Posted on May 6, 2010 - by mira
(Photo by PJW)
First appeared in Yemen Today
“Visitors must step inside the house,” says Haj Hassan Abdullah al-Hutaib, the imam of the mosque, as he insists on lunch. His guests decline repeatedly. He then excuses himself to carry out the noon call to prayer in the mosque.
The village children spot buses winding down the road along misty terraced mountains. In all anticipation they hurry with their bags to the village entrance. They set up along the walkway and wait for their visitors, like they do every day. They’re selling pecans, raisins and candy. The buses arrive, one after another bringing Indian nationals through Sana’a from around the world.
The pilgrims snake through the village garden, green with grass, and individually or in small groups make their way past the pigeons’ tower: Men in white thobes (traditional male dress) and embroidered kufias (traditional headdress) and women in colorful dresses decorated with lace and floral patterns, similar to those of the village women. They start climbing the stairs.
“Jalan! Jalan!” (Come up, come up) says a man standing outside a red stone hotel.
Another busload of pilgrims arrives. Then another, for a total of 10 buses, or around 200 pilgrims that day.
“Jalan,” the man repeats to the new wave of arrivals, gesturing for them to come up to the hotel for lunch.
Some pilgrims stop to visit the bright white mausoleum of da’i (spiritual leader) Hatim bin Ibrahim, adorned with Quranic verses, and the centerpiece of the village of Hutaib in the Haraz Mountains, where a community of Yemeni Dawoodi Ismailis lives.
How did the relationship between Hutaib and India come to be? Why is the da’i of this community of Ismailis based in Mumbai, India? And why does that leadership exclude the two other major branches of Ismailism, the Nizari and the Sulaymani sects?
Long before they would be known as Dawoodis or, more commonly, Bohras, there lived in the 12th century the third da’i, Hatim bin Ibrahim al-Hamidi, whose formal title was al-Da’i al-Mutlaq (the Absolute Missionary). He was of the Banu Hamdan tribe of Yemen and succeeded his father Ibrahim to the highest religious post.
Abbas Hamdani, Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, writes that Da’i Hatim was a writer, a versatile poet and an organizer of the faith. The da’i modified and formalized the structure of the Ismaili da’wa (mission), in an evolution from its origins in Fatimid Egypt that wouldn’t change to the present day.
It is believed that Da’i Hatim himself built the mosque overlooking the village of Hutaib to worship in it and to honor al-Sayyida al-Hurra (The Noble Lady), otherwise known as Queen Arwa al-Sulayhiyya, who ruled Yemen for over five decades from 1084 to 1138.
For it was none other than Queen Arwa who would expand the Ismaili faith in Yemen and beyond, in a dynasty that would rule from Dhu Jibla, and whose borders would reach as far as Mecca in current-day Saudi Arabia.
The Sulayhid queen is reported to have been strikingly beautiful, intelligent, courageous and of an independent character, like her mother-in-law and role model, Queen Asma. Arwa’s marriage to the son of the founder of the Sulayhid dynasty in Yemen led her to the reins of power. She was involved in running the kingdom even before her husband’s death, following war injuries he sustained and his retreat from public life.
For a long time the Sulayhids maintained a strong and mutually beneficial relationship with the Fatimid rulers in Egypt. The alliance provided security and support to the Sulayhids whenever their rule was challenged locally. For the Fatimids, the Sulayhid kingdom was strategically important in the Indian Ocean trade route and, through it, the spread of Ismailism in Yemen and Asia. The Fatimids were of the original Ismaili sect that was born after a division among the Shias in the 8th century AD over a question of leadership. Deriving their name from Fatima, the Prophet’s daughter, they ruled Egypt from 909 AD for over two centuries from Cairo, the capital which they founded, and built the University of al-Azhar, which has been an important center of learning for Islam.
It may have been the important role Queen Arwa played in the Ismaili faith and political necessity following her husband’s death, scholars contend, that made Egypt’s Imam appoint her as hujja, the highest religious position at the time.
“Arwa became the religious figure whose example was to be followed by the community of believers,” writes Samer Traboulsi, Assistant Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. “She also became the ultimate authority for all the da’is [in Yemen], since she was the official representative of the Imam.”
The long-ruling queen would further spread the faith in Sind and Hind (now Pakistan and India) through the relationship developed with Asia in the Indian Ocean trade. According to the London-based Institute for Ismaili Studies (IIS), the Sulayhids are credited with playing an important role in the spread of Ismailism in South Asia, establishing a new Ismaili community in Gujarat, India, in 1067. They also oversaw the selection of da’is who were dispatched from Yemen to run the new community’s affairs.
But trouble arose when the Fatimid Imam al-Mustansir Billah died in Egypt in 1094 and the question of his successor split the Ismaili community. This would be the first schism to divide them, but not the last. The disagreement over the Imam’s successor resulted in the initial two sub-sects of Ismailism. The first were the Nizaris, who followed the Imam’s eldest son Nizar. Also known as Khojas, they live in India, Syria, and South and West Asia, among other regions worldwide. Their current leader is Prince Karim al-Hussaini Aga Khan IV, the 49th Imam.
The second faction of Ismailis approved of the Imam’s successor to the throne, Nizar’s brother al-Mustaali, whom Queen Arwa recognized as Imam. Thus the Ismaili communities of Yemen and Gujarat became known as Mustaalis.
But they would later come to be better known as Tayyibis in Yemen following a second schism in 1130, when the queen supported Imam al-Tayyib. Little is known about al-Tayyib, but Tayyibis believe that he went into occultation (concealment), and thus the period since then until the present is known as satr, or concealment.
