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The Madrasa al-Shamsiya and its Role in Community Awareness in the Mid-twentieth Century

A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)

In early Islamic history, in addition to their religious role, mosques served as important learning centers. Education took place in mosques such as al-Azhar in Cairo, the University of al-Qarawiyyin in Fez, and the Grand Mosque in Sana’a. In Yemen, home to a number of prominent mosques, the culture of Madrasas reached its peak during the Rasulid state, which was known for its interest in science. The cities of Taiz and Zabid held the lion’s share of Madrasas, establishing themselves as a destination for scholars from all over the Islamic world. It was during their prominence that the most notable Arabic dictionaries were published, namely, Taj al-Arusby Murtada Zubaidi and Al-Qamus Al-Muhitby Fairuzabadi, who later settled and died in Zabid. For several centuries, until recently, Hadramout contained dozens of schools of jurisprudence as well as Sufi communities, producing many scientists, thinkers and political figures, who shaped the national movement in the South.

The Madrasa al-Shamsiya in Dhamar is one of the most important schools in Yemen.  It was built in 949 AH (1543 AD) and named after Shams al-Din, son of Al-Mutawakkil Yahya Sharaf al-Din. Since its establishment, it has held its position as a scientific institution where not only religious studies but also mathematics, astronomy and logic are taught. Historically, it was a symbol of moderation and progress, and although located in the Zaidi region, scholars from all four schools of jurisprudence studied there.  Religious scholars of all denominations were graduates of the Madrasa, alongside a long list of Yemen’s scientific, cultural and literary figures, who contributed greatly to the intellectual and scientific life in the country.

Throughout the early twentieth century, the Madrasa al-Shamsiya played an important role in the intellectual and social life in Yemen before the revolution. Among its ranks of graduates were prominent figures who contributed to social awareness, reshaped political life, and later led the 1948 revolution. The immensity of the Madrasa’s influence was due to the fact that it was not only a center of religious studies but also of literature, logic and philosophy. It became a hub for intellectuals who exchanged books from other publishing centers in the country and beyond, including Beirut and Cairo.

Photo Courtesy of Ali Al-Muhannsh

An entire generation was made aware of intellectual and cultural developments in the Arab region – and realized that their country was isolated. Their discussions and early writings revolved around the conditions in the country, and carried the seeds of revolutionary thought. Many Yemeni scientists, activists and prominent poets joined and later graduated from the Madrasa al-Shamsiya. Among them were the likes of Ahmed Abdul Wahab al-Wareeth (d. 1940), the notable poet Abdullah al-Baradouni (d. 1999), poet Ibrahim al-Hadrani (d. 2007), Zaid al-Moushiki (d. 1948), Jarallah Omar (d. 2002), the well-known historian Muhammad ibn Ali al-Akwa (d. 1998), and his brother Isma’il bin Ali al-Akwa (d. 2008), who mentions in his book al‑Madaris al‑islamiyya fi al-Yamanthat the Madrasa had a valuable waqf library, and remained an edifice of knowledge until the 1980s.

In addition to the locals, scholars from across the country flocked to the Madrasa every year. Those who came from other regions were known as emigrants and lived in houses (quarters) attached to the Madrasa, some of which carried the names of families who inherited the quarters from previous generations. The houses were adjacent to the outer wall of the eastern, southern and western sides of the Madrasa. As for remuneration, there was no salary given to the scholars. According to Ismail al-Akwa, there were some families in Dhamar who provided bread to the scholars. Scholars would pass by the allocated houses in the afternoon, knock on doors, and when asked who was at the door would answer: “The Salary”. He would then be given his share of barley, corn or wheat, and if the family was well off, they could also offer other foods that could be eaten with bread.

The Madrasa offered courses by the ulama in various areas of study. Each ‘alim would stand in the center of his class while students gathered around him in a circle.

Ahmed Abdul Wahab al-Wareeth is considered one of the first thinkers and contributors to the intellectual movement that influenced his generation. Many of his ideas were later referenced by the early revolutionaries who led the 1948 revolution. Al-Wareeth acquired his knowledge during his time at the Madrasa al-Shamsiya where he studied under several scholars in different fields, including religion, literature and history. During this period, he excelled in his studies and later became a teacher at the Madrasa. Once he distinguished himself and his ideas circulated, he was summoned by Imam Yahya to Sana’a where he founded al-Hikma Magazine,becoming its editor-in-chief.

The Madrasa also played a major role in the intellectual formation of martyr Zaid al-Moushiki who began his education there and was well-known among his peers. Soon after, he was recognized by Abdullah al-Wazir who introduced him to Imam Yahya to serve as a teacher for his children and later as Assistant Minister in the 1948 revolution.

The poet Abdullah al-Baradouni (1929-1999) lost his eyesight when he was eight years old and moved with his family from his village Baradoun to the Madrasa al-Shamsiya in 1937. He began his cultural and intellectual development at the Madrasa, where he studied for ten years, completing the memorization of the Holy Quran and receiving an ijaza in Hafs and Nafee. At the age of 13, he started to read old poetry while also writing his own.

