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New Texts Out Now: John M. Willis, Unmaking North and South: Cartographies of the Yemeni Past, 1857-1934

[Cover of John M. Willis, [Cover of John M. Willis, "Unmaking North and South: Cartographies of the Yemeni Past, 1857-1934]

John M. Willis, Unmaking North and South: Cartographies of the Yemeni Past, 1857-1934. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

John Willis (JW): The book began as a dissertation written in the departments of history and Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at New York University. While I had been interested in the production and mastery of space as a particular technic of power for some time, what drove me to frame the dissertation and then the book in the way that I did was my experience watching the state celebrations associated with the tenth anniversary of Yemen’s unification (1990) while conducting preliminary research there in May 2000. Listening to the public discourse on Yemen’s recent past, there seemed to be a public consensus, at least at that time, that unification had ended the historical aberration of a divided Yemen that had begun with the division of the country under British colonial rule in the south and Zaydi rule in the north, and continued with the revolutions of 1963 and 1967, with the formation of two independent Yemeni states, themselves divided politically and ideologically. But it seemed to me that this narrative had all too easily erased a contested history, one in which the modern Yemeni nation was the result of a contingent historical process that extended far beyond the borders of southwestern Arabia.

It was my feeling that a critical history, a genealogy, of these spaces had not been written, especially in a way that viewed the problem of space, not as specific to geographical Yemen or the Yemeni nation, but as inextricably linked to forms of discursive and institutional power of global import. That is, the production of the Yemeni north and south as particular kinds of spaces, with assumed ethnographic, moral, political makeups, was the effect of broader processes of empire and anti-empire, which themselves intersected with discourses of religious reform, ethnography, cartography, and so on. To that end, I argue that the spaces of north and south Yemen must be situated in—and, in fact, are the effects of—broader governmental projects generated in India (of which Aden was officially a part until 1937) and the Ottoman Empire, as well as movements of anti-imperialism and Islamic reform (in its Sunni salafi variety) as they developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in opposition to these forms of rule.


[22 May Memorial, Khur Maksar, Aden. Photograph by J. Willis, 2000.]

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does it address?

JW: Drawing on the insights of critical geography and post-colonial historiography, I attempted to write a history of Yemen that was not rooted in universal trajectories of state formation, capitalism, or nationalism, but in what Paul Carter, in his The Road to Botany Bay, called “spatial history.” As I use it, spatial history is a mode of historical analysis that charts the complex interaction between seemingly stable languages and representations and the multitude of daily practices of which these representations were ultimately an effect, in particular the discourses, forms of knowledge, and governing practices deployed by states, colonial or otherwise. Particular spaces emerged from this interaction as objects of governance, resistance, social and moral reform, and, at moments, the apocalyptic imagination.

The book itself consists of two parts. The first three chapters deal with the Indian history of the Yemeni south, by which I mean the incorporation of the tribal polities known as the Aden Protectorate into the larger scheme of native or “princely” states that were critical to British governance in India after the failure of colonial liberalism following the great revolt of 1857. In practice, this meant that the British produced colonial ethnographies, genealogies, and state rituals specific to the Yemeni south, yet rooted in practices developed in India, which would delineate particular “ruling houses” that would govern under British patronage. Upholding the authority of these ruling houses, as members of a trans-regional association of “native princes” allied with the British, became the basis for British policy in the region up until the independence of the south in 1967. I attempt to locate the production of these ruling houses in a diverse assemblage of discourses and practices, including imperial state ritual (such as the Delhi Durbar of 1903), ethnography, cartography, and even the landscape aesthetic.

The remaining three chapters of the book turn to the Yemeni north and the formation of the Hamid al-Din Imamate under Imams al-Mansur Muhammad (d. 1904) and al-Mutawakkil Yahya (d. 1948). In particular, I was interested in Imam Yahya’s post-Ottoman state building project, which drew heavily on a technics of power and space—primarily in terms of military organization—that was clearly derived from the Ottoman Tanzimat order that his father, Imam al-Mansur, had so recently opposed. Recruiting former Ottoman officers and technicians, we see the formation of a new Yemeni state that combined a governmental apparatus rooted in the secular reason of state and a form of temporal/spiritual authority, embodied by Imam Yahya himself, that derived from religious knowledge and noble genealogy. This new order of power was mobilized for the conquest of geographical Yemen in the post-Ottoman period and later intersected with the discourses of Islamic reform (islah) and anti-imperialism that were so critical to politics in the region in the immediate aftermath of the First World War.

