This post first appeared as “Can You Trust Muslim Kindness this Ramadan?” which was posted on the IMES blog on June 1, 2017.
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 behaviour is apparent.
As Shakira Hussein 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 right-wing 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. One among many websites that claims to be a “non-partisan, 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, since 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 Qur’an, 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 Qur’anic 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 Qur’an, 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 Qur’anic 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 Qur’an, with the Arabic word munafiqun (hypocrites) occurring over thirty times. In fact, the entire sixty-third surah (Arabic word for Qur’anic “chapter”) is entitled surat al-munafiqun. Nifaq in the Qur’an is a grave sin, and almost in every occurrence, it is followed with a promise of eternal hell-fire. 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 munafiqin. If the Qur’an 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.
Islam, then, permits its adherents to dissimulate their faith if doing otherwise would cost them their life, so long as they continue to be steadfast in their heart. The practice is by no means sanctioned in any or all situations at the discretion of Muslims.
Therefore, in practice taqiyya has been commonly used in Muslim history mostly among oppressed minority groups. Though according to at-Tabari’s commentary on the Qur’an (followed by the majority Sunni exegetical tradition), taqiyya is a doctrine endorsed by mainstream Islam, in practice it has been used most frequently by minority Shiite communities persecuted under Sunni governments.
In an article found on https://www.al-islam.org, the Shiite author asserts that the practice of taqiyya, as I have elaborated above, is permitted only in cases where the life or limb of a Muslim is at stake, and that only when it is judged that the practice of dissimulation will not ultimately be more harmful to the Muslim community than the proclamation of the truth. In the latter case, Muslims, whether Sunni or Shiite, would have to affirm their position in truth, even if it leads to their own demise.
The question that should be asked, therefore, is not when taqiyya is not permitted, as though it were an encouraged practice in all instances, but rather when is taqiyya permitted. Accordingly, it is only permitted when it will not bring harm on the Muslim community, and when practicing it will not lead to some harm coming upon innocent people.
I hope to have shown clearly, even if briefly, that based on the text of the Qur’an and its official interpreters, as well as on the writings of contemporary Muslim scholars, we cannot confirm the impression widely-held these days that, any time a Muslim speaks and behaves positively towards non-Muslims, they are being hypocritical and hiding a stealthy agenda.
You may ask what business I have in defending the doctrine of taqiyya. For indeed, communicating false information and deceit, whether with good or bad intentions, is not a familiar practice – nor is it sanctioned – from the perspective of a New Testament worldview. My explanation of the concept of taqiyya in defense of Muslims is not done with the motivation of promoting this Muslim doctrine as an acceptable practice. My intention, however, is to guard us against bearing false witness. Would it not represent taqiyya on our part to use a Muslim belief against Islam and Muslims by promoting a partial understanding of it? Are not those who dissimulate the true meaning of taqiyya practicing the very doctrine which they claim to be exposing? Judging Islam and all Muslims through a partial understanding of a Muslim doctrine for the purpose of inciting others against Islam is never justifiable for followers of Christ, the Prince of Peace and reconciler of our world.
For the church in Muslim lands, as well as for the church in countries where Muslims are in the minority, fear only gives rise to more suspicion and eventually to more conflict that leads to violence in our communities. The church globally is called to bear witness to the mission of God, a mission of love, peacemaking, and reconciliation. Christians everywhere need to get rid of their fears. Do not fear your Muslim neighbors. Do not accuse them of hypocrisy, without doing full justice to their texts. Invite them into your households and communities of faith by practicing biblical hospitality. Show them what good neighbors your Lord has made you into, both by inviting them to your homes and by responding positively and gratefully to their invitations to theirs, particularly during Ramadan. Testify to them about the Living Word. Show them the redemptive power of a self-giving God who has redeemed us so that we would be willing to lay down our own lives for their sake.