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The Historian’s Bias in Yemeni Historical Annals Part 2

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

In this second part to the article, I will present the different types of bias exhibited by the author of Yemeni Annals, which can be categorized as having two main tendencies.

  1. Bias towards the Imam

The most prominent tendencies of the author are his biases in favour of the Imam, particularly his treatment of the Imam’s personality as divinely supported and surrounded by Allah’s care. There are sayings such as: “He attacked them for two weeks, ruined the heads of the houses, and put all of leaders of Khawlan in iron chains, and came back supported and victorious.”[1] Also: “He arrested their elders, killed many people, and returned to Mokha supported and victorious.”[2] And: “With regard to the Imam’s news, when he came back from Hadhour, supported and victorious, with the sheikhs under his control and in chains.”[3] There are many other quotes similar to this.[4]

This divine support is also manifest in another way, such as God brings peace to the Imam and that He replaces his fear with security and defends him. Some of the words expressing this include: “God puts tranquility on the Imam, so he rode his horse, prepared and mobilized his soldiers for war, arranged their lines, and encouraged them to fight”;[5] “When the Imam arrived in Amran, God replaced fear with a sense of safety”;[6] and “He even colluded with some of the city’s elites that they would target the Imam with their guns, but God protected him.”[7] This bias towards the Imam is found in the claim that killing him would be just like the killing of his grandfather, Ali. For example, the author says of Imam al-Mahdi: “He was assassinated by some wicked and wretched people while in bed, just like when his grandfather, may God bless him and his family, was killed, may Allah curse his killer… then when he died as a happy martyr, God have mercy on him. They then put their weapons on the wretched killer, may he be damned by God like Ibn Muljam.”[8]

Artwork by Maria Al-Ajeeli

One of the forms of divine care and godly support is for the historian to describe the enemies of the Imam as those who are punished by God, and that they are the agents of falsehood who stand against the soldiers of God. Examples of this are his saying of the companions of the jurist Saeed:[9] “The companions of Saeed were defeated, and they were confronted by God’s mighty force and power while they are asleep.”[10] And he said in the same context, “The Imam’s soldiers triumphed and the agents of falsehood were broken.”[11] Another example is his saying of Captain Hussain Abu Hulaiqah,[12] who demanded more providence from the Imam, “crude people do not know that God’s soldiers are the victorious and that illusionists do not succeed and will soon be defeated.”[13] Another example is his portrayal of those who abandoned the Imam, saying that they will end up subservient to others. He added: “And the last of them, we saw them with the Turks as servants, taking care of their children, holding their donkeys for them, and walking behind them. They call them zubaitah. In the past, if the Imam said to each one of them to hold his donkey or horse, he would have wanted to kill him, and this is what they get.”[14] Perhaps the strangest thing in this section is that even in the matter of killing, the Imam’s actions are associated with divine guidance. The author said, on the issue of the Imam’s killing of Captain Abu Hulaiqah: “And he prayed to consult God on this man, who wants to rebel and has disobeyed, so the choice [by God] was to cut off his head. He ordered that [Abu Hulaiqah] be brought to his house, then he ordered his executioner to cut off his head.”[15] And similarly: “And on that day, the sovereign was going to behead Sheikh Hussain Al Qatash and Judge Yahya Al Eryani, for what he had heard of their ugly deeds, and he postponed their crucifixion until he was able to consult God about what to do with them.”[16]

There is a remarkable case related to the bias in favour of the Imam. We need to mention first that it is customary for the author of the Annals to start from the traditional Zaidi idea that believes the Imamate – Muslim leadership – must be confined to the descendants of Al Hassan and Al Hussain, the two sons of Fatimah, the daughter of prophet Mohammad, and he states in his writing the idea that some of the afflictions and tribulations that people had been facing were because they did not obey the Imams,[17] or because one of the Imams had cursed them.[18] But there are more particular tendencies that appear in his writing when he shows his bias towards one of the lineages of the two mentioned above. The author expresses his bias towards the descendants of Al Qasim specifically, including the following statement: “On the second day, a group of them fled to Sidi Ahmad bin Hashim, and they were satisfied with his call and advocacy to completely exclude the House of Al Qasim from power. I found these people to be out of their minds! How can they want to escape from a ruler who is a descendant of Imam Al Qasim bin Muhammad? And they said he is at a highest rank, and they wanted to replace him with a foreign man, all because of their inattentiveness and not following in the steps of their predecessors.”[19] He described one of the descendants of the two lineages as a “foreign man”, and perhaps we find the author, because of that specific bias, keen to mention the lineage of some Imams, saying that they are descendants of Al Qasim; and yet we do not find him as careful in mentioning the lineage of other Imams from other lineages.[20]

  1. Bias towards certain places

The author’s bias towards a group or an area includes a smaller and a larger scope. The smaller scope concerns Sana’a, towards which the author is totally biased, while the larger scope includes all of the areas of Zaidi power, towards which he is less biased.

