The Long Roots of Coexistence in Yemen: A Glimpse of Scholarly Discoveries

Samar Abdullah
Yemen’s recurring wars have always been offset by periods of coexistence; Yemeni societies flourished throughout many eras and kingdoms. Coexistence is key to any country’s survival, and in Yemen, despite its relatively young statehood, it’s a legacy that goes back thousands of years. Given the region’s multitude of religions and socio-political changes, this complex history is nearly impossible to outline in its entirety. But highlighting some of its chapters can offer inspiration, lessons learned from the past, and a heightened awareness of dialogue’s vital role in realising the potential of a diverse, harmonious society.
Jews in the synagogue, Sana’a, 1907. © Hermann Burchardt / Ethnological Museum, National Museums of Berlin, Prussian Cultural Heritage foundation

The acceptance of diversity is an essential building block of coexistence, especially in a multi-sectarian, multi-religious society such as Yemen’s. In ancient Arabia Felix, societies arose from several tribes that established a system based on mutual respect. 

Munir Arbash has illustrated this spirit of tolerance in a research paper titled The Origin and the Emergence of the Kingdom of Maʿīn in Southwest Arabia. Maʿīn flourished between the 4th and 2nd century BCE in Qarnawu, a city founded by the Maʿīn tribe and other clans such as Jb’n and Ylqz. Since the Maʿīn kingdom was allied with other kingdoms to bring stability, peace prevailed. 


A Diversity of Deities 

Respect for diversity as a historical basis of coexistence in Yemen manifested in religion, said Abdullah Balgaith, a professor of ancient history at Sana’a University. “Despite the polytheism that prevailed in ancient Yemen, everyone honoured each other’s deities, even when they didn’t worship the same ones,” he explained. “Any region included under the sovereignty of any state could freely venerate its local deity without orders to worship the state’s official deity.” 

الباب الرئيسي الجنوبي، باب اليمن، الذي تم تشييده سنة 1898، كما يبدو من داخل المدينة القديمة، صنعاء 1907. © هيرمان بوشارت | متحف الاثنولوجيا، متاحف برلين الوطنية، مؤسسة الإرث الحضاري البروسي

The southern gate of Bab al-Yaman, built in 1898, as seen from inside the old city, Sanaa, 1907.
© Hermann Burchardt / Ethnological Museum, National Museums of Berlin, Prussian Cultural Heritage foundation

But a kind of monotheism existed within this polytheism. In The Cultural History of Ancient Yemen, Asmahan al-Garoo, Associate Professor at Sultan Qaboos University in Muscat, writes that some tribes of ancient Yemen worshipped a single god despite their geographical distance from one another. In the period around 800 BCE, the kingdoms of Saba and Fayshan worshipped a deity called Almaqah; those of Qataban and Radman worshipped one named ‘Amm, and the Hashed and Bakil tribes called their god Ta’lab Riyam. This sharing of deities stemmed from political sovereignty or a peaceful alliance among these societies. 

نقش سبئي موجه إلى الإله ‹المقه› يذكر خمس آلهة يمنية قديمة، ملكين حاكمين ومحافظين، القرن السابع قبل الميلاد. © ماري-لان نيوين | ويكيميديا كومنز

Sabaean inscription addressed to the god Almaqah, mentioning five ancient Yemeni gods, two reigning sovereigns and two governors, 7th century BCE
© Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons

The worship of Almaqah was not imposed on defeated kingdoms, according to Libya Dammaj, a historian at the Yemeni Centre for Studies and Research. This is indicated on naqsh an-nasr, an inscription of victory that records Karib’il Watar military campaigns of the 7th century BCE. 

In The History of Ancient Yemen, Mohammed Balfakeh writes that the formation of alliances and sharing of benefits occasionally led some kingdoms to mention deities of other tribes in their own inscriptions and even revere them. 


Marriage, Trade and Reconciliation 

Ties between various social groups in Yemen were not confined to religion; they encompassed many other aspects of community life. According to Professor Balgaith, inter-faith marriages occurred in ancient kingdoms, even at the level of royal families. One example is the marriage of the Hadrami King El Ezz Yalat to the daughter of the Shebaan King Alhan Nahfan, also known as Malak Halak, in the late 2nd century BCE. 

Commerce had reached far beyond the borders of Arabia Felix by the beginning of the first millennium BCE. In a research paper titled “Some Aspects of State Formation in Ancient South Arabia,” Mohammed Maraqten writes that the countries of southern Arabia had monopolised trade routes leading to Egypt, Syria, Palestine, and Mesopotamia in the trade of frankincense and myrrh. 

These two plant extracts, highly prized for their use in perfume, ointments, and incense, as well as mummification, were transported to Egypt on caravans through Palestine or across the Red Sea by ship. Maraqten states that most of Maʿīn’s residents were merchants, with no evidence of military activities on their part. 

