Taqiyya: A brief analysis by Stuart Green

In the comment thread of another post, a former student of mine who has completed a thesis for the National Defense Intelligence College. For an abstract and table of contents, see here. Below, a discussion of a critical issue in the world of intelligence in both senses of the word, the Muslim principle of Taqiyya.

TAQIYYA

Do Arab Muslims lie on the same order of magnitude and for the same purposes? Are they prohibited by tradition from lying in all the same circumstances as Westerners? Although there is overlap in the two cultures’ approaches to lying, there is also great divergence. During brief service in Iraq in 2004, for instance, I noticed most of the translators working for a particular unit were not Muslim, as one would expect, but Assyrian Christian—an Iraqi minority whose dwindling percentage is in the single digits. When the author asked why this was so, a unit interrogator explained that, based on experience, they had determined the Christian translators were more reliable and less prone to deceit.[1] Why did the Muslim translators lie? Moreover, why did they lie to protect individuals associated a regime despised as much locally as internationally?

In this case, as in many others, the answers at least partially rest in the religious duties of all Muslims. According to the faith, it is anathema for Muslims to be ruled by or even allied with non-Muslims. Koran 3:28 clearly states, “The believers should not make disbelievers their allies rather than other believers….”[2] As discussed in a previous section, it is doctrinally vital to protect a fellow Muslim before aiding non-believers, no matter how hateful the Muslim’s character or reputation. Although it may seem counter-productive to the Western mind, it has also been traditionally accepted that Muslim tyranny is better than anarchy or disorder. Thus, in the Iraqi context as in many others, the honorable end of community defense legitimizes and necessitates deceiving non-Muslim employers.

The practice is effectively codified in the Shiite doctrine of taqiyya, or dissimulation. Most Islamic doctrine that allows for dissimulation finds its roots in Koran 16:106, “Any one who, after accepting faith in Allah, utters Unbelief, except under compulsion, his heart remaining firm in Faith… theirs will be a dreadful chastisement.”[3] The Shiites developed this historically defensive (though that aspect clearly varies) practice over the course of many persecuted generations, and their Sunni brethren often deride them for it. The Sunni, however, are by no means purists when it comes to truth-telling. One classical Sunni jurist stated, “If anyone is compelled and professes unbelief with his tongue while his heart contradicts him, in order to escape his enemies, no blame falls on him….”[4] In at least the Shafi’i school of Islamic jurisprudence, it is considered prudent to lie for an honorable objective when telling the truth would be detrimental to the cause.

… Scholars say that there is no harm in giving a misleading impression if required by an interest countenanced by Sacred Law that is more important than not misleading the person being addressed, or if there is a pressing need which could not otherwise be fulfilled except through lying.[5]

According to the same school, one is not encouraged, but required to lie if the honorable objective cannot be achieved by telling the truth. Honorable objectives can include smoothing over relations with one’s wife, settling disagreements, or most honorably, defending Muslims against unjust (infidel) authorities. Interestingly, one may also lie if the particular sin, such as fornication or drinking, affects only the individual and is known only to him and Allah.

…if a ruler asks one about a wicked act one has committed that is solely between oneself and Allah Most High ([if] it does not concern the rights of another), in which case one is entitled to disclaim it, such as by saying, ‘I did not commit fornication,’ or ‘I did not drink.’[6]

There is a seemingly inexhaustible supply of anecdotal evidence demonstrating the prevalence of Muslim lying, particularly in the midst of war, some of which will be explored in chapter seven. The analytical quandary, of course, is that one can easily say the same about Western lying. Those feeling uncomfortable with a comparison between the two cultures will again assert that, “we do it too,” and again, this is at least partially true. Sissela Bok explores the Western aspects of the practice in great depth. She recounts the absolute philosophical positions of Immanuel Kant and St. Augustine, both of whom believed all lies are abhorrent but differed in their practical approaches, and she contrasts them with the ethics of Machiavelli and Nietzsche, where “violence and deceit are portrayed with bravado and exultation.”[7] She notes a well-known Catholic textbook that advises doctors to deceive seriously ill patients, and she describes numerous other pragmatic examples paralleling the Islamic positions outlined above. Even Martin Luther rhetorically asked,

What harm would it do, if a man told a good strong lie for the sake of the good and for the Christian church[…] a lie out of necessity, a useful lie, a helpful lie, such lies would not be against God, he would accept them.[8]

I believe there is a difference in the volume of lies between the two cultures, but it is impossible to systematically exhaust the supply of anecdotes on either side. Additionally, any quantitative studies of deception—if there are indeed any—run the risk of being corrupted by the very phenomenon they seek to explore.