The final chapter of the book brings together the sections on the Yemeni north and south through an analysis of the undeclared war between Imam Yahya’s state and the Aden Protectorate (1918-28) and the ways in which the conflict—finally settled by Britain’s use of punitive aerial bombing and signing of an Anglo-Yemeni treaty in 1934—reinforced the divisions between north and south that carried on into the post-colonial period and, in certain ways, to the present day.


[Sir Ahmad b. Fadl, K.C.S.I., Sultan of Lahj. Source: Harold Jacob,
Kings of Arabia
, London: Mills & Boon, ltd., 1923, pg. 141.]

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

JW: It is my hope that this book will reach a broad audience, certainly within the field of Middle Eastern history, but also in the history of colonialism and empire and critical geography. I think it is safe to say that Yemen has occupied a marginal position within the discipline of modern Middle Eastern history, in part because of its seeming isolation from the broader trends of state formation and European domination that characterized the Mashriq and Maghreb. For this reason, I think, Yemen became primarily an object of either orientalist or anthropological inquiry, forever located in a religious/textual past or an ethnographic present. The result was a Yemeni historiography that, until recently, remained aloof from some of the broader concerns of the modern history of the non-West.

For example, Yemen’s place in the Ottoman and British Empires has received little critical treatment, and has been subject primarily to empirically driven, narrative histories. In fact, until recently, much of the more exciting historical work on Yemen was produced by critical anthropologists—people like Paul Dresch, Brinkley Messick, and, more recently, Enseng Ho. It is my hope that my work will join this body of critical literature that uses Yemen’s seeming marginality as a productive site from which one can question some of the predominant narratives about the modern history of the region and even the concept of the region (the “Middle East”) itself by situating it in broader histories of economy, empire, state formation, religious thought, and resistance.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

JW: I have begun working on a new project tentatively titled After the Caliphate: Islam, Mecca, and the Geography of Crisis and Hope. This project will take the post-war abolition of the Ottoman caliphate as a point of departure for a broader investigation of the place of Mecca in inter-war discourses of anti-imperialism and Islamic unity, especially as they were positioned against nationalism, empire, and the notions of race that were particular to them. Drawing primarily on the Arabic and Urdu writings of Muslim activists and intellectuals in the Arab Middle East and India, it is an attempt to draw out of this particular historical moment the ways in which a politics of crisis (related to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and its caliphate, the formation of the League of Nations mandates in the Middle East, the rise of the Indian nationalist movement, etc.) was transformed into a politics of hope, if only for a brief moment, in which Mecca stood metonymically for the collective potentialities of the entire Islamic umma and the absolute antithesis of the European state system and European empire.

The question that motivates me at the moment is: How did Mecca’s otherness, its heterotopic qualities, open up, at least for a period in the 1920s and 1930s, new imaginative spaces that worked to destabilize a series of scalar geographies—the imperial, the national, the regional, and the devotional—and offer alternative visions of world order? 

Excerpts from Unmaking North and South: Cartographies of the Yemeni Past, 1857-1934

From “Authority and Obedience”

Whatever the aim of the Da‘‘an treaty, it did not stifle the imam’s claims to religious and temporal authority. His public proclamations against the Idrisi were less notable for his opposition to the shaykh than the fact that they were with greater frequency directed toward the “the people of Yemen, both Zaydi and Shafi‘i” (sukkan al-qutr al-yamani al-zaydi minhum wa-l-shafi‘i) rather than toward the narrowly defined Zaydi community over which the treaty had given him sovereignty. Imam Yahya’s markedly non-sectarian appeal to Yemeni Muslims indicated that, even though a client of the Ottoman state, he presumed the legitimacy of his own claim to leadership far beyond the Zaydi highlands. But it also intimated the extent to which his reign signaled the transformation of the Yemeni state away from earlier models of the Zaydi imamate, a process that had begun in the late Qasimi dynasty in the eighteenth century.

