Monday, October 11, 2010

2 Kings 5: Biblical "Taqiyya," or Lying about Faith

About a year ago, Mamoun Fandy used the opinion page of the Christian Science Monitor to propose a new reason why Americans cannot trust Iran in nuclear negotiations. (Apparently, the fact that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a Holocaust-denying megalomaniac is not enough.)

Iranian Shi'ites, Fandy argues, practice taqiyya, a "doctrine of deceit" that encourages Muslims to lie when discussing "political or worldly affairs." For Fandy, then, American politicians cannot believe a word that Iranian officials say.

Since Fandy and others raised the issue, some Islamophobic bloggers have gotten their claws on taqiyya and argued that no Muslim can ever be trusted because all are under religious orders to lie. Such specious reasoning has added fuel to the Obama-is-Muslim fire; here's one crazy youtube video:

But such broad slanders simply aren't true, because taqiyya is not "lying." The term more closely translates as "fear" or "caution," and it's a minor or nonexistent part of most Muslims' religious practice. Etan Kohlberg narrowly defines taqiyya as "precautionary dissimulation" and suggests that it arose as a defensive practice for persecuted Muslims.

Said differently, Muhammad does not encourage his followers to lie; he allows them to hide their faith if doing so will save them from violence. (Boston University Professor Kecia Ali noted at a recent roundtable that the strategy has been used most frequently by Shi'ites to save themselves from harassment by Sunni Muslims.)

But while it is wrong to hastily broaden the definition of taqiyya in mischaracterizing Islam, it is also wrong to cast "precautionary dissimulation" as a uniquely Muslim practice. There's at least one instance in the Bible in which a prophet of God--Elisha--allows a new convert to lie about his faith, to practice a Biblically sanctioned form of taqiyya.

In 2 Kings 5, we hear the story of Naaman. Naaman is warrior of Aram--a nation-state that battles Israel frequently in the Hebrew Bible. However, this "heathen" warrior is special because he is blessed by God: "by him the Lord had given victory to Aram" (5:1). (God often empowers rivals as punishment for the Israelites' sins.)

But Naaman is also cursed; "though a mighty warrior" (5:1), he suffers from leprosy. His white skin flakes off, and his limbs are vulnerable branches on a withering tree. (Why the Aramaeans let a leper lead them, I don't know. Is Naaman so "mighty" because he can distract enemies by throwing fingers at them?)

One day, an Israelite captive suggests that Naaman consult the prophet Elisha so that he may be healed. Naaman does, and offers the prophet a significant offering, but Elisha--an early proponent of single-payer insurance reform--does the job for free, replying, "As the Lord lives, whom I serve, I will accept nothing!" No copay? I have no idea how this man keeps up his summer home in the Keys.

Naaman is impressed--so impressed, indeed, that he converts, swearing to worship no god other than Elisha's. But the healed commander is still an Aramaean, and must return to his idolater-king. Hence, he begs Elisha to pierce a loophole in his new-found faith: "When my master goes into the house of Rimmon to worship there, leaning on my arm, and I bow down in the house of Rimmon, when I do bow down in the house of Rimmon, may the Lord pardon your servant on this one count" (5:18). Rimmon is the god of the Aramaeans, and Naaman asks forgiveness in advance for faking the Rimmon-ese religion when worshiping with his leader.

Elisha responds, "Go in peace" (5:19). The prophet gives Naaman permission to practice taqiyya, to lie about his allegiance to God and avoid persecution. The takeaway? Both Muhammad and the Bible offer similar advice to believers facing peril: you may hide your belief.

So perhaps we should stop worrying that Obama is a Muslim and start hoping that Ahmadinejad is actually a stealthy Christian.


  1. Dear Doctor Pederson,

    I see a Democratic double-standard draped upon the very subject you tackle in this blog. Here's hoping you can help.

