Shia Islam: The meaning of Taqiyya / 14

Shīʿa Islam: History and Doctrines / Ayatullāh Jaʿfar Subḥānī

The meaning of Taqiyya
Taqiyya (‘dissimulation’) is a concept that appears in the Qur’an and has been highlighted in some verses. The Qur’an permits a believer to observe taqiyya if he believes that his life, family or property are in danger because of his beliefs. In other words, taqiyya is a means to which a defenceless person can resort when confronted by someone who intends to harm him, his family or his property due to a difference in religious belief. In these circumstances, the Qur’an allows the believer to outwardly renounce his faith in a bid to ward off this threat of persecution. This is a fundamental principle that is endorsed by all religions, including Islam. Some people, who are unaware of this Qur’anic concept, wrongly ascribe it to Shīʿa and use it to defame them.
Taqiyya is belongs to the category of the branches of the religion (furūʿ al-dīn) – or its practices – and should not be confused with the roots (uṣūl al-dīn) – or principle beliefs – as it is merely a practical method to avoid harm. Etymologically, taqiyya is derived from the Arabic word ‘waqāya,’ which means to shield or protect oneself. Taqiyya serves as a shield for the weak and defenceless that protects them from the deadly blows of the enemy just as combatants save themselves from enemies behind their shields in a battlefield.
Is taqiyya the same as hypocrisy?
Taqiyya is a shield that protects the believer from someone who is persecuting his faith. Under taqiyya, the believer outwardly renounces his beliefs. Hypocrisy (nifāq), on the other hand, is precisely the opposite of this notion; a hypocrite is an unbeliever who covers up his disbelief and pretends to be a believer. So, how can one consider taqiyya to be a form of hypocrisy?
In clearer terms, taqiyya means to hide one’s faith and pretend to be a disbeliever, whereas hypocrisy is the opposite. The Qur’an describes the hypocrites: ‘When the hypocrites come to you they say, ‘We bear witness that you are indeed the Messenger of Allah.’ Allah knows that you are indeed His Messenger, and Allah bears witness that the hypocrites are indeed liars.’ (Q63:1) The hypocrites had already pretended to believe in Islam and the Prophet while in their hearts they believed exactly the opposite. The boundaries defined for hypocrisy in this verse clearly distinguish it from taqiyya. If taqiyya were a form of hypocrisy, God would not have not allowed it elsewhere in the Qur’an (we will turn to the evidence for taqiyya later on) because God never commands anything evil: ‘When they commit an indecency, they say, ‘We found our fathers practising it, and Allah has enjoined it upon us.’ Say, ‘Indeed Allah does not enjoin indecencies. Do you attribute to Allah what you do not know?’’ (Q7:28)
Why practice taqiyya?
There must be a good reason for anyone to act in a way that goes against his deepest held beliefs; a believer takes pride in worshipping God and matching his behaviour to divine instructions. If such a person reneges on divine instructions, he must have something in mind like protecting his life, family and property from harm. A believer resorts to taqiyya only when all liberties have been trampled upon and no opposing view is tolerated. In that case, a believer has no other option but taqiyya to safeguard his life and properties against tyrants.
What is essential is that the behaviour and morality of people practising taqiyya must be distinguished from underground organisations harbouring malign goals. Those who are forced to practice taqiyya have no intention to sow sedition, only to protect themselves from the persecution of their enemies. In this way, they adapt their behaviour in response the overwhelming power of the tyrants. It would be wrong to draw a parallel between a defenceless person forced to practice taqiyya to safeguard himself and with an underground group gathering arms to seize power. Secret groups such as these follow the ideology of ‘the ends justify the means’ and they resort to any means necessary to reach their goals, but a person practising taqiyya is only seeking to protect himself and his family from harm.
Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, millions of Muslims were living in Muslim-majority republics. However, the dictatorial Communist government shut down all their mosques and schools, set fire to their libraries, murdered their scholars, and banned prayers and religious ceremonies. Under such circumstances, millions of Muslims chose to practice taqiyya and they feigned apostasy while they worshipped God at home.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, Muslims were freed from the shackles of Communism. They came together to reconstruct mosques and teach Islam once again. Had they not practiced taqiyya under those stifling conditions and stuck to their beliefs in public, none of them would have survived to rebuild the mosques.
