December 13th marked the 804th anniversary of the death of Maimonides (d. 1203, in Cairo), renowned Talmudist, philosopher, astronomer, and physician. The biography of this “second Moses,” is often cited by those who would extol the purported Muslim ecumenism of the high Middle Ages—particularly in “Andalusia,” or Muslim Spain, invariably accompanied by a denunciation of the fanatical intolerance of Christian Western Europe, during the same era.
A particularly egregious example of this genre of loaded comparisons was made by Amartya Sen, the Nobel laureate economist, in his recent book Identity and Violence. Sen has the temerity to proclaim, “…the Jewish Philosopher Maimonides was forced to emigrate from an intolerant Europe in the twelfth century, he found a tolerant refuge in the Arab world.”
Sen’s ahistorical drivel aside, Maimonides (b. 1135, in Cordova) was but thirteen years old (in 1148) when Muslim Cordova fell into the hands of the particularly fanatical Berber Muslim Almohads, who invaded the Iberian peninsula from North Africa. Maimonides and all the dhimmi Jews in Cordova were compelled to choose between Islam and exile. Choosing the latter course, Maimonides and his family for twelve years subsequently led a nomadic life, wandering across Spain. By 1160 they crossed the Mediterranean, and settled at Fez, Morocco (also under Almohad control) where, unknown to the authorities, they hoped to pass as Muslims, while living as crypto-Jews. Maimonides’ dual life, however, became increasingly dangerous as his reputation was steadily growing, and the authorities began to inquire into the religious disposition of this highly gifted young man. He was even charged by an informer with the crime of having relapsed (apostasized) from Islam, and, but for the intercession of the poet and theologian Abu al-‘Arab al Mu’ishah, a Muslim friend, he would have suffered the fate of his colleague Judah ibn Shoshan, who had shortly before been executed on a similar charge. Given these precarious circumstances, Maimonides’ family left Fez, embarking in 1165 to Acre, then to Jerusalem, and on to Fostat (Cairo), where they settled, living once again as dhimmis, albeit under more tolerant Fatimid rule.
The jihad depredations of the Almohads (1130-1232) wreaked enormous destruction on both the Jewish and Christian populations in Spain and North Africa. A contemporary Judeo-Arabic account by Solomon Cohen (which comports with Arab historian Ibn Baydhaq’s sequence of events), from January 1148 C.E, described the Muslim Almohad conquests in North Africa, and Spain, as follows:
Abd al-Mumin…the leader of the Almohads after the death of Muhammad Ibn Tumart the Mahdi …captured Tlemcen [in the Maghreb] and killed all those who were in it, including the Jews, except those who embraced Islam…[In Sijilmasa] One hundred and fifty persons were killed for clinging to their [Jewish] faith…All the cities in the Almoravid [dynastic rulers of North Africa and Spain prior to the Almohads] state were conquered by the Almohads. One hundred thousand persons were killed in Fez on that occasion, and 120,000 in Marrakesh. The Jews in all [Maghreb] localities [conquered]…groaned under the heavy yoke of the Almohads; many had been killed, many others converted; none were able to appear in public as Jews…Large areas between Seville and Tortosa [in Spain] had likewise fallen into Almohad hands.
This devastation—massacre, captivity, and forced conversion—was described by the Jewish chronicler Abraham Ibn Daud, and the poet Abraham Ibn Ezra. Suspicious of the sincerity of the Jewish converts to Islam, Muslim “inquisitors”, i.e., antedating their Christian Spanish counterparts by three centuries, removed the children from such families, placing them in the care of Muslim educators. When Sijilmasa [an oasis town southwest of Fez] was conquered by the Almohads in 1146, the Jews were given the option of conversion or death. While 150 Jews chose martyrdom, others converted to Islam, including the dayyan [rabbi, or assistant rabbi] Joseph b. Amram (who later reverted to Judaism). The town of Dar’a suffered a similar fate. Abraham Ibn Ezra’s moving elegy Ahah Yarad Al Sefarad describes the Almohad destruction of both Spanish (Seville, Cordova, Jaen, Almeria) and North African Jewish communities, including Sijilmasa and Dar’a (along with others in Marrakesh, Fez, Tlemcen, Ceuta, and Meknes).
