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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After all this has been said, one should not conclude that, with regard to Islam, Maimonides was expressing any real tolerance, in the modern sense of the term. All of his positive statements were intended simply to clarify the nature of the Islamic religion, statements which, in turn, will have numerous halakhic consequences. To show that Maimonides was anything but an adherent of religious tolerance, it is sufficient to note that, in his opinion, not only is it impossible for a Muslim to be a pious Gentile, but it is even forbidden for a Gentile to follow the dictates of Islam [Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings 8:11].

He unequivocally accepts the talmudic view that any Gentile religious system is illicit and the only alternatives for Gentiles are conversion or observance of the Seven Laws of Noah which, by definition, exclude any other religious system [Laws of Kings 10:9].

Become a Martyr, Not a Muslim

Whereas Maimonides' opponents held to the mistaken belief that Islam was idolatry, there were those authorities, after Maimonides, who, while clearly aware of the monotheistic nature of Islam, still disagreed with Maimonides' position, and asserted that Jews must give up their lives rather than be forced to convert to Islam. Their rationale was based on the fact that if one gives his agreement to Muhammad's prophetic mission, this is the equivalent of denying the validity of Torah.

In their opinion it is a capital offense to deny the Torah, and they thus viewed idolatry as merely a manifestation of this denial. Rabbi David ibn Zimra quotes the renowned Rabbi Yom Tov Ishbili (c.1250‑1330) as holding to this view and expresses agreement with him.

One Authority Finds Islam Idolatrous

I mentioned earlier that almost all authorities accepted Maimonides' view of Islam. There is, however, one authority, who, while most cryptic, appears to be leaning in the opposite direction. In a medieval commentary erroneously attributed to the famous sage, Rabbi Nissim Gerondi (c.1310‑1375), but actually written by an unknown later scholar, one finds a shocking opinion, in the course of "R. Nissim's" discussion, of Christians bowing to holy objects and Muslims bowing to Muhammad[!] Although the comment is not entirely clear, it appears to be saying that even though the Muslims do not turn Muhammad into a God, one must regard their (supposed) action of bowing down to him as idolatry, thus putting them in the category of idolaters.

This is a dramatic deviation from Maimonides' view, and it is shocking that "R. Nissim" does not even refer to his predecessor. In any event, the authentic R. Nissim did not hold to this view, and we are in possession of a responsum of his in which he declares unambiguously that Islam is not a form of 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.?