Since it emerged in Yemen around three decades ago, the country’s Salafi movement has maintained complex, if not tense links with Saudi Arabia. Before establishing a Yemeni manifestation of Salafism with its own features and clerics, Muqbil al-Wadi‘i (d. July 2001), a tribesman from the highlands of Sa‘ada in North Yemen, had been educated in the 1960s and 1970s in the main Saudi religious institutes (including the famous Islamic University of Medina). Throughout his time in the Saudi Kingdom, al-Wadi‘i had become an important actor in the Jama‘a al-Salafiyya al-Muhtasiba movement, whose offshoot led the 1979 uprising in Mecca. Due to his personal relations with Juhayman al-‘Utaybi and his alleged influence on the latter’s writings — particularly his famous letters questioning the legitimacy of the monarchy — al-Wadi‘i had been expelled from Saudi territory a few months prior to the Ikhwan rebellion in the Great Mosque. Back in Yemen, he established his own teaching institute in the outskirts of Sa‘ada city: Dar al-Hadith, which rapidly became successful, attracting many students from Yemen and abroad, including Europe and America.
Despite numerous invitations by renowned scholars during the 1980s and 1990s and possible funding of the Salafi institutes by Saudi individuals and institutions, al-Wadi‘i only agreed to return to Saudi Arabia just before his death to receive treatment and officially reconcile with the Saudi rulers. This final reconciliation came as a surprise to many, as it appeared to contradict much of the position on the Saudi regime that the Yemeni cleric had taken for most his life. To seal such an apparent renunciation, al-Wadi‘ was buried in Mecca close to the graves of the great Saudi ‘ulama’ ‘Abd al-‘Aziz bin Baz and Muhammad al-‘Uthaymin.
While other mechanisms, notably transnational proselytism and a shift in religious identities, obviously played a central role in the development of Salafism in Yemen, Muqbil al-Wadi‘i’s eviction in the late 1970s and the Meccan uprising both appear as decisive events that have long shaped the specific doctrine of Yemeni Salafism. Indeed, repression of the Salafis by the Saudi government at that time durably affected al-Wadi‘i’s relation to politics and reinforced his criticism of the Saudi leadership. Over time, these two features have been the main hallmarks of the Yemeni brand of Salafism and have contributed to its success beyond its borders. Al-Wadi‘i’s brutal eviction justified in his own eyes his condemnation of Saudi policies and contributed to his image as an uncompromising scholar. Despite his own ambiguities when it came to criticizing the Yemeni regime, such independence from the Saudi monarchy appeared particularly appealing to activists who disregarded the endorsement of certain Saudi policies (e.g., the presence of American and allied troops during the Gulf War in 1990-91 and afterwards) by prominent clerics such as ‘Abd al-‘Aziz bin Baz, Mufti of the Kingdom.
When recalling his relationship with al-‘Utaybi, al-Wadi‘i asserted that while he disagreed with the Ikhwan’s strategy and the fact they had taken weapons inside the Meccan shrine (something that was explicitly forbidden by Islamic jurisprudence), he felt that it was the Saudi government’s repression that should be blamed, as violence by al-‘Utaybi and his supporters only came as a reaction to arrests and torture carried out by the government. Furthermore, al-Wadi‘, in his various books and conferences, appeared to remain consistent with key elements of the Ikhwan’s doctrine. Although the messianic dimension of al-‘Utaybi’s enterprise and the importance of the mahdi do not appear as central for its activists, the Yemeni Salafi movement first built around Muqbil al-Wadi‘ shared much with the Jama‘a al-Salafiyya al-Muhtasiba. The fact that al-Wadi‘ was accused of being the ghost writer of Juhayman al-‘Utaybi’s letters reinforces the impression of such doctrinal proximity and might explain the features of Yemeni Salafism. Indeed, criticism of the Saudi state as expressed in al-Wadi‘i’s writings during the 1980s and early 1990s echo much of al-‘Utaybi’s argument in his 1978 letter, “The State, Allegiance and Obedience,” in which he argues that the Al Sa‘ud are illegitimate, as they are not from the Quraysh, and accuses them of being Christian allies. Nevertheless, he writes, despite their corruption, Saudi rulers, like all Muslim leaders, are not to be excommunicated: takfir is thus forbidden. Furthermore, al-Wadi‘i’s extreme social conservatism — his rejection of pictures, music, and his claim that it was illegitimate for someone to work as a civil servant or to serve in the Yemen army — as well as some unorthodox interpretations of the texts (for instance, he claimed that it was possible to pray whilst wearing shoes) were all consistent with al-‘Utaybi’s doctrine.
In a way, the Yemeni branch of Salafism nevertheless seems to have learned from al-‘Utaybi’s mistakes and adopted a clearer stance towards loyalty to the ruler, particularly the Yemeni leadership, thus escaping from potential repression and abandoning revolutionary plans. Instead of directly confronting the ruler, al-Wadi‘i considered that it was necessary to be loyal to the political system in order to prevent the country from falling into chaos. He then asserted that state policies could be oriented through the secret advice of ‘ulama’ to the rulers.
Muqbil al-Wadi‘i’s death in July 2001 and his fresh reconciliation with the Saudi authorities, along with political developments linked to the “global war on terror” in Yemen, led to a kind of normalization of the Salafi movement in that country. Most of its leading figures — Yahya al-Hajuri, Muhammad al-Imam, and Abu al-Hasan al-Maribi — appear to have abandoned along the way some of the specificities of “muqbilian”-style Salafism. They have done so either by adopting a more conventional apolitical stance that is reminiscent of the doctrine of the ‘ulama’ of the Saudi religious establishment or by growing more and more political and being influenced by the Sahwa movement or even the Muslim Brotherhood. In a way, this whole and complex normalization process meant abandoning much of the heritage of Juhayman al-‘Utaybi, therefore ending a cycle and obliterating the indirect influence that the Ikhwan movement has had on Yemeni Salafism.
. Laurent Bonnefoy, “Salafism in Yemen: A Saudisation?” in Madawi al-Rasheed ed., Kingdom without Borders: Saudi Arabia’s Political, Religious and Media Frontiers (London: Hurst, 2008), pp. 245-262.
. Thomas Hegghammer and Stephane Lacroix, “Rejectionist Islamism in Saudi Arabia: The Story of Juhayman al-‘Utaybi Revisited”, The International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 39, No. 1 (2007), pp. 97-116.
. Muqbil al-Wadi‘i, Mushahadaiî iî al-Mamlaka al-‘Arabiyya al-Sa‘udiyya (Sanaa : Dar al-athar, 2005).
. Muqbil al-Wadi‘i, Ijâbat al-sâ’il ‘alâ ahamm al-masâ’il (Sanaa: Maktabat al-athariyya, 2004).
. Muqbil al-Wadi‘i, Al-Makhraj min al-Fitna (Sanaa: Maktabat al-athariyya, 2002).
. Muqbil al-Wadi‘i, recorded conference, Al-ilhad al-Khumayni fi Ard al-haramayn (no date).
. François Burgat and Mohammed Sbitli, “Les salafis au Yémen ou … la modernisation malgré tout,” Chroniques Yéménites, No. 10 (2003), pp. 123-152.