Bernard Haykel has argued that the accession of a number of Qasimi imams who did not fit the requirements of scholarly probity necessitated by Zaydi law created the conditions for the rise in stature of the scholar and jurist Muhammad ‘Ali al-Shawkani (d. 1835). Although a Zaydi, Shawkani asserted the prominence of the traditions of the Prophet (sunna) as a source of law above the writings of the Zaydi imams. Shawkani’s appointment as the chief judge of the Qasimi state gave him access to the imams as well as the power to appoint his students to positions of influence. Of greater consequence, he reinterpreted the juridical bases of the imamate itself. Drawing on Prophetic hadith, he rejected the summons (da‘wa) as the necessary path to the imamate, arguing that one could be designated as such by the sitting imam or by the oath of loyalty of the ulama. Furthermore, he rejected the conditions that the imam be both a mujtahid and trace his descent to ‘Ali b. Abi Talib, arguing along Sunni lines that he need only belong to the Prophet’s tribe of the Quraysh and appoint knowledgeable scholars to advise him. Finally, and contrary to the Zaydi notion of just rule, he argued that it was impermissible to rebel against the imam unless he had committed a public act of unbelief. The imamate described by Shawkani was, in effect, what the Qasimi dynasty had become: a hereditary monarchy aided by an alliance with sunna-oriented scholars.

The political formation that resulted from the alliance of state power and religious learning was animated by an imagined moral geography that situated its inhabitants in a landscape defined by their knowledge of and adherence to the tenets and practices of Islam. It was a hierarchical view of society that located piety and knowledge in the state and allied members of the ulama. In the face of the Sa‘udi-Wahhabi alliance to the north, for example, Shawkani bemoaned the religious ignorance of the imam’s subjects (ra‘aya), the tribes of the northeast, and the residents of the cities whom he believed made Yemen vulnerable. It was the role of the imam to appoint competent administrators and educated members of the religious establishment to instruct the imam’s reluctant subjects in their religious duties, all of which required the expansion of state authority and obedience to it. In short, it was a view of society that assumed, as Haykel notes, “that only those who have yielded to the authority of the state can be good Muslims” and the political vision it espoused was one in which the boundaries of a moral, religious, and social order were coterminous with those of the state itself.

When the Ottoman administration withdrew from lower Yemen in 1918, Imam Yahya asserted his authority to rule Yemen as the legitimate Imam of the Muslim community and initiated a military campaign to bring the rest of the country under his rule. The history of these campaigns is narrated in a series of biographical (sira) works that were written about Imam Yahya by his supporters among the learned elite in the 1920s and 1930s. These works appealed both to the universal, in their record of the expansion of the domain of the shari‘a under the guidance of the Prophet’s descendant, and the singular in the specificity of the Yemeni social and political context in which they unfolded. But what is important for our purposes is that these works also narrated the production of a new state space which was organized according to hierarchies of religious knowledge, inscribed in geography and united under leadership and guidance of the Imam.

Indeed this new state space as a whole was subsumed under the concept of obedience (ta‘a) and sometimes referred to in the historical literature by the spatialized metaphor of “the domain of obedience” (hazirat al-ta‘a). In these texts, the domain of obedience was synonymous with the rule of the imam, the application of the shari‘a, and the maintenance of a political and social order that preserved the rule of those with religious knowledge. Beyond the limits of obedience was a landscape of corruption (fasad), dissension (fitna) and chaos (fawda). The narrative thrust of these biographical works, then, is the slow but steady extension of the domain of obedience over the whole of the Yemen. If we turn to the chronicle written by Imam Yahya’s chief secretary (katib), Qadi ‘Abd al-Karim al-Mutahhar, the extent to which obedience informed a particular kind of geographical imagination becomes apparent. The author began his chronicle with an account of the year 1337/1918, the year the Ottoman administration began to evacuate Yemen, in which he demarcated the boundaries of obedience:

The imam was residing in al-Rawda. The following lands were obedient to and under the order of our lord the Imam: Sa‘da, and all areas to the edge of Bani Juma‘a and Razih, all of the places in the far north (qibli), and al-Ahnum, Hajur al-Sham, Sharafayn, al-Suda, Kuhlan Taj al-Din, and ‘Affar. All of the middle regions to the edges of Yarim and al-‘Awd were held jointly by him and the Ottoman state.

