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3. Red Sea and Yemen

The Abyssinian connection?

Abyssinian-related scholars in the Yemeni and Medieval Red Sea environment (6th-9th/12th-15th centuries)
La connexion abyssinienne au Yémen. Circulations savantes et réseaux du savoir en mer Rouge (vie-ixe/xiie-xve siècle)
الأواصر الحبشية اليمنية: التداولات العلمية وشبكات المعرفة في البحر الأحمر (القرن٦-٩هـ/١٢-١٥م)
Zacharie Mochtari de Pierrepont
p. 153-178


Sous le règne des sultans rasūlides (r. 626-858/1229-1454), les échanges entre le Yémen et l’Abyssinie connurent un regain d’activité, favorisés par l’arrivée au pouvoir de la dynastie sunnite des Wālāsmaʿ (r. 684-966/1285-1559), et le développement du sultanat d’Ifāt. Les savants musulmans participèrent aussi à ce dynamisme. Cet article propose un premier examen des circulations savantes entre le Yémen et l’Abyssinie, de la fin du vie/xiie siècle au ixe/xve siècle. Nous soulignerons d’une part que les savants yéménites contribuèrent activement au processus d’islamisation des côtes de l’Abyssinie et à l’institutionnalisation de son environnement juridico-religieux. D’autre part, que les savants d’origine abyssinienne jouèrent un rôle non négligeable dans la transformation de l’environnement juridico-religieux et mystique du Yémen rasūlide, phénomène encore peu étudié. C’est pourtant dans ce double rapport des circulations savantes entre le Yémen et l’Abyssinie, où se distingue discrètement des réseaux spécifiques de la transmission du savoir, que se laisse deviner une « connexion abyssinienne », une culture en partage et un même monde de l’interconnaissance dans les espaces de la mer Rouge.

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  • 1 We use the term Abyssinia to translate the Arabic al-Ḥabasha, found in Arabic Medieval sources. The (...)
  • 2 An interpretative framework that even found an echo in the New Cambridge History of Islam, where th (...)

1Yemen and Ethiopia have a track-record of entangled relationships that go back to long before the advent of Islam. From the 3rd century onward, Abyssinia1 became increasingly more involved in Yemen (Robin, 1989: 149-152) and many territories were subjected twice to the nominal rule of Abyssinian rulers: from ca. 525 to ca. 570, Ḥimyar was indeed a client kingdom ruled by an Ethiopian dynasty (Hatke, 2010: 308-309; Bowersock, 2013); nearly six centuries later, the Najāhids, former Abyssinian slaves of the Banū Ziyād, came to power in Yemen in the 6th/12th century. The latter ruled over important parts of Tihāma and Lower Yemen between 442/1016 and 554/1159, in the name of the ʿAbbasid Caliph (Peli, 2008: 96-98). Their domination further strengthened the links between Abyssinia and Yemen: later Medieval historiographers familiar with the Yemeni context refered to their rule as dawlat al-Ḥabasha or wilāyat al-Ḥabasha: the “Abyssinian” component of the Najāḥid dawla was an essential feature of the social and political framework of Yemen at the time (Ibn Samura, Ṭabaqāt:104; al-Janadī, Sulūk: ii, 514; al-Yāfiʿī, Mir’āt: iii, 224). Historians later perceived the fall of the Banū Najāh as the definitive end to the historical Abyssinian hold over Yemen, as the Aksumite domination of Yemen and that of the Najāḥids, in the 5th-6th/11th-12th centuries, were seen as being in continuity (Ibn al-Mujāwir, Ta’rīkh: 126)2. In practice, it seems that by the end of the 6th/12th century, in vast swaths of Central Tihāma and Southern Yemen, the so-called “Arab” and “Abyssinian” components of the population were impossible to visually distinguish, even when this distinction remained socially and politically important:  a testament to centuries of continuous relations (ʿUmāra, Ta’rīkh: 134; Ibn al-Mujāwir, Ta’rīkh: 134, 235-236).

2Trade and commercial relations were firmly established during the Islamic period, so that, by the 6th/13th century, there is solid evidence to document the importation of slaves, gold, ivory, honey, chives, and other products to Yemen (Nūr al-Maʿārīf, i: 359-367; Vallet, 2006: ii, 105-111), alongside the notable presence of inhabitants with Abyssinian roots in Yemen. As previously suggested by modern historians (Hussein, 2001: 47), with the spread and consolidation of Islam in Abyssinia in the 7th/13th century onward (Cerulli, 1941; Braukämper, 2002: 12-105), scholars from the Islam-dominated lands of Abyssinia and Yemen interacted with each other, and many of them settled on both shores of the Red Sea between the 7th/13th and the 9th/15th centuries.

3On the one hand, the Islamization process in the Bilād al-Ḥabasha, and the strengthening of institutions identified as Islamic may have led to a deeper involvement of Abyssinians in the scholarly engagement with Islam, a subject hardly touched upon in the Yemeni corpus (defined below), though one nevertheless visible through new and precise references to Abyssinian scholars training in Yemen and returning to their homeland, as well as mentions of Yemeni scholars involved in spreading religious sciences in Abyssinia. On the other hand, it is also possible that an increasement of Abyssinians in Yemeni narratives may be tied to conflictual struggles in the Bilād al-Ḥabasha itself, emphasizing new migrations away from Abyssinia. At the same time, the spread of Islam in the country of Zaylaʿ also imbued some Yemeni scholars seeking new opportunities with a pious need to perform their religious duties through the spread of religious knowledge in Abyssinia itself. These scholars faced no obvious obstacles to their ability to insert themselves in new political and cultural environments. They thus participated in the evolution and change of local environments both in Yemen and Abyssinia, sometimes explicitly maintaining relationships with their former homelands or that of their ancestors.

  • 3 With the exclusion of Ḥaḍramawt, which, due to local social, cultural and political contexts, as we (...)

4These interactions raise several questions that may better frame our understanding of the Red Sea scholarly and intellectual environment and mobilities between the mid-6th/12th and the 9th/mid-15th centuries. Could a more precise picture regarding the periodization of these scholarly circulations emerge from such an endeavour? How did the specific social and cultural groups that appeared and were narratively delimited in relation to the background of Abyssinian scholars express themselves? How were the networks these scholars participated in introduced, and how did they then perpetuate the transmission and expansion of knowledge in Islamic lands? What role, if any, did they assign themselves in the historiographical narratives that shaped these figures? While such questions each equally deserve careful attention and analysis, a full review lies beyond the scope of this article. This study wishes to propose a preliminary assessment of some features of the Yemeni scholarly environment in relation to Abyssinia and Abyssinian-related scholars, through historiographical narratives of the Yemeni corpus, more specifically during the subesquent Ayyūbid (r. 569-626/1173-1229) and Rasūlid (r. 626-858/1229-1454) reigns in Yemen3.

  • 4 Muḥammad ʿAbd al-Āl. (ʿAbd al-Āl, 1989, 438-443) and Muḥammad al-Fayfī (2005, 175-180) discussed in (...)

5By "Abyssinian-related" Yemeni scholars, I mean ʿulamāʾ and/or mystical figures settling or settled in Yemen from Abyssinia, their descendants associated with Abyssinian roots and lineages, as well as Yemeni scholars who journeyed from Yemen to Abyssinia and back. That is, scholarly figures introduced with a specific relation to Abyssinia, and for whom this relation was displayed as a defining identity marker, among others, to single them out within broader Yemeni historiographical narratives of the 6th-9th/12th-15th centuries. Such figures related to Abyssinia in Yemen were indeed present, albeit faintly, in the display of the contemporary historiographical Yemeni corpus. Their presence underlines interactions and circulations which contributed to the evolution of the local Yemeni scholarly environment. These scholars were apparently more eligible to fit in the mise en scene of Yemeni historiographical narratives, whose primary concern remained the Yemeni context. These underlying features common to Abyssinian-related scholars in the Yemeni corpus emerge even more since no academic studies appear to have tackled these issues before, apart from a short study by Tamon Baba in 20174.

6Baba’s article provided a general outline of some characteristics of Red Sea mobilities during the Rasūlid period, from Yemen to Northeast Africa, and vice versa. His conclusions suggested a dual pattern in which scholars from Yemen migrated to Northeast Africa when they were “unable to remain” in Yemen while scholars from Northeast Africa migrated to Yemen intentionally. According to T. Baba, most individuals circulating between Abyssinia and Yemen did not play a significant role in Yemeni-Northeast African history” (Baba, 2017: 83). Drawing on this framework, however, the present article will highlight that scholars circulating between Abyssinia and Yemen did sometimes play an important role in Yemeni historiographical narratives.