An honest intellectual must therefore consider two qualitative points. Is there a difference in societal approval for the lies? Is there a difference in the philosophical or religious sanction for the lies? Societal derision for Yasser Arafat’s frequent and profound lies about peace with Israel was virtually non-existent in the Muslim world, while a U.S. president was impeached for lying about a personal affair (examples of Arafat’s tactics in the context of cognitive warfare will be given in the following chapters). In contrast, even Bok noted in an updated preface to her book, that a raging debate about the ethics of lying and dishonesty had erupted in the U.S. during the 1980s.

I can no longer subscribe, therefore, to the claim I made in the Introduction, that [the issue of lying has] received extraordinarily little contemporary analysis. Questions of truthfulness and deception are now taken up in classrooms as in the media and in scholarly literature. Codes of ethics, such as the 1980 “Principles of Medical Ethics” of the American Medical Association, have incorporated clauses stressing honesty.[9]

The simple fact that these issues figure so prominently in the public, accepted, Western discourse should be some indicator of the difference in volume, even if there are gaps between philosophy and practice. It is conceivable that the cultural upsets associated with scandals such as Watergate and Iran-Contra stemmed from ignorance or wishful thinking about the true nature of day-to-day political life. It was a shocking realization, delayed by cultural naiveté, that trusted agents of all stripes had been ritually dishonest despite staunch moral prohibitions against lying. Such shock may have even helped drive Bok to publish her book as a corrective measure; other thinkers may have followed suit in spirit. It is clear there are differences in the respective society’s reactions to lying. As for cultural or religious sanction, one can find some Western, philosophical approval for lying when there is a hard moral dilemma. In a classic scenario—hiding Jews from the Nazis—several Western philosophers, St. Augustine included, might be inclined to lie for their protection. Yet, figures such as Machiavelli and Nietzsche hardly enjoy universal celebration as paragons of moral virtue. They are often taken as examples of cold, perhaps even amoral, philosophers.

The Islamic sanction for lying seems more explicit and closer to the core of unimpeachable sources: the Koran and Hadith. It also appears in a greater variety of situations, and, perhaps more realistically, with lower thresholds for acceptance in Muslim society. Depending on one’s perspective, this could be chalked up to advanced, pragmatic thinking in the medieval, Muslim philosophical tradition. More relevant to intelligence analysts, however, is the sharp in-group out-group distinction that only one of the two cultures draws when it comes to warfare and lying. First, it must be recounted that this chapter has established Islam as essentially hard-wired to view outside cultures and faiths as enemies needing subjugation, whether or not individual Muslims act on those precepts. Second, it has established that, in relation to those outside cultures, Islam emphasizes intense societal cohesion. Third, it has established that there is religious sanction for lying if the cause is sufficiently just.

Deception in war and intelligence are tentatively accepted in the West as necessary practices, but they are conducted with the fear of losing long-term credibility in mind—whiffs of government deception tend to discomfort Western publics.[10] It was discussed in chapter four that Westerners do not typically see themselves in a state of perpetual conflict. It would follow, then, that the need for lying in inter-societal relations depends on the state of conflict. If Islam, however, is in a state of perpetual jihad, and jihad is clearly just, then perpetual lying to non-Muslims may also be just so long as it advances the cause.

