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  • Scott S. Reese

The Islamic reformist movement known as Salafism is generally portrayed as a relentlessly literalist and rigid school of religious thought. This article pursues a more nuanced picture of a historical Salafism that is less a movement with a single, linear origin than a dynamic intellectual milieu continually shaped by local contexts. Using 1930s Aden as a case study, the article examines how a transregional reformist discourse could be vulnerable to local interpretation and begins to unpack the transformation of Salafi activism from a broad, doctrinaire, and, above all, foreign ideology to an integral part of local religious discourse. It situates reform within an evolving Islamic discursive tradition that in part developed as a result of its own theological logic but was equally shaped by local and historically contingent institutions, social practices, and power structures. It thus explores Salafism as a dynamic tradition that could be adapted by local intellectuals to engage the problems facing their own communities.

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Corresponding author
Scott S. Reese is an Associate Professor in the Department of History, Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, Ariz.; e-mail:
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Author's note: This paper is part of a larger project on the social history of colonial Aden. I thank the many individuals who have assisted me in uncovering the frequently obscure history of Aden, including the curators of the Hamballa Institute in Aden, Maher Luqman in Jiddah, John Shipman and Leila Ingrams in London, and Flagg Miller at the University of California, Davis, as well as the staff of the India Office Library Reading Room at the British Library, who were critical to the locating of sources used in this paper. I am also deeply indebted to various friends and colleagues whose input was vital to the paper's development, including Anne Bang, Carl Ernst, Amal Ghazal, Nile Green, Kai Kresse, Michael Laffan, Marc Matera, Ebrahim Moosa, Omid Safi, Edward Simpson, Abudlkader Tayob, and John Willis, whose insightful suggestions have made this a better piece. I also thank Ulrike Freitag and the Zentrum Moderner Orient in Berlin for a two-month fellowship in June and July 2010, which provided the space for completion of the final draft. And last but not least, I thank the four challenging IJMES reviewers as well as the editorial skills of Beth Baron and Sara Pursley, whose comments and scrupulous revisions have been invaluable.

1 R/20/A/3465, no. 921, Zikr in Zakariya's mosque, Ltr to Resident, 29 February 1929, India Office Library (hereafter IOL). The vast majority of letters and petitions to the state found in the Aden Residency files located in the India Office Library are in the original Arabic.

2 Those subscribing to Salafi ideology, however, hardly held a monopoly on this term. Numerous writers of various ideological stripes used it during the 19th century, frequently applying a much broader definition of who was included in the “pious ancestors.” For example, the term frequently included the eponymous founders of the four Sunni law schools—Malik b. Anas, Abu Hanifa, Ahmad ibn Hanbal, and Muhammad al-Shafiʿi—as well as other luminaries such as al-Ghazzali.

3 Ghazal, Amal N., “The Other Frontiers of Arab Nationalism: Ibadis, Berbers, and the Arabist-Salafi Press in the Interwar Period,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 42 (2010): 105–22.

4 Ibid.; Commins, David, Islamic Reform: Politics and Social Change in Late Ottoman Syria (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 4. The roots of modern Islamic scripturalism can be dated even earlier, to 18th-century thinkers such as the South Asian scholars Sirhindi and Shah Wali Allahal-Dihlawi as well as the Najdi ʿālim Muhammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab. An in-depth discussion of the place of these individuals in the history of reformist discourse is beyond the scope of this paper. On Sirhindi and Shah Wali Allah see Metcalf, Barbara, Islamic Revival in British India: Deoband, 1860–1900 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982) and Hermansen, Marcia, trans. and ed., The Conclusive Argument for God, Shah Wali Allah of Delhi's Hujjal Allah al-Baligha (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1995). On Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab see Commins, David, The Wahhabi Mission and Saudi Arabia (London: I. B. Taurus, 2009).

5 Hourani, Albert, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962).

6 Ghazal, “The Other Frontiers,” 106.

7 Scharbrodt, Oliver, “The Salafiyya and Sufism: Muhammad Abduh and his Risālat al-Wāridāt (Treatise on Mystical Inspirations),” Bulletin of SOAS 70 (2007): 89115.

