Is Islam Idolatry?
Muslims during the Hajj in Mecca (Image credit: Ali Mansuri [CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons)
Recently tens of thousands of observant Jews were exposed to an issue - about which much of mainstream Orthodox Jewry is largely misinformed - in such a one-sided fashion that it begs a closer look at the question: Does Judaism consider Islam to be idol worship?
This topic was discussed in a recent ruling on Jewish law presented by the site Halacha Yomit, a newsletter on Jewish law distributed to nearly 25,000 daily recipients, which is based on the rulings of former Sephardic Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. The pertinent section reads as follows:
“Regarding entering a mosque, the Rambam explains in one of his responses that Ishmaelites are not considered idol-worshippers since they believe in Hashem and there is no denial of Hashem in their religion or anything else that should cause them to be considered idol-worshippers. We are therefore lenient and sell our lands in Israel to Muslims during the Shemitta (Sabbatical) year based on the ‘Heter Mechira’ process although it is forbidden to sell land in Eretz Yisrael to an idol-worshipper; this is because Muslims are not considered idol-worshippers. Based on this, mosques are not considered actual houses of idol worship and one may enter them according to the letter of the law.”
Many graduates of Israeli Orthodox Jewish schools attest to being taught the same message; many American Orthodox Jews similarly have been taught that Islam worships the same G-d as Judaism and is not idol worship. However, it appears that a legal opinion based on only one source (the Rambam) is being presented as the accepted mainstream position of the religion.
But what have Jewish legal sages throughout the generations actually ruled on this issue? A closer look reveals that the assertion that there is “no denial of Hashem in their religion or anything else that should cause them to be considered idol-worshippers” completely mischaracterizes the opinions of leading Jewish legal authorities. A significant and complex issue is being presented simplistically, and as a result many observant Jews receive a misimpression pertaining to their religion’s outlook.
Before delving into the topic, it is important to stress that I am not a Halachic Jewish legal scholar; rather this article intends to examine the rulings of legal scholars presented by those more knowledgeable than myself so as to show a more complete picture of this complex issue, rather than only the more lenient opinion credited to the Rambam. Likewise, I do not intend to disparage proponents of Islam and Christianity, many of whom indeed believe in and worship the one true G-d; I hope to merely explore Judaism’s view of the theological structure of their faiths.
Leading Scholars Have Spoken
Research on this issue, done by researcher Menachem Gottlieb of Jerusalem, clearly lays out the opinions of leading Jewish scholars throughout the generations through presentation and discussion of their own words. Gottlieb found that over the course of centuries, leading Jewish legal authorities, who lived in contact with Islam in countries such as Spain, Egypt, and Algeria, clearly stated that Islam was considered idolatry.
In making this ruling, scholars specified three idolatrous practices of the Muslims taken directly from the local pagans. Most strikingly, the Hajj to Mecca includes throwing rocks at the pillars of Markolis (Mercury), thus preserving the exact worship of this idol at the original location of the idol’s pillars. Likewise on the Hajj, Muslims shave their heads and dress in seamless clothing, faithfully replicating the worship of the idol Kemosh. Finally, the characteristic Muslim bowing on the floor in prayer is a faithful reenactment of the prostrations of the pagans worshipping Ba’al Peor.
"Stoning the devil" Markolis worship during Hajj (Image credit: Al Jazeera English (Jamarat Day in Mina) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)
The Talmud, Sanhedrin 60b, specifies that one is liable for copying the methods of idol worship, regardless of one’s intent, using as an example: “One who throws a stone at Markolis (Mercury) thereby worships it.”
The application of this ruling to the Muslims was confirmed by Rabbi Nachshon Gaon, one of the Gaonic legal authorities and head of the academy of Sura, in modern day Iraq, from 875 to 882 CE. He declared: “So we see the Ishmaelite (i.e., Arab) today is an idol worshiper even though he does not realize that he worships.” He further cited the rabbinic teaching that Mecca is one of five places in the world where idol worship goes on constantly.
