Yemenis - Religion and Expressive Culture



Islam is the major force that unifies Yemenis across social, sexual, and regional boundaries. Yet most adherents of the different schools of Islam reside in distinct sections of the country, and this fact has certain political implications. Zaydis, who belong to the Shia subsect of Islam, are located in the northern and eastern parts of Yemen, whereas Shafis, orthodox Sunnis, live in the southern and coastal regions. Location in the highlands apparently enables Zaydis more successfully to repel invasions than Shafis in the lower lying areas. A smaller Shia subsect, the Ismaili, and also the remnants of an ancient Jewish community, may still be found in certain parts of Yemen.

Religious Beliefs. As Muslims, Yemenis aspire to fulfill the five tenets of Islam: affirmation of the Islamic creed, prayer, fasting, charity, and pilgrimage.

In the Shafi areas of Yemen, the tombs of certain holy men are visited by believers for their special healing and other powers.

Religious Practitioners. Being of sayyid status, even in contemporary Yemeni society, still validates (but does not necessarily guarantee) one's access to religious learning. Men gather at the mosque for prayers and sermons on the Sabbath, which in Yemen occurs on Friday. Strict segregation of the sexes usually does not permit women to worship in public.

Ceremonies. Yemenis observe the major holidays, such as Ramadan, the holy month of fasting, as well as lesser festivals in the Arabian calendar.

Arts. Despite the imposition of modernity, Yemenis remain proud of their architectural and oral-poetry traditions. Houses and mosques found in different regions of the country reflect unique stylistic and functional variations. Highlanders construct multistoried buildings from smooth, layered mud, mud brick, or cut stone. Dwellings in San'a are particularly impressive with their decorative colored-glass windows. In the rural highlands, houses constructed atop terraced embankments were fortresses against enemy tribes. In cities along the coastal plain, the former elegance of houses and mosques can be seen in their elaborate doors and facades. Rural towns in the Tihama usually include a walled compound that contains mud and thatched-roof huts identical to those found in Africa, on the other side of the Red Sea. The interiors of Tihama houses may be highly ornamented. Buildings constructed of cinder blocks are routinely replacing the huts. Competitive poetry duels performed at weddings by men of tribal status are highly valued. In the past, celebrations for circumcision (required of all Muslim males) were particularly elaborate, but now government officials discourage postinfancy circumcisions, thereby undermining the importance of ceremonial specialists.

Medicine. Yemenis often continue to rely on traditional healers and midwives while simultaneously taking advantage of modern medical technologies. Illness is thought to be caused by such factors as fright—which many believe can be cured by branding ( misam )—and possession by malevolent spirits (jinn), which requires the performance of the zar exorcism ceremony.

Death and Afterlife. On the occasion of a death, most households receive visits from those with whom they have social bonds. Such visits to the bereaved are part of the formal visiting networks that have been established, especially among women in towns and cities. Yemeni views regarding the Day of Judgment are far from simplistic, even though a fatalistic belief system is implicit in Quranic teachings of an all-powerful Allah. Yemenis also believe that whether one's soul spends eternity in heaven or hell is ultimately the responsibility of the individual Muslim.


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