Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Zaidiyyah: The Shia Sect Closest to the Sunnis

A Yemeni man reads from the Quran at Sanaa Grand. Photo: KHALED FAZAA / AFP

By: Ahmed Abdeen

The Zaidi sect is usually described as the closest Shiite sect to the Sunnis based on the great resemblance between their visions. However, the basic principle of the Zaidiyyah distances them from the Salafists or the extremist Sunnis, as the obligation to rise up and depose unjust leaders is one of the pillars of the sect.

The name of the sect is derived from Zaid bin Ali bin Al Hussein bin Ali bin Abi Talib (76 AH – 122 AH), the grandson of Imam Hussein and his father Ali, who is known as “Ali Zain Al-Abidin,” or “Ali Al-Sajjad,” the fourth of the Shiite imams of all the sects. His brother Muhammad Al-Baqir is the fifth Shiite imam of the Imami or Twelvers.

The Zaidi sect is considered one of the most revolutionary Islamic sect due to the circumstances of its inception and founder. Zaid bin Ali led the revolution in Iraq against the rule of the Umayyad Caliphate Hisham bin Abdul Malik carrying the principal of the need to depose the unjust ruler, which was later carried on by his sect.

The Zaidi sect spread in the Najd region in the center of the Arabian Peninsula and in the regions around the Caspian Sea (to the southwest of Russia, Northern Iran, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan), as well as in North Africa. The Zaidi sect has branched out into many sects such as (Mutrafiya, Salmiya, Qasimia, Muayyadiya, Salihiya, Batriyah, Sulaymaniyah, Nasiriyah, Jarudiyah, Haririya, Hadhiya and others), but they have all since become extinct and only Hadaism, which spread in Northern Yemen, was left. This group is attributed to Yahya bin Al-Hussain bin Al-Qasim Al Rassi, also known as “the Hadai of the truth” (859 AD – 911 AD). He was the founder of the Hadai state, which continued among his descendants for more than a thousand years until the Yemeni revolution in 1962 AD. The Hadaist state is considered the longest reign of the descendants of Prophet Mohammad (Al Al-Bayt) in Islamic History.

What distinguishes Zaidis and brings them closer to the Sunnis is their position on Abu Bakr Al-Siddiq and Omar bin Al-Khattab. Unlike the majority of Shiites, they considered them great and true companions and praise them. This came in accordance with the founder’s visit to Kufa when some senior Shiite leaders from the city came to him and asked what he thought of Abu Bakr and Omar, and he responded: “I never heard any of my elders speak ill of them, and they had nothing but positive things to say about them.” This is the reason why the people of Kufa abandoned him when he faced the army of the Ummayads, who killed him with an arrow to the forehead. After his burial, his grave was dug up, his body removed, and his head was cut off and his body crucified.

Zaidism is described as the Islamic sect that is most receptive to development and jurisprudence, which is everyone’s right and not limited to a specific group. This is what differentiated Zaidism from the rest of the Shiite sects. Muhammad bin Ismail bin al-Amir Al-Sanani, one of the leading imams and sheikhs of the sect, says that Zaidism is not closed off or ridged in its teachings, references, and memories. Rather, it is a doctrine that is open to development and enrichment. For example, Zaidis do not believe that the Imamate must pass from father to son. Rather, it is based on a pledge of allegiance, it permits the existence of more than one imam at the same time in two different countries. The Zaydiyyah also abandoned the condition of Hashemite lineage of the imamate, so it is not obligatory for the imam to have a lineage connected to Ali ibn Abi Talib and Fatima, the prophet’s daughter. In addition, Zaidis do not believe in the infallibility of Imams, but only the infallibility of the Prophet Muhammad.

The Zaidis do not refuse to pray behind a Sunni Imam, they do not approve of marriage of pleasure, nor do they sanctify graves or shrines. Moreover, the Mahdi is not expected nor a sacred figure, they do not believe that he is a descendant of Hussein bin Ali, nor do they believe in his infallibility, his birth, nor his absence, nor do they believe in the return of the dead to life before the day of resurrection when the Mahdi is meant to appear. They also agree with Sunnis in acts of worship and obligatory duties, except that they add to the call to prayer the phrase “hasten to the best of deeds,” and the Eid prayer in their doctrine is valid individually and collectively.

Zaidis make up nearly half of the Yemeni people, as they are more distributed in the governorates of Saada, Amran, Sanaa, Al-Jawf, Hajjah and Dhamar, while a small minority of them are found in some areas of southern Saudi Arabia such as Najd, Najran, Asir and Jizan.

The Houthis are currently the most famous Zaidi group due to their political engagements. They are a political movement that follow the Zaidi doctrine, they were founded in 1992 AD by Badr al-Din al-Houthi. The city of Saada in northern Yemen is their main center and are currently led by Abdul-Malik al-Houthi who is the son of the founder.


The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the writer(s). They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of Fanack or its Board of Editors.

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