The Contribution of Yemenite Jewish Writings to Yemenite History

by Yosef Tobi (Haifa University)

Yemen Update 33 (1993):32-33

In recent years the study of Yemenite Jewery has reached an innovative and important stage: the use of Muslim sources for uncovering information pertaining to the Jews in Yemen, material either unknown or only partially comprehensible from Jewish sources. In the first meeting of the International Congress of Yemenite Jewish Studies, I tried to demonstrate the great significance of the legal Zaidi writings in Yemen for that purpose. In the current meeting I would like to draw attention of my colleagues, the students of Islamic Yemen, to the relevance of Jewish sources for the history of Yemen in general, and thus to make a modest contribution to an interreligious understanding between the Muslim population in Yemen and the former Yemenite Jewish community, most of which has now returned to the land of its forefathers.

Parenthetically, it should be pointed out that most Yemenite Jews in Israel, as well as in the United States, are no longer original natives of Yemen but belong to the second and third generations, zealously retaining a highly diversified cultural wealth created in Yemen and imported from there. It would be enough to mention the folk arts and customs: cooking, music, dances, clothing, embroidery, silversmith’s work and material culture in general. All of these proudly spread all over the Western World by the Jews who left Yemen, or even their children and grandchildren. But we ought not to ignore the fields of spiritual creativity, such as philosophy, religious values, written poetry and chronicles, in which we can also find bonds connecting the two religions in Yemen: Islam and Judaism.

It is important to note that as much as the various writings of Yemenite Jews may teach us about Islamic Yemen in recent centuries, they include nothing in regard to the pre-Islamic era, precisely the time during which Judaism climbed to its political and economic acme under the rule of the Judaized kings of the Himyar dynasty. From the middle of the 17th century, however, the Yemenite Jewish scholars - poets and rabbis - wrote much about the life of their brethren in Yemen while also referring to non-Jewish Yemeni culture. That literature, written mostly in Hebrew, sometimes in Judeo-Arabic, was basically untouched by Yemeni Muslim scholars, who did not know the Hebrew characters, and it is still virtually unknown to modern researchers.

Even those few scholars in Yemen who had some interest in Judaism turned to Jewish scholars when they wanted to learn about Jewish views or to ask them to produce Arabic renditions of Jewish sources. This was the case, possibly unique, of the transcription to Arabic characters of The Guide to the Perplexed, the philosophic work of Maimonides, originally written in Judeo-Arabic. The transcription was done during the 15th century in Yemen, probably by a Jew requested to by a Muslim scholar who, although informed about Maimonides and his famous book, was not able to read a text written in Hebrew characters. It seems that this very manuscript was used by al-Shawkani, the well known Muslim jurist (d.1834), as may be learnt from his polemical book against the Jews of Sanaa when he refers to the Maimonidean philosophy. His direct appeal to the Jewish San'ani scholars in order to be equipped with the Jewish material derived from the short, but famous, treatise written by them to answer his question pertaining to the issue of material or spiritual reward in the world to come according to Jewish conviction.

However, there is no reason for modern research about Yemen to ignore the relevant Jewish sources. The linguistic obstacle of either Hebrew or Judeo-Arabic texts may be overcome by publishing them in Arabic characters or in translation to any European language current in modern scholarship.

As a generality we may say that Jewish authors wrote frequently about contemporary events during times of crisis like war or famine, rather than in consequence of persecution of the Jewish community. We may distinguish between two major kinds of texts with general historical significance: 1. Either short or long chronicles detailing the events with accuracy, following the Muslim chroniclers in Yemen (the descriptive style is very concise, almost without any personal reaction or sensitive response by the writer); 2. Poems, basically in reaction to certain events that were accompanied by acts of persecution in the Jewish community(naturally, the writer was less specific and less accurate when describing the events themselves, but he was expressing at large his nationalistic feelings).

1. Chronicles

The length of these chronicles shifts from some few lines to a whole composition. They may be divided into groups according to their length and nature. In the following I will mention one example of each group.

a. Colophones

In what follows the colophon at the end of one of his works, R. Moshe Albalidah describes in brief the events of the year 5265 (=A.D. 1505) in Sanaa the same year he wrote the book. His report starts with the words urîd a'alamak ("I would like to inform you") and it is divided into two parts. In the first he mentions the exact date of the occupation of Sanaa by Amir ibn 'Abd al-Wahhâb, the last of the Tahirid dynasty. This part also includes the names of two defeated governors of Sanaa: Imam al-Washalî and Ibn al-Husain Muhammad. These details are somewhat significant since they are not to be found in sources such as al-Wâsi'î's well-known work on Yemeni history. In the second part the author gives in detail the high rates of the prices of various grains: wheat, barley and sorghum, and of raisins, all of which are essential items of Yemenite diet. A specifically Jewish point of view is very limited; there is one short phrase at the end:dawla zâlima wa-dawla dâbita wa-amân fîdawlatihi ("one rule oppresses and the other suppresses, there is no security except in his kingdom"). These two components, the chain of military events and the resulting economic situation, are typical of almost all Yemenite Jewish chronicles, the shorter as well as the longer ones.

