Taqiyya Revisited: A Response to the Critics

by Raymond Ibrahim

Jihad Watch

Having written at length on various aspects of Islam, it is always my writings concerning doctrinal deceit that elicit (sometimes irate) responses. As such, the purpose of this article is to revisit the issue of deceit and taqiyya in Islam, and address the many ostensibly plausible rebuttals made by both Muslims and non-Muslims.

The earliest rebuttal I received appeared last year, days after I wrote an essay called “Islam’s doctrines of deception” for the subscription-based Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst. Due to the controversy it initiated among the intelligence community and abroad, the editors were quick to publish an apologetic counter-article by one Michael Ryan called “Interpreting Taqiyya.”

For starters, Ryan is not a careful reader: he says I fail to mention ijma(consensus) among the ulema, even though I repeatedly cite and delineate theulema‘s (quite consensual) verdicts supporting taqiyya; he sardonically suggests that, of course all people, not just Muslims, engage in deception during war — a point I stressed; and he evinces shock that I say Islam has no “common sense” and is “legalistic,” when I simply wrote that sharia law is not based on common sense but rather the 7th-century words of Muhammad, which may or may not rely on what we would today call “common sense.” (I had in mind anecdotes of Muhammad saying camel urine heals, people should cover their mouths when yawning (lest Satan dive down their throat), men cannot wear gold, only silver, and in order to be in each other’s company, women should “breast-feed” strange men).

Next, Ryan makes the usual (and ultimately superficial) arguments without any backing: that I “cherry-picked citations from the Quran”; that I focused on a “very narrow use of the term taqiyya“; and that there are “other respected jurists who disagree” with the notion of taqiyya I stressed.

Unfortunately, he overlooks the fact that, right or wrong, none of this denies that there are Koranic references that do permit deception; that, even if there are “broader” definitions for taqiyya, the “narrow” one I delineated is still valid; and that if there are “respected jurists who disagree,” there are still more who agree.

As expected, whereas I listed and quoted several authoritative jurists justifyingtaqiyya, Ryan makes only flat counter-assertions whose plausibility rests solely in the fact that they comport with the epistemology of the Western, secular reader, who cannot comprehend that a religion would actually mandate temporal conquests and permit deceit in their furtherance.

For instance, he makes comforting assertions such as “[I]t is manifestly not true that Muslims as a whole desire eternal warfare with non-Muslims,” even though I never argue that Muslims desire eternal war but rather that shariamandates it. Regarding a verse I cited as being relied on by the ulema in support of taqiyya (2:73), he writes, “To this reader, the verse inspires admiration rather than any other emotion.” Odd that an article in a publication geared to the intelligence community and dedicated to analyzing Islam would bother evoking “emotions” in the first place — further revealing that Ryan’s rebuttal relies more on “shared feelings,” not facts.

Moreover, like most of Islam’s apologists who are obsessed with portraying the “true-peaceful-and-tolerant” face of Islam, Ryan overlooks the pivotal fact that it matters very little if the entire Muslim world believes in jihad and deception. What matters is that some Muslims have, do, and always will. If 19 surreptitious jihadists managed to cause horrific deaths and destruction on 9/11, insisting that not all Muslims accept these doctrines is neither relevant nor reassuring.

Ryan next spends time making the argument that the word taqiyya “never appears in the Quran. The root in other forms appears in various contexts, but it never means dissimulation.” As for taqiyya‘s cornerstone verse (3:28), Ryan, presuming the mantle of mufasir (exegete), and after quoting an English translation, writes: “The English ‘guard against’ is a translation of a verb that is taken from the same root as the word taqiyya but it has nothing to do linguistically with lying or deception.”

Absolutely true. But of course, all this overlooks the fact that the Koran is not the all-in-all in Islam; more important in determining right and wrong (i.e., in articulating sharia) are the hadith-derived sunna, and the indispensable tafsirsand ijma (exegeses and consensus) of the ulema. And these do use the word “taqiyya” and do define it as lying and deception.

Moreover, there is widespread consensus among the ulema. According to Imam Tabari, whose multi-volume exegesis is a standard reference work in the Islamic world, 3:28 means: “If you [Muslims] are under their [infidels’] authority, fearing for yourselves, behave loyally to them, with your tongue, while harboring inner animosity for them.” Regarding 3:28, Ibn Kathir recommends the advice of Muhammad’s companion: “Let us smile to the face of some people while our hearts curse them.”