During the 11th-12th century CE, the R”i Migash, as quoted by the Meiri, ruled that the Muslims continued in the practices of the pre-Islamic pagans. In roughly the same time period, Ibn Ezra wrote in his commentary to the Book of Daniel (11:30) that, “The men of Mecca did not turn to his [Muhammad’s] religion until he swore to them that he would not remove the Markolis worship, and it is not necessary to elaborate.”
In his commentary on the aforementioned Talmudic ruling from tractate Sanhedrin, the Ramah (12th-13th century CE) specified regarding the pillars of Markolis in Mecca that “since its worship is in throwing, when one throws, he is guilty [of idol worship].” In this way he clearly ruled that in throwing rocks at the pillars, Muslims were engaging in idol worship.
An important ruling regarding Judaism’s position on forced conversion to Islam was given by the Ritva (13th-14th century CE), who said that while Muslims are monotheists, their religion is considered “complete idol worship.” He ruled that Jewish law required a Jew in a situation of forced conversion “to be killed and not convert because he that admits to their faith denies the Torah of Moshe.” This legal opinion by one of the leading Talmudic scholars of his age leaves no doubt that Islam was considered idolatry and is completely incompatible with Judaism.
The Ritva’s ruling was directly cited by the Radbaz (15th-16th century CE) in a book of answers to Jewish legal questions. In response to whether one is required to give up one’s life if forced to convert to Islam, the Radbaz ruled that those who convert “teach themselves a leniency in the matter and they have nothing to rely on.”
In his commentary on Sanhedrin, the Ran wrote in the 14th century CE that like the Christians, the Muslims by worshiping their religious objects were engaging in “divine worship” of idols, and therefore “their (i.e., the Muslim’s) ruling is of idol worship.” Incidentally, the Ran also referred to Muhammad as “the crazy person of the Ishmaelites.”
Muslim US navy soldiers performing Ba'al Peor prostration (Image credit: Aiman titi (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons)
In his classic Torah commentary on Deuteronomy 4:28, addressing idols of “wood and stone,” the Rashbatz (14th-15th century CE) touched on the topic of Islam, explaining that “the ‘wood’ is the wood of the hanged person (i.e., Jesus). And the ‘stone’ is the stone that is thrown in their festival (i.e., at the pillars of Markolis during the Hajj pilgrimage festival) as the Kuzari explained.” In his book Bow and Shield, he also spoke about the phenomenon of self-censorship among Jewish scholars on this topic, stemming from fear of persecution under Muslim rule, which may hint at the circumstances for the Rambam’s lenient ruling.
Finally, Rabbi Yosef Karo (15th-16th century CE), author of the renowned Jewish legal work The Shulchan Aruch, weighed in on Islam in his mystical book Maggid Meisharim. There he spoke of entering a Sufi Muslim house of worship, and later the same night being told by an angelic being that this constituted “turning to the idols and going after the Baalim.”
Rambam – For or Against?
Even the Rambam, the only source cited for the leniency mentioned above, may have had mitigating circumstances impacting his opinion, as indicated by the Rashbatz. The Rambam, known as the Great Eagle, lived in Egypt in the 12th-13th century CE during the darkest period of Almohad persecution in northern Africa.
Gottlieb suggests that these conditions of Islamic persecution likely caused the Rambam to make leniencies and engage in self-censorship. This is indicated in his Igeret Hashmad, in which the Rambam made a leniency regarding forced conversions to Islam citing that the conversion required no action but only a statement of faith in Islam. He called upon Jews to leave areas of Muslim persecution in order to avoid such situations. It should be noted that this opinion on conversion is in stark contrast to the ruling of the Ritva cited by the Radbaz, who said those making leniencies in the matter “have nothing to rely on.”
While the Rambam did say that Islam was monotheist, and that their three practices of idol worship were now disconnected from idolatry, he also wrote in his legal responses (Tshuva 269) that Muslims were “not far from idol worship.”
