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Islam must seem a paradoxical religion to non-Muslims. On the one hand, it is constantly being portrayed as the religion of peace; on the other, its adherents are responsible for the majority of terror attacks around the world. Apologists for Islam emphasize that it is a faith built upon high ethical standards; others stress that it is a religion of the law. Islam's dual notions of truth and falsehood further reveal its paradoxical nature: While the Qur'an is against believers deceiving other believers—for "surely God guides not him who is prodigal and a liar"—deception directed at non-Muslims, generally known in Arabic as taqiyya, also has Qur'anic support and falls within the legal category of things that are permissible for Muslims.
Yet if Muslims are exhorted to be truthful, how can deceit not only be prevalent but have divine sanction? What exactly is taqiyya? How is it justified by scholars and those who make use of it? How does it fit into a broader conception of Islam's code of ethics, especially in relation to the non-Muslim? More to the point, what ramifications does the doctrine of taqiyya have for all interaction between Muslims and non-Muslims?
The Doctrine of Taqiyya
According to Shari'a—the body of legal rulings that defines how a Muslim should behave in all circumstances—deception is not only permitted in certain situations but may be deemed obligatory in others. Contrary to early Christian tradition, for instance, Muslims who were forced to choose between recanting Islam or suffering persecution were permitted to lie and feign apostasy. Other jurists have decreed that Muslims are obligated to lie in order to preserve themselves, based on Qur'anic verses forbidding Muslims from being instrumental in their own deaths.
This is the classic definition of the doctrine of taqiyya. Based on an Arabic word denoting fear, taqiyya has long been understood, especially by Western academics, as something to resort to in times of religious persecution and, for the most part, used in this sense by minority Shi'i groups living among hostile Sunni majorities. Taqiyya allowed the Shi'a to dissemble their religious affiliation in front of the Sunnis on a regular basis, not merely by keeping clandestine about their own beliefs but by actively praying and behaving as if they were Sunnis.
However, one of the few books devoted to the subject, At-Taqiyya fi'l-Islam (Dissimulation in Islam) makes it clear that taqiyya is not limited to Shi'a dissimulating in fear of persecution. Written by Sami Mukaram, a former Islamic studies professor at the American University of Beirut and author of some twenty-five books on Islam, the book clearly demonstrates the ubiquity and broad applicability of taqiyya:
Taqiyya is, therefore, not, as is often supposed, an exclusively Shi'i phenomenon. Of course, as a minority group interspersed among their Sunni enemies, the Shi'a have historically had more reason to dissemble. Conversely, Sunni Islam rapidly dominated vast empires from Spain to China. As a result, its followers were beholden to no one, had nothing to apologize for, and had no need to hide from the infidel nonbeliever (rare exceptions include Spain and Portugal during the Reconquista when Sunnis did dissimulate over their religious identity). Ironically, however, Sunnis living in the West today find themselves in the place of the Shi'a: Now they are the minority surrounded by their traditional enemies—Christian infidels—even if the latter, as opposed to their Reconquista predecessors, rarely act on, let alone acknowledge, this historic enmity. In short, Sunnis are currently experiencing the general circumstances that made taqiyya integral to Shi'ism although without the physical threat that had so necessitated it.
The Articulation of Taqiyya
Qur'anic verse 3:28 is often seen as the primary verse that sanctions deception towards non-Muslims: "Let believers [Muslims] not take infidels [non-Muslims] for friends and allies instead of believers. Whoever does this shall have no relationship left with God—unless you but guard yourselves against them, taking precautions."
Muhammad ibn Jarir at-Tabari (d. 923), author of a standard and authoritative Qur'an commentary, explains verse 3:28 as follows:
Regarding Qur'an 3:28, Ibn Kathir (d. 1373), another prime authority on the Qur'an, writes, "Whoever at any time or place fears … evil [from non-Muslims] may protect himself through outward show." As proof of this, he quotes Muhammad's close companion Abu Darda, who said, "Let us grin in the face of some people while our hearts curse them." Another companion, simply known as Al-Hasan, said, "Doing taqiyya is acceptable till the Day of Judgment [i.e., in perpetuity]."
Other prominent scholars, such as Abu 'Abdullah al-Qurtubi (1214-73) and Muhyi 'd-Din ibn al-Arabi (1165-1240), have extended taqiyya to cover deeds. In other words, Muslims can behave like infidels and worse—for example, by bowing down and worshiping idols and crosses, offering false testimony, and even exposing the weaknesses of their fellow Muslims to the infidel enemy—anything short of actually killing a Muslim: "Taqiyya, even if committed without duress, does not lead to a state of infidelity—even if it leads to sin deserving of hellfire."
