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Zindani, Abd al-Majid al-
(1938–)

Abd al-Majid al-Zindani has long been a key religious and political figure in Yemen. He is usually referred to as a "shaykh" in the religious sense of the term, and was instrumental in establishing the Yemeni Reform Grouping (al-Tajammu' al-Yamani li'l-Islah), better known simply as Islah, in 1990. He has also headed the party's Consultative Council since it was established that same year, and from 1993 to 1997 he was a member of the Republic of Yemen's ruling five-man presidential council. In 2004 the United States officially listed him as a terrorist for his alleged role as a terrorist recruiter and financier.

PERSONAL HISTORY

Al-Zindani was born in 1938 near the village of Ba'dan, east of the city of Ibb, 193 kilometers south of San'a, in what was then the Arab Republic of Yemen (North Yemen). Most of Ibb's inhabitants in the 1930s were Sunni Muslims of the Shafi'i school, unlike the Shi'ite Zaydi dynasty that then ruled the country. Al-Zindani claims to be a naqili, a scion of the northern Zaydi tribes that moved south with the Qasimi imams in the seventeenth century. This claim is significant in that it allows him superior status in Yemen's social hierarchy.

Al-Zindani spent his primary years in school in Ibb, before moving to the southern port city of Aden, then under British rule, to continue his studies. This was a fairly common practice during the 1940s and 1950s, as a host of Yemeni intellectuals, students, and workers moved back and forth between the two areas. In the mid-1950s he traveled to Cairo to pursue a degree in pharmacology at Ayn Shams University. But like many students at the time, he soon gave that up in favor of Islamic studies at al-Azhar in the late 1950s. He returned to Yemen, before completing his studies, soon after the revolution broke out in 1962. He never pursued another academic degree. This lack of qualifications is sometimes used by his better-credentialed religious colleagues to smear him in the Arabic press.

Like many Yemeni students who had studied in Egypt, al-Zindani supported the coalition of army officers, tribesmen, and Egyptians against the Zaydi imam Muhammad al-Badr and his supporting tribes, backed by Saudi Arabia. But in late 1964, under the influence of the Yemeni poet and politician Muhammad Mahmud al-Zubayri, al-Zindani grew tired of Egyptian interference, and joined al-Zubayri's newly formed Hizbullah (Party of God). The party did not survive al-Zubayri's assassination in April 1965.

Al-Zindani, frustrated and angry about the death of his mentor, fled south to Aden, which was involved in its own messy resistance war against Britain that would soon devolve into a civil war. Following the Marxist takeover in the south in 1967, he traveled to Saudi Arabia, where he remained until the end of the civil war in North Yemen in 1970. He was appointed an adviser to the Ministry of Education by President Abd al-Rahman al-Iryani, who had also been close to al-Zubayri during the civil war. But the two soon had a falling out and al-Zindani returned to Saudi Arabia, where he remained until 1974, when al-Iryani was ousted in a coup.

The new president, Ibrahim al-Hamdi, appointed al-Zindani as a national "guide," or murshid, a position that allowed him to channel Saudi funding into a number of institutes designed to confront communism. He also renewed his affiliation with the Yemeni branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which dated from his time with al-Zubayri. Al-Hamdi was assassinated in 1977, and two years later al-Zindani was ousted from the Muslim Brotherhood in what many have termed an internal coup. Jillian Schwedler (2006) has argued, based on numerous interviews, that many of the younger members felt that al-Zindani was developing a cult of personality at the expense of the group's ideals.

Al-Zindani left the country in a rage, into self-enforced exile in Saudi Arabia. In 1984, with Saudi funding, he established and became the first secretary general of the Institute for the Scientific Inimitability of the Qur'an and Sunna at King Abd al-Aziz University in Jidda. This organization produced books and videos arguing that the Qur'an predicted the development and discoveries of modern science. It debated Western scientists as a way of urging them to admit the validity of the Qur'an through scientific proofs. Throughout the 1980s al-Zindani was also active as a recruiter and preacher for the jihad in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union. Al-Zindani was particularly close to the Afghan leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, as well as to other Arab participants.

