While I don’t remember seeing anyone claim that the Muslim Brotherhood specifically cannot be trusted because they are practicing “taqiyya,” I have seen how certain sectors of American society have recently applied the term “taqiyya” to the perceived inclination of Muslims to lie to non-Muslims about distasteful beliefs/practices in Islam as some kind of divinely mandated PR strategy.
Needless to say, this is a twisted viewing of what taqiyya actually is, and the implications of this view lead quite clearly to unnecessary anti-Islamic prejudice. However, while the view of taqiyya the OP counters with is far closer to the truth, I also find it lacking, so I’m going to give a brief overview of this fascinating concept.
The first point I want to make is that when it comes to Shia (specifically, Imami or Twelver Shi’ism, the kind that I’ll be spending the most attention on and the kind that is the dominant faith of Iran) Islam, taqiyya is not just a name for not drawing attention to yourself as a Shia when big men with swords are about. In fact, both non-Shia Muslim and Western scholars have traditionally seen taqiyya as an essential element of Imami Shi’ism, practiced and encouraged by Imami leaders throughout the ages. Examining the Imami tradition’s views makes this idea much more complicated, but the main point is this: taqiyya has been instrumental in the development and preservation of Imami Shi’ism.
Before looking at what exactly this concept that I’ve declared so big and important means, we should think about the historical context that gave it life. The first mentions of taqiyya in Imami literature come from the Imamates of Muhammad al-Baqir (the 5th one) and his son Jafar al-Sadiq (the 6th one) in the middle of the eighth century, or a century plus after the death of Muhammad. This was a tumultuous time in Islamic history; the transition from the Umayyad to Abbasid caliphate, and the beginning of the formation of Imami Shi’ism as a distinct sect within the party of Ali, were happening. Previous to this, the Shia had fought for their claims, and the martyrs of that era are still revered, despite the Wikipedia article’s snobbish insinuations that only Sunnis admire people willing to die for their beliefs. The activist phase ended after the slaughter at Karbala, and the Imami found themselves in a painful situation. Unlike certain other religious minority groups, such as Sunnis in Spain after the Reconquista, they were right in the middle of the oppressive empire and they clearly did not see emigration as a viable option for their community. Staying alive was the only thing that could be done to ensure the survival of the community.
Understanding the tremendous persecution of the Shia is essential to understanding taqiyya and in general the Shia mindset. The Imami elaborated taqiyya in response to their persecution, and justified it with some verses from the Qur’an. So, ok, the Shia concealed their religion from people who might oppress them, at times even to the point of lying about what they believed in or acting like Sunnis in order to avoid harm. But this simple concept quickly took on an almost unbelievably central place in Shia thought. Imam Sadiq, alluding to Quran 49:13, said, “He is most excellent in performing his religious duties in the eyes of God who is best at observing taqiyya.” He compared the situation of the Shia to bees among birds: If the birds realized the bees had sweet honey inside them, they would eat the bees out of envy.
The obsession with secretism was a big part of Imami Shi’ism, with one medieval Shia scholar writing that God imposed Shi’ism in secret and will not allow believers to publicly acknowledge their faith, to the point where the guardian of paradise (the angel Ridwan) will not even notice the Shia entering heaven until the day of Resurrection. You don’t just get the sense that people had to hide distinctive marks in public, key doctrines and hadiths also had to be hidden lest they arose ire from the community. An example of this is the Imami doctrine of “raja” that asserted that some would resurrect before the “main event” Resurrection. Opponents like the medieval Mutazilite (a later discredited theological party) al-Khayyat observed that holding this doctrine was, for the bulk of Muslims, like committing apostasy and so it was kept secret by the Shia.
Here you can see the seeds of “lying to the Sunni dogs” that Sunnis felt was going on.
So you had a bunch of Imami Shia who were persecuted. And they decided to not fight or leave, so the only hope was this concept of taqiyya. What did it actually involve? As a technical term, we can understand taqiyya to mean “precautionary dissimulation.” It involved both concealment in a passive way (kitman) and actually dissembling. The outward expression of this has already been covered, but there was also inward taqiyya, which was just as important.
