Zaydi Shia in Yemen

Question:  The Houthi rebels in Yemen, currently under military bombardment by an Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia, are followers of the Zaydi branch of Shia Islam. What do they believe, and how are they different from other Muslims?

Answer:  The two main branches of Islam - Sunni and Shia - differ in their beliefs about political and spiritual leadership among other things.  All Shia Muslims believe that the first leaders (imams) after the death of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) should have come from his household.

 The majority of Shia Muslims are known as "twelvers," as they trace a line of 12 imams starting with Imam Ali, the Prophet Muhammad's son-in-law.  They believe that these imams were divinely-inspired and infallible, following a direct father-son bloodline. They believe that the twelfth and final imam disappeared from earth and they are awaiting his return. Those who hold this belief form the majority of Shia Muslims, especially in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon.

Zaydi, on the other hand, are named for Zayd, a grandson of Husain bin Ali.  They reject many of the subsequent imams, reject the idea that imams are infallible, and reject the tenet that the imamate must pass from father to son.  Many scholars indicate that these differences put them closer to Sunni Islam in their theology.

The Zaydi form a small minority of Shia Muslims, and today they are virtually all located in Yemen.  For over 1,000 years, they held power in Yemen through a ruling dynasty that was overthrown barely 50 years ago.

 Since the 1962 revolution which established a republic in Yemen, the Zaydi have continued to be integrated into local politics.

The Houthis are a smaller insurgency group of Zaydis that started out as a youth revival movement in the early 1990s. In recent years, they have been involved with further clashes with the central government.

 Not all Zaydis support them.