990s, Salafists were active throughout Yemen, distributing books and recordings. Some strands of the movement were particularly active, such as the Hikma Association in Taiz, a city in western Yemen where al-Wadi’i had refused to carry out charitable work, seeing it as a form of hizbiya (factionalism). The Hikma Association began receiving money from the Kuwaiti foundation Ihya’ al-Turath al-Islami (Revive Islamic Heritage), run by cleric Abdulkhaleq Abdullah. The Hikma Association then split in two with the 1992 founding of its southern branch in Hadhramaut Governorate, the Ihsas Association, which received funding from Qatar.27 The main impact of these associations was their charitable work at Quranic schools such as the ‘Asim and Manar centers in Sanaa. The founding of institutes and mosques such as Al-Furqan, in Taiz, and Al-Baihani, in Ibb, bolstered the spread of Salafism across the rest of Yemen.28

The early 1990s also saw the founding of Salafist universities such as Al-Eman University in Sanaa, headed by Abdulmajid al-Zindani, which teaches sharia studies and law, though graduates could not become practicing lawyers.29 Ahgaff University in Hadhramaut Governorate was founded in 1994, teaching engineering and computer science as well as sharia studies.30 As was the case with the other Salafist institutes, these universities received funding and support from Saudi associations and clerics, and some were able to offer accommodation and food.

Salafists’ relations with Saudi Arabia. Yemen’s Salafists have had strong relationships with Saudi Arabia since the beginning of their activities in Yemen near the end of the 1970s. Most have received funding from Saudi religious leaders, and the majority of their institutes rely heavily on books by Saudi scholars. But this has not always guaranteed Yemen’s good political relations with Riyadh or detached Yemeni Salafists from fluctuations in the relations between Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

Yemen’s Salafists have had strong relationships with Saudi Arabia since the beginning of their activities in Yemen . . . . But this has not always guaranteed Yemen’s good political relations with Riyadh or detached Yemeni Salafists from fluctuations in the relations between Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

For example, al-Wadi’i had tense relations with the Saudi government after it expelled him on suspicion of writing the statements issued by al-Otaybi during his seizure of Mecca’s Grand Mosque in 1979. Al-Wadi’i continued to describe the country as ardh al-haramayn wa najd (“the land of the two holy sanctuaries and Najd”), rather than Saudi Arabia, implicitly questioning the Al Saud family’s legitimacy to rule.31 Yet he continued to receive money from Saudi scholars including al-Madkhali and Abdulaziz bin Baz, both of whom were close to the ruling family, as well as the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation, which was founded in 1988 and shut down in 2004 on suspicion of funding terrorism.32

These worried ties—between the Yemeni Salafists in general and al-Wadai’i in particular, on one side, and Saudi Arabia on the other side—were also affected by the unstable relations between Yemen and Saudi Arabia. In 1990, after Yemen backed former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in the Gulf war, a million Yemenis returned home from Saudi Arabia just as the authorities had to restrict the regulation of Yemeni residency. This left great bitterness among many Yemenis, especially in border areas such as Saada, where, for a period, thousands were returning every day with their modest possessions and little money despite their many years working in Saudi Arabia. This may have been a reason that al-Wadi’i accused former Saudi king Fahd bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and the Saudi royal family of creating enmity with Yemen by unfairly hoarding their wealth.

Relations between Yemen and Saudi Arabia deteriorated further with the Yemeni civil war in 1994, when Riyadh opted to support southern Yemeni Socialist Party separatists. Al-Wadi’i accused Saudi Arabia of backing communists in the south and Zaydi tribes in the north. However, when al-Wadi’i fell ill at the turn of the millennium, he was allowed to receive treatment in Saudi Arabia. It was his first visit to the kingdom since he had been expelled in 1979. He met former crown prince Naif bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, and Saudi Arabia covered the costs of further treatment in Germany and the United States (despite al-Wadi’i’s view, even after his treatment there, that the United States was a den of sin and corruption).33

Al-Wadi’i then returned to Saudi Arabia, where he died in 2001 and was buried in the same Mecca cemetery as the most senior Saudi clerics, including bin Baz. Al-Wadi’i had by this time urged his students to throw away all recordings in which he criticized Saudi Arabia and instead called on them to stand with Saudi Arabia against its enemies.34

It is hard to imagine a complete separation between Yemen’s Salafists and Saudi Arabia. But this is not to say that Salafists have been immune to the sensitivities and complexities of the relations between the two countries’ governments, which have influenced their rapidly shifting views of Saudi Arabia, from affection and criticism to admiration and resentment—often simultaneously.