Deceit in Muhammad's Military Exploits
Muhammad—whose example as the "most perfect human" is to be followed in every detail—took an expedient view on lying. It is well known, for instance, that he permitted lying in three situations: to reconcile two or more quarreling parties, to placate one's wife, and in war. According to one Arabic legal manual devoted to jihad as defined by the four schools of law, "The ulema agree that deception during warfare is legitimate … deception is a form of art in war." Moreover, according to Mukaram, this deception is classified as taqiyya: "Taqiyya in order to dupe the enemy is permissible."
Several ulema believe deceit is integral to the waging of war: Ibn al-'Arabi declares that "in the Hadith [sayings and actions of Muhammad], practicing deceit in war is well demonstrated. Indeed, its need is more stressed than the need for courage." Ibn al-Munir (d. 1333) writes, "War is deceit, i.e., the most complete and perfect war waged by a holy warrior is a war of deception, not confrontation, due to the latter's inherent danger, and the fact that one can attain victory through treachery without harm [to oneself]." And Ibn Hajar (d. 1448) counsels Muslims "to take great caution in war, while [publicly] lamenting and mourning in order to dupe the infidels."
This Muslim notion that war is deceit goes back to the Battle of the Trench (627), which pitted Muhammad and his followers against several non-Muslim tribes known as Al-Ahzab. One of the Ahzab, Na'im ibn Mas'ud, went to the Muslim camp and converted to Islam. When Muhammad discovered that the Ahzab were unaware of their co-tribalist's conversion, he counseled Mas'ud to return and try to get the pagan forces to abandon the siege. It was then that Muhammad memorably declared, "For war is deceit." Mas'ud returned to the Ahzab without their knowing that he had switched sides and intentionally began to give his former kin and allies bad advice. He also went to great lengths to instigate quarrels between the various tribes until, thoroughly distrusting each other, they disbanded, lifted the siege from the Muslims, and saved Islam from destruction in an embryonic period. Most recently, 9/11 accomplices, such as Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, rationalized their conspiratorial role in their defendant response by evoking their prophet's assertion that "war is deceit."
A more compelling expression of the legitimacy of deceiving infidels is the following anecdote. A poet, Ka'b ibn Ashraf, offended Muhammad, prompting the latter to exclaim, "Who will kill this man who has hurt God and his prophet?" A young Muslim named Muhammad ibn Maslama volunteered on condition that in order to get close enough to Ka'b to assassinate him, he be allowed to lie to the poet. Muhammad agreed. Ibn Maslama traveled to Ka'b and began to denigrate Islam and Muhammad. He carried on in this way till his disaffection became so convincing that Ka'b took him into his confidence. Soon thereafter, Ibn Maslama appeared with another Muslim and, while Ka'b's guard was down, killed him.
Muhammad said other things that cast deception in a positive light, such as "God has commanded me to equivocate among the people just as he has commanded me to establish [religious] obligations"; and "I have been sent with obfuscation"; and "whoever lives his life in dissimulation dies a martyr."
In short, the earliest historical records of Islam clearly attest to the prevalence of taqiyya as a form of Islamic warfare. Furthermore, early Muslims are often depicted as lying their way out of binds—usually by denying or insulting Islam or Muhammad—often to the approval of the latter, his only criterion being that their intentions (niya) be pure. During wars with Christians, whenever the latter were in authority, the practice of taqiyya became even more integral. Mukaram states, "Taqiyya was used as a way to fend off danger from the Muslims, especially in critical times and when their borders were exposed to wars with the Byzantines and, afterwards, to the raids [crusades] of the Franks and others."
Taqiyya in Qur'anic Revelation
The Qur'an itself is further testimony to taqiyya. Since God is believed to be the revealer of these verses, he is by default seen as the ultimate perpetrator of deceit—which is not surprising since he is described in the Qur'an as the best makar, that is, the best deceiver or schemer (e.g., 3:54, 8:30, 10:21).
While other scriptures contain contradictions, the Qur'an is the only holy book whose commentators have evolved a doctrine to account for the very visible shifts which occur from one injunction to another. No careful reader will remain unaware of the many contradictory verses in the Qur'an, most specifically the way in which peaceful and tolerant verses lie almost side by side with violent and intolerant ones. The ulema were initially baffled as to which verses to codify into the Shari'a worldview—the one that states there is no coercion in religion (2:256), or the ones that command believers to fight all non-Muslims till they either convert, or at least submit, to Islam (8:39, 9:5, 9:29). To get out of this quandary, the commentators developed the doctrine of abrogation, which essentially maintains that verses revealed later in Muhammad's career take precedence over earlier ones whenever there is a discrepancy. In order to document which verses abrogated which, a religious science devoted to the chronology of the Qur'an's verses evolved (known as an-Nasikh wa'l Mansukh, the abrogater and the abrogated).
