Sheikh Abdelmajeed al-Zindani is always insistent on being visible at the major crossroads of modern Yemeni history. The question that comes to mind is what is the principal reason for Sheikh Zindani’s appearance in this historic and critical moment. Bakr Ahmed, a writer for many Yemeni newspapers and websites, wrote on his Facebook page “do not believe or trust Zindani, his history is not a pleasing one, even if he does flatter, even if he does flash his smile, and his complimentary lines, do not believe or trust him because he is a messenger of the tyrant … he justifies, eases, and works for him only … I swear to God that it is like this.” However, the other picture that appears is that of the February 4th 2011, of Zindani speaking to nearly 700,000 demonstrators against the regime, showing his support and power base amongst Yemenis, especially those in the rural and tribal areas.
Sheikh Abdelmajeed Aziz al-Zindani is a Yemeni preacher and politician, the founder of Iman University in Yemen, and the founder of the Global Body for Miracles in the Qur’an and Sunnah in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. He is the president of the Shura Council of the Yemeni Islah Party, and one of the biggest and most important founders of the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen, as he is also the president of the Committee of Muslim Scholars concerned with dialogue in Yemen.
Sheikh al-Zindani was born in al-Dhahbi village, al-Shaeer municipality, Ibb governate, a governate of the former North Yemen, in 1942. His primary education was in the ‘Kitab’ – a place where boys would gather to learn about religion – during the Imamite rule over North Yemen, and then he completed his education in Aden, in the former South Yemen.
Sheikh Zindani in Egypt
After his formal education in Aden, the capital of the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, a partner in the unification of Yemen, he left to pursue his university studies in the Arab Republic of Egypt where he joined the College of Pharmacy and studied there for 2 years, before leaving the college before the completion of his pharmaceutical studies and returning to his Islamic studies.
In Egypt he met with a number of Muslim Brotherhood thinkers and scholars at al-Azhar, as well as the plotters of the 26th September revolution, including al-Zubairi as well as Abdo Muhammed al-Mikhlafi. Sheikh al-Zindani’s preoccupation with his new relationships could have been the principal reason for his abandonment of his pharmaceutical studies.
The return to Yemen
Sheikh Zindani returned to North Yemen with people he called revolutionaries to protect the republican revolution of 1962 that overthrew the rule of the Imams. He became famous after presenting the ‘Faith and the Revolution’ show that aired on Sanaa Radio at the time.
Sheikh Zindani was by the side of Muhammed Mahmoud al-Zubairi, in the Bard area of al-Jouf governate, when he was assassinated. When this happened Sheikh Zindani returned once again to Aden, where he became the head of al-Nour Scientific Institute’ in the Sheikh Othman municipality.
1976 saw the success of the ‘White Coup’ that was initiated by President Abdelrahman al-Iryani against the President Abdullah al-Sallal, and was known as the 5th November movement. Sheikh Zindani immediately returned to Sanaa, and some see a relationship between Zindani and the movement, and perhaps his possible membership in it.
After this Sheikh Zindani took over educational affairs in the Ministry of Welfare and Education. He contributed to the teaching of a number of scientific subjects, such as Biology, and was appointed the head of the Office of Guidance since its inception in 1975. It appears that it is here that Sheikh Zindani decided to choose the Ministry of Welfare and Education in the Yemeni Arab Republic to institutionalise specific ideas. The bringing of Arab and Muslim thinkers, especially from Egypt, in his role as head of the Muslim Brotherhood in North Yemen, was evidence of this.
So, after his appointment in the Ministry of Welfare and Education in the Yemen Arab Republic, he continued in his teaching in that educational context. He wrote a book on ‘Tawheed’ (Unity of God) in partnership with a group of Muslim scholars, which was used as part of the curriculum for secondary and tertiary schools.
During this period Sheikh Zindani recorded many proselytising tapes, and religious discussions, the principal aim of which was to attract non-Muslims to Islam, and amongst this was the tape ‘It is the truth.’ Many of his books were also translated into foreign languages.
