Judaism and Islam in Yemen: A Case Study in Historical and Cultural Interaction

By Isaac, Ephraim | Midstream, November-December 2003 | Go to article overview

Judaism and Islam in Yemen: A Case Study in Historical and Cultural Interaction


Isaac, Ephraim, Midstream


Even though the Arabs curse the Jew, swear at him and then beat him up for want of anything better to do, deep inside themselves they regard the Jew with a certain respect. It is the glowing religious fervor of the Yemenite Jew--his personal sacrifices to the complicated ritual of his faith ... --which makes the Arab look upon the Jew as a sort of superman.

-- Ladislas Farago, Arabian Antic (1938) ********** We live at a deeply paradoxical moment. On the one hand, among Jews and Arabs there is the emerging parallel sense--however grim, grudging, and halting--that there will be an eventual two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On the other hand, with the Oslo peace process in shambles and the "road map" drawn up by the U.S.-European quartet of dubious reliability, we are increasingly afflicted by an inability even to imagine how to get from "here" to "there." What strikes us as inevitable simultaneously seems impossible--and vice-versa.

Perhaps this is a moment to be less visionary and more historical. Perhaps also we need to re-focus from how the Middle East problem looks from the perspective of top-down peace-making efforts in distant Oslo or even Camp David to a closer look at the fabric of coexistence of Sephardic and Oriental Jewries with Muslim and Arab societies during the 13 centuries before the re-founding of Israel. In this way, we may be able to discover threads of understanding that might lead us at least part of the way through the maze of current perplexities. In particular, might yet the Yemeni Jewish historical trajectory, from the Arab World to Israel, provide unexplored avenues for narrowing the Muslim-Jewish divide?

Such, in any case, was our thinking. In the fall of 2002, the Institute for Semitic Studies, Princeton, NJ, under a Carnegie Corporation grant and Princeton University's Department of Near Eastern Studies, co-sponsored a symposium for about 250 participants to appraise the status of research on Arab/Muslim-Jewish relations in Yemen, but also to further our knowledge of general Arab/Muslim-Jewish relations both in past centuries and in recent times. In honor of Imam Yahya, the last of the great Zaydi Imams who ruled Yemen from 1918 until his assassination in 1948, and his advisor, Mori (Rabbi) Shalom ben Saadya Gamliel, spiritual head of Yemenite Jewry until he emigrated to Israel in 1935, the symposium featured the participation of both the Imam's and the Rabbi's families, representatives from the Yemeni Institute for Diplomacy, the Yemeni Heritage Research Center, the Center for Islam and Democracy, and the Yemeni Jewish Museum and Shalom Center, and scholars from Princeton University, the Open University, Tel Aviv, Israel, University of Cologne, Germany, New York University, and the University of Sana'a. Topics ranged from the historiography of Arab-Jewish relations in Yemen, to the political interaction between Imam Yahya and Mori Gamliel, to Arab-Jewish musical and dance traditions in Yemen, to the architecture of Imam Yahya's palace, and Mori Gamliel's attempt to replicate it in Jerusalem.

Yemenite Muslims have been called "the most Muslim of Muslims," and Yemenite Jews "the most Jewish of Jews," yet Yemen has often been unjustly ignored by students of comparative religion. Yemen is a valuable case study from which to derive lessons about, not only the role of religion in the governance of a fundamentalist nondemocratic society, but also the historic efforts by Muslims and Jews, despite theocratic barriers, to achieve some semblance of intercultural coexistence with mutual respect and understanding.

Yemen, the Arabia Felix of Classical antiquity, is a small, fertile region in the southwestern comer of the Arabian Peninsula. It represents, together with Ethiopia, the fabled ancient lands of the Biblical Queen of Sheba. Thousands of inscriptions, statues, columns, and walls; amazing building structures comprising cities, temples, and fortifications; and impressive irrigation dams--all attest to a rich pre-Islamic economic and cultural past. …

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