But why the contradiction in the first place? The standard view is that in the early years of Islam, since Muhammad and his community were far outnumbered by their infidel competitors while living next to them in Mecca, a message of peace and coexistence was in order. However, after the Muslims migrated to Medina in 622 and grew in military strength, verses inciting them to go on the offensive were slowly "revealed"—in principle, sent down from God—always commensurate with Islam's growing capabilities. In juridical texts, these are categorized in stages: passivity vis-á-vis aggression; permission to fight back against aggressors; commands to fight aggressors; commands to fight all non-Muslims, whether the latter begin aggressions or not. Growing Muslim might is the only variable that explains this progressive change in policy.
Other scholars put a gloss on this by arguing that over a twenty-two year period, the Qur'an was revealed piecemeal, from passive and spiritual verses to legal prescriptions and injunctions to spread the faith through jihad and conquest, simply to acclimate early Muslim converts to the duties of Islam, lest they be discouraged at the outset by the dramatic obligations that would appear in later verses. Verses revealed towards the end of Muhammad's career—such as, "Warfare is prescribed for you though you hate it"—would have been out of place when warfare was actually out of the question.
However interpreted, the standard view on Qur'anic abrogation concerning war and peace verses is that when Muslims are weak and in a minority position, they should preach and behave according to the ethos of the Meccan verses (peace and tolerance); when strong, however, they should go on the offensive on the basis of what is commanded in the Medinan verses (war and conquest). The vicissitudes of Islamic history are a testimony to this dichotomy, best captured by the popular Muslim notion, based on a hadith, that, if possible, jihad should be performed by the hand (force), if not, then by the tongue (through preaching); and, if that is not possible, then with the heart or one's intentions.
War Is Eternal
That Islam legitimizes deceit during war is, of course, not all that astonishing; after all, as the Elizabethan writer John Lyly put it, "All's fair in love and war." Other non-Muslim philosophers and strategists—such as Sun Tzu, Machiavelli, and Thomas Hobbes—justified deceit in warfare. Deception of the enemy during war is only common sense. The crucial difference in Islam, however, is that war against the infidel is a perpetual affair—until, in the words of the Qur'an, "all chaos ceases, and all religion belongs to God." In his entry on jihad from the Encyclopaedia of Islam, Emile Tyan states: "The duty of the jihad exists as long as the universal domination of Islam has not been attained. Peace with non-Muslim nations is, therefore, a provisional state of affairs only; the chance of circumstances alone can justify it temporarily."
Moreover, going back to the doctrine of abrogation, Muslim scholars such as Ibn Salama (d. 1020) agree that Qur'an 9:5, known as ayat as-sayf or the sword verse, has abrogated some 124 of the more peaceful Meccan verses, including "every other verse in the Qur'an, which commands or implies anything less than a total offensive against the nonbelievers." In fact, all four schools of Sunni jurisprudence agree that "jihad is when Muslims wage war on infidels, after having called on them to embrace Islam or at least pay tribute [jizya] and live in submission, and the infidels refuse."
Obligatory jihad is best expressed by Islam's dichotomized worldview that pits the realm of Islam against the realm of war. The first, dar al-Islam, is the "realm of submission," the world where Shari'a governs; the second, dar al-Harb (the realm of war), is the non-Islamic world. A struggle continues until the realm of Islam subsumes the non-Islamic world—a perpetual affair that continues to the present day. The renowned Muslim historian and philosopher Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406) clearly articulates this division:
Finally and all evidence aside, lest it still appear unreasonable for a faith with over one billion adherents to obligate unprovoked warfare in its name, it is worth noting that the expansionist jihad is seen as an altruistic endeavor, not unlike the nineteenth century ideology of "the white man's burden." The logic is that the world, whether under democracy, socialism, communism, or any other system of governance, is inevitably living in bondage—a great sin, since the good of all humanity is found in living in accordance to God's law. In this context, Muslim deception can be viewed as a slightly less than noble means to a glorious end—Islamic hegemony under Shari'a rule, which is seen as good for both Muslims and non-Muslims.
