Note: This is a pre-Hajj post.
Urbndervish here. I took a long hiatus from posting material on the blog; however, after Eternitysojourner and I toured the Mut-haf al-Harb (Tr. “War Museum”) here in Sanaa, I thought that a reflective review would be called for.
First, I would like to start by stating that I will attempt to be as objective as possible. Amongst the lies that we were taught was the belief that we, as human beings, are able to miraculously remove ourselves from the constraints of time and space to judge someone or something unprejudiced. Consequently, there is no such thing as true objectivity. It occupies the same place in the closet as Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and Ultra-Conservative sentimentality. Objectivity’s non-existence was blatantly portrayed at the museum, but more on that later.
That withstanding, I think that it is necessary to begin by a series of commentaries of the photos.
It is the necessary policy of every state to justify its creation and subsequent existence by juxtaposing itself against an enemy. In other words, something is defined against an “other.” The idea of an identity politic has always been the means of galvanizing communities into a single body as well as differentiating themselves against a common foe that is perceived as threatening the existence of this community. The modern Yemen Republic is no exception.
The existence of a “Military Museum” in Yemen is an establishment meant to preserve the identity of Yemen as a modern republic. This also implies that the previous system or any other opposing system must be demonized and portrayed as inimical to this identity. The museum is an Ideological State Apparatus made to remind the Yemenis of their collective past, as well as justify its very existence.
Presenting a collective past and history of a people are a means to create a sense of nationhood and statehood. These cuneiforms are written in a script associated with the Sabaean people who existed thousands of years prior to the Common Era. For those of us familiar with the fabled Queen of Sheba, we know that she was a potentate whose kingdom was said to encompass half of the world. Whether we know her as “Bilqis” or “Makeda”, her kingdom is universally known as “Sheba.” Amongst the differences in the etymological renderings, “Sheba” is derived from “Saba” and subsequently, the term “Sabaeans” was used to denote the people of the southwestern Arabian Peninsula and the East African coast. These are the people that the Yemenis trace their lineage from.
The Sabaeans later become Yemenis and then millennia later, adopted the Islamic way of life. This actually took place during the lifetime of Prophet Muhammad.
These photos are copies of a letter sent to one of the kings in Yemen named al-Mundhir bin Sawi. In a time where the Prophet of Islam is portrayed as a bloodthirsty madman who spread Islam with the Qur’an in one hand and a sword in the other, this letter demonstrates his diplomacy and peaceful nature. It is a simple invitation to accept the faith with no threats of invasion or the like.
The Yemeni historical consciousness lauds itself as being a place that peacefully accepted the religion of Islam and was supplicated for by the Prophet himself.
The round symbol is the seal of the Prophet’s signet ring.
Decades after the death of the Prophet, Islamic rule became associated with dynastic rule and ambition. The Umayyad dynasty occupied a place in this and ruled over much of the Muslim world. They are characterized as the first dynasty in Islam, and indeed, one of its early rulers boasted of being the “Caesar” of the expanding Muslim empire. The idyllic image of simple, pastoral life in the Arabian sand, as characterized by the era of the Prophet, became replaced by the counter-image of obese monarchs sitting on golden-encrusted thrones while messily slurping oysters from silver platters.
One of the ways of cementing one’s occupancy in a land and in the consciousness of a people is by minting coinage in one’s name. Placing ones name and pictorial representation on money can be seen as a method of reminding the subjugated of who is actually in charge. Because monetary transactions take place all of the time, what better way of subliminally nudging the subjugated’s conscience? One can readily recall the purported statement of Jesus. Right before his more well known statement, “Render unto Caesar…”, he asked, “Whose image do you see on this coin?” Of course, the question was rhetorical then, and it is even more rhetorical now. The Umayyads were not an exception to this rule. The photo above is that of the coinage Umayyad ruler, Hisham bin Abdal-Malik.
No longer able to ideologically subjugate the masses by the “Divine Right of Kings” doctrine, the Umayyad’s hold waned and was quickly supplanted by the Abbasids. The Abbasid propaganda against the Umayyads, in which they were portrayed as an irreligious aristocracy, won support once the masses witnessed the Umayyads’ brutal suppression of the last living legacy of Islam’s Prophet, his venerable descendants. The Abbasids were then placed in the seat of Muslim authority, but then couldn’t maintain the strain of competing with would-be pretenders to the throne, warring autocrats, and constant rebellions. They were replaced and then those who replaced were themselves replaced until the title of “caliph”, or universal ruler of the Muslim body, became confined to rulers of immediate locales. One of these empires, the Ayyubid dynasty, was founded by the Muslim hero of the Crusades, Salahuddin or “Saladin”, as he is called in the West.