8 David Commins, Islamic Reform; Weismann, Itzchak, “Between Ṣūfī Reformism and Modernist Rationalism—A Reappraisal of the Origins of the Salafiyya from the Damascene Angle,” Die Welt des Islams 41 (2001): 206–37.

9 Itzchak Weismann, “Between Ṣūfī Reformism and Modernist Rationalism,” 206.

10 Haj, Samira, Reconfiguring Islamic Tradition: Reform, Rationality and Modernity (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2009), 67. Haj's argument is a good deal more nuanced and complex, but the limits of space do not permit a more detailed overview of this important work.

11 This view has recently been strengthened by Lauzière, Henri, “The Construction of Salafiyya: Reconsidering Salafism from the Perspective of Conceptual History,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 42 (2010): 369–89.

12 Other notable contributions to this growing body of literature include Laffan, Michael Francis, Islamic Nationalism and Colonial Indonesia: The Umma Below the Winds (London: Routledge-Curzon, 2003); Ghazal, “The Other Frontiers”; and Robinson, Francis, “Islamic Reform and Modernities in South Asia,” Modern Asian Studies 42 (2008): 259–81.

13 Two notable exceptions are Justin Jones’ recent article, “The Local Experiences of Reformist Islam in a ‘Muslim’ Town in Colonial India: The Case of Amroha,” Modern Asian Studies 43 (2009): 871–908; and Green, Nile, Bombay Islam: The Religious Economy of the West Indian Ocean, 1840–1915 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

14 This notion is acknowledged by Justin Jones in “The Local Experiences of Reformist Islam” but demonstrated with only circumstantial evidence.

15 In fact, these are likely conservative numbers, as they do not count the garrison (including camp followers), more transient populations such as those of day laborers, merchants, and pilgrims, or those who actively sought not to be counted.

16 Figures for the 1839, 1849, and 1871 censes can be found in the following IOL files: R/20/E/5; R/20/E/34; R/20/A/400. Figures for the 1931 census are from Gavin, R. J., Aden Under British Rule: 1839–1967 (London: C. Hurst & Co., 1975), 445.

17 Knysh, Alexander, “The Cult of the Saints and Religious Reformism in Hadhramaut,” in Hadhrami Traders, Scholars and Statesmen in the Indian Ocean 1750–1960s, ed. Freitag, Ulrike and Clarence-Smith, W. G. (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1997).

18 In 1839 the ziyāra was held only a month or so after the British occupation with thousands of faithful reportedly attending from the surrounding districts despite the political uncertainty. R/20/E/5, Report Haines to Bombay, 11 July 1839, IOL.

19 R/20/A/2664, Fairs, 1911–1936, IOL. While many local ziyārāt were major events attracting thousands of participants and onlookers, others were much smaller affairs organized by particular communities, such as the ziyāra of Shaykh Rihan, a one-day festival organized each year by local fishermen. It is difficult to determine when all of these ziyārāt originated, but many were in evidence by the latter part of the 19th century. The former Assistant Resident Capt. F. M. Hunter listed fourteen such festivals in his An Account of the British Settlement of Aden in Arabia (London: Trübner, 1877), 173–76. The list, however, is not identical with those cited in the Aden Residency file.

20 For instance, a note dated 24 May 1928 states that the Treasury Office would be closed “on account of the Fair of Syed Hashem al-Baher.” R/20/A/2664, IOL.

21 R/20/A/2664, “Fairs, 1911–1936,” IOL. While important, the British official attitude toward popular piety in Aden is beyond the scope of this article. For an informative discussion of British pragmatic tolerance of local forms of spirituality see Nicholas Dirks’ discussion of “hookswinging” in 19th-century India, in Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001).