Salafists in flux. Salafism is a movement in flux. It has spread widely in Yemen due to its simplicity and directness, but it is in no way organized. Salafists’ unbending adherence to the principle of ta’at wali al-amr meant they did not become meaningfully engaged in political opposition to Saleh. Indeed, Saleh instrumentalized them at times, such as during the 1994 war or during his war in Saada against the Houthis.

The 2011 uprising prompted opposing reactions among Salafists. While the overwhelming majority were opposed to the uprising, it was backed by the Ehsan Association and, to some extent, the Hikma Association in Taiz. This gave rise to an alliance between the two associations, known as the Ehsan Islamic Alliance.35

Post-2011, Salafists in Yemen faced another split, this time over participation in politics and the forming of political parties. It is notable that the first Salafist party was Hizb un-Nahdha al-Islami (Islamic Renaissance Party), which was formed in 2011 and called for South Yemen’s secession.36 This was followed by the March 2012 creation of the Al-Rashad (Integrity) Union, most of the founders of which belonged to the Ehsan Association, and the Silm wa Tanmiya (Peace and Development) Party, drawing on Hikma Association members.37

Post-2011, Salafists in Yemen faced another split, this time over participation in politics and the forming of political parties.

After the war began, the intra-Salafist divide deepened and dragged in new players. The United Arab Emirates allied with Salafist fighters such as Hani Bin Breik, a student of al-Wadi’i who has since become a leading figure in the Southern Transitional Council. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, has backed other Salafists such as al-Ma’ribi—also a student of al-Wadi’i. Qatar has supported still others, such as the Ehsan Association in Hadhramaut Governorate. Even the Houthis managed to win over some Salafists, including Mohammad Taher Ana’m of the Al-Rashad Party and Mohammad ‘Izzudin al-Hamiri of the Slim wa Tanmiya Party.38

The Houthis have allowed some Salafist institutes to continue operating, such as Dar al-Hadith in Damaj, which still provides its services but only to students from the area, especially those from al-Wadi’i’s tribe the Wada’a.39 The Ma’bar Institute in Dhamar is another example. These institutes have continued after they accepted the Houthis’ conditions, such as that they cannot accept students outside of their area, which limit their activities, adding to other strict regulations.

This Houthi policy toward Sunni institutes (despite the fact that Houthis closed Zaydi ones and banned Zaydi study circles in mosques), can be explained by the Houthis’ pragmatism as a ruling group toward the Sunnis, who make up much of the population of areas under its control. It also helps the group portray itself as nonsectarian and open to others.

Sufi Institutes

Sufism has become the last major stronghold of the Shafi’i doctrine in Yemen. Sufism is not an Islamic school in itself but rather a school of behavior and discipline that focuses on the spiritual aspects of what is known as al-ihsan wa al-tazkiya (roughly translated as “good deeds and self-purification”) in Islam.

Sufi schools are still operating in some parts of Yemen, including Tahama, Taiz, Al-Baydha, Aden, and Hadhramaut. The city of Tarim in the Hadhramaut valley is the stronghold of Sufism in Yemen. Sufi schools in the south, particularly in Hadhramaut and Tarim, were in many cases closed, and some of their teachers were imprisoned or even killed during the Yemen Socialist Party’s 1969–1990 rule. Many of their shrines were destroyed between 1994 and 1995 by Islamist militias aligned with Sanaa in its war against the socialists.40

Strikingly, many Sufis allied with the Socialist Party in 1994, despite previous mistreatment.41 Some have suggested this reflected a bias toward Saudi Arabia, which backed the southern side. It could also be because most of the separatists during this war were from the Banu Hashim clan from Hadhramaut Governorate, including such important figures as Ali Salim al-Baydh, Haydar al-Attas, and Abdulrahman al-Jafri.

Following the 1994 civil war, Sufis became more active in Yemen.

Following the 1994 civil war, Sufis became more active in Yemen. A Sufi school called Dar al-Mustafa was founded in 1996 by a group including Al-Habib Ali al-Jafri, the son of Yemeni political figure Abdulrahman al-Jafri who was head of the Al-Rabita Party, a Saudi-backed southern separatist group. The younger al-Jafri was born in Saudi Arabia and spent some of his life in the UAE. Another cofounder of Dar al-Mustafa was Al-Habib Umar Bin Hafiz. His father was killed by socialists in 1972, forcing his family to flee to Baydha in North Yemen, where Bin Hafiz was taught by noted Sufi Sheikh Hussein Mohammad al-Haydar.42

Bin Hafiz became the key figure heading Dar al-Mustafa, which became a world-renowned center for Sufism with thousands of foreign students of over forty nationalities. It was the focus of some opposition from traditional Sufis for revamping curricula and teaching methods, but it has been a major success and continues teaching to this day. Sufi schools generally receive funding in the form of donations from the Hadhrami diaspora in the Gulf and east Asia.43

After the end of the 1994 war, Saleh had beaten his socialist enemies in the south and began to give more space to other religious schools to counterbalance and weaken those of the Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood. After the Yemeni Congregation for Reform (Islah) left the government in 1997, the state’s warming ties with the Sufis became more apparent. Sufi Sheikh Mohammad Ali Mira’i became a member of Saleh’s General People’s Congress, and in 2000 he founded the College of Sharia Studies in Hudayda. Some Muslim Brotherhood members have claimed that graduates of the college were given preferential access to public sector jobs, showing that they were backed by the government.