    If being Muslim is a fine thing, and is as peaceful and thoughtful as progressives and some religious scholars continually proclaim, then why would these same people so strongly deny allegations that President Obama is Muslim? I personally believe he is not a Muslim. However, if that is true, and for the moment we say for a fact that he is not Muslim, then why wouldn't the Democrats and Obama sympathizers simply ignore such "crazy" claims as this? It seems that the sheer disgust and increased conversation from the left about how Obama is not Muslim, and that any claim otherwise is utterly foolish, bigoted and slanderous, fuels the hate and possible misunderstanding of the Muslim faith. I can't seem to reconcile how Democrats can appear to want to embrace Muslims and the new NYC Mosque and cultural awareness on one hand, while running away so fervently from the Muslim label on the other. Any thoughts?

    -Muslim in MT

  2. Thanks for the comment, sir or madam.

    My read is this: Obama isn't a Muslim. He's a Christian, and he's professed to being a Christian on multiple occasions; there's simply no evidence to suggest that he's a Muslim.

    So I think that Democrats reject the Obama-is-Muslim talk not because it's crazy or dangerous--I think they reject it because it's false. Indeed, they've already elected one Muslim--Minnesota's Keith Ellison--to the House of Representatives. He even swore his oath of office on the Qur'an, if I remember correctly.

    However, I understand your critique: perhaps it is hasty of me to describe such religious claims as "slanderous." That's a charged word--perhaps too charged. Nonetheless, from the perspective of those who call Obama a Muslim, the label is "slanderous"--they believe "Muslim" to be a slur, and they hope to do political and personal damage to Obama by throwing it around. It's despicable.

    But make no mistake: I believe that Islam is as beautiful and complex and nuanced a religious tradition as Christianity. I just don't blog about it that much because I don't know it that well. And Obama could be either Christian or Muslim, for all I care. I just hope he governs well.

  3. The point is not that Obama is Muslim, the context is Islamophobia, it is assumed to be bad that he is Muslim. It's similar to when someone uses the words "gay" of "Jew" in order to insult someone. Nothing wrong in being either, but something negative is intended.

  4. slam permits Muslims, who are living under imminent and serious danger of persecution, to deny they are Muslims publicly and to practice Islam secretly. This concept is sometimes referred to as Taqiyya. Proper Taqiyya is permissible in Islam, but it is not an obligation and it is not a virtue. While in Shiism, Taqiyya is a an obligation, a praised virtue, and an important doctrine in Shiism. Taqiyya has played an significant role in the history of Shiism and Shia books.

    In Islam, Taqiyya is permitted as a means for individual Muslims, living in exceptional conditions of persecution, to protect their lives. However, proper Islamic Taqiyya does not allow Muslims to twist the beliefs of Islam. More specifically, that means a Muslim should not write a book about Islam and twist or lie about the beliefs of Islam under the excuse of Taqiyya. Proper Taqiyya does not allow him to do so.

    The Shia have taken this permission and mis-applied it. What is wrong with the way Taqiyya is practiced by Shia:

    (a) Some of the early Shia scholars have incorporated Taqiyya in their classical reference Shia books about the principles of Shiism by softening their beliefs in order to make their beliefs not too objectionable to Muslims . This is extremely dangerous and Islamically unacceptable. It has resulted in Shia today not knowing the true beliefs of Shiism. When Shia scholars today read such mild classical books, they say the writers must have used Taqiyya. In other words, what was intended by Shia to deceive Muslims is today deceiving the Shia themselves.

    (b) In Islam, Taqiyya is intended to be practiced only under limited circumstances, as an exception to the general rule about openness and honesty. Whereas, for the Shia, Taqiyya is the rule, not the exception of the rule. For Shia, the twisted form of Taqiyya is a prescribed duty and a pillar of their faith. Shiism could not stand without it. They learn the principles and methods of Taqi'ah and they practice it.

    (c) Taqiyya is permitted to protect Muslims. The Shia are practicing it to hide their Shia beliefs, not the Islamic beliefs.

  5. Actually, Naaman was doing as his master bid him to do. And that is what Christ instructed his followers to do - obey your master (the later advice is often used by wankers like to suggest that Christianity supports slavery). All in all this essay in itself is a pretty feeble attempt at mulsim taqiya by another useful idiot of the left. How's the weather in Syria?


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