22 R/20/A/2664, “Fairs 1911–1936,” folios on the Ziyaras of Shaykh Abban and Shaykh Ahmad al-Iraqi, IOL.

23 R/20/A/2664, Letter of protest, 7 May1932, IOL, outlining complaints of irreligious activity at local ziyārāt. R/20/A/3471,“Shaykh Othman Fair,” IOL.

24 R/20/A/2906, “Zar,” IOL.

25 R/20/A/2906, Petition to the First Assistant Resident, 24 December 1923, IOL.

26 This was hardly the end of the matter, however. Over the next ten years, the chief practitioners deluged the registrar and first assistant resident with petitions begging them to reverse the decision. Time and again, the ban was upheld, and by the mid-1930s the petitions ceased. For a detailed overview of this case see Lidwien Kaptiejns and Jay Spaulding, “Women of the Zar and Middle-Class Sensibilities in Colonial Aden, 1923–1932,” in Voice and Power: The Culture of Language in Northeast Africa, Essays in Honor of B. W. Andrzejewski, ed. R. J. Hayward and I. M. Lewis, African Languages and Culture Suppl. 3 (1996): 171–89.

27 The club is referred to by a variety of names in both British archival records and local Arabic-language publications, sometimes even within the same text; these include the Arab Islamic Reform Club, Arab Reform Club, the Islamic Reform Club, and the Arab Literary Club. For the sake of simplicity I use Nadi al-Islah or Reform Club.

28 R/20/A/3390, Letter from Muhammad Ali Luqman to Major H. M. Wightwick, Acting Political Resident, Aden, 24 June 1931, IOL.

29 For more on the backgrounds of these individuals see Reese, Scott S., “The Respectable Citizens of Shaykh Uthman,” in Struggling with History, ed. Kresse, Kai and Simpson, Edward (London: Hurst, 2008).

30 Luqman also spent time at Aligarh University in the 1920s and would go on to obtain a law degree in Bombay in the mid-1930s. However, his education was not entirely secular. In addition to his Western schooling, while in his teens Luqman studied fiqh and other elements of the religious sciences with Aden scholars, including the pre-World War I qadi of Aden Sayyid Muhammad al-Hazimi. M. A. Lokman and Ahmed Ali al-Hamdani, eds., Men, Matters and Memory (n.p., 2009), 52–54. This recently published work is a compilation of Luqman's serialized autobiography that appeared in his weekly English language newspaper The Aden Chronicle during the early 1960s.

31 Al-Asnaj's education is unclear, but judging from his own writings he seems to have benefited from a mixture of secular and religious education. For information on Muhammad Saʿid al-Asnaj (Ahmad's father) see the petition requesting the banning of gambling and other indecent activities at the ziyāra of Hashim al-Bahr in R/20/A/2664, IOL.

32 Lokman, “First Literary Club in South Arabia,” in Men, Matters and Memories, 136. This piece appeared on 3 August 1961. For a brief discussion of al-Thaʾalibi's involvement with transnational Salafism see Ghazal, “The Other Frontiers.”

33 Luqman notes in his autobiography that his first attempt to establish the club in 1924 was something of a false start. While initial interest was strong, after a few years the organization had only twelve dues-paying members. It was not until 1928 that a revived club began to establish itself on the social scene. Lokman, “First Literary Club in South Arabia,” 136.

34 R/20/A/3452, file no. 891, Haslam to Hickinbotham, 23 March1932, IOL.

35 R/20/A/3390, Luqman to Wightwick, 24 June 1931 and Laghton to Luqman, 29 July 1929, IOL.

36 Al-ʿAbbadi's education and career are summarized in a number of documents. The most comprehensive is the laudatory biography composed by his student and later Salafi luminary, Muhammad b. Salim b. Husayn al-Bayhani, and included in a collection of al-ʿAbbadi's poetry, Hidayat al-Murid ila Sabil al-Haqq wa-l-Tawhid, li-na Zamha al-Ustadh al-Jalil wa-l-ʿAlama al-Salafi al-Nabil al-Shaykh Ahmad bin Muhammad bin Awadh al-ʿAbbadi al-Yamani [Guidance of the Seeker Along the Path of Truth and Doctrine], 2nd ed. (Cairo: al-Matbaʿa al-Salafiya wa-Maktabatuha, 1969). This volume will be discussed.

