Qu’ran manuscript in Western Library of the Great Mosque, Sanaa

by Arie Amaya-Akkermans, bikyamasr, 13 December 13, 2011

In recent articles on Bikyamasr.com, it was reported at length on the diversity of cultural sites, part of Yemen’s vast cultural heritage, that were threatened with neglect and destruction, partly because of the inability of the Yemeni authorities to preserve them and partly because of the state of unrest caused by the Yemeni uprising – namely the ancient cities of Sana’a, Shibam and Zabid, in which thousands of years of rich history are likely to become yet another casualty in Yemen’s struggle for freedom from the 33-years old dictatorial rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh.

It is fortunate however that these three ancient cities are considered UNESCO world heritage sites, due to the fact that they have received attention from international organizations – most prominently the government of Germany – and some degree of action has been taken in order to minimize the damage, or at least, that was the case until the beginning of the Yemeni uprising. The extent of the real damage done to the sites in the course of 2011 remains yet to be properly assessed in a post-revolutionary scenario.

More unfortunate is the fate not only of other sites but of something much more intangible but equally valuable: The rich intellectual Islamic heritage of the country embodied in over 50000 manuscripts held in many libraries and private holdings. The astounding numbers and the nature of the manuscripts make Yemen one of the most important archival collections in the world, easily rivaling similar holdings of Islamic manuscripts in the national libraries of Cairo, Istanbul and Teheran.

Since Islam was introduced in Yemen around 630, it has been a fertile region for the greatest diversity of Islamic scholarship as exemplified by the now neglected Zabid, where schools of Shafi, Hanafi, Hanabli and Ismaili Islam are known to have existed in different periods and sometimes next to each other.

The central and southern regions were dominated by Shafi Islam – and to a lesser extent by the distinctively Yemeni Tayibite Ismailism – and because of the relatively easy accessibility, many manuscripts and traditions survived the test of time.

The northern part of Yemen however presents a different story: The Zaydi school of Islam – a Shiite school of thought – settled in the inaccessible northern highlands and there developed lines of thought that were neglected in the rest of the Islamic world.

They are a branch of Islam that has survived only in Yemen because of great isolation and whose roots can be traced to the 2nd century when Zayd bin Ali – great-great-grandson of the Prophet Muhammad – was killed in Kufa(Iraq) and they separated from other Shiite groups.

Later on they moved onto Iran around the Caspian Sea and the grandson of Al-Qasim, the greatest Zaydi scholar, al-Hadiila l-Haqq founded another imamate in the north of Yemen with capital in Sa’ada. This happened as early as the 3rd century. With time the seat of Zaydi Islam moved progressively from Iran to Yemen and a few centuries later it became an entirely Yemeni phenomenon.

The writings of Zaydi Islam committed themselves since then to the principles of Mutazilism, a school of thought based around Baghdad and Basra. It was one of the most important rational schools of thought in the history of Islamic theology, and provided an epistemological and philosophical basis to explain the nature of God and that later on influenced many other schools.

Because of their isolation in the Yemeni highland, they preserved very ancient materials drawn from other traditions, including works in nearly every field of knowledge. This rational tradition is now known to have published treatises on natural philosophy and sciences unparalleled in their outlook and unknown elsewhere in the Islamic world.

Zaydi scholarship in Yemen was characterized by a great degree of plurality and eclecticism that integrated many new and old schools of thought and that makes Zaydi the most rational school of Shiite Islam and brings it very close to Orthodox Sunni Islam. If anything, it could be called a ‘radically’ monotheistic philosophy that condemned anthropomorphism and derived the existence of God and the world from philosophical principles.

These precious manuscripts were little known in the Islamic world and had been unheard of in the Western world until the 17th century when different exploration missions set for Yemen – in such difficult geographic conditions that only very few explorers returned alive from these missions – and brought with them some information about them.

In the 19th century it captured the interests of the European Arabists and many manuscripts found their way to private collections in Europe. Many holdings from Sa’ada were transferred to Sana’a in the early 20th century and can be found even today in the library of the Great Mosque of Sana’a, what was followed by Egyptian missions that prepared inventories and microfilmed the most significant manuscripts – the first in 1951 headed by Taha Husayin, then Minister of Education and the second in 1964, by Muhammad Ahmad Husayin, then Vice-Minister of Culture.

