by Mohammed Almahfali
The structure, form, and content of Houthi discourse can be traced back to the Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna, and his impact on the founder of the Houthi movement.
Generally speaking, the Houthis are one of the Shia groups to emerge in recent decades and present themselves as an alternative to Sunni political Islam,  drawing on different political and religious narratives. This has become evident since the rise of the Houthis in 2011, when they began their military expansion with a battle against the Salafists in Dammaj, Saada, and since October 2013 with their advance towards Yemen’s capital, Sana’a. Publically, they claimed that their war was to eliminate al-Islah, the largest religio-political party in Yemen and part of the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as to eliminate al-Qaeda, which has maintained strongholds in several regions of Yemen since the 1980s. In addition, the Houthis have employed the Islamic State (IS) in their discourse, to which a number of al-Qaeda formations declared their allegiance after its appearance in Iraq and Syria. The Houthi insurgency, as part of Yemen’s civil war, thus appeared as if it was a Sunni-Shia sectarian war between takfirieen, as the Houthis call various Sunni groups, and al-rawafidh, as some Sunni groups call the Houthis.
The Houthis call Sunni groups opposed to them takfirieen (“the takfiris” or “excommunicators”), in an attempt to distinguish themselves from these groups and portray themselves as more inclusive. Nevertheless, both the Houthis on the one hand, and al-Qaeda and Islah on the other, belong to what is called “political Islam.” All three groups aim to establish an Islamic state or seek a state based on an Islamic ideology, regardless of their different perspectives on the nature of the state— whether al-welaiah (Loyalty to Ahl al-Bayt) or the caliphate— as well as on the methodologies to achieve their visions. As Nasr Hamid Abu Zeid stated, this differentiates them only in degree, not in type.
No matter how they define themselves, the Islamic sects do not differ much in basic principles, and the structure of their discourses reveal these commonalities. Moreover, the similarities between the Houthis and Sunni political movements, especially the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda, go beyond these basic commonalities. The structure, form, and content of Houthi discourse can be traced back to the Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna, and his impact on the founder of the Houthi movement, Hussein Badr al-Din al-Houthi.
In this article, I seek to elucidate the influence of al-Banna on al-Houthi by examining al-Houthi’s Malazim  (lectures) and comparing them to the ideas and visions of al-Banna, as shown in Rasa’il Hassan al-Banna (Messages of Hassan al-Banna). In doing so, I clarify the essential role of these ideas in structuring the discourse and ideology of the Houthi movement.
The conflict in Yemen has been described as a proxy war and an extension of a sectarian conflict that goes beyond Yemen’s borders and demographic composition as well. According to the latest estimates, this war has left over a hundred thousand people dead, four million displaced, and twenty-four million in dire need of humanitarian assistance. The political and economic dimensions, in addition to the regional and the international overlaps in this conflict, cannot be denied, while the sectarian divide clearly provides moral justification for both parties. Nevertheless, while it seems at the outset that there is a radical division, a deep analysis of the literature conflict shows a fundamental convergence in the principles and ideological premises of the Houthis and the Muslim Brotherhood, the two main intellectual actors in the war.
This paper begins from the assumption that the discourses of Hassan al-Banna and Hussein al-Houthi are primarily religious while acknowledging the development and adaptation of many other political concepts and ideas within them. Of course, this does not deny the differences in these texts, as there are evident contrasts between the two styles in terms of methods, language, and content. Al-Banna’s messages adhere more to the classical Arabic language and the interconnectedness of ideas, quotations, and sequence, while al-Houthi’s lectures have a more improvisational character in terms of lack of sequence, an abundance of colloquial words, and other defects that often accompany direct oral lessons.
In his book, Criticism of Religious Discourse, Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd approaches religious discourse as one, denying that there is a distinct extremist and moderate discourse, as “The difference between these two types of discourse is one of degree not of type, and the evidence for this is that the researcher does not find a difference or change in terms of intellectual principles or mechanisms. The congruence is evident in the reliance of the two styles on religious discourse in general, basic elements that are not subject to discussion, dialogue, or compromise.”
