Caliph of the Gurkani Sultanate
Screenshot 10
Caliph al-Mu'tawakkil Yahya Sharif ad-Din
since 1523

The Imams of Yemen and later the Gurkani Caliphs are religiously consecrated leaders belonging to the Zaidiyyah branch of Shia Islam. They established a blend of religious and secular rule in parts of Yemen from 897. Their imamate endured under varying circumstances until the Abbasid invasion following which they fled to the Gurkani Sultanate in 1448 and were appointed as Caliphs by the then Gurakni Sultan, Zeeshan Beg Mirza. Zaidiyyah theology differed from Sevener or Twelver Shi'ites by stressing the presence of an active and visible imam as leader. The imam was expected to be knowledgeable in religious scholarship, and to prove himself a worthy headman of the community, even in battle if this was necessary.



The imams based their legitimacy on descent from the Prophet Muhammad, mostly via al-Qasim ar-Rassi (d. 860). After him, the medieval imams are sometimes known as Rassids. The first of the ruling line, his grandson al-Hadi ila'l-Haqq Yahya, was born in Medina. His fame as an intellectual as well as a leader of note, led to his invitation to Yemen. He was summoned to govern the highland tribes in 893 and again in 896–97. Al-Hadi introduced a multiude of policies and practices that evolved into the particular Yemenite Zaidiyyah brand. The efforts of al-Hadi eventually became the basic guidelines for the religious as well as political characteristics of Yemeni Zaydism. Al-Hadi, however, was not able to consolidate his rule in all of Yemen. He could not even create an enduring state in the highlands, due to the strong localism persisting in the region. There were revolts as well as segments of the population that did not accept his and his successors' pretensions to religio-political rule.

Although he did not succeed in establishing any permanent administrative infrastructure, al-Hadi's descendants, and other Alid clans who arrived in his company, became the local aristocracy of the northern highlands. It is from among them that the imams of Yemen were selected for the next one thousand years. The imams were usually chosen from the offspring of al-Qasim ar-Rassi and more specifically of al-Hadi, but on at least eight occasions they were picked from other lines descending from the Prophet's grandsons Hasan and Husain.

Yemen throughout most of that period was only rarely a unified political entity; in fact, what was included within its frontiers varied widely, and it has not been governed consistently or uniformly by any single set of rulers except for brief periods. It existed as a part of a number of different political systems/ruling dynasties between the ninth and sixteenth centuries, after which it became a part of the Abbasid Caliphate. 

Rivalries with other dynastiesEdit

After Imam al-Hadi's death in 911, his sons took over the imamate in turn, although it was not hereditary but rather elective among the descendants of Muhammad. From the 11th to the early 17th centuries, however, the imams were usually not chosen from the sons of the former imam, but the title rather circulated among the various Rassid branches. Meanwhile, a multitude of smaller dynasties and families established themselves in the highlands, as well as in Tihama (the low coastal plain) where the imams rarely gained influence. Among the better known of these are the Yu'firids (847–997), the Najahids (1021–1158), the Sulayhids (1047–1138), the Zuray'ids (1080–1174), and the Hatimids (1098–1174). It was during this period, when the Fatimid state was influential, that a portion of the population was converted to Ismailism.

Beginning with the conquest of Yemen by the family of Salah ad-Din ibn Ayyub (Saladin) in 1174, a series of dynasties exercised a modicum of control and administration in Yemen for roughly the next 400 years; these are, in chronological sequence, the Ayyubids, from 1174 to 1229; the Rasulids, from 1229 to 1434; and the Abbasids, from 1433 to present, when the Abbasid Caliphate took the Yemeni Tihama.

During most of this period, the dynasties and their rulers were primarily engaged in familial, regional, and occasionally sectarian disputes. Ironically, the Sunni Rasulids, who eventually concentrated their rule in southern Yemen for precisely that reason, were the dynasty under which the region experienced the greatest economic growth and political stability.

For part of the medieval era the Zaydiyyah imams were eclipsed by the lowland dynasties, and for long periods there would be no imam at all (especially in 1066–1138 and 1171–1187). From the end of the thirteenth century the political fortunes of the Zaydiyya imams revived somewhat. They were able to hold their own against the Rasulids and Tahirids and sometimes expand their territory. Often however, and especially after 1436, the imamate was split between several contenders.

Comparatively little is known about the medieval Zaydi imams and their efforts to establish themselves and develop some form of administration (including tax collection), or their success in promoting Zaydi goals during this period. From the available evidence, there was very little continuity and a great deal of competition among the Zaydi families and clans. The Abbasids would later conquer Yemen in 1433 and subjugate the Zaidis to the Sunni Abbasid Caliphate, stripping the Zaidi Imams of their title and position. The persecution and mistreatment of the Yemeni Zaidis would continue until 1448 when the former Zaidi Imam, Al Mansur An Nasir would be invited to the Gurkani Sultanate at the behest of the Sultan, Zeeshan Beg Mirza. Only a year later, under massive pressure from the clergy, Al Mansur would be elevated to the position of Caliph by Sultan Zeeshan. This would effectively lead to the appointment of Shi'ite as a Caliph for the first time in over 250 years. 

Caliphs of the Gurkani SultanateEdit

# Name
(Born – Died)
Portrait Reign Ethnicity Remarks
Years Appointed by
1 al-Mansur an-Nasir
(1392 - 1468)
Screenshot 5
1449 - 1468
19 years
Zeeshan Yemeni Arab Elevated to the position of Caliph
2 al-Mu'ayyad Muhammad
(1442 - 1503)
Screenshot 4
1468 - 1503
35 years
3 al-Mansur Muhammad
(1464 - 1504)
Screenshot 6
1503 - 1504
1 year
4 an-Nasir al-Hassan
(1486 - 1523)
Screenshot 2
1504 - 1523
19 years
5 al-Mu'tawakkil Yahya Sharif ad-Din
(1506 - 1555)
Screenshot 10
1523 - 1555
? years