Having clearly shown the difference between taqiyya and hypocrisy, we will now refer to the Qur’anic verses and Islamic traditions that discuss it.
Four reasons for taqiyya in the Qur’an
As we mentioned above, taqiyya means protecting one’s life, family and property from persecution. It is also a Qur’anic edict and something endorsed by the Prophet. The following verses confirm the validity of taqiyya:
First verse
‘Whoever renounces faith in Allah after [affirming] his faith – barring someone who is compelled while his heart is at rest in faith – but those who open up their breasts to unfaith, upon such shall be Allah’s wrath, and there is a great punishment for them.’ (Q16:106)
This verse begins by discussing those who renounced their faith after believing and forewarns them of God’s punishment. However, it makes an exception for those who renounced their faith under persecution, so long as they remained faithful in their hearts.
This verse’s occasion of revelation makes this fact clear: The polytheists had seized three people; ʿAmmār, his father Yāsir and his mother, Sumayya. Yāsir and Sumayya refused to renounce their faith and were brutally slain. But ʿAmmār renounced his faith and was set free. Word of ʿAmmār’s apostasy reached the Companions of the Prophet and it was an object of criticism. But when the Prophet heard of this, he told them: ‘That is not that case. ʿAmmār is faithful from head to toe. His flesh and blood are twined with faith.’ ʿAmmār wept but the Prophet wiped his tears away. It was then that this verse was revealed to the Prophet.
Zamakhsharī says that prominent Companions such as Ṣuhayb al-Rūmī, Bilāl, and Khubāb were also practicing taqiyya. (Kashshāf, 2/430)
Commentators say that feigning disbelief to ward off a threat is not the same as disbelief, because faith lies in heart. And neither faith nor disbelief in the heart can be compelled just because someone is forced to behave a certain way outwardly. The interpretation of this verse could be of great help to those seeking more clarifications. (Jāmiʿ li Aḥkām al-Qurʾān, 4/57; Tafsīr Khāzin, 1/277; Tafsīr Rūḥ al-Bayān, 5/84)
Second verse
‘The faithful should not take the faithless for allies instead of the faithful, and whoever does that Allah will have nothing to do with him, except when you are wary of them out of caution. Allah warns you to beware of [disobeying] Him, and toward Allah is the return.’ (Q3:28)
This verse includes the exception ‘except when you are wary of them out of caution.’ Initially in this verse, any alliance with the disbelievers is prohibited on pain of having one’s relations severed with God. However, it exempts those who do this out of taqiyya to avoid being harmed by their opponents.
In his commentary, Fakhr al-Rāzī explains this exception as follows: ‘taqiyya has its own instructions; (1) When someone is living with disbelievers and fears for his life and property, and so agrees with them outwardly while saying the contrary in his heart, this verse confirms his behaviour; (2) when a human being protects his life and property by an outward change in his behavior or language, the religion of Islam endorses this behaviour.’ (Mafātīh al-ghayb, 8/13)
Qur’anic commentators regularly refer to this verse to justify disguising oneself. See, for example, al-Kashshāf (1/422); Tafsīr Nasafī (1/277); Tafsīr Rūḥ al-Maʿānī (3/121); Maḥāsn al-Taʾwīl (4/82).