This paper analyzes the structure of the religious discourse to reveal this unified structure, which creates awareness of the details of its processes and future consequences.
As Zayd emphasizes, the two sides rely on unnegotiable basic elements, the most important of which are the texts and form of governance. The two discourses are identical in terms of the mechanisms on which both depend. These mechanisms unify thought and religion, abolish the distance between the subject and the object, and interpret all phenomena by returning them to the first principle, which is divine governance as an alternative to human governance. This relies on the authority of heritage and the transforming of secondary texts such as the contributions of theologians, into foundational texts such as the Quran that have the same holiness as the original texts. The discourses also serve to assert intellectual decisiveness and cancel the historical dimension. I argue that despite the appearance of conflict between the two discourses and the difference in final goals, both use the same strategy and foundations of reference. Despite the Sunnis background of al-Banna and the Shia background of al-Houthi, they are both produced within the framework of political Islam, in which intellectual, ideological, and theological principles gather to establish specific concepts that determine the shape of power and its relationship with people. 
The lectures of Hussein al-Houthi are one of the most important pillars of the Houthi movement’s discourse, despite criticism that they are full of intellectual, cognitive, and linguistic errors, appearing somewhat like a “folk interpretation of the Qur’an” with some saying that they cannot be included as a field of Arabic and Islamic knowledge. Those lectures do not consider the importance of linguistic structure, form, or semantics, nor its historical  and social contexts. The discourse projects onto the political reality through ideological preconceptions. Nevertheless, the lectures are of great importance at the internal level of the movement in terms of recruiting and directing its followers and giving the ideological foundation to its members.
The Malazim is a group of lectures written on paper that includes several improvised oral lessons conducted by Hussein al-Houthi between the years 1998 and 2004, containing the foundational thought of the movement. The lectures also contain descriptions and evaluations of local, regional, and international events, which clarify the central points and reflect the movement’s orientations. The lectures show the roots of the movement’s discourse, how it was formed, and what influences led to its existence.
The messages of Hassan al-Banna, who is known in the literature of the Muslim Brotherhood as the “martyr imam”, are the foundation of the Muslim Brotherhood ideology and still influence the movement’s approach and thought. There are more than twenty messages collected in “The Messages of Hassan al-Banna”, which cover different topics at different times and occasions, containing religious, political, economic, and organizational views. One of these messages includes twenty principles to which the Muslim Brotherhood grant special attention in terms of explaining, teaching, and adherence. By analyzing “the Messages” and “the Malazim”, it is possible to perceive the ideological convergence between the discourse of al-Houthi and al-Banna, starting from defining the group identity, to diagnosing the existing conditions, to visions and perceptions of the future.
Because it is difficult to separate the mechanisms of discourse from its intellectual premises, I start by analyzing the similarities between the two discourses from another angle, which is defining the function of the discourse, i.e. exploring the purpose that this discourse fulfills by uncovering the context in which it was produced.
Creation of Political Identity
The basic strategy of the religio-political discourse begins with the identification and creation of a political identity. In other words, the determination of the political identity is an essential part of the function of the discourse in political Islam, which frames the ummah as the main reference point and rejects national and other identities. This can be seen clearly in the discourses of al-Banna and al-Houthi.
Hasan al-Banna said: “The Islamic ummah is one because the brotherhood on which Islam has united hearts is one of the faith foundations. The faith is not completed without it, and it is only achieved by its presence” (Messages, 248). Throughout his discourse, he uses the ummah as a basic condition for defining the identities of both the in-group and the out-group. We find the same in the Malazim; for example, in one of the lectures entitled “Who are we and who they are”, which defines Muslims (and Arabs) as “we” and infidels/Jews as “they”. The ummah is referred to throughout the text as the key social and political identity for all to adhere to: “We are ummah if we rise, If they will be loyal to us, if they are with us, we have a great book in our hands, and we have a great religion that we may constitute a danger to their civilization” (Lecture: who we are and who they are).
