Islam and Noahite Law

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There has been much less halachic literature written about Islam compared to Christianity. It has been suggested that this is due, in part, to the fact there has not been in the way of substantial polemics directed at Islam.[1]

Islam and the halakhah

According to Jewish Law, both Jews and non-Jews were forbidden to worship idols, a category which also includes certain forms of polytheism. This prohibition is required as part of the Seven Laws of Noah. Once the doctrine of the Trinity became known to the Rabbis, it was generally regarded as polytheism, although with some exceptions.[2] In the last few hundred years with the Christian reformation, the emergance of non-trinitarian movements, and appearance for the first time of "Noahides" has inspired a great deal of responsa in this matter. Partly this is to a closer examination of theological issues, and partly this had to do with dealing with the diversity of thought that had sprung up within Christian and former Christian groups. Under the laws of avodah zara, idolaters are potentially subject to the death penalty. The general concensus of halacha was that while Christianity was similar to avodah zara, it was something less and never qualified for capital punishment.[3]


Early authorities characterized Islam as idolatrous, based on early rulings concerning Christianity and whatever information was available concerning of the emerging faith. There was a widespread perception that an idol was to be found in the Kaaba. For example Midrash Lekah Tov regarded Mecca as the name of the Islamic [4] Based on this this R. Menahem Meiri, R. Abraham Sofer (son of the Hatam Sofer) and Sefer ha-Eshkol rule that it was forbidden to drink or even obtain benefit from wine handled by a Muslim. According to them, there was no difference in the halakhic status of wine handled by a Muslim or an idolater.[5] See also Simhah Assaf,[6] rules that wine handled by a Muslim is forbidden for use as if it was touched by a Christian. However, from the reason given in this responsum, one cannot conclude that a Muslim was viewed as an idolater. Nahmanides made a distinction between Muslim wine and Jewish wine which was touched by a Muslim. Some achronim like the Birkei Yosef[7] and She'elot u-Teshuvot Tashbez[8] ruled that the practice was not to receive any benefit from wine handled by a Muslim. In the ninth century, R. Zemah Gaon disagreed and ruled that a Jew was permitted to obtain benefit from wine with which a Muslim came into contact.


Most of the rishonim held that Islam was not idolatry, however they bring another factor into play. Due to the need to prevent socialization with the Muslims - apparently even non-idolatrous Muslims - is given by the Talmud as a further reason to forbid consumption of their wine,[9] Based on this R. Zemah Gaon ruled that even though one could benefit from Muslim wine, it was still unfit to be drunk by a Jew.[10] Similar rulings were also made by Geonim Kohen Zedek,[11] Sar Shalom,[12] Nahshon,[13] and other important rabbonim.[14] However, R' Yizhak Rafael in his Sefer ha-Manhig, ruled that such wine was permissible for drinking.[15] He says that "perhaps it is permissible" to drink Muslim wine in a setting not conducive to socializing. See also the sources quoted by R. Joseph Messas, Mayim Hayyim (Jerusalem, 1985), Vol. 2, Yoreh Deah, no. 66, where it is explained why certain authorities disregard the Geonic view that permits one only to obtain benefit from this wine but does not allow one to drink it. See esp. p. 159: "There is no unity [of G-d] like the unity found in Islam; therefore, one who forbids [drinking] wine which they have handled turns holy into profane by regarding worshippers of G-d as worshippers of idols, G-d forbid." On the other hand kabbalists like R. Joseph Hayyim, tried to show that Islamic monotheism was far removed from the monotheism of Judaism[16]

The basis for these rulings was the concensus of halachic opinion by the Gaonim that Islam as a religion was not to be regarded as idolaty. However, since all of these Geonim were concerned with a specific halachic issue, they did not rule on any of the larger questions which deal with the relation of Judaism to Islam. Althought the Geonic responsa in general which show great regard for Islamic civil law[17]


Maimonides strongly put forth the view that Muslims were not idolaters. Although, to be sure, Islam was heresy,[18] this did not stop Maimonides from expressing a positive view about Islam - or even about Christianity, which he considered to be idolatry.[19] He ruled that 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.[20]

In Maimonides' system there was one point on which Christianity, although idolatrous, actually stood above Islam. The Talmud states that it is forbidden to teach Torah to Gentiles, and this interdiction is clasified as halacha by Maimonides. However, he makes an exception for Christians, because they believe in the same text of the Bible as the Jews and it is thus possible that, after having studied, they will recognize the error of their ways. For Muslims, however, because they do not accept that the five books of Moses are Divine, such a possibility is not to be considered. It is, therefore, forbidden to teach them Torah.[21]

