Between Thaalbi and Rihani: Yemen’s Story in Two Voyages

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Despite its relative isolation, Yemen was the center of attention for many politicians and Arab writers who were occupied with the Ummah’s renaissance at the beginning of the twentieth century. Many of them believed that northern Yemen in particular, because it was not as affected by colonialism, would be a good starting point for a political renaissance project with Islamic or nationalist dimensions. Since the beginning of the Arab renaissance in the late nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century, Arab ideology or Arab political orientation has split into two main currents: a secular pan-Arab nationalist one, whose most prominent theorists were Christian thinkers from the Levant, and another Islamic one. For both, Yemen had a special status, being the birthplace of the Arabs for the nationalists and where Islam originated for the Islamists.

It is remarkable that those with an Islamic orientation, including Aziz al-Azmeh and Abdelaziz Thaalbi, had positive perceptions and opinions of Imam Yahya Hamid ed-Din, particularly as he did not support the Great Arab Revolt against the Ottomans during the First World War. Proponents of the nationalist view were more critical of the Imam’s experience in ruling for being underdeveloped; among those was Ameen Rihani.

In this article, we contrast Ar Rihla Al Yamania by Abdelaziz Thaalbi, the famous Tunisian Islamic writer and politician, in which he records what he saw during his trip to Yemen in 1924, with Ameen Rihani’s trip to Yemen in 1922, which he wrote about in Muluk al Arab. From the two texts we discover how Yemen was depicted similarly at times and differently at others due to the different perspectives of the two writers and their different perceptions and ideological approaches.

The moment of the Caliphate’s fall

The two trips happened at an exceptional historic moment: the beginning of the twentieth century was when the last Islamic Caliphate fell after more than 1,000 years of rule, and Western colonialism rose in large areas of Arab and Islamic countries. It was an important phase with many repercussions, crises and wars following it. This was expressed by one of the Yemenis during Thaalbi’s visit, who spoke to him in pure disbelief upon hearing the news of the abolition of the Caliphate, which came with the 1924 Istanbul decree.[1]

Ameen Rihani was a Christian from Mount Lebanon who spent a large part of his life in the USA. Rihani came back to the Arab world and traveled through it, driven by his dream of Arab unification. After his visits to all the kingdoms of the Arabian Peninsula, he wrote Muluk al Arab (Kings of the Arabs). Rihani’s dislike of the Ottomans was no secret; he often attacked them and praised everyone who participated in the Great Arab Revolt against them, such as King Hussein of the Hijaz or Imam al-Idrisi in Asir, highly commending their Arab nationalist tendencies. Rihani was also critical of British colonialism, but he believed that the Arabs had to pursue their development and that the relationship between Arabs and the West needed to take a different course – which could be possible if the West became more fair, and the Arabs became more rational. A relationship based on common interests could develop.[2]

In this context, Rihani strongly criticized the protection treaties between the British and the sultans and princes of the south, saying that even though they appeared to grant British protection for the sultans and princes, in reality it was the Arabs’ who were protecting the British. He concluded that the solution to Arab problems would be a policy similar to Britain’s policy: a flexible and comprehensive approach that would give Arabs what they wanted, independence for every prince and ruler. He did not hide his frustration with Aden’s loss of its Arab identity, and he strongly criticized British injustices in Aden, a city which lacked daily necessities. “There are no efforts of construction and no schools or hospitals that could care for the health and intellect of the people.”[3]

Thaalbi, in contrast, was the son of the well-known Algerian resistance fighter, Abd al-Rahman Thaalbi, who left Algeria because of his resistance to French colonialism and moved to Tunisia. Tunisia also became colonized, so his son, Abdulaziz, faced the same colonial power. Abdulaziz traveled to the East and to the Ottoman Astana to meet the Ottomans at the beginning of the twentieth century to explain the Tunisian cause, and spent his whole life calling for liberation and the unity of Arab and Islamic states. He was also one of the organizers of the World Islamic Congress in Jerusalem in 1932.[4]

When it came to colonialism, Thaalbi did not compromise, and this showed in his powerful speech to Imam Yahya about the European enslavement of the East. He talked about how European powers only wanted to weaken the Arab spirit of independence and excellence.[5] Thaalbi appeared to be more severe than Rihani in this regard. Even though Rihani warned the West about the possibility of the East’s rise and the upheaval that might follow, his desire to create a relationship between the two parties based on their common interest was clear. Mending relations with Europe did not seem possible for Thaalbi – or, at least, it did not seem to concern him, as he was solely focused on how to oppose colonialism, and on the idea of Islamic unity.