Sheikh Zindani travelled to Saudi Arabia to live there for a period of time where he taught and delivered religious lectures. He was instrumental in the foundation of the Global Body for Miracles in the Qur’an and Sunnah in Saudi Arabia in 1986, and was head of the body too, with some sources saying he was also the Secretary-General. In the same period he was appointed the representative of Yemen to the Organisation of the Islamic Conference in Mecca. Sheikh Zindani emerged as one of the principal preachers in Saudi Arabia, where he served as an important link for sending youth volunteers to Afghanistan to fight the Soviet occupation. Observers talk of the start of a relationship between Sheikh Zindani and Osama Bin Laden.
Sheikh Zindani played an important part in the securing of money, and collecting it from a number of businessmen and princes, and in sending thousands of volunteers to Afghanistan. Here, some reports indicate an important role played by Sheikh Zindani in healing the rifts between the various militant leaders in Afghanistan.
He returned once again to Sanaa, in order to establish Iman University for Religious Sciences, where he continued his research in the study of faith, and religious miracles, and also in proselytising. He also obtained a doctorate from Omdurman Islamic University in Sudan.
Holy War in Afghanistan and accusations of terrorism
Sheikh Zindani had a prominent role in the Afghan War against the Soviets, what is being called the ‘Afghan Holy War’, in the 1980s. His role was in bringing youth from North Yemen to participate in holy war against the Soviets. This was where his relationship with President Saleh first came about, in the manner that the President made it easy for the transportation of youths willing to go to Afghanistan with the direct supervision of Sheikh Zindani.
The American government accuses Sheikh Zindani of supporting terrorism, and his connection to the financing of a number of terrorists. His name was amongst 19 names released globally by the United Nations in 2004, with an order for a freeze of his funds and his property.
The picture at the start of this report shows Sheikh Zindani to the right, next to Abdullah Azzam on the left.
The 22 May Government
When the city of Aden was the capital of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen it was distinguished by a number of systems and laws, as well as civil rights which did not agree with the absolute powers that President Saleh held. It also did not help the interests of the tribal sheikhs and influential Northerners. The diaries of the rulers in the North show that, from an early date, they had been attempting to overturn the terms and agreements that were concluded after the unification of Yemen.
The late Sheikh Abdullah al-Ahmar, the Speaker of the Parliament from 15 May 1993 till 30 December 2007, the president of the executive body of the Yemeni Islah Party, and the head of the Hashid tribe, recorded that “the President requested from us, especially those in the Islamic groupings and I was amongst them, that although we were part of his GPC Party we should form a new party. He said that we should form a party that would become a companion to the GPC, and that we will both form a united block, and we will not differ and we will be supported as if we were part of the GPC.” He also said that “an agreement was concluded between me and the Socialist Party … and there are agreements that I cannot go into, but we agreed with the ruling party that they should come up with opposing positions to policies that had been agreed between us and the Socialist Party, policies that we would work against, and it was on this basis that the Yemeni Islah Party was set up” (The diaries of Sheikh Abdullah al-Ahmar, Afaq Publishing, Sanaa 2007, pp248-249). This then brings us to Sheikh Zindani’s important role as one of the principal players in the establishment of the Islah Party, the real aims of which have now been disclosed.
Sheikh Zindani took up a leadership role in the opposition, he organised the ‘Unity and Peace’ conference in Sanaa in 1992. He was then appointed to the Presidency Council on behalf of the Islah Party, after the parliamentary elections in 1993.
Sheikh Zindani and the 1994 War
Zindani had a prominent role in the 1994 Yemeni civil war between the Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen) and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen). In partnership with Muhammed Qahtan and Ali Muhsen al-Ahmar he was a leading figure in bringing the former mujahideen fighters in Afghanistan to fight what they labelled the ‘Communists’ in the South. He also called for fatwas, religious edicts, to be delivered by religious scholars in North Yemen to provide a religious basis to assure the continuation of the support of the mujahideen in the fight against the South. The most debated fatwa was issued by Sheikh al-Dailami which permitted the killing of Southerners on the basis that they were Communists.
As well as this, Sheikh Zindani played a pivotal role in heading the committee in charge of gathering donations to support the war effort, and as Ahmed al-Zarqah wrote in an article that a saying spread that “if you want to persuade people to give money for no reason then put Zindani in charge of collecting donations.” This is evidence of the wide support that Sheikh Zindani receives from the citizens in the north of Yemen as well as the intelligent manner that he uses religion to garner support, something he is still good at to this day.