From 2002 onward, Saleh began paying visits to Dar al-Mustafa, while its founders Al-Habib Ali al-Jafri and Al-Habib bin Mahfouz began appearing on state television. In the 2003 parliamentary elections, Sufi elders in Hadhramaut Governorate and elsewhere voiced support for the General People’s Congress. It became clear that the Sufis in Yemen were on the rise. In the center of Tarim, Salafist centers such as the Mohammad bin Abdulwahab bookshop were forced to turn off their speakers every Monday out of respect for the gathering of Sufi elders at Dar al-Mustafa.44

The Sufis in Yemen—unlike the Zaydis who were isolated in Yemen and the relative marginalization of the Salafists in Yemen—had a number of influential members with followings outside Yemen, such as Al-Habib al-Jafri and al-Hafiz. Sufi schools, meanwhile, attracted thousands of students from East Asia and Africa.

The Sufis in Yemen had a number of influential members with followings outside Yemen.

When violence escalated again in 2015 with the Saudi-led intervention, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) announced it was in control of Mukalla, the capital of Hadhramaut Governorate, as well as other areas of the valley. It proceeded to destroy a number of Sufi shrines. Notably, many Salafists were in harmony with AQAP. Yet there was no violent reaction from Sufi religious authorities. Sufis have historically eschewed violence, in accordance with their dictum: “Hold the tongue from censure; hold the hand from drawing blood.”45 In April 2016, Yemeni government forces backed by the UAE-and-Saudi-led coalition were able to force AQAP to withdraw from Hadhramaut Governorate, and the Sufis regained their influence in politics and society.

As fighting intensified in the south and calls grew for secession from the north, some in Hadhramaut, Yemen’s biggest governorate, began to fear for the region’s existence as a social entity and a large territorial unit with its extensive oil wealth. This pushed Sufis, Salafists, and other Hadhramis to take part in the Hadhramaut Inclusive Conference in April 2017. Prominent delegates included Sufi Sheikh Abdulrahman Ba’abad and Salafi Sheikh Saleh al-Sharafi. One Hadhrami journalist said the desire to stabilize the situation in the region and unify it toward its residents’ goals of greater independence and power led to calm between Salafists and Sufis, under the logic that “we are all Hadhramis.”46

One of the most prominent Sufi figures in the Islamic world is a Hadhrami Sufi, Al-Habib al-Jafiri, who has enjoyed positive media coverage for many years. The UAE backed him by funding the Tabah Foundation, which he set up in 2005 and which is active in many countries, most prominently Egypt.47 More recently, al-Jafri has publicly adopted controversial political positions, such as visiting Jerusalem in 2012 and backing Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.48 However, when the UAE stepped up its support for separatists in the south of Yemen, creating divisions over its policies and those of its allies, al-Jafri turned from a Sufi notable who stayed out of the fray into a controversial figure among Sufis in the Islamic world and in Hadhramaut Governorate, in particular.

Some say that al-Jafri has lost much of his popularity and credibility because of both the financial support he receives from Abu Dhabi and his political activities, which many Sufis see as unacceptable.49 Others, however, believe he has maintained his status and stayed out of controversial political causes. They argue that the popularity of the Emirates and their ally, Yemen’s Southern Transitional Council, remains high on the Hadhrami coast even if the same is not true in the valley.50

Hence, an individual’s position and opinion toward al-Jafri varies according to their stance toward the UAE’s policy in the south or their opinion toward religious scholars’ interventions into politics in general.

In sum, the Sufi school largely remains far from politics, but this does not mean that all Sufi scholars are committed to this general position of nonintervention in politics.

In sum, the Sufi school largely remains far from politics, but this does not mean that all Sufi scholars are committed to this general position of nonintervention in politics. The future of the Sufi school and its involvement in politics will face huge challenges because of increasing regional intervention in the south, especially in Hadhramaut Governorate, as regional powers like Saudi Arabia and the UAE heavily used religion in their political intervention.

Zaydi Religious Schools

The Zaydis have had a presence in northern Yemen for more than 1,000 years. Zaydi doctrine was taught in traditional ways in mosques and religious schools right up until the revolution against the imamate. The revolution placed pressure on Zaydi scholars, especially as most of those with Hashemite roots supported the imamate against the republican regime, leaving the latter suspicious of them. Some were killed or imprisoned during the 1962 to 1970 civil war.