Ibn Aqnin (d. 1220), a renowned philosopher and commentator, who was born in Barcelona in 1150, fled the Almohad persecutions with his family, also escaping to Fez. Living there as a crypto-Jew, he met Maimonides and recorded his own poignant writings about the sufferings of the Jews under Almohad rule. Ibn Aqnin wrote during the reign of Abu Yusuf al-Mansur (r. 1184-1199), four decades after the onset of the Almohad persecutions in 1140. Thus the Jews forcibly converted to Islam were already third generation Muslims. Despite this, al-Mansur continued to impose restrictions upon them, which Ibn Aqnin chronicles. From his Tibb al-nufus (Therapy of the Soul), Ibn Aqnin, laments:
Our hearts are disquieted and our souls are affrighted at every moment that passes, for we have no security or stability…Past persecutions and former decrees were directed against those who remained faithful to the Law of Israel and kept them tenaciously so that they would even die for the sake of Heaven. In the event that they submitted to their demands, [our enemies] would extol and honor them. . . But in the present persecutions, on the contrary, however much we appear to obey their instructions to embrace their religion and forsake our own, they burden our yoke and render our travail more arduous. . . .Behold the hardships of the apostates of our land who completely abandoned the faith and changed their attire on account of these persecutions. But their conversion has been of no avail to them whatsoever, for they are subjected to the same vexations as those who have remained faithful to their creed. Indeed, even the conversion of their fathers or grandfathers…has been of no advantage to them.
If we were to consider the persecutions that have befallen us in recent years, we would not find anything comparable recorded by our ancestors in their annals. We are made the object of inquisitions; great and small testify against us and judgments are pronounced, the least of which render lawful the spilling of our blood, the confiscation of our property, and the dishonor of our wives.
… the [Muslim] custodians are able to dispose of our young children and their belongings as they see fit. If they were given to an individual who feared Allah, then he would endeavor to educate the children in his religion, for one of their principles is that all children are originally born as Muslims and only their parents bring them up as Jews, Christians, or Magians. Thus, if this individual educates them in [what they state is] their original religion [i.e., Islam] and does not leave the children with those [i.e., the Jews] that will abduct them therefrom, he will obtain a considerable reward from Allah…
… We were prohibited to practice commerce, which is our livelihood, for there is no life without the food to sustain our bodies and clothes to protect them from the heat and cold. The latter can only be obtained through trade for this is their source and cause, without which its effect, namely our existence, would disappear. In so doing their design was to weaken our strong and annihilate our weak…
… Then they imposed upon us distinctive garments…As for the decree enforcing the wearing of long sleeves, its purpose was to make us resemble the inferior state of women, who are without strength. They were intended by their length to make us unsightly, whereas their color was to make us loathsome… The purpose of these distinctive garments is to differentiate us from among them so that we should be recognized in our dealings with them without any doubt, in order that they might treat us with disparagement and humiliation. . . Moreover it allows our blood to be spilled with impunity. For whenever we travel on the wayside from town to town, we are waylaid by robbers and brigands and are murdered secretly at night or killed in broad daylight…
Now, the purpose of the persecution of Ishmael, whether they require us to renounce our religion in public or in private is only to annihilate the faith of Israel and consequently one is bound to accept death rather than commit the slightest sin . . . as did the martyrs of Fez, Sijilmasa, and Dar’a.
Maimonides’ The Epistle to the Jews of Yemen was written in about 1172 in reply to inquiries by Jacob ben Netan’el al-Fayyūmi, who headed the Jewish community in Yemen. At that time, the Jews of Yemen were experiencing a crisis—hardly unfamiliar to Maimonides—as they were being forced to convert to Islam, a campaign launched in about 1165 by ‘Abd-al-Nabī ibn Mahdi. Maimonides provided the Yemenite Jewish communal leader with guidance, and what encouragement he could muster. The Epistle to the Jews of Yemen provides an unflinchingly honest view of what Maimonides thought of the Muslim prophet Muhammad, or “the Madman” as he calls him, and about Islam generally. Maimonides writes:
You write that the rebel leader in Yemen decreed compulsory apostasy for the Jews by forcing the Jewish inhabitants of all the places he had subdued to desert the Jewish religion just as the Berbers had compelled them to do in Maghreb [i.e.Islamic West]. Verily, this news has broken our backs and has astounded and dumbfounded the whole of our community. And rightly so. For these are evil tidings, “and whosoever heareth of them, both his ears tingle (I Samuel 3:11).” Indeed our hearts are weakened, our minds are confused, and the powers of the body wasted because of the dire misfortunes which brought religious persecutions upon us from the two ends of the world, the East and the West, “so that the enemies were in the midst of Israel, some on this side, and some on that side.” (Joshua 8:22).
