On this blessed day of Ashura, let us remember Yemen: the Karbala of today

Below text was originally written for the organisation “Muslims for Socialism”. The content reflects the personal opinion and findings of the writer, and does not represent Yemen Resistance Watch

The blessed day of Ashura is a day for Muslims to reflect, to study, to mourn and to commemorate. A day on which we honour those who shed their blood and laid down their lives for us, and a day in which we rejoice in the knowledge that the spirit of Islam lives on thanks to their sacrifice.

As we imagine the thirst of Imam Husayn (A.S) and his followers, we feel pain. As we remember the death of Abbas ibn Ali, the brother of Husayn who died while fetching water for the parched companions, we feel rage. And as we imagine the violent murder of Imam Husayn at the hands of the monsters Shimr and Yazid, we feel loss and intense sadness.

Yet no matter how we grieve or mourn the day, Ashura is incomplete without action for the future. Imam Husayn did not die in vain, nor did he sacrifice himself just so we may shed tears for him. He died for justice, for truth (Haqq) and for the righteousness of Islam. And this is exactly what we must do, if we mean to follow in his footsteps and carry his banner forward.
Islam without action is empty. Ashura without dedication is hollow. Commemorating Karbala without focusing on the sacred struggle we as Muslims are facing today, is an insult to the martyrs.

Or, as the famous Pakistani scholar Sayyid Abu A’la Maududi wrote:
“Therefore, if we do not work for this objective [of Husayn ], and to the contrary work against it, our mere continuity of lamentation and the cursing of his killers will not earn us an appreciation from the Imam on the day of resurrection, nor should we expect that our actions will hold value with God.”

Yemen: today’s Karbala

If there is one nation today that can say with full certainty and without boast, that they are the Karbala of today, it is Yemen. This proud country, the only republic on the Arab Peninsula, has been resisting the most vile, horrible and atrocious crimes for over three years now, fighting for Haqq and justice against the falsehood of today’s Yazid.

Just like Imam Husayn (A.S.) and the blessed Karbala 72 were fighting seemingly unsurmountable odds when facing the thousands in the horde of the cruel tyrant Yazid, the heroic Mujahideen of Yemen are fighting not just the richest oil kingdom in the world with the most advanced army any Arab nation can boast, but also the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and a host of Sudanese mercenaries. And as if that isn’t enough yet, this coalition of darkness is directly being supported by the most powerful imperialist powers out there: the United States, the United Kingdom, France and even the Zionist entity itself.

How can a nation ever be expected to stand tall in the face of this adversity, and to not only fight back but to do so with great success? By the strength of Imam Husayn, that’s how.

We cannot understand the current situation in Yemen if we don’t understand its history. Yemen is a proudly and deeply religious Islamic nation, a country were Islam is part of their very fabric. The first realm outside the Hijaz to embrace Islam, the sons of Saba were on the forefront of support to the Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W.S.), and that his blessed household, the Ahlulbayt, from day one.

The Yemenis fought for the preservation of the Ummah after the Prophet’s death, they fought the enemies of Islam with bravery and courage, and they served Imam Ali with great distinction during the first Fitna. And when the treacherous Mu’awiyah took over power as “Caliph of Islam”, it was the Yemenis who stood up once again.

As early as the 680s, Yemeni tribes were involved in the wars against the Umayyad usurpers, and although the rulers in Damascus eventually succeeded in exerting control over Iraq, Syria and most of the Arab Peninsula, they would never actually control Yemen itself. Powerful tribal alliances and nations, though nominally Sunni, maintained the independence of Yemen from the whims of the Umayyad rulers.

Eventually however, the Umayyads had succeeded to exercise some sort of nominal control over Sana’a and its surroundings. But if they believed Yemen would submit just because of this, they were sorely mistaken. In 745, a popular revolt led by the Ibadi movement, an Islamic madhab that preceded the official Sunni-Shia split and was notable for its complete rejection of the Umayyad claim to the Caliphate, removed all traces of Umayyad control from Yemen, and ensured full independence yet again.