In both discourses, the ummah aims to achieve the greater goal, which is control of the world. According to al-Banna’s messages, the ummah must be “guardians of immature humanity, and this gives them the right to dominate and rule over the world to serve this noble guardianship and this is our mission, not the West’s mission” (Messages, 26). Likewise, Hussein al-Houthi said “This ummah was required to be the one who roamed the seas, length, and width, so that it would stand on the coasts of Europe and the coasts of America” (Lecture: terrorism and Islam). In both cases, the concept of the ummah is not bounded by specific geographical, ethnic, or cultural frameworks, but rather concerns every Muslim in the world, who should rightly be under their leadership.
The two discourses begin by diagnosing the situation of the ummah, considering it to be mired in weakness, humiliation, and an inability to act. While the diagnoses of the situation may be similar, the causes identified by the two ideologues differ, some of which date back in history. According to al-Houthi, one of the reasons for the deviation of the ummah from its true path is its lack of loyalty to Ali bin Abi Talib. Al-Banna remains more in the present, discussing the material causes of the ummah’s decline, particularly in behavioral and moral deviation.
Based on this unified identity of the ummah, the principle of membership becomes based on the values of belonging to Islam while rejecting all other identities, whether national, local, or ethnic. The two discourses reject nationalism or patriotism as the greatest danger that threatens the global ummah. In the words of al-Banna: “The Muslim Brotherhood does not believe in nationalism in these meanings or in its equivalents, we do not say Pharaonic, Arab, Phoenician, Assyrian, nor any of these titles and names that people squabble with.” He explains the difference between the Brotherhood and those who oppose them regarding the concept of patriotism, saying: “The difference between us is that we consider the limits of patriotism by faith, while they consider the territorial and geographical borders” (Messages, 16). Al-Houthi describes nationalities as pulling the Muslim homelands back to their pre-Islamic history: “In Yemen, they pull the Yemenis back to the Sabian and Hamiri history, this makes them sanctify and honor the remains of the pillars in Marib from the monuments of a particular state or the monuments of the state of Sheba in Ma’rib, in al-Jawf, or elsewhere, saying that this is our history, and we were the owners of a civilization, and we were … and we were …. and Islamic history had no trace! Where did this happen?” (Lecture: Terrorism and Islam)
Here, the two discourses align in attempting to consolidate the concept of the ummah in place of national citizenship, rejecting all other components of identity from race, history, culture, and modern nation-states. Instead, they try to reach the widest possible group of people and restore a single Islamic state that represents one vision and one goal.
Diagnosis of Existing Conditions
The second function of the discourse, which is linked also to the creation of political identity, represents the diagnosis of existing conditions. The two discourses coincide in the diagnostic stage, before determining possible solutions.
The two discourses describe the precise form of the ummah’s weakness as a state of humiliation which, according to al-Banna, derives from “the weakness of souls. If the ummah gets used to bliss and extravagance and drowns in material life and is fascinated by the joys of this worldly life, and forgot to endure adversity and how to face the difficulties and struggle in the way of truth, then say goodbye to her pride and hopes” (Messages, 36). Hussein al-Houthi uses similar words: “The ummah – now – is submissive, ignorant, and torn. This ummah, which is made up of thousands of human groups of poor people who do not realize what they must do?” (Lecture: The Faith Identity). From this standpoint, the two parties assert a principled solution of returning to the faith, the Qur’an, and its teachings (al-Banna) (Messages, 37–38), and holding fast to God, his religion, and his book (al-Houthi) (Lecture: International Quds Day).
The two discourses present one diagnosis, and the solution, generally, appears to be the same. They agree on one diagnosis and one solution for the whole world, as the problem is not limited to a specific country, region, or group of people; rather, the entire ummah is concerned with this matter.
