Today, in a time of wars and rumors of wars emanating from the Islamic world — from the current conflict in Gaza, to the saber-rattling of nuclear-armed Pakistan and soon-to-be Iran — the need for non-Muslims to better understand Islam’s doctrines and objectives concerning war and peace, and everything in between (treaties, diplomacy), has become pressing. For instance, what does one make of the fact that, after openly and vociferously making it clear time and time again that its ultimate aspiration is to see Israel annihilated, Hamas also pursues “peace treaties,” including various forms of concessions from Israel — and more puzzling, receives them?
Before being in a position to answer such questions, one must first appreciate the thoroughly legalistic nature of mainstream (Sunni) Islam. Amazingly, for all the talk that Islam is constantly being “misunderstood” or “misinterpreted” by “radicals,” the fact is, as opposed to most other religions, Islam is a clearly defined faith admitting of little ambiguity: indeed, according to Sharia (i.e., “Islam’s way of life,” more commonly translated as “Islamic law”) every conceivable human act is categorized as being either forbidden, discouraged, permissible, recommended, or obligatory. “Common sense” or “universal opinion” has little to do with Islam’s notions of right and wrong. All that matters is what Allah (via the Koran) and his prophet Muhammad (through the hadith) have to say about any given subject, and how Islam’s greatest theologians and jurists — collectively known as the ulema, literally, the “ones who know” — have articulated it.
Consider the concept of lying. According to Sharia, deception is not only permitted in certain situations but is sometimes deemed obligatory. For instance, and quite contrary to early Christian tradition, not only are Muslims who must choose between either recanting Islam or being put to death permitted to lie by pretending to have apostatized; many jurists have decreed that, according to Koran 4:29, which commands Muslims not to "destroy themselves," Muslims are obligated to lie.
The doctrine of taqiyya
Much of this revolves around the pivotal doctrine of taqiyya, which is often euphemized as “religious dissembling,” though in reality simply connotes “Muslim deception vis-à-vis infidels.” According to the authoritative Arabic text Al-Taqiyya fi Al-Islam, “Taqiyya [deception] is of fundamental importance in Islam. Practically every Islamic sect agrees to it 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. … Taqiyya is very prevalent in Islamic politics, especially in the modern era [p. 7; my own translation].”
Some erroneously believe that taqiyya is an exclusively Shia doctrine: As a minority group interspersed among their traditional enemies, the much more numerous Sunnis, Shias have historically had more “reason” to dissemble. Ironically, however, Sunnis living in the West today find themselves in a similar situation, as they are now the minority surrounded by their historic enemies — Christian infidels.
The primary Koranic verse sanctioning deception vis-à-vis non-Muslims states: “Let believers [Muslims] not take for friends and allies infidels [non-Muslims] instead of believers. Whoever does this shall have no relationship left with Allah — unless you but guard yourselves against them, taking precautions” (3:28; other verses referenced by the ulema in support of taqiyya include 2:173, 2:185, 4:29, 16:106, 22:78, 40:28).
Al-Tabari’s (d. 923) famous tafsir (exegesis of the Koran) is a standard and authoritative reference work in the entire Muslim world. Regarding 3:28, he writes: “If you [Muslims] are under their [infidels’] authority, fearing for yourselves, behave loyally to them, with your tongue, while harboring inner animosity for them. … Allah has forbidden believers from being friendly or on intimate terms with the infidels in place of believers — except when infidels are above them [in authority]. In such a scenario, let them act friendly towards them.”
Regarding 3:28, Ibn Kathir (d. 1373, second in authority only to Tabari) writes, “Whoever at any time or place fears their [infidels’] evil may protect himself through outward show.” As proof of this, he quotes Muhammad’s close companion, Abu Darda, who said, “Let us smile to the face of some people [non-Muslims] while our hearts curse them”; another companion, al-Hassan, said, “Doing taqiyya is acceptable till the Day of Judgment [i.e., in perpetuity].”
Other prominent ulema, such as al-Qurtubi, al-Razi, and al-Arabi, have extended taqiyya to cover deeds. In other words, Muslims can behave like infidels — including by bowing down and worshiping idols and crosses, offering false testimony, even exposing fellow Muslims’ weaknesses to the infidel enemy — anything short of actually killing a Muslim.
Is this why the Muslim American sergeant Hasan Akbar attacked and killed his fellow servicemen in Iraq in 2003? Had his pretense of loyalty finally come up against a wall when he realized Muslims might die at his hands? He had written in his diary: “I may not have killed any Muslims, but being in the army is the same thing. I may have to make a choice very soon on who to kill.”
