Skepticism and Reform Tendencies among Sana’ani Elites during 1930s

Readings from the Memoirs of Al-Azi Saleh Al-Senidar

This post is also available in: العربية (Arabic)

In this article the ideas of a prominent intellectual circle that emerged in Sana’a during the rule of Imam Yahya Hamid al-Din in 1930s are studied. The memoir by al-Izi Saleh al-Sinydar (d.1977) is used as a main document for this article. As an active member in that circle, al-Sinydar sheds light on the regular secret meetings of those pioneering reformers who started their far reaching revolutionary movement by discussing religious and political issues with skeptical language. This circle has been considered the seminal foundation of 1948 and 1962 revolutions.

The article focuses on the skeptical foundational ideas discussed in private spaces in 1930s and led to a more public revolutionary discourse over the succeeding two decades 1940s and 1950s. The three decades before the 1962 revolution in Northern Yemen have not received the attention they deserve in terms of in-depth and comprehensive historical, social and intellectual research. Research could focus on the motives, factors and variables that led to the emergence of a new awareness, indicated by the writings of some elites, as well as by  popular stories, and folkloric songs.[1]

A-Azi Saleh al-Senidar’s book (published in Sanaa in 1998 and in 2004) is characterized by its vividity in detailing of events, simplicity, and clarity in language. The author includes interesting spontaneous confessions and descriptions of social events that one hardly ever finds in the work of historians. Al-Senidar stated that he apologized to his children for writing his memoirs, as he says modestly, for he was “unable to write in the standard Arabic language and unable to polish my words”.[2] However eventually al-Sinydar agreed to write his memoirs at the insistence of his children and some of his friends.

Artwork by Amany Bahashwan

Sana’a in the 1930s and the heroes of the story

Al-Azzi al-Senidar positions the memoirs in a specific time and place in which he and his colleagues fought their battle for enlightenment. After describing Shiism in Sana’a – al-Azzi al-Senidar lived during a time of cultural reverence for the imams of the Hashimite bloodline, like others of his generation. The editor of the book A. al-Wasei says the following:

“And you can imagine how astonished Al-Azzi Saleh will be when he hears whoever describes Imam Yahya as unjust and enumerates his shortcomings, you can imagine the astonishment of the Al-Azzi Saleh, from the house of Al-Senidar, when he discovers the truth and begins to work for it, and how astonished the people of Sana’a will be, from his neighbors and acquaintances, and how astonished Imam Yahya will be when he sees a man appear from the center of Sana’a, where the houses were built from the stones of Shiism, or as the martyr Muhammad Mahmoud al-Zubairi said, addressing Imam Yahya:

How could you have an enemy           in a country whose rocks are almost of Shi’i affiliation?[3]

“How astonished Imam Yahya would be when he sees a man who appeared from the middle of Sana’a, from the fine market, from a family, and the whole surrounding is seen in the imam, as Allah’s shadow on earth, how amazed will he be when he sees a man like this?”[4]

In this quote, the word astonishment is repeated, once attributed to al-Azi al-Senidar, once to his family, once to the people of Sana’a, and twice to Imam Yahya. Al-Wasi wants to describe the significance of the divorce of values, intellect and emotions due to this environment. This is an accurate description of the Sana’a’s environment in that period.

Russian scholar Vladimir Propp considered protagonists in stories as either victim-heroes or action-seeking heroes.[5] Al-Azi al-Senidar and the heroes of his story unite the two attributes as historical actors in a period when the dominant traditional culture was resistant to progress. They were also victims, as they had been arrested and accused of opposing the Qur’an. According to the memoirs, they were also accused of being Jews (Daraa and Ish, two sects of Jews), heretics, infidels, Christians, Nawasib, Wahhabists, and they were also accused of not praying to the Prophet.[6] The memoirs are thus spontaneous narrations of a heroic saga of a group of young men who aspire for a better life. One of the most important heroes of the epic, aside from the author, is Haji Muhammad Abdullah al-Halawi, whom al-Senidar met at the age of 30 and who forever changed his life with his ideas. Ahmed al-Mutaa is another hero who actively participated in that movement and had a simple a role in spreading enlightened ideas.[7] These three, and others who attended the gatherings where al-Mahlawi spread his innovative and oppositional ideas, were the nucleus of the Enlightenment Liberation Movement in the 1930s. The focus of their movement was to oppose the imam and his legitimacy based on Zaidi jurisprudential texts. The movement’s criticism also touched on Shi’ite sanctification in general, and it mourned Yemen’s ignorance and its close-mindedness. In other words, they sought to introduce a Sunni alternative derived from ideas that existed among former Zaidi scholars, such as Ibn al-Wazir, al-Muqbili, Ibn al-Amir, and al-Shawkani and others. They also sought to propose alternative political and social models that were modern and different from the prevailing model at the time, which was devoted to the imamate religious authority.