37 Al-ʿAbbadi, Hidayat al-Murid, 1.

39 He is also said to have made shorter sojourns in Persia.

40 Al-ʿAbbadi, Hidayat al-Murid, 2.

41 One police intelligence report contends that he arrived in Lahej as late as 1929 and remained there for only eighteen months. R/20/A/3390, Police report on Ahmad bin Ahmad al-Abbadi, 5 June 1931, IOL.

42 Al-Bayhani asserts that al-ʿAbbadi founded Nadi al-Islah after his arrival, but all other sources contradict this assertion.

43 The shaykh's detractors, such as the former qadi of Shaykh Uthman, Awadth b. ʿAbdullah Sharaf, would certainly argue that his presence was responsible for the social tensions of the 1930s; however, there is nothing to suggest that al-ʿAbbadi's presence was the sole or even precipitating factor.

44 Henri Lauzière, “The Construction of Salafiyya.”

45 Al-ʿAbbadi's unambiguous stance against tomb visitation would certainly place him in this category and was sufficient for his student to refer to him as “the learned Salafi” on the title page of the Hidayat in the late 1930s. At least one recent Yemeni author has referred to him as “one of the earliest Salafis in southern Yemen.” See Hasan, Ahmad ibn, Qaburiya fi al-Yaman: Nashaʾatuha Atharuha Mawqif al-ʿUlamaʾ minha (Sanaʿa, Yemen: Markaz al-Kalima al-Tayyiba li-l-Buhuth wa-l-Dirasat al-ʿIlmiyya, 2003), 232. Similarly, upon his return to Aden, al-Bayhani embarked on a lengthy reform-focused writing career, including, most notably, a hadith commentary, Islah al-Mujtamaʿ (Medina, Saudi Arabia: al-Maktaba al-ʿIlmiyya, 1975). This work is still in print, as is al-Sarm al-Qirini, a response to critics of al-ʿAbbadi's poems. The latter, unfortunately, exists only in manuscript form and has never been published. Ahmad Hasan references it in Qaburiya as a response to the “tomb worshippers” (p. 235).

46 Luqman was exposed to a wide range of reformist thought during his youth in both India and the Arab world. He contributed pieces to newspapers in India that included the Bombay Sentinel, Bombay Mainland, and Bombay Chronicle as well as the Cairo newspapers al-Jihad, al-Balagh, and al-Shura. Despite receiving his legal education in Bombay and working for a short time at Aligarh University it was the Arab side of reform toward which Luqman was drawn. In his autobiography he describes a rather uncomfortable time at Aligarh largely as a result of his contempt for the Caliphate movement. He also maintained a lifelong friendship with al-Thaʾalibi, and in a series of lectures delivered to Nadi al-Islah in 1939 he praised al-Afghani, Abduh, and Rida as “defenders” of the “fundamental principles and tenets of the Qurʾan.” Lokman, Men Matters and Memories, 153, 211–12, 220. Even as his own path became self-reflexively “Pan-Arabist,” Luqman published an editorial in Fatat al-Jazira on 26 November 1944 commemorating al-Thaʾalibi's death and describing him as a “pillar of Islam and [an] Arab hero,” along with al-Afghani, Abduh, and Rida. Many of Luqman's Fatat editorials are collected in al-Mujahid Muhammad ʿAli Luqman, Fatat al-Jazira, Ifttahiya wa-Maqalat min ʿAm 1940–1950, ed. Ahmad ʿAli al-Hamdani (n.p., 2006)

47 Such a mix of intellectual agendas coming together around the notion of a Muslim moral community was hardly unusual during this period. See Michael Gasper, The Power of Representation: Publics, Peasants and Islam in Egypt (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2009), esp. 48–51, 119–23.