However from this ruling, one can conclude nothing about the basic worth of Christianity vis-a-vis Islam. The prohibition to teach Torah to Muslims was due to the specific reason cited, and did not speak to any of the broader issues involved in evaluating their religion. In appears that it is Islam that was more favorable in Maimonides' eyes. As we have seen, according to him, both Christianity and Islam have a positive role to play in the world. However, with regard to Islam, despite certain critical comments regarding Muhammed,[22] the fact that Islam is not idolatry creates a crucial distinction between it and Christianity and leads to numerous consequences, both in law and theology. David Novak argues that this explains Malmonides' belief that Muslims, as sons of Ishmael, are required to circumcize their sons.[23] Maimonides rules that although a Jew may not obtain benefit from wine handled by a Christian, that is not the case with regard to a Muslim. However, Maimonides does agree with the view of the Geonim that it is still not permissible to drink this wine. According to Maimonides, this ruling was supported by "all the Geonim"[24] According to R. Asher of Montanzon (14th century), Sefer ha-Pardes (Jerusalem, 1985), p. 6, Maimonides saw the works of "all the Geonim." The Radbaz was of the same opinion [25] However, it is not clear as the the meaning of this as there were Geonim who do not agree with this position[26], Nahmanides says that "some Geonim" agree with the law as codified by Maimonides.[27] and, as we have already noted, this stringency had nothing to do with Islam per se but was to prevent socialization with non-Jews generally.

It was Maimonides' son, R. 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."[28]

Ovadiyah the Proselyte

Maimonides further explains his view regarding Islam in a letter that he wrote to a certain Ovadiyah the Proselyte, who, having previously been a Muslim, certainly knew the particulars of the religion, and had declared that it was not idolatry. Because of his opinion, he was repremanded by his teacher, who claimed that the Islamic religious service at Mecca was idolatrous in that it involved the ritual of throwing stones which constituted worship of Merkulius. The identification of Islamic worship at Mecca with an idolatrous cult of Merkulius was very common in the Middle Ages, see R. Asher ben Yehiel.[29] Regarding this responsum, see Isaac Herzog, Pesakim u-Khetavim[30]. Historians have claimed, but offered no evidence, for the contention that some Jewish scholars were influenced by Christian notions that also identified the idolatrous worship of Merkulius with the Islamic worship at Mecca.[31]

However Maimonides' supported Ovadiyah over his teacher.

The Ishmaelites are not at all idolaters; [idolatry] has long been severed from their mouths and hearts; and they attribute to God a proper unity, a unity concerning which there is no doubt. And because they lie about us, and falsely attribute to us the statement that God has a son, is no reason for us to lie about them and say that they are idolaters . . . And should anyone say that the house that they honor [the Kaaba] is a house of idolatry and an idol is hidden within it, which their ancestors used to worship, then what of it? The hearts of those who bow down toward it today are [directed] only toward Heaven . . . [Regarding] the Ishmaelites today - idolatry has been severed from the mouths of all of them [including] women and children. Their error and foolishness is in other things which cannot be put into writing because of the renegades and wicked among Israel [i.e., apostates]. But as regards the unity of God they have no error at all.

R. Hayyim Benveniste,[32] points out that Maimonides' view of Islam explains why he was able to act as a physician in Egypt. Had Islam been idolatrous, he would not have been permitted to do so, since he codifies that "it is forbidden to give medical aid to an idolater even for hire"[33]

Islamic practice no longer idolatrous

Maimonides then discusses the practice of throwing stones and rules that, despite its origin, it was no longer idolatrous. He concludes: "The long and short of it is that even though at their root these things were established for idolatry, not a man in the world throws these stones or bows down to that place or does any of the rites for the sake of idolatry - neither verbally nor mentally; their heart is rather surrendered to Heaven."[34]

Forced Conversion to Islam

Also important for understanding Maimonides' view of Islam is a well known letter than he wrote around the year 1165, when he was still a resident of Fez, having not yet travelled to Erez Yisrael and Egypt. It was addressed to the inhabitants of Morocco, who had been threatened by the Almohads 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.[35]

Rabbi Haym Soloveitchik's discussed at length the issues involved.[36] However, one thing which appears to be sure, 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. Either 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.[37] 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. By assuming that the Jews never adopted Islam, Maimonides can argue the way that he does.