Thereafter, al-Mutahhar continues to frame the passing of years with the expansion of the domain of obedience under the victorious armies of the Imamate. This space, however, was not like that of the Aden Protectorate as the British envisioned it, embedded in the nature of chiefly authority, the tribe, and the scientific discourse of geography. Rather, the borders of the domain of obedience as represented in the sira literature were ever expanding with the movement of the Imam’s armies, his commanders, who were members of the learned elite, and the extension of his rule. That is, as we shall see below, these histories were chronological accounts which listed the places and peoples conquered, region by region. The narration of these movements is what Michel de Certeau would have called spatial stories. Unlike the map, which he argued “slowly disengaged itself from the itineraries that were the condition of its possibility,” the spatial story is a log of movement, of place enacted through a sequential account of movement through space. Nor was the view that of the perspectiveless map as we saw in Chapter Three; rather it was Imam Yahya’s “piercing gaze” (nazar thaqib) which saw beyond the outer world of appearances and uncovered hidden truths.

While the concept of obedience had a firm foundation in Shawkani’s reinterpretation of the Imamate, the biographical literature suggests the maintenance and protection of a particular symbolic and practical order. As Makdisi has suggested in the context of Ottoman state discourse in Lebanon, the domain of obedience “encompassed politics and religion, public and private—all that contributed to a stable and tranquil social order.” In the biographical literature, opposition to the state was generally framed in a moral language, often indicated by phrases such as “the fires of dissension ignited” (insha‘alat niran al-fitna), which indicated a collapse of just Islamic governance. Words such as dissension (fitna) and chaos (fawda) were more often than not linguistic codes for the disruption of religious and political hierarchies which were necessary for a stable, just, and moral order. This was not due to the behavior of the Imam’s subjects (ra‘aya), who are almost never accused of opposing the state. Rather, it is most always the local notables, shaykhs, and headmen who don the “garb of the state” (ziyy al-dawla) and exploit the socially and politically weak (du‘afa’ wa masakin).

The extension of this domain, then, was concerned with establishing proper hierarchies of authority and knowledge. The return to this state was marked by the arrival of the Imam’s soldiers or “army of truth” (jund al-haqq), led by prominent sayyids, who in turn, acted as embodiments of the Imam himself. The appointment of a governor (‘amil) and shari‘a judge (hakim) indicated the return of just rule, the application of the law, and the reform (islah) or “ordering” (tartib) of the affairs of the land. Obedience was embodied in a very specific set of practices which, in turn, distinguished obedient Muslims from the “people of corruption” (ahl al-fasad). First and foremost the entrance into obedience meant the application of the shari‘a and the abolition of non-Islamic legal practices. What this meant in terms of practice was the performance of unspecified religious duties (ada’ al-wajibat), which itself was a not so veiled reference to the payment of the canonical tithes (zakat). Other practices that had no basis in Islam but had long histories in Yemen were necessary to the enactment of obedience as well. The taking of hostages as a guarantee for submission was recast as the taking of “hostages of obedience” (raha’in al-ta‘a) just as the slaughtering of bulls as a ritual act of appeasement were referred to as offering “bulls of obedience” (‘aqa’ir al-ta‘a). What is important to note here is that obedience as a form of practice was only visible in relation to the state. The state itself, however, was changing dramatically.

[Excerpted from Unmaking North and South: Cartographies of the Yemeni Past, 1857-1934, by John M. Willis, by permission of the author. © 2012 John M. Willis. For more information, or to order this book, click here.]

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