The Almohads

The seizure of power in the Maghreb by a fanatical sect disrupted the relations between Muslims and Jews.

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Who Were the Almohads?

The generally harmonious relations that prevailed between the Muslims and Jews throughout the Muslim world in the early medieval period were brutally interrupted with the emergence of a fanatical sect in the twelfth century in North Africa: the Almohads (al-Muwahhidun, “unifiers,” i.e. strict believers in the unity of God). 

Ibn Tumart, the founder of the sect, objected to the moral laxity of the Berbers of North Africa and declared war against the Almoravid dynasty then in control of the Maghreb (North Africa and Muslim Spain). During these battles he became ill and died (1130). He was succeeded by ‘Abd al-Mu’min ibn Ali, who by 1147 had managed to capture Fez and Marrakesh, the capital of the Almoravids. In that year he also sent an expedition to al-Andalus (Spain), but the Almohads did not firmly established themselves there until 1163.

The Almohads’ condemnation of the popular Malikite theological-legal school [a Sunni school of thought named for Malik ibn Anas who lived in Medina in the eight century] led to rebellion against them [the Almohads} throughout southern Morocco and along the coast. This rebellion was crushed and thousands of people, even followers of  'Abd al Mu’min, were executed.

When Marrakesh was captured, according to one source, the Christian church there was destroyed and a great number of Jews and Christian militia were killed. When ‘Abd al-Mu’min conquered Ifriqiya (Tunisia) in 1151, he gave the Jews and Christians there the option of conversion to Islam or death.

Abu Ya’qub Yusuf was the first Almohad ruler of al-Andalus [Andalusia) (1153-1184), establishing a dynasty that lasted there until 1227. As may be seen from a letter of Maimon (father of Maimonides), a religious judge (dayyan) of the Jewish community of Cordoba, persecution of the Jews had begun by 1160. For the most part, however, this consisted of pressuring the Jews to formally convert to Islam, which necessitated merely the recital of the Muslim creed. In his letter, Maimon urged Jews to perform what they can of the commandments of the Torah. Meanwhile, however, many Jews were fleeing the cities held by the Almohads…

Responses to Persecution: The Case of Maimonides and Family

A certain zealous rabbi had written a letter (apparently in Christian Spain) stating that even the appearance of accepting Islam was complete heresy and that one is required to die for the “sanctification of the name” (of God) rather than submit. This aroused the anger of young Maimonides, who wrote a lengthy letter (actually a treatise) in response, cogently arguing against all views set forth by the rabbi.

Nevertheless, he concludes, the advice that he and his family have decided to go upon is to flee “these places” and go to a place where the Torah may still be observed without fear. He and his father, brother and sister (we hear nothing of his mother) thus fled al-Andalus in about 1160 (not 1165, as usually stated) and went to Fez in Morocco. There we know that he studied Talmud with Judah ha-Kohen Ibn Susan, and that sage was killed in 1165.

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Norman Roth is a professor of Jewish History at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.