Western analysts might be inclined to highlight the similarities they see between Western and Eastern moral systems, but they may miss the fact that some of the highlighted values apply to intra-Muslim relations and not necessarily to Muslim-non-Muslim relations. There are several Hadith vividly demonstrating the permissibility of lying to non-Muslims. In at least three separate Hadith, Mohammad explicitly stated, “war is deceit.”[11] Given the widely acknowledged, pervasive sense of a siege on the Muslim world, the accepted importance of jihad, and the sanction for lying in honorable struggles, it is reasonable to conclude that deceiving Westerners is commonplace. As will be demonstrated in the following chapters, the skill a society develops in lying can essentially weaponize a cultural trait and have a profound effect on the course of its cognitive war.

[1] When recounting this anecdote, I have been reminded that Tariq Aziz, infamous for outrageous lies on behalf of Saddam Hussein’s regime, is in fact Christian as well. He was operating in an overwhelmingly Muslim construct, however, and under an oppressive regime.
[2] The Qur’an, trans. M.A.S. Abdel Haleem (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 36.
[3] The Holy Qur-ān: English Translation of the Meanings and Commentary (al-Madinah: King Fahd Holy Qur-ān Printing Complex, 1989/1990), 764-765.
[4] Encyclopaedia of Islam, New Edition, under “Takiyya.”
[5] Reliance of the Traveller, 748.
[6] Reliance of the Traveller, 746.
[7] Sissela Bok, Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), 29. Cited hereafter as Bok.
[8] Bok, 47.
[9] Bok, xiii.
[10] Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Publication 3-13, Information Operations (Washington, DC: GPO, 13 February 2006), under “MILDEC as an IO Core Capability.”
[11] Sahih Bukhari, “Vol. 4, Book 52, Number 268,” in USC-MSA Compendium of Muslim Texts, trans. M. Muhsin Khan, URL: , accessed 13 June 2007.

32 Responses to Taqiyya: A brief analysis by Stuart Green

  1. Stu says:

    Point of clarification–some of the quotations look like my words because the indentation did not make through. It was Bok, for instance, who wrote “I can no longer claim…” Just be aware that there are not quotations marks around every quotation. Sorry about that.

  2. Stu says:

    Another point of clarification: if there was any doubt, the entire thesis reflects my views and not those of the U.S. government, the Navy, or the Department of Defense.

  3. abu yussif says:

    so in islam, one can lie and murder to save face, rape if one can get away with it, treat women as inferior, marry pre-pubescent girls, have multiple wives, steal if one has the strength to do so, and unrepentantly hate if one feels justified? some religion.

  4. oao says:

    Another point of clarification: if there was any doubt, the entire thesis reflects my views and not those of the U.S. government, the Navy, or the Department of Defense.

    too bad — that’s the problem ain’t it?

    i watched yesterday an interview with Holbrook, the envoy to pakistan & afghanistan. he is not a stupid or ignorant man in general, yet in matters of islam he is. nowhere in his comments was any indication that he understands what he’s up against (except in generalities like “this is a daunting problem”).

    he referred to a knowledgeable afghan who claimed that the Taliban consists of 5% hardcore religious, 25% dissatisfied with govt corruption and incompetence and 70% of unemployed who took up arms because of the “culture of weapons”. consequently the policy should be: defeat the 5%, improve the govt for 25% and provide employment/economic improvement for the 70%.

    I will leave it to you to judge (1) as to how much the claim is true (2) if it is possible to resolve the problem as suggested (3) if the US has any chance of doing it.

    after all the US govt cannot address the problems of the US itself, will they be able to nation build fail states when it is bankrupt? how many who were not bankrupt tried and succeeded before?

  5. Cynic says:

    abu yussif,

    It does not seem to be a religion but as Wafa Sultan (video) ended off her discussion of Islam saying that it was just to please Muhammad.
    DR. SULTAN SPEAKS TRUTH TO ISLAM

  6. oao says:

    so in islam, one can lie and murder to save face, rape if one can get away with it, treat women as inferior, marry pre-pubescent girls, have multiple wives, steal if one has the strength to do so, and unrepentantly hate if one feels justified? some religion.

    not only one can, but THEY DO!!!!

    and because the infidels are mostly ignorant about it, they lose.