48 R/20/A/3390, IOL.

49 Ibid. A copy of this sermon in the original Arabic was obtained by a police informant present during the Friday prayers. It came to the attention of British authorities because of the inclusion of remarks that denounced atrocities committed by Italian authorities in Libya during the preceding months. The sermon is attributed by association to Muhammad ʿAli Luqman, but while he gave a number of sermons it is not clear that he delivered this particular one.

50 R/20/A/2664, “Fairs 1911–1936,” Petition to Wightwick, First Assistant Resident, 7 May 1931.

51 R/20/A/3465, file no. 921, IOL.

52 R/20/A/2664, Petition to Resident, 6 May 1931, IOL. It may be noticed that this petition predates Sayyid ʿAli's petition by one day. In order to gain sufficient signatures such petitions to the authorities generally circulated through various neighborhoods for several days before being sent forward to the Residency. As a result it is not surprising that those opposed to it had time to put together their own counter-petition and submit it as quickly as their opponents. Dates were frequently assigned to documents as they came in to the Residency Clerk's office, and in this case it would appear that the pro-ziyāra petition simply passed Sayyid ʿAli's anti-ziyāra one in the bureaucratic queue.

53 R/20/A/2664, Ltr to the Resident from Ahmadi Sufis, 3 March 1932, IOL; Ltr. to Inspector of Police from Zakariya Muhammad, 25 February 1932; Ltr. to the Magistrate from Zakariya Muhammad, 10 March 1932, IOL.

54 “Verily the Almighty and His Angels shower blessings upon His Prophet. Oh Believers! Send blessings upon him and salute him with a worthy salutation.” Sura 33:56, The Confederates. Special thanks to Omid Safi, Ebrahim Moosa, and Omer Mozzafer for their help in tracking down this reference.

55 R/20/A/3465, file 921, Note to the Commandant of Police, 11 January1933, IOL.

56 See R/20/A/3465, file 921, and R/20/A/3390, IOL.

57 For their own part, the British authorities attempted to affect a position of stunning impartiality in these events. They tended to view the matter as largely one of petty squabbles between various elite factions, and their own overriding concern seemed to be the maintenance of authority. Thus, in addition to threats they frequently sought compromises between the conflicting parties. They also began to take what were viewed as prudent security precautions, for instance, deploying extra police as well as an armored car or two at the Sayyid Hashim ziyāra in order to deter disruptions. R/20/A/2664, “Fairs 1911–1936,” IOL.

58 Guidance of the Seeker Along the Path of Truth and Doctrine.

59 Al-ʿAbbadi, Hidayat al-Murid, 5.

60 Ibid., 64.

61 Ibid. A second edition was published by the same press in 1969, to which another work, Bi-Hujat al-Qulub bi-Tawhid ʿAlam al-Ghayub was attached. Like the Hidayat this was a poetry collection by another noted Salafi shaykh, Qadiri b. Ahmad al-Ahdal, but it was written much later, in 1969. I thank Dr. Alan Godlas for the leads that enabled me to track down the history of this work.

62 Literally ʿadat mustihajna or “disapproved-of customs,” a phrase used liberally by Ahmad al-Asnaj but certainly appropriate to the views of al-ʿAbbadi and al-Bayhani.

63 Al-ʿAbbadi, “On the Tariqa and the Shariʿa,” in Hidayat al-Murid, 32–34.

64 Al-ʿAbbadi, “On Idolatry and Its Types,” in Hidayat al-Murid, 24–25.

65 Al-ʿAbbadi, “The Verdict on Tomb Visitation,” in Hidayat al-Murid, 47–56.

66 Literally, “Oh Shaykh So-and-So.”

67 Al-ʿAbbadi, Hidayat al-Murid, 25, n. 1. The footnote was composed by al-Bayhani, who edited the entire work. Emphasis mine.

68 Ibid., 14, n. 1.

69 Ibid., 7–8.

70 Ibid., 13–14.

71 Ibid., 24.

72 Ibid., 24, n. 3.

73 Al-Bayhani was educated first in the Hadramaut and then came to Aden specifically to study under al-ʿAbbadi. In the late mid-1930s he attended the famed al-Azhar in Cairo under a scholarship provided by Nadi al-Islah. Hasan, Qaburiya, 234.

