Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The curious case of the Moroccan Marranos

 Professor Paul Fenton addressing a London audience this week. (Top right) Ruth Finkel, a descendant of Sol Hachuel, the beautiful Jewess who was beheaded for refusing to renounce her faith for Islam in 1834, poses with her portrait. (Photos: Michelle Huberman)


Marranos  - nominal converts who continued to practise Judaism in secret -  are not confined to Catholic Spain. You will find Judaeo-Muslim marranos in Morocco, too. Professor Paul Fenton explained this extraordinary phenomenon in a Harif talk in London this week. Report by Lyn Julius:

If you ever go to a football match in Morocco where a team from the old imperial capital Fez are playing, the chances are you will hear the opposing team’s fans shout: ‘al-yahud!’ ( Jews!)

Now, it’s not unusual for the London team Tottenham Hotspur, with a Jewish fan base, to call themselves, not without pride, the ‘Yid army’. Ajax of Amsterdam, a city once known as the Jerusalem of Holland for its many Jewish residents, are still taunted as a Jewish team. But the Fez football team ? A city in an overwhelmingly Muslim country, where Jews are almost extinct? 

Fez conceals a secret not apparent to its many visitors: it is home to a mysterious population of Moroccan marranos.

Conventional wisdom has it that marranos - a pejorative term to describe converted Jews who continued to practise their religion in private – are a phenomenon exclusive to medieval Catholic Spain. In fact, there were Judaeo-Muslim marranos in Morocco: hundreds of thousands of their descendants still live in a limbo world, identifying neither as Jews nor accepted as fully-fledged Muslims.

Conventional wisdom also has it that fundamentalism in Islam is a ‘passing phase’. According to Sorbonne professor Paul Fenton, however, the fundamentalist rule of the Almohades, originating in southern Morocco, lasted over a century – from 1130 to 1269. Hardly a flash in the pan.

The Almohades conquered Fez, Marrakesh and finally Cordoba in southern Spain, burning Jewish books and destroying synagogues in their wake. Christianity died out altogether, and to all intents and purposes, Morocco became judenrein as Jews converted en masse to Islam rather than be put to death for apostasy. But some Jews literally went underground – living in caves – in order to keep practising their religion.

The most famous Jewish 'convert' to Islam was Maimonides himself. A realist and rationalist, he consoled distraught Jewish converts that they were doing the right thing, with the doctrine that human life is to take precedence over law in 610 cases out of 613.

This was in direct contradiction to Muslim theology, which held that death for one’s religion was the supreme value.

Maimonides fled the Almohad invasion of his native Cordoba for Morocco, but was forced to leave for Eretz Israel and Egypt when he was denounced for reverting to Judaism. Maimonides eventually became private physician to the Viceroy of Ayyubid Egypt. Professor Fenton believes that it was less a sign that Jews could attain the very highest office under Muslim rule. Rather, the community at large were hostages to these Jews’ good behaviour: Jews could be trusted not to poison or  betray their masters. Otherwise, they risked unleashing a massacre of their co-religionists.

Many Jews fled Spain for Morocco because there they would be unknown, less easy to persecute and not subject to close supervision. Nevertheless, an Inquisition operated there.

Even Jewish converts suffered various disabilities and vexations: they were only allowed to practise certain trades, could not marry off their daughters to ‘real’ Muslims, had to wear the special headgear and black garments reserved for Jews, with absurdly long sleeves  and worn ‘off the shoulder’. This custom persisted into the 20th century.

The Merinids, who succeeded the Almohades, allowed secret Jews to practise openly once again. However, a fair proportion of converts remained Muslim and moved out of the Jewish quarter, or Mellah, for the Medina. A number became successful businessmen with access to the kissaria, or covered market, selling silks and fine fabrics. But their business rivals, the Sharifians, who claimed descent from Muhammad, accused the crypto-Jews (also known as beldiyyin ) of pretending to practise Islam. In 1468, they forbade ‘Jews and dogs’ from accessing the precincts of the Shurafa mosque, built to house the body of their ancestor Idris. They had the beldiyyin expelled from the kissaria. The struggle between the Sharifians and the beldiyyin, whose shops and clothing had to carry distinguishing markings, would last until the 19th century.

With every famine, more Jews would convert to Islam in order to qualify for sedaka, the corn reserves held by the religious authority, or Wakf. Gradually, Fez, in the centre of the country and most vulnerable to drought, was emptied of Jews. As late as 1912, when 12, 000 Jews were left homeless as a result of the Fez massacre, still more Jews in fear of their lives converted to Islam.

The beldiyyin retained business contacts with the Jews of the Mellah and ‘subterranean’ religious links. Thus they would call on a mohel or rabbi to perform a circumcision. A Bildi bride would receive a perforated piece of wood to encourage her to prepare kosher meat in the traditional style.

There could be 100, 000 beldiyyin still living in Morocco today, whose facial features, surnames (Zicri, Choukroun, Benzaken, Al-Banani, Miyara, etc), accents and dialects betray their Jewish origins. The community survived largely intact because they married among themselves (monogamously). Many are prominent in law or Moroccan intellectual life today. Unlike the Mashadi Jews of Persia or the Chala converts of Bukhara, who remained in or next to their Jewish quarters, cases of beldiyyin reverting to Judaism are rare.

But local consciousness of a Jewish past is never very far beneath the surface. Just go and see the Fez team play a football match.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

Nobody should be surprise by this, not in Morocco, or anywhere in the region, where from time to time, the pressures to convert or leave the Ottoman Empire were pretty rife.