As most commentators agree with our interpretation of this verse, we do not need to quote each and every one of them. However, we will underscore the main points of al-Marāghī’s interpretation:
He says taqiyya is a sanctioned principle for repelling evil. He notes that it would be no problem for an Islamic government to reach agreement with an un-Islamic government as long as losses are avoided and gains are made. (Tafsīr, 3/136)
Third verse
‘Said a man of faith from Pharaoh’s clan, who concealed his faith, ‘Will you kill a man for saying, ”My Lord is Allah,” while he has already brought you manifest proofs from your Lord? Should he be lying, his falsehood will be to his own detriment; but if he is truthful, there shall visit you some of what he promises you. Indeed Allah does not guide someone who is a profligate, a liar.’ (Q40:28)
This verse speaks about concealing one’s faith in reference to someone who firmly believed in God and the Prophet Moses while outwardly cooperating with Pharaoh to make himself appear neutral. Verses 28 to 44 of Sūrat al-Ghāfir underscore the constructive uses of taqiyya as this person managed to save Moses from Pharaoh under the aegis of taqiyya; the Pharaoh’s advisors had decided that Moses should be killed, but he was able to inform Moses of the decision before it was enacted:
‘And there came a man from the city outskirts, hurrying. He said, ‘Moses! The elite are indeed conspiring to kill you. So leave. I am indeed your well-wisher.’’ (Q28:20)
Moses trusted this man and he immediately left the place he was in to seek safety.
Fourth verse
‘When you have dissociated yourselves from them and from what they worship except Allah, then take refuge in the Cave. Your Lord will unfold His mercy for you, and He will help you on to ease in your affair.’’ (Q18:16)
‘The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus’ is a famous legend. It recounts how a group of people hid inside a cave outside the city of Ephesus to escape the persecution of Christians conducted during the reign of the Roman emperor Decius. The fact that they were able to escape was almost certainly because they observed taqiyya; otherwise, they would have been killed.
‘And We made firm their hearts when they stood up and said, ‘Our Lord is the Lord of the heavens and the earth. Never will we invoke besides Him any deity. We would have certainly spoken, then, an excessive transgression. (Q18:14)
The Qur’an then goes into the details of their story, which shows that this was something practiced during the time of prophets past. Moreover, it shows that taqiyya, in the sense of making an outward show of disbelief for disbelievers is something acceptable to all Muslim groups. The point of contention then, is not this, but that the Shi’a do not practice taqiyya vis-à-vis disbelievers, but rather vis-à-vis other Muslims. Is there any reason for practicing it in this fashion? This is what we will discuss below.
Muslims practicing taqiyya amongst Muslims
The above verses and traditions are about a believer practicing taqiyya vis-à-vis disbelievers, which is allowed because it is intended to protect the life, property and family of the believer. But what about in a situation where the ruler is a Muslim whose doctrinal views are in conflict with those of certain sects and schools of thought? And what if a person’s life and property will be at risk if someone refuses to agree with him?
Obviously, there is no need for taqiyya in an Islamic society where all schools of thought are tolerated. In that case, everyone enjoys freedom of belief and no one would have a reason to conceal their faith from others. On the other hand, if freedom is restricted in a country and only the ruler’s views are recognized, other groups will have to outwardly conform to these. However, this is nothing new because scholars have expanded the concept of taqiyya to include a Muslim’s taqiyya vis-à-vis fellow Muslims in such situations.
In his interpretation of the Qur’anic verse: ‘The faithful should not take the faithless for allies instead of the faithful, and whoever does that Allah will have nothing to do with him, except when you are wary of them out of caution. Allah warns you to beware of [disobeying] Him, and toward Allah is the return.’ (Q3:28) Fakhr al-Rāzī writes: ‘In its apparent sense, the verse refers to about a believer’s taqiyya vis-à-vis powerful disbelievers, but the Shāfiʿī school expands its scope; anytime a Muslim faces similar conditions vis-à-vis another Muslim, taqiyya will be authorized for the protection of his life.’ But is taqiyya also authorized for the protection of property? Rāzī replies that it might be authorized because the Prophet (s.a.w.a) has said that a Muslim’s property is as sanctified as his blood. The prophet also says anyone dying to defend his property is a martyr. (Mafātīḥ al-Ghayb, 8/13)
Jamāl al-Dīn al-Qāsimī, a Syrian writer of the previous century, has quoted Muḥammad b. Murtaḍā al-Yamānī, better known as Ibn al-Wazīr, as saying: ‘Genuine mystics are few in number and they are always in fear of cruel kings, devilish human beings and unjust rulers. Based on Qur’anic verses and the consensus of Muslim scholars, they are allowed to practice taqiyya. The fear of mystics has always concealed truth. Abū Hurayra says: ‘I have two collections of aḥādīth from the Prophet. I have spread one of them and held another one. Had I revealed the second collection, I would have had my neck vessels slit.’ (Maḥāsin al-Taʾwīl, 4/89)
Marāghī interprets the verse ‘Whoever renounces faith in Allah after [affirming] his faith – barring someone who is compelled while his heart is at rest in faith – but those who open up their breasts to unfaith, upon such shall be Allah’s wrath, and there is a great punishment for them’ (Q16:106) as follows: ‘taqiyya involves any sort of affability with disbelievers, tyrants and corrupt rulers, though it may be in the form of flexibility in words, smile on the face or payment of gifts in order to ward off their harm. Such deeds are allowed under Islam because the Prophet has said that any payment for the protection of a believer’s dignity is counted as an act of charity.’ (Tafsīr Marāghī, 3/136).