b. Shorter Chronicles

These chronicles refer to a local limited event, although not necessarily an important one. R. Yihye Bashiri, one of the most distinguished spiritual personalities of Yemenite Jewry in the first half of the seventeenth century, left a short Judeo-Arabic chronicle. A Hebrew version exists as well in some manuscripts, but it is not clear if it was composed by him or was translated by some other person. In that chronicle, Bashiri relates the revolt of Imam al-Qâsim and his three sons against the Turkish government in Yemen, the occupation of the capital Sanaa and the deportation of the Turkish governor and his army from the capital. Notes about the escalating prices of the various grains and pulses as a result of the hostilities and the siege are part of detailed description of that event. In this chronicle too a specifically Jewish focus is very scanty: Jewish San'ani citizens as well as Muslims fled beyond the walls of the besieged city, hopeful of finding some food. We may conclude therefore that in the authors mind the Jews were not deliberately persecuted by the authorities or discriminated against by them during this event.

c. Longer Chronicles

Two works are known,, while we have a lot of colophones and shorter chronicles:

1) Mesuqut Teman (The Distresses of Yemen) by R. Sa'd 'Arûsî, who belonged to the tiny circle of enlightened Jewish scholars in Sanaa in the second half of the nineteenth century (d. 1909). This work was written in Judeo-Arabic, but was published by R. Yosef Qafih only in Hebrew translation. In its entirety it is no more than an annual, detailed price list of the essential commodities in Sanaa, starting with the year 1856 up to1906. The writer explains the reasons for the rising prices as due to drought, locust, and hostilities. Only seldom does he refer to Jewish issues. The immediate motive for writing this chronicle was the events of hawzat al-nafar ("the siege of the handful" in 1903-1905), during which Sanaa was besieged by the rebellious Imams al-Mansûr Muhammad Hamîd al-Dîn and his sonal-Mutawakkil Yahyâ. During this time an extraordinarily severe drought hit Yemen for three consecutive years. Although no deliberate anti-Jewish policy was conducted during this period, no less than two thirds of the Sanaani Jewish population perished. The Jews of Yemen had never faced a loss of lives on such a scale. As a result, 'Arûsî began to think about the causes of that grave situation and of the critical state of the Jewish Yemenite community in general. The outcome of this sociohistorical reflection was, on the one hand, the description of the economic vicissitudes of Yemen, so dependent on rain and subject to internal wars, and, on the other hand, a special list at the end of the book in which the author enumerates the negative causes: "the disadvantages of Yemen and its defects in the past and nowadays". It is clear that the chronological report of the grain prices and of the wars, as well as the list of the disadvantages, were done from a comprehensive approach to Yemen as a country, rather than just from the limited outlook of the Jewish community. In the list of thirteen items, only one refers to the Jews: the hatred of the country's population and of its governors towards the Jews, the injustices they are subject to, and their humiliation. All other items refer to the natural climate of Yemen, the undeveloped economy, the social and cultural backwardness at the time, and corruption of the government.

2) Eshkelot Merorot, by Shelomo-Slaiman Hibshush, brother of the famous Hayyim Hubshush who escorted the explorer Yosef Halevi in northern Yemen in the early1870's. In this work the author describes in remarkable detail one of the most important events in modern Yemenite history: the rebellion of Imam Yahyâ against Turkish rule in the first decade of this century. What is unique about this work is that the author relates almost nothing in regard to the Jews of Yemen. This Hebrew text was first published from manuscripts more than fifty years ago by S.D. Goitein, a distinguished Islamist and also the senior scholar of Yemenite Jewry. The study of Yemen would undoubtedly benefit from a western language rendition of this book.

2. Poems

The genre of historical poems is one of the most fruitful among Yemeni Muslims and Jews. The Yemenite poems are mostly not in Judeao-Arabic rather than Hebrew. R. Sa'adia Durain in the first half of the seventeenth century described in his poems the uprising of Imam al-Qâsim and his sons against the Turks. Of course, this genre is widely represented in Shabazi's poetry, in which he writes not only about the expulsion of the Jews to Mawza' in1679, but about the belligerent actions of Imam Ahmad as well, prior to his expulsion decree, and the hostilities between the Yemeni forces and the Turkish troops. We have many poems of this genre, too many to be mentioned here. But we should at least note the two poems of Yishaq ben Yefet al-Shâ'ir about faqîhSa'îd (1840) and about the Sharîf Ismâ'îl(1847), who rebelled against the central rule in Sanaa and wanted to expel the British from Aden. Yishaq ben Yefet describes in detail the provocation of the faqîh and of the Sharif against the Jews at the time. He places their activities from a comprehensive perspective and provides us with some details not found in common Yemeni Arabic sources.

In conclusion I would like, on behalf of all the sponsors of the congress, to appeal to all scholars involved in Yemeni Studies wherever they are - in Yemen, in Israel, in the United States or Europe - to cooperate for the sake of studying Yemen as well as Yemenite Jewry.

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