Though the missions were fundamental in exposing the Yemeni treasures to the world, they were limited to Sana’a and Ta’izz and did not include manuscripts from either the north or the south of Yemen. In the 1970’s an interest arose in Yemen itself with many scholars, but in particular Ali Al-Akwa (for many years president of the Yemeni Antiquities Authority and who passed away in 2008) collected many of the manuscripts and wrote many works on the subject. With time many of the private holdings were also cataloged and partially digitalized.

A couple of local organizations and European governments took an active interest in this legacy that runs to tens of thousands of manuscripts, since the 1970’s until today. The German Foreign Office funded a very large project to train Yemenis in the assessment and conservation of manuscripts, in light of an amazing discovery made in 1972, when during the renovation of the Great Mosque of Sana’a, one of the earliest fragments of the Koran was discovered.

In the 2000’s major contributions were made in documenting, exploring and researching the Mutazili manuscripts from all over Yemen, and, in 2009 began an ambitious project called “Yemen’s Cultural Heritage: The Yemen Manuscript Digitalization Project” – that emulates dozens of successful cases carried out in other countries – sponsored by the German Foreign Office and the Free University of Berlin.

Encouraging as these projects are, the sad reality is that the vast majority of the manuscripts – tens of thousands – outside Sana’a are badly under threat, particularly in the restless northern governorate of Sa’ada. It is not limited to poor storage conditions and the constant sale – for very little money – of the manuscripts to collectors from the wealthy Gulf states – that later on end up in international auctions where they are sold for tens of thousands of dollars, such as a famous auction at Sotheby’s in 2008 that included dozens of Jewish and Islamic manuscripts from Yemen, usually torn off from folios still extant in Sana’a.

Religious strife in Yemen also plays a significant role in the on-going destruction: It was reported in 2010 that Salafi extremists opposed to Shiism, have targeted these manuscripts and collections for deliberate destruction. In some case they have even purchased entire collections from library owners facing great economic hardship around Sa’ada governorate, with the only purpose to burn and destroy them.

On the other hand, the Shiite insurgency in the north of the country has also put many of these manuscripts under risk, since the radical interpretation of Shiism – almost univocally imported from Iran – has targeted Zaydi cultural heritage for destruction no less than Sunni Salafists. Constantly the manuscripts are destroyed because of being considered unorthodox for Islam, and the obvious rational resemblance to mainstream Sunni schools of thought.

Lastly, the Yemeni uprising has also placed a strain on the conservation of the manuscripts: The state of unrest that has damaged many houses and public institutions has affected them significantly, and the constant electric black-outs have forced people to tear folios from precious books in order to start fires, for a variety of purposes, not all of them related to the basic functioning of the household.

It is unsurprising overall that radicals in any sect would be so bent on destroying a heritage, little known and little explored, that could offer the opening of radically new and innovative interpretations of Islam that have been dormant in the north of Yemen for hundreds of years – now ironically one of the most conflicted, poverty-stricken and violent parts of the world.

The conservation and study of the mostly unknown Zaydi literature preserved in Yemen, could provide the elements to find a purely rational Islamic epistemology and that would be of great relevance today when even Muslims themselves are so concerned about the use and abuse of their own tradition at the hands of fundamentalists that have little to do with the ancient tolerance of Abrahamic religions. Many Muslims seeking for a renovated vision of Islam, traditional and yet compatible with the modern world, will find themselves at home in the theological rationalism of Mutazilism and could easily find in it, an authoritative source for a long-deserved reform,embodying the words of Yemeni Nobel laureate Tawakkol Karman from her Nobel prize acceptance speech last week: “Mankind’s feeling of responsibility to create a decent life and make it worth living with dignity, has always been stronger than the will to kill life.”

In times of political transition when the question of Islamism takes to the center stage of all discussions about the future of the region and while the radical factions are making quick advances in clamping down the dreams of many revolutions for a tolerant and free Middle East, this great heritage will be key in defining the agenda of reform in Islam in the near future, however since we do not speak of great buildings or cities but of nothing but books, there is no international body or organization or law that can protect them from destruction.

The possibility of living in a decent world, so eloquently expressed by this curious and forgotten heritage, as much as by the Yemeni uprising, could be translated back in time to what Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote the year after the end of Second World War and the concentration camps, to her mentor Karl Jaspers:

“What I learnt from you and what helped me in the ensuing years to find my way around in reality without selling my soul to it the way people in earlier times sold their souls to the devil is that the only thing of importance is not philosophies but the truth, that one has to live and think in the open and not in one’s little shell, no matter how comfortably furnished it is, and that necessity in whatever form is only a will-o’-the-wisp that tries to lure us into playing a role instead of attempting to be a human being”.