Forced Conversion of Aden Jews


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The document before us tells of the forced conversion of the Jews of Aden in the twelfth century - an episode in the history of the Jewish Diaspora in Muslim countries. Aden was then a city that was part of Yemen. Yemen was under the rule of a local ruler, but at least theoretically subject to the Caliph in Baghdad, in what is now Iraq.

The perfect coexistence of Jews and Muslims under Muslim rule is a modern myth that is widely believed. As folklore, the glorious past of the Jews under Islamic rule exists in the same mythological time and place as the Garden of Eden, the round table of King Arthur and the kingdom of Prester John. 

The "golden age" of Jewish culture under Muslim rule has been glorified and fictionalized for political reasons, with the backing not only of Muslims, but of distinguished western scholars.

The position of the Jews was good in Muslim lands only relative to the horrors of European persecution of Jews. The Jews were generally tolerated and used by Christians and by Muslims as long as they were needed for their skills and commercial abilities: literacy, trade, money lending (Muslims and Christians were forbidden to charge interest, greatly retarding the growth of commerce). Muslim civilization was for a long time more developed than that of Christian Europe, and so there was, perhaps, a greater need of Jews, as well as a less direct religious rivalry. The accusation that "the Jews killed the Messiah" was not applicable in Muslim lands, since the Muslims did not consider Jesus to be the Messiah. But Muslims sometimes accused Jews of having killed "the prophets."

 Though Jews were relatively safer in Muslim lands, there were numerous instances of pogroms, forced conversions and other manifestations of violent Anti-Semitism and intolerance, as well. in recent times, as a few  blood libels. In Muslim lands as in Christian Europe, Jews were an object of history and never a subject, always victims and never victors.

There were good and prosperous times for Jews in every society and in every age as well. But often the histories that try to euphemize, sanitize and eulogize the history of the Jews in the  Muslim  countries of the Diaspora produce a strange narrative. It is almost as though a child wrote an essay about his family trip, explaining all the wonderful sights that they saw along the way, and in the last sentence concluded: "At the end of the trip we got into a six car pile up and my parents and brother were killed. Otherwise, we all had a great time."

It is probably inevitable that any group living as a subject minority and not in control of its own destiny would be exposed to these persecutions and to the vicissitudes of common prejudice. It is therefore foolish to insist that Jewish life under Muslim rule was a perpetual idyll or that return to that state is desirable. The story of  Diaspora life in Muslim lands as in Europe was always the same in the long run, and had to be the same. Jews would move to a place of relative comfort, where they were subject only to sporadic persecutions and perhaps Jewish cultural life would flourish for a time. Eventually however, the Jews were often expelled, converted or killed en masse. In the best of times they were subject to the "Dhimmi laws" that prescribed humiliating conditions of dress and other restrictions. 

Some periods were worse than others. Several Caliphs and rulers in Spain, Egypt and elsewhere ordered the massed forced conversion of the Jews. In a few cases, like that of the Jews of Aden related below, the decree was eventually rescinded. In other cases it was not. In some other cases, Jews who could not pay the Jizya tax for Dhimmi (Christians and Jews) were given a choice between conversion or death

The ruler of Yemen, a nephew of Saladin. al Malik al Mu'izz Ismail had a brief but interesting career, ruling from 1197 to 1201. He styled himself Caliph, which did not endear him to the real Caliph in Baghdad, and generally made a nuisance of himself. One day, he decreed that all the Jews of Yemen must be converted. Eventually, he got to Aden to carry on with the conversions. The head of the Jewish community, Shaikh Madmun (Shmaryah) ben David was called before the ruler (or his plenipotentiary - it is not clear which)  and forced to convert first, and then the rest of the community was made to follow. Foreign merchants were not forced to convert, but they were forced to pay the Jizya poll tax.

The fragment below was found in the famous Geniza (a place where old documents, no longer useful are stored) of the ancient Cairo Synagogue. It is part of a letter from a merchant that tells the story in passing, along with business and other news. Some of the contents, in square brackets, have been reconstructed as the manuscript was in poor condition or added as explanations of allusions in the text.

There are several typical and important features to be noted in this case. The first is that the persecutions promulgated by the ruler were theoretically, at least, contrary to Muslim law. Forced conversion was supposedly forbidden, and likewise it was forbidden to collect the Jizya tax anywhere other than the place of residence of the dhimmi. Advocates of the notion that Islam was especially tolerant of Jews claim that these are aberrations - "exceptions that prove the rule." But the rule seems to have been that there was not really a rule. The violations of law are remarkable only in being unremarkable. Most of the Christian persecutions of the Jews were also supposedly illegal according to church law, but they took place in any case, carried out by secular rulers and sometimes by the church itself, contrary to its own doctrines. Likewise in Islam, all the forced conversions and other "excesses" were "aberrations," but there were many such "aberrations" - exceptions that proved there was no rule.  Islam is not different from Christianity in that respect.

