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Jews and Islamic Law in Early 20th-Century Yemen

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In early 20th-century Yemen, a sizable Jewish population was subject to sumptuary laws and social restrictions. Jews regularly came into contact with Islamic courts and Muslim jurists, by choice and by necessity, became embroiled in the most intimate details of their Jewish neighbors’ lives. Mark S. Wagner draws on autobiographical writings to study the careers of three Jewish intermediaries who used their knowledge of Islamic law to manipulate the shari‘a for their own benefit and for the good of their community. The result is a fresh perspective on the place of religious minorities in Muslim societies.

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1 The Islamic Judicial System and the Jews

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The Islamic Judicial System and the Jews

According to a Syrian who visited Yemen in the mid-1930s, Imām Yah˙yā,

then in his late sixties, used to sit each morning under a pepper tree in the courtyard of one of his palaces, with his qadis, issuing legal rulings to a line of impoverished supplicants.¹ For Muslim and Jewish Yemenis who look back nostalgically to the prerevolutionary period, this image evokes the imām’s learning, compassion, and personal touch. It calls to mind Justice Felix Frankfurter’s hyperbolic contrast between rule-bound U.S. law and the arbitrariness of law in Islamic societies. “We do not sit like a kadi under a tree,” he wrote in 1949,

“dispensing justice according to considerations of individual expediency.” It also reminds us of Max Weber’s more subtle notion of kadijustiz—the informality and practicality of the Muslim judge.²

However, there was much more to what was going on under the pepper tree than met the eye. Imām Yah yā thoroughly overhauled the justice system, purg˙ ing it of Ottoman innovations and training and dispatching judges throughout

 

2 Changing God's Law

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Changing God’s Law

The ways in which Muslims and Jews in Yemen distinguished themselves from one another could be interpreted in two contradictory yet perfectly plausible ways. They represented either fairly arbitrary traditions accrued over a long period of time or norms derived from a general principle or principles. For example, the fact that Jewish men in urban areas wore sidelocks, dark-colored robes that exposed their calves, and black caps likely predated attempts to legislate their dress. Moreover, since Jews themselves had their own reasons to promote selfsegregation, they may have had their own reasons for these specificities as well.

The laws applying to non-Muslims as they are recounted in prescriptive legal works strongly suggest that Jews’ public behavior emphasizes their social inferiority to Muslims, not merely their difference from them. However, this principle informed other realms of social contact between the majority and the minority that were not legislated. According to Jews from one village in lower Yemen, Jewish humility extended to poverty, and Jews with wealth made great efforts to hide their financial state.¹ Similarly, a Syrian traveler contrasts the cleanliness of the interior of Jewish homes in Sanaa with the filthy streets of the Jewish Quarter.²

 

3 Muslim Jews and Jewish Muslims

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Muslim Jews and Jewish Muslims

The shar‘a imposed explicit handicaps upon non-Muslim litigants. Since the system was hierarchical in nature, those suppositions did not require justification. Nonlegal codes that were operative in the context of social relations also pointed to a person’s Muslimness or Jewishness. These were no less relevant to participants in legal proceedings than those described (or legislated) by substantive law.

A stipulation of the sumptuary laws asks that non-Muslims pray quietly.

In practice this specific use of the human voice had a more general application as well; thus, Jews were expected to keep their voices down in the presence of

Muslims.¹ They were also expected to be obsequious to Muslims. “Despite their learning and good breeding,” Mordecai Yitshari writes of the Jewish male elite of Sanaa who were hauled into jail on trumped-up charges, “they were very cowardly.”² A Muslim saying reflects Jews’ perceived reluctance to get involved in intra-Muslim disputes due to their weakness: “Even if you have a hundred Jews

 

4 Concord and Conflict in Economic Life

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Concord and Conflict in

Economic Life

Liminality and the Traditional Economic Order

In Yemen entire industries and trades were dominated by Jews. Architects, builders, carpenters, masons, metalworkers, plasterers, whitewashers, cotton carders, mattress makers, dyers, weavers, gunsmiths, gunpowder makers, tar makers, recyclers of used cartridges, sieve makers, tobacconists, snuff grinders, cigarette rollers, makers of water-pipe parts, well diggers, and forgers of antiquities were generally Jews.¹ (Some Muslim religious conservatives had trouble with the idea of Jewish builders building mosques.²)

The tribal ethos of the Yemeni Muslim privileged agricultural work. The religious elite avoided (or made efforts to appear to avoid) all commerce.³ Therefore the trades were generally denigrated by Muslims. Pinh as Qafarah explains

˙ that after Jews began leaving Yemen in large numbers and Muslims took their jobs, “many of their [Muslim] brothers looked down upon them and there were those who accused them, saying that if they practiced these professions there was no doubt that their grandfathers were Jews who converted to Islam.” Jews also believed this to be true of Muslim tradesmen in villages.⁴ Put differently, the tribesman viewed the cities as filled with weak people who could not protect themselves and so relied upon the political authorities. In addition, selling or failing to cultivate his land was shameful.⁵

 

5 Intercommunal Violence and the Sharī‘a

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Intercommunal Violence and the

Sharī‘a

Violence: Theory versus Practice

In theory, Muslims and Jews in Yemen could not behave violently toward one another. In practice, violence across the hierarchical boundaries between Muslim and Jew seems to have been relatively common. Jewish sources provide contradictory answers to the question of whether Yemen under the imāms was a particularly violent place. Some credit Imām Yahyā with the virtual elimination

˙ of crime through his focus on law and order. Others (some of the same people) describe numerous violent robberies, particularly attacks by tribesmen on traveling Jewish salesmen in unsettled areas.¹ Such merchants, who were often unarmed, seem to have made easy prey. Jews in the process of emigrating were likely to carry all of their worldly belongings with them. Sālim Mansūrah tells

˙ the story of two Jewish men who, having packed all of their things upon a pair of donkeys and setting off on the journey for Israel, were assaulted and robbed by the shaykh of their small village and some of his male relatives, who were armed with hatchets. The two wounded men headed straight to Imām Ah mad’s

 

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