Muwaḥidūn: A Study of the Almohads and the Moroccan Jews Under Their Domain
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In studying the history of the Jews in Morocco, we quickly come upon a curious phenomenon: while it can certainly be said that "Torah never ceased from Morocco", we do find a great void in Judaic literature from a few decades after the era in which rabbis such as Isaac Al-Fasi flourished until the arrival of the 1391 Spanish exiles. Or, more accurately, until the Spanish expulsion a century later (basically during the entire era which is known as the period of the "Rishonim"). What was the cause of this centuries-long pause in Jewish learning?
1. Early History
Morocco had been conquered and occupied by the Arabs since the year 670, and had been independent from the Califate in Baghdad since 789, but as was the case in America or any other land occupied by foreigners, the natives (in this case Berbers) resented the foreign rule of their land and struggled constantly to regain control. In the 1050's their wish was granted. A native, Berber-Muslim government regained control of the country from the Arabs, almost four hundred years since the Arabs arrived. To put that in perspective, it's comparable to the native Americans regaining control from the European Americans today, four centuries after the arrival of the Mayflower. But, in due time, fault was found in this native government as well. Abd Allah Muhammad (or, in Berber, "Amghār") Ibn Tumart, a devout Muslim of the Masmuda tribe, found the religious observance of the Berber ruling class wanting, and went on to found a new dynasty, based on a puritanical Islam heretofore unknown to the Berbers.
2. Ibn Tumart and Al-Mu'min
To me, Ibn Tumart (or, as he was called by the Jews, Ben T'murat, "son of exchange") was a character reminiscent of the Islamic experience of Malcolm X, one of the leaders of America's Nation of Islam movement. "X" found religious inspiration though the "Islamified" teachings of the preacher Elijah Muhammad, but when he started to question (Elijah) Muhammad, he was ousted. He later made the the pilgrimage to Mecca and studied under traditional Islam under Sunni clerics. When he returned to the states he brought with him a more intense, but more purified version of Islam. Ibn Tumart was also dissatisfied by the Islam of his fellow Berbers and traveled east to draw from the traditional schools of Islamic theology. He too returned with a much more purified and theologically "orthodox" version of Islam to the Maghreb, and found himself disappointed by the religious laxity of the Berbers and of the Berber ruling class. They used their conversion to find legitimacy with the Arabs and gain Independence from them, but their Islam was only a very thin veil over their tribal ways. They still consumed wine, the women still walked about the marketplaces unveiled and the Christian and Jewish infidels were free to practice their corruptions in the heartland of Berber Islam. In Spain they even exchanged knowledge with unbelievers and wasted time on speculative philosophy and meaningless poetry. Upon viewing these unsettling images, Ibn Tumrat went about stirring rebellion among his countrymen, which only accomplished his being labeled a heretic and made him a fugitive. He would have accomplished little politically if not for his student and general, Abd Al-Mu'min.
Abd Al-Mu'min Bin Ali (called by the Jews Ben Mumin, "son of flaws") was a Berber from Algeria. He married the daughter of a prominent Masmuda in order to be accepted into the highly insular tribe of Ibn Tumrat. By 1117 he became a follower of Ibn Tumart and the two became a potent political pair. In my eyes he played Hitler to Ibn Tumart's Nietzsche. Or Haman to Ibn Tumrat's Ahasuerus, for if not for Ibn Tumart's influence, Al-Mu'min would have had no legitimacy, but if not for Al-Mu'min, Ibn Tumart would have been only a man of ideas, not of action.
My previous allusion is again applicable, for just as the clouds of doom hovered over the Jews of Europe in the 40's of the twentieth century, so did they loom over the Jews of Iberia and North Africa in the 40's of the twelfth century. The Jews of Moravid Spain especially were about to experience the suffering their brethren in Europe had been enduring for centuries, and their golden age was about to end. After the death of Ibn Tumart in 1130, Al-Mu'min swept down from the mountains and began a wildly successful military campaign that gave him all of North Africa and most of Iberia.
The Berbers, as newly requited "fringe Muslims", were naturally overly pious, and took Islam to extremes even the Arabs would not venture to (similar to the piety of the Afghan Taliban group). One of their policies when conquering a new city was to force strict Sharia' law upon it's Muslim inhabitants and to give it's infidel inhabitants the chance to save themselves spiritually or to be freed of their toilsome existences (though some were also able to escape). When their forces entered the city of Cordoba, one of the families that were given this choice was the family of Ibn-AbdAllah, or, in Hebrew, "Ben Ovadia". Better known today for being the family of Maimonides.