Therefore, these three great scholars and perhaps others too have confirmed that taqiyya is not limited to interactions between a believer and disbeliever. The scope of taqiyya is much broader and it also includes interactions between Muslims. Anytime a self-proclaimed Muslim ruler restricts freedoms and threatens to kill or plunder others, a believer must exercise taqiyya.
Islamic history testifies to the fact that leading scholars and have, on certain occasions, spoken contrary to their real beliefs in a bid to protect their life and property. The story of Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal and other tradition narrators regarding the theological doctrine of the createdness of the Qur’an is a famous one. The ruler of the time forced ḥadīth collectors to confess to the createdness of the Qur’an or face prison and torture. Some of them made confessions and were freed. Three refused to confess and stuck to their views. They were sent to Maʾmūn to face punishment. On the way, they died. The story has been recounted in detail in Ṭabarī’s Tārīkh (7/195–206).
Earlier, we studied the life of some Shīʿa under the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties. We noted that Muʿāwiya and others had enacted policies to root out Shi’ism. A group stood against them and they embraced martyrdom, but the group that practiced taqiyya were spared.
Sayyid Hibat al-Dīn al-Shahristānī, a famous Iraqi scientist in the previous century, has authored an article about taqiyya in al-Murshid magazine. Excerpts are as follows:
‘…taqiyya is a tool in the hands of any weak man who has been denied freedom. The Shīʿa are better-known than other sects for the exercise of taqiyya. The reason for this is clear. This Islamic sect has faced much more pressure than other sects. The Shīʿa have been exposed to torture and murder under the Umayyads, Abbasids and the Ottomans. They were never granted freedom in Islamic lands and they had to practice taqiyya constantly. That is why the word taqiyya reminds one of Shi’ism.
Shi’ism differs from other Islamic sects in some beliefs and practices. Due to this difference, many have been intolerant of the Shīʿa. That is why the followers of the Shīʿa Imams have had to conceal their beliefs, customs and books in order to protect their life and properties and not be accused of disobedience. The Muslims have had to close their ranks in a bid to keep the disbelievers from benefitting from their division.
It is for these reasons that the Shīʿa have always practiced taqiyya and their the Imams have ordered them to do so under certain circumstances, because as long as freedoms are restricted, taqiyya is the only possible lifestyle.’
(al-Murshid, 3/252–253; see also Mufīd, Awāʾil al-Maqālāt, 96 footnotes)
Taqiyya as a personal affair
The Shīʿa have practiced taqiyya at most times and outwardly acted in harmony with the majority, but the fact is that taqiyya is an individual matter. Taqiyya does by no means mean that a scholar can write a book to suit the tastes of rulers and undermine fundamental Islamic principles. Such a thing has never been done and could never be done. An individual practicing taqiyya cannot go out of his personal scope and start deciding for others.