This is but one example of many troughout history that shows that Yemen has never bowed to the status quo, not even if the powers that be masked themselves in an Islamic disguise and pretended to be the “Islamic orthodoxy” of the time. Yemen was a hotbed of revolutionary zeal from the very beginning, as well as a notably tolerant society in which all sects of Islam lived side by side and fought together to preserve their country’s freedom. Different schools of Sunnism as well as Shiism coexisted, as did other branches of Islam such as the aforementioned Ibadis.

In other words, the spirit of Karbala existed in Yemen from the very moment they embraced Islam, and has never left the country since then. Far from being an “Iran-backed rebellion”, the 2014 September 21 Revolution that was led by Ansarullah (the so-called “Houthis”) was a fully and authentically Yemeni event, a symbol of the struggle for Islamic purity and justice that has marked Yemen for over fourteen centuries.

Yet for this authentic Yemeni and pure Islamic struggle, the nation of Yemen has been punished for over three years now. Daily airstrikes, bouts of mass murder, construction of concentration camps and torture prisons, organized rape, carpet bombing, blockade of food and humanitarian aid, a total military lockdown and targeting killing of farmers, fishermen and even children going to school, the nation has been subjected to the worst humanitarian disaster on the planet today.

And to add insult to injury: this war is orchestrated and led by those who dare call themselves the “Custodians” of the Holy Mosques of Mecca and Medina. The al-Saud monarchy from Najd, have all but taken over the heartland of Islam supported by the imperialist tentacles of Great Britain, the United States and nowadays even “Israel” itself.

The Husayni struggle of Yemen

Now, who are these so-called “Iran-aligned Shia Houthi rebels”, that the imperialists conduct their scare campaign about? Well, first off, they are not backed by Iran in any way. Secondly, they are not called “Houthis”, but Ansarullah (the Helpers of God). And third off, they are not Shia in the way it is usually referred to (the Twelver school), but Zaydi.

Zaydi Islam is a sect that preceded the present-day typical “Sunni versus Shia” split that is always being encouraged by the enemies of Islam. Zaydis are followers of the Ahlulbayt and of Imam Ali (A.S), who fully established their madhab after the death of the Fourth Imam, Ali ibn Husayn al-Abidin (A.S).

When Ali al-Abidin, the son of Imam Husayn who narrowly survived the massacre of Karbala thanks to the intervention of his heroic aunt, Lady Zaynab (A.S), passed away in the year 713, he was succeeded by his eldest son Muhammad al-Baqir (A.S) in the eyes of those we now call Twelvers. Some however, decided that Muhammad’s younger brother Zayd ibn Ali (A.S.) had a better claim to the Imamate, considering the fact that Zayd was more active in the active and armed struggle for revolutionary change against the Umayyad usurpers.

The two brothers separated ways on friendly terms, with Muhammad al-Baqir focusing on teaching, while Imam Zayd led his followers in a heroic revolution that got active support from no other than Abu Hanifa himself, the father of the Hanafi school, which is largest madhab in Sunni Islam today. It deserves to be said that Abu Hanifa would later on found the Maturidi school of Islamic systemic theology, which implemented several of the highly rationalist concepts formulated by Imam Zayd and his followers. The Maturidi systemic theology has since grown into one of the two foremost Sunni theology schools.

Ali al-Ridha, the eight Imam of Twelver Shias, said of Imam Zayd:

“He was one of the scholars from the Household of Muhammad and got angry for the sake of the Honorable the Exalted God. He fought with the enemies of God until he got killed in His path. My father Musa ibn Ja’far narrated that he had heard his father Ja’far ibn Muhammad say, “May God bless my uncle Zayd… He consulted with me about his uprising and I told him, “O my uncle! Do this if you are pleased with being killed and your corpse being hung up from the gallows in the al-Konasa neighborhood.” After Zayd left, As-Sadiq said, “Woe be to those who hear his call but do not help him!””

