Yahya Mohammad Hamiduddin (or Imam Yahya) (1869-1948) was the founder and first ruler of modern North Yemen and accomplished this feat by rebelling against the occupying Ottomans for over two decades.

After he secured independence in 1919, he fought the British and Saudi Arabia and remained on the throne until his assassination in 1948.

While he reunited most of the territories that ostensibly were “Yemeni'', his rule was rigid and harsh, which severely limited development of most tribes.

Because he rejected outside influences, especially the British, the intruding power could easily recruit indigenous Yemenis to organise a revolt even if Yahya fought hard to preserve Yemeni unity.

He was a leading personality with immense potential but was unjust towards his own, which mired Yemen in challenges that have befuddled that incredible nation ever since.

Political leadership

Despite many trials, five dominant functions shaped Yahya to act — in what he thought were the best interests of his community — against leading empires that roamed the Arabian peninsula.

The first and most critical influence on his character was the education he received from his father, who was an astute ruler in his own right but who shaped his offspring's political socialisation skills in strict terms.

During a difficult childhood, Yahya's father tested his son in ways that would be considered abusive in modern parlance, even if that rigidity toughened up the successor.

The second factor that shaped Yahya was his vision of Greater Yemen (Yaman Al Kubrah) under a single Zaydi authority.

This was no idle dream but reflected about four millennia of historical quest: to rule over almost half of the Arabian peninsula from the Tihamah region in Saudi Arabia to Oman and everything in between.

In fact, this vision was the Arabia Felix that was coined by the Roman Empire, envious of Arabia's agricultural might, which was then second to none.

The name Yemen is derived from the Arabic word yumn, which means prosperity and, as referred to in all monotheistic scriptures, the land of Sheba included thriving realms.

An authentic Hadith attributed to the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) summarises these attributes in the following terms: “The Faith is a Yemeni and the Wisdom is a Yemenite.''

The third aspect of Yahya's political outlook was the religious and political legacy of the Zaydi Imamate.

Developed within Shiite Islam, the “Imamate'' may be said to have emerged as an equal but opposite institution to the Sunni “Caliphate'', based on the succession of the community after the Prophet's death in 632 AD. Zaydism (see sidebar) required that Imam Yahya be a descendant of the Quraishi tribe, have knowledge of the canons of the faith but also be pious and just.

In fact, Yahya was so well qualified that the renowned Lebanese-Egyptian (born in Tripoli, moved to Cairo in 1897) scholar Mohammad Rashid Rida (1865-1935) nominated him Caliph after the abolition of the Caliphate in Turkey.

A fourth dynamic feature of Yahya's outlook was his refusal to accept tribal divisions that prevailed at the time.

Though the Yemen Arab Republic and the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) united in 1990 into the Republic of Yemen, significant clannish separations persisted — and to some extent endure today — in what used to be North Yemen, which clearly preoccupied Yahya.

After 1934, Yemen was more or less divided between Shiite Zaydis and Sunni Shafiihs. Remarkably, Yahya faced grave challenges from his own Zaydi community, ostensibly because most tribal leaders held on to their independence and refused to make regular contributions to the treasury.

The fifth and final factor that shaped Imam Yahya's political leadership was the foreign occupations that coloured his perceptions.

By 1934, Sanaa faced the Saudis in the north and the British in the south, both of which encroached on his Greater Yemen dream.

To face these assaults, Yahya resorted to harsh discipline at home to secure loyalty and recruit soldiers.

Whether these views explained the Yahya's horrendous treatment of his own nation are still open to debate.

What is not is the way he kept hostages from all of the tribes in filthy jails to forcibly ensure their loyalty.

Moreover, his mistreatment of leading intellectuals and his orders to execute heretic clerics kept Yemen underdeveloped.

Between 1904 and 1911, after his accession to the Zaydi Imamate, Yahya focused on internal suppression and opposition to Ottoman rule.

To achieve these goals, he rallied many tribes to help him liberate Sana'a for the first time in April 1905, which was a rather bloody affair.

Though the Yemenis inflicted significant casualties on the occupying troops — the Ottomans called in reinforcements that allowed them to retake the city — they also sacrificed a large number of their brethren.

For the six years that followed, Yahya forged essential alliances to conduct his guerrilla warfare from his mountain strongholds, which eventually forced occupiers to sign the famous Daan treaty in 1911 that recognised his rule over North Yemen.