Al-Baradouni graduated from the Madrasa as a lawyer. In one of his articles, published in the 26 September Newspaper, he writes, “I became a lawyer with an ijaza in Holy Quran under Sheikh Saleh al-Hudi, who taught me two books on theology, knowledge of God, and the perils of apostasy among the Sunnis. The first book was titled al-Thalatheen al-Mas’ala al-Soghra, and the second was al-Thalatheen al-Mas’ala al-Kubra.”

Photo Courtesy of Ali Al-Muhannsh

Soon al-Baradouni and his comrades would realize that the opposition of the Hamideddin ruling family was a national duty, and that became their daily battle. Together with his comrades they formed ‘Harakat Dhamar’, which he discusses in his book The Republican Yemen. The movement stood against the abuses of the early Ahmadi era (under the rule of Imam Ahmad) and the torture of opposition prisoners in Hajjah. As al-Baradouni recalls in his book, the movement was led by Abdullah al-Dailami and many of Dhamar’s intellectuals. Shortly into their formation, they distributed publications dealing with the political situation. Imam Ahmad found out about their activity and sent a telegram warning that he would crush Dhamar if the people harbored criminals. Thirty members of Dhamar’s intellectual community were arrested, and the people of Dhamar gathered to release their relatives from prison. All were released except al-Baradouni, who bore the burden of this movement. In The Republican Yemen, he wrote about this incident, albeit modestly, and said, “a person whom I shall not name” bears the responsibility “and had the longest hand in hundreds of cases of incrimination and legal precedents”, not mentioning that he faced many accusations and repeated cases of imprisonment himself for his intellectual role in the movement.

Echoing al-Baradouni, the great poet Ibrahim al-Hadrani, a graduate of the Madrasa, describes it as having played a major role in literacy, not only for the people of Dhamar but also for people all over the country. In 2006, at a ceremony held in his honor at the University of Dhamar, he recalled, “The people of Dhamar appreciated those who arrived seeking an education. They provided for them and supported their expenses. They referred to incoming students as emigrants and dedicated a ration of food from their own daily meals. Students were welcome and there was no shame in asking for what was then named a ‘salary’, which often consisted of a loaf of barley and wheat bread. Students would collect whatever the people of Dhamar were able to offer, and often sell some of their salary in exchange for other food items. I went to study in Dhamar as advised by my mentors, and lived in the quarters of al-Hadrani family. I studied at the school of thought and took courses in grammar, semantics, Quranic speech, fundamentals of Islam, while also studying the Quran and its recitation. Many prominent figures graduated from al-Shamsiya, including Zaid al-Dailami, Abdul Wahab al-Shamahi, and Ahmed Abdul Wahab al-Wareeth.”

Jarallah Omar, a renowned socialist politician, remembers his youthful fascination with young people from his village who went to study in Dhamar. When they returned to thevillage he could see how education had transformed them, and people would gather in their company. This encouraged him to go to Dhamar when he was 16 years old, where he lived in the accommodation quarters of the Madrasa. In an interview with researcher Lisa Wedeen in Bidayat Magazine, Omar recalls, “The biggest problem I faced was that when I enrolled in the school in Dhamar, I was older than everyone else. I was over 16 years old and the school curriculum was dense in Islamic jurisprudence, linguistics and logic. All these disciplines had additional areas of study that had to be understood, and I found myself falling behind students who were younger than me, but had gone a long way in their studies and were already studying the interpretations. So I had to study day and night to catch up with them.”

Photo Courtesy of Ali Al-Muhannsh

Jarallah Omar returned to his village to promote the Madrasa and convince his peers of the importance of the education he received there. He managed to convince his cousin who returned the following year to study with him. “We would go out to the mosque before dawn and we would only leave half an hour for breakfast and then once more to have lunch after we had spent all day in our studies, so we had few hours to sleep”, Omar added. “Finally, after two years, we moved further along in our studies, reading texts like Alfiya by Ibn Malikand Matn al-Azhar by Imam al-Mahdi Ahmad bin Yahya. We began to read the interpretations, and were studying under more than one scholar, including Ismail al-Susowa, Zaid al-Akwa, Hamoud al-Dawla and Ahmad Salamah.” Omar remained at al-Shamsiya until he graduated in 1960, moving on from there to embark on a journey of intellectual and political achievements.

The Madrasa al-Shamsiya, like other schools in Yemen, played an important role in shaping the intellectual and political awareness of Yemeni society. However, with the end of the era of Madrasas and the establishment of public schools and later universities, the role of the Madrasa came to an end in most cities in Yemen. The change was inevitable and part of the shift and development of the educational movement in the country. Today some mosques still play a minor role in teaching the Quran, Tajweed and some brief teachings in Fiqh. Since the late 1980s, the Madrasa al-Shamsiya has ended its educational role. Recently, there were plans to build a Madrasa adjacent to al-Shamsiya with the aim to restore its educational role and offer courses in religious studies, logic, literature and Islamic thought. As for the accommodation quarters, many still stand to this day, shared by well-known families in Dhamar. Some are still used as personal libraries, while others are used by the visually impaired community who live in the quarters and recite the Quran for a small wage as a source of income.

Bachir Zendal is Assistant Professor in Translation and French Literature at the University of Dhamar. Bachir is a translator and short story writer. He has a number of publications, both in translation and literature.

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