The Almohads

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

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Reprinted with permission from the author.

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.

More than one writer has commented on the peculiarity of “going from the frying pan into the fire,” in the family’s decision to go to Fez, a major center of the Almohads. However, we now know that persecution of the Jews in Fez at that time was much less severe than in other communities, and by the time the situation worsened, Maimonides and his family had gone to Palestine and later to Egypt. It needs to be pointed out, especially in light of recent claims by uninformed writers, that Maimonides himself never converted to Islam—a fact long ago established by competent scholars….

Furthermore, there is no evidence to support the theory of Jewish soldiers anywhere who supposedly fought against the Almohad troops, nor that the Almohads conquered certain cities on a Saturday because this was the Jewish Sabbath and they would not fight on that day.

Writings on Martyrdom: Ibn 'Aknin and Ibn Ezra

Ibn 'Aknin, who clearly never met Maimonides, although he had generally a very high regard for his works, fled to Barcelona in Christian Spain. [Joseph b. Judah Ibn ‘Aknin was a Jewish scholar and physician who lived in Muslim Spain.] There, he composed a work, still in manuscript, in which he strongly disagreed with Maimonides’ views about persecution. Ibn ‘Aknin viewed the Almohads as waging a true “religious persecution” in which Jews were required to sacrifice themselves in order to sanctify God’s name, and he praised the saints of Fez, Sijilmasa, and Dra’a (all North Africa) for having done just this. By implication, the Jews of Tlemcen, Marrakesh, Ceuta, and Meknes had been killed by the Almohads in the invasions or afterward, and had not chosen death as martyrs.

The renowned poet and biblical commentator Abraham ibn Ezra from al-Andalus, although then wandering through Europe and thus not an eyewitness, composed a lengthy eulogy on the calamities that befell Jews in all of these cities. If this poem reflects reality, it would appear that some of these towns (Dra’a has altogether vanished in modern times) were indeed very important centers of Jewish learning and population.

The Jews Bounce Back

In al-Andalus there is some evidence that the early period of persecution, when Jews were severely restricted in certain areas (particularly business), lessened. There was widespread recognition among the Muslims that the Jews were far from being sincere converts.

Nevertheless, they were soon again living in luxury and dressing in the finest clothing. The ruler Abu Yusuf Ya’qub (1184-1199) took steps against this and introduced the requirement that Jews must dress in the Muslim fashion of mourning (dark blue or black) with long cloak-like garments. The subsequent ruler, Abu ‘Abd-Allah, ordered that Jews wear yellow cloaks or turbans, which continued until 1224 (The conjecture that this had anything to do with the so-called yellow badge imposed upon Jews in some lands by the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 is wholly groundless; there was no requirement that the badge be yellow at all. However, the original working of the council decree, which called for “distinctive clothing” to be worn by Jews, may have been indirectly influenced by this Muslim requirement.)

Neither in North Africa nor, even more so, in al-Andalus did Jewish communities or Jewish life entirely come to an end, as exaggerated claims would have it. Nevertheless, the long period of persecution certainly depleted both the Jewish population and culture.

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