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Ethnicity, Language, & Religion of Yemen

WARNING: Terrorist threats continue in Yemen, please read this travel warning before going!

Ethnicity

Nearly all of Yemen's population is considered Arab, but Arabs are quite varied ethnically. The Arab people are originally from the Arabian Peninsula, on which Yemen sits on the tip. Despite this, Yemen has been a destination for numerous people from multiple regions over the years, most notably from East Africa. These Africans, along with other immigrants have intermarried the locals and today "Yemeni Arab" has significant traces of African and South Asian genes, but most people are still more closely related to the Arabs in neighboring countries and elsewhere.

Language

Arabic is the only official language in Yemen. The written form of the language is called Modern Standard Arabic (written in the Arabic script), which gives the language consistency across countries from a written perspective. The spoken dialects of Arabic are so drastic from location to location that Arabic speakers in Yemen may not even understand Arabic speakers from a country further away, like Morocco. Obviously the dialect of Arabic in Yemen is most closely related to the dialects spoken in nearby countries like Oman and Saudi Arabia.

Arabic is a Semitic language; other closely related Semitic languages include Amharic (Ethiopia) and Hebrew. More distantly related are languages like Berber (North Africa) as well as historic languages including Phoenician and ancient Egyptian.

English is the most commonly taught second language in the country although few people are fluent in the language.

Religion

Nearly every citizen of Yemen is a Muslim; these people generally follow the branches of Islam they call Shaf'i (Sunni) or Zaydi (Shia). Among the very small religious minorities are Jews, Christians, and Hindis.

Islam (the name of the religion, whose followers are called Muslims) is a monotheistic religion, whose holy book is called the Qur'an. The Qur'an is believed to be the word of God spoken through the prophet Muhammad from 609-632 CE (Common Era is preferred over AD (Anno Domini or "year of the Lord") since the Islamic world doesn't believe Jesus was the messiah). Islam believes Muhammad was the last prophet sent to earth by God, the last in a long line of prophets, which includes Moses, Abraham, and Jesus among others.

Muslims follow five pillars of their faith: testimony, prayer, alms-giving, fasting, and pilgrimage. These pillars, and other tenants of their faith, can give great structure to their lives as some foods, like pork, are forbidden and every Muslim is expected to pray five times a day. However, the level of participation in each of these pillars and to what degree Islam influences an individual's life varies from person to person and community to community. Generally speaking, Yemen is very conservative in how they practice Islam.

Most Muslims are Sunni, which is the branch of Islam that closely follows the teachings of Muhammad and accepts Abu Bakr as the first Caliph (a ruler of an Islamic community); the Sunni Muslims are sometimes referred to Orthodox. Shia Muslims believe only God can chose who heads the Islamic community and believed it was Ali, Muhammad's son-in-law who was first chosen; Ali became the first Imam (according to Shia Muslims, this term only refers to the leaders of the faith, to Sunni Muslims Imam is often times used in reference to the prayer leader in mosques).

This page was last updated: May, 2014