7In that regard, after assessing the narrative material related to my focus, this article will emphasize three specific patterns. First, scholars with ties to Abyssinia formed a growing population within Yemen itself between the 7th/13th and the 9th/15th centuries. Second, the background and careers of a few major saintly figures of the Yemeni scholarly communities between the 8th/14th century and the 9th/15th century, illustrate that a clearly identified group of scholars linked to Abyssinia played a very significant role in the Yemeni scholarly environment. Some figures among the most famous scholars and awliyāʾ Allāh of the Rasūlid period thus appear directly linked to Abyssinia. Finally, mobility concerning the two shores of the Red Sea and specific networks of scholarly exchanges between the Bilād al-Ḥabasha and Yemen existed and were perceived as such by Yemeni historiographers. This is particularly noticeable through the agency of a few Yemeni scholars or Yemeni scholars originating from Abyssinia, that acted as main nodes and channels to further spread scholarly knowledge back in the Bilād al-Ḥabasha. An “Abyssinian” scholarly connection seems to emerge from some narratives, pointing to what may have been distinct channels of knowledge transmission, and particular contents and forms of scholarly knowledge sought by Abyssinian scholars.

The corpus: the Abyssinian-related scholarly environment in Yemen

8The paucity of references regarding Abyssinian-related scholars in Yemeni narrative sources, does not provide us with much historiographical material, a point already emphasized by Tamon Baba in 2017 (Baba, 2017: 72). However, in view of the known Ethiopian historiographical corpus, the Yemeni corpus comparativel yallows some direct and real insight, even if quite thin, with reference to Abyssinian-related scholars in Yemen (Ahmad, 1992: 31-33).

  • 5 On this author, see Sayyid, 1974: 139-141; al-Ḥibshī, 1980: 121-122; Vallet, 2006: 50-53; Vallet, 2 (...)

9The population of Yemen with roots in or linked to Abyssinia was at least symbolically identified as distinct from the Yemeni-born population with so-called Arab roots, and for that reason it is possible to single out several individuals related to Abyssinia engaged in the Yemeni scholarly environment. I propose below a survey of the material found in three Yemeni biographical dictionaries from the 6th/12th century to the mid-9th/15th century, which explicitly claim a shared narrative relation and which often borrow from each other, thus providing information that may more likely fit within the same analytical framework: Bahāʼ al-Dīn al-Janadī (d. 731/1331)5 describes his Sulūk fī Ṭabaqāt al-ʿulamāʼ wa-l-mulūk as a continuation of Ibn Samura’s Ṭabaqāt al-fuqahāʼ and al-Ḥusayn al-Ahdal (d. 855/1451)’s Tuḥfat al-zaman is framed as a continuation of al-Janadī’s Sulūk (al-Janadī, Sulūk, i: 67; al-Ahdal, Tuḥfat, i: 23-24). As such, these works, all written by Yemen-born Shāfiʿī scholars, introduce glimpses of three moments of the elaboration of the Yemeni scholarly environment’s history and memory during the Ayyūbid and Rasūlid periods, that is at a time when the claimed unity of Yemen under a common ruler – either effective, nominal or fictional (al-Afḍal al-‘Abbās, ‘Aṭāya: 692) sill played a central role in Yemeni historiographical representations (see Vallet, 2006 & 2010: 24-46; Mochtari de Pierrepont, 2018: i, 78-105).

10The group of scholars introduced in this corpus in relation to the Bilād al-Ḥabasha numbered at least 100, all of whom died between the mid-6th/12th and the mid-9th/15th centuries. Such a number comes on the one hand, from the census of the nisba-s and laqab-s of scholars introduced in the Yemeni corpus, and on the other hand according to explicit references of scholars’ relations with the Bilād al-Ḥabasha. This is a very small number compared to the thousands of scholars introduced in Yemeni biographical dictionaries of that period, an indication that, between the 6th/12th and the mid-9th/15th centuries, the Abyssinia-related component of the Yemeni scholarly environment was of little interest to contemporary historiographers. Biographical notices for these scholars range from very brief mentions, as in the case of Mūsā b. Yūsuf (ca. mid. 6th/12th century), known simply as a student from “Zaylaʿ” of Aḥmad al-Ḥabashī (Ibn Samura, Ṭabaqāt: 209), to larger biographical notices – sometimes among the longest in the Yemeni corpus – as in the case of Ibrāhīm al-Jabartī (722-806/1322-1404), the prominent Zabīdī Sufi figure of the second half of the 8th/14th century (Aziz, 2011: 203; Baʿkar, 1990: 447-448; Knysh, 1999: 227; Mochtari de Pierrepont, 2018: i, 207-218).

11The relation to al-Ḥabasha in these biographies is often a marginal part of the notices. In all cases where important biographies are dedicated to scholars linked to the Bilād al-Ḥabasha, it is their role within the Yemeni environment which is framed as the bulk of the narration. In only rare cases does it stand as a significant feature of a scholar’s biography, when details emerge from the text framing the scholar’s life within the context of Yemen and Abyssinia. When this happens, details regarding the Bilād al-Ḥabasha in the notices are few (Aziz, 2015: 203; Baʿkar, 1990: 447-448; Knysh, 1999: 227; Mochtari de Pierrepont, 2018: i, 207-218). Yet, as an element of biographical notices, the relationship of Yemeni scholars to al-Ḥabasha often participates in framing one of their distinctions within the scholarly environment. In that regard, some features are worth mentioning with respect to their historiographical presentation.

12The number of references to Abyssinian-related scholars grew continuously between the 6th/12th and the end of the 8th/14th century. Only six scholars from the Horn of Africa are referred to by Ibn Samura in the 6th/12th century, in brief, lapidary mentions. None of the Yemeni scholars referred to in his Ṭabaqāt al-fuqahāʼ seem to have travelled to Abyssinia. Al-Janadī’s Sulūk, written in the 820s/1420s, the first known biographical dictionary of the Rasūlid period, refers to 30 scholars linked to the Horn of Africa within the Yemeni environment. As for al-Ahdal, he refers to more than 80 in the Tuḥfat al-zaman. A bias in the corpus must be considered in this census, since each author includes characters accounted for by previous authors. Nevertheless, it remains clear that Abyssinian-related scholars in Yemen become far more numerous in historiographical narratives between the 7th/13th century and the 9th/15th century. Far from the six scholars barely mentioned by Ibn Samura, this overall census of Abyssinian-related scholars therefore illustrates their growing integration into the Yemeni scholarly environment, as well as the presence of Yemeni scholars settling in Abyssinia.This may be correlated to the process of Islamization then ongoing in Abyssinia, and the strengthening of the sultanate of Awfāt during the 8th/14th century (Cuoq, 1981: 123-129; Fauvelle, Hirsch & Chekroun, 2017: 278; Chekroun & Hirsch, 2020: 79), while at the same time there appears to have been an increase in the interest of the Rasūlid sultans for Abyssinia, as illustrated by the Arabic-Ethiopic glossary ordered by the Sultan al-Malik al-Afḍal al-‛Abbās (r. 764-778/ 1363-1377) (Varisco & Smith, 1978; Bulakh & Kogan, 2016).

From the early 8th/14th century onward: New references to Abyssinian-related scholars in Yemeni historiography

13More than a century after Ibn Samura laconically mentioned a few figures in relation to Abyssinia in his Ṭabaqāt, leaving unclear the nature and extension of these relations, Baḥāʾ al-Dīn al-Janadī’s work (and later al-Ḥusayn al-Ahdal) offered a broader image furnished with more detailed narratives. The resulting narrative layer displayed in the Sulūk was setting the stage for wider concerns and historiographical engagements regarding Abyssinian-related scholars. The Sulūk thus appears as a first historiographical witness of the rise of Abyssinians and of Abyssinian relations within the Yemeni scholarly environment, emphasizing a renewed interest for the Bilād al-Ḥabasha that appears to elude us in earlier historiographical sources as well as in Rasūlid court chronicles and archives (Vallet, 2010: 411, 417-418).

  • 6 The Ḥanafī school of law was apparently the main maddhab in Muslim communities of the Bilād al-Ḥaba (...)
  • 7 In this article, for the name Walasmāʿ, we follow the spelling given in the Rasūlid administrative (...)
  • 8 “Al-Zayla‛ī” is indeed always mentioned as a laqab in al-Janadī’s Sulūk (ii, XXX).