War is deceit
None of this should be surprising considering that Muhammad himself — whose example as the “most perfect human” is to be tenaciously followed — took an expedient view of lying. It is well known, for instance, that Muhammad permitted lying in three situations: to reconcile two or more quarreling parties, to one’s wife, and in war (see Sahih Muslim B32N6303, deemed an “authentic” hadith).
As for our chief concern here — war — the following story from the life of Muhammad reveals the centrality of deceit in war. During the Battle of the Trench (627), which pitted Muhammad and his followers against several non-Muslim tribes known as “the Confederates,” one of these Confederates, Naim bin Masud, went to the Muslim camp and converted to Islam. When Muhammad discovered that the Confederates were unaware of their co-tribalist’s conversion, he counseled Masud to return and try somehow to get the Confederates to abandon the siege — “For,” Muhammad assured him, “war is deceit.” Masud returned to the Confederates without their knowing that he had “switched sides,” and began giving his former kin and allies bad advice. He also went to great lengths to instigate quarrels between the various tribes until, thoroughly distrusting each other, they disbanded, lifting the siege from the Muslims, and thereby saving Islam in its embryonic period (see Al-Taqiyya fi Al-Islam; also, Ibn Ishaq’s Sira, the earliest biography of Muhammad).
More demonstrative of the legitimacy of deception vis-à-vis infidels is the following anecdote. A poet, Kab bin al-Ashruf, offended Muhammad by making derogatory verse concerning Muslim women. So Muhammad exclaimed in front of his followers: “Who will kill this man who has hurt Allah and his prophet?” A young Muslim named Muhammad bin Maslama volunteered, but with the caveat that, in order to get close enough to Kab to assassinate him, he be allowed to lie to the poet. Muhammad agreed. Maslama traveled to Kab, began denigrating Islam and Muhammad, carrying on this way till his disaffection became convincing enough that Kab took him into his confidences. Soon thereafter, Maslama appeared with another Muslim and, while Kab’s guard was down, assaulted and killed him. Ibn Sa’ad’s version reports that they ran to Muhammad with Kab’s head, to which the latter cried, “Allahu Akbar!” (God is great!)
Koranic sequential deceit
It also bears mentioning that the entire sequence of Koranic revelations is a testimony to taqiyya; and since Allah is believed to be the revealer of these verses, he ultimately is seen as the perpetrator of deceit — which is not surprising since Allah himself is described in the Koran as the best “deceiver” or “schemer” (3:54, 8:30, 10:21). This phenomenon revolves around the fact that the Koran contains both peaceful and tolerant verses, as well as violent and intolerant ones. The ulema were baffled as to which verses to codify into Sharia’s worldview — the one, for instance, that states there is no coercion in religion (2:256), or the ones that command believers to fight all non-Muslims till they either convert, or at least submit, to Islam (8:39, 9:5, 9:29)? To get out of this quandary, the ulema developed the doctrine of abrogation (naskh, supported by Koran 2:106) which essentially maintains that verses “revealed” later in Muhammad’s career take precedence over the earlier ones, whenever there is a contradiction.
But why the contradiction in the first place? The standard view has been that, since in the early years of Islam, Muhammad and his community were far outnumbered by the infidels and idolaters, a message of peace and coexistence was in order (sound familiar?). However, after he migrated to Medina and grew in military strength and numbers, the violent and intolerant verses were “revealed,” inciting Muslims to go on the offensive — now that they were capable of doing so. According to this view, quite standard among the ulema, one can only conclude that the peaceful Meccan verses were ultimately a ruse to buy Islam time till it became sufficiently strong to implement its “true” verses which demand conquest. Or, as traditionally understood and implemented by Muslims themselves, when the latter are weak and in a minority position, they should preach and behave according to the Meccan verses (peace and tolerance); when strong, they should go on the offensive, according to the Medinan verses (war and conquest). The vicissitudes of Islamic history are a testimony to this dichotomy.
A Muslim colleague of mine once made this clear during a casual, though revealing, conversation. After expounding to him all those problematic doctrines that make it impossible for Muslims to peacefully coexist with infidels — jihad, loyalty and enmity, enjoining the right and forbidding the wrong — I pointedly asked him how and why he, as a Muslim, did not uphold them. He kept prevaricating, pointing to those other, abrogated verses of peace and tolerance. Assuming he was totally oblivious of such arcane doctrines as abrogation, I (rather triumphantly) began explaining to him the distinction between Meccan (tolerant) and Medinan (intolerant) verses, and how the latter abrogate the former. He simply smiled, saying, “I know; but I’m currently living in Mecca” — that is, like his weak and outnumbered prophet living among an infidel majority in Mecca, he too, for survival’s sake, felt compelled to preach peace, tolerance, and coexistence to the infidel majority of America.