Sheikh Zindani issued a fatwa in 1994, under the auspices of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, that the blood of the citizens of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen could be spilled, and in an interview with al-Jazeera years after the war he said that the fatwa was a product of its time.
In statements he made to the media in 1994 Zindani said that the south was the “land of the infidels,” and that the north was the “land of Islam,” indicating that the war was between the Islam and the infidels.
Sheikh Zindani has not apologised for his fatwas, and has not abrogated them, yet he has disavowed them.
President Saleh and Zindani
The author Ahmed al-Zarqah in an article entitled “the President and Sheikh Zindani … cards and interests” says that: “whenever Zindani encountered a problem he sought refuge with the President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the latter knew of Zindani’s need for him, and so knew how to use him. The relationship between the two chilled occasionally, yet the President knew when to bring Zindani back into the fold, for whenever the President beckoned with open arms Zindani would always be there screaming that he was answering his call. Sheikh Zindani is a card like many other cards in the President’s hands, as the President himself said in an interview with al-Jazeera, yet the cards themselves are different!”
Ahmed al-Zarqah goes on to say “the President uses Zindani as a paper he waves at the USA whenever Washington turns its back on Saleh. Saleh’s visits to Zindani’s Iman University, of which he undertook two last year (ie in 2006) before the Presidential elections last September (ie September 2007), and in which he supported calls for a number of projects to be undertaken in the university and an increase in the government grants to the university, were done with the aim of splitting the opposition during the elections. In response to these visits Sheikh Zindani, who was, at the time, head of the Shura (Advisory) Council of the Yemeni Islah Party – the biggest party in the Joint Meeting Parties opposition coalition – undertook a position opposing that of his party in that he refused to support the candidate of the opposition, Faisal bin Shamlan. Zindani said that President Saleh was the man that Yemen needed, which resulted negatively in the participation of Zindani’s supporters in the Islah Party and outside of it. “
Here it is necessary for us to compare what happened in the past to what is happening today, with the change in the names and the roles of the players. For Sheikh Zindani has now gone to al-Taghyeer (Change) Square in Sanaa to support the calls of the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) for the fall of the regime. He talked of the legitimacy of their calls, whilst thousands of youths chanted behind him in a jihadi like scene that was broadcast around the world. It was as if he wanted to send a principal message to the outside world, demonstrating his mass support. This led to a warning from the lawyer Yihya Ghaleb al-Shuaibi, one of the main thinkers of the Southern Movement and one of the principal writers for al-Ayyam newspaper in Aden, where in an article entitled “The dangerous and uncalculated adventure” he said that “President Saleh pushed Sheikh Zindani to the heart of the revolution calling for the fall of the regime, when Zindani delivered his speech before the youth, and then led them in prayers. A day before he had been delivering a speech at the Presidential Palace and leading President Saleh in prayers at the President’s mosque. Zindani had said at that meeting that the position of the scholars was clear on foreign intervention, and that they would call for a holy war in that event. This was after donor countries had pressurised the government and then subsequently backed down. Saleh has therefore decided that Zindani’s position in this latest crisis will be amongst the youth of the revolution, and at their forefront, so that he can call them to holy war should any sanctions or foreign intervention come about, using the mobilising force of his fatwa regarding the unity of the country, that fatwa which cannot be abrogated according to extremist ideology. The Southern Movement have been able to form a moderate religious awareness, non-extremist, in the South over the last four years, showing the illegitimacy of Zindani’s fatwas, those fatwas which attempt to make the youths revolution a call for the protection of this counterfeit unity, these same fatwas which are leading to the youths chanting ‘Allah Akbar’ at the gates of Sanaa University after every word that Sheikh Zindani says, leading any observer to think that the crowds are jihadi brigades, with their chants and takbeers after the entrance of Zindani to the youth revolution. This is the message that Saleh wants to send to the West, and the Americans especially, that the alternative is terrorists and Islamists.”
Once again, and returning to the previous article that I have referred to, that of Ahmed al-Zarqah, who says “it is rare that Sheikh Zindani will miss any event being conducted at the Republican Palace or in its grounds. His photo, sitting next to President Saleh, together holding the knife cutting the President’s cake in celebration at 25 years of Saleh’s rule is evidence that what is between the two men is more than what is being written now hurriedly, there are things we do not know about, it seems that they are both trying to utilise the other till the end.”
