Preserving Yemen's Cultural Heritage: The Yemen Manuscript Digitization Project
The size of the manuscript holdings of the many public and private libraries of Yemen makes it one of the most important collections in the world. Estimated at 50,000 manuscripts, the holdings of these libraries rival those of the National Library of Egypt or the Süleymaniye Library of Istanbul. Equally intriguing is the character of these libraries' collections - a product of Yemen's unique geography and history - and the nature of its scholarly communities.
While economic hardship and social and political instability put these collections at risk for the past five decades, a new threat has appeared in recent years that makes attention to these collections imperative. Since many of these libraries are preserved by families belonging to the Zaydī branch of Islam, Salafī extremists ideologically opposed to Shīʿism have targeted these collections for destruction.
The preservation, dissemination and study particularly of the mostly unknown Zaydī literature that is preserved in Yemen will grant access to sources that were not maintained elsewhere and underscore the fact that a rationalist epistemology continued in Islamic thought for a longer period than is generally recognized. It will thus have an immediate impact on the reform agenda of Muslims today.
History of Zaydism
The Zaydī community is a branch of Shīʿī Islam and has survived mainly in the modern state of Yemen. The community's historical roots can be traced back to the 8th century, when the Zaydiyya separated from other Shīʿī groups by recognizing the prophet Muḥammad's great-great-grandson Zayd b. ʿAlī (d. 740) as the fifth Imām.
During its formative phase the community was located in Kufa in Iraq. In the 9th century, Zaydī activity shifted to Northern Iran. A first Zaydī state was established in 864 in the southern coastal region of the Caspian Sea, where Zaydī scholarship flourished until the early 13th century. Al-Hādī ilā l-Ḥaqq (d. 911) founded a second Zaydī Imamate in the northern mountainous highlands of Yemen. Retrospectively, his legacy turned out to be the beginning of a long-lasting process in Zaydī scholarship: al-Hādī's teachings testify to the first impacts of Muʿtazilism – the earliest school of rational theology within Islam – on Zaydī thought. In specific theological questions, his thought shows a particular inclination to the teachings of the Baghdadi school of the Muʿtazila.
Soon after al-Hādī's death, the theological mainstream in both Zaydī states developed in different directions. The Caspian region became the leading center of Basran Muʿtazilism and attracted eminent scholars such as ʿAbd al-Jabbār al-Hamadhānī (d. 1024), who became chief judge of the city of Rayy. In Yemen, al-Hādī's thought was systematized by the Muṭarrifiyya, a pietistic movement that had emerged in the 11th century and whose adherents developed a very specific natural philosophy.
Zaydī religious literature and libraries in Yemen
As a result of the unification of the Zaydīs in Iran and Yemen during the 12th century, a massive transfer of knowledge from Iran to Yemen began that steadily increased until the death of the Imam al-Manṣūr bi-llāh in 1217. This led on the one hand to a cultural revival as a result of which the cultural center of Zaydī Muʿtazilism gradually shifted from the coastal regions south of the Caspian Sea to Yemen and on the other to a renewed blossoming of Muʿtazilite theology. Had it not been for the massive transfer of Zaydī religious literature from Iran to Yemen, most of the Iranian Zaydī and Muʿtazilī literary heritage would have been lost. Many of the texts have survived in Yemeni collections as unique manuscripts.
The new ideas and manuscripts stimulated the emergence of a Yemeni school tradition committed to Basran Muʿtazilism. Its rise among scholars of the 12th–13th century was, however, accompanied by internal critique. Some scholars began propagating a restoration of a Zaydī "orthodoxy" rejecting any Muʿtazilī influence as inauthentic.
Modern Research of Zaydism
As a result of the geographical isolation of Yemen, the scholarly exploration of its political and intellectual history started later than was the case with most other parts of the Islamic world. In 1763, a German-Danish scientific expedition arrived in Yemen, among them Carsten Niebuhr (1733–1815) who later on published his observations in hisReisebeschreibung nach Arabien und andern umliegenden Ländern.
Further Reading: Preserving Yemen's Cultural Heritage: The Yemen Manuscript Digitization Project, by Sabine Schmidtke & Jan Thiele, Sanaa: Botschaft der Bundesrepublik Deutschland und Deutsches Archäologisches Institut, 2011 (Hefte zur Kultugeschichte des Jemen Band 5).