Coexistence has many manifestations in Yemen that inspire society to work towards greater synergy and harmony; they also serve as a reminder that much more effort is required before this ideal is a widespread reality. Whether the occasion is a visit to a prophet’s tomb in Hadhramaut or a celebration to commemorate arrival of Islam in the country, a sense of solidarity is multiplied through ancient rituals that vary with every event. At the heart of each celebration is deep-seated faith in the common ground that brings Yemenis together.
Eslah Saleh Aden
Every year on the 13th of Rabiʻ II, the fourth month in the Islamic calendar, the neighbourhood of Crater in Aden awakens to waves of visitors on an annual pilgrimage to the al-‘Aydarus mosque. It’s a celebration that dates back hundreds of years and draws Yemenis from many regions. In 2021, when the event was held on November 18, the mosque was festooned with coloured lights.
Shaykh Abu Bakr bin Abdullah Al-‘Aydarus, a poet and religious scholar of Sufism, was born in Tarim, a city in Hadhramaut Governorate, in 1446. After visiting several cities in Yemen and abroad, he entered Aden on the 13th of Rabi’ Al-Thani, 889 in the Islamic calendar (1484 CE). At the request of the cities’ scholars, he remained in Aden until his death in 1508. The mosque he built in 1485 includes his mausoleum and houses the al-‘Aydarus Educational Centre, from which a new class of students graduates every year.
The celebration usually begins in the morning, with processions of men and women starting at the house of the manseb, the director of the al-‘Aydarus educational centre. Amid women’s ululations and waving banners, the marchers, accompanied by brass instruments, chant slogans, poems and prayers to remember al-‘Aydarus as they make their way to the mosque, about a kilometre away..
A traditional custom on this day is the sharing of zirbiyan, a meal of rice and meat or poultry cooked with spices and milk, with visitors at the manseb’s house. In the afternoon, he and his entourage visit the mosque to perform various ceremonies, such as the kiswa, a time to give clothes to the needy and adorn gravestones with decorated fabrics. On the evening of the visit, visitors are treated to hariss, a dish of porridge-type wheat mixed with meat. People from rural areas perform regional and local dances during the late-night celebrations, while children have their share of activities such as karkous, a doll game, and a chance to enjoy special swings set up for the occasion.
Despite the festivities, visiting al-‘Aydarus Mosque is no longer a significant event for local residents.
“Some of them don’t even know about it until they see the lights that adorn the mosque and the kiswa,” said Dr Haifa Makawi, professor of Islamic Antiquities and Civilisation at the University of Aden.
The mosque caught fire during Yemen’s 1994 civil war, and despite recent renovations, the annual celebration at the site has declined due to security and travel issues since 2011. Recent years have seen a modest comeback; the celebration that took place in 2021 was a triumph for coexistence in Aden. Despite the passage of time, memories and rituals of al-‘Aydarus are still fresh for many.
Muhammed Bahchwan, 50, lives near the mosque and remembers going with his father and siblings to pray and recite the Fatiha (the opening surah in the Qur’an) at the imam’s shrine.
“He would put his hand into a small hole inside the shrine and take a handful of soil in his hands,” he said. “Then he smelled it, and we would do the same.”
His mother put part of that handful of soil in a rag that she tied to her children’s wrists.
“The rag would stay tied like that for some time,” he added, “but the handful of soil would disappear with the first shower.”
Bahchwan said no one ever offered an explanation for the ritual, but he looks back on it with pleasure and pride.
Fatima Bawazir, Mukalla
Shi’b Hud is a small village in the al-Sawm District in Hadhramaut Governorate, eastern Yemen, where people believe the Prophet Hud is buried. According to local accounts, Hud is one of the prophets mentioned in sacred books for being sent by God to the tribe of Aad, the former inhabitants of Hadhramaut.
The shrine, built on top of a mountain, is a large, cracked room topped with a stark, unadorned white dome. Its interior and exterior are coated with stucco.
This annual religious gathering, the largest of its kind in Hadhramaut Governorate, draws thousands of people every year, and 2021 was no exception. From the fifth to the tenth of the month of Sha’ban, which fell between March 18-21, Yemenis flocked to Shi’b Hud from all over the country. Before the war, the shrine had drawn visitors from the Gulf and southeast Asia.
As members of the Hadhrami Shafi’i Sufi School meet with followers of other branches of Islam, the gathering reflects an elegant side of religious coexistence for which the region is known.