Both parties identify the central role of the West in the decline of the state of the ummah, which both see as corrupting the lives of Muslims with modernity. Al-Banna states that the West has worked hard to “overwhelm all Muslim countries with the wave of material life, and its corrupt manifestations and its fighting germs” (Messages, 84). Al-Houthi also believed that the ummah has changed its lifestyle, culture, and form to appear Western, and this is at the heart of its decline (Lecture: Quranic culture).
The values of modernity, urbanization, and civilization are all rejected because these values work to disrupt and undermine the foundations of the Islamic ummah. The concept of civilization is questioned and rejected by both discourses, as al-Houthi said explicitly: “This is civilization, this is progress, this is development! We did not see that it is decadence, it is humiliation, it is baseness, it is delusion and loss” (Lecture: to follow the example of the Israel nation). Al-Banna determined the same cause and indicated that work should be done to overcome this dilemma, to stand in “the face of this tyrannical wave of the civilization of matter, and civilizations of pleasures and desires, which swept away the Islamic peoples, so they kept them away from the leadership of the Prophet and the guidance of the Qur’an” (Messages, 153). The civilization, according to both discourses, is false; a civilization of hedonism and pornography. Therefore, the solution is to take a new path that does not relate to the values of this civilization or its objective dimensions.
They both see that not only are the rulers responsible for the terrible situation, but also the people, as well as the other national institutions, a perspective that carries danger in that it may be an entry point to the emergence of religious extremism and excommunication. For example, al-Banna stated:
“Those responsible for this are the governing and the governed: the governing who surrendered to the usurpers and took care of himself more than what matters to his people, and the governed who was satisfied with the humiliation and did not do his duty and was deceived by the falsehood and followed his desires, who lost the strength of faith and became a cheap commodity for the looters and the greedy“ (Messages, 167–168).
At the same time, we find that al-Houthi’s discourse holds the ruler and the ruled similarly accountable: “The issue has become the issue of the peoples themselves. It is no longer correct for them to wait for their government or army to defend them, never… Arab armies and the Arab rulers have become defeated, they are ready to serve the Americans” (Lecture: the slogan is a weapon and an attitude).
He also suggests in another lecture that the reason for authoritarianism and the loss of rights in the Islamic world is that the peoples themselves are silent and do not speak up to oppose injustice (Lecture: to be the example of the Israel nation).
The similarities in the diagnoses of reality and identifying challenges and those responsible for them, show a convergence in the two discourses, in which they consider the rulers and the ruled responsible for the poor situation of the ummah. Some believe that holding the people responsible is an entry point to excommunication; this is similar to the accusation leveled against Sayyid Qutb, for example, as we see this explicit expression in deciding the fate of millions of people:
“We do not define the meaning of the religion and the concept of Islam in this way from ourselves, in such a serious matter that entails a determination of the concept of the religion of God. It also leads to a judgment that Islam ceases to exist on the earth today, Hence, the claim of hundreds of millions of people that they are still Muslims needs to be reconsidered”.
This led many researchers to see this as a prelude to excommunicating the people, thus rendering it permissible to kill them because they reject or collude with the rejection of God’s rulership.
Visions of the Future
The two discourses include a vision for the solution to the problem of the current state of the ummah, and both discourses start from the consolidation of the concept of an “Islamic state”, with reference to the Qur’an in the first place, then other Islamic sources. The reference to an “Islamic state” is the common denominator in both discourses, rejecting any other options as non-negotiable as they reject the foundations of Islamic governance. We find Hassan al-Banna saying that one of the foundations of reform is “for a free Islamic state to be established in this free ummah, which operates according to the rulings of Islam, implements its social system, declares its correct principles, and communicates its wise call to the people” (Messages, 88). Al-Houthi states in more than one place in the Malazim that Islam is a religion and a state, and that it is a comprehensive system for the whole life, (Lecture: the loyalty order) affirming the righteousness of the governance of Islam and the Qur’an, and stating that there is no order and no authority except for the Qur’an.
