From Religious Leaders to Ordinary Citizens 
The Changing Role of "Sadah" in Yemen

By Mohammed Al-Asadi

Yemen has a complicated social makeup, yet it is largely harmonious and homogeneous. And while the tribe today seems to represent the head and heart of society, this has not always been the case. Other social factions, generally lying outside of the tribe, have also played a historical role—perhaps more in the past than today.

One very significant social faction in Yemen is the sayyids, as described by British historian Paul Dresch, or sadah, as they are more generally known—the descendants of the Prophet.

Although sadah are sometimes also referred to as Hashemites, the term Hashemite can be applied to all descendants of Hashem bin Abdul-Mutaleb, grandfather of the Prophet. Sadah, in this report, are the descendants of Imam Ali bin Abi Talib, husband of the Prophet's daughter.

Researchers can't find much about the sayyids or sadah in history books and tribal references. The obvious reason is that they come from different families and different places, though they are now integrated into society and can be seen almost in all parts of the country. The available sources just describe the chronological regimes in Yemen that include the royal family of sayyids.

They are, in terms of religious practice, Sunnis, Shiites and Sufis. Though they are incorporated in the Yemeni social structure and form an important brick of that structure, they still maintain their independent character and specializations.

Roots and destinies

By ToughanThe origins of the sayyids were summarized by Dr. Paul Driesch in his book A History of Modern Yemen.

"The areas around Sana'a and northwards for centuries were dominated by Zaidi (Shi'ite) Imams. The crux of Zaidism was that legitimate rule descends through the Prophet's line, of his daughter Fatimah and son-in-law Ali Bin Abi Talib. Such descendants of the Prophet are usually called sayyids (also sometimes sharifs; or sadah or 'Alawis, after Ali Bin Abu Talib). Their venture in the northern part of Yemen was launched in AD 896 around Saada by the first Imam, Al-Hadi, and on occasion they had ruled enormous areas, Imams being of the sword as well as of the book and righteousness: the Qasimis in the seventeenth century had briefly held most of Yemen (even Hadhramout for some years), and certain earlier Imams less enamored of state forms had also been conquerors. The sayyids were important further south too, especially in Hadhramout. There the sayyid presence was established in AD 952 by a migrant from Iraq named Ahmad Isa, but the venture he began was very different from that in the far north and the Shafi'i (Sunni) style of Islam, unlike the Zaidi, launched no great bids for power: Sayyid influence was local, often built around mediation and sacred tombs, although family connections and connections of learning reached beyond particular towns or tribes."

The sayyid faction went on to play a major role in modern Yemen, explains Dresch.

"Sayyids (descendants of the Prophet), claimed everywhere a certain precedence," according to Dresch. "In the South there were also mashayikh, religious families of a different descent, and in the North families of qadhis (non-sayyid ‘judges’) were as prominent. Everywhere one found ‘weak’ people who lacked either tribal or religious honor and whose men were not permitted to bear arms: some were share-croppers, some were artisans, and others (the lowest of the low) were butchers, messengers and sweepers. People despite, their poverty, owned slaves."

Even if individual sayyids were materially poor, they were able to claim social equality with wealthy and prominent sheikhs by virtue of their distinguished ancestry.

"The position of the sayyids—descendants of the Prophet and themselves rather specialists in descent, for they maintained broad, detailed genealogies of a kind no-one else did—was ambiguous nearly everywhere in Yemen: Some were poor, some were rich, some were learned and others not. They were scarcely a class in the modern sense. But generally they exacted a degree of respect and they refused to have their women marry non-sayyids… In the North, at about 1915, the rise to power of Imam Yahya (himself, of course, a sayyid) gave many sayyid families a stake in what emerged as a dawlah—a state, and then dynasty, which far outweighed the little dawlah of South Yemen, and claimed a place of its own on the world map."

An Imam must be a Sayyid

Only a sayyid could be an Imam, as he would have to take on the role of the Caliph in lieu of the Prophet. However, according to Zaidi beliefs, not any sayyid can be an Imam, according to journalist Mohammed Al-Kibsi, himself a sayyid.

"The Imam should be an ‘Alawi, derived from Ali; Fatimi, derived from Fatima; and Husseini, derived from the eldest son of Ali and Fatima," explains Al-Kibsi. "In Zaidism, descendants of Hassan bin Ali bin Abu Taleb, brother of Hussein, are not eligible for the imamate, because Hassan did not fight against the rebels who took the caliphate from him."

Therefore, Hashemites too are ineligible to become Imams, at least in Yemen, as they do not fit the Zaidis' criteria as sayyids, even though they are considered descendents of the Prophet.

This distinction explains how the sayyids were able to claim the political power and influence which endured in North Yemen into recent times.

One of the last great Imams was Imam Yehya Hamid Al-Din, who was leader of Zaidism from 1904 until being killed in a 1948 coup attempt.

Yemeni anthropologist and historian Ibrahim Al-Maqhafi, in his Dictionary of Yemeni Land and Tribes Part I, attributed the Hamid Al-Din family to their closest ancestors, Sharaf Al-Din, who have been living in Kawkaban, to the northwest of Sana’a, for centuries. Many of the Sharaf Al-Dins' ancestors had lived in Rayda, central Yemen. Al-Maqhafi described the family name as judges and Imams who ruled Yemen for centuries.

For a family that effectively ruled Yemen for centuries, this description falls far short, and for predictable reasons. In actual fact, the house of Hamid Al-Din is not fondly remembered in modern Yemen, as the current republican regime was founded on the ashes of Imamic rule following the 1962 revolution.