As mentioned above, the 1970s saw growing Sunni and Salafist activity across northern Yemen, including in Zaydi areas, supported by the Yemeni government and funded by Saudi Arabia. The Zaydis struggled to adapt to this and remained limited to study circles in mosques, especially in the Imam al-Hadi mosque in Saada and the Great Mosque in Sanaa.

One key feature of the Zaydis as a religious group is their reliance on logic, stemming from their roots in the mu’tazila (an early rationalist school of Islamic theology). But the sect did not have its own, independent character in terms of Islamic jurisprudence and was influenced in one way or another by various Sunni schools, particularly the Hanafi school. Zaydism does not rely heavily on the hadith but uses those that align with the Quran, as well as being open to ijtihad. Many therefore see Zaydism as simply a political philosophy of government that justifies overthrowing unjust rulers and gives preference to rulers descended from the Prophet.

The political nature of Zaydism made successive Yemeni republican governments nervous about any activity by its adherents. Salafists, on the other hand, increased their presence, creating worry and anger among some traditional Zaydi elders, who are mostly Banu Hashim clansmen. They voiced these concerns with the opening up of public and political life, including the creation of political parties, when Yemen was unified in 1990. This opening saw the creation of a large Sunni political party, the Yemeni Congregation for Reform (Islah) and two Zaydi Islamist parties, Al-Haq and the Union of Popular Forces.

Al-Haq brought together most of Yemen’s key Zaydi figures, including the sect’s most prominent scholar since the 1962 revolution, Sheikh Majd al-Deen al-Mu’ayyidi, the teacher of Sheikh Badr al-Deen al-Houthi. In a key statement at its founding, the party announced that it would fight American imperialism, which was manifested in Saudi Wahhabism.51

There were changes not just in politics but also in education, with the establishment of a number of Zaydi institutes, most prominently the Samawi Institute in Saada and Sheikh Murtada’s Badr al-Mahtouri Institute. These institutes tried to mimic the Muslim Brotherhood by setting up summer youth camps, the Shabab al-Mu’min (Faithful Youth) camps. The sons of Badr al-Din al-Houthi—Hussein, Mohammad, and Hamid—had all previously studied at Saada’s theological institute. Despite the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood runs this institute, it is the only institute in Yemen teaching a Zaydi religious curriculum due to the particularities of the city.52

To counter the Salafism and Sunnism spread in the Zaydi areas, a few Zaydi scholars and figures started establishing Zaydi religious camps beginning around 1993.

To counter the Salafism and Sunnism spread in the Zaydi areas, a few Zaydi scholars and figures started establishing Zaydi religious camps beginning around 1993. The first one was in the Al-Hamazat region of Saada. Al-Hamazat is a hijra (an area reserved for those learned in religious matters), protected by Yemen’s tribes and off-limits for fighting. The camps hosted some 10,000 to 15,000 students in 1994 and 1995, then began spreading into other governorates such as Amran, Hijjah, Al-Mahwit, and Dhamar—even Shafi’i-dominated areas such as Ibb and Taiz.53

The camps received modest financial support from the Yemeni government, which saw them as a way of paring back the clout of Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood in Zaydi areas, especially as the latter lost their utility to the state after the 1994 war and the defeat of the socialists in the south.

These summer camps resembled ma’ahid ‘ilmiya and Brotherhood camps, with their heavy emphasis on artistic and sporting activities as well as a religious curriculum based on small religious books that did not touch on political or sectarian subjects but rather carried simplified religious teachings. The importance of the camps lies in the fact that, for the first time, they created a young community brought together by their ideas of Zaydi identity as sons of the tribes, or Hashemites. Through this shared identity, some Zaydi figures were able to gain influence over these youth.

The camps continued running until the year 2000, when Badr al-Din al-Houthi’s eldest son and twice–parliament member Hussein al-Houthi returned from his own studies in Sudan and fell into a dispute with some founders of the institutes, such as Mohammad Azzan. In 2002 the camps were split into two sections: one following Azzan and one following Hussein al-Houthi. The camps of al-Houthi started to endorse political-religious study materials, which had been rejected by the founders of these camps. Then they were shut down entirely when a war broke out between al-Houthi’s followers and the government in 2004.54

The Houthi Movement

The Houthis are a Zaydi movement. Its name refers to the family of its founder, Hussein al-Houthi, who became politically active in criticizing the government and mobilizing the public starting around 2000. He was killed in September 2004 during the first round of fighting between the Houthi group and government forces, fighting that broke out five more times from 2004 to 2010. Four years later, the Houthi military expanded and took over the capital Sanaa.55

The ideology of this group maintains similar positions as traditional Zaydism on key issues such as the legitimacy of overthrowing a tyrannical ruler and the primacy of the Prophet’s descendants. However, the Houthis also broke with many traditions.