Eḥsān Ilāhī Ẓahīr has long been critical of the Shīʿa, saying that their books are not authentic because they have been written based on the principle of taqiyya. It is important to know that this writer has fabricated these lies without conducting any investigation. Taqiyya is totally personal and not a collective issue. Someone is allowed to conceal his beliefs in order to save his own life, but nobody is allowed to write a book under the guise of taqiyya and publish it in the name of Shi’ism. When the Shīʿa were living under the cloak of taqiyya, this was because there was no government to support them. Today, however, there are two Shīʿa governments are ruling in Iraq and Iran and therefore the Shīʿa no longer need to practice taqiyya.
Forbidden forms of Taqiyya
Like all other practices, Shīʿa scholars say taqiyya falls within the five categories of action (obligatory, recommended, permitted, discouraged and forbidden). When life and properties are in danger, taqiyya is obligatory. But in two cases, taqiyya is forbidden:
When Islam is threatened
If Islam or Shi’ism is under threat and the practice of taqiyya by a scholar is likely to harm or allow irreparable damage to be done to the religion, taqiyya is forbidden. For instance, if someone is ordered to destroy the Kaʿba and its surroundings, or to write a book against Islam and the Qur’an, or offer an incorrect interpretation of it, then he is not allowed to practice taqiyya even if he is threatened with death. He has to give his life so that the holy book will be protected.
If a prominent scholar is threatened with death for refusing to drink in public or remove the scarf of his wife, he will have to choose to die rather than to do an act which will arouse doubts about Islamic beliefs. This is because taqiyya is intended to protect the religion; whenever taqiyya causes people to lose their religion, it will be considered forbidden.
The following quote is from late the Imam Khomeini: ‘Taqiyya is forbidden for certain obligatory or forbidden practices that are religiously significant. For example, destruction of Kaʿba and the holy sites, writing book against Islam, the Qur’an and or its interpretation, or a blasphemous interpretation of Qur’an – these are all great forbidden acts which are not subject to taqiyya.’
Musʿada b. Sadaqa narrates from the Imam: ‘If a believer practices taqiyya in his life, there is no problem so long as the religion is not harmed as a result.’ (Wasāʾil al-Shīʿa, 11/ ch. 25, tradition no. 6)
Drinking alcohol is a secondary issue. Anytime an ordinary person is threatened, he can commit this forbidden act to protect his life and properties. But if a religious scholar is threatened to do so, he should accept by no means even at the price of his life. Instructions for inheritance, divorce, prayers and Ḥajj are also secondary. If a religious scholar is told to write a book distorting these instructions or face threats he must not accept to write such a book.
When taqiyya may lead to bloodshed
If someone is ordered to kill an innocent on pain of death or injury, taqiyya will be forbidden because taqiyya has been instituted in order to protect the blood of Muslims. If someone’s taqiyya in favor of a tyrant causes bloodshed, it will definitely be forbidden. Imam al-Bāqir says: ‘We instructed taqiyya in order to protect blood. If blood is to be spilt, taqiyya is not allowed.’ (Wasāʾil al-Shīʿa, 1/ ch. 31, tradition no. 1)

Taqiyya is based upon the Qur’an and the Sunna. Moreover, taqiyya was practiced during the Prophet’s lifetime.
Taqiyya is a means in the hand of the weak to protect their life and properties from those in power. It does mean a secret and underground organization to threaten other Islamic sects, because such an act is strictly forbidden by Islam.
Certain exegetes have concluded that the Shīʿa practice of taqiyya is correct.
Taqiyya is not restricted to repelling the harm of disbelievers, but also it can also be used to repel the harm of Muslim tyrants too.
Taqiyya is a personal and individual affair. As long as a person is overcome by fear he has to practice taqiyya; it is only after the threat is dispelled he will revert to his normal religious practice.
Like every other religious subject, taqiyya falls within the framework of the five categories of action, meaning in some situations it can be obligatory while in others it is forbidden.
In conclusion, we ask all Muslim rulers, scholars and muftis to maintain a free, brotherly and tolerant atmosphere in which all sects can coexist, and that differences over secondary issues will not restrict anyone’s freedom or cause murder and in that way taqiyya will leave the Muslim community for good.