The extent of the contrast between the two men was evident in their opposing opinions regarding the Sharif of Mecca, King Hussein of the Hijaz. Thaalbi described him as a traitor who split the Muslims in the face of the only Islamic state, the Ottoman Caliphate;[6] however, Rihani admired him.

Artwork by Abeer al-Mas

Grief over the Turks

Both travelers, even Rihani despite his aversion to the Ottomans, express Yemenis’ grief over the Turks. Rihani wrote,

“Taxes and the budgets testify that al-Hadhra al-Sharifa (the holy presence, meaning the Imam) is rich, very rich, because he is like the clergy of the Christians who take and give nothing in return. Back in the days of the state (meaning the Ottoman state), the people of Yemen used to pay Zakat only, and the tribes were exempt from it. This makes them reminisce for the Turks.”

Rihani continued to write about taxes and people’s complaints about them.[7] Then he described a conversation that took place between him and a boy who he thought was clever, saying, “How intelligent are the children there, yet it is an intelligence that is similar to a fertile, uncultivated land”. The little boy told him that he longed for education and bemoaned loss of the Turks, saying, “The paper, ink, and books were gone with the Turks.”[8]

As for Thaalbi, he wrote about his meeting with women in Taiz. One of them asked him if the Turks will ever return to rule Yemen, and he replied that they will not return, “And that the Yemenis must become the ‘Turks’ of their own country”. She complained about widespread ignorance, laziness and time wasting due to the spread of Qat: “He who does not find money to buy it sells his clothes and food to pay for his Qat.” These were her justifications to explain her belief that Yemenis were not fit to rule themselves. Then she complained that the period of the Turks was better, that the Imamate’s fees are numerous, and that the people stopped cultivating the land due to the exaggerated 10% taxes by the Imam’s men. Despite the taxes, there were no services provided in return. Instead, the Imam closed all schools, courts and administrations that were established by the Turks. She said that they could not accept the rule of Zaydism, since the Zaydis did not know freedom and did not rule justly.[9]

Meeting with the Imam

Thaalbi spoke highly of the Imam: “There is nothing that pleases about Yemen except for the Imam and his army.” He explained their relationship in a letter, saying that the Imam was a man of abundant intelligence, profound knowledge and clarity of mind, and there was no fault in him other than his hatred of modern civilization and his aversion to spreading education.[10] It is important to note that the Imam received Thaalbi with affection and hospitality, which influenced the relationship between them, whereas matters were different with Rihani, whom the Imam met with skepticism and hostility.

From the outset, Rihani compared the Imam and King Hussein in the Hijaz, amazed by the magnitude of the pomp and glory that the Imam enjoyed compared to his Hijaz counterpart. This was alongside the manifestations of reverence and glorification that people showed him, as opposed to the simplicity with which the King of the Hijaz was treated.[11] But what disturbed Rihani the most was the Imam’s discussion of how Christ was called Christ because he was flat-footed[12] [Masih, Christ, and Mas’haa, flat-footed, sound similar in Arabic]. This left Rihani disconcerted, even though he tried to move past it. However, ignoring it was not an option after the Imam gave a signal for the meeting to end abruptly, leaving Rihani feeling that he was kicked out.[13]

Of course, Rihani believed that this disdain in dealing with him could only be explained by his Christianity, because later the Imam met Rihani’s servant in the market, and asked him about his religion. Once the Imam learned that the servant was Muslim, he greeted him warmly, treated him differently and showed him respect.[14]

Rihani agreed with Thaalbi that the Imam was a brilliant scholar, but was surprised by the depth of the Imam’s knowledge and familiarity with current events in Europe and the world.[15] However, this knowledge was not reflected in the Imam’s country, where there were no schools, with the exception of Sharia schools that were limited to a certain class of people. Rihani mentioned the Imam’s argument that he was too preoccupied with wars to focus on the reconstruction of the country, which was an excuse that Rihani did not seem to believe.[16]