Though he could not have achieved this significant concession without key alliances, Yahya relied on high-handed methods between 1912 and 1919 to further subdue what he perceived as unruly tribes.

In his convoluted rationalisation, such approaches were necessary because he was fighting foreign occupation, as he explained motives to periodic visitors.

His vindication was the Yemeni Mutawakkilite Kingdom, extracted from the Ottomans after the demise of that empire but at the price of essential coalitions.

Still, even this relative independence was threatened between 1919 and 1925, when Yahya faced an acute foreign entanglement with the British, which he clearly could not resist without domestic allies.

The British lost no time attacking and occupying the key port city of Hudaydah in 1919 before turning it over to their Idrisi partners that clearly threatened Yahya's domain.

The Idrisis, who hailed from Morocco and settled in Asir, Jizan and Najran after 1911, were expelled from Hudaydah in 1925.

Yahya pursued survivors throughout the Tihamah and refused their conciliatory gestures to accept the Imam's religious authority.

That is why the Idrisis turned to the Al Saud though their treachery surfaced in 1932 when a pledge to Ibn Saud was broken, as the Idrisis once again sought Yahya's protection.

A powerful Saudi Arabia defeated Yahya in Jizan, occupied Hudaydah and even laid claim to Mocha, another vital port city where a unique blend of coffee with chocolate flavour was probably invented.

After 1934, Yahya reconciled himself with the end of his Greater Yemen dream and accepted Ibn Saud's terms to leave Hudaydah.

Sana'a would thenceforth relinquish all claims to Asir, Jizan and Najran as a new border treaty was drafted between the two countries.

The Imam's mistrust of his own tribes and poor alliance-making skills imposed on him the 1934 Taif treaty between Saudi Arabia and Yemen, which was used as the basis of a final territorial agreement between the two countries in 2000.

Likewise, Yahya's suspicions of his own people eventually led to the loss of the south to the British, who settled in Aden for the long haul.

Yahya's harsh policies poisoned his relationships with many Yemeni tribal leaders who gradually distanced themselves from their Imam.

Opposition to Yahya led a number of religious Ulamah and intellectuals to establish the Mujtamaa Al Nidhal [Society of Struggle], under the leadership of Ahmad Al Mutaa.

Al Mutaa became the father of the resistance to the Hamiduddin family though others chimed in. In 1944, Qaid Mohammad Al Zubayri, a dejected government employee, created the Harakat Al Ahrar Al Yamaniyyin (The Movement of the Free Yemenis) as he embarked on a lifelong effort to reform Yemen's Imamate.

A well-known poet, Zubayri was backed by one of the Imam's own sons, Ebrahim, who escaped to Aden where he was renamed Saif Al Haqq (Sword of Truth).

Yahya was not as lucky, when Shaikh Ali Al Qarday gunned him down in Sanaa on February 17, 1948, bringing his four-and-a-half-decade rule to an end.

Though “wisdom is a Yemenite'' as asserted in an authentic Hadith, Imam Yahya proved unwise, which ensured his demise and the family's exile.

The 1962 revolution overthrew his grandson, Imam Mohammad Al Badr, and the Imamate long after his assassination but the seeds of that uprising were planted much earlier.

Still, because Yahya was an unjust ruler, having kept Shaikh Ali Al Qarday hostage for three decades to guarantee the Qarday tribe's loyalty, his demise was inevitable.

While recognised for major accomplishments, it was not enough that Yahya founded Yemen and ushered in a semblance of internal stability among warring tribes, his fame was tainted because the Imam felt no compunction in shedding Yemeni blood. Indeed, while he may have perpetuated the Zaydi Imamate and established the foundations of modern Yemen, his unjust rule ensured long-term economic hardships and political strangulation.

Dr Joseph A. Kechichian is an author, most recently of Power and Succession in Arab Monarchies, Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2008.

This article is the fourteenth in a series, which will appear on the second Friday of each month, on Arab leaders who greatly influenced political affairs in the Middle East.

Groomed To Command

Yahya Mohammad Hamiduddin was born on June 18, 1869, in Sana'a, into the Hamiduddin branch of the Al Qasimi dynasty.

The son of a prominent religious figure, Imam Mohammad (1890-1904), Yahya received both primary and secondary education in Islamic law and classical Arabic from his father and other prominent Zaydi scholars.

