Judaism



Imam Yahya’s “Niẓām al-Yuhūd,” ms.ar.120 from the National Library of Israel

There is a new study out on the statute on Yemeni Jews by Imam Yahya in 1323/1905 by the historian Kerstin Hünefeld. This is published in Chroniques du manuscrits au Yémen, in the July 2013 issue, which is available in download as a pdf. Hünefeld provides both an edition and an annotated translation.


Caravaggio, Sacrifice of Isaac (c. 1603)

[Webshaykh’s note: Anouar Majid has written a provocative commentary on Tingis Redux about the story of Abraham, who is sacred to three competing faiths in a part of the world where much blood has been spilled. His original post can be read here. I provide below his conclusion, a call for inventing a new Abraham to go along with the old ones.]

… Like almost everything in the scriptures, the story of Abraham shows clearly that is the outcome of human storytelling, composition, editing, and revision. If we assume Arabs were influenced by Judaism and eventually broke away to establish a religion of their own, the Islamic account of Abraham begins to make sense. Ishmael needed to be reinserted into Abraham’s family as an elder child with full rights in order for Arabs to have an equal claim to the patriarch’s legacy. In this version of events, it is Ishmael who is supposed to have been sacrificed, even though the Koran doesn’t name the son chosen for this burnt offering. The choice of Ishmael over Isaac seems to have happened much later, when Muslims were taking a harder stance against Judaism, not in the early centuries of Islam. Finally, to break away with Judaism and Christianity in incontrovertible ways, Abraham was turned into the real founder of the Ka`ba in Mecca and the initiator of pilgrimage rites (a fact totally absent in earlier Jewish and Christian accounts). By rewriting the story of Abraham to bolster their new religion and bring the old man and his son Ishmael to Mecca, the Arabs could claim the ancient heritage of the Jews without having to adopt Judaism.

In the end, we are not the children of old Abraham. As with all deities and mythical figures, our ancestors invented a man and idolized him to give themselves a special status among nations. But if Abraham cannot gather Jews, Christians, and Muslims around a common theology, what is to prevent us from inventing yet another Abraham, one who represents our contemporary visions and aspirations, not the antiquated social mores of ancient Middle Easterners? After all, later generations of the people who invented Abraham had no qualms tinkering with their scriptures to re-create an ancestor better fitted for their times.

An exhibition of photographs of Yemenite Jews is on display from February 1- April 30, 2013 at the Katz Snyder Gallery in San Francisco. The entire collection can be seen online.

Israeli photojournalist Naftali Hilger’s breathtaking photos of Yemen reveal a nation and a landscape lost in time. His intimate portraits of the isolated Jewish communities of Yemen, taken over a period of 20 years, have been most recently seen in a widely heralded exhibition at the Museum of Islamic Art in Jerusalem.

Hilger’s life-altering love affair with the mysteries of Yemen began in 1987. Over six subsequent trips from 1987 through 2008, he documented not only one of the most ancient communities in the Jewish diaspora, but Muslim Yemen as well – its markets, its landscapes and the fascinating architecture of Sana’a and the rural villages.


A document attesting to the accounts of Abu Ishaq the Jew (1020-1021CE); The National Library of Israel

By Isabel Kershner, The New York Times, January 14, 2013

JERUSALEM — A batch of 1,000-year-old manuscripts from the mountainous northern reaches of war-torn Afghanistan, reportedly found in a cave inhabited by foxes, has revealed previously unknown details about the cultural, economic and religious life of a thriving but little understood Jewish society in a Persian part of the Muslim empire of the 11th century.

The texts are known collectively as the Afghan Geniza, a Hebrew term for a repository of sacred texts and objects.

The 29 paper pages, now encased in clear plastic and unveiled here this month at the National Library of Israel, are part of a trove of hundreds of documents discovered in the cave whose existence had been known for several years, with photographs circulating among experts. Remarkably well preserved, apparently because of the dry conditions there, the majority of the documents are now said to be in the hands of private dealers in Britain, Switzerland, and possibly the United States and the Middle East. (more…)


The “crowned man” relief found in Zafar, Yemen is seen as evidence that there was a Christian empire in the region before Islam took hold.

by Matthias Schulz, Der Spiegel, December 21, 2012

The commandment “Make yourself no graven image” has long been strictly followed in the Arab world. There are very few statues of the caliphs and ancient kings of the region. The pagan gods in the desert were usually worshipped in an “aniconic” way, that is, as beings without form.

But now a narcissistic work of human self-portrayal has turned up in Yemen. It is a figure, chiseled in stone, which apparently stems from the era of the Prophet.

Paul Yule, an archeologist from the southwestern German city of Heidelberg, has studied the relief, which is 1.70 meters (5’7″) tall, in Zafar, some 930 kilometers (581 miles) south of Mecca. It depicts a man with chains of jewelry, curls and spherical eyes. Yule dates the image to the time around 530 AD.

The German archeologist excavated sites in the rocky highlands of Yemen, an occupation that turned quite dangerous recently because of political circumstances in the country. On his last mission, Yule lost 8 kilograms (18 lbs.) and his equipment was confiscated.

