Sunday, 7 August 2011

Yemen - the Madhab (مذهب) or Islamic schools of thought

It's quite apt to be blogging about a Muslim country during Ramadan.  I'd love to say that I planned it that way, but that's not the case.  When I was blogging about Saudi Arabia, I touched on the subject of Islam in a very general way, but it's such a rich and fascinating subject area, it will take me quite a few blog posts, I'd imagine to begin to understand the complexities of the Islamic faith.

Shi'a or Sunni?

One thing I learned about Islam when I was doing research about Saudi Arabia, is that it's an incredibly diverse faith.  There is no centralised power structure and history has led different branches of Islam in different directions, depending on which caliphate (from the Arabic خلافة khilafa meaning 'succession') you or your tribe believed in.

I'm sure most people will be aware that there are two main branches of Islam, أهل السنة or Sunni, who make up the majority of Muslim believers and  شيعة or Shi'a, predominant in Iran and parts of Iraq.  I'm still struggling to understand the difference between Sunni and Shi'a, but it seems to relate to a split that happened back in the early days of the development of Islam.

So what is Shi'a?
Arabia Felix by eesti

Followers of Shi'a believe that Muhammad's cousin Ali was his rightful successor, not the three Caliphs or successors (Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman) followed by orthodox Sunni believers.  Ali's succession gained early support in (what is now) Iraq and his final resting place is the incredibly important Shi'a shrine حرم الإمام علي in Najaf, Iraq.  The politics of Islam seemed to have moved away from Arabia pretty early on, as Syria and Iraq championed these first rival factions of Islamic belief. I'm just beginning to understand the significance of the Iraqi holy sites to Muslim and, more specifically, Shi'a believers. 

I'm also trying to understand what all of this means to Islam in the 21st century and what I've understood is that the independence of the Shi'a imams from the rigidness of the Quranic scriptures and the Hadiths has given the Irani imams power that goes beyond the laws of the state.  On one hand, Shi'a seems to have a greater capability to deal with 21st century life.  On the other hand, belief in the god-given rights of imams and end-of-the-world predictions about the coming of مهدي al-Madhi, a kind of 'messiah', make Shi'a seem arcane and backward.

The Schools of Shi'a
Yemen countryside by eesti

Shi'a is further divided into three main schools:

اثنا عشرية or ithna asharriyah often called the Twelvers in English - is the biggest school of belief in Shi'a and predominates in Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, Azerbaijan and Lebanon

الإسماعيليون or Ismaili often called the Seveners in English - they seem to be a very small sect with a minority of believers spread throughout the Islamic world.

الزيدية or the Zaydi is a Shi'a school very closely connected to Yemen - they are know as the realists of Shi'a and split off from the other two branches very early on so, although they believe in the succession of Ali, they don't seem have the same belief in the god-given powers of the Imam or al-Mahdi

The schools of Sunni
Doorway in Ta'izz by eesti

Sunni believers also fall into various different schools or Madhab.  I can't even begin at this point to understand the difference between these, so for now, I'll content myself with identifying the four main ones and where they have most of their followers:

حنفي or Hanafi is the main Madhab in India, Pakistan, Central Asia, Egypt, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, parts of Iraq and amongst Muslim communities in the UK and Germany. 

مالكي or Melikiyah is the predominant Madhab in north and west Africa (but not in Egypt or Sudan) - it's also the school of jurisprudence followed by most Muslims in Eritrea.

شافعي or Shafi'i spreads in a great arc across the Indian ocean, from the Muslim populations of Ethiopia, Sudan,Yemen and Somalia to Malaysia, Indonesia and South East Asia. 

حنبلى or Hambela is the school of Islam followed in Saudi Arabia.

There is also a Madhab called الاباضية or Ibadhi which is neither Sunni nor Shi'a and is the dominant school of Islam in Oman and Zanzibar.

Of course, all of this is an over-simplification of the spread of Islamic beliefs and each country, as well as many non-Muslim countries, will have a range of Madhabs and believers, from the main schools of Sunni and Shi'a, as well as more obscure Madhabs not mentioned in this blog. 

Islam in Yemen

Mosque in San'a by eesti
Yemen seems to have a characteristic north-south split when it comes to religion, with northern Yemen following the Shi'a school of Zaydi and southern Yemen following the Sunni school of Shafi'i.  By all accounts, both schools are in the moderate camps of Sunni and Shi'a so (perhaps?) not all that different to each other in terms of religious practice.  I get the sense that, whilst religion is important to Yemeni culture, it doesn't seem to dominate all aspects of Yemeni life, in contrast to the form of Islam practiced across the border in Saudi Arabia.

I look forward to learning more about Islam in future blog posts, now that I have added another piece to the puzzle!

Image credits:

For this blog post I've chosen to highlight the work of flickuser eesti who is from Saitami prefecture, just outside Tokyo and Japan.  He seems to have photographed half of the world, so it's well worth visiting his photostream on flickr.  He's also photographed Uzbekistan and Russia and has a very cute teddy bear who crops up in different places!

Thanks eesti for sharing your photos with us under the Creative Commons License.
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