14Among the 25 characters mentioned in the Sulūk, al-Janadī refers to at least four Yemeni scholars migrating to the Bilād al-Ḥabasha. In two cases these scholars explicitly engaged with the spreading of Sufism (taṣawwuf) or the Ḥanafī madhhab, one of the two dominant madhhab-s to be found in the Bilād al-Ḥabasha at the time6. The other scholars mentioned in the Sulūk had direct roots in the Bilād al-Ḥabasha and migrated from there to Yemen. It is quite noteworthy that most of these figures appear as first-generation migrants in Yemen and that they lived during the second half of the 7th/13th century. The Sulūk thus also functions as a testimony of the deeper connection between the Red Sea shores built during the 7th/13th century, undoubtedly boosted by the rise of the Wālāsmāʿ in Awfāt7. But this work not only hinted at an increase in scholarly migrations and circulations, it also displayed the main identity markers linked to scholars from the Horn of Africa and Abyssinia: the laqab or nisba al-Zaylaʿī, as well as the nisba al-Jabartī8.

  • 9 Abū Bakr b. Adam b. Ibrāhīm al-Zaylaʿī (d. 676/1277), for a time head of the muftī-s in the city, w (...)

15Indeed, the Sulūk appears as the first work to mention the Yemeni custom of granting the laqab “al-Zaylaʿī” to “most Blacks (ghālib al-sūdān) who come to [the people of Yemen] from Abyssinia”, whatever their local origin, underlining a common and normative practice (al- Janadī, Sulūk: ii, 111). This was a relatively new custom: in Ibn Samura’s Ṭabaqāt, at the end of the 6th/12th century, Zaylaʿ or “the land of Zaylaʿ” was only mentioned as a territory or a location on the way to ʿAden from Abyssinia (Ibn Samura, Ṭabaqāt: 243, 308). The laqab al-Zaylaʿī never appears in Ibn Samura’s text for a specific individual, although the Zayāliʿ were identified as distinct from the people of Maqdīshū (Ibn Samura, Ṭabaqāt: 209). This suggests that traces of scholars from Abyssinia in Yemen identified with the area of Zaylaʿ date back to at least the second half of the 6th/12th century and the individual laqab al-Zaylaʿī at least to the second half of the 7th/13th century. The latter  was already used by al-Janadī in the notice of Abū Bakr b. Adam (d. 676/1277) (al-Janadi, Sulūk: ii, 111-114) –9 only some decades before references to this laqab were found in historiographical narratives of the Cairo sultanate (Loiseau, 2019: 7). Yet, despite this statement, ethnic and genealogical considerations were quite blurred, as al-Janadī himself mentions that “most of the zayāliʿ are ʿajam (al-zayāliʿ fī al-ghālib ʿajam)”, therefore emphasizing that some people of Zaylaʿ were not considered as ʿAjam, but Arabs in terms of genealogy, an important social distinction regarding social standing for Yemeni elites (al-Janadī, Sulūk: ii, 166-167). These blurred genealogical claims were even more palpable as they could supplement existing ethnic considerations. Thus, in the 9th/15th century, Aḥmad b. Muḥammad al-Lāmī, from the Banū Lām in the Wādī Sihām, was given the name al-Zaylaʿī: he had the colour of his mother, who was from the Horn of Africa (zaylaʿiyya) (al-Ahdal, Tuḥfat: ii, 267, 270). All in all, if the emergence of this laqab illustrates a Yemeni custom as well as al-Janadī or later al-Ahdal’s indifference for, or ignorance of a more precise geography of Abyssinia (Vallet, 2010: 418), its spread also echoes the rise of Zaylaʿ itself and its progressive growth in the course of the 6th/12th and 7th/13th centuries. From a small village in the 4th/10th century, Zaylaʿ became, in the second half of the 7th/13th century, the main port from which goods and people departing from al-Ḥabasha embarked to Yemen and the Ḥijāz (Fauvelle et al., 2011: 60-64).

  • 10 Also quoted in Vallet, 2010, 139. This statement should be taken with some caution: the mention of (...)
  • 11 An earlier reference to the nisba al-Jabartī may be found in Ibn Ḥātim’s chronicle, about an envoy (...)

16The Sulūk also introduced the other significant marker related to Abyssinian-identity among Yemeni scholars, along the same lines as the laqab al-Zaylaʿī: the nisba al-Jabartī  derived from the territory of Jabart (al-Janadī, Sulūk: ii, 36; al-Maqrīzī, Ilmām: 82)  was used by “the people of Yemen […] to refer to most Black people coming to them from Abyssinia, especially to those who were not slaves – whom they called Ḥabashī” (al-Janadī, Sulūk, ii, 106).10 Al-Janadī here emphasizes a new understanding and perception by Yemeni scholars of their social environment in relation to Abyssinians, contrary to the 6th/12th century. In fact, according to the earlier narratives of ʿUmāra al-Yamanī (d. 569/1174), there was apparently no need to distinguish between freemen and slaves among the people of Ḥabasha in Yemen: most people from the Bilād al-Ḥabasha were said to be either slaves, former slaves or the offsprings of one or the other (ʿUmāra, Ta’rīkh: 134). Ibn Samura, without discussing the social status of scholars related to Abyssinia, only used the nisba al-Ḥabashī when referring to people with Abyssinian roots. By al-Janadī's time, the need for social distinction between freemen and slaves – that is, a new identity marker clearly establishing a different perspective regarding these groups – had thus arose within the Yemeni environment, as illustrated in the Sulūk11. This points to a progressive evolution of the social reality in Yemen and a new situation: the ordinary presence of free Abyssinia-born individuals in Yemen, including many scholars. This element is emphasized in the mid-9th/15th century in a statement by al-Ahdal, who identifies the Abyssinian background of some scholars as a generic feature, mentioning “ʿAlī b. Aḥmad, one of the fuqahāʼ of al-Ḥabasha [in Yemen]” (al-Ahdal, Tuḥfat: i, 470): by then, the presence of Abyssinian scholars in Yemen was essentially a normal feature of the scholarly environment.

  • 12 This census considers all mentions in the texts, not only regarding the scholars. As such, mentions (...)

17For some scholars, al-Janadī used the dual names, al-Zaylaʿī and al-Jabartī, and both participated in branding scholars in Yemen with an Abyssinian origin (al-Janadī, Sulūk: ii, 111, 126). In fact, a progressive change in the attribution of identity markers regarding Abyssinian origin within the Yemeni historiographical corpus, between the 6th/12th and the 9th/15th centuries, is quite noticeable during the course of the 8th/14th century. As in contemporary Egyptian historiography (Loiseau, 2019), the nisba al-Ḥabashī becomes very rare compared to other denominations, and the evolution of the nisba-s or laqab-s attributed to Yemeni scholars tends to favor progressively, during the 8th/14th and 9th/15th centuries, the nisba al-Jabartī, as underlined in the table below.12

18Tabl.  Mentions of the main terms related to Abyssinia






Ibn Samura’s Ṭabaqāt

(end of the 6th/12th century)






al-Janadī’s Sulūk

(early 8th/14th century)






al-Ahdal, Tuḥfat

(mid-9th/15th century)






19This change may have implied progressive new understandings of what was going on in the Bilād al-Ḥabasha or growing interactions between Islamic Abyssinian lands and the Rasūlids. Yet, it also most likely emphasized the more frequent presence of Abyssinian scholars in Yemen.

20This general census, based on the most numerous terms referring to Abyssinia or Abyssinian-related characters conceals a more detailed, yet very vague, display of the spatial representations of Abyssinia in Yemeni historiographical narratives. Starting somewhat solitarily with al-Janadī and going forward up to the end of the 9th/15th century, a growing number of places, territories and social groups in Abyssinia were laid out in the corpus, in relation to scholars. Thus, references to Rurah (al-Janadī, Sulūk: ii, 50), Jidā’iyya (al-Khazrajī, ʿIqd: iv, 1835), Baṭa or Biṭa (al-Khazrajī, ʿUqūd: ii, 563), ʿAdal (al-Ahdal, Tuḥfat: ii, 320), Awfāt (Ahdal, Tuḥfat: ii, 298), Masak (al-Burayhī, Ṭabaqāt: 190), or the tribe of the Banū Riwān (Ahdal, Tuḥfat: i, 481), were understood as being in the Bilād al-Ḥabasha and participated in an elusive, unfinished, and indistinct geography of Abyssinia. While this knowledge remained mainly ignored by the Rasūlid administration in its representations of Abyssinia (Vallet, 2010: 411), it was part of larger engagements with and a growing awareness of the scholarly environments between the shores of the Red Sea.

The Yemeni scholarly environment and Abyssinia

21The growing number of Abyssinian-related scholars in Yemeni historiographical narratives underlines two elements greatly overlooked to date. On the one hand, the relations between the two shores of the Red Sea were not one-sided. While Abyssinia sent scholars to Yemen, Yemeni scholars also travelled to Abyssinia which played a role as a prospect to strengthen their social standing, as it seems to have offered opportunities of career and social promotion. Although the Yemeni-born scholars that went to Abyssinia, either to settle or move there and later come back to Yemen, were few in number – at least twelve individuals, their very existence in the corpus is in itself quite significant.

