In my view, Zaidism is really Islam without the additions that have happened by various groups during the past centuries. The Zaidis of Yemen, unlike the Sunnis, Hanbalis, Wahhabis and Shi-ites of Iraq, Syria, Iran and Arabia, did not introduce the following concepts/practices to Islam:
The hidden imam, infallible imams, anthropomorphism, fatalism, the kasb theory of appropriation, taqleed (blind acceptance of dogma without debate), the Laa Kaif principal (prohibition of speculation about meaning of Qur’anic verses), tolerance of corrupt leadership, takfir (calling muslims in other math-habs or sects unbelievers), khawarijism (calling people who do sins unbelievers), judging Qur’an according to the prophet’s reported sayings, glorification of the prophet’s companions, to name a few.
Therefore Zaidism is Islam in the purest form we can find it today.
Calling Zaidism a “sect” implies that some other version of Islam is the norm and Zaidism is the aberration, just as calling Zaidism a type of Shi-ite-ism implies that the Sunni version of Islam is the norm while Zaidis are part of a deviant group.
Do Zaidis see themselves as a sect?
Abdullah Hamidaddan writes:
Zaidis nowadays do have a “sectarian identity”. This may be partly a result of the various attempts to destroy Zaidism in Yemen, which have forced them to identify themselves as Zaidis rather than as Muslims, in order to survive, and in order to preserve their world view for future generations.
In my view the Zaidi’s concept of sectarian identity is the major obstacle facing Zaidis today. Their theology, worldview and concept of ijtihad maybe progressive ; but sectarian identity has a profound impact on how the theology functions; and it can even be an obstacle to genuine ijtihad.
Why do you see this sectarian identity as an obstacle?
1. Genuine itjihad and sectarian identity have competing ends. The former seeks truth while the latter seeks self preservation. And in many cases self preservation means sticking to tradition as much as possible and emphasizing clerical authority, both of which lead to nominal ijtihad. In my view, tradition should nourish and inspire, but it shouldn’t define the borders or shape the outcome.
2. The concept of ijtihad is, in itself, an antithesis to specific borders for thought systems. There is no “real islam” per se. Islam is not a closed system with well defined and specific borders. It only becomes such through an identity process; where the need to border who “we” are leads to putting borders around our system of belief.
But Zaidis started to think in terms of “real islam” versus “other” because everyone else was thinking that way. They started playing the identity game without even realizing it, or one could even say that they did it for political reasons ..