Jafar al-Sadiq, the sixth Twelver Shia Imam, phrased it this way:

“From God we are and to Him is our return. I ask God for my reward in this calamity. He was a really good uncle. My uncle was a man for our world and for our Hereafter. I swear by God that my uncle is a martyr just like the martyrs who fought along with God’s Prophet (s) or Ali (s) or Al-Hassan (s) or Al-Hussein(s)”

While Imam Zayd eventually was martyred, his sacrifice laid the groundwork for the overthrow of the Umayyad tyranny just five years later, in the Abbasid Revolution. And the message of the Imam spread across the Islamic world, with his madhab eventually being known as the Zaydi school of thought, also known as the School of Ahlulbayt.

Zayd is commemorated as a Shaheed (martyr) in all Islamic schools of thought, both Sunni and Shia alike. There was no sectarian divide in his revolution. It was, just like the struggle of his grandfather Imam Husayn, a fight between justice and tyranny, an earthly representation of the cosmic battle between good and evil.

In 893 CE, Yahya ibn al-Husayn, a descendant of Imam Hasan (grandson of the Prophet and brother of Imam Husayn), was invited by the people of Yemen to mediate disputes and unite the quarreling tribes of northern Yemen, much like the Prophet himself had been invited to Medina. After Yahya settled in the city of Sa’da, the Zaydi madhab was accepted by a rapidly increasing amount of scholars, tribesmen and local rulers, until most of Yemen was united under a newly-declared Imamate that was established according to the principles of revolutionary Islam. Yemen became fully independent from Abbasid rule, and would never again be fully under control of any imperial power since (despite many empires nominally claiming suzerainty over the country).

And from that moment on, for over a thousand years all the way up until 1948, the Imamate system ruled over most of Yemen nearly uninterrupted. A theological democracy, if you will, in which the Imams were elected by the tribes, and deposed if they were found to be lacking righteousness. Verily a system of governance that was unseen anywhere else in the world at that time. And definitely a threat to countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United States of America.

The Zaydi madhab that is so widespread in Yemen is not technically either Sunni or Shia, despite what the Saudis may claim. While they recognize Ali ibn Abu Talib as the only legitimate successor to the Prophet Muhammad after his death, they don’t condemn Abu Bakr, Umar or Uthman for their rule as Caliph. While they openly disapprove of the Caliphate being held by anyone who is not of the Ahlulbayt, in terms of Islamic jurisprudence they most closely resemble the Sunni Mu’tazilites.

And while they share the Twelver Shia concept of the Imamate, they reject the notion that the title of Imam has to pass on from father to son, and hold that every member of the Ahlulbayt (descendant of the Prophet through Fatima and Ali) who is a righteous Muslim who stands up for justice and fights tyranny and corruption, can be elected to the position of Imam.

As you can see, the idea that the war in Yemen is between “Sunni and Shia” is an extremely oversimplified notion at best.

One of the main core tenets that has determined Yemeni history is the principle of khurruj, the religious duty to fight against oppression and injustice at all times. This means that Zaydis are forbidden from limiting their religious experience to strictly personal matters, and are morally obliged to stand up and fight whenever tyranny oppresses the people.

This may sound like a very basic principle, but bear in mind that several highly influential Muslim scholars, such as al-Ash’ari and al-Ghazali, are well-known for their position that rebellion or revolution is completely unjustified under any condition as long as the ruler is nominally Muslim. Al-Ghazali even want so far as to say “sixty years of tyranny are better than one hour of civil strife” and “an unjust ruler should not be deposed if strife would follow”.

Suffice it to say that the defenders of Yemen disagree heavily with such a notion.

Karbala repeated

And this is what brings us to the situation of today. Since its very inception as a country, Saudi Arabia has been an enemy of Yemen, one of the reasons being exactly that the revolutionary spirit of the Yemeni nation is perceived as a threat to the monarchical rule of al-Saud.
Already in 1934, the Saudis invaded Yemen and after a bloody war forcefully occupied the Yemeni provinces of Najran, Jizan and Asir. All three of these territories have since been violently annexed into the “southern provinces of Saudi Arabia”.

