The Newest 'New Arabian Studies'

Reviewed by Daniel Martin Varisco

Yemen Update 40 (1998):65-67

One of the premier annuals relevant to Yemeni Studies is the resurrected New Arabian Studies, with the 4th volume appearing in 1997. G. Rex Smith, J. R. Smart and B. R. Pridham edit the journal for University of Exeter Press. Ordering information is available from the publisher (University of Exeter Press, Reed Hall, Streatham Drive, Exeter, Devon EX4 4QR, United Kingdom, fax 44-1392-263-064), with information available at the website (

Volume 4 contains 10 articles, plus short reviews by Venetia Porter of Serjeant's Society and Trade in South Arabia, and Smith's Studies in the Medieval History of the Yemen and South Arabia. As shown in the list of contents, six of the articles have direct relevance to Yemen. The article by Emery on Omani proverbs is well worth reading due to its valuable summary of the way Arabic proverbs have been studied and translated. The author also includes 100 specifically Omani proverbs, by topic; these form a useful reference base for comparison with other localized proverbs in Arabia. My favorite proverb here is za'al bu ja'al (adung-beetle's anger), in reference to a constantly angry person (p.50).

Anne Katrine Bang, a historian at the Centre for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at the University of Bergen,translates the bayân (announcement) of Muhammad ibn'Alial-Idrisi of 1912. This announcement justifies the uprising he coordinated in the 'Asir region against the Ottomans. The author also provides details on the life of al-Idrõsõ and the political context in which the announcement was made. Muhammad ibn 'Ali al-Idrisi(1876-1923) founded the Idrisi state of 'Asir, which lasted from1906-1934. The great grandson of the Sufi shaykh Ahmad ibn Idris, he studied at al-Azhar University in Cairo and later travelled to visit the Sanusiyya order in Libya. Returning to 'Asir around 1906, al-Idrisi arbitrated local tribal disputes in a region that was bordering on anarchy under the corrupt and lax rule of the Ottomans.According to Bang, "The Bayân of Muhammad al-Idrisi is a multi-faceted document which may be read and interpreted in various ways. Aspects of modernist thought intermingle with more traditional arguments, such as the Muslim ruler's duty to uphold the laws of the sharõ'ah. It is also a 'declaration of independence', a manifesto written in the midst of an armed struggle. In this respect it is a valuable firsthand report from an Arab prince throwing off Ottoman overlordship'' (p. 17). (In the article, note that the word "come" onp. 16, line 2, should be "some.")

Anda Hofstede compiles a comprehensive listof the papers left by Prof. T. M. Johnstone, the noted linguist of South Arabian dialects who died in January, 1983. The papers, now housed at the University Library of Durham, fill some 38 boxes, along with 16 boxes of file cards and 122 open reel and cassette audiotapes.

Of special interest, at least to this reader,is the excellent article by Alexander Knysh on the impact of Islamic reformism on the cult of saints in early 20th-century Hadramawt. Professor Knysh, holder of the Sharjah Chair of Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter, conducted ethnographic research in the Hadramawt between 1986-1989. Knysh sums up the rise of reformist"puritanical" Muslim discourse against saint worship, which stems back to the medieval Hanbali theologian Ibn Taymiyya (died729/1328).The article discusses the variety of shrines and their social context in the region and then focuses on the debate within Hadramawt, especially the anti-saint treatise by al-Bakri published in 1936. As Knysh (p. 147) points out:

Al-Bakri's argument in a nutshell is as follows. He describes the major sadah clans as possessors of 'enormous spiritual influence' (nufudh ruhi qawi jiddan), which they translated into a bona fide political power (sultah). This power was thus not achieved through either spectacular militarily [sic] successes on the battlefield or some exceptional moral qualities vested in the families in question. Rather it rested entirely on the sadah claim to be descendants of the Prophet's house. By cunningly capitalizing on this claim, whose authenticity al-Bakri repeatedly calls in doubt, the sadah, established themselves as peacemakers and arbitartors among the warlike, yet gullible Hadramõ tribes.

