Ahmad Muhammad Nu'man 1909-1996

by Cynthia Myntti

Yemen Update 39 (1997):31-32

Al-Ustadh Ahmad Muhammad Nu'man, one of Yemen's early modern political reformers, died in Geneva last October 4 at the age of 86. He had been suffering from Parkinson's disease.

Ahmad Muhammad Nu'man was born in April 21, 1909 into an influential shaykhly family in Dhubhan, al-Hugariyya of Yemen. He spent seven years of his youth at the famous center of Shafi'i learning in Zabid, and completed his higher education in the 1930s at al-Azhar University in Cairo. He had hoped to enroll in Fuad I University (later Cairo University) but did not have a recognized certificate of secular education.

Nu'man had a long career devoted to education. He is credited with founding the first modern school in Yemen, the Madrasa al-Ahliya in his home village of Dhubhan. When imprisoned in

Hajja with other young Republicans after the assassination of Imam Yahya in 1948, he turned the jail into a school for both the other prisoners and the sons of local sayyid officials. Arabic literature and poetry became the linguistic currency of the jail. He also founded Kuliyat Bilqis in Aden.

For Al-Ustadh politics was the consummate life. His years in Cairo at al-Azhar exposed the young Nu'man to the political ferment gripping Egypt, Palestine, and other Arab countries. He advocated non-violent reform of Yemeni governance, holding the strong conviction that the key to democracy was an educated citizenry.

On his return to Yemen in 1940 he became inspector of schools for Ta'izz. Soon, however, Nu'man and the other young intellectuals (al-shabb) became disenchanted with the rule of the imam. He, along with the Zaydi poet Zubayri and others, fled to Aden where they set up the Free Yemeni Party and began publishing the journalĀ Sawt al-Yaman, which called for democratic reform. He led various successor organizations to the Free Yemeni Party and published a variety of political reviews from Cairo and Aden during the 1940s and 1950s.

Nu'man's political views and activities got him into trouble not only with the Yemeni imams but also with the British in Aden and with President Gamal Abdul-Nasser of Egypt. In fact, when leading an official Yemeni delegation to Egypt in 1966 to protest Egypt's prolonged occupation of Yemen, the entire delegation was taken by limousine to prison rather than to the meeting they were expecting. Knowing Nu'man's scholarly and artistic abilities, an exasperated Abdul Nasser is said to have asked Nu'man at a tense moment in this period: "Well, don't you have a poem?" And at another time: "You are not going to convince me by poems or prose!"

Nu'man served as prime minister of the Yemen Arab Republic in 1965 and again in 1971 but after his beloved eldest son and political heir, Muhammad was assassinated on Hamra Street in Beirut in 1974, Nu'man retired from politics and lived the rest of his years between Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Switzerland.

We who had the privilege to know al-Ustadh Nu'man remember him fondly as a man of great intelligence, irreverent wit and irresistible charm. He thought it was possible to persuade and indeed dominate his opponents by rhetorical brilliance, and he used poetry extensively in his political repertoire, from the works of the medieval Mutanabbi to those written by his relative and contemporary al-Fudhul. Referring to this political style, a Saudi friend once said of Nu'man that he was "a commander without soldiers and a warrior without weapons (al-qa'id bila junud, al-maqatil bila silah)." Al-Ustadh was an advocate of the rule of law long before the phrase was coined.

Nu'man is survived by a wife, five sons ('Abd al-Rahman, Fu'ad, 'Abd al-Wahhab, 'Abd Allah and Mustafa) and two daughters (Fawziya and Hana'), and many grandchildren. The family plans to compile a book from the many memorials sent to honor al-Ustadh after his death. More information about the publication can be obtained from al-Ustadh's son 'Abd Allah at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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