In a recent Article, Zaidism expert N. Haider pointed out that Yemeni Zaidism has come under the influence of Sunnism over the past 700 years. Haider writes:
Zaydism: A Theological and political Survey.
By N. Haider, July 2010.
“Zaydism, one of the three major branches of Shi‘ism, emerged in the early 2nd/8th century in the southern Iraqi city of Kūfa around the claims of the ‘Alid rebel, Zayd b. ‘Ali (d. 122/740). The sect initially consisted of a range of Shi‘i? groups that shared a common political agenda but differed in their opinions of the first two caliphs. The next three centuries witnessed the development of a cohesive Zaydi theology constructed primarily on the Mu‘tazili belief in a just and rational God. Specifically, the Zaydis affirmed free will and a theory of the imāmate that required armed uprising against tyrants under the leadership of a learned descendant of ‘Ali and Fātima. Zaydi Imāms established a number of long-standing political states, the most important of which was centered in northern Yemen around the city of Sa’ada. Intellectually, Yemeni Zaydism was challenged by a gradual Sunnification that began in the 9th/15th century”.
Re-emergence of Zaidi Mu’tazilism:
It is my humble opinion that “Traditional Yemeni Zaidism”, is overly influenced by Sunnism.
In my opinion, there needs to be a re-emergence of Zaidi Mu’tazilism, which is free of Sunni influences and based on the Qur’an, reason, and the historical examples set by Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) and his descendants. Such a school of thought would have widespread appeal to Western Muslims, Muslim Youth, and Muslim intellectuals, and could spark a Renaissance in Islamic intellectual scholarship. I believe it is the Sunni character of Yemeni Zaidism that is holding it back and lessening its appeal.
The type of Zaidi Mu’tazilism I am envisaging would limit itself to:
(1) the study of the Qur’an,
(2) the tenets written by the learned mu’tazili (rationalist) theologians, who relied upon the Qur’an and reason in their works,
(3) the historically proven political activism of the Prophet Muhammad and the early ahlul bait Imams, all of whom fought for justice and fought against tyranny; this was their “political agenda” as mentioned above
(4) the encouragement of spiritualism, as modeled by the early ahlul bait Imams, especially Zain ul Abideen.
The Qur’an has to be the basis of any Islamic school. The Mu’tazili scholars used reason, and their vast knowledge of the multi-layered Arabic language, to interpret the message of the Qur’an for their lesser educated contemporaries. These were the learned, educated Muslims of their time, and they were either from ahlul bait or consulted with ahlul bait.
Meanwhile, the less educated Muslims busied themselves with ahadith, mostly about trivial subjects, which were simpler to understand. Many of these hadith were fabricated or irrelevant. These lesser educated Muslims became known initially as “ahlul hadith” and later as “Sunnis”, because they were obsessed by the “Sunna”. “Sunna” is a term originally used by Sunnis, but later embraced by Traditional Yemeni Zaidism as it fell under the Sunni influence.
There is unanimous agreement that Imam Zaid and his grandfather Imam al Husayn rose up against the ruling Umayyad authorities of his time because of their injustice, their suppression of Islam, and their corruption. Knowing this, we are able to deduce what the aims of the ahlul bait were, (i.e. to install justice and goodness via political activism). By taking Imam Zaid and Imam al Husayn as our inspiration, we can be true Zaidis, i.e. Islamic activists, rather than Muslims who passively accept injustice and corruption. And by taking the example of Imam Zainul Abideen, we can appreciate the spirituality of Islam.
Under the influence of Sunnis, I believe that Traditional Yemeni Zaidis have become distracted by the intense study of ahadith about trivial matters, and arguments with Sunnis about the leadership controversy after the death of the Prophet. The study of ahadith and the obsession with mimicking minute details of the Prophet’s lifestyle (sunna), diverts and distracts our attention away from the real issues: the eradication of poverty, the making of peace in the world, the education of the masses, and so on. It was through political activism that the ahlul bait attempted to achieve these goals. Judging by their historically proven actions, these goals were the things the ahlul bait would have strived for, not the trivial matters which one finds discussed in ahadith books.
I believe there needs to be a re-emergence of Zaidi Mu’tazilism, which is focused on Qur’an, Reason, Political struggle and Spirituality, as modelled by the early ahlul bait. I hope that through this blog I will meet others who share my interest in uncovering the Zaidi Mu’tazilism that flourished before the Sunnification of Yemeni Zaidism took place.
In Zaidi Mu’tazilism, a recontextualization of Revelation, using Reason, becomes possible. This holds out hope for those who believe that traditional Islam is out of context with today’s societies worldwide.