74 Ahmad al-Asnaj lived to see independence in 1967 but ran afoul of the ruling communist authorities and died shortly after his release from prison in 1972.

75 Fatat was followed by al-Qalam al-ʿAdani, a weekly literary paper, and The Aden Chronicle, a weekly English-language paper; both were founded around 1950. All of these were published until the end of colonial rule in 1967.

76 Al-Asnaj published another set of essays, Irij ʿAdan in 1959. These were lectures originally delivered to various local groups between the mid-1930s and late 1950s.

77 Many Adenis today consider Muhammad ʿAli Luqman Aden's premier intellectual, and thus many of his essays, short stories, and newspaper editorials have recently been published in a number of collections. The novella Saʿid can be found in al-Mujahid Muhammad ʿAli Luqman al-Muhami (6 November 1898–22 March 1966): Raʾid al-Nahda al-Fikri wa-l-Adabiyya al-Haditha fi al-Yaman, ed. Ahmad Ali al-Hamdani (n.p., 2005).

78 Al-Asnaj, Nasib ʿAdan min al-Haraka al-Fikriyya al-Hadithiyya: Khatarat wa-Muhadarat li-l-Adib al-ʿAdani al-Maʿaruf al-Ustadh Ahmad Muhmmad al-Asnaj, Mudir Nadi al-Islah al-ʿArabi al-Islami fi Adan, (Aden: n.p., 1934), 4.

79 This appears to be a very curious use of the Urdu word for “festival.” Thanks to John Willis for this clarification.

80 Luqman,“Introduction” to Saʿid, in al-Mujahid Muhammad ʿAli Luqman, 397–98.

81 Al-Asnaj, Nasib ʿAdan, 5.

82 Ibid., 33, 36, and 40.

83 Luqman, “Saʿid,” in al-Mujahid Muhammad ʿAli Luqman, 398.

84 Al-Asnaj, Nasib ʿAdan, 54.

86 Luqman, “Saʿid,” 423–24.

87 Al-Asnaj, Nasib ʿAdan, 54.

89 Ibid., 56.

90 Luqman, “Saʿid,” 424.

92 Al-Asnaj, Nasib ʿAdan, 55.

93 R/20/A/3452, no. 891, report no. C/8, Police Inspector, Crater, 3 October 1938, IOL. This report lists Ahmad al-Asnaj as the president of the club with Muhammad ʿAli Luqman as its vice president. It also notes that at the time of writing the club had about 150 dues-paying members.

94 Al-Asnaj's and Luqman's views were in fact very similar to the effendiyya reformers of the Egyptian middle class during the same period. The difference between them, however, was that the effendiya sought the abolition of saints’ festivals, while the two Adenis argued that they could be reformed. See Schielke, Samuli, “Hegemonic Encounters: Criticism of Saints-day Festivals and the Formation of Modern Islam in Late 19th and Early 20th-century Egypt,” Die Welt des Islams 47 (2007): 319–55.

95 Al-Bayhani traveled to Egypt in 1938 and was resident there for three years, according to his biography in the Qaburiya. While in Cairo he obtained two degrees from al-Azhar and returned to Aden, where he established an institute for higher learning. Hasan, Qaburiya, 234. See also R/20/B/1531, c. 45/1, Status of the Arab Reform Club in Aden, 1938, IOL.

96 R/20/A/3452, no. 891, report no. C/8, 3 October 1938, IOL; Lokman, Men, Matters, Memories, 220–21.

97 Al-ʿAbbadi disappeared from the written record after the early 1930s. It is possible that he left the settlement, passed away, or simply retired from preaching to manage the numerous properties he had purchased since arriving in Aden.

98 Hasan, Qaburiya, 232–35.

99 Haj, Reconfiguring Islamic Tradition, 6–7.

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