Jews and Islamic Law in Early 20th-century Yemen.

Author:Libson, Gideon
Position:Book review

Jews and Islamic Law in Early 20th-century Yemen. By MARK S. WAGNER. Indiana Series in Sephardi and Mizrahi Studies. Bloomington, IN: INDIANA UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2015. Pp. xi + 208. $75 (cloth); $29 (paper).

Yemeni Jewry has been the topic of a rich array of ethnological, cultural, halakhic. linguistic, and historical studies, in which leading scholars have examined the relations between Muslims and Jews in both the Middle Ages and the modern era. This research--of which much is based on the written and oral testimony of Yemeni Jews--has shed light on material and spiritual aspects of Yemeni Jewry. Their impressive breadth is evident in the bibliographies compiled by Joseph Tobi (Jerusalem, 1975) and Yehuda Razhabi (Jerusalem, 1976), and in many additional works that cannot be enumerated here.

The volume under review continues in the path of these studies and focuses on the relationship between Islamic law and the Jews of Yemen in the twentieth century, against the political and cultural background of the time and as reflected in the activity of three prominent Yemeni Jews: Salim Sa'id al-Jamal (1916-2007), Salih al-Zahiri (1901-1986), and Salim Mansura (1916-2007). These men (the author refers to them as rabbis) served as intermediaries (also his term) between the legal and public arms of the Islamic establishment and the Jews, effectively practicing as lawyers within the Islamic legal system. All three belonged to the Dor Deah movement (whose members were known as dardaim) founded by Rabbi Yihyah Qafih, which espoused a rationalist approach in the tradition of Maimonides, aspired to spread his doctrine throughout Yemen, and opposed Kabbalah. (It might have been appropriate to dedicate a separate discussion in the book to Kabbalah; see p. 84 and especially p. 94.) But each worked in a different way toward the attainment of the goal and made a different contribution, as the author notes during the course of the book and in its conclusion (pp. 151-56). All three had connections with the Islamic establishment, but ultimately their efforts failed (see, e.g., p. 122). As the author stresses--perhaps a bit too often (pp. 11-12, 69, 119, 145)--they were experts in Sharia and in Arabic and often made use of their knowledge of Sharia in a provocative way. Recognizing that the Islamic legal tradition is not consistent in its treatment of Jews, they attempted to maneuver within the law and make use of its internal disagreements to procure equal rights...

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