22Three main reasons seem to have led these scholars to migrate to Abyssinia: exile or escape from Yemen (al-Janadī, Sulūk: ii, 50; al-Khazrajī, ‛Uqūd: ii, 795), the spread of Islam, and opportunities for career and social promotion. In the framework of a more Islamicized society, the need to dispose of a trained body of specialists of religious sciences in the Islam-dominated territories of Abyssinia may certainly have increased, and with it the number of Yemeni scholars settling in Abyssinia. In the early 8th/14th century, al-Janadī refers to cases that may fit in this progressive dynamic and ongoing changes. Thus, Yemeni scholars teaching religious sciences and passing away in Abyssinia, like the ascetic Ibrāhīm b. Muḥammad al-Tubbāʿī (d. ca. early 8th/14th c.) – who went to spread taṣawwuf in Abyssinia (al-Janadī, Sulūk, ii, 343) – or the faqīh Aḥmad b. Muḥammad – who travelled to Abyssinia to teach the Ḥanafī madhhab (al-Janadī, Sulūk, ii, 381) – are not isolated cases (al-Ahdal, Tuḥfat, ii, 145, 347). They underline the integration of some Yemeni fuqahā’ in the scholarly environment of al-Ḥabasha, such as the Ḥanafī faqīh Sulaymān:

  • 13 Abū Bakr b. ʿĪsā al-Ashʿarī, known as Ibn Ḥankās (d. 664/1266), head of the Ḥanafī madhhab in Zabīd (...)
  • 14 The festival of ṣabt al-ṣubūt was celebrated at the end of the palm tree harvest season, on the sho (...)

[Among the fuqahāʼ that came to Zabīd] Sulaymān b. Mūsā b. ʿAlī b. al-Jūn al-Ashʿarī, who learned fiqh with Ibn Ḥankās13 and others […]. He commanded the right and forbade the wrong, and when the subūt14 were held in Zabīd, and [that he saw] the wrongs that happened there (wa ʿumila fi-hā al-munkarāt), he emigrated to the land of Abyssinia (ḥājara ilā arḍ al-Ḥabasha), and he remained there until he passed away […]. And he administered (tadayyara) from the Bilād al-Ḥabasha a land named Rurah […], and there he died […] in the year 652 [1254] (al-Janadī, Sulūk, ii, 50).

  • 15 Al-Sharjī later proposed a more florid narrative regarding these events (al-Sharjī, Ṭabaqāt: 79), p (...)

23Later references to Yemeni scholars of the 8th/14th century leaving for Abyssinia also point to the same dynamic, like Aḥmad b. Abī Bakr (d. 651/1253 or 655/1257), who left as a young man for the Bilād al-Ḥabasha, met with the Sultan Ṣabr al-Dīn al-Mujāhid (d. ca. 736/1335-1336) in Awfāt, and remained there for a time. He finally came back to Yemen to teach in his hometown of Bayt al-Faqīh “and students came there [to learn with him] from everywhere, as far as Zayla‛, Jabart and Maqdishū” (al-Ahdal, Tuḥfat, ii, 297-298)15.

  • 16 Yet, some decades later, Ḥaḍramī-s migrations and networks seem to expand in the Bilād al-Ḥabasha ( (...)

24This trend seems to end in Tihāma and Lower Yemen in the early 9th/15th century16: the last example of a Yemeni scholar from these regions moving to Abyssinia in the Rasūlid and Ṭāhirid corpus (r. 858-923/1454-1517), but also its most prominent and famous case, is that of ʿUmar b. ʿAlī al-Qurashī (d. 821/1418), who spread the ṭarīqa al-Shādhiliyya in Abyssinia, married the sister of the sultan of Awfāt, Sa‛d al-Dīn (d. c. 810/1407-1408) and went back to Yemen (Mochtari de Pierrepont, 2018: 324; Chekroun, 2020: 130). There, he became a holy figure of al-Makhā’ and the Wādī Mawza in Southern Tihāma, later associated with the introduction of coffee in Yemen (Geoffroy, 2001; Mochtari de Pierrepont, 2018: i, 320-335 & forthcoming).

  • 17 Yet, al-Ahdal, in his Tuḥfat, specifically dedicates a few lines to “those [among the Abyssinians] (...)

25On the other hand, Yemen – along with Egypt and the Ḥijāz – certainly played a major role in the training of many scholars from al-Ḥabasha. Most references to Abyssinian scholars in the Yemeni corpus focus on this topic (al-Janadī, Sulūk: ii, 83, 111, 129; Burayhī, Ṭabaqāt: 190 etc.), even if scholars from al-Ḥabasha then returning to their homeland are rarely mentioned17. It seems these Abyssinian scholars often had a first training in fiqh and went to look for more advanced courses in Yemen (al-Ahdal, Tuḥfat: ii, 207). In the first half of the 9th/15th century, al-Ḥusayn al-Ahdal was thus quite explicit about the flow of Abyssinians coming to Yemen and Arabia, and his own narrow focus on the Yemeni scholarly environment:

And now [we mention those] among the fuqahāʼ from the western coast (al-barr al-gharbī), such as Zaylaʿ, Barbara, al-Dankalī, and al-Jabart. As for the Abyssinians (al-Ḥabasha), they travel to the land of the ʿArabs, and they learn fiqh there, and we already mentioned a few of them (qalīlān), among those who settled in the land of the ʿArabs” (Ahdal, Tuḥfat, i, 404).

26Among these scholars, some earned enough consideration or standing to make a lasting impression in their local environment, such as Ibrāhīm b. ʿUthmān al-Jabartī (d. 704/1305), who gave his name to the mosque he used to pray at in Zabīd, which became known as the Masjid al-Jabartī (al-Janadī, Sulūk: ii, 36).

27Therefore, it must also be stressed that the first-generation migrants from Abyssinia to Yemen, starting around the mid-7th/13th century, as well as the second and third generations of Yemeni scholars with Abyssinian roots, contributed to a great extent to the evolution of the scholarly environment within Yemen itself. Their integration in the Yemeni context, and contribution to local cultural, social and political dynamics participated actively in shaping these same dynamics up to the mid-9th/15th century.

The rise of Abyssinian-related families in Yemen: between sainthood, power, and political influence

28Between the second half of the 7th/13th century and the early 9th/15th century, a few families of scholars said to have Abyssinian roots reached considerable social standing in Yemen: some of these individuals became central nodes in the Yemeni scholarly environment network, and their descendants played a considerable role in the cultural and political dynamics of the Rasūlid sultanate. By the end of the 9th/15th century, many protagonists of the Yemeni corpus were identified as belonging to the lineage of the Banū ‛Aqīl, the nisba al-ʿAqīlī, referring to the lineage of the Banū Ḥāshim through the descendants of ʿAqīl b. Abī Ṭālib. Although by itself, this nisba did not refer to scholars in Yemen with Abyssinian roots it was mostly associated with the aʿjām, from the lands west of Yemen. Al-Ḥusayn al-Ahdal, himself a sharīf of the Ḥusaynid branch (al-Ahdal, Tuḥfat, ii, 31), emphasizes this distinctive feature regarding the baṭn of the Banū ʿAbd al-Muṭṭalib (al-Ahdal, Tuḥfat: ii, 33):

[In the] branches (buṭūn) of the Banī ‛Abd al-Muṭṭalib […], at these times a lot of people from the Bilād al-ʿAjam related themselves to ‛Aqīl, and others from Quraysh (intisāb ahl bilād al-ʿAjam ilā ʿAqīl wa ghayri-hi min Quraysh).

29Yemeni narratives thus make no mystery of this prestigious lineage attached to some Abyssinian-related families: scholars with a nasab linking them to the Banū ʿAqīl usually had Abyssinian roots, and the nisba al-ʿAqīlī mainly designated the most successful families of scholars among them. Therefore, this nisba introduced and later came to describe another marker of Abyssinian-related scholars, to distinguish the elites among them. It is possible that such genealogical claims originated during the Ayyūbid or Rasūlid periods: the first scholar related to ʿAqīl in the Rasūlid corpus seem to have been ʿAlī b. Abī Bakr al-Zaylaʿī (d. 729/1329) (Janadī, Sulūk: ii, 383), while a son of Ismāʿīl al-Jabartī (d. 806/1404) is considered the founder of the Darūd clan in Somalia (Lewis, 1994: 102), where many modern Somali families continue to trace their lineage to ‛Aqīl (Gori, 1998: 46-47).

