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Mark S. Wagner, Jews and Islamic Law in Early 20th-Century Yemen

Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 2015, 208 pages
Eirik Hovden
Référence(s) :

Jews and Islamic Law in Early 20th-Century Yemen / Mark S. Wagner.- Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2015.- 208 pages (including index). ISBN: 978‑0253014870.

Notes de l’auteur

Presently Researcher at the Department of Archaeology, History, Cultural Studies and Religion (AHKR), University of Bergen, Norway, I wrote this book review when employed at the Institute for Social Anthropology (ISA), Austrian Academy of Sciences (AAS), Vienna.

Texte intégral

1Jews and Islamic Law in Early 20th-Century Yemen by Associate Professor Mark S. Wagner in Arabic language and literature, Louisiana State University is a monograph that draws on literature studies, Islamic legal studies, history and anthropology. Students and scholars from all these fields as well as Yemeni studies in general will find this a rich and well written book.

2Wagner follows the autobiographical stories of three prominent Jews during the reigns of Imam Yaḥyā and Imam Aḥmad and their account of the general situation of the Jews in Yemen as a subordinate minority in an Islamic state, as well as how they utilized existing Zaydi Islamic law and the legal system at that time. The author shows how complex relations were between Jews and Muslims and how the politics of identity and legal differences also depended on intra-Muslim and intra-Jewish tensions. An example of the latter is the author demonstrating how both sides of the divide in the Jewish community in the early 20th century appealed to Imam Yaḥyā and leading Zaydi scholars in order to obtain rulings on issues of Jewish theology to settle questions of authority within the Jewish community (p 83-95).

3Furthermore, the book focuses on different legal themes such as the controversial ruling demanding that a specialized group of Jews collect faeces from latrines, restrictions on riding animals and bicycles, as well as regulations regarding winemaking and sale of alcohol. In each of these topics, Wagner gives voice to the three main subjects and their stories in addition to contextual information on how the topic was seen from the Muslim side(s), both laymen and legal experts. The author is also familiar with central Zaydi legal sources such as the Sharḥ al-Azhār and the Tāj al-Mudhhab and the debates found in these. Some of these Islamic legal issues are traced back to the Chief Qāḍīs al-Saḥūlī and al-Shawkānī in the mid and late 18th century and their opponents, adversaries and students shedding light on intra-Zaydi tensions. Wagner's analysis of al-Shawkānī's hard-line position on the so called "latrine" issue is in line with what Bernard Haykel and others have presented before, but with a clear stinging critique of al-Shawkānī and his style of argumentation, compared to those who see al-Shawkānī as an important precursor of Islamic modernism (p. 42-48).

4This book is not only about Jews and how they used the court system and the law in Yemen, it is also a book about how the legal system worked in general, for Muslims as well. As the Ottomans withdrew from Yemen, Imam Yaḥyā created a new legal system and the author describes how this system was troubled by corruption, yet at the same time contained facets that made the system effective, and was indeed preferable to many Jews as well, depending on the case.

5Often, the author shows how a certain legal topic, such as the humiliation of Jews in collecting faeces, or winemaking and sales regulations have dimensions in Islamic legal discourse as well as being connected to very local, specific circumstances including the economy, access to resources and local intra-communal politics. Even the international context is included. The way Wagner is able to connect these levels and to convey nuances, contradictions and complexities is impressive.

6Despite the relative lack of theory, the book will also be an important read for social scientists and anthropologists since it presents a wealth of cases that can be used for theory building and critique.

7In terms of methodology, the author reflects on his heavy reliance on autobiographical sources and secondary literature sources such as Jewish amateur historians in Israel writing in the 1980s and 1990s about life in Yemen taking place decades earlier. In general, Wagner has a sound critical distance to these, he assesses most of their claims and shows how different authors present the same or a similar case in different ways. The book demonstrates how important the rich material from and about Yemeni Jews having immigrated to Israel is as a source for the social and legal history of Yemen in the early 19th century.

8Geographically the main focus in this book is on the central highlands such as Sana’a, Dhamār, Yarīm, Radāʿ, Ibb and Taʿizz, with some mentions of Aden, especially as a point of exodus. As the author rightly points out, life in the more tribal areas in the north would show a somewhat different picture where Islamic law would be less prominent and where one can expect local forms of tribal and customary law to play a stronger role.

9The book is well written and easy to read. At times the reader might want more systematic contextual and quantitative information such as maps, tables, timelines and law texts. At the same time, this narrative style makes the book more accessible to a readership with little prior knowledge about Yemeni history and geography. At times the text is repetitive, overlapping and unstructured but a stricter structure would take some of the attention away from the many stories and narratives, many of which could fit under different headings. The borders between Jews and Muslims were strong, but also constantly contested and renegotiated in ingenious ways, and this Wagner successfully demonstrates.

10Regarding Wagner's discussion on shufʿa (pre-emption, or abutter's rights) (p121) as found in the Sharḥ al-Azhār it could be mentioned that the legal authority "al-Muʾayyad" is most probably not the Imam al-Muʾayyad Yaḥyā b. Ḥamza al-ʿAlawī ( d. 749/ 1348 or 49), but rather the Caspian al-Muʾayyad Aḥmad b. al-Ḥusayn (d. 411/1020).

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Eirik Hovden, « Mark S. Wagner, Jews and Islamic Law in Early 20th-Century Yemen », Arabian Humanities [En ligne], 6 | 2016, mis en ligne le 06 septembre 2016, consulté le 25 septembre 2018. URL :

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Eirik Hovden

Researcher at the Department of Archaeology, History, Cultural Studies and Religion (AHKR), University of Bergen, Norway

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Ce document est mis à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Partage dans les Mêmes Conditions 4.0 International.

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