Nevertheless, he is pleased, because he was able to bring notes, bits of debris and bones back to Heidelberg. Yule has concluded that Zafar was the center of an Arab tribal confederation, a realm that was two million square kilometers (about 772,000 square miles) large and exerted its influence all the way to Mecca. (more…)


The current cover of about-to-be-print-defunct Newsweek asks a question that could be seen as an old (and oh so tired) joke:

Who’s there?
Jesus.
Jesus who?
Jesus who? After 2000 years you still don’t know who Jesus was?

Perhaps Newsweek is reduced to the digital because it took so long to follow up on Time Magazine‘s 1966 cover that asked “Is God Dead?” Both are questions that beg further questions. For Time, which God? For Newsweek, which Jesus? For that matter, it could also be asked which Moses, which Muhammad, which Buddha, which Krishna, which Ishtar, which Baal, which Zeus, which Napoleon, which Joseph Smith and which Elvis? In all but the last three choices above, no historian can ever answer the question, and even Napoleon is philosophically iffy.

Since this is the Christmas season that is consuming our time, let’s start with Jesus. Do you want the Jesus who is mortal or the one born of a virgin and equal to eternal deity? Be careful how you choose for you could end up (and it would be your end after the middle of the 4th century) being an Arian heretic rather than accepting the alternative of homoousious (a word worth looking up if only because it has a double o in the middle). Do you want the babe away in a manger while angels sang to shepherds and wise guys followed a star to Bethlehem? Then even the current Pope has his doubts. Do you want Jesus of the Gospels, who thought it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven and preferred the wisdom of children to the theologians of his day? Then think twice about applying for funding from the for-profit Andrew Carnegie’s trying-philanthropically-to-be-like-the-prophet Carnegie Foundation.

Do you want the Jesus that died for your sins so you could go on a crusade to the Holy Land and kill the infidels who had taken over Jerusalem? (more…)


Author Ayad Akhtar, left

by JENNIFER S. BRYSON, Contending Modernities, August 7, 2012

American Dervish, by American actor and author Ayad Akhtar, is set in one of the many places in the world with vibrant Muslim communities. In this case: Wisconsin.

Akhtar skillfully develops wonderful characters. As I delved into this novel I kept wanting to find more and more time to read so I could find out what would happen to characters such as the main figure Hayat; Mina, a dear family friend; and Mina’s suitor, the kind Jewish doctor Nathan. Also, Akhtar powerfully tackles the serious, generally taboo topics of Jew-hatred and domestic abuse. (This courageous novel goes beyond abstract “anti-Semitism”; American Dervish confronts outright hatred and its real-life consequences.)

Quran “translation” conundrum

Along the way, American Dervish has one of the most interesting wrestling matches I’ve seen yet over whether or not to make the Quran accessible in languages other than Arabic for people who do not know Arabic. (While I as a non-Muslim am an onlooker to these intra-Muslim “wrestling” matches, I myself have sat through more than a few Catholic Masses in Latin trying to figure out why we weren’t using a language the people present would actually understand.) (more…)

Children hold an Israeli flag in the Jewish settlement of Itamar on the West Bank; Photo by Rina Castelnuovo, The New York Times

By Alan Wolfe, The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 25

In the past few years, a trickle of dissent with respect to Israel has turned into a running stream. Books, articles, and Web sites critical of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, its acquiescence in the messianic designs of its settlers, its foreign-policy decisions on Gaza, Iran, and much more, and the increasing influence of the ultra-Orthodox over the character of its domestic life have begun to appear in significant numbers in America. Some, but not all, of these efforts, moreover, come from writers unused to being in the critical camp. The question is rapidly becoming not whether one should find fault with Israel, but how.

Two quite contrasting points of view have emerged among the critics. One can be called liberal and the other leftist. Liberals accept Israel’s legitimacy, search for ways that it can respect the rights of its non-Jewish citizens, and believe that the only viable future for the country is a two-state solution, one primarily Jewish, the other primarily Palestinian. Leftists view Israel’s creation in 1948 as an outgrowth of European colonialism, insist that as a Jewish state its character is inevitably racist, and lean toward the eventual creation of one state containing both Jews and Arabs. Should Israel’s actions continue to provoke opposition around the world, the question of which of these approaches will attract the most followers will become increasingly important.

I have a personal interest in this topic because I now count myself among the critics. For decades, I managed to write about some of the more controversial issues dominating the world without writing about the Middle East. The reason was simple: I was too intellectually paralyzed to do so. As a child, I had displayed an Israeli flag and carried blue-and-white coin boxes whose proceeds would plant trees in the new state. That, however, was about it: Serious Hebrew lessons, Zionist summer camps, and trips to the Middle East were of little interest to either my secular parents or me. Yet for all my family’s tendencies toward assimilation, Israel’s legitimacy was never questioned. Jews had been the victims of the greatest monster in history. Supporting the new state was the least the world could do to make up for it. We were, as I recall, vaguely aware that Arabs already lived on the land Israel claimed, but their complaints, to the degree that we heard them at all, seemed trivial by comparison to what had happened to our people. (more…)

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