30This affiliation was often a later addition, and it is noteworthy that a progressive change in these genealogical affiliations appears in the Yemeni corpus between the 8th/14th and the 9th/15th centuries, as the nisba al-ʿAqīlī was sometimes overlooked in the earliest biographical notices of these scholars, as in the case of Aḥmad b. ʿUmar al-Zaylaʿī (al-Janadī, Sulūk: ii, 317; al-Sharjī, Ṭabaqāt: 205) or Ismāʿīl al-Jabartī (al-Khazrajī,ʿIqd: i, 503-504; Ahdal, Tuḥfat: ii, 334). This connection participated in a symbolic proximity between the two shores of the Red Sea and would exert an important cultural and social influence both in Yemen and in al-Ḥabasha (Lewis, 1994: 104-105). But it was also a way to integrate scholars with Abyssinian roots in Yemen into the normative Yemeni social and cultural framework of the scholarly elites of the Rasūlid sultanate. As such, the considerable role played by some of these scholars was also part of the same narrative representation as other prestigious Yemeni lineages, so that the most successful Abyssinian-related scholarly families in Yemen became major actors of their local environment, wielding power and wealth alongside other Yemeni notabless.

31The standing of Abyssinian scholars and their families is of particular importance from an historiographical perspective, as, contrary to earlier assessments by modern scholars, it emphasized the considerable role they sometimes played in Yemen. The position of such families with ties to Abyssinia might be appreciated through various means: numerous narratives were related to them, they had many disciples, the memory of their influence and deeds was maintained and perpetuated generations after their death, their particular family’s anchorage within a local territory was continuous so that their descendants often had a high status themselves, even when their relation to the Bilād al-Ḥabasha was no longer put forward as a distinguishing feature of their life or career. All these protagonists of Yemeni historical narratives were at some point quite appreciated by the Rasūlid sultans and benefited from their support, which also underlines the important role of Sultanic patronage in facilitating the rise of these individuals and their families. The role of Abyssinian scholars in Yemen may therefore be subsumed within the dual process that appeared in the Rasūlid sultanate: on the one hand, the integration of many mystical figures within each local territory of Tihāma, including outsiders to the region settling in rural areas (Mochtari de Pierrepont, 2014b, 2018); on the other hand, the broader policy of the Rasūlid sultans regarding the scholarly environment, facilitating the integration of ʿulamāʼ – including many born outside of Yemen – within the political, educational and judiciary framework of the sultanate, attracted by the wealth and the policy of intellectual and cultural prestige of the Rasūlid dynasty (Vallet, 2010: 67-68; Mochtari de Pierrepont, 2018: 62).

32Two main features emerge as to the place of these scholars. Some with ties to Abyssinia were considered very influential figures of the scholarly and judiciary environment, as was the case for Ibn Adam (d. 696/1297), muftī and mudarris in the Madrasa al-Shamsiyya, in Taez (al-Janadī, Sulūk: ii, 113). Among them was also ʿAlī b. Abī Bakr b. Muhammad al-Zaylaʿī al-ʿAqīlī (d. 729/1329), who presents quite an interesting case, as he seems to embody the success of these Abyssinian families settled in Yemen in the 7th/13th century.

33Born in Yemen, he was explicitly mentioned as hailing on his grandfather’s side from the Bilād al-Ḥabasha –from Baṭa or Biṭa, “one of the villages of Abyssinia” (al-Janadī, Sulūk: ii, 383; al-Khazrajī, al-ʿUqūd: ii, 563). Considered in the 9th/15th century as one of the greatest holy men born in Yemen, sources depict him and his family as shaping the scholarly environment of the village of al-Salāma and the wider area of the Wādī Nakhla, where the village was located. In fact, the broader development of al-Salāma was attributed to him in later 9th/15th century narratives. According to al-Sharjī:

[ʿAlī al-Zaylaʿī], ṣāḥib of the village (qaryat) of al-Salāma [...]. In his times, the population of al-Salāma increased a lot (‘amra ‘aẓīma), and people came from all the directions to settle in al-Salāma and enjoy his baraka and [live in] his vicinity, until the village became a city (tabārakān bi-hi wa bi-jiwāri-hi ḥattā ṣārat al-qarya madīna). (al-Sharjī, Ṭabaqāt: 205).

  • 18 According to Taqī al-Dīn al-Fāsī, supposedly quoting ʿAlī al-Zaylaʿī himself, the Banū al-Zaylaʿī w (...)
  • 19 On this political figure with its important patronage activities, see Sadek, “Rasūlid Women”, 1989, (...)

34The memory of ʿAlī al-Zaylaʿī was respected enough in the 8th/14th century that ʿAlī received the title of ṣāḥib, emphasizing his high standing in the village, reinforced by his prestigious genealogy (from ʿAqīl b. Abī Ṭālib) (Khazrajī, al-ʿUqūd: ii, 563). It also appears to have enhanced his role as a mediator within his community, as was the case with other individuals bearing such titles in Yemen, and thanks also to the protection that his presence could grant (al-Sharjī, Ṭabaqāt: 205). The Banū al-Zaylaʿī, in charge of a family mosque specializing in teaching Ḥanafī jurisprudence (al-Ahdal, Tuḥfat: i, 414), progressively grew wealthy in the course of the 8th/14th century (al-Fāsī, ʿIqd, vi, 145-146)18, apparently the beneficiaries of support from Jihāt Ṣalāḥ,19 mother of the Rasūlid sultan al-Mujāhid ʿAlī, who granted help to ʿAlī al-Zaylaʿī (Manṣūb, 2008: 74).

  • 20 I could not find the text mentioned by al-Sharjī, if it exists, in al-Yāfiʿī’s writings.
  • 21 The status of this site changes between the 7th/13th century. While Ḥays is considered as the chief (...)

35ʿAlī’s fame spread as far as the Ḥijāz, where he died and was buried, like his father and grandfather, his tomb becoming a place of pious visitation (ziyāra) (Fāsī, ʿIqd: vi, 144). According to al-Sharjī, ʿAbd Allāh al-Yāfiʿī (d. 768/1367), one of the greatest scholars of Mecca, originating from Yemen, was even said to have elevated ʿUmar, son of ʿAlī al-Zaylaʿī, as one of the five greatest awliyāʼ Allāh alive (al-Sharjī, Ṭabaqāt: 173)20. It is likely that ʿAlī also had a reputation in Abyssinia, or that the Banū al-Zaylaʿī of al-Salāma maintained relations there at least up to ʿAlī’s time, for some scholars associated with ʿAlī were themselves Abyssinians, a distinct feature associated with this family that suggests a continuous connection with their former homeland (al-Khazrajī, ʿUqūd: ii, 597). This may not come as a surprise, since the village of al-Salāma was mentioned in the early 7th/13th century as being half a parasang away from Ḥays, an important village21 said to have been populated by Abyssinians brought to Yemen by Jayyāsh b. Najāḥ (d. 554/1159), then ruler of Tihāma (Ibn al-Mujāwir, Taʾrīkh: 235-236).

36Known in the wider region of Western Arabia, mentioned in most sources of the Arabian Peninsula, associated with elites of the local scholarly environment of Yemen and close to members of the Rasūlid dynasty, the family of the Banū al-Zaylaʿī demonstrates the prominent role played by some Abyssinian-related families in Tihāma.

  • 22 Such family ties were claimed by al-Sharjī at the end of the 9th/15th century: ‛Alī and ‛Umar would (...)

37Their strong integration within the local scholarly environment, and their rise to prominence during the second half of the 7th/13th century and the early 8th/14th century, was also illustrated by another major figure of sainthood in Tihāma, contemporary to ʿAlī al-Zayla‛ī, Aḥmad b. ʿUmar al-Zaylaʿī al-Jabartī al-ʿAqīlī al-Ḥāshimī (d. 704/1304-1305), ṣāḥib of al-Luḥayya. The narrative display of this central figure of the Lower Wādī Mawr, in Northern Tihāma, is quite different from that of ‛Alī al-Zayla‛ī, the two characters having no family ties22. Born in Abyssinia, ‛Umar was a first-generation migrant, his rise tied to the development of the Wādī Mawr, and the Banū al-Zaylaʿī of al-Luḥayya were considered important power brokers within the Northern Tihāmī tribes in the course of the 8th/14th and 9th/15th centuries. Aḥmad b. ʿUmar was also deeply related to the spread of taṣawwuf in Northern Tihāma (al-Sharjī, Ṭabaqāt: 74). While the Banū al-Zaylaʿī of al-Salāma lost their influence during the 8th/14th century, that of the Banū al-Zaylaʿī of al-Luḥayya progressively grew, in line with the development of al-Luḥayya, a Red Sea commercial hub (Mochtari de Pierrepont, 2018: i, 480-492). Nevertheless, the correlation between the al-Zaylaʿī of al-Salāma and the al-Zaylaʿī of al-Luḥayya is difficult to ignore: by the early 8th/14th century, some scholars with Abyssinian roots had started to feature highly in Yemeni historiographical narratives, and their relation to the scholarly and mystical environment of Yemen could not be ignored.