This reference to the source confirms adherence to the values of the theocratic state as it appears throughout the two discourses, rejecting any pursuit of a civil state and institutions, legislation, and laws that stem from the needs of society and its citizens outside of religion. Just as the two discourses agree to exclude the concept of the nation, which is the foundation of the modern state, they also agree on a vision for the future that excludes modern conceptions of the state.
This exclusion entails an exclusion in all the details – the matter is not limited to defining the major references. Islam, as al-Banna said, is “faith and worship, a nation and nationality, morality and matter, culture and law, tolerance, strength, and belief, it is a complete system that imposes itself on all aspects of life and organizes the matter of this world as it organizes the hereafter” (Messages, 147). As it is comprehensive and complete, everything in political, economic, and social life should start from this religious basis, and the same is true for al-Houthi who rejects even the words “constitution” and “law” because, as he said, they “suggest another methodology and another source other than the Sharia law in organizing life affairs.” He affirms this by saying, “Then we must reject all legislation that is not from God. Every person must believe that the legislation is for God” (Lecture: lessons from the guidance of the Holy Qur’an).
From these basic principles for the creation of a future state, the two discourses almost agree in rejecting many of the values of modern society, particularly those related to partisanship, the press, public freedoms, and elements of pluralism and differences of opinion. The way of theorizing about this intellectual position, and justifying it, is almost the same for the two. As al-Banna indicates: “this partisanship has corrupted people’s lives, disrupted their interests, destroyed their morals, and tore their ties” (Messages, 121). Therefore, he rejects it and recommends the establishment of a single party that implements the vision that he believes in, and leading the ummah in one direction (Messages, 256). He also provides several clear instructions based on an ideological background that makes them undiscussable and non-negotiable rules, such as segregation of male and female students, censorship of books and publications, and prohibitions on dancing and singing (Messages, 229).
The same attitude leads al-Houthi to deny the concept of freedom that exists in the modern world and reject related ideas such as partisanship and pluralism: “I do not think that there are those more stupid than us Arabs. We believe the talk about freedom, while this leads to a difference of opinions, differences in attitudes, parties, etc., and in the end, the enemies attack us, then we ask ourselves what we need? Do we need a single position, to face the enemy, or do we need more parties, more differences, and more opinions? What do we need? Any person among us, even though his education is limited, understands that what the Arabs need now, and what Muslims also need is one attitude, one person leading this ummah in the face of those enemies, who attack us as if they were one man” (Lecture: Islam and the culture of followers).
Al-Houthi also rejects the press, cultural seminars, television, and other modern media because, from his point of view, they do not work to build good Muslims (see lecture: Who are we and who they are).
The two discourses agree on the necessity of the principle of jihad as the primary tool through which the ummah can grow and achieve its goals on a global level. For al-Banna, jihad is a “duty reinforced by the Qur’an and Sunnah”, which is what he calls fighting so that the word of God is supreme (Messages, 327). Al-Houthi also states:
“Jihad is legitimate for us to move on its basis, in order to strike those who are corrupt, who do not believe in God or the Judgment Day and who in their reality do not forbid what God and His Prophet have forbidden, and they do not believe the religion of truth. It is the duty of the ummah to conduct jihad against them. That is, to fight them – and jihad is legitimate here – until they pay the jizya (tax) with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued” (Lecture: terrorism and Islam).
Both parties hold jihad as an essential part of their belief and agree that it is an obligation and a legitimate act, not for defense, but for the sake of spreading throughout the world to fight all those who do not believe in their ideas. This idea was not just held by Hassan al-Banna, but is found in much of the literature of political Islam, confirming the widespread nature of al-Banna’s ideas not only to his followers from the Muslim Brotherhood, but also in the followers of al-Houthi.
