Muslims, Islamists, Islamophobes and the doctrine of “taqiyya”

It is becoming increasingly common in American political commentary as Islamophobic rhetoric has developed as a genre of the "paranoid style" of American politics, to hear or read that Islam encourages Muslims to lie to nonbelievers, and that therefore no one of Muslim heritage should be believed, particularly when they adopt moderate or constructive stances. This is, of course, immediately familiar to anyone with a familiarity with Western anti-Semitism, which has always held that Jews are religiously authorized to lie to, steal from or even kill Christians and other non-Jews. Like most forms of contemporary American Islamophobic rhetoric, this calumny about generalized and religiously sanctioned systematic dishonesty has been transferred wholesale from Jews to Muslims. The idea that the doctrine of "taqiyya" constitutes a carte blanche for all Muslims to lie to all non-Muslims is at the heart of this slander.

In discussing the overdetermined and relatively complex set of interpretations ascribed to taqiyya by various Muslim traditions and authorities over the centuries, I am certainly going out of my depth (but much less so than those who have been abusing the term for bigoted political purposes). I have maintained a healthy distance from the details of Islamic jurisprudence, and it must be to those with expertise in the area to offer a more definitive account. But some basic facts can be readily explained. First, taqiyya is a minor, and not a major, doctrine in Islam, and it is likely that most people who have been raised in the faith both at the present and historically never even hear about it. While understandings, interpretations and applications of the doctrine have, like almost all aspects of every major religion, been overdetermined and variegated over space and time, the essential concept underlying taqiyya is simple and has analogues in every single major religion. It essentially holds that it is permissible to lie about one’s religious affiliations in order to prevent immediate physical harm or death. If there is a major religion that does not contain a doctrine that might permit someone to recant at the stake or before the axe, I am not aware of it.

The doctrine has been of particular interest and relevancy to minority religious traditions, denominations and sects in the Islamic world, and can be said to have been mainly analyzed, defined and employed by Shiites, Sufi sects and other smaller Muslim denominations that have historically faced persecution by intolerant Sunni majorities or religious or political establishments. Indeed, in anti-Shiite rhetoric from Sunni bigots, historically taqiyya has been used to criticize Shiism and sometimes even to imply (as Islamophobes are now doing to Muslims in general) that they are simply, as a collectivity and for doctrinal reasons, systematically dishonest. Therefore, while a number of major Sunni Muslim commentators have agreed that taqiyya would allow a Muslim to disavow his or her religious beliefs in order to avoid immediate physical harm or death, it has more typically served in Sunni rhetoric over the years as a criticism or even calumny against Shiites, and therefore has had a generally negative connotation for the majority of Muslims historically.

There is no need for anyone raised in mainstream Muslim traditions anywhere to do any research to flatly and firmly refute the idea that Muslims generally perceive taqiyya as a doctrine that permits them to lie to nonbelievers (except possibly under the most extreme and unlikely circumstances, for which most people would require no theoretical rationalization, I might add). I was raised in a house steeped in Muslim traditions, including both traditional and Sufi forms of Sunni Islam, and I never once heard the term until it was dug up by Islamophobes post-9/11 and presented as evidence of the inherent duplicity of all Muslims throughout the world.

There are two competing versions of post-9/11 misinterpretations of taqiyya in American political discourse. The first — which holds that taqiyya simply authorizes Muslims to lie to all non-Muslims at will — is promoted by outright bigots and overt Islamophobes who know perfectly well that this isn’t true, but who are engaged in a campaign of spreading fear and hatred against a community which, for a variety of reasons, they fear and hate. It has been a very simple task to bat aside this crude and obviously preposterous calumny from the likes of Robert Spencer and his repulsive ilk. Exposing bigots of this level of crudeness is a fantastically simple proposition, and people like Spencer actually announce themselves as hateful, prejudiced and thoroughly dishonest propagandists to any fair-minded reader within a few sentences.

The second account of the way the doctrine of taqiyya supposedly functions in the post-9/11 environment holds that it is not mainstream Muslims, but "radical Islam," or Islamists generally, who are using it as a political weapon in a civilizational jihad against the West. The practical effect of this allegation is extremely similar to that of the more crude version, because it suggests that radical Muslims feel religiously authorized to lie about their beliefs to nonbelievers, not only to preserve life and limb, but, as is frequently alleged, "to advance the cause of Islam," and that in therefore no Muslim Americans can be regarded as sincere. Even though, in this account, taqiyya is only perceived in this way by "radical Islam," as opposed to mainstream Islam, when it is alleged that people are willing to use a religious doctrine that permits widespread and systematic deception, doubt is instantly raised about who among the Muslim Americans is genuinely mainstream or moderate, and who are actually radicals employing this version of taqiyya.

