Jews and Islamic Law in Early 20th-Century Yemen

Jews and Islamic Law in Early 20th-Century Yemen

Jews and Islamic Law in Early 20th-Century Yemen

Jews and Islamic Law in Early 20th-Century Yemen

Synopsis

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.

Excerpt

Imagine a state ruled by a sovereign who enforced Islamic law (sharī‘a). It was never conquered by a European imperial power, so its legal institutions survived the advent of the modern era more or less intact. the state is home to a sizeable population of non-Muslims. What could these non-Muslims expect from the Islamic legal system? Like any legal system, Islamic law applies to all people, yet it is predicated upon the superiority of the believer over the nonbeliever. Would non-Muslims in this imaginary state be humiliated, or treated fairly, or would they come to expect some combination of the two? Would they be satisfied with the Islamic legal system, or would they seek to change it? If they tried to change it, what might such reform look like in the absence of Enlightenment ideals of citizenship? Such a state would offer us a unique perspective on the thorny issue of the place of non-Muslims in Islamic law.

The idea that Islam is essentially tolerant of non-Muslims except for splinter groups that stray from the consensus constitutes an important trope in scholarship. Those scholars who take up such an approach seek to designate those Muslim traditions that accord with liberal norms of pluralism and human rights as normative. Some scholars accept that both tolerant and intolerant statements concerning non-Muslims abound in Islamic literature and claim that the tolerant statements offer the possibility of saving the tradition from extremists. Yet the practical benefit of reform to Islam’s position on non-Muslims is difficult to discern. the sources of sharī‘a envision a scenario in which a Muslim ruler and judicial apparatus act as the paternalistic protectors of non-Muslim minorities. Therefore, Yohanan Friedmann, for one, adjudges the application of conclusions drawn from this earlier period to the contemporary world a highly conjectural endeavor.

Some scholars attempt to use a historical approach to explain the contradiction in the Islamic legal tradition between tolerant and intolerant positions toward non-Muslims by positing the hardening of Muslim attitudes toward nonMuslims over time. Yet even those who make this argument concede that the presence of intolerant statements in the early period and tolerant statements in the later period makes theirs ultimately an unsatisfactory solution. Khaled Abou . . .

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