“In post 9/11 anti-Muslim discourse, ‘taqiyya’ has been redefined as a religious obligation for Muslims to lie to non-Muslims not simply for survival, but in order to serve the expansionist agenda of their religious community.”

According to the “taqiyya”-focused strand of the anti-Muslim moral panic, Muslims stand condemned for their participation in this hidden agenda even when no criminal or anti-social behavior is apparent.

As Shakira Hussein, an author and research fellow at The University of Melbourne’s Asia Institute, vividly describes, “taqiyya” (best translated as “dissimulation”), may be one of the most misunderstood Islamic concepts today.

Essentially, it refers to the permission in Islam, according to most Muslim scholars, for a Muslim to dissimulate his or her religious beliefs in certain circumstances in order to avoid bodily harm.

The concept of “taqiyya” belongs to the field of Islamic Law and abides by a variety of guidelines.

Today, however, some politicians in the West have used the idea of “taqiyya” in Islam as a basis to accuse Muslims generally of holding a stealthy agenda in their societies.

Some evangelical Christians have also written about “taqiyya” in recent years, as though it were a central doctrine in Islam.

For example, Sam Soloman’s chapter on “Challenges from Islam,” in Ravi Zacharias’ book, “Beyond Opinion: Living the Faith that We Defend” (Thomas Nelson, 2007).

One among many websites that claims to be a “nonpartisan, fact-based site, which examines the ideological threat that Islam poses to human dignity and freedom,” claims that “taqiyya” is a form of lying that is permitted in certain circumstances “that advance the cause of Islam – in some cases by gaining the trust of non-believers in order to draw out their vulnerability and defeat them.”

So, the following questions impose themselves: “Can you trust your Muslim neighbor during this month of Ramadan (and beyond), when they show kindness to you? How should you respond if they invite you to an “iftar” (the breaking of the fast at the end of each day) this month?”

The argument goes that we cannot trust in the good faith of any Muslim among us because Islam permits them to dissimulate their real intentions at their leisure.

This belief is held particularly by those non-Muslims convinced that Islam has the intention eventually to conquer the world. But is the fear factor triggered by such understandings justified?

When exploring a concept such as “taqiyya,” our starting point is the Quran, as we seek to understand the origins of the doctrine, and then the “tafsir” (commentaries) compendia, as we seek to explore the reception and development of the Quranic concept in the tradition.

First, it should be noted that “taqiyya” is the subject of great controversy between Sunnis and Shiites within Islam itself.

Therefore, defining the word simply in a negative way – and then assuming that it applies to all Muslims and all groups within Islam – is most definitely the wrong approach.

The exact word form, “taqiyya,” does not occur in the Quran, and its derivatives mostly refer to an admonishment to “fear God” (“ittaqu Allah”), rather than to an invitation to dissimulation.

Linguistically, the word means “prudence,” or “fear,” and thus derivatively the Arabic word “taqwa” is often used to translate English “piety,” in the sense of the “fear of God.”

The doctrine of “taqiyya” is related to a number of other Quranic understandings as well, in particular the concept of “nifaq,” usually translated as “hypocrisy.”

Given that “taqiyya” is often understood as a form of hypocrisy, it seems appropriate to point out that “nifaq” is repeatedly decried in the Quran, with the Arabic word “munafiqun” (hypocrites) occurring more than 30 times.

In fact, the entire 63rd sura (Arabic word for Quranic “chapter”) is titled “surat al-munafiqun.”

“Nifaq” in the Quran is a grave sin; in almost every occurrence it is followed with a promise of eternal hellfire.

In the opening verse of sura 33 (“al-Ahzab”), God’s command to Muhammad to fear him (“ittaqi Allah”) is immediately followed by a warning not to obey the unbelievers (“al-kafirin”) and the “munafiqun.”

If the Quran is so condemning about “nifaq,” we must not, therefore, be too quick to accept that it would condone a perpetual practice of hypocrisy under the guise of Muslim “taqiyya.”

In “surat an-Nahl” (16) 106-110, one of the most cited passages with reference to the practice of “taqiyya,” provides instructions for those who believed in Islam, but then as a result of force denied their faith.

The Quran reserves for such people two possible fates. Those who deny with their tongues while still believing in their hearts have committed no wrong, while those who deny God with their tongues and dwell in their unbelief in their hearts will be punished in eternity.

Islam, then, permits its adherents to dissimulate their faith if doing otherwise would cost them their lives, so long as they continue to be steadfast in their hearts. The practice is by no means sanctioned in any or all situations at the discretion of Muslims.

Martin Accad is director of the Institute of Middle East Studies (IMES) at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut. A longer version of this article first appeared on the IMES blog. It is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @marzaatar and IMES @IMESLebanon.

Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series. Part two is available here.

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