The second is that the Jews who somehow escaped these perils saw nothing wrong in thanking God for their good fortune, rather than pondering the origin of the bad fortune that caused the persecution. The last is that any persecution that did not end in massive catastrophe was, and is, considered a great boon. You will no doubt consider, as did the Jews of that time, that the fact that the decree was eventually rescinded shows the great tolerance of Islam. Do not forget that several Jews were killed however, and that could not be rescinded, and keep in mind that a portion of those who had converted in Yemen and Aden probably considered it wiser and safer to remain adherents of their new faith, rather than try the risks of attempting to remain Jewish. Even the results of "temporary" persecutions were in part irreversible.

Ami Isseroff

January 9, 2010

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Letter Regarding Forced Conversion of Aden Jews

... Aden. Immediately upon his1 arrival [he was taken to the ruler] who said to him, "Become a Muslim, or you will cause the death of your brethren [of most of the the Jews]. He cried bitterly, but there was no other way for him [to escape] except to embrace Islam. Before his arrival in Aden, all those who were with him on the mountains had apostasized,2 the physician the Effiicient 3 and everyone on the mountains; only the Jews of Aden remained. [But] Sheikh Madmun accepted Islam by Wednesday, the first of Dhu l'Qa'ada.4 On Friday, the third, the bell (of the market crier) was rung: "Community of Jews, all of you, anyone who will be late in appearing in the audience hall after [tomorrow] noon, will be killed" None of the Jews remained, all went up 5 to the audience hall. Moreover, he (evidently al Mu'izz) ordered that anyone returning to the Jewish faith [alternate translation: refusing to accept Islam] would be killed. Thus all apostasized. Some6 of the very religious, who defected from [ alternate translation: refused to accept] Islam7, were beheaded. 

As to us, do not ask me what we felt, witnessing that day horrors the like of which we had never seen. [alt. trans.... how much our hearts were pained. We have never seen a worse day!]

But with us God, the Exalted, wrought with us a miracle and saved us, not through our might and power  [alt trans: not through our might and by the strength of our merit]8 but through is grace and favor. For when we went up with them to the audience hall, the foreigners assembled separately, and the caliph was consulted about them. God put these words into his mouth, "No foreigner should be molested."9 He ordered that everyone should pay a third of [alt. trans: three times] the poll tax.10 We disbursed this and he dismissed us graciously  [alt. trans: we were delivered in the best possible situation] thank God. This is the outcome [of all] that happened. But by the great God, I am really not able to convey to you even part of what happened, for witnessing an event is one thing and hearing about it - quite another.

The merchants suffered from the indignation of the [new] imposition promulgated. Finally, however, God the Exalted, helped. He (al Mu'izz) had ordered that 15 out of 100 dinars should be taken from everyone both at arrival and departure, but God helped, and he [retracted this] and ordered that this Karim [merchant group] should remain unchanged with no rise in tariff. But everyone coming later would have to pay 15 out of 100 dinars from all goods, and also from gold and silver, from wheat and flour, in short from everything. Such will be the earnings of anyone coming here next year.

( A price list is inserted here.)

I asked God for guidance and am traveling home in the boat of Ibn Salmun, the same in which I made the passage out. May got bestow safety upon it. My brother Abu Nasr will be traveling with me. I am kissing your hands and feet.11   


1. Madmun ben David, or in Hebrew, Shmaryah ben David, the head of the Jewish community. Ben David returned to Judaism and wrote of the repeal of the decree in 1202.

2. The Hebrew word is "pasha" given here in Arabized Hebrew as "Basha," variously interpreted as "renouncing one's allegiance" and similar but perhaps, depending on spelling, meaning simply, "transgressed" or "strayed." 

3. In Arabic, al Sadid.

4. August 25.

5. In Arabic, al Manzar, which either can mean a large room or floor in the open air or it may refer to the al Manzar palace which was apparently the residence of the king.

6. Or "two."

7. Arabic " ta'aba an al Islam"

8. Apparently a quote or allusion to Zecharaiah 4:6, but evidently quoted in a jargon of Arabic and Hebrew that was difficult to decipher.

9. Probably because these Jewish India merchants were of considerable importance for the Aden economy.

10. This was illegal, since the Jizya (poll tax of Jews and Christians) was to be paid in the place of residence. Evidently, there were many deviations from legality at different times.

11. This was the customary greeting of honor for a senior relative or judge. Some have speculated that  the trader was writing to his relative in Cairo, perhaps Isaac ben Sason, the Jewish chief judge of Cairo.

Document of the Cairo Geniza. Adapted from India traders of the middle ages: documents from the Cairo Geniza ('India book') By Shelomo D. Goitein and Mordechai Akiva Friedman. Koninklijke Brill NV (Leiden, Boston). 2006 pp. 506-512.

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