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Reform Within Tradition

The Arabian Peninsula, of course, was the cradle of Islam. At the dawn of the twentieth century, several different forms of Islamic law were in effect in different parts of the peninsula. The austere doctrine of Wahhabism that formed the ideological basis of the emergent Saudi kingdom was quite distinct from the Sunni Ottoman laws introduced in Yemen from Istanbul. The Zaydi Shi’ism of North Yemen’s imams differed from the Ibadi Shi’ism of Omani imams, and the Shafi'i sultans of South Yemen’s coastal region and Shafa’i scholars in North Yemen interpreted Sunni Islam in ways different from all of the above. These various schools of Islamic law held different positions on matters such as governance, taxation, education, and descent from the Prophet. (Systems of customary tribal law were also in effect in rural southern and central Arabia,) Each sect and polity trained jurists and legal scholars in its particular judicial and scholarly traditions. These were not stagnant but constantly developing interpretations and precedents. And within each polity, rulers attempted to impose central interpretations on academic training and judicial practice.

The cliche that ‘‘in Islam there is no separation of church and state’’ obscures the potential and sometimes real independence of religious institutions including zakat (a tithe), waqf (endowment), religious education, and judicial appointments and interpretations. Historically, various imams and sultans asserted their prerogative to collect and expend the religious tithe on wealth and production, but Shafi'i and even Zaydi communities often resisted its centralization. Eventually tax farming, surcharges, and other abuses had distorted a pious obligation beyond recognition. Regimes further attempted to control the considerable wealth of waqf funds as well as the intellectual content of the institutes, libraries, and mosques they supported. In the mid-1920s, North Yemen’s Imam Yahya redirected the resources of Shafa'i schools into pro-imamic Zaydi institutions that trained jurists and teachers in an effort to mold legal and scholarly opinions. In South Yemen, too, at least one of the Hadrami sultans transferred administration of a school funded from an endowment in Singapore out of the hands of local religious scholars who protested that their academic standards were compromised.4 In short, state control of religious institutions and interpretations was always controversial.

A new generation of the educated elite that came of age in the 1920s and 1930s criticized the status quo5 and pressed for reforms that touched directly on what would later be considered human rights concerns. Influenced by trends in Egyptian, Sudanese, and even Indonesian education, North Yemeni liberals founded a couple of modern model schools, and an early Islamist reform movement in the Hadramawt defied the elite monopoly on reading and writing by educating the sons of ordinary tribesmen. Such schools became sites for the performance of ironic morality plays and the reading of political poetry. A range of Yemeni and foreign books and essays, many of them officially banned, circulated among the slowly expanding reading public. Themes of liberty and justice echoed in literary production and reverberated the punishment for dissent. The al-Akwa5 brothers in Ibb, the elder of whom was a jurist, teacher, and playwright, were arrested for participation in a Reform (Islah) Society and sent to the infamous Hajjah prison with other intellectuals.6 Detainees wrote pleas for leniency, conciliatory compositions to the imams, eulogies for slain colleagues, tributes to other scholars, poetry, history and works of protest or parody, and even issued two hand-written newspapers.7 The famous Zaydi poet and jurist Muhammad al-Zubayri was exiled to Cairo for advocating a consultative imamate, and imprisoned on his return. Zubayri’s writings, especially a 1952 pamphlet entitled ‘‘The Demands of the People’’ and another called ‘‘The Imamate and Its Menace to Yemeni Unity,’’ developed the ideas of popular sovereignty and individual rights and freedoms as an alternative to personalized rule. It was a wide-ranging polemic, denouncing status differentiation, abuse of the religious tithe, and other injus- tices.8 Muhsin al-‘Ayni, another prominent republican, wrote a review of the Qur’anic account of the ancient Yemeni Queen Bilqis (the Queen of Sheba) to make the case that the original, Islamic, and true form of government was and ought to be a republic.9 Some other young scholars accused by the administration of altering the Qur’an were acquitted by a Sana’a appeals court judge—who, with colleagues, subsequently issued a legal brief challenging forced payment of zakat, uncanonical taxes, tax farming, and trade monopolies, and demanding the pardon of political exiles.10

One of the most important public documents of the prerevolutionary period was a Sacred National Charter published in February 1948, wherein a group of mostly Zaydi religious scholars, some of whom had contacts in the Egyptian Muslim Brethren, called for modern constitutional rule. The charter began by saying that ‘‘to safeguard the True Religion and Our Independence, the representatives of the Yemeni nation of the different classes have convened in the form of a Congress

to discuss the matter of establishing a good and legal regime.’’ It called

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for the immediate establishment of a constitutional Council to design a monarchy along the lines of those then in power in Egypt and Iraq, with a legislature elected via universal adult suffrage and including representatives of towns, tribes and provinces, and emigres. In the meantime, a seventy-person Consultative Council and a Council of Ministers should run things alongside an elected imam.

Although the precise shape of government was left to be determined, Articles 27 through 32 called for certain kinds of rights: ‘‘Injustice and oppression of the subjects must be quickly abolished’’; ‘‘Life and property of all shall be assured’’; ‘‘All the Yemen people shall be of the same level in respect of absolute equality’’; ‘‘They shall be ruled according to true Moslem law, which shall be applied to all without any distinction.’’ Moreover, ‘‘Freedom of opinion, speech, sufficiency (sic) and meeting’’ and freedom from ‘‘ignorance, poverty, and disease’’ were to be guaranteed.11 There was also a call for ‘‘connections with the civilized world.’’ Issued ten months before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations at the end of 1948, the document unsurprisingly does not echo all its provisions, and it does have a couple of disconcerting phrases about punishment of traitors. But it offers evidence that Yemeni intellectuals were conversant with contemporary pan-Arab and international discussions of rights and freedoms.