Historian Libya Dammaj’s research on ancient inscriptions has uncovered acts of reconciliation between various tribes after disputes over water distribution to their respective agricultural areas. Signs of coexistence also appear in the writing system that was unified by the old Yemeni alphabet known as Musnad, the ancient South Arabian script developed around the 9th and 10th centuries BCE. It was used to render many languages of other kingdoms and Yemeni civilisations to written form. 

Yemeni society is rooted in social solidarity, which is based on justice, freedom, and equality.”

Musnad’s influence is an evidence today, says Saad el-Din Abulhab in his research paper for the City University of New York, titled Roots of Modern Arabic Script: From Musnad to Jazm. The Arabic Jazm alphabet shares the same number of characters as the 28-letter, ancient South Arabian script, Abulhab states, as well as an early use of multiple shapes per letter that were widely used later. He adds that Jazm also contained several Musnad shapes without major modifications. The script used by hundreds of millions of Arab speakers today, he concludes, is connected to the Ancient South Arabian script that emerged in Yemen. 

Ancient inscriptions yield further mechanisms of coexistence. According to Anwar al-Hayer, Professor of Ancient Yemeni Architecture at Sana’a University, the Miswad, an advisory council, was a feature of the royal palace. Inscriptions document the meetings between Maʿīnean kings and the Miswad in the royal court to manage government affairs through consultation with council members and tribal representatives. This is described in al-Hayer’s study, The Palace in Ancient Yemen. 


Customs of Coexistence 

Tribal customs have played a positive role in settling disputes and offering personal counsel since ancient times, including the pre-Islamic era. “These customs preceded international conventions in affirming human rights,” said Abdel Rahman al-Marouni, head of the Dar al-Salaam Organization for Combating Revenge and Violence in Sana’a. 

This also applied to coexistence between ethnic Yemenis and Jews, who lived in Yemen and spoke Arabic well before Islam spread to the region. Afterwards, Jews had a special relationship with Muslims through their direct contact with local Islamic schools, according to the book The Jews of Yemen: Studies in Their History and Culture, by Yosef Tobi. 

Yemen has been distinguished for its acceptance and appreciation of religious diversity since the 9th century BCE, according to Abdulkareem Qasim, philosophy professor at Sana’a University. This includes the four branches of Sunni Islam: Shafi’i, Hanbali, Maliki, and Hanafi, in addition to the Zaydi, Kharijites, Sufism and theological schools such as the Mu’tazila. The tolerance that prevailed in the Sulayhid state (1047-1138 CE) and the Rasulid state (1229-1454 CE) represents the highest level of coexistence following the introduction of Islam. 

As an example, Qasim cites a Mu’tazila scholar, Nashwan Ibn Saeed al-Hamiri, who had travelled to Hadhramaut, which lies in present-day northeast Yemen. After studying with scholars of other sects for two years, Qasim writes, al-Hamiri returned home and composed “poems of praise and longing for his counterparts back in Hadhramaut.” 


Erosion of Class: A Work in Progress 

Before the 1962 coup d’état that deposed the newly crowned Imam Muhammad al-Badr, class divisions prevailed in Yemen. Members of the Sayyids elite, who claim descent from the prophet Mohammed, set themselves apart from members of Qabail (tribes) and Jews by their dress. These outward signs of division have since disappeared, according to Sociology Professor Abdulkareem Abughanem, at Sana’a University. “Social mobility is classless,” he said, noting the presence of “higher values of coexistence” in the last half-century. 

نساء وفتيات يهوديات في مقبرة، صنعاء، 1907. © هيرمان بوشارت | متحف الاثنولوجيا، متاحف برلين الوطنية، مؤسسة الإرث الحضاري البروسي

Jewish women and girls in a cemetry, Sana’a, 1907.
© Hermann Burchardt / Ethnological Museum, National Museums of Berlin, Prussian Cultural Heritage foundation

Despite this upbeat assessment, discrimination based on class and race is still a reality for up to 3.5 million Yemenis, according to the UN.  Discrimination against Muhamasheen, a disadvantaged, visible minority, is widespread, according to Aisha al-Warraq in an analysis published by the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies. 

“No Yemeni law specifically discriminates against the Muhamasheen,” she writes about this impoverished underclass, pointing out that systemic discrimination still prevents them from seeking mediation or redress for exploitation. “They face systemic prejudice in the justice system and within local governments and tribal authorities,” she said. This discrimination has an impact on quality of life, such as the rate of children’s school enrolment, work opportunities, and even access to aid amid current displacement in Yemen. 

The constitution remains the foundation of modern Yemen, clarified in Articles 24 and 25: “The state shall guarantee equal opportunities for all citizens in the fields of political, economic, social and cultural activities.” Yemeni society is rooted in “social solidarity, which is based on justice, freedom, and equality according to the law.” 

While these pillars form a basis for stability, the most important role for Yemenis is to strengthen and protect and uphold the Arabia Felix civilisation of our ancestors, whose legacy of coexistence and mutual benefit is a birthright of all members of society. 

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