Did Maimonides convert to Islam during his youth?

Here’s the background information that should help clarify our original question.

Maimonides’ famous Iggerot Hashmad (“A  Letter Concerning Apostasy”) was written in the year 1160 during a time when the Almohades Muslims [1] forced people everywhere to recite the Muslim Creed. Failure to comply meant execution.

One Moroccan rabbinical scholar in Fez exclaimed that any Jew who publicly uttered the Muslim confession–-regardless whether they in truth practiced Judaism incognito—could no longer be considered a Jew. Outraged by this rabbi’s insensitive rabbinical response, Maimonides wrote a letter, where he demonstrates why this Moroccan rabbi  was seriously mistaken.

Maimonides considered the Halachic position as an austere  misrepresentation of Judaism‑‑and feared that it could only push Jews away from Judaism. The mere utterance of a meaningless formula could NEVER render a Jew an apostate. In addition, the Talmud mentions how even some of its greatest Sages–Rabbis Meir and Eliezer (cf. Avodah Zara 18a)–feigned apostasy in order to save their lives.

“Even heretics,” Maimonides argues, “were worthy of reward for a single act of piety. Those who practice the mitzvot secretly are even more worthy of reward despite the circumstances of their forced conversion.” In summary, Maimonides succeeded in saving an entire Jewish population by keeping the door to their faith open for them to return.

In contrast, the Tosafists (a school of medieval French commentators to the Talmud who were descended from Rashi’s grandchildren and students) refused to follow such a halachic interpretation. They held that in the case of idolatry one should be slain and not transgress, “even in the presence of one person.”

Maimonides’ maintained an optimistic and hopeful attitude:  so long as a person is alive and breathing, there is always hope that an ember of faith, if aroused, will rekindle into a mighty flame!

A Controversial Subtext to Maimonides Epistle

Maimonides’ liberal attitude toward the Jew who was forcibly converted to Islam may have an interesting subtext. Some Jewish and Muslim scholars (see the Islamic Encyclopedia for the bibliography) think that Maimonides was forced to convert to Islam as a child. However, at the first opportunity to return to his faith, and returned he did.

The source for this claim derives from an accusation a Muslim visitor to Cairo from Fez, who allegedly remembered Maimonides as a Muslim when he lived in Morocco. Thirty years later, the Muslim acquaintance was traveling through Egypt and was surprised to discover that Maimonides had become Egypt’s most distinguished rabbi. Outraged, the Muslim denounced him to the authorities as an apostate.

However philosopher and historian Allan Nadler observes:

“Maimonides practiced the time-honored medieval Islamic tradition of Taqiyya, or prudent dissimulation, by dressing and behaving like a Muslim publicly, perhaps occasionally presenting himself at a mosque, while remaining an observant Jew during the darkest period of Almohad persecution, which forced Jews to dress in hideous costumes and resulted in thousands of forced apostasies and deaths. There is simply no credible evidence that Maimonides converted, let alone that he was a “practicing Muslim.”



[1] The Almohades Muslims were originally a group of puritanical Muslims, originally Berbers, founded  by the Berber prophet Muhammad ibn Tumart (c. 1080–1130), whose followers arose in S Morocco in the 12th century as a reaction against the corrupt Almoravides. They ruled Spain and all Maghrib from about 1147 to after 1213;  they later took the area that today forms Algeria and Tunis. Their policy of religious ‘purity’ involved the forced conversion and massacre of the Jewish population of Spain. The Almohads were themselves defeated by the Christian kings of Spain in 1212, and in Morocco in 1269.

Dancing in the Streets (2/08/10)

In the last thread we observed how the Haredim are initiating ways to keep the sexes apart–separate streets! Sometimes I wonder whether there is a silent competition between the Taliban and the Haredi, vying over “The Most Distinguished Misogynist Community Award of the Year,” better known as “The I am Holier Than Thou” prize.

Many years ago, when I was in Jerusalem, I remember going to a pizza shop where I saw Haredi boys and girls playing video games together. Haredi community leaders did their best to put an immediate end to that kind of familiar but healthy socialization. I speculated that the Haredim are afraid that young men and women might start dancing in the supermarket aisles and streets.

Bear in mind the women already dress pretty modestly in that community. Married women are so strict, they will wear a scarf on the top of their wigs.

Like the foolish Pharisees of our previous thread, the latest fad in Haredi piety is really made for Saturday Night Live comedy.  Jay Leno would definitely have a field-day with this material.

Kudos go to my talented and good friend Yochanan Lavie, who wrote a nice frum version of the song fit for a Broadway musical.


Apology to Martha & Vandellas, et al:

Calling out around the world
Are you ready for a freihlich beat
Haredim here and the time is right
For dancing in the streets
Dancing in Uman
Down in Jerusalem
In New York City

All we need is music, sweet music
There’ll be music everywhere
They’ll be shuckling, swaying, klezmer playing,
Dancing in the street, oh

It doesn’t matter what you wear, just as long as black is there
So come on, every guy, grab a bochur, everywhere, don’t be a slacker
They’ll be dancing, dancing in the street

It’s an invitation across the nation, a chance for frum boys to meet
They’ll be davening and singing and music swinging
Dancing in the street. Continue reading “Dancing in the Streets (2/08/10)”