The author’s feelings towards Sana’a appear to be incomparable to any other city; for example, the word ‘Sana’a’ is followed in his writing by prayer, such as “the [city] protected by God”,[21] and it might be shortened to “the protected”[22] or “the guarded”.[23] And it is interesting to note that the author mentions Yemeni cities, none of which are followed by his prayers, except Sana’a, such as: “And the taxes arrived from Mokha to Taiz, and they sent them to Sana’a, the protected by God.”[24]

He mostly portrays Sana’a City as surrounded by divine care and kindness, such as when he refers to it in relation to his statement about the Turks: “They are mindless and did not know that Sana’a is protected and defended by God.”[25] And: “God has cast terror into their hearts, and obliged them to evacuate, and was kind to the people of Sana’a, [granting them bounties] they did not expect.”[26] And when Sana’a is being besieged, he makes an analogy to the conditions of the Messenger of God: “Sana’a and those in it were besieged like when the Messenger of God was besieged on the day of Al Ahzab.”[27] He even goes so far as to describe Sana’a as the ‘City of God’. On some of the tribes that besieged Sana’a, he say: “They knew that they had made a mistake and that taking Sana’a was impossible… so, when they heard the call to prayer, they were defeated, ashamed, and humiliated, and they escaped. God has disappointed them and protected His city and His servants with His power.”[28] His bias towards Sana’a reached a point where he imagined it as a city defended by the jinn: “Many of those attached to the science of names have told me that jinn inhabited the mountains of Sana’a at that time to support the Arabs with quakes until the Turks became scared and could not sleep from the severity of what they saw, and they may have seen things about which we have no knowledge, as they remained in a state of confusion and despair.”[29] And he ascribes to Sana’a a special place among the Yemeni cities, such as when he discusses the rising prices in Sana’a, which later spread to other parts of the country. On this, he says: “Because Sana’a, the protected, is the mother of the land, and is like the heart in the body, so if it was sound and well, the whole body will be such, and if it becomes corrupt, the whole body will be corrupt.”[30] He adds: “And Sana’a, the protected, is [sic] the mother of the land of Yemen, so no one would gain a thing or be well except by it.”[31]

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Artwork by Maria Al-Ajeeli

Sana’a’s status to the author is linked to the virtue of its inhabitants, which he states in another part of the text. “Because Sana’a is beloved, its love is extended to those who reside in it, may God protect it.”[32] And he describes the people of Sana’a, saying, “They will besiege Sana’a, the protected by God, while in it there are worshippers, who preserve the Book of God and constantly remember His Name, pay charity and zakat, maintain family connections, submit to shariah, do every act that gets them closer to God, study and gain knowledge, love the descendants of the Prophet, follow the Imams of truth, and disagree with the opposing people.”[33] Because of the virtue of Sana’a’s inhabitants, he states that God defends them and is kind to them. “And all of the people of Sana’a came out from it through Bab Al Yaman, next to the city wall, while the bullets fall on them like the ice, but did not harm them because of the blessing of God’s book. This is because they had devoted themselves to recitation, prayers, and supplications, so God protected them from harm.”[34] The author’s bias towards Sana’a is obvious to the point that it could be described as one of the objectives of his writings, like his statement, after describing the virtue of Sana’a: “And we did not mention all of this except to show the invulnerability of this city, and that oppressors in it do not succeed. God has made them fail, and they have returned back to their homelands disappointed.”[35]