The first type of inward taqiyya was concealing texts, beliefs, and information on the Imams from other Shia. You get this interesting rebuke from Imam Sadiq: Whoever propagates our traditions is like someone who denies it.” The reason for this is simple. If you tell everyone about the secrets, (and in Imami thought, the Imams possessed special knowledge) then it could get back to the leaders andthat’s bad. The Imams were somewhat untrustworthy of their followers’ ability to keep a secret. When Imams would provide contradictory answers to the same questions, that was also a form of taqiyya, the one inconsistent with the Sunni position was seen as the true version.
The second kind of inward taqiyya was more reminiscent of the Gnostics. Shi’ism was really concerned with keeping secrets from the uninitiated. There was a very strong distinction between the elite and the masses. Imam Sadiq claimed that God gave the Imams knowledge not even the angels or prophets could bear. Part of this secret knowledge could be revealed to Shi’is but part of it would have to wait, possible until the coming of the Messiah. So there is that. Especially on controversial issues, it is hard to note when taqiyya is being practiced to protect the community from harm, or out of this notion of keeping special knowledge. There was a clear hierarchy of knowledge and revealing esoteric Shia doctrines to those who were not ready for them was bad. This helps to explain the Imam’s statements on taqiyya like “he who has no taqiyya has no faith” even though the concept of taqiyya as protecting yourself from outside influences was clearly seen as a temporary and non-universal state of affairs that would eventually end. Though circumstances at times dictated when taqiyya was an obligation, Imam al-Bariq noted that it was always, in the end, the choice of the believer when and how to exercise it.
As you can imagine, taqiyya really annoyed the Sunni. Not so much because it allowed the Shi’a to keep on living (though they did call out that aspect of it as cowardly) but because they saw it as a Shia strategy to explain away history that seemed to disprove Shia doctrine. Sunni scholars felt like, whenever they would say something like, “Ali recognized the rule of the other Caliphs! If he was deprived of his rights, why didn’t he fight?” Shia would just say “oh, Ali was practicing taqiyya.” Now, Shia don’t actually say that Ali practiced taqiyya per se, but they did claim a number of famous Sunni as being Shia who were practicing taqiyya. Because taqiyya became used as a way to justify the superiority of Shi’ism, it fell under extreme criticism from the Sunni. I’ve met Sunnis from Iraq who will still complain about Shia using taqiyya in pretty derogatory language.
So the Shia, especially after the occlusion of the 12th Imam (which was termed an act of taqiyya) were not happy to hear this criticism, and they were eager to expound on the righteousness of their beliefs whenever they could, which did start to become a bigger area over time. So you do get much more of the notion in medieval Imami thought that suffering for your faith is more virtuous than concealing it, and that taqiyya is more properly thought of as a dispensation rather than an obligation. It was a mercy given by God to his weak believers. So rules started to develop about when it was OK to use taqiyya, and when you had to stand your ground. These rules generally depended on the situation on the ground. A great source is al-Shaykh al-Mufid, a Persian scholar. He wrote that taqiyya is only meant to be done when you are reasonably sure that not doing it will result in harm to the true religion or its believers.
People were eager to spread their beliefs because if you constantly live a secret life, eventually you have a hard time telling what is true and what is not. This is a big problem for the Shia. If their followers live every day like Sunni, will they become Sunni? And how can you teach others if you don’t spread your faith? This was a force against taqiyya within the Shia tradition.
More contemporary scholars like al-Ghita did try to minimize it a lot, emphasizing the reasonableness of not dying for a religious point. He asked his Sunni readers, “don’t make the practice of taqiyya necessary then criticize us for doing it.” But again, he is writing for a Sunni audience, and that would play a role in how he wrote. There is no discussion of the keeping of secret knowledge, for example.