However, Thaalbi, when clarifying the Imam’s argument regarding the isolation of Yemen, attributed it to external threats and the Imam’s concern about maintaining sovereignty. In this context, Thaalbi was sympathetic in his analysis of the Imam’s point of view, and his criticisms were minimal.[17] Perhaps the only open criticism of the Imam was regarding women, and how he married four women and divorced one whenever he wanted to marry a different woman; this was in addition to his concubine. However, Thaalbi did not think the Imam was an exception in this matter. Instead, he considered it an Eastern problem, where women are looked at merely as a “commodity for pleasure and a vessel for breeding”, and where the concepts of family or women’s position in society were absent. He went on to say that the Imam was more virtuous than other rulers of the East because he never overstepped the boundaries of Sharia.[18]

Thaalbi believed that the Imam was feared, and that without him the Yemenis would fight among themselves and sink into sedition and chaos. He would need to establish an organized government that would ensure a smooth transfer of power according to inheritance or selection and election, as per Zaydi beliefs.[19] Here he overlooked the concept of triumph and the importance of weapons in Zaydism, which Rihani strongly criticized, considering them as the root of all evil as they prevent stability. According to Rihani, it was no wonder that the foundation of the kingdom was corrupt, as its system were similar to a hostage situation.[20]

Artwork by Abeer al-Mas

Thaalbi also had high hopes for Yemen because, according to him, it was the most powerful and richest of the Arab countries. The number of inhabitants was five million, according to the census of Hussein Hilmi Pasha, the former Ottoman Sadr, which labeled the emirates outside the control of the Imam as Qahtaniyah.[21] As for Rihani, he was more interested in categorizing the Yemenis as Zaydis and Shafiites, with a clear bias towards the Shafiites. According to Rihani, the Zaydis, to which the Imam belonged, depended on doctrine, patriotism and brutality. He then demonstrated that this brutality manifested itself in xenophobia and a tendency towards self-isolation. The Zaydis’ weakness, in Rihani’s view, lay in their ignorance, not only in comparison with Europeans but also with Egyptians, Syrians and Iraqis. He said:

“In your visit to the country traditionally known as the ‘happy country’ you will find yourself going backward in time to the third century AH. No schools, no newspapers, no medicine, doctors, or hospitals are in Yemen. The Imam is everything. He is the teacher, the doctor, the lawyer and the priest. He is the patriarch.”

Rihani agrees with Thaalbi, for example, that the death of the Imam might lead to chaos in Yemen, but for a different reason: because the Imam purposefully neglected building the minds of Yemenis, to such horrendous and devastating ends.[22]

Unity: The predominant concern

Thaalbi was enthusiastic to present the Islamic Caliphate project he had in mind to the Imam because he was “not a traitor” like the Sharif of Mecca. Also, Yemen possessed more natural wealth and resources than the Hijaz, as it was the last remaining realm outside the sway of European colonialism. The Imam, however, despite his admiration for the idea, refused because there was no point in crowning him Imam of Muslims instead of the Imam of Yemen, when he was unable to achieve unity in his own country. The Imam mentioned the failure to achieve an Arab alliance within the Arabian Peninsula between his kingdom and the Sharif of Mecca in Hijaz and Abdulaziz Al Saud in Najd. Thaalbi was even more impressed by the Imam’s answer, regarding it as straightforward and insightful.[23]

Then Thaalbi proposed to the Imam the idea of a confederation with the rest of the Yemeni emirates which were independent of his rule (al-Qahtaniyah, as he put it). The Imam liked the idea and suggested a conference in which everyone could discuss the foundations of this confederation.[24] This union was the nucleus of what would later be the Arab League, which also counted as a step towards Muslim unification. The ultimate goal was Islamic unity through the Arab League, first and foremost, starting with the non-colonized countries, namely Yemen, which needed to be unified, according to Thaalbi.