The young man emulated his father in rejecting Ottoman suzerainty and succeeded his father in 1904 as he assumed the name Al Mutawakkil Ala Allah (the One who Relies on God).

His followers referred to him by a formal religious title: Mawlana Amir Al Muminin Al Mutawakkil Ala Allah Rab Ul Alamin Imam Yahya Bin Mansour Bin Mohammad Hamiduddin (Commander of the Faithful).

Yahya was trained as a ruler, settling disputes, visiting tribal Shaikhs, collecting money and recruiting soldiers, all of which prepared him for power.

Nevertheless, his domain was not trouble-free, with challenges from the Ottomans, the British and the Idrisis and with Saudi Arabia at his doorstep.

He was a pious man, which prompted the religious scholar Mohammad Rashid Reda to propose that Yahya be nominated as a Caliph after the abolition of the Caliphate in Turkey, but even that was not enough to secure his position.

Yahya was assassinated on February 17, 1948, by a tribal man belonging to the Banu Murad, ironically the same tribe from which the assassin of Imam Ali Bin Abu Talub emerged several centuries earlier, although some justification could be made in the contemporary case.

The assassin, Shaikh Ali Al Qarday, was kept hostage for three decades and vowed revenge the moment he was set free.

He also killed prime minister Abdullah Al Ameri and Yahya's 8-year-old grandson, Hussain Bin Saif Al Islam Al Hassan, both of whom were riding in the same car.

Yahya fathered 18 sons and save for the eldest, Ahmad, all were known as Sayl Ul Islam.

Ahmad was the Wali Al Ahd and ruled North Yemen between 1948 and 1962. He and his 17 brothers governed Yemen tribal affairs with particular ruthlessness before the Imamate collapsed with the Abdullah Al Sallal coup.

The Shiite group that recognises the first four Imams

According to the authoritative ‘Encyclopaedia of Islam', Zaydiyyah or Zaydism, is the “practical group'' of the Shiites, distinguished from “Twelvers'' and “Seveners'' by the recognition of Zayed Bin Ali, a grandson of Hussain Bin Ali Bin Abu Taleb.

His followers are sometimes known as the “Fivers'' and recognise the first four Imams — Ali Bin Abu Taleb, Hassan Bin Ali, Hussain Bin Ali and Ali Bin Hussain (Zayn Al Abidin).

The sect is thus named after Zayed Bin Ali, a grandson of Hussain, who led an unsuccessful rebellion against the Umayyad Caliph Hesham in 740AD after the catastrophe at Karbala.

After a year in Kufa, Zayed engaged in battle but was killed in the ensuing fighting, which created an equally disastrous succession dilemma.

With no agreed upon heir, at least eight sub-schools emerged but only one survived: the Mutazili, which differentiated itself by rejecting mysticism [that is why Sufi orders are forbidden in modern Zaydism].

Zaydis have a lot in common with other Shiites, including the call to prayer, the five-fold Takbir (reciting ‘Allahu Akbar') in the funeral service and the rejection of the ‘mash alal-khuffain' (wiping the covered foot as a substitute for washing).

While Zaydis forbid mixed marriages, they do not allow ‘mutah' (temporary marriage) and perceive it as blasphemous.

Today, Zaydis recognise other descendants of Hassan Bin Ali or Hussain Bin Ali to be Imams but the key demands of a living Imam are: membership of the Ahl Al Bayt without any distinction between Hassanids and Hussainids (in other words, no succession by inheritance); ability to defend the faith; necessary learning capability (which, over the years, has given rise to many Imams); and demonstration of intrinsic qualifications to be worthy of the title.

Needless to say that the present title is only religious with no political power.

The political ambitions of Zaydis emerged in two geographical regions: the Caspian Sea region near Tabaristan (in northern Iran) in 864AD and in Yemen.

The Caspian entity lasted until the 12th century, whereas in Yemen, a Zaydi state was established in 893AD by Hadi Al Haqq Yahya Bin Hussain, a Hassanid who had originally been invited to mediate between quarrelling Yemeni tribes and who imposed his iron will on the realm.

Several occupations by foreign dynasties beginning in the 10th century occasionally forced the Zaydi Imamate to retreat but Zaydis fought back, most recently against the Ottoman Empire.

Sanaa changed hands many times until Imam Mutawakkil Yahya, who came forward in 1904 against Constantinople, asserted his authority. He secured Sanaa in 1918 as the Imamate survived until 1962.