The second picture is that of the Ayyubids’ relics. The axes and vase have Arabic inscriptions.
In Yemen, the tribes who were headed by chiefs, were involved in numerous disputes. They sought an arbitrator; but one was not to be found in the caliph’s governors or even the caliph himself; who probably had more on their plate to deal with than the meager slap-fights of a bunch of shaggy Bedouins. They looked to Madina, where the descendants of the Prophet were to be found in abundance. A scholar by the name of Yahya bin al-Hussein, who was the grandson of one the leading imams descended from the Prophet, named Imam al-Qasim bin Ibrahim, was sought out to travel to Yemen and help solve these tribal disputes.
One side note should be made regarding the role of the Prophet’s descendants in Muslim tradition. The Prophet’s descendants, known collectively as Ahl al-Bayt (Tr. “People of the House”), hold a prominent position in the Muslim mind. Numerous reports of the Prophet’s statements portray him as assigning a special position to his offspring. One example is his statement: “My Ahl al-Bayt are like the Ark of Noah. Whoever embarks upon them shall be saved, and whoever doesn’t shall be drowned.” The egalitarian spirit of Islam’s teachings, of course, rejects the idea that someone can inherit virtue or sin from their parents. Consequently, it doesn’t sit well with the Muslim to think that the Prophet would show favouritism towards his family simply out of tribal custom or individual preference. From an Islamic perspective, he only conveys what has been revealed to him from God and any display of preference towards anyone would demonstrate selfish aims, and thereby contradict his teaching that every individual is responsible for their own actions. Furthermore, the Qur’an is replete with accounts in which the immediate family of a prophet is visited by divine punishment despite the prophet’s own wishes. That withstanding, the Prophet’s mentioning of his family in such high regard must be a result of divine injunction, and the virtues that they posses must be in concordance with their own individual states. Because of this, throughout history, a certain precedence was given to the Prophet’s descendants; whether it be in the realm of scholastic contributions, spirituality, political rule, or even armed struggle against existing political rule.
This brings us back to the appeal of the Yemeni tribes to Imam Yahya. After he came to Yemen and settled the tribal disputes, they, in turn, declared him “Imam” of Yemen. This title implies not only a temporal political leadership, but also a source of religious leadership. The tribes of most of Yemen were centralized under the rule of this imam from the progeny of Muhammad. As evident by the many letters of inquiry sent to him by the Yemenis, he was seemingly, universally respected by them as a man of administrative ability as well as a scholarly, religious authority.
For the years to follow, Yemen was to be shaded by the shadow of the imams of the Ahl al-Bayt. This Imamate lasted in Yemen until the encroachment of the Ottomans, but it later reemerged and defeated the Turkish Empire.
The first picture is of the coinage minted during the rule of one of these imams, An-Nasser li Deenillah Ahmed bin Yahya. He is the son of the aforementioned Imam Yahya bin al-Hussein, who was given the moniker of “al-Hadi ila al-Haqq” (Tr. “The Guide to the Truth”).
The other pictures are of a mimbar (tr. “pulpit”) in which the Muslim preacher of the Friday services delivers his sermon to the public. It was first constructed in 310 AH (Islamic calendar) and repaired in 984 AH by the Ottomans.
The Ottomans served as the inimical “other” in the Yemeni historical conscience. The Ottoman authority represented a modern rendition of the Islamic political authority of the past. It was they who created the “Islamic State”. Prior to that, the lands dominated by Muslim rule and administration were simply strewn extensions of Islamic governance made to comprise of small hamlets as well as entire regions. However, it was the Ottomans that transformed these scattered, individual sultanates into a centralized, modern State. The Umayyads could easily rival the Roman Empire in the 8th century; however, they wouldn’t have been able to hold a candle to the 19th century European republics. Muslim rule had to evolve into a top-heavy, monolithic entity that could stand toe-to-toe with Western (and Eastern) expansionism and development. After all, the various competing European statelets of the past put aside their differences (language, culture, etc.) long enough to focus on their similarities (which was Whiteness and Christianity in the past; and Enlightenment Ideals later) and come together to create a European “State.” Let us not forget that the word “State” is derived from the term “stasis” which implies a regulation of something so that it doesn’t increase or decrease too much. Likewise, the creation of Islamic Statehood was necessary to meet the challenge of a changing world.