  7. Cynic says:

    I should have mentioned that it is a MEMRI video of Wafa Sultan Harshly Criticizes the Status of Women in Islam

  8. Cynic says:

    oao,

    Maybe Holbrook is not allowed to say some things in this PC censored world.

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  10. Tomcpp says:

    There’s one tiny problem with this. It is only correct when comparing muslim ethics to christian ethics. It is not correct when comparing to atheist ethics.

    Christians do not see themselves as being eternally in conflict. Well anyone who believes in evolution obviously does. This conflict in evolution is a bit like jihad : it’s not violent per se. As long as it ends in the death of the one of the people involved, that is. Whether that’s by violence, lying, murder, starvation, bad advice … doesn’t matter.

    But that’s the basis of evolution theory : eternal conflict. Not just with muslims, or non-muslims. With everyone.

  11. AT says:

    Judaism has long ago dealt with this issue quite completely, dating back to a famous argument between the houses of Hillel and Shamai about how to greet a new bride.

    The Torah quite emphatically states that one must distance oneself from falsehood, and perjury, a prohibition from the ten commandments, carries a potential death sentence (if committed during a
    case on capital offense).

    If the West returned to its Jewish roots, we wouldn’t have such confusions.

  12. E.G. says:

    abu yussif,

    unrepentantly hate if one feels justified?
    Not “if” but “whenever”.

  13. Colin Meade says:

    Isn’t it also important to consider whether the type of circumstance that justifies lying differs from culture to culture? Lying to comfort a terminally person isn’t the same as lying to advance a political agenda and neither is the same as lying purely for personal advantage…

  14. E.G. says:

    Tomcpp,

    I think your point about dealing with conflict is highly relevant.
    Though I don’t see how or why evolution has anything to do with conflict.

  15. E.G. says:

    Colin Meade,

    Isn’t this why we distinguish between lie and deception, and have a range of terms denoting telling untruths or not only and the whole truth?
    We (Judeo-Christian cultures) do draw a line between knowing a truth and telling something different, and being uncertain about the truthfulness of something and telling (or not) a more or less plausible thing about it.

  16. oao says:

    Maybe Holbrook is not allowed to say some things in this PC censored world.

    if I did not know what I do about western elites perhaps I would find comfort in such a hypothesis. but I can’t.

    if you followed closely his comments you got the clear impression of the usual illusions about solutions.

  17. oao says:

    I think your point about dealing with conflict is highly relevant.

    how?

    Though I don’t see how or why evolution has anything to do with conflict.

    you too, huh?

    I was wondering how long before somebody would bring in atheism and evolution. pls, not the “atheists have no morals” crap again.

  18. oao says:

    We (Judeo-Christian cultures) do draw a line between knowing a truth and telling something different, and being uncertain about the truthfulness of something and telling (or not) a more or less plausible thing about it.

    More like greek-roman cultures.

    As cynic has argued, lying is intrinsic, integral and instinctive in the arab world. islam probably built on that.

  19. 11B40 says:

    Greetings:

    In my opinion, it’s not just the religion, but also the nomadic Arab tribal culture from which Islam sprang. These are the lands of “I against my brother, my brother and I against our cousin, and my brother, my cousin and I against the stranger.” Not exactly a prescription for honesty.

  20. oao says:

    In my opinion, it’s not just the religion, but also the nomadic Arab tribal culture from which Islam sprang.

    i’ve reiterated that many times. islam is an inherently arab religion. and more than any other religion it was designed as a means of control. all religions have this core purpose, but islam has no particular pretensions for being very spiritual, but rather is an material ideology.

    These are the lands of “I against my brother, my brother and I against our cousin, and my brother, my cousin and I against the stranger.” Not exactly a prescription for honesty.

    hhhmmmm. such environment may not be prone to coming up with a “you should not lie” commandment, or “you should not murder”. to survive you did all you could.

    keep in mind that islam was invented in the 7th century within the arab culture OF THAT TIME!!! once the quran was fixed as the literal word of god which is not subject to alterations and adjustments, it froze that culture and transferred it to subsequent generations as is. in the west religion adjusted to the changes in culture.