This misunderstanding (sometimes clearly deliberate, at other times apparently erroneous) of the ways in which taqiyya does and does not function in Muslim or even Islamist rhetoric was reflected in an exchange I had with in April with Doug Farah, who sometimes does some useful reporting but who is deeply over his head when he tries to delve into Islamism, as he has repeatedly demonstrated. Interestingly, I agreed with his overall point in the blog posting in question that negotiations with Islamists is a dangerous business. However, he alleged that taqiyya, "blesses the concept of disguising one’s beliefs, intentions, convictions, ideas, feelings, opinions or strategies from the enemy and the infidel," and that it is "fully embraced by radical Islamists (including the Muslim Brotherhood)." He never discussed the extent to which he believes this concept is partly or not at all embraced by "non-radical Muslims." He originally justified this allegation by linking to "a paper" that was simply a pathetic and ignorant anti-Arab racist rant by a man whose main qualification is that he is “a resident of Sydney." Farah has now changed the link on his own site to refer to another "paper," this time more scholarly but not very much less embarrassing. The link to the original overtly racist and idiotic "paper," which really is a masterpiece of taqiyya-hysteria and Islamophobia generally, and which Farah found authoritative, is still on the posting on "the counterterrorism blog," which Farah helps run, although he did take it off his own site. The point is that while this accusation about taqiyya is frequently and casually made among both Islamophobes and some ill-informed and self-appointed campaigners against "radical Islam," I have yet to see any evidence that Sunni Islamists actually do endorse the use of taqiyya to justify systematic and blatant deception.

Obviously all political and religious fanatics are not to be trusted, since their fanaticism tends to allow them to justify any number of abhorrent means (lying among them) through an obsessive commitment to achieving their ends. The idea that political Islamists, Muslim radicals and the like are fully prepared to lie isn’t in the least surprising or even really debatable. Only the most naïve and childlike people would believe for a second that fanaticism of any variety promotes honesty — to the contrary, the greater the certainty about the rightness of the cause, the more likely anyone is to engage in practices that are obviously otherwise outrageous. Yet the question of taqiyya is relevant, since it is used to overtly or implicitly undermine the credibility of anyone with any degree of Muslim heritage. It has even been implied by some on the ultra-right that President Obama is "practicing taqiyya" when he "poses as a professed Christian." Agnostics and secularists such as myself may thereby also, as both Robert Spencer and Daniel Pipes have claimed about me, be accused of being secretly or objectively a "jihadist cadre." Since this understanding of taqiyya began to develop in Islamophobic and "counterterrorism" circles post-9/11, it has increasingly served as little more than a code word for the idea that Muslims, and even anyone with any Muslim heritage, are all actual or potential liars. Therefore, the question of whether or not the contemporary Sunni Islamist movement in any or all of its present iterations accepts and promotes the version of taqiyya as defined by Farah above, and so many others is, in fact, significant.

As I already agreed, I am not a scholar of Islamic philosophy, theology, fiqh or anything of the kind, and that therefore a more definitive answer must come from someone else. However, evidence from the "taqiyya-peddlers" that Sunni Islamists promote the concept in the manner they describe is slim to none, and it seems to be simply an allegation and assertion. One scours the credible and sophisticated scholarly literature on the rise of the Sunni Islamist movements — ranging from the Muslim Brotherhood and similar Salafist groups; to the nationalistic armed Islamist militias (both Sunni and Shiite) such as Hamas, Hezbollah or the Iraqi militias; to the Deobandi-derived Islamist organizations in South and Central Asia such as the Taliban; to the most extreme of all, the takfiri, self-described "salafist-jihadist" groups such as Al Qaeda — for evidence of their interest in and use of the concept of taqiyya in vain. In the definitive book, "The Columbia World Dictionary of Islamism" (Columbia University, 2007), the concept is mentioned only once, in a passing reference to a Turkish Sufi order. In Gilles Kepel’s classic "Jihad" (Harvard University Press, 2002), the concept does not appear at all. Neither is it mentioned in Richard P. Mitchell’s pioneering study of the Muslim Brotherhood, "The Society of The Muslim Brothers," (Oxford University Press, 1969), or in the more recent account of MB history in Adnan Mussallam’s "From Secularism to Jihad" (Praeger Publishers, 2005). Nor in Brynjar Lia’s excellent "Architect of Global Jihad" (Columbia University Press, 2008). Nor in Ahmad Rashid’s fine piece of journalism, "Jihad: the rise of militant Islam in Central Asia," (Penguin Books, 2003). Nor in Olivier Roy’s "Globalized Islam" (Columbia University Press, 2004). Nor in Fawaz Gerges’ "The Far Enemy" (Cambridge University Press, 2005), or his excellent follow-up, "Journey of the Jihadist" (Harcourt Books, 2006). Nor does it appear in Rudolph Peters’ "Jihad in Classical and Modern Islam," (Princeton Series on the Middle East, Markus Wiener Publishers, 1996). While admittedly this is hardly an exhaustive review of the literature on contemporary Islamism and its sources, both classical and modern, it seems almost unimaginable that the distinguished scholars who wrote these definitive analyses would have all completely missed, and not even so much as mentioned, this alleged reliance on taqiyya as a political tool and religious justification by Islamists and "radical Muslims."