This view has an ancient pedigree: Soon after the death of Muhammad (634), as the jihad fighters burst out of the Arabian peninsula, a soon-to-be conquered Persian commander asked the invading Muslims what they wanted. They memorably replied as follows:
Fourteen hundred years later— in March 2009—Saudi legal expert Basem Alem publicly echoed this view:
And it should go without saying that taqiyya in the service of altruism is permissible. For example, only recently, after publicly recounting a story where a Muslim tricked a Jew into converting to Islam—warning him that if he tried to abandon Islam, Muslims would kill him as an apostate—Muslim cleric Mahmoud al-Masri called it a "beautiful trick." After all, from an Islamic point of view, it was the Jew who, in the end, benefitted from the deception, which brought him to Islam.
Treaties and Truces
The perpetual nature of jihad is highlighted by the fact that, based on the 10-year treaty of Hudaybiya (628), ratified between Muhammad and his Quraysh opponents in Mecca, most jurists are agreed that ten years is the maximum amount of time Muslims can be at peace with infidels; once the treaty has expired, the situation needs to be reappraised. Based on Muhammad's example of breaking the treaty after two years (by claiming a Quraysh infraction), the sole function of the truce is to buy weakened Muslims time to regroup before renewing the offensive: "By their very nature, treaties must be of temporary duration, for in Muslim legal theory, the normal relations between Muslim and non-Muslim territories are not peaceful, but warlike." Hence "the fuqaha [jurists] are agreed that open-ended truces are illegitimate if Muslims have the strength to renew the war against them [non-Muslims]."
Even though Shari'a mandates Muslims to abide by treaties, they have a way out, one open to abuse: If Muslims believe—even without solid evidence—that their opponents are about to break the treaty, they can preempt by breaking it first. Moreover, some Islamic schools of law, such as the Hanafi, assert that Muslim leaders may abrogate treaties merely if it seems advantageous for Islam. This is reminiscent of the following canonical hadith: "If you ever take an oath to do something and later on you find that something else is better, then you should expiate your oath and do what is better." And what is better, what is more altruistic, than to make God's word supreme by launching the jihad anew whenever possible? Traditionally, Muslim rulers held to a commitment to launch a jihad at least once every year. This ritual is most noted with the Ottoman sultans, who spent half their lives in the field. So important was the duty of jihad that the sultans were not permitted to perform the pilgrimage to Mecca, an individual duty for each Muslim. Their leadership of the jihad allowed this communal duty to continue; without them, it would have fallen into desuetude.
In short, the prerequisite for peace or reconciliation is Muslim advantage. This is made clear in an authoritative Sunni legal text, Umdat as-Salik, written by a fourteenth-century Egyptian scholar, Ahmad Ibn Naqib al-Misri: "There must be some benefit [maslaha] served in making a truce other than the status quo: 'So do not be fainthearted and call for peace when it is you who are uppermost [Qur'an 47:35].'"
More recently, and of great significance for Western leaders advocating cooperation with Islamists, Yasser Arafat, soon after negotiating a peace treaty criticized as conceding too much to Israel, addressed an assembly of Muslims in a mosque in Johannesburg where he justified his actions: "I see this agreement as being no more than the agreement signed between our Prophet Muhammad and the Quraysh in Mecca." In other words, like Muhammad, Arafat gave his word only to annul it once "something better" came along—that is, once the Palestinians became strong enough to renew the offensive and continue on the road to Jerusalem. Elsewhere, Hudaybiya has appeared as a keyword for radical Islamists. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front had three training camps within the Camp Abu Bakar complex in the Philippines, one of which was named Camp Hudaybiya.
Hostility Disguised As Grievance
In their statements directed at European or American audiences, Islamists maintain that the terrorism they direct against the West is merely reciprocal treatment for decades of Western and Israeli oppression. Yet in writings directed to their fellow Muslims, this animus is presented, not as a reaction to military or political provocation but as a product of religious obligation.
For instance, when addressing Western audiences, Osama bin Laden lists any number of grievances as motivating his war on the West—from the oppression of the Palestinians to the Western exploitation of women, and even U.S. failure to sign the environmental Kyoto protocol—all things intelligible from a Western perspective. Never once, however, does he justify Al-Qaeda's attacks on Western targets simply because non-Muslim countries are infidel entities that must be subjugated. Indeed, he often initiates his messages to the West by saying, "Reciprocal treatment is part of justice" or "Peace to whoever follows guidance"—though he means something entirely different than what his Western listeners understand by words such as "peace," "justice," or "guidance."