Maimonides makes clear that the unrelenting persecutions of the Jews by the Muslims is tantamount to forced conversion:
…the continuous persecutions will cause many to drift away from our faith, to have misgivings, or to go astray, because they witnessed our feebleness, and noted the triumph of our adversaries and their dominion over us…
He then notes: “After him arose the Madman who emulated his precursor since he paved the way for him. But he added the further objective of procuring rule and submission, and he invented his well known religion.” Medieval Jewish writers often referred to Muhammad as ha-meshugga,Madman—the Hebrew term, as historian Norman Stillman has observed wryly, being “pregnant with connotations.”
Georges Vajda’s magisterial 1937 essay on the anti-Jewish motifs in the hadith, includes a fascinating discussion from Maimonides Teshuvot Responsa on the question of whether Jews should attempt to teach the Torah to Muslims, versus Christians. Although, in principle the response is negative, i.e., non-Jews were proscribed from formal study of the Torah per se, Maimonides makes this striking distinction between Christians and Muslims, regarding the teaching of the commandments and their explanations, because of the unique threat posed by Muslims due to their doctrinal intolerance:
…it is permitted to teach the commandments and the explanations according to [rabbinic] law to the Christians, but it is prohibited to do likewise for the Muslims. You know, in effect, that according to their belief this Torah is not from heaven and if you teach them something, they will find it contrary to their tradition, because their practices are confused and their opinions bizarre mippnei she-ba’uu la-hem debariim be-ma`asiim[because a mish-mash of various practices and strange, inapplicable statements were received by them.] What [one teaches them] will not convince them of the falseness of their opinions, but they will interpret it according to their erroneous principles and they will oppress us. [F]or this reason…they hate all [non-Muslims] who live among them. It would then just be a stumbling block for the Israelites who, because of their sins, are in captivity among them. On the contrary, the uncircumcised [Christians] admit that the text of the Torah, such as we have it, is intact. They interpret it only in an erroneous way and use it for purposes of the allegorical exegesis that is proper to them Ve-yirmezuu bah ha-remaziim hay-yedu`iim la-hem[They would exchange secret signs known only to them.] If one informs them about the correct interpretation, there is hope that they will return from their error, and even if they do not, there is not stumbling block for Israel, for they do not find in their religious law any contradiction with ours.
Returning to The Epistle to the Jews of Yemen, Maimonides highlights one of the presumptive reasons for Muslim hatred of Jews:
Inasmuch as the Muslims could not find a single proof in the entire Bible nor a reference or possible allusion to their prophet which they could utilize, they were compelled to accuse us saying, “You have altered the text of the Torah, and expunged every trace of the name of Mohammed therefrom.” They could find nothing stronger than this ignominious argument.
Elaborating on the depth of Muslim hatred for the Jews, Maimonides makes a further profound observation regarding the Jewish predilection for denial, a feature that he insists will hasten their destruction:
Remember, my co-religionists, that on account of the vast number of our sins, God has hurled us in the midst of this people, the Arabs, who have persecuted us severely, and passed baneful and discriminatory legislation against us, as Scripture has forewarned us, ‘Our enemies themselves shall judge us’ (Deuteronomy 32:31). Never did a nation molest, degrade, debase and hate us as much as they …. Although we were dishonored by them beyond human endurance, and had to put with their fabrications, yet we behaved like him who is depicted by the inspired writer, “But I am as a deaf man, I hear not, and I am as a dumb man that openeth not his mouth.” (Psalms 38:14). Similarly our sages instructed us to bear the prevarications and preposterousness of Ishmael in silence. They found a cryptic allusion for this attitude in the names of his sons “Mishma, Dumah, and Massa” (Genesis 25:14), which was interpreted to mean, “Listen, be silent, and endure.” (Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, ad locum). We have acquiesced, both old and young, to inure ourselves to humiliation, as Isaiah instructed us “I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair.” (50:6). All this notwithstanding, we do not escape this continued maltreatment which well nigh crushes us. No matter how much we suffer and elect to remain at peace with them, they stir up strife and sedition, as David predicted, “I am all peace, but when I speak, they are for war.” (Psalms 120:7). If, therefore, we start trouble and claim power from them absurdly and preposterously we certainly give ourselves up to destruction.”
Just over 800 years later, ignoring Maimonides sadly timeless observation about such feckless appeasement of Islamic supremacism—as the Israeli, most notably, and US governments are so wont to do—is truly “Meshugga,” with all the modern and ancient connotations of the expression.
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