It was during this second schism that Queen Arwa severed ties with Fatimid Egypt because of al-Tayyib’s occultation. The move would ensure the survival of Ismailis long after the collapse of both the Fatimid kingdom in Egypt and the Sulayhid dynasty in Yemen, according to IIS. She re-designated the title of the then-da’i as al-Da’i al-Mutlaq, or Absolute Missionary, allowing the faith to be independent from political rule. The Absolute Missionary was put in charge of the affairs of the community and, in the absence of the imam, was the highest authority of the Tayyibis.
Queen Arwa’s death in 1138 was effectively the end of the Sulayhid dynasty with no one to succeed her. She was buried in the mosque she built in Dhu Jibla. The Ismaili faith, however, did in fact survive and traveled on its own journey that led it back to India.
Now without political leadership, Ismailism would witness one of its bleakest times under Zaydi Shia imams in the 16th century AD and later, who considered the sect to be heretical. The Tayyibi Ismailis, who consisted of the Hamdani Yam branch in Wadi Dahr and the Yaaburi in Haraz, turned to the more tolerant Ottomans for protection at the time, but this would soon backfire. The Ottomans’ failure to maintain control of upper Yemen resulted in the persecution of the Ismaili community by the vengeful imam, according to Professor Traboulsi.
“Most of the Zaydi imams oppressed and starved the Ismailis,” says a knowledgeable member of the community who wished to remain anonymous.
Negotiations with the imam allowed masses of Ismailis to seek refuge in the Haraz Mountains, where they relocated their center from Wadi Dahr. But continued persecutions caused the then-da’i to escape to Zabid, where he appointed the first Indian da’i, who traveled to Yemen from Gujarat.
The community was able to thrive in Haraz and Wadi Dahr for several decades under Ottoman rule in the 16th century, but an epidemic took the lives of high-ranking Tayyibis and prompted the return of many Indian Ismailis to India. In the face of growing Zaydi power, the first Indian da’i was selected to rule from India.
Over 500 years after the establishment of the Gujarat community by Yemen’s Sulayhids, the spiritual leadership was transferred to Gujarat, and later to Mumbai, where successive da’is have ruled until the current da’i, Dr. Mohammed Burhanuddin.
Ties between Yemen’s estimated 60,000 Ismailis and India have remained to this day. Professor Abbas Hamdani’s father, Hussain al-Hamdani, is described by the IIS as one of the pioneers of modern Ismaili studies and is the author of the book The Sulayhids and the Fatimid Movement in Yemen.
Professor Abbas Hamdani explained his Yemeni ancestry in an e-mail: “In the early eighteenth century, my ancestor, Shaykh Ali b. Said b. Ali b. Husayn al-Hamdani migrated from Haraz, Yemen to Surat, India at the invitation of the then Tayyibi Dawoodi Da’i. He was a learned Shaykh and he brought with him rare manuscripts of the Ismaili community. Our family bears the name Hamdani as we are descended from this Shaykh Ali who belonged to the Yaaburi branch of the Hamdani tribe settled in Haraz. For the last six generations we have been Indians keeping up the tradition of Arabic learning and the study and augmentation of Ismaili literature.”
Da’i Burhanuddin has been received by President Ali Abdullah Saleh on several occasions, and is credited with renovations in the village of Hutaib and elsewhere, as well as with efforts to replace the village’s qat trees with coffee trees.
“In 1999 alone, 50,000 qat trees were replaced with coffee trees,” says Mohammed al-Hamdani, a Dawoodi Ismaili and instructor of English as a Second Language.
The 16th century, a dark time for Ismailis in Yemen, witnessed towards its end yet another schism over a leadership succession, dividing the Tayyibis into the Sulaymani and Dawoodi branches, named after the successors they followed. The IIS estimates that there are around 700,000 Dawoodis around the world.
The majority of Sulaymanis have made Saudi Arabia’s Najran their center since 1640. They are also known as Makarima after the tribe of al-Makrami which originated in the village of Tayba in Yemen. According to a 2004 Saudi census, they number around 408,000 in Najran, and their da’i is al-Fakhri Abdullah bin Mohammed al-Makrami.
Like other religious minorities historically persecuted in the Middle East and elsewhere, Yemeni Ismailis, who turned secretive in order to protect themselves, were surrounded with invented stories such as the discrediting of their claim to the Prophet’s lineage and, more offensively, having tails.
“Some people misunderstand or misinterpret Ismailism,” says Mohammed al-Hamdani. “Many stereotypes and rumors were spread about them historically by the Imam. It’s indicative that [Ismaili] shrines and forts are on top of mountains.”
Da’i Hatim’s mausoleum in Hutaib is a site of pilgrimage not only for Dawoodis but for Sulaymani Ismailis as well, since he lived before the schism between the two.
“[The visit to shrines] is controversial,” explains Ibrahim al-Harazi, whose family is Yemeni Sulaymani. “In Sunni Islam, it’s not only haram (forbidden) but polytheistic to visit shrines. But for us, we are not praying to them. When we visit, we read some parts of the Quran and say prayers. The Prophet’s daughter Fatima used to visit her father’s shrine.”
In Yemen’s ancient village of al-Qalaa, later renamed Tayba, with scenic views of Wadi Dahr, Ismailis visit the shrine of a da’i in the courtyard of a mosque frequented by the village’s Zaydi community. The village, historically important to Ismailis, is now home to around 250 Sulaymanis, says Haj Mohammed Abdullah, an elderly, learned member of the sect.
He receives guests from Najran who teach in Sana’a in a Saudi cultural exchange program and who come to him for advice. He indulges his guests by recounting some Ismaili history, and speaks highly of Queen Arwa and her contributions to Yemen.
“Ismailis are a peaceful people,” he says.
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