The end of Zindani’s association with the Islah Party, and his emergence as part of the Body of Muslim Scholars
From an article in the ‘al-Sharq al-Awsat’ newspaper, dated February 28. 2004 (no.9223), entitled “Yemen: Islah disassociates itself with the case of Zindani and gives it to the government” :
“The Islah Party has preferred a pacifying of relations with Washington, and has not declared a position on the case of Sheikh Abdelmajeed al-Zindani, the head of the Shura Council of the party, who was added to the US list of terrorists, and the party has decided to give responsibility to the Yemeni government.
The party, in a surprise announcement, during a joint meeting of the senior secretarial committee and the committee of the heads of the Shura Council of the party, that the refutation of the American claims against Zindani is the responsibility of the state, as Zindani is a Yemeni citizen. A source from the Islah party said that the prevalent view during a meeting of the heads of the party, chaired by Sheikh Abdullah Hussein al-Ahmar, was to move towards a calming direction with regards to relations with America, and that Islah should not become a part of the America’s case with Zindani, and that they should leave their entire response to be decided with the state so as to provide a suitable response.”
From a report by the Yemeni academic Abdullah Haidar, an expert in Islamic movements, entitled “the Brothers in Yemen; from a movement to a party” (dated October 30, 2008 and published on the Yemeni National News website):
“Sheikh Abdelmajeed al-Zindani was not the first “radical” to be removed from the leadership of the Brotherhood party ‘Islah’, for they previously distanced themselves from Zindani’s student, imprisoned in America, Sheikh Muhammed al-Moayed. The party removed him from their list of sponsored individuals that was presented to the party members at their party conference in January 2003, which prevented him from running for a position on the Shura Council of the party. This was before he travelled to Germany and was arrested by a mere two weeks. This operation was described by the USA as wide-ranging, and the secretary of the US embassy in Sanaa said on the day that “the world will be a better place without Moayed.” Sheikh Moayed started his charitable projects in aid of mujahideen around the world without any coordination or advice of the party.
A few months after this Sheikh Abdelmajeed al-Zindani appeared on the list of supporters of terrorism drawn up by the United Nations, which benefited the ‘moderates’ in the Islah party leadership, as it restricted his travel and prevented him from going abroad, and so prevented him from meeting potential donors and supporters of his projects and views. In this way they were able to distance themselves from his activities which do not sit well with the moderate approach that the new party leadership claims.
With the silence of Sheikh Zindani about this, and his satisfaction with his allegiance with America’s ally in Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, where he is protected from the betrayal of his friends, the ‘moderate’ leadership of the Islah party has been given an opportunity to still use his reputation amongst his supporters inside the country, especially in the tribal regions outside of the government’s control, to market their programme centred on ‘change from the outside and bullying the interior with Western and American help.’ ”
Sheikh Zindani’s comments on the Sudanese referendum
Sheikh Zindani commented on the results of the South Sudanese referendum of January 9 2011, which resulted in a vote for the secession of South Sudan by a vote of 98.83%. Zindani said that those Yemenis of northern descent living in the south should stay there and not leave whatever happens, as their departure would, in his words, aid secession.
The ‘World Association of Muslim Scholars,’ headed by Dr Yusuf al-Qaradawi, issued a statement warning of the danger of the Sudanese referendum. They forbid any move towards secession, indicating that it would harm the Arab and Muslim world.
The statement, signed by Dr Yusuf al-Qaradawi and more than 60 other scholars, also said that voting for separation is religiously forbidden.
These scholars from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Lebanon, Mauritania, Turkey, Nigeria, Sudan, Jordan, Palestine, Tajikistan, Malaysia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Morocco, and Libya, all confirmed that voting for secession for the south of Sudan was religiously forbidden.
Sheikh Zindani was the ninth signatory of this statement.
