A Yemeni Fatwa supports gross Zohar imagery

Given the sad state of affairs in Yemen over the last six to seven decades, I was surprised to learn of an amazingly enlightened fatwa that was issued more than 100 years ago, under the aegis of the Zaydi ruler of Yemen, Imam Yahya Hamid al-Din (d. 1948).

The fatwa legitimized the study of Zohar by Kabbalistic inclined Yememite Jews, who had been accused of forbidden bida by anti-Kabbalist Jews who objected to the excessive use of metaphors in the Zohar and other Kabbalistic books like Shiur Koma. (Wagner, Mark S., “Jewish Mysticism on Trial in a Muslim Court: A Fatwa on the Zohar – Yemen 1914,” Die Welt des Islams, Leiden, 2007, pp. 207-31).

Allegations of anthropomorphism would appear to draw an unbridgeable gap between Islam and Kabbalah, given the strict exclusion of comparison between the divine and the human form in Islam.

The story of this fatwa is remarkable in that it demonstrates that some Muslim scholars of the early 20th century were both interested in, and appreciative of, Kabbalistic thought in general, and specifically of the Zohar.

Possibly at the order of the ruling imam himself, the sharia court in Sana’a had summoned the Yemeni anti-Kabbalah faction along with the Kabbalist Chief Rabbi of the city, Yahya Ishaq, to a hearing in the imam’s residence.

A Yemeni Jew had the Hutspah to later challenge the Zaydi imam for having refused to order the Kabbalists to abandon their beliefs.

But the imam, who although a Shia was also known for his sympathetic attitude toward Sunnis, answered in line with the precedents of classical Islam, “Do you want me to coerce you in your beliefs? Coercion is never acceptable. If I were to coerce someone, I would coerce all of you into the religion of Muhammad.”

Answering the claim that Kabbalah introduced anthropomorphism into Judaism, the Zaydi imam asked, “Doesn’t the entire Torah speak in anthropomorphic language? Does it not say ‘Israel is my first-born son’ [Ex. 4:22] and ‘we shall make man in our image’ [Gen. 1:26]?”

Finally, the imam determined, “these are all spiritual matters, not corporeal anthropomorphisms, (i.e. just metaphors) and they are all ‘esoteric matters’… that are spoken of here.”

He then addressed the anti-Kabbalah advocate and warned, “If you persist in asking such thick-headed questions like an uneducated man, it all becomes vanity and emptiness, your religion becomes nothing but vanity… and every person who is called a Hebrew will, God forbid, disappear. Know that if the words of the Zohar are not accepted, then the Torah must follow, and everything must be negated.”

This is an exceptionally interesting Islamic defense of the value of Jewish survival through the centuries, and into the future, enunciated by a Shia ruler.

Even more important it shows how an open minded Islamic ruler in a “backward country’ like Yemen, can be much more enlightened than 21st century Muslim fanatics like IS who cannot tell the difference between politics and true religion

About the Author
Rabbi Allen S. Maller has published over 250 articles on Jewish values in over a dozen Christian, Jewish, and Muslim magazines and web sites. Rabbi Maller is the author of "Tikunay Nefashot," a spiritually meaningful High Holy Day Machzor, two books of children's short stories, and a popular account of Jewish Mysticism entitled, "God, Sex and Kabbalah." His most recent books are "Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms' and "Which Religion Is Right For You?: A 21st Century Kuzari" both available on Amazon.
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