With the Name of God, All-Merciful, Most Merciful
Let not the Believers
Take for friends or helpers
Unbelievers rather than Believers:
If any do that, in nothing will there be help
From Allah: except by way of precaution,
That ye may guard yourselves from them.
[Qur’an, The Family of Imran (Amram), 3:28 – Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s translation]
There has been some discussion over the past few weeks over the uses and misuses of the term taqiyyah within Islamic jurisprudence. This article seeks to clarify the origins, meaning, and application of the concept of taqiyyah. In doing so, my purpose is to minimise its use, as part of a hostile narrative which paints Muslims are religiously-obligated liars.
I also attempt to explain the damage which the malicious misuse of that term inflicts on British Muslims.
The context of the verse quoted above is the melodramatic battle between the Meccan Unbelievers and Medinan Believers that took place in the earliest days of Islam. The Arabic for “precaution” is tuqaah, an alternative version of which is taqiyyah. As a footnote, as advanced students of Qur’anic studies will know, there are 20 equally-valid recitations of the Qur’an from a basic text that had no vowels or diacritical marks: one of these versions reads taqiyyah, whilst the rest read it as the synonymous tuqaah.
The main meaning of the verse is very simple and rather obvious: in times of conflict, one may protect oneself from one’s enemy by apparently ingratiating oneself with them means of dissimulation. This was particularly important for the Muslims persecuted in Mecca, and explains why Ibn Kathir, the 14th-century Qur’anic scholar of Damascus, related it explicitly to the following one:
Anyone who, after accepting Faith in Allah,
Utters unbelief – except under compulsion,
His heart remaining firm in Faith – but such as
Open their breast to Unbelief – on them is Wrath from Allah,
And theirs will be a dreadful penalty.
[Qur’an, The Honey-Bee, 16:106]
That passage makes it clear that the exception to the basic moral obligation to tell the truth about one’s religious faith applies only in circumstances of compulsion. This was not a purely hypothetical situation in the first days of Islam. Many of the Prophet’s early followers were forced, under pain of death, to practice taqiyyah, although some of them notably preferred to express their faith and achieve martyrdom. The above verse was revealed to the Prophet regarding the case of Ammar, son of Yasir and Sumayyah, all of whom were slaves owned by Meccan polytheists. Yasir and Sumayyah were both killed by their owners for rejecting polytheism and embracing monotheism: Sumayyah, a woman, was the first martyr of Islam. But Ammar wasn’t quite as strong as his parents, and was given permission to hide his monotheistic faith by outwardly professing polytheism.
Throughout Islamic history, therefore, persecuted people often had to resort to taqiyyah. The most famous examples of these originate in the experience of the Shia minority, who were often oppressed by Sunni rulers: although this situation was sometimes reversed in regional variations. Muslims persecuted during the Crusades, Reconquista and Spanish Inquisition also applied the principle of taqiyyah for self-preservation.
The principle of taqiyyah is, as you might expect, not limited to Islam: faced with severe persecution or death, and especially in war, most moral and religious codes permit dissimulation. “War is deception” is a principle found across many cultures, from Sun-Tzu’s The Art of War onwards. A takfiri jihadist, particularly one who had been caught and imprisoned while engaged in terrorism, might well believe that he was being persecuted, or was at war, and therefore was permitted to engage in religiously sanctioned dishonesty. It is not objectionable to point that out. However, many of the most deadly forms of incitement and stereotyping often take the form of distortion and misapplication.
To take a parallel example, the Hebrew term “hasbara”, which means “explaining” or “diplomacy” is commonly deployed by antisemites to suggest that Jews customarily engage in insincere propagandistic deception, and so should never be believed. There is a significant difference between observing, on the one hand, that a particular statement from a named Israeli government minister is propaganda, and suggesting that everything that Jews say can be dismissed as lies, on the other.
In a similar manner, it has become a common trope of anti-Muslim hatred, in particular by the far-right, to accuse all Muslims of taqiyyah. It is an accusation that is obviously impossible to rebut in the eyes of the haters, because no matter what Muslims may say or do, they may be practising taqiyyah!
That the alt-right and far-right peddle conspiracy theories involving taqiyyah is not surprising. But it is disappointing that The Times, one of the most important newspapers in the world, should publish Melanie Phillips saying so.
Melanie Phillips is a Times columnist and often appears on the BBC in its TV and radio programmes such as Question Time and The Moral Maze. She also writes for the JC. In her article, "Islamists are not the same as other prisoners," (The Times, 3 December 2019) she claims that "taqiyya, the command to deceive for Islam ... is of fundamental importance in Islam. Practically every Islamic sect agrees to it and practises it." Her authority? A minor Lebanese academic who is a member of the relatively heterodox Druze sect. This is a bit like deploying Neturei Karta against mainstream Jewish sects, or quoting a Jehovah's Witness as an authority on the doctrinal content of post-Nicene Christianity.
There is value in deepening our collective understanding of the commonalities between the approaches Abrahamic faiths: a task which I, a priest and a rabbi attempt to undertake in our book: People of the Book: How Jews, Christians and Muslims understand their Sacred Scriptures. Jewish and Islamic jurisprudence have many similarities, and an analogous principle to taqiyyah is found in Judaism. Rabbi Michael C. Hilton writes, “Melanie Phillips should know that there are important Jewish precedents for hiding your beliefs in a situation of persecution.” And Rabbi Mark Solomon of London writes, “I teach about taqiyyah in the context of medieval philosophers (like Maimonides) using taqiyyah to obscure their most radical ideas behind a screen of orthodoxy, but to accuse all Muslims of it is deception of a different order.”
It is true that hardened islamist terrorists, such as the Al-Qaeda & ISIS supporter Usman Khan who murdered two people at Fishmongers’ Hall, do misuse the principle of taqiyyah in order to further their cause. However, the charge that all Muslims are generally religiously obligated to lie, and do so routinely, is both dangerous and untrue. Moreover, it is dehumanising. It suggests that deception is in our nature, and that we are not to be trusted. At secondary school in North London in the 1980s, I learned in history classes that the Nazis had compared Jews to rats in cinema films. In 2013, at the Museum of the Jewish People at Tel Aviv University, I remember my horror in viewing the Nazi footage that painted Jews as a plague on humanity. We understand, from the experience of too many persecuted minorities throughout the world, the deadly consequences of years of the steady, drip-drip effect of demonisation.
This is not a new complaint: just over a decade ago, Ed Husain warned of such use of the taqiyyah trope by the same writer. More recently, TellMAMA and Dr Hisham Hellyer have raised similar concerns.
I cannot overstate how damaging the charge that Muslims are directed by their religion to lie has been. It is impossible for us to “prove ourselves” against the backdrop of this pernicious accusation of taqiyyah and consequent implication that Muslims can never be trusted. The Times, the JC, the Spectator, and the BBC should be ashamed of promoting someone who has made this charge against us for so many years.
Seventeen years ago, the New Statesman published an issue with a front cover which referred to a “Kosher Conspiracy”. The language of that headline invoked ancient accusations that Jews were conspiring to control the government. The subsequent reputational damage to that magazine, and to its then editor Peter Wilby, was significant.
The Times should learn the lessons of that episode. It is outrageous that a respected national newspaper should render the tropes of anti-Muslim hatred mainstream in this manner.
Usama Hasan, Board member, Quilliam International