Following unification of North and South Yemen and the establishment of Islah in 1990, al-Zindani returned to live in Yemen, where he was made a member of the five-man presidential council in 1993. That same year, he established al-Iman University in San'a with Saudi and Yemeni funding. The university has often been considered a breeding ground for terrorists, despite al-Zindani's frequent denials. He was also instrumental in providing religious support in the form of a fatwa for President ali abdullah salih against an attempted secession in 1994 by the formerly socialist south.

BIOGRAPHICAL HIGHLIGHTS

Name: Abd al-Majid al-Zindani (Abdelmajid al-Zindani, Abd al-Majeed al-Zindani)

Birth: 1938, Baʾdan, North Yemen

Nationality: Yemeni

Education: Primary schools, Ibb and Aden; attended Ayn Shams and al-Azhar universities, Cairo, failed to complete a degree

PERSONAL CHRONOLOGY:

  • 1960s: Joined al-Zubayri's Hizbullah
  • 1974: Appointed "national guide" by President al-Hamdi
  • 1979: Forced out of Muslim Brotherhood, exiles self to Saudi Arabia
  • 1980s: Works as recruiter and preacher for anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan
  • 1984: Establishes Institute for the Scientific Inimitability of the Qur'an and Sunna
  • 1990: Helps establish Islah, is named head of its Consultative Council
  • 1993: Establishes al-Iman University; is named to Yemen's five-man presidential council
  • 2004: Named a "specially designated global terrorist" by the United States

Throughout the 1990s and into the first years of the twenty-first century, al-Zindani sparked a number of controversial court cases by inciting his followers through his weekly sermons, which were widely available on audiocassettes and as CDs, and bringing lawsuits against those he deemed to have insulted Islam. In 2000 he labeled both the publisher of al-Thaqafiyya, a weekly cultural newspaper, and the writer Muhammad Abd al-Wali, dead since 1973, as infidels. He based his judgment on a line in al-Wali's book, San'a: Madina Maftuha (San'a: an open city), which he deemed to be anti-Islamic. The book was eventually banned. Similar cases involving allegations of defamation of the prophet Muhammad through cartoons, as well as against other writers, have also resulted in lengthy court cases.

In 2004 the U.S. Treasury Department named him a "specially designated global terrorist," a designation adopted by the United Nations (UN) as well. Al-Zindani has steadfastly maintained his innocence, while the Yemeni government has taken no steps to freeze his funds as demanded by the United States and UN. The Yemeni government has maintained that it needs to see proof of al-Zindani's terrorist activities before taking such a step.

INFLUENCES AND CONTRIBUTIONS

Al-Zindani was greatly influenced by the works of Hasan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Sayyid Qutb, which he was exposed to during his time in Cairo in the late 1950s and early 1960s. But it was al-Zubayri who played the largest role in shaping his early thought. Al-Zubayri's fierce anti-imam and anti-Egyptian feelings, as well as his leanings toward the Muslim Brotherhood, had a strong impact on the young al-Zindani.

Al-Zindani himself credits what he has called the "gray pamphlet," published by Communists in Egypt in 1958, as the catalyst for his work on the scientific inimitability of the Qur'an and Sunna. This pamphlet, he has claimed in interviews, attempted to disprove the Qur'an by using modern science. Al-Zindani took this as a personal challenge, and has spent much of his life attempting to show how the Qur'an prefigured all of modern science. This effort led him, in 2003 and 2004, to attempt to develop cures for such maladies as hepatitis, diabetes, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, and AIDS.

During his numerous stays in Saudi Arabia, he came under the influence of the Saudi cleric Shaykh Abd al-Aziz bin Baz. Al-Zindani was also greatly influenced by the teachings of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the eponymous founder of Wahhabism, particularly his work on tawhid, the oneness of God. Along with the study of the scientific inimitability of the Qur'an and Sunna, it is for his teachings on tawhid that al-Zindani is best known within the Islamic world. Most of his fourteen books deal with one subject or the other.

