Does taqiyya matter?

This post derives from a post of Dean Esmay’s over on Dean’s World and is mostly composed of a series of overlong comments I left there.

Taqiyya or dissumulation is the belief, held by some Muslims, that it is permissible to lie to protect one’s own life, the life of one’s family, or for the preservation of the faith. Sunni Muslims attribute the belief to Shi’a Muslims. It’s not unique to Shi’a Muslims nor is it universal among them. The notion is controversial within Islam.

The belief has analogues both within Christianity and Judaism. In Judaism, although lying is considered intrinsically wrong, some consider it to be permissible to save a life (pikuah nefesh). While frequently repeated and commonly held, the view is by no means universal and is considered to be somewhat controversial:

The most serious conflict that can confront truth telling is that of pikuah nefesh – saving a life. It is not entirely obvious that, based on the principle that all commandments, save three,(6) may (or must) be violated to save a life, one may lie to save life. The above stated principle clearly applies to prohibitions that are solely between man and God. It is not so clear that this always applies to violations which affect another person.(7) I have found no outright statement in the Talmud or elsewhere permitting lying in such circumstances, but a number of specific laws, as well as interpretations of Biblical narratives, would seem to indicate this as a legitimate motive.

In Christianity early Church fathers were divided on the subject. Some, e.g. Origin, held that it was permissible for doctors to lie to comfort their patients or for statesmen to lie for the common good. Augustine held that lying was impermissible under any conditions whatever as did Aquinas. Specifically, Augustine (a pretty tough character) presented an anecdote that Dean uses but comes to a different conclusion: if a man is hiding in your house and murderers come to kill him you may say that you know where he is but will not tell but you may not deny that he is there.

Raymund of Pennafort, Aquinas’s contemporary, taught the permissibility of formal equivocation i.e. an expression with a double or ambiguous meaning.

“Strict mental reservation”
AKA the “Doctrine of Mental Equivocation” although a favorite of Catholic-haters has never been taught by the Catholic Church (although a few 17th century Catholic theologians proposed it), was condemned by Pope Innocent XI in 1679, and has never since been taught by Catholic theologians.

I know of no circumstances under which lying for one’s own benefit has been taught as permissible by the Catholic Church.

In a very real sense the role of tagiyya in Islam is moot. The real question is what’s the role of taqiyya with Salafists? I don’t think there’s much question about that and it’s consistent with their extreme views on takfir, jihad, permissible targets, treatment of Christians and Jews in majority Muslim societies, and so on.

There are a couple of sayings that are relevant here. The first is that “a few bad apples can spoil the whole barrel” and the second is the Chinese Communist observation that the relationship between revolutionaries and the people is the relation between fish and the sea. While I agree that most of the apples aren’t bad, if the apples want to avoid being thrown out they’re in a much better position to identify the bad ones than the rest of us are. The fish need the support of the sea.

So we’re left with the dilemma of fighting a sub-population of unknown size with precious little assistance from a (probably) significantly larger population who, for reasons that include fear, culture, family ties, and religious conviction, are disinclined to give them up.

Incidents of the last few years including Abu Ghraib, the cartoons of Mohammed that appeared in the Danish paper, and, most recently, the Dubai Ports World debacle are alienating the presumably decent majority of Muslims from the rest of us and casting them willy-nilly with the Salafists. I don’t know that can be remedied in the near term.

3 comments… add one
  • I just wanted to note I was amused by your switching of the Q and the G in Taqiyyah. Trivial, but a tendency of Saudis. Suddenly I had a vision of you as Bedu.

  • Thanks, collounsbury. Simple typographical error (note the ‘q’ elsewhere in the post). My ancestry is almost completely Swiss and Irish.

  • Oh I know, but the typo was amusing because of the internal meaning within Arabic. It had this funny implication you were a secret Bedu of Wahhabi tendancies slipping up and using the typical Bedu Gaf in place of the “proper” Qaf.

    It was, well, delicious. For me. You’re lucky you had that one reader in a billion who enjoyed the inadvertent play on obscure affiliations by even more obscure verbal/dialectal tics.

    It made my (well heavil narcotised) night.

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