Firstly, the Houthis have adopted ideas inspired by the discourse of the Iranian revolution, including that of an axis of resistance against arrogant Western imperialism. Secondly, they see wilayat al-faqih (rule by the jurist, which is the basis of Iran’s ruling system) as influenced by Zaydism. The doctrine differs from traditional Twelver Shiism, which holds that believers must wait for the coming of the Mahdi before Islamic rule can be established on earth. In contrast, wilayat al-faqih, borrowed from Zaydism, is the idea that the faithful must revolt to overthrow and seize power from unjust rulers. The Houthis are also influenced by wali al-faqih (the sacred status of the ruler), which hands the ruler many of the powers and prerogatives of the infallible, absent imam. This idea of infallibility roundly contradicts traditional Zaydi views, which see all rulers as potentially unjust, meaning they may be overthrown.

Thirdly, the Houthis have connected the ideas of ‘ilm with the Quran itself. In general, ‘ilm means the distinguishing sign that leads the people. Houthis’ definition of this word is not far from this notion, but with more elaboration. The Houthis promote the idea of the ‘ilm as a person, al-qa’id al-’ilm (a visionary leader), with roots in Zaydism but upon which the Houthis have placed unprecedented emphasis, playing up the figure’s link to the Quran. Traditionally, Zaydis see the idea of ‘ilm as a leader guiding the umma (the collective global community of Muslims). But Houthis see the figure of al-qa’id al-’ilm as embodying the Quran, bestowing on them an aura of holiness that was never given to Zaydi leaders under the imamate. In this regard, Houthis do not recognize any text as sacred except the Quran, and reject all other books in Islamic heritage, believing that all human literature may tarnish the purity of the faith. This is a complete contradiction of traditional Zaydism and its philosophical roots.

Fourthly, Houthis differ from traditional Zaydis in their ideas of obedience, loyalty, and unity. Like any religious group doubling as a political movement, the Houthis place great importance on the unity of the umma. In Houthi thinking, this requires obedience to the leader, while traditional Zaydism does not require the obedience to the leader, as it accepts the notion of rebellion against the unjust ruler.

Finally, the Houthis define themselves as Shia rather than Zaydi. It is important to note that many Zaydis in Yemen long saw themselves as belonging to neither a Sunni nor a Shia sect, understandable for a minority surrounded by Sunnis. But al-Houthi’s sermons, seen as the movement’s foundational literature, portray Zaydis as Shia and emphasize their proximity to Iranian and other Shia groups. He also held confrontational views toward key Sunni figures, in contrast to dominant Zaydi thinking in Yemen, which was largely tolerant toward Sunnis and Sunni symbols.56

The Houthis have had their disputes with traditional Zaydi leaders, but these have largely been snuffed out due to fear of the Houthi movement.

The Houthis have had their disputes with traditional Zaydi leaders, but these have largely been snuffed out due to fear of the Houthi movement. One of the most prominent Zaydi opposition scholars to have confronted them is Yahya al-Dailamy. Two Zaydi scholars, who asked not to be named, told the author that the Houthis were more oppressive than the previous regime, which had prioritized Salafist education at the expense of Zaydism but did not prevent the latter from operating—let alone imprison, exile, or kill Zaydi scholars who opposed it, as the Houthis have done. The scholars said the Houthis had shut down Zaydi educational institutes by force on the basis that there was “no need” for such studies and that the presence of the books there could distract people from the Quran.57

Houthi Courses

The Houthis came to control all Zaydi-majority areas of Yemen, where they closed Zaydi study centers and sidelined traditional Zaydi religious authorities. They instead brought others to prominence, such as Shamsuddin Sharfuddin, who was appointed by the Houthis as Mufti of the Republic. The movement now dominates Zaydi discourses and spreads its own ideology by altering school curricula and offering cultural lessons.

These dawrat thaqafiyya (cultural courses) are mandatory for public sector workers, conscripts heading for the front lines, and imams. Female school headteachers are also required to take them, as are women who speak and recite the Quran and prayers at household rituals, such as those mourning loved ones.

Throughout these courses, which mostly last between ten to twenty days, participants listen to the speeches of al-Houthi, which are seen by his followers as the most reliable words to be uttered since the Quran. Mostly these speeches deal with leadership, jihad, and the primacy of the family of the Prophet. Despite the fact that the classes are attended by some Sunnis, including public sector workers, the speeches contain anti-Sunni sectarian insults such as attacks on companions of the Prophet and denigration of other Sunni beliefs.