Ghalib al-Hadar, a regular visitor from Seiyun, where he works as a school principal, said the tradition is not limited to followers of a certain Sufi order or school, but open to those who come out of curiosity. “They also manifest traces of the place and ceremony’s spirituality,” he added.
The ceremony, which used to begin with a ritual ablution in a river below the mountain, was meant to serve as an act of purification in the past. As the river dried up and water became available in homes, this tradition gradually subsided. Today, visitors pray to be cleansed of their sins in an area called Hassat Omar. Then a mass procession heads to the Well of Taslom (peace), which the faithful believe is a meeting place for the spirits of prophets, messengers, and saints.
These are hallowed days that we spend in spiritual transformation and prayer with openness and joy.
At the same time, commercial markets open nearby, where restaurants flourish. The traditional gift market offers nuts, sweets, and siwaak, a tooth-cleaning twig from the Salvadora persica tree known as arāk.
Pilgrims later make their way toward the shrine to pray and recite the Hud or Yasin chapters of the Qur’an. Then they head toward Hassat an-Naqah, a large rock where they perform zikr, a form of prayerful meditation, and read excerpts of the Prophet Muhammed’s biography, while imams and scholars give sermons.
Apart from these rituals, no visitor to the village can overlook the grand houses built in Shi’b Hud.
“I was astonished by a massive house built in a modern, palatial style”, said al-Hadar. “Why would a wealthy man spend all this money on a building he lives in for only one week a year?” The village remains empty the rest of the time, while mosques and the shrine stand ready for the next holy month of Sha’ban, the last lunar month before Ramadan.
Mohammed Ali Mahroos, Taiz
Islam was first introduced to Yemen in the year 632, nearly 1,400 years ago. The religion has dominated the region in various branches and sects ever since. Muadh ibn Jabal, a companion of the Prophet Muhammed, was among those who came from Medina to Yemen with the message of Islam. He settled in al-Janad, an area 20 kilometres east of Taiz, where the first mosque in the region was built in the sixth year of the Islamic calendar.
Thousands of faithful make an annual pilgrimage to the mosque to commemorate the advent of Islam in Yemen. On al-Rajabiyya, as the first Friday of Rajab in the seventh month of the Islamic calendar is known, a scene unfolds that reflects widespread sentiment about a history many hold in high esteem. It is also an expression of gratitude to Ibn Jabal for bringing Islam to Yemen.
A week before al-Rajabiyya, women and men from around the country observe this sacred religious occasion by performing collective rituals such as recitations, group prayers, and litanies, led by clergy. Activities vary from morning to evening, reaching their peak at night with the sounds of pilgrims’ voices crossing the perimeter of the mosque. This embodies the value of unity among thousands of people from diverse regions, expanding the spiritual dimension of the gathering as al-Rajabiyya approaches.
The pilgrims spend the whole night beforehand in worship, crowning the week with Friday noon prayers before returning home.
Abdul Hamid Jaafar, 45, is a teacher from al-Janad who has taken part in the commemoration more than once. He said he feels a sense of reverence every time he performs the annual rituals.
“These are hallowed days that we spend in spiritual transformation and prayer,” he said, “with openness and joy.”
Faiz al-Dhubaibi, Raymah
Al-Sha’baniya, as it is known in Raymah, refers to the night midway through the month of Sha’ban. Destinies and fortunes are written on this occasion, according to Abdo al-Bari Taher, 81, a writer and former head of the Yemeni Journalists Union. Beginning at sunset on the 14th of Sha’ban and ending at dawn the next day, it goes beyond the rituals of worship with a social dimension that manifests in forgiveness, reconciliation between adversaries, the exchanging of gifts, and helping those in need.
“Spiritual energies join together,” said poet and storyteller Yassin al-Bakali, 44, from Raymah. “Religious chants and prophetic praises reflect a reverent atmosphere mixed with mysticism of the soul.”
Children often gather to repeat the chants of the adults, he added.
Over two centuries ago, the head of a family in the village of al-Hansa, Ahmad Yahya al-Hansa, dedicated a third of his vast agricultural income to fund al-Sha’baniya celebrations. Every year since the beginning of Sha’ban, Hamid Ahmad al-Hansa, one of Ahmad’s descendants, prepares the village’s main square with the rest of his family for this sacred night. He ensures there is adequate water, clean sitting areas, and proper lighting. A faqih, someone known for his religious piety and knowledge, is invited to lead groups in chants and prayer. He also reads from the book of the Mawlid, a collection of songs related to the birth of the Prophet Muhammed and his life.
