Wednesday 19 October 2016



Rambam (1135-1204) was born at the close of the five hundred year period known as the Golden Age of Jewish Spain. This was a time when Jews flourished under Islamic rule, and enjoyed great political and religious freedom[1]

But this Golden Age came to an abrupt end in the mid 1100’s with the rise of a radical Islamic sect known as the Almohadim who presented the Jews and Christians with an ultimatum to either convert or die (which was later rescinded to allowing for the option to leave the country).

One of the reasons for this persecution particularly against Jews was the belief that the Messiah would arrive five hundred years after Mohammad’s ‘revelation’ in 622. When the Messiah did not arrive, it was decided that Jews needed to convert to Islam.

The Christians by and large found refuge in other European countries but the Jews had difficulty in finding sanctuary (although some went to neighbouring Christian Spain).  Most Jews, however, remained in Muslim Spain and were compelled to outwardly adopt Islam as their new religion.

They reasoned that allegiance to Islam only required a verbal declaration and anyway that religion was not considered to be idolatrous. In a strange agreement, the authorities allowed the Jews to practice Judaism in the privacy of their homes, but only after publically attending Mosque and reciting the Koran.

(The Jews remained on in Spain until 1492 when they were eventually expelled from what then became Christian Spain and they were no longer permitted to practice their Judaism even discretely.)

Ramabm's house in Fez Morroco
Rambam was thirteen years old when the Almohadim rose to power. His family were on the run for eleven years, fleeing from Spanish city to city, until they left for Morocco, where they lived for a number of years, until similar Islamic persecutions forced them to flee again, and eventually they settled in Egypt.


While on the move, Rambam’s father, Rabbi Maimon, wrote a letter of comfort or Iggeret Nechama to the majority of Jews who had remained behind in Spain, encouraging them to remain steadfast in their Judaism.

It was at this time that a Moroccan rabbi also wrote a letter to the Jews of Spain, but instead of encouraging them he condemned them in the strongest terms for outwardly converting to Islam.  He wrote that Islam was not a monotheistic religion and was in fact a form of idolatry, for which the Spanish Jews should rather have laid down their lives than to have converted. He effectively placed all of Spanish Jewry under excommunication for their practices. He said that even the act of entering a Mosque without praying was considered heretical.

When Rambam found out about this letter, he strenuously believed it ran contrary to Jewish law. He became incensed and wrote a counter letter of his own to those same Jews who had remained behind in Spain. The letter is known as Iggeret haShmad or Letter of Apostasy.

In Iggeret haShmad Rambam refuted the Moroccan rabbi’s claims and accusations and lifted their spirits. He accused the rabbi of writing about circumstances he could never have understood from his distant abode, without having experienced persecution firsthand.

Even some Talmudic sages, Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Eliezer feigned conversion in order to save their lives.[2]

Rambam reiterated his belief that it was better to submit to Islam and still lead a private Jewish life because that way their children would remain Jewish instead of being orphaned. He further wrote that merely to recite the Shahada (the Islamic proclamation of faith) is permitted if one’s life is threatened.

He made the distinction between the three cardinal sins - idolatry, adultery and murder - for which one is required to give up one’s life rather than transgress them - as opposed to converting to Islam which in his view was not idolatry.

He explained that a real Kiddush haShem (sanctification of G-d’s name) was not to submit to death but rather to live an exemplary, moral and honest life.

Rambam’s tone and tenor in this letter is significantly forceful, even angry towards the Moroccan rabbi, when compared to his other more measured writings.

While he did regard those Jews who remained behind in Spain to have been somewhat negligent and while he did encourage them to try leave, he nevertheless offered his support and even sanction to the way the Spanish Jews were living.

It has been said that as a result of Iggeret haShmad the huge numbers of Jews who continued living in Spain were finally given hope and were made to feel exonerated and still connected to their people. This kept the ‘door open’ for them to remain Jewish and thus saved their future generations.
Had it not been for this letter, the vast majority of Spanish Jews may have felt completely excommunicated and may have lost their desire to remain committed to Judaism.

It is in this sense that it can be said that Rambam played a pivotal role in saving a huge segment of Spanish Jewry.


As a consequence of Iggeret haShmad some[3] contend that Rambam too may have been forced to convert to Islam while still in Spain (or Morocco). Accordingly, he may have experienced firsthand what forced conversion felt like when he wrote about it in his letter - hence his empathy for them. 

Then, as soon as it became safe for him and his family, they denounced their ‘conversion’.
It’s interesting to see that many Muslim writers[4] have claimed Rambam, or Musa bin Maymun, as their own:

The 13th Century Muslim biographer Safadi (who hailed from Safad) wrote;

“When Maimonides came from the West he prayed the tarawih prayers out of the Koran with the people of the boat, it being the month of Ramadan. He Damascus. There the Kadi... happened to be ill. Maimonides attended to him...The Kadi was grateful to him and wished to remunerate him. Maimonides, however...would take nothing from him. 

