Can a true religion really give its practitioners the freedom to lie? Many in the West have heard that Islam gives Muslims such freedom, and so have grown even more suspicious of Muslim acquaintances whom they might otherwise have come to know, befriend, appreciate and trust. What has fueled this perception of Islam, and is it accurate?
Muslims, naturally, protest that such a conclusion is false, and that their Qur’an enjoins them to honesty in their words and deeds: “O ye who believe! Fear Allah and be with those who are true” (9:119). That seems very straightforward. Particularly with other Muslims, believers are to act honestly unless the use of lies would likely create greater peace. (According to Bukhari 49.857, Umm Kulthum reported Muhammad to have said, “He who makes peace between the people by inventing good information or saying good things is not a liar.”
Yet Islamic morality is not quite that simple. The one great absolute to which all other moral commands bow is this: whatever behavior advances the cause of Islam is good or permissible; whatever weakens or demeans the cause of Islam is evil and forbidden.
So when it comes to truthfulness in word and deed, a Muslim is required to be honest and forthright in his dealings, unless the cause of Islam might somehow be negatively affected by the truth. Muslim jurists (both Sunni and Shi’ite) over the centuries have created five sometimes overlapping categories where the use of lies is permitted for the sake of Islam (as opposed to personal advantage – though sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference).
The first, and most well-known category is taqiyya, often translated “dissimulation.” A Muslim is permitted to mislead non-Muslims as to his identity when the truth would put his life and/or the cause of Islam in danger. Often, Sura 3:28 is cited in support of this – Muslims are forbidden from taking non-Muslims as friends or protectors, except in self-defense; i.e., they may pretend friendship with nonbelievers in order to gain security or protection until such time as they no longer need such dependency. Such deception is often used in modern Islamic politics, particularly among Iranian leaders in their foreign policy. Since Islam sees itself (Dar al Islam = “Camp of Islam) at war with the non-Muslim world (Dar al Harb = Camp of War), deception is permitted, even commanded, in dealings with the enemy. Muhammad famously said (and it is recorded multiple times in Hadith sources), “War is deceit” (Bukhari, 4.52.268-269). In the arena of jihad, such deceit involves duping the enemy so as to surprise, weaken and ultimately conquer him. Muhammad’s directives for the assassination of Ka`b bin Ashraf, a Jewish man accused of stirring up Muhammad’s enemies in Mecca, included permission for the assassins to deceive to Ka’b in order to get close enough to him to hack him to death with swords.
Tawriyah, a second category of permissible lies, involves the intentional creation of false impressions while technically telling the truth. By use of double entendres or misleading words, one causes the listener to conclude the opposite of the truth. Say, for example, that a homeless person approaches you on the street and asks you for some money. Though you have quite a wad in your wallet, you don’t want to part with any of it, and knowing that you don’t have any change in your pocket, you say, “Gosh I’m sorry, but I don’t have a cent on me!” Technically, you are honest in that you don’t have a penny in your pocket, but you are misleading your listener into believing you have no money at all. Or suppose you are home with your family and some unwelcome person knocks on the door asking to see a member of the family who is standing in the kitchen waving frantically at you to send the caller away. You answer the door and say, “I’m sorry, but she is not here right now and I don’t know when she’ll be back.” By “here” you mean at the front door; the caller thinks you mean “in the house.” Though you are telling the truth in a limited way, you are concealing the truth at a deeper level, and so engaging in creative lying. Again, such a practice is not meant to be used for selfish purposes, but only the for advancement or supremacy of Islam. However, the manual of Shari’a law used today by one prominent school of Sunni Muslims (the Shafi’is) teaches that it is permissible in oath-taking to break the intent of the oath (or treaty) as long as one adheres to the letter of the oath. An example given is: “If one swears, ‘I will not eat this wheat,’ but then makes it into flour or bread (A: and then eats it), one has not broken one’s oath” (Reliance of the Traveller,o19.1). It doesn’t take much imagination to see how our fallen human nature can take this kind of justification and run with it.
A third category of deception is known as kitman, and involves telling only part of the truth, and concealing the rest, so as to present a false picture. With regard to orthodox Islam, we see this regularly in the West when Muslims who know better declare, “Islam is a religion of peace.” What they mean is, “Islam is a religion of peace for those who have submitted to Allah, but it declares war on all those who refuse to submit to Allah.” Likewise, with regard to the practice of jihad a Muslim might say, “In Islam jihad means the struggle in the soul against evil.” This indeed is one meaning of the term, but all informed Muslims know that jihad in the context of the non-Muslim world means the struggle to overthrow (by force or other means) all groups which remain resistant to the advance of Islam. In short, kitman is lying by omission.
Muruna is a fourth category of deception. Meaning literally “flexibility,” muruna allows Muslims to set aside some commands of Allah in order to achieve others that have a higher priority in Allah’s service. Hence, one may engage in some of the “minor evils” of an infidel society so as to blend in with the enemy while plotting his demise. This is the mindset of stealth jihadi sleeper agents, who shave their beards, wear Western clothing, avoid the local mosque, drink alcohol, go to strip bars, marry non-Muslim women, and so on, so as to deflect any attention from themselves until they can carry out their mission against their host culture with a view to the supremacy of Islam. They believe that these “sinful adjustments” will be forgiven in light of the long-term victory they intend “for the cause.” Of course, just because a self-professing Muslim may drink alcohol or party or shave, etc., does not mean he is practicing muruna. There are many cultural Muslims for whom strict adherence to Shari’a is objectionable – they want to blend in with Western society because they love a Western approach to life. But for the Muslim committed to core Islam, muruna is a form of “permissible lifestyle lying” in order to accomplish the greater end of jihad against the enemies of Allah.
Lastly is the category of taysir, which translates literally as “ease.” Supported by the Qur’an (“For Allah desires ease for you, not hardship,” 2:185; see also 2:286, 4:26-28, and 5:6), taysir is the provision of “special dispensation” when obedience to Islam would create too much hardship for the Muslim in a non-Muslim context. Suppose the nearest mosque is 200 miles away – the command to join the community in Friday prayers may be “set aside” until circumstances change. If one’s employer will not make exceptions for mandatory prayers during work hours, one may in good conscience set aside the command to pray at that hour, and make it up at another time. Taysir technically is not lying (except perhaps to oneself); it is arguing that the requirements of Islam are too burdensome in a particular kufr setting (i.e., infidel society) so that the obligations may be lifted during those times, and the Muslim can live more in line with the practices of the world around him.
So, what does this mean for the average non-Muslim weighing the words and actions of a Muslim? That depends. I would venture to say that most Muslims living in the West are here because they want the best of what Western civilization has to offer, even when it conflicts with an Islamic world view. They have eschewed the notion of Islamic supremacy and the goal of bringing all things under submission to Allah. They wish to integrate into American culture, they are eager to experience American hospitality, they would be thrilled to have you as a genuine friend. They may still wish to practice their faith privately, and are happy to see you practice yours. They take pride in being people of their word, and “permissible lies” of any sort are the furthest thing from their minds as they converse with you.
However, the same cannot be said, by and large, for Muslims in political and religious leadership roles, whose agenda is that of orthodox Islam. They are motivated by a supremacist ideology, and have no qualms about engaging in permissible lying so as to move from underdog status to the role of top dog, no matter how long it takes. Remember that next time you watch an Iranian mullah or politician, or hear a CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations) representative hold forth on how Islam as a peaceful religion just wants to “fit in” as an American faith.