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Kerstin Hünefeld (Alumna BGSMCS)


Islamic Governance in Yemen: Imām Yaḥyā 's Protection of the Jews and the Negotiation of Power

DHIMMA-SPACE” - theoretical approach or conceptual hypothesis

The protection- or dhimma-relationship between the Islamic ruler and the non-Muslim religious minority is usually conceived as a bilateral relationship. I doubt this conception and start my research from a revisited-notion of the dhimma-relationship as an interactive and multi-layered arena of action, a space of governance and asymmetric control, or, as I like to call it: a Dhimma-Space!

This space was not only used by Imām Yaḥyā and the Jewish communities, but by various other actors that were involved directly or indirectly in cases negotiated in the legal framework of dhimma. Analysing petitions written by members of the Yemenite Jewish communities to Imam Yaḥyā and other actors dispose of power within his government, I am looking for tensions and power struggles between Imam Yahya and various other players. Among those players, I focus on religious-legal scholars and the struggle for religious authority.

Research Questions

  • To what extent was Imām Yahyā able to make decisions independently from the, or certain religious-legal scholars?
  • If there were other actors, who challenged the Imām’s religious-legal authority, how was their authority constituted and uphold? And how was religious-legal authority negotiated between the different players dispose of it?
  • How do other actors, e.g. the dhimmis get involved into these interactions? And how is the dhimma-Relationship used for this?
  • What conclusions can be drawn concerning Imām Yaḥyā’s self-image as a Zaydī Imām, his ideal of good governance and his strategies to legitimate his rule as righteous?
  • What can be said concerning practices of participation or exertion of political influence within the boundaries of the Zaydī Imamate as one example of Islamic statehood and practical applied sharia law? And to what extend were actors who did not belong to the ‘ruling elite’ able to influence their surrounding?
  • Which strategies of governance did different players apply to achieve their aims? And why did some work and some didn’t?
  • What relevance does the Dhimma-Space have as a governance factor for Islamic statehood in Yemen and beyond?

Sources: Salim b. Said al-Jamal (1907-2001) and his document collection

Salim b. Said al-Jamal was a Jew from Ṣanʿāʾ who worked as a mediator between Imām Yaḥyā and the Jewish communities from 1927 until his emigration to Palestine in 1944. His document collection includes more than 1000 handwritten Arabic petitions to Imām Yaḥyā and others and is one main source for my research.


Al-Mutawakkil ʿalā-allāh Imām Yaḥyā b. Muḥammad Ḥamīd al-Dīn (1868-1948) and the Zaydī Imamate

Yahya b. Muhammad Hamid al-Din was elected as the new Zaydi Imam, i.e. the spiritual and political leader of 5er shii Islam (Zaydiyya) in 1904. When the Ottomans withdrawaled from Yemen in 1918/19, he took over their former territories and ruled great parts of Yemen until his assassination in 1948. Besides being the Zaydī Imām, Imām Yaḥyā bared the title Amir al-Mu’minin (“Leader of the faithful”) and after being addressed as such by others, also called himself the ‘King’ of the Mutawakkilite Kingdom.

The Zaydi Imamate was founded in Yemen at the early 10th century and was overthrown by the republican revolution of 1962.

First Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. Gudrun Krämer

Second Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Ulrike Freitag

Third Supervisor: Dr. Gabriele vom Bruck

  • Hünefeld, K. (In press). „Dhimma Space and its Governmental Relevance: The Protection-Relationship (Dhimma) between Imām Yaḥyā Ḥamīd al-Dīn (1869-1948) and the Yemenite Jews revisited“, in Y. Tobi and A. Gaimani (eds.), Proceedings of the 2010 International Conference on the Jews of Yemen, Bar Ilan University, Center for the Study of Yemen's Jewry and its Culture, Ben-Zvi Institut, Jerusalem.
  • Hünefeld, K. und M. Anzi, 2015. „Ṣanʿāʾ, Jerusalem, New York: Imām Yaḥyā Ḥamīd al-Dīn (1869-1948) and Yemeni-Jewish Migration from Palestine to the United States“, in S. Schmitdke, C. Rauch and D. Hollenberg (eds.), The Yemeni Manuscript Tradition, Leiden: Brill. S. 252-280.
  • ------. 2013. „Niẓām al-Yahūd (“The Statute of the Jews”): Imām Yaḥyā’s writing to the Jews of Ṣanʿāʾ from 1323/1905“, in A. Regourd and E. Vallet (eds.), Chronique du Manuscrit au Yémen 16, Centre Français d’archéologie et de Sciences Sociales du Sanaa (CEFAS) and Ministère des Affaires Etrangères Ambassade de France au Yémen, Sanaa. S. 26-74.
  • Hünefeld, K. und T. Ilan. 2011. Lexicon of Jewish Names in Late Antiquity, Part IV: The Eastern Diaspora 330 BCE-650 CE, Text and Studies in Ancient Judaism, Bd. 141, P. Schäfer, A.Y. Reed, S. Schwartz et al. (eds.), Mohr Siebeck: Tübingen.
  • ------. 2011. „The Imām Is Responsible for Me Before God! – The Dimension of Protection (Dhimma) Granted by Imām Yaḥyā to the Jews of Yemen“, in A. Oettinger and D. Bar-Maoz, (eds.), Mittuv Yosef: Yosef Tobi Jubilee Volume, Vol. 2: The Jews of Yemen: History and Culture, Haifa. S. lxxxii-cii.
  • ------. 2010. Imam Yaḥyā Ḥamīd ad-Dīn und die Juden in Sana’a (1904-1948): Die Dimension von Schutz (Dhimma) in den Dokumenten der Sammlung des Rabbi Sālim b. Saʿīd al-Ǧamal, Berlin: Klaus Schwarz.