Elite Houthi fighters are sometimes drafted into these programs to give lectures on how, with divine assistance, the movement turned from a marginalized group into a feared fighting force. The classes also include Iranian recorded lectures on the historical battles of the Prophet’s cousin Ali bin Abi Talib and the battle of Karbala.58

Besides these courses, the Houthis also run summer camps for children from the ages of six to twelve, teaching them the movement’s ideas and hosting various activities, particularly sports.

Authenticity and Yemeni Identity

While Salafists have enjoyed growing influence in Yemen since the mid-1970s—thanks both to Saudi support and funding and to the presence of millions of Yemeni migrants in Saudi Arabia—Zaydism and Sufism have presented themselves as authentic, indigenous Yemeni ideologies countering Wahhabist ideas imported from Saudi Arabia.

While Salafists have enjoyed growing influence in Yemen since the mid-1970s, Zaydism and Sufism have presented themselves as authentic, indigenous Yemeni ideologies countering Wahhabist ideas imported from Saudi Arabia.

Salafists have responded by accusing Zaydis and Sufis of giving primacy to Ahl al-Bayt (Al-Sada in the case of the Zaydis or Al-Habaib in the case of the Sufis), best known as the Hashemite family, even though the family of the Prophet is not Yemeni. Yemenis are descended from southern Arabs, known as Qahtanis, while the Hashemite clan is from the Quraysh tribe and has more northern roots (‘adnaniyun). Salafists have played on this historical enmity between Qahtanis and Hashemites to win favor among some Yemenis, who may resent the importance given to the Hashemite clan.

Both Sufis and Zaydis have relations with Hashemites beyond Yemen. Al-Habib al-Jafri, for example, belongs to the Alawite association—a line of descendants from the Prophet’s daughter Fatimah and her husband Ali ibn Abi Talib—that has members from Britain to Indonesia, including in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Syria. The movement’s supervisory council in Egypt even brought a lawsuit to ban a Yemeni-authored book The Hashemite Tribe: A Thousand Years of Blood, which was seen as insulting members of the Banu Hashim clan.59

Many Yemenis have noted what appears to be a compromise between Sufis and the Houthis. The former refrain from attacking or denigrating the latter, a position some have attributed to the privileged status both sides accord to the Banu Hashim and the nature of Hashemite influence in both camps. Their shared enmity toward Salafism and Wahhabism may also play a role.

On the other hand, Yemeni Salafists have rejected accusations that their ideology is imported. They note that Salafism put down roots in Yemen thanks to al-Shawkani, a Yemeni scholar, as the culmination of a tradition of Yemeni scholarship that started with Ibn al-Wazir in the fifteenth century and included other notable figures such as Ismail al-Amir, Saleh al-Maqbali, and Al-Hassan al-Jalal. This is reflected in the names of many Salafist institutes, as well as the fact some of them include al-Shawkani’s books in their curricula. However, unlike the Salafists, al-Shawkani believed in ijtihad and qiyas as methods of deducing fatwas and rejected the complete reliance on Quranic text. Therefore, connecting the Al-Shawkani school with Salafism is misleading.

Many Salafist institutes and schools also refute accusations that they are close-minded and Wahhabist-inspired by emphasizing that their curricula also include the other Islamic sects (particularly Shafi’ism). Al-Eman University in Sanaa, for example, even teaches about Zaydism.60

Zaydism differs from Sufism and Salafism in that it is limited to Yemen. Zaydi institutes do not enroll students from outside the country. The sect strongly emphasizes its Yemeni identity in its discourse. For example, the Houthis have an influential newspaper called Al-Hawyah (which translates to Identity). Zaydis believe that this Yemeni exclusivity sets them apart from other sects and makes them the true expression of Yemeni identity.

It must also be noted that other religious movements in Yemen, both moderate and extremist, hold the concept of the tribe in high esteem and subscribe to subnational, tribal, regional, and sectarian identities, as well as calling for Islamic unity. Yet they can also easily become involved in separatist movements within nation-states, as did the Islamic Renaissance Party in Yemen’s south and the Salafists fighting for Yemen’s Emirati-backed Southern Transitional Council.

Nor are the Salafists alone in having relations with Saudi Arabia. Riyadh gave refuge to certain Hadhramaut families following the independence of South Yemen and the rise of the socialists in 1967. Al-Habib al-Jafri, for example, was born in the kingdom, where he used to host a weekly television show on the Iqraa channel, which broadcasts religious programming globally.61 Similarly, Saudi Arabia hosted some Zaydi Banu Hashim families after the founding of the republican regime in the north in 1962, most prominently the Hamid al-Deen royal family, as well as prominent Zaydi scholars such as Badr al-Deen al-Houthi and Majd al-Deen al-Mu’ayyidi, who lived, taught, and gave lectures in Najran, Saudi Arabia, near Yemen’s border.62

This does not, of course, negate Saudi Arabia’s history of conflict with these groups. The first Saudi state, which lasted from 1774 to 1818, extended into what is now Hadhramaut Governorate and destroyed Sufi mausoleums there. The first state also fought Zaydis, as has the current, third Saudi state, such as during its battle in the 1930s against Imam Yahia Hameed al-Deen, who ruled North Yemen at the time.

