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The sect of Shi ʿite Islam that prevails in the northern highlands of North Yemen and the political system that has existed to defend and advance that sect almost continuously since the late ninth century.

The Zaydi sect takes its name from Zayd ibn Ali Zayn al-Abidin, the fifth Shiʿite imam and the grandson of Husayn, who was one of the two sons of Ali and Fatima, the cousin and daughter of the prophet Muhammad. (Because Zayd was the fifth imam, Zaydis are sometimes called Fiver Shiʿa.) The doctrine of the sect as developed by Zayd and his followers was pragmatic, rational, and open to extension by critical examination and interpretation; and it rejected such features of other Shiʿite sects as the ideas of a "hidden" imam, an occult explanation of the Qurʾan, systematic dissimulation, and mysticism. Often referred to as the "fifth school" of Sunni Islam, Zaydism differs from Sunni orthodoxy primarily in its insistence on the institution of the imamate and the right of the descendants of Ali and Fatima to rule the world of Islam through that religio-political institution.

The founder of the Zaydi imamate in Yemen was al-Hadi ila al-Haqq Yahya ibn Husayn. He did so in the year 897 after being invited by tribes in the area around Saʿda to come from his native Medina to mediate their disputes and govern them. Al-Hadi's fourteen-year reign established in the highlands of North Yemen the Zaydi imamate, a state and political system that was to persist with numerous changes of fortune and breaks in continuity for over one thousand years into the 1960s, all the while maintaining many of the features that he and his immediate successors had decreed for it. The strong imams of the first decades of the twentieth century, Imam Yahya and his son, Imam Ahmad ibn Yahya, served as the spiritual leaders, temporal rulers, and defenders of the community of Islam much as had their predecessors a millennium earlier. The Zaydi imamate was abolished on the occasion of the 1962 revolution that created the Yemen Arab Republic, but northern Yemen, and Saʿda in particular, is still known for its Zaydi population.

see also ahmad ibn yahya hamid al-din; qurʾan; yahya ibn muhammad hamid al-din.


Halliday, Fred. Nation and Religion in the Middle East. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2000.

Serjeant, R. B. Society and Trade in South Arabia, edited by G. Rex Smith. Brookfield, VT: Variorum, 1996.

robert d. burrowes

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