The Almohads

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

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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.)

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