Muslim Society as an Alternative: Jews Converting to Islam

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Journal article published in Jewish Social Studies: History, Culture and Society, a publication of Indiana University Press. Volume 14, Number 1. You can purchase a copy of this journal from IU Press at: http://inscribe.iupress.org/loi/jss The article discusses the phenomenon of Jewish conversion to Islam in Yemen in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, mainly in the tribal-rural areas where the majority of the Jews lived. This phenomenon is explained against the background of political, social, and economic developments: the intervention in Yemen of outside forces; the penetration of the world economy; and the weakening of Jewish institutions. Religious conversion is presented as a familiar and tempting phenomenon in Jewish life. Social considerations are put forward as the main reasons for Islamization, whereas the role of religious conviction is seen as insignificant. The article also deals with the symbolic meanings of the conversion ceremony and with its practical implications—in the convert’s community of origin and in his or her new community. This article is based on oral history, on personal interviews with Yemeni Jews now living in Israel, and on written sources such as letters, memoirs, itinerary books, and legal writings on issues resulting from conversion.
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  Muslim Society as an Alternative: JewsConverting to Islam Bat-Zion Eraqi Klorman  A  BSTRACT The article discusses the phenomenon of Jewish conversion to Islam in Yemen in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, mainly in the tribal-rural areas where the major- ity of the Jews lived. This phenomenon is explained against the background of politi- cal, social, and economic developments: the intervention in Yemen of outside forces; the penetration of the world economy; and the weakening of Jewish institutions. Reli- gious conversion is presented as a familiar and tempting phenomenon in Jewish life.Social considerations are put forward as the main reasons for Islamization, whereas the role of religious conviction is seen as insignificant. The article also deals with the symbolic meanings of the conversion ceremony and with its practical implications—in the convert’s community of srcin and in his or her new community. This article is based on oral history, on personal interviews with Yemeni Jews now living in Israel,and on written sources such as letters, memoirs, itinerary books, and legal writings on issues resulting from conversion.Key    words: Conversion, Islamization, Yemeni Jews, tribal  T he phenomenon of religious conversion continues to exist andto intrigue even after the age of conversions that stabilized thereligious map of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. What causesa person or a group to abandon their faith, their traditions, and theircommunity affiliations and to adopt new sets of beliefs and a new socialstructure? What is the role of religious convictions, and what is the ef-fect of social considerations and pressures? Although processes of con- version differ as a result of political, social, and economic factors, Bat-Zion Eraqi Klorman, “Muslim Society as an Alternative: Jews Convertingto Islam,”  Jewish Social Studies: History, Culture, Society  n.s. 14, no. 1 (Fall 2007):89–118  [90] JewishSocialStudies ã  Vol. 14No. 1specific time, and locality, they also resemble each other. In this article,I will discuss the phenomenon of conversion in the Jewish community of Yemen (North Yemen, before unification with South Yemen in 1990)and its uniqueness, focusing on the period from the nineteenth cen-tury until the middle of the twentieth century (at which time most Ye-meni Jews left Yemen and immigrated to Israel).In Yemen, religious conversion ran largely in one direction: from Judaism to Islam. The conversion of a Muslim was unimaginable, not only because of its social and political disadvantages but mainly be-cause it was forbidden by the shari‘a, which remained the legal foun-dation of the state until the middle of the twentieth century. (Theshari‘a calls for the death penalty for any  murtad  , or Muslim convert.) 1  In contrast, Jewish law regards a Jew who converts to another religionas a Jew who has gone astray but who may return to the right path.This article’s methodology is based on data that, for the most part,have not yet been analyzed. It relies on oral history—personal inter- views with Yemeni Jews now living in Israel—and on written sourcessuch as letters, archival documents, memoirs of Jews who emigratedfrom Yemen during the twentieth century, itinerary books, and legal writings concerning issues (mainly in family law) resulting from con- version. In general, Yemeni Jewish writings discuss the forced conver-sion of Jewish orphans explicitly  2 but are reluctant to mention voluntary conversions. 3 Thus, rabbinic figures who wrote an “officialnarrative” of Jewish life in Yemen report almost exclusively on Islam-ization in times of crisis or on the dramatic conversion of a distin-guished personality. 4 Writers of memoirs usually describe the convertsas being tempted by Muslims, 5 and Yemeni Jewish scholarly historiog-raphy presents Jewish Islamization as a rare phenomenon and mainly as the result of a deliberate policy by the government to put pressureon the Jews to convert. 