The Rambam, who lived over 800 years ago in Spain and North Africa, wrote the Iggeret, a formal letter, as a response to the misleading comments of the Jewish scholar to the Jewish world in Northern Africa and Spain. The scholar published and distributed his reply to the pressing dilemma of the times. The Islamic zealots were threatening the Jews to admit the Muhammad is the prophet of G-d. The dilemma was are the Jews allowed to verbally admit to the Islamic zealots that Muhammad was the prophet of G-d while retaining their Jewish identity in private or do they need to sacrifice their lives? Many of the scholars of the time insisted that the Jewish people should perform messirut nefesh, literally sacrifice their lives in light of this religious and theological threat. The Rambam had an opposite point of view, and believed that the spiritual leadership should encourage the Jewish people and give them support, rather than automatically defer to self sacrifice in order to preserve their faith.
In order to establish this policy, the Rambam systematically responded and refuted the claims and points made by the said scholar who prosecuted and litigated his fellow Jews at that time.
As a backdrop, it is important to note that de facto many Jews who would proclaim their belief in Muhammad actually did not practice Islam in private, rather, as many anusim, as they are referred to (the Jews who are forced to practice other faiths) kept Jewish Holidays, Shabbat, Kashrut and Brit Mila in private despite the looming threat from the Islam zealots. This set a foundation for the Rambam to explain how the Jewish people didn’t necessarily need to sacrifice their lives in the name of Jewish faith in this particular instance.
In order to respond to the claims made by the scholars of the time and to give a clear direction of how the Jewish people should act in light of this threat, using five main principles of Halacha. These are the guidelines for the category of commandments referred to as “Kiddush Hashem”, the sanctification of G-d’s name, regarding when and if one must put their life at stake for the sake of their dedication to the Torah and G-d.
The first principle is understanding the three cardinal commandments of the Torah. The Torah states that if there is a situation where someone threatens a Jew to transgress or be killed, the Torah believes in the concept of life “Vechai Bahem” and as a general rule, the Jew should choose life over keeping that mitzvah. However, the opposite is true when confronted with this dilemma for three cardinal commandments – the prohibitions of adultery, idol worship and murder. One is never allowed to murder, worship idols or perform adultery even if faced with the threat of death. In Hebrew this concept is referred to as “Yehareg Ve’al Ya’avor” – one should be killed and not transgress. In light of this principle, if proclaiming Muhammad the prophet falls under one of these categories, specifically idol worship, then one must be willing to sacrifice their life and not transgress. However, if proclaiming Muhammad a prophet is not idolatry, then one does not have an obligation to sacrifice their lives.