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.

5 thoughts on “Did Maimonides convert to Islam during his youth?

  1. admin says:

    I wondered about that too, but I suspect the French Jews feared the worst from the Muslim armies living next store to them in Spain. Anthropologists observe that religious communities build force-fields within their world to keep the outsiders away. For the insiders, the message is no less clear; If you stray–you pay, i.e., the faith community will treat you like someone who is “dead.”

  2. saha says:

    As a Muslim I know that Musa Ibn Maimoon(Maimonides)was a Jew who lived and practiced medicine in a Muslim community
    As a Muslim I know also that intention is very important if a Muslim wants to be judged as a believer/Muslim
    so forcing others to accept Islam is against the basic principle of Islam
    “To you be your religion, and to me my religion” Surah 109

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