  • 23 Al-Sharjī relates in his Ṭabaqāt al-khawāṣṣ that Ismāʿīl al-Jabartī’s nisba may have derived from h (...)
  • 24 This family had no ties with the Banū al-Jabartī of Zabīd.

38This new feature of the narrative display regarding Abyssinian-related scholars continued up to the 9th/15th century, as central protagonists of Yemeni Sufism were also linked to Abyssinia. The most prominent Sufi master of Tihāma during the second half of the 8th/14th century was thus Ismāʿīl b. Ibrāhīm al-Jabartī al-ʿAqīlī (d. 806/1404) (al-Ahdal, Tuḥfat: ii, 334). Born in Zabīd, his link to Abyssinia remains elusive yet he bears an explicit Abyssinian nisba, usually a clear marker of close Abyssinian ancestry in the Yemeni corpus23. He stood among the most revered awliyāʼ Allāh of Rasūlid Yemen in the 9th/15th century and played a central role in the development of Sufism in Zabīd, both as shaykh al-shuyukh of Zabīd, an influential Sufi master, (Ahdal, Tuḥfat, ii, 312) and as a close companion of the Rasūlid sultans al-Ashraf Ismāʿīl (r. 778-803/1377-1401) and his son al-Nāṣir Aḥmad (r. 803-827/1401-1424) (al-Khazrajī, ʿIqd: i, 503-505). His family continued to stand as one of the most respected scholarly lineages of Zabīd throughout the 9th/15th century, including during the rule of the Ṭāhirid sultans (r. 858-923/1454-1517): Ismāʿīl b. Abī Bakr b. Ismāʿīl al-Jabartī (d. 875/1470), one of the masters of Ibn al-Daybaʿ (d. 947/1540) – an historian of the Ṭāhirid dynasty – became shaykh al-shuyūkh of Zabīd (Ibn al-Daybaʿ, Bughyat: 141) and helped sooth the tensions between the Ṭāhirid rulers and the Qaḥrā’, one of the Northern Tihāma tribes at the time rebelled against Ṭāhirid authority (Anonymous, Taʼrīkh: 259). When the influence of Ismāʿīl al-Jabartī in Zabīd reached its peak at the end of the 8th/14th century, in a striking parallel, another family known as the Banū al-Jabartī became central in the scholarly environment of Taez, capital (miṣr) of the Rasūlid dynasty24.

39The Banū al-Jabartī of Taez became famous in the course of the 9th/15th century, especially thanks to Jamāl al-Dīn Muḥammad b. ʿAlī b. ʽAbd al-Raḥmān al-Jabartī (d. 830/1426) – one of the most prominent Sufi masters of Taez in the early 9th/15th century – and his son, the walī Allāh Shihāb al-Dīn Aḥmad, one of the teachers of ʿAbd al-Wahhāb al-Burayhī (d. 904/1498-1499), author of the Ṭabaqāt ṣulahāʼ al-Yaman (al-Burayhī, Ṭabaqāt: 226-227). They also had roots in the Bilād al-Ḥabasha: it is likely that they arrived in the middle or the end of the 8th/14th century, as the first member of the family known in Yemen was ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Jabartī (n. d.), whose grandson Aḥmad died in 868/1463 (Ibn Daybaʿ, Qurrat: 413-414; Ibn al-Daybaʿ, Bughyat: 251).

40The cases above, together with a few others mentioned in the Yemeni historiographical corpus, illustrate that the role of Abyssinian-related scholars in Yemen was not of minor importance. In fact, while some ʿulamāʼ and mystical figures related to Abyssinia did play a major role in building the intellectual landscape of Rasūlid Yemen, the bulk of Abyssinian related scholars in Yemen also actively participated in its construction. There is no doubt that their influence, although difficult to assess, significantly contributed to shape the Yemeni scholarly environment, which emphasizes increasing ties between the two shores of the Red Sea between the 6th/12th century and the 9th/15th century, and a possible “Abyssinian connection”, between them.

The Abyssinian connexion in Yemen?

41It is possible to identify hints of a specific “Abyssinian connection” in the scholarly environment of Ayyūbid and Rasūlid Yemen. By Abyssinian connection, I mean distinct networks of scholars between the two shores of the Red Sea, and a continuous dynamic of religious and scholarly exchanges. These networks are difficult to ascertain with precision, as their nature, their effective duration, along with the way they were perpetuated remain obscure. Based on scarce references found in the Yemeni corpus, it seems that, more than distinct networks, some Yemeni scholars with Abyssinian roots could be identified as main points of contact for the introduction of new Abyssinian scholars coming to Yemen, which may suggest in itself on-going exchanges and relations between the two shores of the Red Sea. As early as the second half of the 6th/12th century, Ibn Samura included an important reference to such networks related to Abyssinia.

  • 25 About this individual, see Ibn Samura, Ṭabaqāt: 174-179; al-Janadī, Sulūk: i, 294-300; al-Subkī, Ṭa (...)
  • 26 No dates are given regarding this person. He may have died around the end of the 6th/12th century.
  • 27 The city of Kalgūr, in the 6th/12th century, maybe then an independent territory, later part of the (...)

Among [the students of the Shāfiʿī imām Yaḥyā b. Abī al-Khayr (d. 558/1163)25 was] Ẓukī b. ʿAbd Allāh al-Ḥabashī. And among them Aḥmad b. Maṭrūḥ al-Ḥabashī,26 who learned al-farāʾid, read in fiqh and died in Dhī Ashraq, an accomplished student. He had considerable wealth. And with him learned fiqh among the people of Zaylaʿ (al-zayāliʿ), Mūsā b. Yūsuf, Abū al-Qāsim b. ʿAbd Allāh, Ibrāhīm b. Muḥammad b. al-Muṭṭanī, ʿAbd Allāh b. ʿAbduh, and Aḥmad al-Mazākibān, from the island of Maqdīsū in the land of Sūdān. And among them the faqīh Yūsuf b. ʿAbd Allāh al-Muzakkī, mudarris in Kaljūr,27 [a place] also in the land of Abyssinia (bilād al-Ḥabash). (Ibn Samura, Ṭabaqāt: 209-210).

42Students from Zaylaʿ were in this case explicitly mentioned as having followed Aḥmad b. Maṭrūḥ, perhaps a former slave, himself of Abyssinian origin, as indicated by his nisba. A group of scholars was formed around their fellow comrade from al-Ḥabasha, who sought to train with him, even though he never reached a prominent rank among scholars. This suggests that Aḥmad b. Maṭrūḥ played a role as an Abyssinian contact and scholarly broker for Abyssinian scholars migrating to Yemen. In the early 8th/14th century, the Banū al-Zaylaʿī of al-Salāma, starting with ʿAlī al-Zaylaʿī, may have held the same role, strengthened through ʿAlī’s position as a major figure of Ḥanafism in central Tihāma: one of the most prominent scholars to have studied with him was the Ḥanafī faqīh ʿAlī b. Nūḥ al-Zaylaʿī al-Ubawī (d. 751/1350-1351) (al-Khazrajī, ʿUqūd: ii, 597), known as Ibn Nūḥ, a close companion of ʿAlī al-Zaylaʿī’s son, ʿUmar (al-Janadī, Sulūk: ii, 591). At the end of the 9th/15th century, the account of his meeting with ʿAlī al-Zaylaʿī pointed to a particular relation between ʿAlī and Abyssinian scholars.

  • 28 The al-Ahmūl was a tribe of Southern Tihāma, located between the area of Mawzaʿ and Ḥays.

[Ibn Nūḥ] was arriving from the land of al-Ḥabasha on his way for the ḥajj to the house of God when he met on the road to the city [of Mecca] the faqīh al-Sirrāj al-Ḥamrānī [al-Hāmilī] with a group of people in al-Jabart. He arrived in Yemen in his company, and he went with him to his country al-Ḥamrāniyya, from the lands of the al-Ahmūl28, and he learned with him the Ḥanafī madhhab […]. After that he went toward the village of al-Salāma and he remained there for a time with ʿAlī al-Zaylaʿī […]. (Sharjī, Ṭabaqāt: 226).

43Such relations with Abyssinian scholars may have been maintained for some time: the main master of the Ḥanafī scholar ʿAbd Allāh al-Salāmī (d. after 838/1434-1435), a teacher in the masjid of the Banū al-Zaylaʿī, was al-Sarrāj al-Ḥanafī (n. d.), an Abyssinian scholar (al-Ahdal, Tuḥfat: i, 414).

