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Muslim Society as an Alternative: Jews Converting to Islam

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.
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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Published by: Voices and Visions Project on Oct 28, 2009
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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 origin and in his or her new community. This article ibased 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
 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, noonly 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 
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. Yemens 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, originally designated by the shari‘a to describe non-Muslims living under Islam, became identical with Jews.
10
The Jews

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