The memoirs are not an objective historical account of events; rather, they provide documentation of moments of fear, vulnerability, suspicion and anticipation. One example took place between al-Senidar and his companion Ahmed al-Mutaa, who corresponded with Hakim Hais during their times of struggle. Upon Hakim Hais’s death, his possessions were searched by the imam’s followers. Al-Senidar and al-Mutaa were worried that their writings and letters would be found during the inspections. Al-Senidar wrote of that anxious experience:

“And the situation lasted like this for a week, while we were on the edge of embers, waiting to be arrested at any moment. We would wait until night time, and Al-Mutaa would come visit me for thirty minutes then leave, and then I would go visit him in his house for another half hour to check on him…”[8]

The situation ends with al-Hakim’s bag falling into the hands of the judge Abdul Rahman al-Iryani, who emptied it of any political publications, then delivered it to Saif al-Islam Ahmad Hamid al-Din, who saved the activists from disaster.[9]

In his memoirs, he mentions help they received from people who sympathized with this intellectual community: some of the senior government staff who sympathized with al-Senidar and his colleagues, among whom was the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the judge Muhammad Ragheb and the worker of Sana’a, Hussein bin Ali Abdul Qadir, who persuaded the imam to release the political prisoners.[10] Al-Senidar also mentions Judge Abdullah al-Omari and Khair al-Din, Sheikh al-Bohra, in Aden, who extended a helping hand to al-Senidar and his companions in prison.[11] The memoirs speak of the poverty that some of al-Senidar’s comrades experienced, and the fraternal solidarity and support that existed between them through acts of generosity and chivalry. In al-Senidar’s relationship with Muhammad al-Mahlawi, who is considered the spiritual father of the Sana’a Enlightenment Movement in the 1930s, al-Senidar shared the little food and drink and clothing he had with al-Mahlawi, and their intellectual and human bond remained based on the yearning for freedom and salvation from the clutches of injustice – until the day al-Mahlawi died from an illness following his release from prison. Al-Senidar remembers the Italian doctor, Debozzi, and the humane way he treated al-Mahlawi after their release from prison; first al-Senidar, then al-Mahlawi. The doctor had refused payment out of respect, and he had continued to treat al-Mahlawi until his death, after medicine had ceased to alleviate his pain.[12]

What can be deduced from al-Senidar’s memoirs is that al-Mahlawi was distinguished, with a rare and exceptional intelligence. He had come up with a progressive project that he worked towards achieving with an awareness that was extremely rare among people of his time. Politically, he was also gifted at keeping up with the people of his time. He could carry a debate with them in a civilized manner while still emphasizing his main message: to hold the imam responsible for the deteriorating conditions of his country and the desperate need for an alternative way of living.[13] Al-Mahwali was also open-minded. He built relationships with Turkish figures in Sana’a who also rejected the imam’s messages, some of whom even had doubts about religious texts and some aspects of the historical understanding of religion – but on this al-Mahlawi disagreed with them.[14] He had access to books of mathematics, history, medicine, the Islamic and Jewish religions. He also attended the lectures and theological studies classes of Yahya al-Abyad, an intellectual Jewish rabbi well-known for his open-mindedness and for his prominent position among Jews and Muslims alike.[15]

Al-Senidar says on the authority of his teacher al-Mahlawi: “He was responsible for getting me out of the realm of inertia to the realm of freedom, the patient fighter who went through such hardships to awaken this sleeping people.”[16] Al-Senidar often wrote down al-Mahlawi’s sayings out of appreciation and admiration. For instance, al-Mahlawi’s speech addressing al-Senidar can be found in his memoirs:

“Geniuses are few in this world and so are the warriors of kings and scholars of hard science and the people of purpose and ambitions, especially in Yemen. Its kings isolated it from the world until now in the era that they call The Age of Light. Colonialism and tyranny are the reason for the weakness of religion and nothing remains of religion except a shell. And do not think that Yemen has no geniuses, but they can be counted on one hand. I want you to know intellectuals who are free and do not adhere to a doctrine other than their own, which is the book and Sunnah. This is of scholars, and then there are thinkers with sound minds who make up sheikhs, judges, jurists and a few merchants.”[17]

These statements by al-Mahlawi reveal elements of his project that he sought to achieve and that he promoted among his few followers. Al-Mahlawi’s faith is at the heart of his project, carried on by those he called the geniuses among the people of his country. He personally suffered at the hands of commoners, as mentioned in the memoirs. What is interesting is that he did not limit his references of the elites to the diligent scholars, but rather framed them all as parts of the upper class, such as sheikhs, judges and merchants. He believed in the ability of ‘right minds’, made up of diverse groups of people, on the one hand, and from those scientists who got rid of sectarian intolerance, on the other.