Al-Zindani is also famous for his numerous fatawa, or nonbinding religious opinions, which are never written down, but issued orally either in a sermon or in response to a direct question from a petitioner. It is through his numerous recorded sermons that al-Zindani has had the greatest impact on Yemeni society and politics.

THE WORLD'S PERSPECTIVE

International perceptions of al-Zindani have largely been negative, even before he was labeled a "specially designated global terrorist." His physical appearance and public posturing fit preconceived ideas of how a Muslim radical should look and act. Al-Zindani's image was also hurt by his close personal relationships with figures such as usama bin ladin and Hasan al-Turabi, the Sudanese intellectual and ideologue.

Despite these assumptions, however, al-Zindani's thought is much more nuanced and modern than is often assumed. In the political arena he is a frightening man who has inspired violence against those who disagree with him, but intellectually he refuses to accept many of the divisions often placed between Islam and modernity. He has consistently argued that modernity and its inherent technologies are, in fact, part of the heritage of Islam. This inclusiveness, of course, does not spread to Western ideas of morality and secularism.

CONTEMPORARIES

Abdullah al-Ahmar (1933–), known more colloquially as Shaykh Abdullah, is the shaykh mashaykh (paramount shaykh) of the Hashid tribal confederation in Yemen. He has headed the Islah Party since it was established in 1990, and has been a constant fixture as the speaker of Yemen's 301-seat parliament. Al-Ahmar was born in Husn Habur, his family's tribal village northeast of San'a, where members of his family have long headed the Hashid. He was selected as shaykh following the assassination of his father Husayn and older brother Hamid by Imam Ahmad in 1960. Shaykh Abdullah was a key republican figure during the 1962–1970 civil war, able to rally numerous tribesmen in support of the fledgling republic. Since that time he has remained one of the most important and powerful players in Yemeni politics. Despite this, he has always supported President Salih in times of crisis. He maintains his own Web site at http://www.alahmar.net.

The negative impressions of al-Zindani in Western countries are, not surprisingly, counterbalanced by a more positive perception of him in the Muslim world. While it is correct, as Paul Dresch (2000) has argued, that many Yemenis of note consider al-Zindani a little divorced from reality, it is also true that he has a sizable following. But while al-Zindani's domestic enemies have a significant amount of power, he has always been protected when it mattered most by President Salih. In March 2006, Salih was quoted in the pan-Arab daily al-Quds al-Arabi as telling U.S. Ambassador Thomas Kra-jeski, "Shaykh al-Zindani is a rational, balanced and moderate man and we know him well, and the Yemeni government guarantees [his actions], and I guarantee his character."

Al-Zindani's following has grown since his inclusion on the terrorist list in 2004, both in Yemen and in the wider Islamic world. This is partly a result of his ideas gaining more traction, as well as the basic idea that the Islamic world tends to believe one of its own over Western allegations.

LEGACY

It is too early to assess al-Zindani's final legacy, but at least a partial picture is available. He will be acknowledged as one of the main guiding forces behind Islah, as well as an important shaper of political opinion in Yemen following the 1962 revolution. It is difficult to tell whether or not the institutions he has created will outlive him, but the continued existence of the Institute for the Scientific Inimitability of the Qur'an and Sunna suggests that al-Iman University will survive him as well. Whether he is ultimately seen as a terrorist or as a more complex religious scholar remains to be seen.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Dresch, Paul. A History of Modern Yemen. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Dresch, Paul, and Bernard Haykel. "Stereotypes and Political Styles: Islamists and Tribesfolk in Yemen." International Journal of Middle East Studies 27, no. 4 (November 1995): 405-431.

Schwedler, Jillian. Faith in Moderation: Islamist Parties in Jordan and Yemen. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

                                     Gregory D. Johnsen

Zindani, Abd al-Majid al- (1938–)

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