Having added to this claim a reputation for piety, learning and impartiality, the sadah then adroitly pit it to selfish use by establishing themselves as the religious aristorcracy of the country, which, according to al-Bakri, is in many ways similar to the leadership of Egyptian Sufi brotherhoods. Their privileged position in Hadramõ society infused them with inordinate pride which is, with a few insignificant exceptions, undeserved. The sadah are ever anxious to emphasize their status. They, for example, insist on being called '[God's] beloved' (habib) or '[my] lord' (sayyid) and require that the members of the non-sadah families kiss their hands as a sign of reverence and humility. More importantly, they never allow their daughters to marry under their class, whereas a sayyid is free to marry any Hadrami woman he chooses.

This said, al-Bakri sets out to describe how the sadah endeavour to perpetuate their privileged status by propagating the cult of their deceased ancestors among the ignorant people. Upon the death of a noted sayyid leader, his descendants hasten to construct an imposing domed shrine over his grave, then invite the superstitious Muslims of the lower classes to visit it in order to partake of the new saint's blessing (tabarruk) or to ask for his help and intercession (tawassul).

Yet this article goes beyond the case to the ramifications of how we study religion as such. The controversy inthe debate over saints was at base not so much about abstract theological principles as to "a much broader conflict of the opposed interest groups whose members tended to appeal to distinct religious,social and political ideals. This broader conflict, in turn, was embedded in the traditional structures of religious authority,lineage, and social organization, from which it cannot be extricated without skewing the overall picture" (p. 160). Knysh sees this as, on the one hand, validating Geertz' view of religion as a social system of significance, but also supporting critics of "interpretive"anthropology in that the social and political systems must be carefully factored into the analysis. Further, "... there is nothing in this paper that would contradict Dale Eickelman's conclusion that 'while religious authority in earlier generations dervied from masteryof authoritative texts studied under recognized scholars, mass education fosters a direct, albeit selective, access to the printed word and a break with earlier traditions of authority.' (p.161).

Of the many travelers to Yemen, one who spent a considerable amount of time in this part of the Middle Eastwas G. Wyman Bury, who died in 1920 at the age of 46. Eric Macrolooks at Bury's travels around the Red Sea in the last seven years ofhis life. Macro focuses on possible links of Bury with British intelligence, especially contact between Bury and Lawrence. In 1911,while in the Westminster Hospital, Bury fell in love with his nurse,Ann Marshall, whom he married in 1913 in Hodeidah. Mad dogs and English newlyweds -- they spent their honeymoon in Sanaa, before returning to Cairo where he finished his Arabia Infelix or the Turks of Yemen. The life of Ann Bury is quite interesting in itself,although only a few tidbits are given in the article. She was nearly killed in the only air raid (in 1915) on Cairo during World War I. After Bury's death she stayed on in Cairo and worked for the Egyptian government film censor's department until 1940. King Faruk invited her to his first wedding. She outlived Bury's death by some 52 years and almost lived to be 100 years old. As Macro laments, "The Arabian hall of fame has no niche for widows" (p. 178). But perhaps with this knowledge we should begin one.

Mikhail Rodionov, a professor at the Peterthe Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, edits and translates the labor code of Sultan 'Ali ibnal-Mansur al-Kathiri, issued in 1351/1932. This is a valuable document on the local Hadramõ economy. As Rodionov explains (p.197),

"The document deserves our attention, for it deals with the underprivileged strata of local society -- masakõn and du'afa. The latter are called ju'alah, or those who work for a ju'alah (wage), i.e. wage-earners, labourers, whereas masakin are mostly foremen and/or unskilled tradesmen. The wages of labouers and their foremen, as well as their working time, are defined in the code. It is forbidden to pay more but also to pass less than the stated amount in coin and food. Cash is paid for work, and for buying food there are khusar/khussar -- and coffee-money. The natural payment is called ghada (lunch), which is usually comprised of dates; only in the case of ploughmen is dhurah added. The working day is fixed, for men, women and children, at about 10 hours, if we deduct time for prayers and meals."