It is also notable that both Zaydis and Salafists have adopted tough rhetoric against Western imperialism and Saudi relations with the United States. This appears clearly in the founding declaration of the Al-Haq party and the sermons of Hussein al-Houthi, who also saw Wahhabism as a form of “imperialist Islam.”63 Salafists have long railed against the United States and its policies in the region, and some—such as Al-Wadi’i—harshly criticized Riyadh for allowing the United States to station military forces on Saudi territory during the first Gulf war.64 Both Salafists and Zaydis have criticized the Yemeni government for its cooperation with Washington’s war on terror.

The modern religious movements represented by the Salafists and Houthis also share a preoccupation with what they consider purifying Islam and unifying Muslims. The goal of Islamic unity means that both schools reject ijtihad and rely solely on the Quran. This has facilitated the politicization of these sects as their leaders are not, for the most part, influential religious authorities but rather have split with traditional Islamic heritage and returned to the religion’s founding literature.

Disputes between these schools are not only religious but also involve questions around Yemeni identity, with each seeking to demonstrate that it is more authentic and more representative of Yemenis.

Therefore, disputes between these schools are not only religious but also involve questions around Yemeni identity, with each seeking to demonstrate that it is more authentic and more representative of Yemenis. This has great impacts on the political activities of the followers of each of these schools as each tries to prove its national credentials.


The main difference between the traditional religious schools and the contemporary ones is function. The traditional schools aimed to teach their students religious science, so their function mainly was improving knowledge. This made their general approach toward other schools tolerant, based on mutual recognition and respect. Instead, the current religious schools aim toward political mobilization, so these schools are always concerned about creating loyalty. Therefore, discrediting other schools is crucial for the aim of mobilization, resulting in a conflict between them.

Religious schools, particularly those of the Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood, have played a major role in Yemeni politics since the mid-1970s following the country’s division into the Western-backed north and the Soviet-backed south. But Saleh, with his famous pragmatism, began to sideline and rein in his Salafist and Brotherhood former allies once he no longer had a use for them following the defeat of the Yemeni Socialist Party in 1994.

This trend was amplified as he stepped up counterterrorism cooperation with Washington following the attacks on the USS Cole in 2000 and on the World Trade Center’s twin towers the following year. The government instead supported Sufis, who had no clear political activities. But Zaydis posed a political challenge as an opponent to the government, while the Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood always had ambiguous relations with transnational jihadist networks such as al-Qaeda.

In the current conflict, these schools have started to bear their fruit and are still spreading. Salafist fighters are deployed on many front lines against Houthis, while Brotherhood fighters are also present on the battlefield. The Houthis’ study sessions are also playing an important role in mobilizing their supporters for battle. It remains to be seen how Sufi schools will be affected by the struggle for the south.


The author would like to thank Ahmed Nagi and Emanuel Schaublin for their feedback on this paper. Lauren Bonnefy, Amjad Khashafah, and Abdulbari Taher provided valuable research assistance. The views represented herein are solely those of the author.

About the Author

Maysaa Shuja Al-Deen is a resident fellow at Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies. She has written articles and papers for multiple media outlets and research centers, such as the Arab Reform Initiative, the Atlantic Council, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Jadaliyya, and Al-Monitor. She holds a master’s degree in Islamic Studies from the American University in Cairo. 


1 “A Rare Picture of the Fatwa of Abdulwahhab Al-Dulaymi in 1994 and Reactions of the Ulema,” Yemen Press, November 11, 2011,

2 Paul Dresch, Tribes, Government, and History in Yemen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 22–29.

3 Dresch, Tribes, Government, and History in Yemen, 10.

4 See Dresch, chapter 6.

5 Mohammad Zakariya, “Sufism in Yemen, Its Rise and Spread” The History of Arabia (blog), January 2, 2013,

6 Bernard Haykel, Revival and Reform in Islam: The Legacy of Muhammad al-Shawkani (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 1.

7 Fawzi Al-Ureyqi, “The June 13 Movement and the Theological Institutes,”, June 15, 2020,

8 Al-Ureyqi, “The June 13 Movement and the Theological Institutes.”

9 Ibid.

10 Author interview with a former theological institute student, telephone call, August 29, 2020.

11 Author interview with a former Yemeni official, telephone call, August 29, 2020.

12 Laurent Bonnefoy (ed.), Salafism in Yemen: Transnationalism and Religious Identity (London: Hurst Publishers, 2012), 156.