Although the present government may try to play down the traditional power of the sayyids, there is no denying that they were de facto nobility and played a central role in much of Yemen's history, often wielding a power and influence exceeding that of tribes and sheikhs. Moreover the majority of ordinary people historically recognized their claims to rule Yemen—a claim bolstered by their repeated invocation of their descent from the Prophet himself.

Although the sayyids' claims to secular power carried great weight in the past amongst simple and illiterate peasants and tribesmen, few Yemenis today are impressed by their claims to be the rightful rulers of Yemen.

Despite their dwindling stock of inherited dignity, many sayyids today still cling to their historic claims. Contemporary sayyids still regard themselves as superior to run-of-the-mill Yemenis and will often refuse to let their women marry men from non-sayyid families to preserve the purity of their blood. On the other hand, male sayyids are free to marry women of any class, apart from servants.

The 1962 Revolution signaled the end of the political pretensions of the sayyids. Following the creation of the Republic of Yemen, many prominent Zaidi and sayyid families opted to leave political life, or even to leave the country.

One striking aspect today is that while the sayyids descend from one common ancestor (Imam Ali) or Hashim in the wider sense, they are identified by their closest ancestors: in terms of family names, sayyids can be any of the following: Al-Mutawakil, Al-Moshaki, Abu Talib, Al-Mansour, Al-Kibsi, Al-Khazzan, Ghamdhan, Al-Ahdal, Al-Hashimi, Al-Saqqaf, Al-Siragi, Fa'ei, Zabarah, Sharaf Al-Din, Hamid Al-Din, Al-Qasimi, Al-Shami, or Al-Wazir. Many sayyids today are also named after their places of origin, for example Al-Sayyani, Al-Zabidi, Al-Hothi, and so on. You need to be clever to identify those non-sayyids who carry the same family or place name.

Life in a sayyid community

Although most historians focus on the role of the Zaidi sayyids who live in Sana'a and the northern towns, the Sunni sayyids are often overlooked.

One of the most important groups of Sunni sayyids hail from the scholarly Islamic town of Zabid in the Tihama; they have since settled in the mid-highlands of Taiz, Ibb and the western regions of Dhamar.

"More than 150 years ago, our ancestors moved from Zabid to this place," sayyid Abdul-Jalil Al-Ahdal told the Observer. "We were told by our fathers and grandfathers that they came to here to educate people."

Al-Ahdal now lives with over 700 people of sayyid descent in the village of Al-Ramadi in Al-Udain, Ibb. This village used to be a place where all elements of Yemeni society—sayyids, tribesmen, Jews, akhdam and mazayinah—co-existed in peaceful harmony.

Today, sayyids represent about one third of the village's population. The well-educated sayyids first came to the village centuries ago as teachers, preachers, and doctors using traditional herbal medicines, and were welcomed gratefully by the illiterate villagers.

Although these sayyids in Al-Ramadi were Sunnis, they still retained some of the aloofness of their Zaidi cousins further north.

In particular, the sayyids reveled in their unique position as descendants of the Prophet. The children of ordinary villagers learned to welcome being beaten up by sayyid children recalls this reporter, a non-sayyid who grew up in the village.

This hierarchy also had to be respected by older villagers. Even as adults, the villagers would compete to receive a big punch on their chests or backs from the [holy] hand of the Grand Sayyid, who used to live in a secluded house attached to the mosque. Despite this, the Grand Sayyid was appreciated by all who knew him, because he was like a just and welcoming father to everybody around.

As is the case elsewhere, many sayyids were poor; some were rich; some were learned and others not. They didn't own property or lands. Houses were granted to them by the actual residents. They used to live solely on endowments and gifts.

In Al-Ramadi, the sayyids also upheld the tradition of refusing to have their women (sharifah) marry any ordinary citizen, even a high-ranking dignitary. Once a big argument broke out when a respected judge courted a sayyid girl with the consent of the bride and her parents. The rest of her family did not approve, and the extended clan camped around the house to stop the perceived insult to the sayyid family. In this instance they did not succeed, despite causing a furor that was heard throughout the directorate. The couple married in secret and left the village to live in an unknown place.

After this, no other sayyid in the village, at least in recent memory, has dared to marry beneath themselves. This attitude is still in effect, and other people in the area accept it.

Mohammed Al-Kibsi told the Observer that he once heard his grandfather, who was a judge in Hajjah, telling this story:

"My grandfather said that when Imam Al-Hadi first came to Yemen, he saw that most of the tribespeople were illiterate shepherds. He instructed his cousins not to marry illiterate or ignorant people. He then kept marrying sharifat (plural of sharifa, female sayyids) to sadah," said Al-Kibsi.

"All sadah do the same thing, and never allow non-family members to marry their daughters."

However, in modern, urban areas many sayyids have entirely abandoned these traditional practices. Judges and dignitaries among the sadah often marry their daughters to sons of sheikhs and to educated non-sayyids, says Al-Kibsi.

This change in attitude is attributed to the growing level of education across society, and the need to forge new family connections across these ancient social boundaries and class distinctions.

In the past, it was seen as a shame and highly unusual to see a sayyid as a craftsman, and impossible to see him as a singer. But times are changing, and today most prominent singers and actors are sadah.

The ancient political role of the sayyids recently returned to the public consciousness during last year's rebellion in Saada. But while the government tried to stoke fears of a return to the bad old days of the Imamate, the failure of Hussein Badruddin Al-Hothi's revolt only emphasized the declining influence and prestige of the sayyids, and underlined that today, most sayyids are indistinguishable from the other members of Yemen's varied society.


Mr. Mohamed Al-Asadi is the Managing Editor of Yemen Observer (www.yobserver.com). He is also an International Correspondent for The Ambassadors Magazine. His email is alasadi@yobserver.com