Rasulid dynasty

Coin of the Rasulids, Aden, Yemen, 1335.

The Rasulids (Arabic: بنو رسول, Banū Rasūl) were a Sunni[1] Muslim dynasty that ruled Yemen from 1229 to 1454.

The Rasulids descended from the eponymous Rasul (his real name is Muhammad ibn Harun), a Turkmen Oghuz chief.[1] Later, they assumed an Arab lineage, claiming descent from the ancient Arabian tribe of the Ghassanids, claiming that their ancestors moved from Arabia to live among the Turks.[1] Rasul came to Yemen around 1180 while serving as a messenger for an Abbasid caliph. His son Ali (d. 1217) was governor of Mecca for a time, and his grandson Umar bin Ali was the first sultan of the Rasulid dynasty.

Rasūl is Arabic for messenger (although in this context it does not carry the Islamic prophet significance); during their reign, however, the Rasulids claimed to be descendants of the legendary patriarch Qahtan.

The founding of the dynasty

The Kurdish Ayyubids had held power in most of Yemen since 1173. The last of the line, al-Malik al-Mas'ud, left Yemen for Syria in 1229 and entrusted governance to an ambitious member of his own mercenary force. This was Umar bin Ali who nominally acknowledged the Ayyubids of Egypt during his first years in power. However, he proclaimed himself ruler in his own right in 1235 after receiving a diploma of recognition from the Abbasid caliph al-Mustansir. As sultan he was called al-Malik al-Mansur I. The regime was in a certain sense a direct continuation of Ayyubid rule, with power based on the control of military forces and Abbasid approval, rather than acquiescence from the local population. The coastal capital was established in Zabid. However, al-Malik al-Muzaffar fell victim to internal intrigues in 1249 when his own guards assassinated him at the instigation of his ambitious nephew Asad ad-Din. The throne was taken over by his son al-Malik al-Muzaffar Yusuf I (1249-1295), under whom the Yemeni kingdom reached its apogee. The new sultan confirmed Rasulid rule over the Tihama lowland and the southern highlands. San'a, one of the traditional centres of the Zaydiyya imams, was temporarily occupied, and the imams were defeated on several occasions. The cool mountainous city Ta'izz became the base of the dynasty together with Zabid.[2] After the fall of Baghdad to the Mongols, al-Malik al-Muzaffar Yusuf appropriated the title of caliph.

State and economy

The Rasulid era is often considered one of the most brilliant in the history of Yemen. While the history of this region has usually been characterized by deep political and religious divisions, the extent of territory that the Rasulids ruled would not be superseded until (briefly) in the seventeenth century. The southern coast of Arabia up to Dhofar was kept under loose control. Rasulid influence stretched as far as Zafan near Salalah in Oman where a side-branch of the family governed for a while.[3] While Hijaz fell under the Mamluk sultans of Egypt, the Rasulids temporarily held control over the holy city of Mecca, accordingly raising their own prestige. The Rasulid state was comparatively centralized and kept an extensive bureaucratic apparatus to oversee the collection of taxes and other needs of the state. In every larger city, two royal officials were placed called wali (or amir) and nasir (or zimam or mushidd).[4] A considerable concern with the prosperity of the peasantry can be gleaned from the chronicles. Thus sultan al-Mujahid Ali (r. 1322-1363) based taxes on the average of production over several years, and deduced the grain to be sown as seed from the taxable produce.[5] While the state model was taken from the Ayyubid state in Egypt, the Rasulids were more oriented towards trade. The sultans drew much of their income from taxes and customs revenues from the ports. Especially Aden was important as a port where ships going between the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean stopped. Textiles, perfume and spices came from India, Southeast Asia and China, while slaves, ivory and pepper were brought from Africa.[6] Among the more important Yemeni items for export were horses and agricultural crops. Jewish merchants could be found in the main ports as well as Indians, Africans and Egyptians. In his travel account, Marco Polo mentions the sultan of Aden (Yemen) in the late thirteenth century: "In his kingdom there are many towns and castles, and it has the advantage of an excellent port, frequented by ships from India arriving with spices and drugs... The sultan of Aden possesses immense treasures, arising from the imposts he lays, as well upon the merchandise that comes from India, as upon that which is shipped in his port as the returning cargo".[7]