Presently he bought a house and asked the Kadi to antedate (backdate) the contract by five years. The Kadi, seeing no harm that could arise, readily agreed to the request...Maimonides presently went to Egypt where he entered the service of (another Kadi) Al-Fudil. Some of his fellow passengers on the boat then came and said: ‘This man came with us from the West and prayed...with us in such and such a year.’ Maimonides produced the contract, saying: ‘I was in Damascus long before that year...’[5]

Thus according to Safadi, Rambam cleverly and deviously hid his conversion from the Egyptian Kadi so as not to be punished (by death) for abandoning Islam and openly returning to Judaism.

Herbert Davidson quoting another medieval Muslim writer, Al-Kifti wrote:

“(Those) who had few ties departed (Spain), whereas those who were concerned about property and family ‘exhibited the external guise of Islam’...Moses the son of Maimon chose the latter course. He publicly lived the life of a Muslim. Reading the Quran and reciting Muslim prayers, until he was able to put his affairs in order. 

He then left Spain...travelled to Egypt and resumed the identity of a Jew. At the end of Maimonides’ life, a Muslim jurist from Spain...arrived in Egypt, recognized him, and accused him of having ‘accepted Islam in Spain’. Maimonides’ patron in the sultan’s court rescued him – recidivism from Islam being punishable by death – by declaring; ‘When a man is coerced, his acceptance of Islam is not legally binding’.[6]

But Davidon contends Al-Kifti’s account
 “Maimonides had bitter personal enemies in Egypt as well as ideological enemies throughout the Jewish world who would have clapped their hands in glee at the opportunity of undercutting his reputation and besmirching his name. Yet no information about the conversion of the Maimon known to have penetrated Jewish circles; no medieval Jewish writer ever hints at anything of the sort.”[7]

Historian Alan Nadler, also refutes this and other such claims:

Maimonides practiced the time-honoured medieval tradition of Taqiyya, or prudent dissimulation, by dressing and behaving like a Muslim publically, perhaps occasionally presenting himself at a mosque, while remaining an observant Jew during the darkest period of the Almohad persecution...which...resulted in thousands of forced apostasies and deaths. There is simply no credible evidence that Maimonides converted, let alone that he was a ‘practicing Muslim.’

Dr. Friedlander, best known for his English translation of The Guide for the Perplexed, similarly and completely refutes any claims that Rambam converted saying that the charge (which was apparently well known); “...was probably started by some less favoured physician who envied Maimonides’ successes at the Ayyubids’ court.”

Rambam himself wrote that while on a visit to Jerusalem he entered the Temple Mount (a place usually out of bounds for a practicing Jew). This only added fuel to the rumour that he had converted to Islam. The fact of the matter is that Jews are permitted to enter only certain areas of the Temple Mount, and that is most likely what Rambam did.

In more contemporary terms Jerome A. Chanes writes that “...the practice, during periods of persecution in Sefardic lands, of behaving publicly in a Muslim manner, whilst remaining traditionally observant,“ was very common. 

The early Ashkenazi residents of Jerusalem’s Meah Shearim quarter adopted the same practice of ‘blending in’ for security reasons, a practice copied from the older Sefardic community, dressing like Arabs in striped robes. The ‘zebrot’ of the Batei Ungarn neighbourhood today are the remnants of this history.”[8]


During the eleven years that Rambam and his family were persecuted in Spain, and the years they spent running from danger in Morocco, whilst so many other Jews had been forced to convert (or feign conversion) to Islam on pain of death - could he not have been subject to that same fate?

It is feasible, and as we have seen most probable that he may have been coerced to adopt some outward Muslim practices.

But the definitive answer as to whether or not he was forced to convert to Islam is as elusive as the question is uncomfortably contentious.

[1] There is some contention amongst historians as to whether the Golden Age was as utopian for Jews as it is often made out to be. According to Bernard Lewis the perception is largely exaggerated. He claims that Islam did not offer equality or even pretend that it did.
[2] Avodah Zara 18a
[3] Including Graetz (who refers to anyone who denies this as ‘critical imbecility’), and Prof. Menachem Ben-Sasson of Hebrew University (but he hastens to point out that it was a ‘feigned conversion’).
[4] Al-Kifti
[5] The unpublished Biographical Dictionary of Safadi (Bodleian MS. Arch. Seld.)
For a fascinating refutation of this story see The Legend of the Apostasy of Maimonides, by D. S. Margoliouth The Jewish Quarterly Review Vol. 13, No. 3 (Apr., 1901), pp. 539-541
[6] Moses Maimonides: the Man and his Works, by Herbert Davidson, p. 17
[7] Ibid. p. 18
[8] Jerome A. Chanes, faculty scholar at Brandeis University’s Cohen Center, is the author of “A Dark Side of History:  Antisemitism through the Ages.”

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