Perhaps Ryan thinks his non-Muslim, that is, infidel, exegesis of 3:28 will be more acceptable to the average Muslim than the exegeses of the pious Tabari, Ibn Kathir, and other ulema? And what “consensus” does he have in mind when the Muslim author of the authoritative Al Taqiyya Fi Al Islam asserts, “Practically every Islamic sect agrees to it [taqiyya] and practices it. We can go so far as to say that the practice of taqiyya is mainstream in Islam, and that those few sects not practicing it diverge from the mainstream”?

Ironically, and despite all the above, Ryan closes his article by saying

“It would be fundamentally incorrect to suggest that the strained positions of Osama bin Laden and other extremists somehow grow out of normal or mainstream Muslim thought: Al-Qaeda’s deception does not grow out of valid religious duty. [Yet Muhammad said, “War is deceit.”] If we fail to make the distinction between radical Islamists and valid, thoughtful and authoritative views of expert Muslim jurists, [apparently the many I delineated in my original essay don’t count] we risk undermining one of the most promising tools to defeat radical thought. I am referring to recent successful programs by the Saudis and Egyptians to persuade what the West might call radical jihadists that their extremist activities are actually against the canons of Islam as interpreted by mainstream jurists [emphasis added].”

What “successful programmes” have been initiated by the Saudis and Egyptians to de-radicalize Muslims? Is he referring to Saudi Arabia’s rehabilitation through tennis, finger-paints, and GameBoys — which has by and large not been successful? And again, which “expert” and “mainstream” jurists is he talking about?

In short, Ryan’s points crumble in face of the fact that, all philology, sophistry, and appeals to emotions aside, in mainstream Islam, what ultimately matters is how the ulema — especially the “mainstream jurists” he continues evoking — have understood and articulated the doctrine of taqiyya.

Regarding my more recent “War and Peace—and Deceit—in Islam,” others have written to me complaining that, by not juxtaposing more “moderate interpretations” to the mainstream ones I delineated (e.g., Tabari, Ibn Kathir, al-Qurtubi, al-Razi, al-Arabi, et al.), I am supposedly “distorting.” While there are in fact “moderate interpretations,” most of these come from minority sects — such as the Ahmadiyyas or the Quraniyuns — who, as they make up a trivial percentage of the Islamic world, and are in fact often accused of and persecuted for apostasy by mainstream Muslims, are definitely not representative of the latter.

Other critics express dismay as to how I can interpret certain verses as being supportive of taqiyya. Of course, being neither a Muslim nor one of the ulema, I hardly ever interpret this or that verse as being supportive oftaqiyya/deception, but rather always attribute such exegeses to the appropriate jurist, scholar, or theologian — the ulema, who have the final say in mainstream Islam. (Ironically, being only a 4,000 word essay, I only supplied a tithe of the numerous albeit subtle taqiyya decrees and interpretations I have surveyed in Arabic texts dedicated to this topic.)

Still other critics point to strange English translations of the Koran that do not capture the actual meaning of the Arabic — definitely not the way the ulemaunderstand it — in an effort to obfuscate the doctrine of taqiyya. For instance, some have written to me insisting that Koran 3:28 has “absolutely nothing” to do with deceit. As evidence, they quote the following translation from the website IslamUSA.org: “Let not the believers take the disbelievers for friends in preference to the believers unless you very carefully guard against evil from them.”

The original Arabic says absolutely nothing about “guarding against evil from them.” (Is IslamUSA.org practicing taqiyya in regard to ayat al-taqiyya, or the verse of taqiyya?) Instead, the original Arabic most literally says, “Let believers not take infidels for friends in place of the believers; whoever does this shall have nothing left with Allah — unless you but guard yourselves against them, taking precautions.” In other words, it does not warn Muslims against befriending infidels due to the latter’s proclivity for evil (which may contaminate Muslims who do not actively “guard” against it), but simply because they are infidels, non-Muslims — by default, the enemy. As for “guard[ing] yourselves” and “taking precautions,” once again, however one wants to interpret these, the fact is, the ulema have already settled and interpreted it as aforementioned: deceit.

(Incidentally, is it not curious that while people are nitpicking about what the latter half of that verse means, no one seems to be interested in the far from ambiguous former half, where Muslims are simply commanded to not befriend non-Muslims in the first place? Is that not, in and of itself, demonstrative of Islam’s position vis-à-vis the other, the infidel?)

