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.

Islam presented a challenge to Judaism which it had not previously faced, for here was a religion just as monotheistic as its mother religion. Here was a concept [a non-Jewish monotheism] not recognized in the traditional talmudic texts but which needed to be seriously considered. Yet, before doing so, one had to attain a proper knowledge of Islam.

Misunderstanding Islam

This did not always happen, and we therefore find a number of early references that characterize Islam as idolatrous, due to the widespread and mistaken perception that an idol was to be found in the Kaaba, the sacred Islamic center of worship in Mecca. There is even one medieval source that regards Mecca as the name of the Islamic idol! These mistaken notions led some scholars to rule that it was forbidden to drink or even obtain benefit from wine handled by a Muslim [because of the prohibition on drinking the wine of an idolater for fear that it was used for a libation].

According to them, there was no difference in the halakhic status of wine handled by a Muslim or an idolater.

Rethinking Islam

However, as time went on, the position solidified among Jewish scholars that Islam was not idolatry, due to a greater understanding by Jews of Islam’s true character. Of course, even in the early years of Islam there were many who refused to regard it as a form of idolatry.

In the ninth century, Rabbi Zemah Gaon ruled that a Jew was permitted to obtain benefit from wine with which a Muslim came into contact. As already noted, this would have been prohibited if a Muslim were to be considered an idolater. However, because the need to prevent socialization with the Gentiles–apparently even non‑idolatrous Gentiles–is given by the Talmud as a further reason to forbid consumption of their wine, Rabbi Zemah ruled that wine handled by Muslims was still unfit to be drunk by a Jew. Similar statements were also made by the Geonim [the heads of Babylonian Jewry from the 7th to 11th century] Kohen Zedek, Sar Shalom, Nahshon, and other important author­ities. However, there are even some views that such wine was per­missible for drinking.

The basis for these lenient views is simply that Islam as a religion is not to be regarded as idolatrous. However, since all of these Geonim were concerned with a narrow halakhic [Jewish legal] issue, they did not elaborate on any of the larger questions which deal with the relation of Judaism to Islam.

Maimonides: Islam Is Untrue, But Not Idolatry

This was left to Maimonides [1135-1204] who, as we shall see, strongly put forth the view that Muslims were not idolaters. Although, to be sure, Islam was heresy, this did not stop Maimonides from expressing a positive view about Islam–or even about Christianity, which he considered to be idolatry. In his mind, although Islam and Christianity are both in error, they still have some value in that they prepare the world eventually to accept the true religion, namely Judaism.

“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.”

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.

Excerpted and reprinted with permission from Judaism (Summer 1993).

Discover More

Balaam the Prophet

The infamous story of the prophet with the talking donkey demonstrates the Bible's awareness that powers of divination were not limited to Israelite seers.