Despite all of this glorification of Sana’a and its people, when it is compared to the Imam by the writer, the Imam greatly outweighs all of it, and its virtues fade. This includes the statement that “the rumors have reached Sana’a, which is the foundation of this land, especially Sana’a, spreading rumors and becoming alarmists themselves, thus helping the enemy against their state with their tongues.”[36] He also writes: “And after that, the people of Sana’a changed their colors like the a chameleon… I likened this to a field full of cows, sheep, wolfs, camels, chicken, donkeys, horses, lions, foxes, eagles, crows and small birds”;[37] “And among the events was the unrest of the people in the markets in Sana’a, among the inferior people and the mobs, because of the currency, when they deluded the tribesmen that the currency is cheated”;[38] “And they gave the mobs what they wanted to believe, like nothing would be done except by the entry of Al Mansour, and they are the majority of the inhabitants of Sana’a. This includes the mobs claiming to be Shiites without knowing what it is, what the conditions of prayer are, and what is permissible and forbidden in it.”[39] It seems that this spirit that the author has shown is linked to his tendency to glorify the elites while belittling ordinary people, a tendency that can be inferred in the lines of his writing, the most obvious of which is his saying: “It is well known that the real people of the country are its nobles, while the inferior people and the mobs are their opposites”,[40] and “They thought that they are the legendary heroes of their time, when these inferior people and people of the markets claimed that they had surpassed the Hamdan tribe and have become people of authority and dominance themselves.”[41]

The broader scope that the author is biased towards concerns the traditional spheres of influence of the Zaidi Imams. When he lists the seven parts of Yemen, he talks about the areas of the Imams in a way dissimilar to the way he talks about the others. For example, he says: “The district of Yahsub is the area of the children and grandchildren of the Kings of Himyar, and this area is always the most important because of its central location and the large number and power of its men. Its towns include Yareem and Khuban, its areas include Al Radhmah, Rada’a, Thamar, Maghrib Ans, the area of Bait Nasr, and Aanis, whose areas include Dhawran, Khawlan, Sana’a, Al Haimah, Kawkaban, Thula, Amran, Hajjah, Al Sawdah, Shiharah, Sa’adah and the areas between them. The tribes in these areas are from the two groups, Hashid and Bakil, both of which go back to Hamdan bin Zaid.”[42] However, what happened with Sana’a is repeated with these areas, and when all of the tribes of these areas are compared to the Imam, the Imam comes out on top. This is seen in the author’s statement that “the minister Al Shami summoned the tribes, but they did not answer his call. It was customary for the Himyar and Kahlan tribes to not support the righteous Imams except when they are compensated for it, may God curse them”;[43] “And they set the trap for the elders of Bakeel, Nihm, Hashid, and Arhab, and people who are influenced by dirhams and dinars. They have no [correct] religion or loyalties, and they do not follow truth except out of greedy self-interest. They believe that the person who is right is the person who is generous and wealthy, and the one who is wrong is he who is bankrupt or does not pay them, may God curse them.”[44] He also says: “It is the habit of the people of Arhab that if they are attacked and looted, they will only flee, even if their own fathers, sons, or brothers were being held hostage.”[45] The author also writes: “The Bani Bahloul tribe were called to help Sana’a, but they are ignorant Bedouins and did not know what to do.”[46]

We find that the author is harsh concerning areas other than those supporting the Imams, such as when he wrote, upon the arrival of the Turks in Hudaydah: “The people in charge of Al Hudaydah were happy with this, and they are servants, the children of slaves who cannot think for themselves. If they had been able to think, they would not have been slaves throughout history. They are oblivious and inattentive, or else they would have been able to empower themselves with all of the land and men that they have.”[47] There is also the statement that he used upon the appearance of a magician, Abdullah Al Soufi, when he said: “I have said this before, the people of Yemen and Tehama will follow any screeching leader.”[48] It was the habit of the author to use the phrase “people of Yemen” to refer to the people of the central regions, Taiz and Ibb.

Conclusion

The author of Yemeni Annals is not an independent historian, but one closely connected to the network of authority and its sectarian ideology. By tracking the patterns of these records, we find that the author’s position is one between being subjective and objective, if this distinction can be made, and it is linked to the objective of this book, which is to lavish praise in the style of Arabic heritage, or as propaganda and public relations, as it is called today. Hence, his biases appear within various scopes of sectarian, hierarchical, regional, elitist, and authoritarian divisions. Whatever the nature of these Annals’ historical narrative, they are still documents of particular importance to understand the spirit, language, and nature of societal formations of the time, the authority and identity related aspects of the relationships governing this period, and the relationships of different areas with one another. They show to students of the theory of history different types of historians and the factors contributing to their writings based on their status in the social hierarchy, the

 

Khalid Abdulhaleem al-Absi is a Yemeni writer, poet and academic. He got his Master’s degree in Arabic Language and Literature from Sana’a University, then got his Ph.D. in the field of linguistics from the College of Languages in Sana’a University. His Ph.D. thesis was on Monosystemic Principle and Its Effect on Arabic Grammar. Al-Absi has published a number of books: Stress in Arabic (2010), and two travel books, A Trip to Cuba (2010) and A Yemeni in Southeast Asia (2006), a story collection, Wa Alam Adha’at Hasrataha, and ‘Pains that Lost their Magicians’, which won the Dubai Cultural Award in 2013. Khalid is a member of the Yemeni Writers’ Union.

