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Sunday, December 30, 2012

When the Arabs of Yemen converted to Judaism

Der Spiegel has a report on a buried Christian empire in Yemen. But it also mentions some tantalizing facts about the Jews at the time:
The social structure in Zafar also appeared to be unique. The city had a large Jewish community, as evidenced by a seal with a Torah niche. Hebrew inscriptions were discovered. Zafar's residents also included Christians, who built a church there in 354 AD. Arabs who worshipped old idols lived in the alleys.

But this peaceful, multicultural community soon came to an end, as tensions began to mount in the 5th century, and Arabia was transformed into a front.

The Byzantine Empire, bristling with weapons, operated in the west, and its vassals kept making inroads toward the desert. They were accompanied by Christian missionaries, who brought the doctrine of the Holy Trinity to the shepherds on the edge of the Rub' al Khali, the sand desert that makes up much of the southern third of the Arabian Peninsula.

These Sacred Heart imperialists confronted the Persian realm of the Sassanids, with its archers and armies of bearded soldiers clad in heavy metal armor. The Jews, who lived by the tens of thousands in the oases, were to some extent aligned with this power.

It was a confrontation between east and west, and everyone was forced to choose a side.

This also applied to Zafar. To stop the advance of Christianity, individual Arab kings initially converted to Judaism. The entire ruling class of the realm eventually followed suit. From then on, people were given names like Yehuda and Yussuf.

Then they took up arms. In approximately 520 AD, they attacked the Christian colony of Najran, where there were churches and monasteries. Countless Christians were slaughtered. The shocking news traveled all the way to Europe.
I had never heard of this, but found an old article in Midstream that went into more detail:
The Jews became especially numerous and powerful in the southern part of Arabia (notably in Yemen), a rich and fertile land of incense and spices and a way station on the routes to Africa, India, and the Orient. This was the Arabia Felix ("happy land") of the classical geographers, a region, its inhabitants boasted, "the very dust of which was gold, and whose men were the healthiest, and whose women gave birth without pain." Unlike their brethren in the Hejaz, the Jews of Arabia Felix lived without racial or political cohesion, scattered among the Arabs. Many families wandered about as nomads or were engaged in growing spices. Others had settled as merchants in the ports of the area, at the time centers of world trade, from which goods from India and Persia were trans-shipped to Egypt and Byzantium.

The Jews of southern Arabia differed from the native tribes in one respect only -- their religion. They clung unswervingly to it, observing the dietary laws, honoring the Sabbath, and celebrating the holidays of their people. They communicated with the Jews of Palestine and, even after the end of the Patriarchate in 429 CE, willingly subordinated themselves to the sages in Tiberias, whence they received, as well as from the Babylonian academies, religious instruction ind interpretations of the Bible.

Although living among a pagan population, the Jews of Yemen enjoyed great prestige among their Arab neighbors. A somewhat similar situation existed in the Hejaz where Arab tales have preserved the memory of many Jewish heroes and poets. The common Arab phrase, "Faithful as Samuel," for example, is a reference to a Jew, Samuel ibn Adiya, who won proverbial renown for his honesty, high principles, and courage. Some of the principal tribes of the Arabian Peninsula proudly traced to statements in the Bible their origins and kinship to the Jews. The northern tribes of the Hejaz regarded Ishmael, son of Abraham and half-brother to Isaac, as their ancestor; the southern tribes of the peninsula considered themselves the descendants of Joktan, younger son of Eber, and a great grandson of Shem. (Gen. 10:26-29, and Chron. 1:19,20) Living in such congenial surroundings, the Jews enjoyed complete freedom, and, being subjected to no restraints, were thus able to defend their religious opinions without fear and to communicate them with impunity to their pagan neighbors. Under these circumstances, it was scarcely surprising that many sheikhs developed an interest in Judaism and became converts. When a sheikh became a Jew, his whole clan usually followed him.

Especially remarkable in the history of Arab-Jewish relations is the story of the conversion to Judaism of several kings of Himyar. The Himyarites, a powerful tribe, gradually expanded their territory by defeating the inhabitants of neighboring entities (Sabea, Raidan, Hadramut, and Yamnat) to form a viable independent kingdom approximating in its boundaries to present-day Yemen. At the height of its power, the Himyarite kingdom dominated the entire Arabian Peninsula.

About the year 500 CE, the King of Himyar, Abu-Kariba Assad, undertook a military expedition into northern Arabia in an effort to eliminate Byzantine influence. The Byzantine emperors had long eyed the Arabian Peninsula as a region in which to extend their influence, thereby to control the lucrative spice trade and the route to India. Without actually staging a conquest of the region, the Byzantines hoped to establish a protectorate over the pagan Arabs by converting them to Christianity. The cross would then bear commercial advantages as it did in Ethiopia. The Byzantines had made some progress in northern Arabia but had met with little success in Himyar.