In 1955, Yemeni exiles in Cairo and Aden continued their constitutional campaign, according to another republican writer, emphasizing ‘‘a bill of rights as a basis for the government. In a pamphlet they drew up a new proposed national pact based on the [universal] declaration of human rights.’’12 In South Yemen, where Great Britain had colonized the port city and signed protectorate treaties with rural sultans, the issues were different. Inside Aden Colony, a bustling commercial hub and naval base, a full-fledged anticolonial struggle developed. Newspapers representing a wide range of conservative, liberal, Arab nationalist, and socialist viewpoints stimulated political awareness and debate, perhaps especially when colonial authorities shut them down. The concerns of disenfranchised Yemeni immigrants to the city were best represented by the trades unions. From the beginning, white-collar leaders of the Aden Trades Union Conference set out to draft a ‘‘constitution’’ and publish a newspaper.13 In 1958 the union newspaper was banned and its leaders arrested. Nevertheless an expanding syndical movement expanded and organized hundreds of strikes over the next decade to protest the absence of voting rights, inflation, and British actions elsewhere in the Middle East. In response to these pressures, limited elections for a newly created Aden Legislative Council occurred in October

1964 amid widespread political detentions and a ban on public meet-

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ings. Once elected, otherwise pro-British parliamentarians insisted on repeal of martial law, institution of universal adult suffrage, UN supervision of new elections, and respect for ordinary freedoms.

Colonial officers blamed widespread popular opposition to their administration on either cultural traditions (Islam and tribalism) or outside influences (Ottomans, and later Nasirites or Yemeni republicans). To stem the rising tide of dissent, authorities resorted to raiding meetings, rounding up activists, torturing some of them in prison, and blocking the International Red Cross and Amnesty International from visiting Adeni prisons.14 In other respects, too, the United Kingdom established an unfortunate precedent for violating fundamental rights. Even before the onset of the armed struggle, nonviolent partisan leaders were jailed. Repeatedly, protests turned into riots when police and soldiers aimed their weapons into crowds. Suspected rabble-rousers were rounded up, sometimes by the dozen and sometimes by the hundreds, and then variously released, tried, or deported.15

In those days there were evidently no human rights or legal aid societies, but there were scattershot efforts to defend legal and civil liberties. Detentions and deportations were the proximate cause of many work stoppages. Resorting to a technique used in India, 15 of 107 jailed unionists staged a hunger strike in 1963. Students marched, and political detainees penned letters, poems, memoranda, satire, and petitions. Adeni authorities protested martial law. Essayists, theorists, and journalists broadcast defied censors with broadcasts and pamphlets. Yemeni intellectuals were in touch with the United Nations, Red Cross, and Amnesty International. Under the umbrella of the call for the right to self-determination were a number of specific demands for due process and intellectual license.

The constitutional movement gained momentum in the 1960s. Anticipating a future quite different from the past, intellectuals in both North and South Yemen put forth new constitutional proposals at popular conferences. In ‘Amran, north of Sana’a, a group of republicans and tribal leaders drew up a list of demands calling on the Egyptian-dominated North Yemeni military regime to create an executive council and a consultative council including tribal leaders. Rebuffed, they called a second meeting, chaired by the nationalist al-Zubairi and attended by sheikhs of both royalist and republican leanings. The ‘Amran resolutions reiterated earlier proposals and called for committees to resolve tribal disputes.16 In a somewhat parallel development in one South Yemeni Protectorate, a tribally organized group called the Yafa‘ Reform Front that mediated local conflicts by employing common law mechanisms such as collecting rifles from each party to a dispute also advanced a ‘‘free Yafa‘ constitution.’’17

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In 1965, a larger, more inclusive conference brought traditional and modern scholars from throughout North Yemen to Khamir, north of ‘Amran, in the tribal heartland. Whereas previously the civilian liberal- republican literature had articulated mainly urban intellectual perspectives, now the concerns of ranchers, farmers, and villagers were reflected. The “provisional constitution,’’ sometimes called the Khamir constitution, issued by this conference drew upon the ‘Amran document, the earlier Sacred National Pact, common law notions of local self-governance, and some liberal language in an explicit effort to cast a wide net. One clause stated that ‘‘All Yemenis are equal in rights and responsibilities,’’ and named among the rights justice, education, and association.18

During this same time period, South Yemeni partisans held their own conferences, once in Beirut and later (after 1962) inside North Yemen. The most historic of these was the first conference of the National Liberation Front (NLF) in Taiz in 1965, where a national charter was presented. In formulating its ideological positions, the NLF intellectual leaders drew on the populist egalitarianism of the early Islamist reformers and the Aden trade union movement, as well as on Nasserism, the Arab Nationalist Movement, and international socialism. Its program was radical by any standards, calling for ‘‘complete economic liberation from foreign exploiting capitalism’’ and elimination of the rule of ‘‘agent reactionary sultans.’’ The charter further proposed ‘‘to restore their natural rights to women, and their equality with men . . . thus providing the basis for human justice and giving women the position in life to which they are entitled as full participants.’’19

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