A savior or an impostor? A question raised among Muslims and Jews alike in Yemen in the mid 12th century, when a man called Ali bin Al-Mahdi proclaimed himself The Mahdi, the messianic redeemer of the Islamic faith followed by another man claiming to be the savior of the Jews.
Saladin put an end to the allegations of Ali bin Al-Mahdi and his son as he occupied Yemen. Meanwhile, Jews resorted to Sephardic Jewish philosopher Moses ben Maimon -- commonly known as Maimonides -- to ask him about their self-proclaimed savior; he confirmed he was "insane" and did not fit the profile of the real messiah.
Jews in Yemen lived in isolation, which all but ended in the 19th century when they stopped acting upon Sufi beliefs and based their judgments on reason and rationality.
The Museum of the Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot in Tel Aviv has revealed the letter of Maimonides. Also, Israeli paper Haaretz has published a report
in Hebrew about this epoch, titled "An 800-year-old tumultuous story of Yemen's Jews and Pontiff Maimonides".
The report reads: "In the mid 12th century, the Jews in Yemen realized they lived in the midst of highly dramatic events. The Fatimids who ruled the country for a long period of time started to lose large swathes of their territory to a charismatic religious preacher called Ali bin Al-Mahdi. His name was not a coincidence; according to the Islamic faith, The Mahdi is the savior."
"Ali considered himself the man who would lead Muslims to salvation. He started gathering followers and pushed for long-term religious reforms that created an environment of religious extremism. Ultimately, Bin Al-Mahdi came to power in Yemen and even enabled his son Abdul-Nabi, who followed in his father's footsteps and multiplied violations against Jews, to inherit the throne."
Ban on Jewish Rituals
The Islamic rule tried to force Jews to convert to Islam, banning Jewish rituals in the process. In those days, particularly in 1172, someone claimed to be the messiah. The name of this person was not documented, yet he was renowned for widely spreading his claims. Many Jewish factions in Yemen believed the messiah had actually arrived, having changed some of their religious convictions and even prayers accordingly. There are also indications that Muslims in Yemen followed the Jewish messiah, seemingly out of belief that his arrival would pave the way for The Mahdi to come.
The fake Jewish messiah in Yemen is neglected in history books, unlike Maimonides, one of the most significant religious Jewish thinkers of all time and a prominent philosopher in the Middle Ages.
The "Epistle to Yemen" is the most important letter of Maimonides. It was directed to Jewish leader Jacob ben Nathanael, who had sent Maimonides a message expressing his fear over the crucial period Jews were experiencing in Yemen. He was perplexed thinking about whether the new messiah was real, asking for the guidance of Maimonides as one of the most prominent rabbis at the time. The latter replied in detail.
Standing Against Crackdown
In the Epistle to Yemen, Maimonides echoed Ben Nathanael's sentiments and advised Jews to pray constantly, stressing that this hardship would pass. He also called on Jews to stand their ground amid pursuits, ordinances of destruction and forced conversion. Maimonides referred to when Jews had defied previous attempts to force them into converting to other religions, saying that Islam and Christianity were false religions that must not be taken seriously. Moreover, Maimonides advised against thinking about the end of the world and the arrival of the savior.
On the new messiah, Maimonides assured that he was an impostor. Describing him as an "insane" individual who did not fit to the description of the messiah, Maimonides called for his arrest, warning of possible wrath from the Muslims as a result of his movement, a scenario he believed would further hurt the Jewish community.
Maimonides called on Ben Nathanael to distribute copies of his letter to all Yemen-based Jews, who he believed were in danger.
The movement of the fake messiah lasted for years in Yemen, but it eventually died down. The dynasty of Bin Al-Mahdi also remained for no more than one generation after his demise, as Saladin conquered Yemen and established the Ayyubid dynasty. These developments restored the country's status in the region.
The Epistle to Yemen had a great impact for hundreds of years; the Jews in Yemen have valued the efforts Maimonides exerted for their own sake. Subsequently, his ideologies were dominant the most among the Jewish community in Yemen.
Imitating Lifestyle of Spain's Jews
There were two currents among Jews in Yemen. The first adopted the traditions of the Sephardi Jews, the Jewish ethnic division that emerged in the early Middle Ages and lived in Spain under the rule of the Islamic Caliphate. The second group followed Maimonides' teachings that he has documented in his book, "Mishneh Torah".
Maimonides' followers were not entirely isolated. Even though they adopted his views and prayers, they were deeply influenced by the Sephardi Jews in the following centuries. They were particularly affected by Sufism that the Sephardi Jews believed in. This current eventually combined both Maimonides' teachings and Sufism while proclaiming loyalty to him.
Relative Isolation of Jews in Yemen
During the 19th century, a dramatic change saw channels of communication among various Jewish factions end the relative isolation of the Jews in Yemen. Scholars including Jewish-French orientalist Joseph Halevy and Edward Glayzer notably influenced a number of rabbis in Yemen. For instance, Yihyeh Qafih, one of the foremost rabbis in Sanaa, was introduced to the fact that Maimonides had been keen to resort to reason in all aspects of life and shunned Sufi beliefs. Halevy and Glayzer also stressed that the general concept of Sufism contradicted rationality and the concept of God in Judaism.
Driven by this progressive trend, Qafih established a movement named the "Generation of Opinion" with the aim of fighting Sufism. He dismissed the Zohar -- the foundational work in the literature of Jewish mystical thought known as Kabbalah, which was written in Spain in the 13th century -- and all other Kabbalah books as misleading. In order for Jews in Yemen to follow Maimonides at the time, they would have to oppose every Sufi argument.
Qafih's stance created a fuss not only among Jews in Yemen, but around the whole world, with rabbis writing counter-arguments and questioning his views. The Generation of Opinion movement vanished after the Jews of Yemen immigrated to Israel. However, loyalty to Maimonides has lived on until today. Even though his followers are much fewer, they more or less observe the same rituals that have started since the appearance of the false messiah 800 years ago.