So now we have the issue that confronts us, oddly enough, with the Muslim Brotherhood in this thread, which is, when a Shia scholar makes a pronouncement on taqiyya, or indeed, any other sensitive topic, how do we know it’s not taqiyya? After all, many Shia will explain offsetting statements of historical figures by saying they used taqiyya themselves, so it’s clearly something that happens. In this situation, what we just have to do is look at the audience of the statement, the conditions it was written in, and previous literature. This is why we can trust al-Mufid more than another scholar who was writing in a state of oppression.
If we promote an environment where someone feels secure they are more likely to succumb to the impulse of proclaiming their faith then hiding it as some kind of long-term ploy. Thankfully, I have never heard of America being called “dar al-taqiyya.” (a place where taqiyya is required, no largely defunct term)
Taqiyya as a protection measure is much less important now than it used to be, because now there are actual Shi’a states. You don’t see Ahmadinejad or Hezbollah saying that they are Sunnis, right. Interestingly, in Iran, where taqiyya is a social institution, you are far more likely to find it, in practice if not in name, among the Jews, Christians, and especially Baha’I who suffer persecution there. If you look at the book of Esther in the Bible, you can see that the practice of taqiyya, in certain forms, stretch back to far beyond the Islamic days of Iran. Where there is no persecution, the need for taqiyya dries up, and that’s seen as a good thing. If you see Saudi Arabia go nuclear and then Iran start calling itself a Sunni country, that’s taqiyya. The idea that taqiyya is not a temporary state, or that it is a requirement of all muslims, or even all Shia, fails when you see taqiyya being abandoned as freedom grows.
I reiterate the idea that we can get a good judge of what the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood thinks by examining their historical statements and literature, and that if they are lying at this moment, it is not out of their conscious adherence to the Shia doctrine of taqiyya. There are plenty of ways to justify whatever they do within the confines of Sunni Islam. They don’t need to go looking for help from the Shia.
To the extent that taqiyya is relevant in world events today, I would say it is more about it being meaningful as a theological and cultural concept dealing doctrinal issues, minorities, and spiritual hierarchies, rather than practical political strategy. The last true instance of protection taqiyya I’m aware of deals with the Ismaili Shia in Afghanistan, who have long been persecuted for supposedly being too promiscuous. I do know Shia have trouble in a variety of other nations, though, I can’t say for sure.
I guess you could say that if there was a Shia (Or Sunni, if you want) cleric who made a habit of saying in Britain moderate things in order to keep his Visa and then back home in a different country saying much more extreme things, then you could define it as taqiyya. This, I think, is what some opponents of Islam get angry about. But this is not really taqiyya as the term is historically conceived of. There is no threat of death, among other things. It’s more useful to just call it lying.
Oh, man, I wrote a lot. Does it even make any sense? Did anyone read it? If not, here’s my TLDR version for now:
Taqiyya is a Shia concept that was born out of intense persecution. It is very Imami and very Persian, and many Sunni scholars spent a lot of time attacking it, so it’s unlikely that they would adopt it. It not only involves concealing or dissimulating about your beliefs in order to protect the community, but also keeping secret knowledge from the unready, untrustworthy, or uninitiated. It holds a central place in Shia history, but its practical applications are today limited by the increasing power of many Shia communities. It’s about core beliefs, practices, and doctrines, not politics. The actions of the Muslim Brotherhood, who are not Shia in Egypt, don’t have anything to do with taqiyya as a doctrinal concept. That said, while the secret knowledge part is more particular to Shi’ism, the behavioral parts of taqiyya are relatively unremarkable and can be justified in a huge variety of religious traditions who use their own terminology. It’s best we just judge motivations of modern groups using all available evidence.
I hope that some of the knowledgeable dopers we have here will offer their comments and critique, since I have no doubt I made some errors. I’m sorry to just lay a huge essay on you all. I hope I’ve informed as much as I’ve amused and frustrated.
Etan Kohlberg, Some Imami Views on Taqiyya
Etan Kohlberg, Taqiyya in Shia Theology and Religion
Cyrus Gordon, The Substratum of Taqiyya in Iran