Eliyahu m'Tsiyon said...

Anon, Morocco was not part of the Ottoman Empire. As far as I know, conditions were worse for Jews in Morocco than in the Ottoman Empire, which included Algeria up to 1830, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Middle Eastern and Eastern European lands.

Sylvia said...


"Marranos" is distinctive of Jewish converts in Christendom, and is inappropriate for Jews in Islamdom. Why? Because in Christianity conversion required “actions”, such as kneeling before a statue (avoda zarah) baptism eating pork openly or pretending to do so, so as to silence any possible accusations, etc. in which case the convert would have a hard time telling his fellow Jews that he didn’t violate any Jewish law.
.
This is different however with regard to outward conversions in Islam where no “actions” that violate Judaism but only words are expected. There are no images and statues in a mosque. Muslims don’t eat pork. In fact, those people could enter a mosque and say the Shmone Esreh without anyone knowing the difference.

The terms "Marranos" or "Marranisme" blur the difference and could give the impression that what Maimonides said goes also for Anusim in Christendom. It doesn’t.

Sylvia said...


“The most famous Jewish convert to Islam was Maimonides himself.”

Maimonides has never converted to Islam, not even outwardly. Generations upon generations of Ashkenazi scholars and few Sephardim have labored to find proof of Maimonides supposed apostasy. To no avail. Todate, there is not a shred of substantiated evidence to support that assumption. Those who say so usually base it on two shaky items:

1.They often quote selectively a sentence from Iggeret haShmad (written as responsa for Jews of those regions threatened with forced conversions),where Maimonides has said “recognize and do not let yourself be killed”, while at the same time ignoring what follows, what Maimonides says he would do if himself were in that situation: “the advice to myself and the opinion I want to give myself, my friends, and those asking for advice, is to leave those places and go where they can practice their religion without constraint nor fear.” Which he did in 1165.

The second item is from an Oriental Arab author, Al Qitbi, who has never lived in the Maghreb and who is the one who mentions that Maimonides was accused of having converted to Islam. But in his short page on the subject there are many discrepancies, one of them that he converted in Andalusia and left from there straight to Egypt, when Maimonides is supposed to have converted in Fes.

Sylvia said...

"the crypto-Jews (also known as biladee’en)"

The correct name is "beldiyyin", I would speculate that has the same root as "mbelled" which means "one who has acculturated to the city's ways/customs, etc". But that's my personal interpretation I don't know if it is correct.

The impression I get from the article is that it is saying that the beldiyyin converted during the Almohads period.
Their conversion is more recent, according to one view, it dates from the 15th century and is linked to the pogroms that led to the establishment of the first Mellah in 1438. This is to say they didn't come from Spain.
They refused to move to the Mellah with the other Jews and remained in the Medina with Muslims. In any case, all the Jews at the Mellah were massacred along with the last Merinid sultan in 1465. But they are Muslims who produced many Islamic scholars and personalities and married with families of shorfa, of royal stock.

bataween said...

Dear Sylvia, it's always nice to get your informed opinion on this site. I've changed the spelling of bilade'en to the one you suggest. Professor Fenton said the word came from 'biladi' meaning 'country'.
I think the professor chose to use the word Marranos in his title because most people know the word as a convenient and well-known shorthand for 'secret Jew'even though converts to Islam were not strictly comparable. Maimonides did not view converts to Islam as having committed 'avoda zara'(one of the three exceptions mentioned above) for exactly the reasons you describe - Islam does not require the same 'idolatrous' practices as Christianity. What you say about Maimonides never having converted is interesting. Even if he may have outwardly displayed some signs (visiting a mosque in Fez?) he most definitely practised as a Jew later on. The impression given by Prof Fenton is that the beldiyeen converted during the Almohad era but thank you for asserting that the history is a lot more complex than he might have been able to convey in an hour's lecture.

Sylvia said...

Professor Fenton probably used the forced conversions under the Almohads as means of introduction, or as part of a survey of such.

As to Maimonides, no, he didn't go into a mosque and he didn't attend the Qarawwin, as some people asserted.

When Maimonides arrived in the area, the Almohads had already passed thrugh and imposed their ideology - and their language, in the mosque. And I have seen no indication that Maimonides spoke Berber.

Further, Maimonides himself described how he spent hose wandering years in the Prologue to the Epistle to the Jews of Yemen while in Egypt:

"We labored and had no rest. How could we study the law when we were being exiled from city to city, and from country to country? I purdsued the reapers in their paths and gathered ears of grain, both the rank and the full ones, as well as the withered and the thin ones. Only recently have I found a home."

At most, he dressed like all Andalusian refugees in Morocco.

As to the etymology of beldiyyin, it would be interesting to know whether they gave themselves that name ot other Jews or the Muslims. In any case, whatever it means, it is nothing like marranos (which means swine).

Paul Fenton said...

I did not say that beldiyeen refers to converts from Muslim Spain but is a Moroccan phenomenon. Personally I think it translates the Hebrew Toshabim (indigenous Jews as opposed to the Megorashim, Spanish exiles) and was used by the latter as a derogatory term. Indeed, among the beldi family names not one Sefaradi name is to be found ; the Sefaradim had left Spain in order to avoid conversion to Christianity and they were therefore unlikely to convert to Islam!

Sylvia said...

Thank you, Professor Fenton.

Beldiyyin as the equivalent of Toshavim would make sense and as "indigenes" or "the locals" Jews would certainly be meant to be pejorative.