13 There is no English equivalent for the word al-haq, which means more than simply truth. It combines the meanings of truth, rightness, and fairness altogether.

14 Author interview with a former theological institute student, telephone call, August 29, 2020.

15 Author correspondence with Nabil al-Sufi, a former theological institute student, August 31, 2020.

16 Author interview with a former theological institute student, telephone call, August 29, 2020.

17 Author interview with a former Yemeni official, telephone call, August 29, 2020.

18 Author interview with Yasmin Khashafa, a former theological institute student, telephone call, August 31, 2020.

19 Fawzi Al-Ureyqi, “The June 13 Movement and the Theological Institutes.”

20 Bonnefoy, Salafism in Yemen: Transnationalism and Religious Identity, 53–57.

21 Ibid, 240.

22 Ibid, 144.

23 Author correspondence with a Dar al-Hadith student, September 19, 2020.

24 Author correspondence with a Dar al-Hadith student, September 19, 2020.

25 Ahmad Al-Daghshi, Salafism in Yemen: Schools, Ideological Foundations and Political Alliances (لسلفية في اليمن - مدارسها الفكرية ومرجعياتها العقائدية وتحالفاتها السياسي) (Al-Jazeera Studies Center / Arab Scientific Publishers, Inc., 2014), 103.

26 Televised interview with a journalist from Hadhramout, September 22, 2020.

27 Al-Daghshi, Salafism in Yemen: Schools, Ideological Foundations and Political Alliances; and Bonnefoy, 62–65.

28 Al-Daghshi, chapter 2.

29 Author correspondence with a student of the university, August 23, 2020.

30 According to the university website. See Ahgaff University,

31 Bonnefoy; and Laurent, 135.

32 Bonnefoy; and Laurent, 152.

33 Bonnefoy; and Laurent, 166.

34 Bonnefoy; and Laurent, 169–175.

35 Al-Daghshi, chapter 3.

36 See the party’s Facebook page, at, accessed September 30, 2020.

37 Al-Daghshi, chapter 2.

38 Author correspondence with a Yemeni journalist, September 29, 2020.

39 Author correspondence with a Salafist student at Dar al-Hadith, September 14, 2020.

40 Author conversation with a Sufi student in Hadhramout, September 27, 2020.

41 Bonnefoy, 230.

42 Ibid, 232–233.

43 Author conversation with a journalist in Hadhramout, September 29, 2020.

44 Bonnefoy, 232–235.

45 Author conversation with a Sufi student in Hadhramout, August 28, 2020.

46 Author conversation with a journalist in Hadhramout, September 29, 2020.

47 See Tabah Foundation, مؤسسة طابة للأبحاث والإستشارات | Tabah Foundation, viewed September 30, 2020.

48 ماذا قال الجفري عن السيسي وحكام اﻻمارات والسعودية” posted by Ali Ahmed, YouTube, June 11, 2014,

49 Author conversation with a Sufi student in Hadhramout, September 28, 2020.

50 Author conversation with a journalist in Hadhramout, September 29, 2020.

51 Barak Salmoni, Bryce Loidolt, and Madeleine Wells, Regime and Periphery in Northern Yemen: The Huthi Phenomenon, Rand Corporation, 2010,, 95.

52 Author interview with a Muslim Brotherhood leader and a Zaydi leader, August 2014.

53 Salmoni, Loidolt, and Wells, Regime and Periphery in Northern Yemen: The Huthi Phenomenon, 98–101.

54 Author interview with Azzan, August 2, 2016.

55 Katherine Zimmmerman and Chris Harnisch, “Profile: al Houthi Movement,” Critical Threats Project, American Enterprise Institute, January 28, 2010,

56 Maysaa Shuja al Deen, “Radicalization of Zaydi Reform Attempts” (master’s thesis, American University in Cairo), AUC Knowledge Fountain, April 2017,

57 Author correspondence with a Zaydi scholar, August 23, 2020.

58 Author correspondence with two people who attended the courses, August 25, 2020.

59 Wala Akasha, “‘The Hashemite Tribe: A Thousand Years of Blood,’ The Book That Raised Fears and Was Confiscated (The Whole Story),”, January 31, 2019,

60 Author interview with Abdulrazzaq Al-Umrani, son of prominent scholar and former mufti of Yemen Abdulwahhab Al-Umrani, who taught Zaydism at the university, July 23, 2020.

61 Anwar Qassem Al-Khadri, “Al-Habib Al-Jafri, a Sufi With the Flavor of the Age,”, accessed October 1, 2020,

62 “Sayyid Allama Majduddin Al-Mu’ayyidi,” profile on, accessed October 1, 2020,

63 Salmoni, Loidolt, and Wells, 95.

64 Bonnefoy, 165.