 


[1] Yemeni Annals p. 43.

[2] Yemeni Annals p. 152.

[3] Yemeni Annals p.179.

[4] See, for example, Yemeni Annals p. 131, p. 135, p. 143, p. 190, p. 193, p. 202.

[5] Yemeni Annals p 147.

[6] Yemeni Annals p. 131.

[7] Yemeni Annals p. 237, and “targeting with their guns” implies all of the shooters firing in one volley with the goal of ambushing their target.

[8] Yemeni Annals p. 62. As stated in the text, “may God bless him and his family” after mentioning Ali bin Abi Talib, which is unfamiliar.

[9] He is Saeed bin Saleh bin Yaseen Al Ansi, known as “he of Al Danwah”, which is a town west of Ibb that he was based in. He was a Sufi jurist and politician who led a revolutionary movement against the Imamate. His influence and control extended from Zabeed in the west to Yafa in the east, including the areas of Taiz and Ibb. See One Hundred Years of Yemen’s History by Hussain Abdullah Al Amri, Dar Al Fikr, Damascus, 1984: p. 291.

[10] Yemeni Annals p. 100.

[11] Yemeni Annals p. 102.

[12] He is one of the dignitaries of Khawlan Al Tiyal and a tribal sheikh and politician. He had a role in supporting Imam Al Hadi.

[13] Yemeni Annals p. 103.

[14] Yemeni Annals p. 185. In the original, the Arabic absarna means ‘we saw’, yibzou means ‘taking care of’, and yizqamou means ‘to hold’ in the Sana’ani dialect.

[15] Yemeni Annals p. 103.

[16] Yemeni Annals p. 130.

[17] See, for example: Yemeni Annals p. 277, p. 242, p. 129.

[18] See, for example: Yemeni Annals p. 141.

[19] Yemeni Annals p. 189. In the original text, the word is misspelled, bu I have confirmed the correct spelling.

[20] See, for example: Yemeni Annals p. 17018, p. 72, p. 188.

[21] See, for example, Yemeni Annals p. 128, p. 165, p. 196, p. 210, p. 213, p. 221, p. 228, p. 254, p. 260, p. 261.

[22] See, for example, Yemeni Annals p. 19, p. 37, p. 103, p. 135, p. 182, p. 193, p. 203, p. 224, p. 226, p. 235, p. 239.

[23] See, for example: Yemeni Annals p. 47, p. 128, p. 129, p. 151, p. 155.

[24] Yemeni Annals p. 42. The Arabic almu’sherat in the original means zakat and taxes.

[25] Yemeni Annals p. 171.

[26] Yemeni Annals p. 176.

[27] Yemeni Annals p. 191.

[28] Yemeni Annals p. 116. The Arabic iblas in the original means to be broken down or sad.

[29] Yemeni Annals p. 179. In the original, it is the Arabic sakanah, but I have corrected the spelling. The book’s editor stated in the Introduction that the author would often confuse the two Arabic letters, the ‘open’ and ‘tied’ taa.

[30] Yemeni Annals p. 244.

[31] Yemeni Annals p. 276. The Arabic yisbir in the original means to be sound or right in the Sana’ani dialect.

[32] Yemeni Annals p. 230.

[33] Yemeni Annals p. 261.

[34] Yemeni Annals p. 242.

[35] Yemeni Annals p. 177.

[36] Yemeni Annals p. 55.

[37] Yemeni Annals p. 209.

[38] Yemeni Annals p. 253. The phrase used in Arabic, aldharbah, means currency.

[39] Yemeni Annals p. 190.

[40] Yemeni Annals p. 77.

[41] Yemeni Annals p. 129.

[42] Yemeni Annals p. 82-83.

[43] Yemeni Annals p. 228.

[44] Yemeni Annals p. 62.

[45] Yemeni Annals p. 190-191.

[46] Yemeni Annals p. 261.

[47] Yemeni Annals p. 58.

[48] Yemeni Annals p. 51.

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