  21. E.G. says:

    oao,

    Attitudes towards inter-personal conflict, dealing and handling it, motivation and know-how about resolving it differ among cultures. For ex., Japanese try to avoid it at all price, others are more or less overt, some favour “confrontational” style, some create moderating instances or mechanisms…

    There are many cultural resonances on intra-personal conflict.
    For ex., regarding the question of lying: “small” departures from the rule may be tolerated, even wired-in in the social code of conduct (see: hypocrisy) but not beyond a threshold (see my exchange with Cynic in the Nick cohen entry).

  22. oao says:

    cynic,

    indeed. but those are generally attempts over the centuries to address the issue pragmatically and there are various degrees of adjustments away. not so with the arabs with their behavior fixed in the 7th century. even so the islamists think it’s not 7th century enough.

  23. RickD says:

    I don’t believe that taqqiyah is required to explain muslim lies. It’s based on their honor/shame culture, which predates islam. Lying is preferable to being shamed, that’s all.

    We all remember Baghdad Bob and his ridiculous pronouncements on TV as the US military was closing in on Baghdad in 2003. I also remember seeing quotes of Arabs in neighboring countries that were bemoaning the fact that they had believed what he said.

    I’ve also seen quotes of Arabs that believe that Obama is a closet Muslim but is lying so he could be elected president.

    The Arabs lie to each other and to themselves in addition to lying to the West. They both believe lies and disbelieve the truth all the time.

  24. Eliyahu says:

    as obamaism takes hold in Washington, taqiyya becomes more and more of a Western trait. Or let’s simply say that lying in the Goebbels manner, that is, big lies, become more and more common. We are now under a full scale Judeophobic assault in the media, which is likely to intensify, especially if the obominable one does not get his way with Israel.

    Just the other day, I read an insane article by one Wayne Madsen about a plot between the Kurds in Iraq and Israel to settle thousands of Kurdish Jews in the Kurdish zone of Iraq. Plus Madsen accused Israel of having sent death squads to murder Assyrian Christians in Iraq. This sounds like it’s meant to support anti-Israel diplomacy. IraqPundit had a fairly good comment on this mad garbage [deliberately invented no doubt]. Also see Point of No Return. This is probably more proof that there is a large body of fairly intelligent people who are deeply ignorant and mainly motivated by emotions, hate, prejudices, etc. Hence they can be manipulated by even crude lies.

  25. oao says:

    This is probably more proof that there is a large body of fairly intelligent people who are deeply ignorant and mainly motivated by emotions, hate, prejudices, etc. Hence they can be manipulated by even crude lies.

    i keep saying that once you eliminate the function of teaching people to appreciate knowledge and to reason critically and independently, you’re on a fast path to the destruction of freedom and democracy. the collapse of education is what brought alibama to the presidency.

    it’s been already established that the left is in bed with islamism because it wants to dismantle america. alibama is a well documented far leftist. so why does anybody believe he won’t dismantle america, even when he is doing so explicitly?

  26. Rich Rostrom says:

    Eliyahu: Madsen is a Truther, and also a buddy of nutball radio host Alex Jones. That he has been taken seriously by “respectable” media is a sign of the times; it should be noted that he cites publication credits from the far left and paleocon right.

  27. Eliyahu says:

    Rich, it is interesting that Buchanan [a "paleocon"] seems to get on so well with some “ultraleftists.” I’m in favor of dumping the whole “left-right” spectrum notion.

  28. oao says:

    it is interesting that Buchanan [a “paleocon”] seems to get on so well with some “ultraleftists.” I’m in favor of dumping the whole “left-right” spectrum notion.

    and i reiterate that it’s no spectrum, but rather a circle. the extreme left and right ends meet. how was stalin different than hitler?

  29. Eliyahu says:

    oao, it’s not a circle either. It’s not 2-dimensional but 3-dimensional.

  30. oao says:

    It’s not 2-dimensional but 3-dimensional.

    sorry, don’t see it that way.

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