Others have written to me, absolutely flabbergasted that I say Koran 4:29 or 2:195, which command Muslims to not “kill/destroy themselves,” encouragestaqiyya. For the record, I said no such thing; the ulema have — such as the classical exegete Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (see Tafsir al-Kabir, vol.10, p.98). According to him, since Muslims are commanded to not “destroy themselves,” disclosing any truths that might lead to their destruction is forbidden. Thus amujahid (“jihadist”), according to Razi, must conceal his identity, since infidels might “destroy” him if they were to discover what he was about. And so, in this sense, 4:29 and 2:195 do permit deception.

Others are scandalized that I wrote Allah himself is described in the Koran as being the best “deceiver” or “schemer.” They write to me insisting that the Koran uses no such language (based on their trusty English translations), but rather portrays Allah as the best “planner” or “plotter” — the words used, for instance, in the widely quoted translations of Yusuf Ali and Shakir. So, who am I to ascribe the word “deceiver” or “schemer” to Allah?

Simple: in the original Arabic, the word translated (actually, euphemized) into English as “planner/plotter” — makar — most literally denotes (and, to Arabic ears, connotes) deception. Moreover, according to the definitive Hans Wehr Arabic-English dictionary, the trilateral root “m-k-r” means “to deceive, delude, cheat, dupe, gull, double-cross.” One who takes on the attributes of “m-k-r” — such as Allah in the Koran — is described as “sly, crafty, wily, an impostor, a swindler.” In colloquial Arabic, a makar is a sly trickster.

My reliance on one canonical hadith as supportive of deception has also come under fire: Muhammad said, “If I take an oath and later find something else better, I do what is better and break my oath.” He also encouraged Muslims todo the same.

Many have written to me insisting that I “shamelessly” took these hadiths “out of context.” For the record, then, here is the context: Some Muslims came to Muhammad requesting camel mounts to ride, but “he took an oath that he would not give us any mounts, and added, ‘I have nothing to mount you on.'” Later, some mounts fell into the prophet’s share of war plunder, and he gave these to the men. Overcome by altruism, one of the men reminded Muhammad of his oath to which the latter replied, “If I take an oath [to not give the men mounts] and later find something else better [the opportunity to give mounts presents itself], I do what is better and break my oath.”

Now, if Muhammad swore he would not give mounts, but then when he was able to, he broke his oath (“to do what is better”), why should, say, jihadists fighting to make Allah’s word supreme, after giving oaths to infidels (e.g., peace-treaties of sulh, truces, etc.) not break their oaths when they too are able “to do what is better”? After all, what is “better”: breaking an oath so some men can have camels to ride, or breaking an oath to make Islam — the embodiment of all good — supreme?

Once again, and whichever way one interprets this oath-breaking hadith, the fact remains: breaking truces with infidels has a long lineage in Islam. The authoritative Encyclopaedia of Islam, for example, simply states: “[T]here can be no question of genuine peace treaties [between Muslims and non-Muslims]… only truces, whose duration ought not, in principle, to exceed ten years, are authorized. But even such truces are precarious, inasmuch as they can, before they expire, be repudiated unilaterally should it appear more profitable for Islam to resume the conflict” — that is, if the opportunity to do “something better” presents itself.

In closing, it should be noted that the most revealing aspect of the recent, and atypical, barrage of disgruntled emails regarding my “War and Peace — and Deceit — in Islam,” is that no Muslim (minus fringe Ahmadiyyas, etc.) has written to deny the more troubling aspects of the essay. For instance, while many nitpicked over the aforementioned, none have denied the fact that Muhammad permitted lying in certain situations, affirmed that “war is deceit,” and permitted Muslims to deceive and assassinate infidels — all according to canonical (sahihhadiths (hence the reason mainstream Muslims cannot refute them).

Moreover, the main point of my essay was not to demonstrate that Islam permits deceit during war — a phenomenon I indicated also prevails among many non-Muslim strategists as well — but to show that, for Islam, warfare with non-Muslims is eternal, “until all chaos ceases, and all religion belongs to Allah (Koran 8:39). Yet no one wrote denying this classical Islamic formulation of the world into Dar al-Harb and Dar al-Islam, which must be in perpetual war until the latter subsumes the former (except of course Michael Ryan, but he is simply another non-Muslim apologist).

Usually, silence is not necessarily indicative of assent; however, when large numbers of people take it upon themselves to criticize certain (minor) aspects of an argument, it seems reasonable to assume that their silence regarding the more revealing and problematic issues — such as perpetual jihad — is, in fact, implicit assent.

Raymond Ibrahim is the associate director of the Middle East Forum and the authorof The Al Qaeda Reader.

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