However, Rabbi Soloveitchik argues that, since Maimonides identifies the denial of prophecy with idolatry, "why should the Shahadah, with its assertion of the primacy of Mohammed's prophecy, not be on a similar footing? The contemporary nature of Judaism changes little whether one asserts that there never was a revelation or whether one claims that it occurred but is now outmoded. Both statements would seem to be equally treasonable" (pp. 285-286). The Magen Avraham, [38], who argues that, at least in one respect, Maimonides equates conversion to Islam with idolatry.

Some 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 Muhammed's prophetic mission, this is the equivalent of denying the validity of Torah. According to this opinion it is a capital offence to deny the Torah,[39] and they thus viewed idolatry as merely a manifestation of this denial. R. David ibn Zimra quotes the renowned R. Yom Tov Ishbili (c. 1250-1330) as holding to this view and expresses agreement with him.Cite error: Closing </ref> missing for <ref> tag

Muslim as Ger Toshav

If Muslims are not idolators, then why are they not Ger Toshav? Maimonides opinion was of the opinion that a Muslim cannot be a Ger Toshav,[40] Because it is forbidden for a Gentile to follow the dictates of Islam. He rules according to the view that any non-Jewish religious system is illicit and the only alternatives for non-Jews are conversion or observance of the Seven Laws of Noah which, by definition, exclude any other religious system.[41]

Although almost all achronim agree with Maimonides that Islam is not idolatry, most disagree that any non-Jewish religious system is illicit by definition.

Rabbi Nissim Gerondi

Remnants of the Jewish-Islamic relationship

There are still indications that something like that was going on, that the early Muslims looked to the Jews for approval and authority, "to settle doubts and disputes":

فَإِن كُنتَ فِي شَكٍّ مِّمَّا أَنزَلْنَا إِلَيْكَ فَاسْأَلِ الَّذِينَ يَقْرَؤُونَ الْكِتَابَ مِن قَبْلِكَ لَقَدْ جَاءكَ الْحَقُّ مِن رَّبِّكَ فَلاَ تَكُونَنَّ مِنَ الْمُمْتَرِينَ

Yunus 10:94 But if you are in doubt as to what We have revealed to you, ask those [the Jews] who read the Scriptures before you [the Muslims]. Certainly the truth has come to you from your Lord, therefore you should not be of the disputers.

Another example

Sunan Abu Dawud, Book 38 (Kitab al Hudud, ie. Prescribed Punishments), Number 4434: Narrated Abdullah Ibn Umar: A group of Jews came and invited the Apostle of Allah (peace_be_upon_him) to Quff. So he visited them in their school. They said: Abu Qasim, one of our men has committed fornication with a woman; so pronounce judgment upon them. They placed a cushion for the Apostle of Allah (peace_be_upon_him) who sat on it and said: Bring the Torah. It was then brought. He then withdrew the cushion from beneath him and placed the Torah on it saying: I believed in thee and in Him Who revealed thee. He then said: Bring me one who is learned among you. Then a young Rabbi was brought..."

Islam as a Noahide Faith?

Some have speculated that the Mesani refer to the Seven Laws of Noah, but this is impossible to prove.

15.87 And We have bestowed upon thee the Seven Oft-repeated (verses) and the Grand Qur'an.

17:22 — Prohibition of Idolatry #1

17:23 — Prohibition of Blasphemy #2

17:32 — Prohibition of Sexual Immorality #4

17:33 — Prohibition of Homicide #3

17:34 — Prohibition of Theft #5

17:35 — Imperative of Legal System #7

17:36 — Prohibition of Limb of a Living Creature #6??? (although prohibition of blood specifically mentioned by the 2:173; 5:3)

39.23 Allah has revealed the most beautiful Message in the form of a Book, consistent with the Oft-repeated (verses).

71:1 We sent Noah to his People: "Do thou warn thy People before there comes to them a grievous Penalty."

Sheikh Palazzi's Speech at the Conference on Noahide Council

Earlier in the day, several speakers addressed issues surrounding the B'nai Noah movement as part of a conference on the establishment of the B'nai Noah Council.

Sheikh Abdul Hadi Palazzi, a leader of the Italian Muslim Assembly, addressed the assembly, speaking about B'nai Noah in Islam: "Islamic law holds within it the seven laws of Noah and can be taught correctly to the Muslims of the world... I remember reading that a new Sanhedrin was created in Jerusalem [and] my impression was very positive - I thought maybe something new had been created to allow the Jewish people to project moral and legal clarity to counterbalance the lack of it in our world."