6 The following discussion offers another per-spective for understanding Jewish conversion and will present it as afamiliar and tempting phenomenon in Jewish life in Yemen. The Legal and Socioeconomic Status of the Jews During the first half of the twentieth century, the Yemeni population was estimated at between 3.5 and 4 million. The number of Yemeni Jews was estimated at 60 to 70 thousand, and they represented the larg-est religious minority. (Another minority was composed of a smallnumber of urban Hindi merchants.) Yemeni society is tribal in charac-ter. 7 The tribes are sedentary, making their living from agriculture, and  [91]  Jews Converting to Islam  ã Bat-Zion EraqiKlorman are organized as armed political units. Until the 1970s, 97 percent of the Yemeni population lived in the tribal-rural districts in tens of thou-sands of small settlements. 8 About 85 percent of the Jews lived in thetribal-rural areas, alongside the mainly Zaydi Muslim inhabitants, inmore than a thousand small, even tiny, settlements. The remainderlived in the capital of Sanaa and in a number of towns. After the 1630s,following about a century of Ottoman occupation, Yemen was governedby Zaydi imams. In 1872, the Ottomans reoccupied central Yemen andthe Red Sea coastal plain, and they remained until 1918. The rest of  Yemen continued to be governed by Zaydi imams. After the Ottoman withdrawal, a Zaydi leader—Imam Yahya ibnMuhammad al-Mutawakkil (r. 1918–48)—once again took over thegovernment of Yemen. Subsequently, Zaydi imams ruled Yemen untilthe republican revolution of 1962. Like the Atlas tribes of southernMorocco, who since the sixteenth century have consistently defiedthe authority of the sharifian sultan, 9 the Yemeni tribes, though for-mally accepting the imams’ leadership, resisted efforts by any centralgovernment to dominate them. Yemen’s tribal-territorial division wasfurther enhanced by the religious differences between its Sunni-Shafi’i tribes and Shi’i-Zaydi tribes as well as by the country’s ruggedmountainous terrain. The period under consideration witnessed re-markable political development as a result of the increased interven-tion of Western powers in the Red Sea area and particularly the 1839capture of Aden by the British, who remained there until 1967. Thus,despite the fact that Yemen had never been directly affected by West-ern colonial powers, during this period it began a slow process of modernization and was pushed into the world economy. Economicchanges, especially the import of industrial goods, weakened the eco-nomic base of the Jewish community, whose members engagedmainly in crafts. Some Jewish artisans became migrant laborers in Aden and in African centers across the Red Sea, some turned to ped-dling and commerce, and others emigrated from Yemen. Between1881 and 1914, about 8 percent of Yemeni Jews immigrated to Pales-tine. This emigration continued in 1920, soon after World War I. Dhimma Status  During the entire period under consideration, Jews were legally de-fined as dhimmis  , protected people lacking political rights. As in North Africa, where there were no other significant religious minorities, theterm dhimmis, srcinally designated by the shari‘a to describe non-Muslims living under Islam, became identical with Jews. 10 The Jews  [92] JewishSocialStudies ã  Vol. 14No. 1 were granted religious freedom and assurances of personal security and property in exchange for their acknowledgment of Muslim politi-cal and social supremacy, which was conveyed by the payment of the  jizya  (poll tax), and obedience to a list of restrictions as detailed in theshari‘a. For example, Jews were required to wear distinguishing clothes;they could ride a donkey only side-saddle and were not allowed to ridehorses at all; and their homes could not rise above those of the Mus-lims. The Ottomans tried to equalize the Yemeni Jews’ legal status tothat of other Jews in the empire but were thwarted by the vigorous op-position of the Yemeni population and religious scholars. Thus, restric-tions that had gradually been lifted in other Muslim lands since themiddle of the nineteenth century were still in effect in Yemen, evenafter the last major Jewish emigration in 1950. 11   Communal Organization   An outstanding characteristic of communal life in Yemen that reflectedthe country’s geography, demography, and political nature was the ab-sence of any meaningful central organization. Communal structureson the national and local district levels were weak, and each community managed its own affairs. Most communities were small, at times num-bering only three or four families. The aqil  (secular leader) representedthe Jews vis-à-vis the authorities, and the mori  (rabbi) managed religiouslife. The mori was often the judge who settled religious and civil cases.However, in all matters that did not concern family law, his authority competed with that of the local sheikh or the district  qadi  (judge).    Jewsoften appealed to the Muslim judicial system both because their courtslacked the power of enforcement and because of their integration intothe tribal system. The Jews did not pay regular communal tax. Conse-quently, charity and welfare, like other communal activities, were not regularized. Most of these were conducted voluntarily on a personalbasis. (Only in Sanaa did the community fund organized charity activi-ties.) This system usually functioned well, but in times of crisis and gen-eral hardship it totally collapsed. 12 After the mid-nineteenth century, Jewish communal organization was affected by the opening of Yemento outside influences. Jewish emigration, shifts of employment, and en-lightenment trends 13 all weakened the Jewish community’s ability to su-pervise and control the conduct of its members.
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