44Abyssinian scholars in Yemen thus apparently sought out or integrated specific networks and mobilities, or at least had their riḥla to Yemen outlined by some scholars of reference either known in the Bilād al-Ḥabasha or who maintained active relations with Abyssinia. Al-Ahdal also underlined these distinctive mobilities for scholars originating in Abyssinia or the “western lands”, that is, with regards to Yemen, the Horn of Africa. Thus, referring to the Shāfiʿī scholar Aḥmad b. Zayd al-Shaghdarī (ca. second half of the 8th/14th century), from the region of al-Mikhlāfa, he explicitly indicated that his students came from “Zaylaʿ, al-Jabart and al-Maqdīshuh” (al-Ahdal, Tuḥfat: ii, 156). In the same way, when addressing the students of the great Sufi shaykh Ismāʿīl al-Jabartī, he states that it was known that many among those who came to study with Ismāʿīl al-Jabartī “were described as being from the A‛jām (waṣf al-ghurabā’ al-qādimīn ʿalay-hi min al-aʿjām)” (al-Ahdal, Tuḥfat: ii, 335).

45It is thus possible that a distinct knowledge of the Yemeni scholarly environment emanated from Abyssinia, and that specific scholars or families involved in scholarly activities were sought after and targeted by Abyssinians seeking to pursue their studies and career in Yemen. This, in return, may have implied continuous ties, and specialized intermediaries aware of expectations of people from both shores of the Red Sea and direct knowledge of the local context, illustrating the possible strong interconnections of the scholarly environments between the Bilād al-Ḥabasha and Yemen, especially in the 8th/14th and 9th/15th centuries.


46This article has underscored the fact that, although the Yemeni historiographical sources of the 6th-9th/12th-15th centuries were not quite forthcoming when it came to acknowledging scholarly relationships between Abyssinia and Yemen, they still highlighted important and continuous links during the period. In fact, Abyssinian scholars in Yemen seem to have been brought to the forefront of Yemeni history from about the middle of the 7th/13th century, when new narrative engagements appeared regarding Abyssinians who came to Yemen, lived and sometimes died there in the second half of the 7th/13th century and early 8th/14th century. References to many families with Abyssinian roots along with newcomers during the Rasūlid period illustrate the deeper involvement of Abyssinians in Yemen, especially at a time when Abyssinian eunuchs held influential roles in Rasūlid political, administrative hierarchies, and acted as sponsors of scholars and religious endowments (Moorthy Kloss, 2021). Such relations, if any, remains to be studied. By the time of al-Ahdal’s writings, in the first half of the 9th/15th century, Abyssinian ʿulamāʼ, both accomplished scholars and students, had become part of the every-day framework of the Yemeni scholarly environment, with the Yemeni corpus only referencing those considered among them as elites, in terms of their mastery of religious sciences and social standing. These families, fully integrated in their local environments, actively participated in shaping the Yemeni social and cultural context, and sometimes appeared as major protagonists of the Rasūlid period. Yet, by the mid-9th/15th century, in Lower Yemen and Tihāma, references to Abyssinia seemed to dwindle, pointing to a shift in the ties between the Yemeni and Abyssinian scholarly environments.

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This general, imperfect, and elusive chronology suggested by the Yemeni corpus is certainly no coincidence. For the 7th/13th century, it matches the difficulties of the Shawā sultanate, the rise of the sultanate of Awfāt, as well as the takeover of Yemen by the Rasūlids and subsequent consolidation of their rule in the second half of the 7th/13th century (Varisco, 1994). On-going social, economic and political dynamics may then have created opportunities for Abyssinians to engage with the Yemeni scholarly environment. The Abyssinian connection in Yemen experienced a heyday up until the first decades of the 9th/15th century, when the political and social framework in Lower Yemen and Tihāma were drastically transformed and these regions began to economically weaken and experience growing difficulties (Vallet, 2010: 653-672; Mochtari de Pierrepont, 2018: i, 64-67). References to both Abyssinians and Yemenis from Lower Yemen and Tihāma in Abyssina seem to disappear from the Yemeni corpus at this very period, precisely when other groups and families, mainly from Ḥaḍramawt, began to emerge as the driving force in shaping new connections with Abyssinia, in relation to the emergence of a new trade dynamics in the Red Sea and new scholarly mobilities (Martin, 1974; Serjeant, 1988; Vallet, 2010: 674). By then, prestigious and powerful Yemeni families of Abyssinian ancestry had deeply anchored themselves in the Yemeni scholarly environment and become an integral part of it, shaping the memory and symbolic reconstruction of the Rasūlid and Ṭāhirid scholarly elites.



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1 We use the term Abyssinia to translate the Arabic al-Ḥabasha, found in Arabic Medieval sources. The word was used as early as the 1st century. See Breyer, 2016.

2 An interpretative framework that even found an echo in the New Cambridge History of Islam, where the political struggles of the Najāḥids are considered as “Ethiopian invasions” (Landau-Tasserin, 2011: 428).

3 With the exclusion of Ḥaḍramawt, which, due to local social, cultural and political contexts, as well as the distinct Ḥaḍramī historiographical corpus, would deserve its own study.

4 Muḥammad ʿAbd al-Āl. (ʿAbd al-Āl, 1989, 438-443) and Muḥammad al-Fayfī (2005, 175-180) discussed in quite general terms the political relationships between Yemen and the Bilād al-Ḥabasha, as well as the dynamics of the slave trade. But they did not engage with the circulation among scholars between the two shores of the Red Sea. É. Vallet explored in some detail the main economic and political dynamics between the Bilād al-Ḥabasha and the Rasūlid sultanate. In several instances he mentioned “Abyssinian” scholars, without delving in this topic as such (Vallet, 2010, 400-423). B. G. Martin, in his article about Arab migrants to East Africa, addressed, mostly in general terms, various issues regarding travellers from Yemen to the Horn of Africa, focusing mainly on earlier periods (Late Antiquity, early Islamic period) as well as the Ottoman period. He did dedicate some reflections on the so-called late Medieval period, from the 9th/15th century onward, mainly focusing on Ḥaḍramī migrants and sayyids (Martin, 1974: 375-389), whose mobilities and diaspora have also been discussed by Serjeant, 1957 & 1988; Cerulli, 1971; Ho, 2006.

5 On this author, see Sayyid, 1974: 139-141; al-Ḥibshī, 1980: 121-122; Vallet, 2006: 50-53; Vallet, 2010: 66-67; Mochtari de Pierrepont, 2018: i, 86-88.

6 The Ḥanafī school of law was apparently the main maddhab in Muslim communities of the Bilād al-Ḥabasha, except apparently in the sultanate of Awfāt, whose school of thought was Shāfiʿīsm (al-Maqrīzī, Ilmām: 83; Cuoq, 1981: 146-147; Chekroun & Hirsch, 2020: 78). In the 7th/13th and early 8th/14th centuries, most early scholars from Abyssinia coming to study in Yemen seem to have attended the Ḥanafī school of law. It would be worth exploring whether Shāfiʿīsm only became the dominant madhhab in the sultanate of Awfāt during the 8th/14th and 9th/15th centuries, following in that respect a progressive change, parallel to what happened in most parts of the Yemeni Tihāma during the 7th-9th/13th-15th centuries (See Halm, 1974: 270-273; Sayyid, 1998: 56-59; Mochtari de Pierrepont, 2018: i, 535-542).

7 In this article, for the name Walasmāʿ, we follow the spelling given in the Rasūlid administrative archive al-Nūr al-Maʿārif edited by Muḥammad Jāzim in 2003 (Nūr al-Maʿārīf, i, 359), as this source dates back from the second half of the 7th/13th century, and because scribes of the Rasūlid administration were in direct contact with the system of exchange between al-Ḥabasha and Yemen. This spelling was not always followed: al-Maqrīzī spells the dynasty’s name Walasmaʿ in the Rasāʾīl edited in 1998 by A. Qāsim and R. al-Badrī (al-Maqrīzī, Rasāʾīl, 236). In the poor edition of the Kitāb al-Ilmām by ʿA. ʿAbd al-Naʿīm, the spelling lashamaʿ appears (al-Maqrīzī, Ilmām, 86). This is a mistake of the editor, who also deleted or missed an important part of this section of the text. In the manuscript of the Kitāb al-Ilmām kept at the University library of Leiden, al-Maqrīzī writes walasmaʿ (MS OR. 560, fols. 98b-99a). It is hoped that in the framework of the Bibliotheca Maqriziana, the forthcoming edition and translation of this major work for the study of Late Medieval Abyssinia will soon be available. I thank Frédéric Bauden (University of Liège) for his remarks regarding the Leiden manuscript and the on-going editorial process of the Kitāb al-Ilmām, as well as for providing me with a copy of relevant parts of the MS Or. 560, kept at Leiden University Library.

