What is taqiya?

Carrying on from my last post about ‘secret Muslims’, there’s a related concept that seems to float through a lot of stuff-on-the-internet-about-Islam, the concept of ‘taqiya’ or ‘taqiyya‘[1].  According to the internet, ‘taqiya’ means the Islamic concept of lying.  Whilst that’s a cool story, it’s really ridiculously off base.

Taqiya literally means caution or prudence – it comes from the verb ittaqa, which means to beware or to be on one’s guard (not to be confused with taqia, which is a kind of hat).  The same root also means godfearing or devout (taqi, if describing a man, taqiya if describing a woman).  In most context, that’s what this word will mean – it comes from a relatively common Arabic root and gets used routinely just to mean cautious, careful or devout.

It does also have a very specific theological meaning in Shi’i Islam.  And yet again it’s important to emphasize that Islam is not a homogeneous monolith that understands itself against the world.  Taqiya in Shi’i theology is the concept of willing dissimulation of one’s religion under duress or in the face of threat or danger.  It appears the most often in Shi’i writing in reference to the Shi’i relationship to the Sunni majority (as the Sunni were, in almost every province of the Muslim world, up until the moder age).  It was the understanding that it was acceptable to live within the Sunni world and under Sunni authority, and even to deny one’s own faith, for the sake of the survival of Shi’a as a variant form of Islam.

So to put this in some context, from about the second century of Islam onwards (Shi’a dates from 640, about three decades after the rise of Islam), there was a continuous debate in Shi’i thought about how the religion should understand itself with relation to the Sunni majority.  Shi’i thought traditionally divided the world into three spheres – the non-Muslim world, the Muslim world, and the Shi’i world (called the realm of belief), stressing that although the caliphate was Muslim, in that it bore witness to Muhammad (peace be upon him) and his God, it was still not practicing the correct form of Islam, and therefore was not truly the realm of belief.  The obvious question, and the one that Shi’i writers struggled with for centuries (and still do today) is – so what now?  It was generally accepted that it was not permissible to wage war against the Sunni, because they were Muslims (although there were some 10th and 11th century scholars that argued in favour of warfare against non-Shi’i Muslims), but at the same time, the Shi’a were often a very small minority, and so their communal identity tended to focus on their minority status and the necessity for the protection and continuation of Shi’a Islam.

It was under these circumstances that the concept of taqiya comes into being, arguing that it was more important for Shi’a as a movement to survive than for individuals to defend their faith and risk death.

Thus, it’s a really specific concept that applies to a very specific circumstance.  There is some evidence that the concept was exported to the Iberian peninsula during the Spanish Inquisition, allowing some Muslims to evade persecution, but these reports are sketchy, at best (although there has been a lot of recent scholarship on the Reconquista, so possibly some new work will come to light on the subject!), but again this is a circumstance of a small minority trying to preserve their existence against the pressure of a missionary majority.

[1] As a native-born Arizonan, I was strangely happy to see that one of the google autocorrects was ‘taqueria’.  For anyone who is curious, a taqueria is a place that makes tacos.  They are awesome.

About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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3 Responses to What is taqiya?

  1. Michael Mock says:

    Taqiya literally means caution or prudence – it comes from the verb ittaqa, which means to beware or to be on one’s guard (not to be confused with taqia, which is a kind of hat).

    Okay, that completely cracked me up.

    • Arabic has some weird homonyms – along with taqiya, there’s also hasan, which can mean ‘good’ or ‘horse’ (which, having grown up in cowboy country, kind of makes sense to me), and ‘jaml’ which can be ‘beauty’ or ‘camels’. In my first few years studying Arabic, I mistranslated a lot of poetry as being about a woman and her amazing camels.

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