From Biblical Criticism to Criticism of the Kabbalah: Colonialism and Interreligious Interactions in the Indian Ocean and Yemen

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In 1913 a dispute regarding the kabbalah broke out in the Jewish community of Sanaa. The Dardeim, the anti-kabbalah group, led by Rabbi Yihye Qafih (1850–1931), sought to modernize the community and to preserve “authentic” Yemeni traditions. While most Sanaani Jews supported the Iqashim group, which followed the teachings of Jewish esoteric sources, the Dardeim forcefully objected to the study of the kabbalah. To this day academic research has primarily focused on the local and European-Jewish contexts of the dispute. In this article, however, I examine the controversy from the perspective of the Indian Ocean world. I discuss the dissemination of Islamic ideas from India to Mecca, Istanbul, and Sanaa, and the extent to which they inspired the Dardei movement. At the center of this discussion stands Rabbi Qafih’s book, Milhamot Ha-shem (Wars of the Lord), in which he draws on Izhar al-haqq (Truth revealed), a book written by Maulana Rahmat Allah Kairanawi (1818–1892), a Muslim scholar from India, who fled to Mecca in 1857. Kairanawi used European biblical criticism as part of a struggle between Christians and Muslims prompted by British colonial rule in India. Kairanawi’s book had an important impact on Jewish-Muslim debates in Yemen surrounding the question of the unity of God and on the internal Jewish struggle over the kabbalah. By pointing to contacts that had existed between different regions and different religious communities, this article problematizes attributed divisions between Judaism and Islam, and between the Middle East and the Indian Ocean. Analyzing the Middle East within the context of the Indian Ocean improves our understanding of the particular place of the Jews in Yemen.