Artwork by Amany Bahashwan


The factors of enlightenment and their interactions

The people of this distinct movement in the city of Sana’a during the 1930s did not spring abruptly out of nowhere, like a weed in the desert; they were the result of a number of intersecting factors. Among these are the following:

  • The inherited Zaidi reformist thought: Al-Mahlawi pointed out to his student al-Senidar that there were unindoctrinated Ijtihad scholars. What he meant by Ijtihad scholars is the general understanding of the term according to the Zaidi school of thought, including figures such as Ibn Emir and the Shawkani. This is enlightening ground for a local reformist, which can easily be built upon. Hence this Ijtihad line has remained a point of appreciation for Yemeni thinkers and scholars until recently. Thanks to this unindoctrinated line, bridges stretched between the two major Yemeni doctrines, Shafi’i and Zaidi, and Yemenis were able to communicate with other scholars in Islamic schools and in other Arab countries in the fields of theology, hadith and jurisprudence. In addition, the Zaidi Mu’tazili component remains a source of appreciation and pride among Yemen’s intellectuals, regardless of whether they are of a moderate religious or secular orientation. This implies rational principles and good grounds for future scientific culture to grow on and move beyond the myths that have spread in the late Islamic ages – especially since the Mu’tazila has become in recent decades one of the pillars of the renewal movement in the Arab world and is often promoted and discussed in books and seminars. [18]
  1. Regenerative Arab thought in the first half of the 20th century: The memoirs of al-Azzi al-Senidar mention the books of Imam Muhammad Abdo and Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, which al-Mutaa brought with him from Aden[19] along with al-Manar magazine, a few copies of which The Great Mosque Library in Sana’a owned. He mentions other newspapers and magazines that were published in Egypt and Aden as well. Ahmed al-Mutaa, who was writing in the Egyptian newspaper al-Shura under the name Basem al-Quaiti, played a great role in critical journalistic work published during that time, which criticized the imam and his policies and the behavior of his children.[20] The imam questioned al-Quaiti’s character and writings repeatedly and often criticized him, describing him as the accursed Satan.[21] Al-Mutaa, a disciplined officer, was a scholar, an eloquent speaker and the editor of the Faith newspaper, which was published by Mutawakkil authorities. Because the Enlightenment Movement was controversial and interactive in nature, Imam Yahya himself was involved in the Arab Religious Reform Movement and in the ideas of Muhammad Abdo, al-Afghani and others. Which is why one scholar at the time called his kingdom “the Salafi Imamate”,[22] pointing out the paradox in the situation. For the Zaidi imam had an Islamic Arab ambition to achieve Sunni legitimacy. This came at a time when calls for the return of the caliphate to the Arabian Peninsula were common. This was what the reformer Abdul Rahman al-Kawakibi called for in his book Umm Al-Qura, where he called for the establishment of a Caliph Qureshi centered in Mecca,[23] which would replace the Ottomans, whose rule was corrupt and fragmented.
  2. Communication abroad through the elites: The outside world reached some elites through the newspapers that made it to Sana’a. They saw that change was inevitable, for the new era witnessed huge developments and changes,[24] as well as the contact some elites made with Istanbul and Iraq through the mission group that traveled there in 1937 and 1938.[25] It was to Aden, which some of its newspapers, especially ‘The Girl of the Island’ that was directed by Muhammad Ali Luqman, supported the Enlightenment Movement in Sana’a, that al-Azi al-Senidar sought refuge like other liberals like him after the failure of the 1948 revolution and after he spent seven years in Hajjah prison, where he was abused and terrorized. Al-Senidar continued, however, to support his colleagues with money and rhetoric, and he only returned from Aden to Sana’a after the victorious revolution of 26 September 1962.
Artwork by Amany Bahashwan