Abu-Kariba's forces reached Yathrib and, meeting no resistance and not expecting any treachery from the inhabitants, they passed through the city, leaving a son of the king behind as governor. Scarcely had Abu-Kariba proceeded farther, when he received news that the people of Yathrib had killed his son. Smitten with grief; he turned back in order to wreak bloody vengeance on the perfidious city. After cutting down the palm trees from which the inhabitants derived their main income, Abu-Kariba laid siege to the city. The Jews of Yathrib fought side by side with Arab friends and fellow inhabitants to defend their town and harried the besiegers with sudden sallies. The siege was about to drag on when Abu-Kariba suddenly fell severely ill. Two Jewish scholars in Yathrib, Kaab and Assad by name, hearing of their enemy's misfortune, called on the king in his camp, and used their knowledge of medicine to restore him to health. While attending the king, they pleaded with him to lift the siege and make peace. The sages' appeal persuaded Abu-Kariba; he called off his attack and also embraced Judaism along with his entire army. At his insistence, the two Jewish savants accompanied the Himyarite king back to his capital and there converted many of his subjects. The conversions, however, were not total, and there remained as many pagans as Jews in the land.

And then this:
It seems the conversion of Dhu-Nuwas did not go uncontested. Hints of this resistance can be found in a fantastic story related by the ninth-century Muslim historian al-Tabari. He writes that when the Himyarite king returned to his capital after becoming a Jew, some of the townspeople shut the gates, would not let him in, and prepared to rebel against him for having abandoned the faith of his ancestors. However; Dhu-Nuwas was able to prove to them that the religion of the Jews was the true faith.

It appears that in the capital, there was a cave in which a person who did not speak the truth would die immediately upon entering. His body would burst into flames and be totally consumed. According to al-Tabari, idols and their priests, as well as Jewish sages with scrolls of the Torah were then brought into the cave; the fire destroyed the idols and the priests, but did not touch the Jews at all.

With its elements of magic removed, al-Tabari's tale touched on a real incident. In 517, the enthronement of a Jewish king led Christians to seize a major town of the Himyarite kingdom. After mustering an army, Dhu-Nuwas inflicted a costly defeat on the rebels, taking many prisoners, and destroying their church.

As a zealous advocate of Judaism, Dhu-Nuwas carried out some rash acts that eventually involved him in difficulties and brought misfortune to him, his kingdom, and the Jews of Himyar.

Thus, on learning of the sad plight of Jewish communities in the Byzantine Empire, he resolved to force the Christian emperor to stop persecuting his Jewish subjects and to treat them justly. To accomplish this objective, Dhu-Nuwas ordered several Christian merchants who had come to his capital on business to be seized and executed. News of this high-handed deed soon reached Byzantium. A challenge of this sort could not go unpunished, but the Byzantine emperor, Justin I, was embroiled in a war with the Persians and a Samaritan revolt in Palestine. He decided, therefore, to write to the Christian king of Ethiopia, who was a good deal closer to Himyar, to act as Christendom's avenger. The Ethiopian king was more than anxious to oblige the emperor's request.

In 518, when Ethiopian troops landed in Himyar, Dhu-Nuwas's forces soundly defeated the invaders. Flushed with success, he now saw himself as the champion of Arabian Jewry. It has been suggested by some scholars that Dhu-Nuwas's ultimate objective was the creation of a Jewish empire stretching from Eretz Israel to Himyar.

... The Negus of Ethiopia had put together and equipped a powerful army, and the Byzantine emperor had provided his ally with the necessary fleet to transport the troops to Himyar. Dhu-Nuwas took measures to prevent the landing of the Ethiopian army by barring the most likely invasion points with chains. His efforts, however, proved fruitless, and the Ethiopian troops were able to disembark near Tafara on the Red Sea coast. Asbaha had taken steps to inform the Christian Arabs of the region of his plans, and they attacked the Himyarites as Dhu-Nuwas deployed his army to meet the invasion force of the Ethiopians. In the ensuing battle, the Jewish king fell back on his faithful, courageous cavalry to repel the invaders, but they were overwhelmed by the larger army of the enemy. The capital of Dhu-Nuwas fell into the hands of the enemy, along with his wife, and all the treasures of his kingdom. Realizing that all was lost, and unwilling to be taken 'alive, the impetuous king charged his steed over a great rock jutting over the sea. The waves swept his body out to sea. So died the last Jewish king of Himyar.

The victorious Ethiopians overran Himyar. With fire and sword they raged through the land, plundering and massacring its inhabitants. They especially singled out the Jews for their killing spree; they considered it an atoning sacrifice for the Christian martyrs of Najran.

The Ethiopian occupation stimulated new resistance, as the Jews fought on from the mountains of eastern Himyar. Although the invaders were able to hold on to Tafara and the coastal area along the Red Sea, Hadramut, and the ports along the Arabia Sea held out and remained in Jewish hands. With the help of the Persians, the Jews gradually drove out the Ethiopians from everywhere except their Red Sea base. In the decades preceding the rise of Islam, the struggle for control of southern Arabia seesawed between Persia, the Byzantine Empire, and Ethiopia.

In 717, Yemen came under Muslim rule.
My guess is that the "conversion" was no more permanent than that of the Khazars a few centuries later. It is certainly an interesting piece of Jewish history, though.

(h/t Marten)