Yemen and the Culture of Tolerance

By Mohammed Sharafuddin
Submitted to Session P4124 (Turmoil and Tolerance: Unpacking the Current Crisis in Yemen, 2015 Annual Meeting
Rel Stds/Theo
All Middle East;
13th-18th Centuries;
Yemen is presently going through serious waves of sectarian conflicts. This is a peculiarly new phenomenon as far as Yemen and its culture are concerned. Although political rivalry existed throughout Yemeni history, it is remarkable how the Yemeni society was able to maintain peace and cultural harmony. This has be due to the ancient Yemeni heritage of toleration as well as the efforts made by some charismatic scholars representing Yemen’s major religious sects, mainly Sunnism, Zeidism, and Ismailism.
There is a wealth of literature in Yemen, as specifically reflected in poetry, that calls for tolerance towards all kinds of opponents, whether in politics or creed. Scholars, like Umarah (12th century Yemen), al-Maqbali, Ibn al-Ameer, and al-Shawkani, dealt with people from different denominations not as enemies but as genuine seekers of truth. Intellectual and moral persuasion was their main goal. As they assert in their writings, particularly poetry, each individual has his/her own justification and reasoning for the faith and views he/she adopts. These scholars represent remarkably positive models of religious leaders who dealt with others not as opponents but as friends and equal fellow beings. Their works, which call for tolerance and understanding between Islamic sects as well as other non-Muslim communities, created a unique culture that has its impacts in many aspects of present Yemeni life and practices.
Interestingly, these practices are no longer invoked in the present time. Although these scholars’ ideas are still held with great esteem by their followers, their views on tolerance are downplayed and ignored.