8 “Al-Zayla‛ī” is indeed always mentioned as a laqab in al-Janadī’s Sulūk (ii, XXX).

9 Abū Bakr b. Adam b. Ibrāhīm al-Zaylaʿī (d. 676/1277), for a time head of the muftī-s in the city, was a central figure of the scholarly environment of Taez, the Rasūlid capital.

10 Also quoted in Vallet, 2010, 139. This statement should be taken with some caution: the mention of the shaykh Badr al-Dīn Ḥasan b. ʿAlī b. Saʿd al-Ḥabashī in the second half of the 7th/13th century illustrates that all characters with such a nisba were not slaves (Ibn Ḥātim, Simṭ: 408). H. Erlich, in his notice of the Encyclopaedia of Islam, on the term “Jabarti”, mentions that this nisba was used for Muslims, to distinguish between “Christian and Muslim Ethiopians”. As far as the Yemeni historiographical corpus from the 7th-9th/13th-15th centuries is concerned, it seems that the use of the term is not mentioned with this specific meaning (Erlich, 2021).

11 An earlier reference to the nisba al-Jabartī may be found in Ibn Ḥātim’s chronicle, about an envoy of the sultan al-Muẓaffar Yūsuf, Rayḥān al-Jabartī (Ibn Ḥātim, Simṭ, 267). The name Rayḥān, usually given to slaves, shows that at least in the late 7th/13th century, the nisba al-Jabartī may also have been used for slaves or former slaves from Abyssinia.

12 This census considers all mentions in the texts, not only regarding the scholars. As such, mentions of the Banū Najāḥ, sometimes called al-Ḥabashī in the text, are also included in this census, although they are only a small part of the general number. Al-Ahdal’s census must also be understood in the continuation of al-Janadī, as many characters included in his work, up to the early 8th/14th century, were already mentioned by al-Janadī. The continuous growth of references in relation to the Bilād al-Ḥabasha or Abyssinian-related scholars therefore appears in the differences between al-Janadī and al-Ahdal.

13 Abū Bakr b. ʿĪsā al-Ashʿarī, known as Ibn Ḥankās (d. 664/1266), head of the Ḥanafī madhhab in Zabīd, was a major figure in the scholarly environment of Yemen during the 7th/13th century. He is said to have played a decisive role in the survival of the Ḥanafī madhhab in central Tihāma, gradually overcome by the Shāfiʿī madhhab during the Rasūlid period (Mochtari de Pierrepont, 2018, i, 535-542).

14 The festival of ṣabt al-ṣubūt was celebrated at the end of the palm tree harvest season, on the shores of Tihāma, near Zabīd. It was frowned upon by many scholars, due to the promiscuity of men and women, excessive feasts, and drinking. On the festival of ṣabt al-ṣubūt, see Varisco, 1994: 157-158; Vallet, 2010, 387-388.

15 Al-Sharjī later proposed a more florid narrative regarding these events (al-Sharjī, Ṭabaqāt: 79), partially translated by Vallet (Vallet, 2010: 419). On Bayt al-Faqīh and the Banū ʿUjayl, the family of Aḥmad b. Abī Bakr and one of the most prominent of Tihāma, see Mochtari de Pierrepont, 2014a.

16 Yet, some decades later, Ḥaḍramī-s migrations and networks seem to expand in the Bilād al-Ḥabasha (Martin, 1974: 376-377; Vallet, 2010: 674)

17 Yet, al-Ahdal, in his Tuḥfat, specifically dedicates a few lines to “those [among the Abyssinians] who returned to their country”, such as the Dankalī Ismā‛īl al-Mukadī and his sons, in the second half of the 7th/13th century and early 8th/14th century. Ismā‛īl al-Mukadī apparently introduced in the Danākil’s territories the teachings of the great Yemeni Sufi shaykh Abū al-Ghayth b. Jamīl (d. 651/1253) (al-Ahdal, Tuḥfat, i, 404-405). The spelling al-Mukadī is stated by al-Ahdal. On Abū al-Ghayth and the ṭarīqa al-Ghaythiyya, see Mochtari de Pierrepont, 2018: i, 397-426.

18 According to Taqī al-Dīn al-Fāsī, supposedly quoting ʿAlī al-Zaylaʿī himself, the Banū al-Zaylaʿī were initially a family of small landowner of al-Salāma and Ḥays. Yet, they may have become wealthier through playing on cereals price’ signals, which rose considerably during ʿAlī’s times.

19 On this political figure with its important patronage activities, see Sadek, “Rasūlid Women”, 1989, 123.

20 I could not find the text mentioned by al-Sharjī, if it exists, in al-Yāfiʿī’s writings.

21 The status of this site changes between the 7th/13th century. While Ḥays is considered as the chief-place (umm al-qurā) of the area in the early 8th/14th century (al-Janadī, Sulūk, ii, 384), it is referred as a city (madīna) in 9th/15th century historiographical texts (al-Sharjī, Ṭabaqāt, 48, 325; al-Burayhī, Ṭabaqāt, 285). Already in the 6th/12th century, it was the main local seat of political authority, and a qāḍī oversaw the administration of justice there (Ibn Samura, Ṭabaqāt, 244-245; al-Janadī, Sulūk, i, 409).

22 Such family ties were claimed by al-Sharjī at the end of the 9th/15th century: ‛Alī and ‛Umar would have been cousins. This statement is reproduced in Gori, 1998. Yet, no sources before al-Sharjī makes such a claim, whereas both holy men are mentioned as early as the beginning of the 8th/14th century. It is more likely that the Banū al-Zaylaʿī of al-Salāma later claimed a common lineage with those of al-Luḥayya, as by the end of the 9th/15th century, the ṣāḥib-s of al-Luḥayya were among the most powerful men of the Wādī Mawr and wielded considerable influence over Northern Tihāma (Mochtari de Pierrepont, 2018: i, 491-492).

23 Al-Sharjī relates in his Ṭabaqāt al-khawāṣṣ that Ismāʿīl al-Jabartī’s nisba may have derived from his master ʿAlī b. Mūsā al-Ğabartī (d. 791/1389). This point regarding Ismāʿīl al-Jabartī’s life might be a later rewriting: it is not mentioned in previous historiographical narratives. Al-Khazrajī, the first known Yemeni historiographer to write a biographical notice of Ismāʿīl al-Jabartī in the ʿIqd al-fākhir, does not mention any scholar with the nisba al-Jabartī among Ismāʿīl al-Jabartī’s masters or companions, nor does al-Ḥusayn al-Ahdal in his Ṭuḥfat al-zaman. Yet, both these authors had the opportunity to meet him and were aware of the scholarly environment of Tihāma during al-Jabartī’s time. Al-Sharjī’s claim also contradicts both the Yemeni custom –mentioned above– related by al-Janadī and al-Ahdal regarding the attribution of such a nisba to people from the Bilād al-Ḥabasha, well-illustrated by many examples of Yemeni scholars bearing this nisba, all of whom were said to have some roots in the Bilād al-Ḥabasha.

24 This family had no ties with the Banū al-Jabartī of Zabīd.

25 About this individual, see Ibn Samura, Ṭabaqāt: 174-179; al-Janadī, Sulūk: i, 294-300; al-Subkī, Ṭabaqāt: vii, 336-338.

26 No dates are given regarding this person. He may have died around the end of the 6th/12th century.

27 The city of Kalgūr, in the 6th/12th century, maybe then an independent territory, later part of the sultanate of Shawā, is mentioned by Cerulli, 1941: 14. Ibn Samura’s mention of Kaljūr illustrates that the reference to the city found in Ibn ʿAbd al-Ẓāhir (620-692/1223-1293), was not the “earliest mention of Kaljūr in Arabic sources” (Vallet, 2010: 410): reference to this city predated Ibn ʿAbd al-Ẓāhir by at least a century. See also Cuoq, 1981: 125.

28 The al-Ahmūl was a tribe of Southern Tihāma, located between the area of Mawzaʿ and Ḥays.

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Zacharie Mochtari de Pierrepont, « The Abyssinian connection? »Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée, 153 | 2023, 153-178.

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Zacharie Mochtari de Pierrepont, « The Abyssinian connection? »Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée [En ligne], 153 | 2023, mis en ligne le 07 juillet 2023, consulté le 29 septembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Zacharie Mochtari de Pierrepont

Université de Liège, Liège, Belgique ; zde.pierrepont[at]

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