University of Bergen

Bergen Studies on the Middle East and Africa : 1

Anne K. Bang:

The Idrisi state in 'Asir, 1906-1934

Politics, religion and personal prestige as statebuilding factors in early twentieth-century Arabia

The scope of the study

The subject of this book is a small, short-lived state formation on the Yemeni Red Sea coast in the period 1906-1934. The Idrisi state of 'Asir was set up by Muhammad al-Idrisi, a great-grandson of the well-known nineteenth-century Sufi teacher Ahmad b. Idris, and its very existence presents a remarkable case of political activism originating from within a Sufi framework.

The purpose of the book is twofold. Its first aim is to present a history of the Idrisi state - from its origins to its final collapse. Thus, the primary objective of this study is to present the history of an essentially political entity - a state in the period around the First World War.

The second objective is to point to factors which led to the rise of the Idrisi state, and to those which led to its downfall. In order for such a study to be fruitful, it is necessary first to make a categorization of the factors that will be discussed. In the case of the Idrisi state, it is possible to identify three sets of factors which played a part in shaping its history.

Firstly, the history of a political entity is evidently shaped by political actors and events. In the case of the Idrisi state, both local, regional and international factors played a role in its brief history. For this reason, it is necessary to investigate the history of the Idrisi state against the background of the political history of 'Asir and the general political scene of the period.

Secondly, in order to legitimize its existence, a state must be based on a certain ideological foundation. In the Muslim world, this foundation has historically tended to be linked to the religion of Islam. The Idrisi state, like many of the contemporary state formations on the Arabian Peninsula, arose out of a particular religious heritage or system. What is extraordinary about the Idrisi state is that its founder came from a particular Sufi tradition, rather than from a sect or subdivision of Islam. Thus, the history of the Idrisi state and of the religious heritage which constituted its basis, is also the history of this Sufi tradition and specifically the possible preconditions for political activism embodied in it.

Thirdly, in order to attain leadership, a potential ruler will have to rely, in addition to the ideological aspect, on his own charisma and prestige. This is what we may call the personal factor which plays a role in the history of the Idrisi state. Muhammad al-Idrisi claimed his position as a political leader with reference to his noble descent and the prestigious position of his family. Thus, the history of the Idrisi state is also the history of the Idrisi family in 'Asir, and their position in the wider Idrisi network and the Muslim world as a whole.

The framework

The thesis that is the basis for this book was conceived of within the framework of an ongoing series of Sufi studies at the University of Bergen, focusing on the so-called 'Neo-Sufi' orders of the nineteenth century. This research has resulted in several works, particularly on the orders derived from the influential Sufi teacher Ahmad b. Idris of Morocco. [1]

The present work deals less with Sufism as such, and more with political activism in a turbulent phase of world history. Neo-Sufi orders have in many instances played important roles in modern history; best known is probably the Sanusiyya of North Africa which led the resistance against European encroachment in the Sahara. In these instances a religious structure (the brotherhood) is transformed into a political one; the Sufi order turns into a movement that has been described as proto-nationalist in nature.

There are many similarities between the Sanusiyya of North Africa and the Idrisi state of 'Asir. Yet, there are also fundamental differences, and it is precisely these differences which constitute the basic assumption behind this study. The Sanusiyya was a highly organised, hierarchical religious order before it turned into a resistance movement; before the organisation took on political functions. In contrast, the Adarisa of 'Asir in the nineteenth century never established any organisation; [2]

there was no tariqa (order) and no defined hierarchy, no widespread zawiyas or agricultural communities comparable to those of the Sanusiyya. Consequently, Idrisi activism in early twentieth-century 'Asir was not a case where an already established religious order took up resistance against the Ottomans, instead the movement was formed there and then, in the course of approximately five years (1907-12). The result was not a Sufi brotherhood, but a broad alliance based on specific mutual interests, a religious-political movement resembling more the fundamentalist movements of today than the Sanusiyya. As a consequence of the above assumption - that the Idrisi movement in 'Asir was almost from the start a political and not a religious one - this study will seek to identify the factors contributing to the rise and fall of the Idrisi state in 'Asir.

This basic assumption that Muhammad al-Idrisi operated outside the Sufi paradigm is only partly satisfactory. It does not serve to answer why the Idrisi family, and not any other influential indigenous leader, rose to political leadership in 'Asir. In this connection one must take into account two aspects of the heritage of the Idrisi tradition - its teachings and the considerable prestige it carried in the Muslim world.

The teachings of Ahmad b. Idris (as well as those of other nineteenth-century Sufis such as Ahmad al-Tijani) have often been said to contain some sort of precondition towards political activism, and that they in this sense represented a break with earlier Sufi tradition. This assumption stems largely from the explicit activism of the Idrisi-derived orders, but the alleged link between teachings and action is not wholly clear. In the case of the Idrisi state, it may be argued that after two generations of quietism (in the time of the son and grandson of Ibn Idris), there came a leader who was willing and able to put into practice the activism embodied in the tradition. Because of this argument, an account of the political activism of Muhammad al-Idrisi must consider the heritage of which he was a part in order to establish the basis of his activism.

Lineage and personal descent has always been important in the Islamic world, and more often than not, the prestige linked to descent has had religious connotations, thus often within Sufism. This is the case with the Adarisa family of 'Asir, who were bound to enjoy considerable prestige due to their ancestor's status as religious reformer, Sufi shaykh or even saint (in addition comes the Idrisis widely-acknowledged status as ashraf (descendants of the Prophet). In order to examine the rise to political leadership by a descendant of Ibn Idris, one must consider the prestige of the family from which he sprang. It will also be evident, when we examine the history of the Adarisa of 'Asir, that they maintained continuous contact with their relatives on the opposite side of the Red Sea. On the basis of this, I have chosen to focus also on the history of the Idrisi family before the times of Muhammad al-Idrisi to seek the factors which made Idrisi leadership in 'Asir possible.


1. R.S. O'Fahey, Enigmatic Saint. Ahmad Ibn Idris and the Idrisi Tradition, London 1990; 'Ali Salih Karrar, The Sufi Brotherhoods in the Sudan, London 1992; Einar Thomassen and Bernd Radtke (eds.), The Letters of Ahmad Ibn Idris, London 1993 and Knut S. Vikør, Sufi and Scholar on the Desert Edge. Muhammad b. 'Ali al-Sanusi and his Brotherhood, London 1995. [*]

2. In this work, the term Adarisa (the plural of Idrisi) is used to refer to the descendants of Ibn Idris, without implying anything about a formal structure or tariqa. This should not be confused with the term Idrisiyya which refers to various tariqas founded after the death of Ibn Idris, not necessarily by his decendants. This is consistent with the way the terms are employed by O'Fahey in Enigmatic Saint, see pp. 119-29. [*]

(From the Introduction)

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Publication date: Already published (1996)
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