Jewish Views on Islam

According to most Jewish thinkers, Islam is not idolatry; but authorities have disagreed as to whether it's better to convert or be martyred.

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"All those words of Jesus of Nazareth and of this Ishmaelite [i.e., Muhammad] who arose after him are only to make straight the path for the messianic king and to prepare the whole world to serve the Lord together. As it is said: 'For then I will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech so that all of them shall call on the name of the Lord and serve him with one accord' (Zephaniah 3:9)." […]

Also important for understanding Maimonides' view of Islam is a well known letter that he wrote around the year 1165, when he was still a resident of Fez, having not yet travelled to [the land of Israel] and Egypt. It was addressed to the inhabitants of Morocco, who had been threatened by the Almohads [the Berber Muslim dynasty that ruled Spain and Morocco in the 12th and 13th century] with conversion, exile, or death.

It so happened that an anonymous scholar who had been living outside of the Almo­hads' reach had issued a ruling that Islam was idolatry and that, there­fore, one must give up his life rather than convert to Islam. If one did not, he was to be treated as no different than a true apostate. This ruling created somewhat of a storm among the crypto‑Jews of Morocco, and it was in response to this confusion that Maimonides wrote his letter, which was a marvelous defense of a Jewish community that was forced to hide its religion because of persecution.

There has been much argument about how faithful Maimonides was to the halakhic sources and whether his presentation of his opponent's view was correct. However, one thing which appears to be sure, [contemporary historian] Haym Soloveitchik's reservations notwithstanding, is that it was the Maimonidean acceptance of Islam's monotheistic character that enabled him to come to the defense of the crypto‑Jews, even if he does not argue this point explicitly.

It would appear that, because he felt that this notion was so obvious, he did not feel the need to defend it. Alternatively, one could say that his refusal to argue the case that Islam is not idolatry was because he regarded the crypto‑Jews as never having truly accepted the religion in the first place and, therefore, his argument was able to proceed along a different line, one which argues that, even assuming that Islam is idolatry, the Jews still have not violated the idolatry prohibition. However, had the Jews truly accepted Islam, one could probably have expected Maimonides to argue that, whereas the Jews may have been heretics, they were not idolaters.

In any event, it is safe to say that, in the generations following Maimonides, almost all halakhic authorities accepted his approach to Islam.

Embracing the Maimonidean Approach

Indeed, it was Maimonides' son, Rabbi Abraham, who took his father's view to its logical conclusion when he argued that, although Islamic religious practices should not be imitated, strictly speaking they do not fall under the biblical prohibition of following the ways of the Gentiles. This is so simply because "Muslims are monotheists who abhor idolatry."

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Marc B. Shapiro

Dr. Marc B. Shapiro holds the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Chair in Judaic Studies at the University of Scranton, Pennsylvania. He is the author of Between the Yeshiva World and Modern Orthodoxy: The Life and Works of Rabbi Jehiel Jacob Weinberg, 1884-1966.?