The history and origins of the Zaydiyya as another major Shiʿi Muslim community has to be studied along with other branches of this sect of Islam which were discussed in the pervious posts. The general influence and geographical distribution of the Zaydiyya branch of Shiʿi Islam, named after their fourth imam, Zayd b. ʿAli Zayn al-ʿAbidin (d. 122/740), have been relatively more restricted compared with the Twelver and Ismaili Shiʿis. In fact, after some initial success in Iraq, the Zaydi Shiʿi imamate remained mainly confined to the Caspian region in northern Persia, and then, more importantly, to Yaman where the history and origins of Zaydiyya started to shape and where they have continued to live to the present . However, Zaydi activities were more widespread in the Islamic lands. Currently, the total Zaydi population of the world, concentrated in northern Yaman, numbers between 5 and 10 million. The Zaydis have always emphasised the significance of religious education, especially as one of the
main qualifications of their imams and jurists. Consequently, they have produced an impressive volume of religious literature over the centuries, which remains largely unpublished.1 Indeed, it is estimated that currently there is in existence, in numerous private collections in Yaman, some 100,000 Zaydi manuscripts, many of which remain unknown to the scholarly world.
Two main revolts play a significant role in the history and origins of Zaydiyya branch of Shiism: Zayd b. ʿAli Zayn al-ʿAbidin’s revolt against Umayyad rule which was was brutally suppressed in Kufa and Zayd was killed.
The second Zaydi movement that would eventually crystallise as the Zaydiyya branch of Shiʿism developed out of Zayd’s revolt. The movement was initially led by Zayd’s eldest son, Yahya, who had participated in his father’s revolt. He escaped from Kufa to Khurasan and concentrated his activities in that eastern region remote from the centre of Umayyad administration. However, after three years
of futile efforts, Yahya was overcome by the troops of Nasr b. Sayyar, the Umayyad governor of Khurasan, and was killed in a battle. Subsequently, the early Zaydis were led by Muhammad b. ʿAbd Allah b. al-Hasan al-Muthanna, known as al-Nafs al-Zakiyya (d. 145/762), Yahya b. Zayd’s younger brother ʿIsa b. Zayd (d. 166/783) and then by Ahmad b. ʿIsa b. Zayd (d. 247/861), along with others recognised as their imams.
By the middle of the 3rd/9th century, however, the Zaydis confined their rebellious activities to the remote mountainous regions of Daylam, in northern Persia, and to Yaman, removed from the reach of the centres of Abbasid power and administration in Iraq.
Taken from: A History of Shiʿi Islam
By: Farhad Daftary