Palazzi added that the project of creating a council of Noahide teachers would hopefully counter the negative educational effect of the Gaza withdrawal, "which taught the opposite to my people - it convinced many that only terrorism works."


  • Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, 6/22/1993, Author: Shapiro, Marc B.
  • Moshe Perlmann, "The Medieval Polemics Between Islam and Judaism," in S.D. Goitein, ed., Religion in a Religious Age (Cambridge, Mass., 1974), pp. 121-122, 126. and
  • M. Steinschneider, Polemische und apologetische Literatur in arabischer Sprache, zwischen Muslimen, Christen und Juden (Leipzig, 1877).
  • Ronald Kiener, "The Image of Islam in the Zohar," Mehkerei Yerushalayim be-Mahshevet Yisrael 9 (1989): 43-65 (English section)
  • Abraham Schreiber, "Yahas Hakhmei Yisrael le-Istam," in Itamar Warhaftig, ed., Minhah le-Ish (Jerusalem, 1991), pp. 276-292.
  • Regarding Karaite attitudes, see Haggai Ben-shammai, "The Attitude of Some Early Karaites Towards Islam," in Isadore Twersky, ed., Studies in Medieval Jewish History and Literature (Cambridge, Mass., 1984), Vol. 2, pp. 1-40.
  • Regarding Islamic influence on Jewish practice, Naphtali Wieder, Hashpa'ot Islamiyyot al ha-Pulhan ha-Yehudi (Oxford, 1947).