The final article about Yemen is an interesting geographical and archaeological study of the pilgrimage route through highland Yemen. The author, a professor in the Department of Archaeology and Museology in King Saud University in Riyadh, examines a detailed poem by Ahmad ibn 'Isa al-Rada'i of the3rd/9th century. This poem was mentioned by al-Hamdani in his famous Sifat jazirat al-'Arab. The time for the pilgrim journey from Rada' to Mecca via Sanaa was 24 days, according to the text. The article provides a description of the poem, with translations of several hemistiches. The place names are outlined on maps. There is evidence for two of the milestones, located in Saudi Arabia,mentioned in the text. Any scholar interested in Yemeni geography will find this a useful source to keep in mind

Contents of Volume 4

'This is an Announcement to the People...' -- The Bayân of 1912 by Muhammad B. 'Ali Al-Idrisiin 'Asir, Anne Katrine Bang ... 1

Omani Proverbs: Problems in Translation, Peter G. Emery ... 39

Description of the Johnstone Papers heldin the Palace Green Section of the University Library of Durham,Anda Hofstede ... 71

The Cult of Saints and Islamic Reformismin Early Twentieth Century ùaramawt, Alexander Knysh ...139

The Red Sea and Wyman Bury -- The Last Seven Years, 1913-1920, Eric Macro ... 168

Banu Nabhan in the Omani Sources, Hasan M. al-Naboodah ... 181

The Labour Code of the Sultan 'Ali al-Kathiri, 1351/1932, Mikhail Rodionov ...196

The Arabian Gulf in Syriac Sources,Hamad Bin Seray ... 205

The Native Land of the Nabataeans, ... 233

A Preliminary Evaluation of al-Rada'i'sUrjuzat al-Hagg as a Primary Geographical Source for Surveying the Yemeni Highland Pilgrim Route, Mohammed A. R. Al-Thenayian... 243

excerpt from al-Idrõsõ's Bayân (pp. 21-22)

'Do you think that it is still possible for the bedouin to believe that his rulers are Muslims -- no matter how much you try to convince him, no matter how much proof you offer him by different means, since actions speak louder than words and what they demonstrate is conclusive...

'There we found the people in even greater hostility to the rulers (than before we left them) because of the things described above.

'We found them refusing to pay taxes and taking their matters to judgement by the oppressors [i.e. the Turks].

'[There was] a general breakdown of public security in all districts because of the demands for revenge,and the government left the people with a free rein [i.e. did nothing to stop this]. This was the matter which brought a halt to all work and activity, both in trade, agriculture and other domains, to such an extent that a man was unable to move a foot outside his dwelling unless some of his companions went with him,equipped with arms to fight off assailants (and they were many!).

'If you had seen [what went on] at that time, you would have seen something discouraging [lit.: 'to make the liver burst'], fit to prevent you from sleeping, and topro long wakefulness. Yes, if you had seen, you would have seen the mosques lying idle, the shari'ah neglected, the soil lying arid and misfortunes continuous; a man could not go to his prayer without carrying arms and being escorted by his group to serve as his guard. and you would have seen plundering and looting and killing of innocent people, fit to upset firm souls and soften hard hearts.

'You would have seen endless civil wars between the tribes, clans and subdivisions, draining the money,widowing the women, orphaning the children, dividing brothers and diminishing the number of offspring.

'All of this you would have seen taking place, in front of the very eyes of the government and its men,without their urging any move or making any effort to stop this sweeping flood of misfortunes.

'You would not find any of these governors and officials having concern for any of these matters, except where there was a profit in it, for him alone or with the help of some of his associates.

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