In this brief article, I have tried to focus on al-Senidar memoirs and on the elements of the prevailing inherited skepticism recognized from the ideas protected by the Mutawakkil authorities, which were of a religious and secular character. Al-Senidar and his colleagues, especially his teacher al-Mahlawi and his friend al-Mutaa, were able to start a fire that will only ever continue to grow and never go out. It is the fire of the intellectual and political debate between two currents in Yemen that continue to communicate today. These two streams have characteristics that were present before al-Senidar and al-Mahlawi and their comrades’ movement, and will still exist after them. The 1930s movement in Sana’a was of particular interest due to its interaction with the dominant currents of the 20th century that, on the one hand questioned the old and eagerly looked forward to the new, while on the other hand focused on naming things with their proper names without ambiguity. The heroes of al-Senidar’s memoirs were bold in their criticism of the imam and in their criticism of the religious heritage, in particular the discussions and biographies. They stood up to their community which had caused them severe hardship, and they tolerated cursing, name calling and alienation. Their meetings were ripe with religious, intellectual and social debates that stripped the magic and holiness from the revered Zaidi personalities and from their religious discourse and social behavior, making intellectuals eager to produce a future generation that is more suspicious and critical and that eagerly demands change and progress.  The memoirs of al-Senidar, the merchant thinker who decided to be a simple dressmaker to support his family and comrades, gives the reader a clear picture of that period, not only on a political level but also it offers an image of society’s language, its biases, inclinations, and restlessness, its common beliefs, and private debates, tendencies to question and progress among aspiring elites and among his children.


[1] See Abdullah al-Baradouni, Arts of Popular Literature in Yemen, Fifth Edition, Al-Baroudi House, Beirut, 1998, pp. 311 onwards.

[2] Al-Azzi Saleh al-Senidar, The Road to Freedom, Ministry of Culture and Tourism, Sana’a, 2004, p. 1.

[3]  a line of poetry.

[4] Al-Azzi Saleh Al-Senidar, The Road to Freedom, Page 1.

[5] Propp, Vladimir. Morphology of the Folktale. Vol. 9. University of Texas Press, 2003, p. 39.

[6] Al-Azzi Saleh Al-Senidar, The Road to Al-Hurriya, p. 46, p. 49, p. 50.

[7] We limited ourselves to these three, although the memoirs mention other personalities, such as al-Qadi Ali al-Shamahi and Abdullah al-Azab, and figures from the al-Senidar family, like Ali Muhammad al-Senidar, Abdullah Hassan al-Senidar and al-Bayaghi, as the children of Ahmad Abdo al-Siyaghi and al-Akwaa, Judge Muhammad al-Akwa, and the young judge at the time, Ismail bin Ali al-Akwa and others. The memoirs then refer to the movement’s development and its contact with figures in Ibb and Taiz, such as Muhammad Ahmad al-Nu`man and others. They enthusiastically participated in the framework of this movement. See al-Ezzi al-Senidar, The Road to Freedom, p. 66 and many other sections of the book.

[8] ibid., p.109.

[9] ibid., p 110.

[10] ibid., p 51.

[11] ibid., p 48.

[12] ibid., p 43.

[13] ibid., p 64.

[14] ibid., p 14.

[15] ibid., p 60-61.

[16] ibid., p 60.


[18] Hildebrandt, Thomas (2007): Neo-Mu‘Tazilismus. Intention und Kontext im Modernen Arabischen Umgang mit dem Rationalistischen Erbe des Islam, Brill Academic.

[19] Al-Ezzi al-Senidar, The Road to Freedom, p 61.

[20] ibid., p 69.

[21] ibid., p 67-68.

[22] Willis, John M. ‘The Salafi Imamate: Moral Reform and Anti-Imperialism in the Mutawakkilite Kingdom’, Journal of Arabian Studies 8.1 (2018): 47–65.

[23] Dr. Abdul-Rahman al-Kawakibi, ‘Umm al-Qura: The First Islamic Renaissance Conference, Study and Investigation: Muhammad Tahan’, Al-Awael Publishing, Distribution and Printing Services, Syria, 2000, pp. 198-200.

[24] Al-Azzi al-Senidar lists the names of personalities who played a role in political and social activity during the reign of Imam Yahya. And he mentions them under the heading ‘The Thinkers’. Of the men of the 14th century AH in Yemen. “These personalities belong to Sana’a, Ibb and Nammar, and they are mostly from the judiciary, sheikhs and merchants. Al-Aryani and Al-Siaghi and Al-Akwaa, Judge Abdullah Al-Eizari, the well-known Hakim Sheikh Hasan Al-Dais and Judge Muhammad Sabra, father of Abdul Salam Sabra and others.” See al-Izzi Salih al-Senidar, The Road to Freedom, p. 7883.

[25] Ahmed Qaid al-Sayidi, The Yemeni Opposition Movement During the Reign of Imam Yahya bin Muhammad Hamid al-Din, p. 56.


Translated by: Nicole Fares
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Abdulsalam al-Rubaidi

كاتب وباحث يمني. حاصل على الدكتوراه من جامعة بون الألمانية في مجال الدراسات الإسلامية. وهو محرر النسخة العربية من مجلة المدنية.

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