It goes without saying that Thaalbi’s efforts did not succeed despite his traveling and meeting with Sultan Lahj; perhaps this was due to the prevailing lack of confidence in the Imam. The Sultan said to him, “I will not hide this from you as you are one of us. The Imam has become a threat to our country”. Indeed, the Sultan believed that the Imam only cared about the appearance of unity, having the Friday sermons delivered in his name and tax collection, even if this led to more effective control by the English over the southern regions.[25]

Rihani gave a speech about the advantages of Arab unity, but the Imam seemed unimpressed and made clear that he was not convinced by nationalist ideology. This was despite Rihani’s attempt to link it to religion when he said, “Whoever empowers Arabs, empowers Islam”. When Rihani tried to discuss details of the nationalistic bond and its benefits to religious peace, such as its integration of Christians into his country, namely Syria (at that time, Syria meant Lebanon as well), he noticed that the Imam was interested, giving Rihani the feeling that the Imam was more invested in the details, revealing his practical nature.[26]

The Imam remained distant and distrustful of Rihani, despite his long stay in Sana’a, so the trip’s mission shifted from its greater purpose of discussing Arab unity to merely solving the Imam’s problem with his Shafitie rival al-Idrisi, especially around the port of Hodeidah, which was controlled by the latter. Even in this mission, Rihani failed to stop the ongoing conflict between the Shafiites who were seeking the help of the British, as they sought it from the Turks against the Imam in the city of Hodeidah before, a city turned into ruin and chaos due to this conflict. Indeed, Rihani failed even to persuade the Imam to hold a conference between him and al-Idrisi, and responded to his proposal with a telegram saying, “al- Idrisi has no right in all of Yemen”, and considered that the solution lay in Aden with the British. However, al-Idrisi welcomed an agreement about the city in exchange for recognition of his sovereignty over Asir. Even after Rihani left, the Imam insisted in rejecting al-Idrisi’s claim to any part of Yemen. This led Rihani to write to the Imam that it was not reasonable to deal with al-Idrisi as an outsider, because this was not a view everyone shared. Rihani indicated more than once that the Imam only recognized Yemen’s historical borders, which include Oman, and this was the kingdom the Imam wished to rule.[27]

Artwork by Abeer al-Mas

The two travelers had differing attitudes about the Imam, a difference that could be explained by the different treatment with which they were each received, but also due to the different expectations and priorities each of them had. Rihani was more open to the West and believed in science and modernity as a priority to achieve freedom and raise the status of Arabs, while Thaalbi was more concerned with achieving independence from the West than with focusing on development and education. Despite Thaalabi’s discontent with the overwhelming ignorance in Yemen, this did not diminish his admiration for the Imam as a man who managed to preserve his country’s independence and sovereignty. In spite of the obvious difference in priorities between the two thinkers, both eventually had the same fate: a total failure to achieve the unity to which they aspired.

These two books provide an overview of the situation in Yemen, specifically North Yemen, which was under the control of the Imam. This article reveals that the mechanisms of the Imamate have not changed from the past to the present: ignorance; increased tax collection without service provision in return; continuous wars because of the social cleavage which it caused in the first place; and foreign powers’ empowering the Imam’s opponents because of their weakness and division.


[1] Thaalbi, Abdulaziz. 1997. Ar Rihla Al Yamenia (12 August – 17 October 1924). Beirut. Dar Al Gharb Al Islami. p. 119.

[2] https://www.arageek.com/bio/ameen-rihani. Accessed 14 February 2021.

[3] Rihani. p. 397 – 411.

[4] https://alestiklal.net/ar/view/3952/dep-news-1581783131. Accessed 14 February 2021.

[5] Thaalbi. p. 87.

[6] Thaalbi. p. 99.

[7] Rihani, Ameen. 1987. Muluk Al Arab (Al Joz’a Al Awal). Beirut. Dar Al Jil. P154.

[8] Rihani. P. 163.

[9] Thaalbi. P. 58-59.

[10] Thaalbi. P. 141.

[11] Rihani. P. 127.

[12] Rihani. p. 134.

[13] Rihani. p. 128.

[14] Rihani. p. 160.

[15] Rihani. p. 135.

[16] Rihani. p. 162.

[17] Thaalbi. p. 100.

[18] Thaalbi. p. 106.

[19] Thaalbi. p. 142.

[20] Rihani. p. 143.

[21] Rihani. P. 142.

[22] Rihani. p. 167.

[23] Thaalbi. p. 100.

[24] Thaalbi. p. 96.

[25] Thaalbi. p. 130.

[26] Rihani. p. 142.

[27] Rihani. p. 214-217.



Translated by: Raed Khalifi
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