Most of the women, men, and children of Raymah take part in the preparations, eager to be in service to visitors and helping those in need with a spirit of love and affection.
After evening prayers, people leave the mosque with the faqih and head to the square, singing songs of praise for the prophet along the way.
As al-Bakali put it, “This atmosphere is full of emotional moments in which the spirit of Yemenis who grew up with kindness, compassion and love is renewed.”
Samar Abdullah, Sana’a
In the 12th of Rabi’ I, the third month in the Islamic calendar each year, Yemenis celebrate al-Mawlid, the birth of the Prophet Muhammed. In 2021, this date fell on November 18.
Traditions vary according to region and age group. In cities, rituals dating back to followers of Sufism in the tenth century have subsided, but their resonance can still be felt across Yemen.
As with other cities, Sana’a is decked in green every year for al-Mawlid. Yemenis hang green fabric on the facades of shops and buildings and string green lights along the streets and sidewalks. Even cars are painted green. Among the festivities that continue through the entire month of Rabi’ I are evenings devoted to poetry and lectures on the life of the Prophet.
Nowadays, however, it’s more common to celebrate al-Mawlid at home.
“My grandmother used to be one of the rare few who celebrated al-Mawlid in her house,” said Zainab Muhammed, 23, who studies commerce and economics at the University of Sana’a. “She would invite neighbours and serve dates.”
Many people mark al-Mawlid with a visit to the Great Mosque of Sana’a for evening prayers. Afterwards, people stand in circular formation, repeating Allah’s name as a kind of litany, with readings on the life of the Prophet. Worshipers are doused with rose water amid the burning of incense.
The Yemeni Munshid Association, devoted to chanting, stages events for people from all over the country to participate. It’s a celebration of diversity for Ali al-Akwa’, 54, head of the group.
“The different chanting styles and artistic creations are unified in the love of the prophet,” he said.
The Flowers of Hodeida
The city of Hodeida welcomes al-Mawlid with a festive atmosphere. People buy new clothes, incense, and flowers, especially jasmine garlands.
“Celebrations begin with prayer circles in the mosques, reminding attendees of the importance of reconciliation and equality, and that no one person is better than another except through piety,” said Ahmed Hassan Ayyash Yacoub, 56, a poet from Hodeida.
While children play outside in their new clothes, the affluent carry out acts of charity, distributing food and clothing to the poor, orphans and widows.
At night, families gather for a dinner of zirbiyan and paint their hands and feet with henna.
The town of Tarim in Hadhramaut marks the Prophet Muhammed’s birthday with a display of fabric banners bearing words of praise. The celebration begins at the end of the month of Rabi’ al-Awal and includes seminars and conferences on religious subjects.
In one area of Hadhramaut, said photographer Noora Baawaidhan, 24, women in Mukalla wear green and gather at different homes and recitation centres for prayers and meditation circles.
Elsewhere, a festive atmosphere prevails with the sharing of coffee, sweets and water in mosques and on the streets. Hadhramis wear white with distinctive hats and wander through the streets, chanting to the beat of a daf, a frame drum that usually accompanies Sufi worship.
Zain Alaabdain Ali, Tarim
On the 27th of Rajab, the seventh month of the Islamic calendar, the city of Tarim prepares for the commemoration of Isra and Mi’raj, a journey the faithful believe the Prophet Muhammed made to the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, where he led other prophets in prayer before ascending to heaven. This night, known in Yemen as al-Rajabiyya, is celebrated to share the prophet’s stories and miracles.
The Islamic World Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (ISESCO) chose Tarim, one of the largest Sufi strongholds in Yemen, as the capital of Islamic culture in 2010.
The main celebration of al-Rajabiyya in Tarim takes place in the courtyard of al-Ranad Palace, where local scholars meet with social figures and a large number of students from across Yemen and abroad, such as southeast Asia, Africa and Europe.
People also gather in smaller groups, carrying banners with words of devotion to the prophet and chanting to the beat of drums.
“Through these celebrations, the faithful send messages of love, coexistence, and rejection of violence and hatred,” said Ahmed Bahmala, 32, a researcher with the al-Rand Centre for Heritage, Antiquities and Architecture.
In public squares where hundreds of people gather, religious scholars offer sermons and chanters perform several songs, including a verse by Habib Abu Bakr al-Adani that invokes Muhammed’s journey from Mecca to Jerusalem.
These verses are performed with drums and the ney, a long flute that is one of the oldest musical instruments still in use. Many say the effect of this music, along with chanting voices, puts devotees into a mystical, spiritual trance.