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.
Muslim deception can be viewed as a slightly less than noble means to the glorious end of Islamic hegemony under Shari'a, which is seen as good for both Muslims and non-Muslims. In this sense, lying in the service of altruism is permissible. In a recent example, Muslim cleric Mahmoud al-Masri publicly recounted a story where a Muslim lied and misled a Jew into converting to Islam, calling it a "beautiful trick."
Taqiyya offers two basic uses. The better known revolves around dissembling over one's religious identity when in fear of persecution. Such has been the historical usage of taqiyya among Shi'i communities whenever and wherever their Sunni rivals have outnumbered and thus threatened them.
Conversely, Sunni Muslims, far from suffering persecution have, whenever capability allowed, waged jihad against the realm of unbelief; and it is here that they have deployed taqiyya--not as dissimulation but as active deceit. In fact, deceit, which is doctrinally grounded in Islam, is often depicted as being equal--sometimes superior--to other universal military virtues, such as courage, fortitude, or self-sacrifice.
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.
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