Nor have only the credible, serious scholars of Islam and the Islamist movements mysteriously failed to understand the supposed centrality of taqiyya in contemporary Islamism, so have many hostile and far less credible or qualified commentators with obvious political agendas. Daniel Pipes, for example, makes no mention of taqiyya in his paranoid rant "Militant Islam Reaches America" (W.W. Norton, 2003). Steven Emerson, unquestionably the most influential pioneer of the idea of a dangerous Islamist fifth column in the United States, similarly failed to mention it at all, either in "American Jihad" (Free Press, 2002), or his follow-up "Jihad Incorporated: A Guide to Militant Islam in the US" (Prometheus Books, 2006).

While admitting that I am not a scholar of this subject, I do pay attention and I have seen no references to taqiyya in a positive manner from almost any Sunni Islamist sources. It might possibly be true, given the range of discourse among the world’s over 1 billion Muslims, that, as Raymond Ibrahim has claimed, "some ulema expanded the meaning of taqiyya to also permit general lying in order to advance any cause beneficial to Islam," but he does not provide any reference and I have been unable to locate any. More to the point, even the most extreme of the Islamists do not seem to understand taqiyya in this way at all, on those rare occasions that they do touch on the issue. Ibrahim’s own book, "The Al Qaeda Reader" (Broadway Books, 2007), contains a useful, predictably disturbing and often repulsive series of translations from the most extreme Islamists in the world. Among them are excerpts from a tract called "Loyalty and Enmity: An Inherited Doctrine and a Lost Reality," by Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s second-in-command and chief ideologue and propagandist for Al Qaeda. In it, Zawahiri touches on the question of taqiyya, approvingly quoting the classical commentator Al-Hassan as holding that, "taqiyya is permitted only should one fear being killed, scarred or severely harmed. But who ever is forced into apostasy, it is his right to resist and refuse to respond to any utterance of infidelity, if he can." Zawahiri concludes that regarding taqiyya, "Should a Muslim encounter circumstances that expose him to murder, scarring, or severe injury, he may utter some words to stay the infidels’ torments. But he must not undertake any initiative to support them, commit sin, or enable them through any deed or killing or fighting against Muslims. Nobler for him that he should endure the torments, even if they are the cause of his death."

Therefore, even the most extreme and fanatical of the Sunni Islamists, and Zawahiri is the exemplar of this fringe, regard taqiyya as an extremely limited dispensation to do with avoiding immediate physical injury or death, and strongly encourage enduring pain, injury and death as opposed to lying or deception. As far as less extreme Sunni Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood and some other Salafists, their interest in taqiyya seems limited to very occasionally using it as an element of anti-Shiite rhetoric. I wouldn’t put anything past fanatical extremists like Al Qaeda, but even an Islamist as extreme as Zawahiri does not, as a matter of fact, promote the idea that taqiyya can be used as a generalized system of lying and deception to advance the interests of Islam.

The entire purpose behind this whole campaign of misrepresentation regarding taqiyya was summed up by the Islamophobic fanatic Robert Spencer in his shameless screed, "The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades)" (Regnery Publishing, 2005). At the end of his passage on taqiyya, Spencer concludes: "Remember that the next time you see a Muslim spokesman on television professing his friendship with non-Muslim Americans and his loyalty to the United States. Of course, he may be telling the truth — but he may not be telling the whole truth or he may be just lying." Spencer is also famous for repeatedly insisting that there is no reliable method of distinguishing moderate from extremist Muslims.

Of course I wholeheartedly embrace skepticism and I would urge anyone that the next time they see anyone on television professing anything to consider that they may be lying (and if it is Robert Spencer, one may be quite certain that he is). Especially when dealing at the political level, it’s best to assume that one is not necessarily receiving the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth from anyone and everyone. However, individuals and institutions establish their credibility through consistency of word and deed, and by taking principled stances that are difficult and incur personal and professional costs. In other words, generalized skepticism is a good idea, but that doesn’t mean assuming that everyone is always lying, or surrendering the rational ability to readily discern who is more or less truthful and sincere, or who deserves and has earned the right to be taken seriously and who may be dismissed as a hack, flack or wacko. Successfully making these distinctions is at the very core of any kind of effective civic and political engagement, and everyone is properly always judging everyone else on these bases.

What Robert Spencer (ironically by lying) and his colleagues are trying to do is to foreclose any possibility for anyone in or from the Muslim American community from developing such credibility and to insist that we are all, no matter what we say and especially if our views are reasonable, moderate and constructive, quite possibly or even probably lying because Islam tells us to do so. This ghastly idea has built steam in certain quarters in the United States over the past few years and needs to be more thoroughly rebutted by scholars and experts in the field. Simply put the Islamophobes, by accusing Muslims, even the radicals, of having a doctrine that religiously encourages systematic deception, are themselves lying. It is a core element of a shameless campaign to prevent the Muslim American community from building a thriving, successful and fully-engaged life in our own country.