Regardless of such, the Ottoman State authority was challenged and victim to fragmentation and rebellion. One of which, were the Yemenis. They looked to the past and concluded that the religious/political authority of an Arab imamate was preferable to a bureaucratic Turkish Caliphal State. Rebellion against the Ottomans gave way to the return of dynastic rule in the form of the imamate.
The first photo is of chain mail during Ottoman reign. The second photo is of wooden engravings during the same period.
Yemen’s conscience then became centered around the rule of the imams. They were seen as the victorious rulers who removed foreign rule from Yemen. The first picture is of Imam Ahmed bin Yahya. Always decked out in traditional regalia, he became a visual reminder of Yemen’s past commitment to the line of imams from the Progeny of the Prophet. There are various images of Imam Ahmed, most of which are negative. He is portrayed as a despotic ruler oftentimes resorting to draconian measures in persecuting his enemies. He is portrayed as a backwards hillbilly who would intentionally avoid material progress to keep his people in abject poverty so that his royal standard of living could remain distinguished from them. To what extent these portrayals are true depends on one’s own perspective and opinion.
The second picture is of a text of Islamic jurisprudence, called “Kitaab al-Azhar.” This text is still taught to this day and I had the privilege of meeting one of the author’s descendants. This book and other books like it, demonstrates that central to the Islamic faith is the combination of individual worship as well as public responsibility. Insomuch that a law text may contain the rules of purification and prayer but also have a chapter dedicated to the rules of business transactions and the distribution of alms. Theoretically, there was no separation of religion and state in the Islamic conscience. The next phase of Yemen’s history would take it into a bloody civil war which implications are still felt to this day.
One of the other lasting images of Imam Ahmed portrays him as superstitious. The above photos are of a hurz, or hijaab. These terms are used to refer to certain “prescriptions” believed to protect the possessor from certain harm and/or bring about fortunate outcomes. They are generally worn or carried by the possessor. I guess a rough translation would be “talisman” although the word “talisman” is loaded with various underlying concepts that don’t apply to a hurz.
This particular hurz was written to increase marital potency and ease the delivery of childbirth. Usually a hurz is written including various formulae of the “Names of Allah”, supplications, and Qur’anic verses. Although Islam categorically rejects to use of and practice of magic, there is a silent acceptance of utilizing a hurz. I will discuss this in more detail in a future post, God willing.
The next phase that Yemen underwent was the Republican Revolution. Some thought that the imamate was an antiquated fossil that needed to be buried once and for all. Others believed that Yemen was to join the Arab nationalist set and become a republic. Prior to this a man named Jamal Abdun-Nasser articulated the need for the Muslim (specifically, the Arab) world to modernize thus, be able to compete with the European world. He adopted an Arab version of socialism espoused by the likes of Lebanese, Christian thinker and founder of the Ba’ath party, Michel Aflaq. The founders of the Yemen republic took on the same line of thinking and sought the immediate dethroning of the Imam. Any vestige of an iconic, Muslim monarchy, such as the caliphate or imamate, was ridiculed as the antithesis of what a modern Nation-State should consist of. The anti-Imam propaganda referred to his rule using the term, “ecclesiastical”; suggesting that another old-fashioned concept that must be deleted was that of a “theocracy”. They received help from the aforementioned Abdun-Nasser and forged a military and ideological attack upon the imamate. Consequently, Abdun-Nasser and the republicans of Egypt had recently triumphed over their own monarch, King Farouq. The victory of the republicans over the royalists in the Yemen civil war formed the modern Republic of Yemen.
The first picture is of the “Sacred Charter”. It states the declaration of the new State that was to be formed.
The second picture is a collage with the photos of a Yemeni diplomat visiting the USSR, China, etc.
This picture is of the car that Imam Ahmed was assassinated in. The death of Imam Ahmed was a symbolic representation of the new era that Yemen would be ushered in. The era of the modern Arab republic replaced the era of Imamate. Yemen was to sprinkle the last bit of dust of the buried Imamate and forge ahead to meet the challenges of a new republic.