Maimonides’ famous Iggerot Hashmad (“A Letter Concerning Apostasy”) was written in the year 1160 during a time when Almohades Muslims were forcing people everywhere to recite the Muslim Creed. Failure to comply meant execution.
One rabbinical scholar in Fez, Morocco exclaimed that any Jew who publicly uttered the Moslim 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 how this Moroccan rabbi was seriously mistaken.
Such a view of martyrdom was in Maimonides’ eyes, a misrepresentation of Judaism ‑‑ and 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) 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 held on to an unusual attitude: so long as a person is alive and breathing, there is always hope that an ember of faith, if aroused will turn back 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.”