In 1948, the Saudis conspired with the British to assassinate Imam Yahya Muhammad Hamidaddin, and instigated a short but bloody succession conflict in the country. When eventually Imam Yahya’s son Ahmad took over rule of the country, he broke with the rule of election and proclaimed himself “Imam” based solely on the virtue of being Imam Yahya’s son. Supported by the Saudis for his plans to turn Yemen into a monarchy, Ahmad ruled with an iron fist until his death in 1962.

After 1962, the progressive forces of Yemen rebelled against the Saudi-backed and corrupted monarchy, establishing the Yemen Arab Republic (commonly known as North Yemen because the British maintained a colonial presence around the southern city of Aden). But even the establishment of a democratic republican system would not suffice to keep out the destructive influence of Saudi imperialism. It would not be until 1970 that the royalists, massively supported by Saudi Arabia and the British imperialists, would be fully defeated.

But even after that, despite friendly relations with both the Soviet Union and Nasser’s Egypt, Yemen could never fully escape the grasp of Saudi Arabia. The Wahhabis started infiltrating the country from the bottom up, building schools, poisoning minds and bribing their way to the top. Especially after 1967, when the British colony of Aden became independent as the Democratic People’s Republic of Yemen (commonly known as South Yemen), led by a revolutionary Marxist-Leninist government, the Saudis started increasing their efforts to corrupt North Yemen even more. Relying on the most easily corruptible and reactionary elements in North Yemeni society, the Saudis destabilized the country bit by bit.

From 1962 until 1978, North Yemen would have six presidents, of which two were deposed and two were assassinated under highly suspicious circumstances that pointed directly at the Saudis. Especially in the case of Ibrahim al-Hamdi, a true son of the 1962 Revolution who accomplished massive progress during his short rule as president between 1974 and 1977, the Saudis were directly involved. Al-Hamdi was literally on the way to meet with the South Yemeni leadership for a declaration of unification of the two nations under a just social system when he was murdered.

The death of President al-Hamdi and the ensuing chaos paved the way for the power grab of Ali Abdullah Saleh, a Saudi-backed despot who reversed most of al-Hamdi’s progressive policies, instigated a disastrous programme of privatization, liberalization and World Bank intervention, and opened the doors wide for both US economic exploitation and Saudi ideological influence.

It wasn’t until 2011 that the Yemeni people, with Ansarullah at the forefront, would successfully depose Saleh from his undeserved seat of power. Yet even then, the Saudis merely replaced one pawn with another, placing their puppet Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi in charge of the country.

Only on September 21 in 2014, a day of which the fourth anniversary will coincide with the holy day of Ashura, Yemen was finally liberated. But as we have seen, it came at a terrible cost.

A double struggle: for the liberation of Yemen and for the purity of Islam

Truly, the continued struggle of the Yemeni people against the ongoing aggression by the Saudi-led invaders is a testimony to the faith they have. Yemen shows that no matter how strong the enemy is, a people that is united in faith and courage will always be stronger.

The Yemenis know that they may perish, either by thirst or hunger, by airstrikes or artillery fire, or simply by murderous gangs of takfirist. And yet they stand strong, and with their makeshift weapons and old military material that sometimes dates back decades they have dealt massive blows to the Saudis and their mercenaries. Even Western media has admitted that up to 3,000 Saudi soldiers have died in the past three years alone, as well as over 13,000 of their mercenaries.

Perhaps the best way to describe the spirit of Yemen is said in the words of the revolutionary leader Sayyid Abdul-Malik Badreddin al-Houthi himself:

“What they want from our Yemeni nation is surrender. This is impossible! This can never materialize. Allah rejects it. Our human instinct rejects it. Our human dignity rejects it. Our religious values and religious principles based on Islam reject it. Our fundamental and original Arab identity rejects that we surrender to anyone.

Let them wait for the impossible! By Allah, if we become particles scattered in the air, it would be more honourable, loved and desired for us than surrendering to those scoundrels, criminals, corruptors on earth, tyrants and arrogants.”

Or, in the immortal words of Imam Husayn:
“You (Yazid) have put before us two choices: death or humiliation. And we will never accept humiliation.”

Brecht Jonkers

About The Author

Historian specializing in Arab history, Islamic studies and geopolitical analysis. Active in the anti-imperialist movement in Belgium

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