It is when bin Laden speaks to fellow Muslims that the truth comes out. When a group of prominent Muslims wrote an open letter to the American people soon after the strikes of 9/11, saying that Islam seeks to peacefully coexist, bin Laden wrote to castigate them:
Mainstream Islam's four schools of jurisprudence lend their support to this hostile Weltanschauung by speaking of the infidel in similar terms. Bin Laden's addresses to the West with his talk of justice and peace are clear instances of taqiyya. He is not only waging a physical jihad but a propaganda war, that is, a war of deceit. If he can convince the West that the current conflict is entirely its fault, he garners greater sympathy for his cause. At the same time, he knows that if Americans were to realize that nothing short of their submission can ever bring peace, his propaganda campaign would be quickly compromised. Hence the constant need to dissemble and to cite grievances, for, as bin Laden's prophet asserted, "War is deceit."
Taqiyya presents a range of ethical dilemmas. Anyone who truly believes that God justifies and, through his prophet's example, even encourages deception will not experience any ethical qualms over lying. Consider the case of 'Ali Mohammad, bin Laden's first "trainer" and long-time Al-Qaeda operative. An Egyptian, he was initially a member of Islamic Jihad and had served in the Egyptian army's military intelligence unit. After 1984, he worked for a time with the CIA in Germany. Though considered untrustworthy, he managed to get to California where he enlisted in the U.S. Army. It seems likely that he continued to work in some capacity for the CIA. He later trained jihadists in the United States and Afghanistan and was behind several terror attacks in Africa. People who knew him regarded him with "fear and awe for his incredible self-confidence, his inability to be intimidated, absolute ruthless determination to destroy the enemies of Islam, and his zealous belief in the tenets of militant Islamic fundamentalism." Indeed, this sentence sums it all up: For a zealous belief in Islam's tenets, which legitimize deception in order to make God's word supreme, will certainly go a long way in creating "incredible self-confidence" when lying.
Yet most Westerners continue to think that Muslim mores, laws, and ethical constraints are near identical to those of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Naively or arrogantly, today's multiculturalist leaders project their own worldview onto Islamists, thinking a handshake and smiles across a cup of coffee, as well as numerous concessions, are enough to dismantle the power of God's word and centuries of unchanging tradition. The fact remains: Right and wrong in Islam have little to do with universal standards but only with what Islam itself teaches—much of which is antithetical to Western norms.
It must, therefore, be accepted that, contrary to long-held academic assumptions, the doctrine of taqiyya goes far beyond Muslims engaging in religious dissimulation in the interest of self-preservation and encompasses deception of the infidel enemy in general. This phenomenon should provide a context for Shi'i Iran's zeal—taqiyya being especially second nature to Shi'ism—to acquire nuclear power while insisting that its motives are entirely peaceful.
Nor is taqiyya confined to overseas affairs. Walid Phares of the National Defense University has lamented that homegrown Islamists are operating unfettered on American soil due to their use of taqiyya: "Does our government know what this doctrine is all about and, more importantly, are authorities educating the body of our defense apparatus regarding this stealthy threat dormant among us?" After the Fort Hood massacre, when Nidal Malik Hasan, an American-Muslim who exhibited numerous Islamist signs which were ignored, killed thirteen fellow servicemen and women, one is compelled to respond in the negative.
This, then, is the dilemma: Islamic law unambiguously splits the world into two perpetually warring halves—the Islamic world versus the non-Islamic—and holds it to be God's will for the former to subsume the latter. Yet if war with the infidel is a perpetual affair, if war is deceit, and if deeds are justified by intentions—any number of Muslims will naturally conclude that they have a divinely sanctioned right to deceive, so long as they believe their deception serves to aid Islam "until all chaos ceases, and all religion belongs to God." Such deception will further be seen as a means to an altruistic end. Muslim overtures for peace, dialogue, or even temporary truces must be seen in this light, evoking the practical observations of philosopher James Lorimer, uttered over a century ago: "So long as Islam endures, the reconciliation of its adherents, even with Jews and Christians, and still more with the rest of mankind, must continue to be an insoluble problem."
In closing, whereas it may be more appropriate to talk of "war and peace" as natural corollaries in a Western context, when discussing Islam, it is more accurate to talk of "war and deceit." For, from an Islamic point of view, times of peace—that is, whenever Islam is significantly weaker than its infidel rivals—are times of feigned peace and pretense, in a word, taqiyya.
 Qur'an 40:28.
©1994-2014 The Middle East Forum E-mail: info (at) meforum (dot) org Daniel J. Pipes