4. The Jews and Maimonides
Until that time Morocco, and to a larger extent, Spain, had more-or-less positive relationships with Jews. Centuries earlier in Morocco entire Berber tribes converted to Judaism. And during the golden age of Spain, Jews enjoyed an equality that they still aspire to. But with the conquering of the Jewish centers of Tlemcan, Fez and Marrakesh in Morocco, and Cordoba, Lucena and Granada in Spain, came an inquisition the likes of which was to come three centuries later by the hands of the Christians. Judaism in all forms, public or private, was outlawed in Spain and in North Africa through to Fatamid Egypt. As can be imagined, this phenomenon practically served to end Jewish life in the Maghreb.
As mentioned before, the Ben Ovadias of Cordoba were faced with the choice of conversion or death, and, as is well known, escaped to Fez in Morocco (which itself was no peaceful oasis at the time). Moses, the families' eldest, soon found respite at the intellectual bastion of Fez's at the Al-Karaouine University, and studied Torah under Judah Ha-Kohen Ibn Susan, renowned Talmudist and Judge of Fez who continued teaching his students as if nothing were amiss.
Maimon, the family's patriarch, (a student of Rabbi Josef Ibn Migash, who in turn was a student of Rabbi Isaac Al-Fasi, who himself had came to Spain from Fez) had written an epistle to the Moroccan Jews called the Epistle of Comfort (Igeret HaNeḥama), in which he supplied words of encouragement to the Jews of Morocco who were weary of clandestine observance and wished to live as total Muslims. Ibn Susan was fiercely opposed to the implications Rabbi Maimon had made and vehemently preached that a Jew who accepted Islam in word had no share in this world or the next, and that one must prefer martyrdom over even outward conversion. Upon these revelations Rabbi Moses rose up against his Teacher and penned the Epistle of Apostasy (Igeret HaShmad). In it he proved that Islam is not a form of Paganism and if one's life is in danger it is certainly permitted to be outwardly Muslim; but that does not mean one is free from their halachic obligations.
Many historions question how Maimonides himself seemed to have been more or less imune to persecution in Morocco, seeing as he had the respite to author many important Jewish works during his formative years in Fez. The prospect that he converted to Islam has been discredited long ago, rather it must be said that the Muslims held him in high regard.A rabbinic contemporary wrote of that period "I have heard one of the Palace Elders of Morocco bragging about having once exchanged words with the Jew Abū ʿImrān Mūsā...".
After the death of Al-Mu'min Jewish life seemed to return to normal, and the schools were reopened. Soon after that though his son Yusuf I ascended the throne and instituted a new Inquisition. This time they ensured the conversions were sincere. Maimonides's family fled to the east, and, surely enough, Ibn Susan chose death over conversion.
Again, after the death of Yusuf I there was a short period of calm in which we are told the Jews were living in luxury and dressing in the finest clothing. The next king, Ya'qub I then introduced the requirement that Jews dress in black (the Muslim fashion of mourning) with long cloak-like garments. The subsequent ruler, An-Nâsir , ordered that Jews wear a very noticeable yellow cloth as a head-covering, which in turn affected European Jewry by having influenced the decision of the Fourth Lateran Council that Jews wear distinctive clothing. Only from this time on did the clothing of the Jews formed an important subject in the legal regulations concerning them.
The reign of the Almohads on the whole exercised a disastrous and enduring influence on the position of the Moroccan Jews. Already branded by their clothing as unbelievers they furthermore became the objects of scorn and of innumerable violent uprisings in every city; and out of this condition they have not succeeded in raising themselves. There were a few great Jewish thinkers in the two centuries that followed, but the Moroccan rabbis always directed their queries to the great centers of Judaism in Spain, and Morocco was not a center of Jewish life up until the arrival of the Spanish Jews in 1492. Upon the arrival of the exiles the downtrodden nature of the Moroccan Jews was still evident, as the Spanish Jews testified that the Moroccans had strange practices and irrational superstitions which smacked of Muslim influences, and that their religious observance had an air of secrecy and fear to it. So long-lasting was the influence of the Almohads upon them.
As for the Almohads themselves, their conquests served to shift the balance of power in Iberia, making the northern Christian states perceive the Muslim presence as an active threat. They fought the Muslims offensively, ultimately serving to reduce Almohad holdings in Iberia to only the Emirate of Granada.