Cultural achievements

Several Rasulid sultans were culturally prominent, being men of letters who wrote literature and even treatises. Thus al-Afdal Abbas (r. 1363-1377) wrote an extensive compendium with passages about matters of practical utility, intellectual interest and entertainment, Fusul majmua fi'l-anwa' wa 'l-zuru' wa 'l-hisad. His son al-Ashraf Isma'il (r. 1377-1401) authored a general history of Yemen. Most of the rulers built mosques and madrasas, embellishing Ta'izz and other cities with fine buildings. Among the most well-known monuments are Jami al-Muzaffar from the thirteenth century and Ashrafiyya from the fourteenth century, both in Ta'izz. These monuments were inspired by models from places like Egypt and Syria and broke with the older Yemeni style of architecture. Coins were struck by all the sultans in the period c. 1236-1438. There were mints in several cities and the coins were characterized by symbols for each mint: fish for Aden, bird for Zabid, sitting man for Ta'izz, and lion for al-Mahjam.[8]

The fall of the Rasulids

At length, however, they were unable to uphold the flourishing state constructed in the thirteenth century. A series of Zaidi imams managed to regain ground in the Yemeni highlands from the end of the thirteenth century, and the sultans were unable to score a decisive military success against them. The Zaidi forces took over San'a in 1324. The Mamluk sultans tended to increase their influence in Hijaz and the holy cities. In 1350 the Rasulid sultan al-Mujahid Ali was captured by Egyptians and Meccans when he went on a pilgrimage, and was held prisoner in Egypt for a year. Sultan an-Nasir Ahmad (r. 1401-1424) was able to revive the dynasty's declining fortunes and even received gifts from distant China. After his death in 1424 the dynasty fell into a period of upheaval and weakness, aggravated by the outbreak of the plague. Merchants from the east tended to bypass Aden due to the exactions and uncertainties there, going directly to Jedda in Hizaj in the Mamluk sphere of power.[9] Unlike the previous pattern, when power struggles were only fought between the Rasulids themselves, various magnates interfered in the disputes during the last sultans. The most important of these magnates was the Tahir clan who ruled Juban and al-Miqranah. A rebellion among the sultan's slave soldiers deprived the last claimant of any means to assert his position, after 1442.[10] Lahij fell to the Tahir clan in 1443, followed by Aden in 1454. In the same year the last Rasulid sultan al-Mas'ud Abu al-Qasim gave up his throne in favour of az-Zafir Amir bin Tahir and withdrew to Mecca. The new ruling clan governed Yemen from 1454-1517 as the Tahirid dynasty.

List of Rasulid sultans

Name Reign
al-Mansur Umar I (ar) 12291249
al-Muzaffar Yusuf I (ar) 12491295
al-Ashraf Umar II (ar) 12951296
al-Mu'ayyad Da'ud 12961322
al-Mujahid Ali 13221363
al-Afdal al-Abbas 13631377
al-Ashraf Isma'il I 13771400
an-Nasir Ahmad 14001424
al-Mansur Abdullah 14241427
al-Ashraf Isma'il II 14271428
az-Zahir Yahya 14281439
al-Ashraf Isma'il III 14391441
al-Muzaffar Yusuf II 14411454
al-Afdal Muhammad 1442
an-Nasir Ahmad 1442
al-Mu'ayyad Husayn 14511454
al-Mas'ud Abu al-Qasim 14431454

See also


  1. 1 2 3 Smith 1995, p. 455.
  2. Daniel Martin Varisco, http://www.persee.fr/web/revues/home/prescript/article/remmm_0997-1327_1993_num_67_1_1584
  3. Smith 1995, p. 456.
  4. Encyklopädie des Islam, Vol, III, Leiden 1936, p. 1219.
  5. Robert W. Stookey, Yemen: The politics of the Yemen Arab Republic, Boulder 1978, p. 113.
  6. Smith 1995, p. 457.
  7. Daniel Martin Varisco, http://www.persee.fr/web/revues/home/prescript/article/remmm_0997-1327_1993_num_67_1_1584
  8. Smith 1995, pp. 456–457.
  9. P. M. Holt et al., Cambridge History of Islam, Vol. 1A, Cambridge 1978, pp. 224-5.
  10. Robert W. Stookey, Yemen: The politics of the Yemen Arab Republic, Boulder 1978, pp. 123-4.


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