I’ve seen the word taqiyyah tossed around here on several occasions and every time, based on the contexts in which I’ve seen it used, it’s evident that people don’t understand what it means or when it’s permissible for a Muslim to employ it.
Before I get started, let me cover a few things:
First, because I was wondering where people were getting this strange definition of taqiyyah that I’ve been hearing, I decided to Google it and got my answer right away. I found links to tens of thousands of web pages. To say I read every one of them would be dishonest, but I read enough (a couple of hours’ worth) to realize that most of the definitions could be traced back to highly biased sources hostile to Islam.
The people who put this stuff out there are quite cunning in their ability to present disinformation in a way that would sound plausible to non-Muslims or even Muslims unfamiliar with the concept—e.g. they quote people they present as scholarly “experts” on Islam, or former Muslims who supposedly know all about it, etc. They then proceed to mix partially accurate information with outright lies. Even the definitions that didn’t appear to be intentionally misleading were mixed in with enough misinformation to make them nearly as bad as the others.
Second, I’m (obviously) not an Islamic scholar, however prior to writing this I did discuss the matter at length with a respected imam who IS a scholar to ensure that my understanding of the concept was well-grounded. One reason I’m stating this is to point out that what I’m going to write is not simply my opinion, it is the established definition of taqiyyah according to mainstream Sunni Islamic jurisprudence. The other reason is that I wanted to be clear that my source is someone I know for a fact to be qualified and trustworthy.
I can almost see the gears turning in some people’s heads—why should you trust me, a stranger sitting behind a keyboard, to be tell you the truth? Maybe I’m just employing taqiyyah to trick you. Anticipating that a few people would think that, I sent Charles a message explaining exactly how I know the imam in question along with links that describe his history & credentials and a phone number & email address through which he can be reached at the mosque where he currently serves. Obviously, I’m not about to post that personal info here as I don’t want either myself or the imam hounded by haters. So, if you need verification, ask Charles.
Third, please understand that Islamic concepts don’t exist in a vacuum. As with other religions, there is always a context that needs to be understood before someone can say, “this definitively means such-and-such in Islam”. What is that context? Well, there are several things that come into play, namely:
Qur’an – The Qur’an is written in classical Arabic, which is different from modern Arabic. Words that exist in both often have quite a different meaning when used in the Qur’an. Then you have the issue of translation—there really isn’t a 100% accurate English translation of the Qur’an, what you read is more akin to an interpretation. Arabic is an extremely precise & formulaic language, so if you truly want to understand what is being said, then you need to either have 1.) a solid understanding of classical Arabic, 2.) the ability to read & write Arabic and access to a Qur’anic dictionary, or 3.) access to a good English tafsir (exegesis) and a trusted Arabic speaking scholar to whom you can go with questions. You must also be familiar with the circumstances under which the verses you’re reading were revealed.
Hadith – There are thousands upon thousands of hadith, and each one has its own chain of transmission. Depending on the people in that chain, a given hadith can be considered “strong” or weak”. A weak hadith would carry much less weight than a strong one. As with the Qur’an, hadith were recorded in classical Arabic and one should understand the circumstances under which they occurred (hadiths regarding a specific matter may be different based on the time, place and people involved).
Sunnah – I think everyone probably has a good idea about this, so I won’t go into a long description.
Sharia – Ah, here we have the scary word—BOOGA BOOGA, as Stanley Sea would say. Actually, the bulk of sharia is quite mundane as it covers pretty much everything a Muslim might encounter in daily life. Just as with our laws here in USA, there is the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. When you isolate the letter of the law from the spirit of the law (i.e. the overall spirit of Islam, including its inner spiritual dimensions) you are in danger of ending up with something that is twisted in a very bad way. There is clear evidence of this when you see scholars issuing fatwas approving things like suicide bombings and the killing of innocents. Keep in mind that scholars are human and therefore not exempt from being corrupt and having self-serving agendas. This is why it’s incumbent on every Muslim to know their Islam and know it well (though many obviously do not).
Okay, so what about taqiyyah? Let’s start with what taqiyyah is NOT. Taqiyyah does not mean lying or dissimulation—that is a completely different word in Arabic (kadhaba). Is it ever permissible for a Muslim to lie? Yes, it is—in three and ONLY three situations:
1.) To make peace between two parties – I don’t think this needs much explanation—think Hatfields & McCoys, Israelis & Palestinians etc.
2.) When one is being held captive by an enemy – The assumption here is that one was captured during a just & permissible battle—if someone was captured after murdering a bunch of innocent people, then it’s no longer permissible.
3.) To avoid hurting someone’s feelings (esp. a spouse) – You guys out there should know this one. If your wife asks you, “Does this dress make me look fat?” the correct answer is, “No, honey, you look as gorgeous as always!”
Just to be clear, a Muslim is permitted to lie in the above three cases because the intention is to promote the good over the bad. Lying with any other intention—such as to cheat or harm someone, regardless of whether or not they are Muslim—would without question be considered sinful.
Now on to taqiyyah. Taqiyyah is derived from the Arabic root word taqa, meaning to fear (esp. God). From an Islamic perspective this type of fear doesn’t really have any negative connotations as it denotes devoutness—i.e. piety by virtue of being law-abiding and defending the good. The word for “regular” fear as in “I’m afraid of spiders” is completely different (khawf).
So in the context of Islam, taqiyyah refers to protecting or guarding something sacrosanct—such as life, property, or religion—when one fears that thing is in danger. Examples:
1.) Life – If your life (or that of your family, or even total stranger) is in danger, you can employ taqiyyah to protect that life as the preservation of human life trumps all else. Examples of this would be the Muslims who secretly protected Jews during the Holocaust, or living under conditions where there are forced conversions to another religion (or to no religion) on penalty of death. With regard to forced conversions, it would be required that you maintain your Islamic faith within your heart. If you didn’t do that, then it wouldn’t be taqiyyah.
2.) Property – This one is pretty simple & universal. If someone kicks in your door and puts a gun to your head, you can say or do whatever is immediately necessary to protect yourself, your family and your property.
3.) Religion – If revealing that you’re Muslim will cause extreme hardship to you and/or your family, then you can deny being Muslim. For example if the place where you live became so hostile to Islam that acknowledging you’re Muslim might prevent you from getting a job and render you destitute, then you can use taqiyyah. This would absolutely NOT cover misrepresenting yourself to hide bad intentions or for personal gain/greed, etc. As with #1 above, faith must be maintained in the heart.
That’s it. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, taqiyyah is ONLY permissible in cases of severe hardship or duress where there is no other option. There are NO additional circumstances under which it can be considered valid. Period.
If anyone is wondering, the Shia’ use taqiyyah differently than Sunnis do. I’m not sure exactly how/when they deem it permissible, and the imam I spoke with wasn’t keen on discussing it as it was irrelevant to both of us and would be largely speculative (because he isn’t a Shia’ scholar), therefore I’m not going to discuss it.
Edit: Emphasis added for anyone who didn’t get it the first time.
So there you have it. If anyone has sincere questions, I’ll try to answer them as best I can. If anyone wants to troll, dispute the validity of what I’ve said, or start flinging around their favorite cherry-picked examples of why they think Islam is positively horrid, save it—I’m not going to be dragged into any of that.
I’m considering doing a page on the Muslim world view, so if any of you are interested in that, then please let me know. If not, I’m okay with that too and will happily stick to addressing only those things I feel need clarification.
If you made it all the way to this last sentence, thank you! ;o)