Kemosh shaving and clothing during Hajj (Image credit: Aiman titi (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons)
Elsewhere (Mishneh Torah, Halachot Tshuva Chapter 3), he clearly stated that the Muslims “deny the Torah.” This stands at clear odds with claims that Islam worships the same G-d as Judaism, and indicates the Rambam’s position was not as clear-cut as many present it.
From these rulings made by Jewish sages over the centuries, weight is given to Islam being considered idol worship, contrary to what many mainstream Orthodox Jews are currently being taught. Looking deeper into the metaphysical viewpoint of the two faiths – and not only at the idolatrous practices pristinely preserved by Islam – one is struck by fundamental differences.
Rabbi Uri Sherki, director of the Brit Olam Noahide World Center, has discussed that the Muslim concept of Allah only consists of the traits of judgement and strength, and in this way Islam can be said to worship these traits instead of the entirety of divinity according to the Jewish conception.
In fact, for this reason the religion is named Islam, which means “submission” because what is worshiped is a divinity of judgement that demands submission. As a result, Islam does not include a personal prayer in a group setting (like the Amidah in Judaism), as it does not include a similar notion of a compassionate G-d who listens and responds to the pleas of the individual.
Islam is perhaps most well known by its phrase “Allahu akbar,” meaning “Allah is greater.” In other words, the Muslim concept of divine unity is exclusive: Allah is on one side and other entities exist as well (they’re just lesser to the point of being completely insignificant). Judaism, by contrast, can be summarized by the phrase “Ein od milvado” – “There is none but Him.” This is an inclusive concept, meaning that G-d encompasses all, and there is simply nothing else. On the theological metaphysical level, Islam clearly does not worship the same G-d as Judaism.
Given the above, what can be made of the argument that land can be sold to Muslims in Israel during the Shemittah year because they are not considered idol worshippers? This claim is simplistic and incomplete.
It is true that there are leading poskim (Jewish legal decisors) who have made leniencies for Shemittah through Heter Mechira. However, they did so for specific reasons, such as extreme economic hardships, or more recently so as to strengthen the settling of the land while observing the mitzvot (see here for a brief history by Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, a leading modern expert on Jewish law).
However, most authorities oppose Heter Mechira, saying the leniency violates Torah law. The Hazon Ish (19th-20th century CE), a leading authority in modern times, voiced this more stringent opinion (for a review of the legal positions on Heter Mechira see here). Instead of Heter Mechira, there are other means of dealing with the hardships of Shemittah observance that do not involve selling land to non-Jews, such as Otzar Beit Din.
In a modern ruling, former Hebron and Kiryat Arba Chief Rabbi Dov Lior noted that in rejecting the sale of land in Israel to Muslims for Heter Mechira, the Hazon Ish referenced the Radbaz’s ruling that Islam is considered idolatry and one must die rather than convert. In his review of the issue, Rabbi Lior clearly showed the ban on selling land in Israel to a non-Jew does indeed apply to Muslims.
Rabbi Lior is far from being alone in this position. Many leading rabbis have gone on record ruling that it is forbidden to sell land in Israel to Muslims, including Tzfat Chief Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, who ruled it is forbidden to even rent to an Arab. His ruling received backing from dozens of top municipal chief rabbis in Israel.
Even the Rambam, who is the main source cited for saying that land can be sold to Muslims because they are considered “non-idolaters,” explicitly states that the prohibition on selling is waived only to those who are ger toshav (resident stranger) – not to all “non-idolaters.”
The majority of opinions clearly state that the prohibition does not apply only in the case of a ger toshav, which is a very specific status requiring accepting the Noahide laws before a Beit Din (rabbinical court), among other things. Therefore, simply being a Muslim does not make one a candidate for Heter Mechira; further no Muslim currently holds ger toshav status as it was only reinstituted a few years ago for the first time in thousands of years.