Morocco’s Religious Past, Part I

Since ancient times, many religious groups have lived in Morocco. Jews found their way into North Africa and went as far as Mauritania while other religious groups settled in different areas and became businessmen, jewelers, and farmers. Although these groups were separated, most remained self-governing. The Jewish population flourished under the Roman and Vandal rule, but began encountering problems when the Catholic Church issued edicts against them once the Vandals fell around 534.

Many Jews fled the Iberian Peninsula to escape Gothic rule in the 7th century. Around the same period, Arab nations were conducting conquests into northwestern Africa. What they found was that many of the powerful Berber tribes professed Judaism. Historians often debate whether were originally Jewish or if they had converted. Undoubtedly, there had been intermarriage between the groups.

At the end of the 7th century, the Pact of Omar kept non-Muslims safe in North Africa. However, when Idriss I conquered Tangier and Volubilis, he ordered attacks upon the Jews living there. Numerous were forced to join Idriss’ army. Peace was eventually re-established, although non-Muslim groups had to pay different amounts in taxes. Jewish settlers eventually moved into Fez and eventually moved elsewhere.

Tolerance of non-Muslim groups ended under the rule of the Almohads who came to power in 1146. Jewish and Christian groups were told to leave the country or convert to Islam. Under the Almohad rule, the Jews of Morocco were treated as objects of scorn and branded as unbelievers in society and thousands were killed as a result over the years.

The Merenids became the ruling power, but were soon overthrown by the Saadites in the 1400s. Jews from Spain and Portugal immigrated to Morocco in order to escape persecution. Many fled to Fez, while some returned to Spain.

The Jews who remained in Spain and Portugal had little fear of moving to another country. Jewish peoples were not allowed to emigrate without royal permission, although thousands succeeded in escaping to Morocco, which became a sort of haven. Jewish settlers in Morocco did aid Portugal; however, and helped the country increase trade with other African nations. Additionally, with the help of Jewish peoples, Portuguese conquered the seaport of Safi, which had already been used as a major commercial center.

By Carole Morris