The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria stated that “Jihad, in the sense of fighting, will continue until the Day of Judgment, as long as there is an aggression against Muslims by occupying their land, oppressing them, sowing the sedition in their religion or preventing them from spreading their call.” So, jihad is not only a tool of defense but a way of overcoming any obstacle to the spread of religious teaching.
And we see al-Banna and al-Houthi clearly reject the interpretation of jihad as “jihad of the soul”, insisting instead that jihad concerns fighting. Al-Banna expresses his rejection of this interpretation openly and discusses the Hadith which says “You have returned from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad.” They inquired: “What is the greater jihad?” He said: “A person’s jihad against his carnal desires.” Al-Banna states “By this, some are trying to distract people from the importance of fighting and preparing for it and the intention of jihad and taking in its path” (Messages, 329). Al-Houthi likewise believed that the concept of jihad of the self should be rejected, as he considered it a circumvention of the concept of jihad, which is conquest for the sake of God and expanding the religion (see lecture: the seriousness of the stage).
So, from their perspective, the future is not merely building the state, but rather expanding their ideas to cover the whole world. Other lands, with their various philosophies and identities, should surrender to their vision, as the call is “divine and universal” (Messages, 178). The goal becomes an attempt to control the world, as al-Banna explicitly said:
“O people, this is our purpose… and this is our approach, so what are our tools to achieve this purpose? Our tools are the tools of our righteous ancestors, and the weapon with which our leader and example, Muhammad, the Messenger of God, may God bless him and grant him peace, and his companions invaded the world, despite the small number and the scarcity of the resource, and the great effort is the weapon that we will take to conquer the world with it again” (Messages, 154).
Al-Houthi also used the same idea, stressing that “we must deliver this religion, convey this light, and convey this guidance to all of humanity” (Lecture: the seriousness of the stage). This is something that we see in all the symbols and literature of the Houthi movement, as a call that is global and goes beyond the local and regional framework. This expansionist tendency dominates the two discourses, starting from the idea of the universality of the call and abolishing the dividing borders of nationalities and geographical homelands. The inevitable conclusion is that they aim to control the world according to this vision.
Despite the difference in rhetorical style between the two discourses, the Houthi discourse is almost identical to that of al-Banna in terms of function. Following the hypothesis of Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, which states that political Islam is in its entirety a single discourse, this reading suggests alignment between Hassan al-Banna, who was assassinated in 1948, and Husain al-Houthi, who was also killed in 2004, beyond the sectarian disagreement as well as the historical considerations.
This article showed this congruence, which extends from determining the political identity, to diagnosing the current situation, and finally to establishing a vision for the future. These two bodies of literature, the messages of al-Banna and the Malazim of al-Houthi, are some of the most important pillars of political Islam, both Sunni and Shia. Beyond the core Islamic texts, the messages of al-Banna and the Malazim of al-Houthi constitute the most important reference points and intellectual pillars of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Houthi movement, respectively.
This article does not argue that there is an absolute congruence between the two approaches and the two views. There is a fundamental difference between the Houthis and the Muslim Brotherhood, not least of all that the Muslim Brotherhood seeks an Islamic caliphate that is chosen by Shura-Ahl-e-Hal Wa Aqd (Council for the solving of problems and making of agreements), while the Houthi discourse focuses on the principle of loyalty to the guardianship of Ali Ibin Abi Talib and then Ahl al-Bayt (the family of the Prophet Muhammad), as they are entitled to power and the Imamate. Nevertheless, despite their different visions, the discourses of both groups show a great similarity in the structure and content, highlighting the shared language and ideologies of groups that fall under the banner of political Islam.
Article first published on Arabia Felix Studies.
Mohammad is a research fellow at the Columbia Global Centers – Amman, Columbia University. He worked as a researcher at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. His research focuses on analysis of cultural, political, and media discourse in the Arab world through in-depth studies and in cooperation with researchers and experts from inside and outside the region.
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