See Also


  1. Much of this article is based on 'Islam and the halakha in Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, 6/22/1993, Author: Shapiro, Marc B.
  2. See Jacob Katz, Halakhah ve-Kabbalah (Jerusalem, 1986), pp. 291-310.
  3. For a recent discussion, see Louis Jacobs, "Attitudes Toward Christianity in the Halakhah," in Ze'ev W. Falk, ed., Gevuroth Haromah (Jerusalem, 1987), pp. xvii-xxxi. The standard treatment of Jewish attitudes towards Christianity remains Jacob Katz, Exclusiveness and Tolerance (Oxford, 1961).
  4. Midrash Lekah Tov (Jerusalem, 1960), Vol. 2, p. 250
  5. See R. Menahem Meiri, Bet ha-Behirah: Avodah Zarah, Abraham Sofer, ed. (Jerusalem, 1964), p. 214 (quoting R. Joseph ibn Migash), and Sefer ha-Eshkol, Z.B. Auerbach, ed. (Halberstadt, 1865), section 3, p. 150. (It should be noted that some scholars question the authenticity of this edition of Sefer ha-Eshkol.)
  6. Simhah Assaf, ed., Teshuvot ha-Geonim (Jerusalem, 1929), no. 266,
  7. R. Hayyim Joseph David Azulai, Birkei Yosef: Shiyure Berakhah (Jerusalem, no date), Yoreh Deah 122: 1.
  8. R. Simeon ben Zemah Duran, She'elot u-Teshuvot Tashbez (Lemberg, 1891), vol. 2, no. 48
  9. need source
  10. Hemdah Genuzah (Jerusalem, 1863), no. 114.
  11. Joel Muller, ed., Halakhot Pesukot min ha- Geonim (Cracow, 1893), no. 25.
  12. David Casell, ed., Teshuvot Geonim Kadmonim (Bnei Brak, 1986), no. 46.
  13. Simha Hasida, ed., Shibbolei ha-Leket (Jerusalem, 1988), Vol. 2, p. 20.
  14. See the sources quoted by Hanokh Albeck in the notes to his edition of Sefer ha-Eshkol (Jerusalem, 1938), pp. 77-78.
  15. See Yizhak Rafael, ed., Sefer ha-Manhig (Jerusalem, 1978), Vol. 2, p. 660, and Albeck, loc. cit. Rabbenu Nissim, She'elot u-Teshuvot R. Nissim ben Gerondi, ed. Kleon Feldman (Jerusalem, 1984), p. 45
  16. See, e.g., R. Joseph Hayyim, Da'at u-Tevunah (Jerusalem, 1965), pp. 25b-26a.
  17. see H.Z. Hirschberg, "Arkhaot shel Goyim Biyemei ha-Geonim," in S.J. Zevin and Zerab Warhaftig, eds., Mazkeret (Jerusalem, 1962), pp. 493-506.
  18. See Hilchot Teshuvah 3:8 (uncensored version).
  19. Regarding Christianity, see the uncensored versions of his commentary to Mishnah Avodah Zarah 1:3 and Hilkhot Akum 9:4.
  20. Hilkhot Melakhim 11:4 (uncensored version): All those words of Jesus of Nazareth and of this Ishmaelite [i.e., Muhammed] 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)
  21. Teshuvot ha-Rambam, ed., Joshua Blau (Jerusalem, 1989), no. 149.
  22. A.S. Halkin, ed., Moses Maimonides' Epistle to Yemen (New York, 1952), pp. 14, 36. Maimonides also refers to Muhammad as "the unfit one" (pasul), see Ibid., p. 38. See also Yehuda Shamir, "Allusions to Muhammed in Maimonides' Theory of Prophecy in his Guide," Jewish Quarterly Review 54 (1974): 212-224, and George F. Hourani, "Maimonides and Islam," in William M. Brinner and Stephen D. Ricks, eds., Studies in Islamic and Judaic Traditions (Atlanta, 1986), pp. 153-158; Netanel b. Isaiah, Maor ha-Afelah, ed., Joseph Kafah (Jerusalem, 1957), p. 121; Hayyim Vital as quoted in Saul Cohen, Lehem ha-Bikkurim [reprinted Bnei Brak, 1981], appendix, p. 14.
  23. Hilkhot Melakhim 10:8; David Novak, "The Treatment of Islam and Muslims in the Legal Writings of Maimonides," in Brinner and Ricks, Op. cit., pp. 240ff.
  24. Hilkhot Ma'akhalot Asurot 11:7; Teshuvot ha- Rambam, no. 269
  25. R. David ibn Zimra (1479-1573), She'elot u- Teshuvot Radbaz (New York, no date), no. 281, and Azulai, Birkei Yosef, Yoreh Deah 16:3.
  26. Cf. Tur, Yoreh Deah, 124
  27. Nahmanides, Hiddushei ha-Ramban to Avodah Zarah, ed., M. Hershler jerusalem, 1970), column 237
  28. See S. Eppenstein, Abraham Maimuni, Sain Leben und Seine Schriften (Berlin, 1914), p. 17, note 1; Gerson D. Cohen, "The Soteriology of R. Abraham Maimuni," Proceedings of the American Academy of Jewish Research 35 (1967), pp. 85-86.
  29. R. Asher ben Yehiel's Teshuvot [Jerusalem, 1981], 5:2
  30. R. Isaac Herzog, Pesakim u-Khetavim [Jerusalem, 1990], vol. 4, no. 49
  31. See Jose Faur 's Iyyunim ba-Mishneh Torah le-ha-Rambam (Jerusalem, 1978), p. 236, note 54. This has been analyzed at great length by Bernard Septimus, see bibliography
  32. Dina de-Hayya (Constantinople, 1742), Vol. 1, pp. 51a- 51b
  33. (Hilkhot Akum 10:2).
  34. Teshuvot ha-Rambam, no. 448. I have used the translation in Septimus, Op. cit., pp. 522-523, which contains a number of valuable notes.
  35. Regarding the debate as to whether Maimonides himself was a crypto-Jew while be lived in Fez, see the recent discussion by Jay Harris, "Maimonides in 19th Century Historiography," Proceedings of the American Academy of Jewish Research 54 (1987), pp. 133ff.
  36. Maimonides' Iggeret Ha-Shemad: Law and Rhetoric," in Leo Landman, ed., Rabbi Joseph H. Lookstein Memorial Volume (New York, 1980), pp. 284ff.
  37. See Soloveitchik, Op. cit., pp. 286-287.
  38. Orah Hayyim 128:37
  39. Cf. Soloveitchik, Op. cit., p. 285.
  40. Hilkhot Melakhim 8:11.
  41. Hilkhot Melakhim 10:9 (and see the analysis of R. Zvi Hirsch Chajes, Kol Sifrei Maharatz Chajes [Jerusalem, 1958], Vol. 2, p. 1036). This crucial point was overlooked by Novak, Op. cit., pp. 233ff. It is true that Chajes expresses a much more tolerant viewpoint in Op. cit., Vol. 1, pp. 483-491; however, this section was written in response to the 1840 Damascus Affair, and its apologetic nature does not appear to reflect Chajes' true opinion.