Sheikh Zindani and his position in Yemen
Sheikh Zindani has an excellent position in the hearts of most Yemenis in the north of the country, especially those who live in the tribal regions and the villages. A poster called Waleed al-Hazmi commented on Bakr Ahmed’s article on Facebook saying: “Oh Bakr, do not interfere in the intentions of the scholars for their blood is sacred… I respect many of your views, however I hope that you do not talk about a man of Zindani’s stature like this again. As Khalid Karim said, you have the right to disagree with his point of view, but to call into question his past and the man himself is wrong. I swear to God that his history is honourable, and Yemenis and non-Yemenis know this. He has not worked for anyone apart from God and the nation and good values … I hope that you will take my advice.” A few intellectuals and liberals do not think of Sheikh Zindani so highly, and they are joined by at least half of the inhabitants of the South who remember his positions against them in the 1994 war, and the way he provided religious approval for the killing of Southerners. Regarding this Abdelbari Ahmed Ali commented, again on Facebook, saying: “Zindani is a supporter of the regime, and aids it, especially when there are problems. Zindani is known to be the biggest engineer of the fatwa declaring Southerners infidels, and is known to be engaged in corrupt activites there.”
Zindani’s various positions
- May 2009 – Sheikh Zindani warned of the division of Yemen into four countries and said that this was part of an American plan that had been announced by the former American Secretary of State Condaleeza Rice.
- January 2009 – During the Israeli attacks on Gaza , Sheikh Zindani called for the Arab governments to start camps to train any youth volunteers who wish to join the resistance in Gaza and attack the Israeli forces, whom he described as conducting a genocide.
- February 2006 – Sheikh Zindani announces that he has gathered 5 million Yemeni Riyals to form a group of lawyers to take up the case of prosecuting the journalists who reprinted the Prophet Muhammed cartoons.
- July 2004 – The Joint Meeting Parties fail in their attempts to convince Sheikh Zindani to join them in a joint position regarding the war against the Houthis in Sa’ada.
- July 2008 – In an article in the ‘al-Sharq al-Awsat’ newspaper, dated July 16th, number 10823, it was reported that Zindani, at the head of a number of religious figures, was calling for a body for the prevention of vice and the promotion of virtue, as in Saudi Arabia.
- January 2010 – Sheikh Zindani gathers around 150 Yemeni religious leaders to reject any foreign intervention in Yemen, with regards to the al-Qaeda grouping in the country, he warned of a declaration of holy war if it happened.
- October 2010 – President Saleh issues Republican decree number 16 of the year 2010 forming a committee of scholars called “the committee of reference scholars for the provision of advice” and Sheikh Zindani was chosen as a member of this committee.
- Sheikh Zindani talks of a march of a million people against a propose law to bring a lower limit to the age of marriage.
In the last interview Sheikh Zindani conducted with the Suheil TV channel on March 8 2011, the presenter of the programmer asked him “What is your opinion of Dr Abdelwehab al-Dulaimi and Sheikh al-Moayed’s call for the President to resign immediately? Are you joining them in this call?”
Zindani’s reply was “I am with change according to the constitution and the law, and conducted in a manner that protects the country from strife.” He added that “it is not permitted to go out and protest against the authority that has been given the allegiance of the people except in the instances where they cannot govern the country due to illness or old age,” he also stressed in the same interview that women should have their own squares to protest so as to not have instances of free mixing between the two sexes.
In news reported by the Taghyeer.net on 12 March 2011, under the headline “Zindani returns to his hometown after the regime’s warning concerning his wanted status by America” it was said that “Sheikh Abdelmajeed al-Zindani, one of the most prominent scholars in Yemen has moved today to Arhab municipality, around 50 kilometres north of Sanaa, his hometown, in protest at the suppression of the protesters. September.net, the website run by the Ministry of Defence, send out SMS messages reporting that the American ambassador had said that Zindani is wanted by the USA and the UN on terrorism related charges.”
This move can be read as an understanding by Sheikh Zindani that the regime is nearing its end, and his lack of trust in Saleh to defend him, so he has returned to his tribe in Arhab, where his roots are. This is the same tribe that the academic specialising in Islamic movements, Abdulilah Shai is from, and he believes that this is a return to the tribe for protection, and it is considered as wrong and dishonourable for the tribe to reject this call.
Finally, it may not be clear what role Sheikh Zindani is playing in his latest game, however he makes clear the deep Islamic tendencies that pictures and appearances hide in the revolution of Sanaa.
Views expressed in articles are the author’s and do not represent Comment Middle East