The Doctrine of Taqiyya and the Permissibility of Lying to Unbelievers

17 November 2021: In recent days the news cycle in the UK was dominated by the heroic actions of a cab driver, Dave Perry, who locked a suicide bomber in his vehicle before rushing off. The bomb carried by the would-be attacker did go off, but Perry’s actions ensured that Emad Jamil Al Swealmeen was the only ‘victim’ of that attack.

There is every indication that Al Swealmeen was planning to go on to detonate his bomb at Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral where a Remembrance Day Service was being held. If not for the quick-thinking actions of Perry the carnage would have been immense.

An interesting twist in the tail of Al Swealmeen’s story is that he supposedly converted to Christianity in 2017. In fact, he was baptized at the very same cathedral that he was trying to blow up!

This brings in a rather novel angle in trying to deflect attention from Islam as possibly inspiring the attack, with some commentators stating that his ‘conversion’ means that his actions had ‘Nothing to do with Islam’.

I obviously do not have any special insights into Al Swealmeen’s inner convictions before he died. There are, however, a few factors that should cause us to proceed with caution before jumping to conclusions:

  • In 2016 the Islamic State published a manual entitled: “Safety and Security Guidelines for Lone Wolf Mujahideen.” In it, explicit permission is granted to wear Christian symbols as a means of blending in.
  • Al Swealmaan was a refugee from Syria. There have been many instances, including in Liverpool, were concerns were raised about ‘false conversions’ in order to bolster asylum claims. In such cases the newly minted ‘Christians’ could claim that they would face increased persecution if deported.

All of this leaves us with the bigger question of whether a supposedly devout Muslim could conceivably engage in deception on such an epic scale. Would this not contradict everything that Islam stands for? It turns out that this is not quite the case.

As a general principle we can state that Muslims are not obligated to tell the truth in all instances, and that deception is sometimes deliberately promoted. This is because Muhammad promoted an ethical framework that is not based on the question “What is true” but rather on “What will be good for Islam in these circumstances?“. As a result, telling lies and half-truths, especially if they are told to non-Muslims, is totally permitted if it serves the objectives of Islam.

The notion of taqiyya (dissimulation or deception) as an acceptable aspect of Islamic morality is based on the following Qur’anic passages:

  • “Anyone who, after accepting faith in Allah, utters unbelief,- except under compulsion, his heart remaining firm in Faith – but such as open their breast to Unbelief, on them is Wrath from Allah, and theirs will be a dreadful Penalty.” (Qur’an 16:106) This passage introduces the notion that if a Muslim believes he will be harmed if his Muslim identity is revealed, he might lie about it. Someone who disguised his faith in this way is described in Qur’an 40:28. As we’ll see, this concept is expanded in the hadiths to what we could call aggressive deception: Winning people’s trust by appearing to be someone else and then injuring them.
  • “[This is] An announcement from Allah and His Messenger, to the people (assembled) on the day of the Great Pilgrimage, – that Allah and His Messenger dissolve (treaty) obligations with the Pagans. (Qur’an 9:3) The cynicism in this verse is stunning. Solemn covenants, most likely sworn in Allah’s name, are simply annulled by saying that Allah and Muhammad have no duties to infidels. This established the notion that treaties, oaths, and pledges must be maintained only if they benefit Muslims. If there is an advantage to be gained by ignoring such requirements, it should be done for the sake of Islam. Furthermore, Muslims can rest assured that Allah will not punish them for “thoughtlessness in oaths.” (Qur’an 2:225)
  • Let not the believers Take for friends or helpers Unbelievers rather than believers: if any do that, in nothing will there be help from Allah: except by way of precaution, that ye may Guard yourselves from them. (Qur’an 3:28) This is the famous verse in which Muslims are told not to make friends with non-Muslims. However, there is one significant exception. They can befriend them “as a precaution” to “guard themselves from them.” This text is commonly regarded as stating that Muslims may pretend to be friends with non-Muslims to protect the place of Islam in society.

All the passage mentioned above inform Muslims that truth is not a fixed concept, and that falsehoods and deception can be used for the greater good of Islam. This view is backed up by the hadiths (Islamic traditions), which contain several examples of Muslims being rewarded for deceptive activities that aided the Muslim cause.

Two examples should suffice:

  • Sahih Bukhari (52:269) quotes Muhammad as saying, “War is deceit”. The following hadiths then go on to show how the principle of using deceit in war can be applied. Sahih Bukhari (52:271) is particularly revealing: “The Prophet said, “Who is ready to kill Ka’b bin Ashraf (i.e., a Jew).” Muhammad bin Maslama replied, “Do you like me to kill him?” The Prophet replied in the affirmative. Muhammad bin Maslama said, “Then allow me to say what I like.” The Prophet replied, “I do (i.e., allow you).” Take careful note of what happened here: One of Muhammad’s followers requested permission to lie, and it was granted right away. The rest of the story is told in Sahih Bukhari (53:369). Bin Maslama approached the person Muhammad has designated for death and claimed to be terribly disillusioned by the ‘prophet.’ In this way, he was able to acquire the person’s trust and get access to his inner circle. Maslama asked Ka’b if he could smell the perfume on his head after the ‘friendship’ had been created, an act that could only occur between close friends. Ka’b allows this since he trusts his ‘friend’, but he is quickly grabbed and slain! “War is deceit” indeed.
  • Muhammad’s supporters were allowed to sign peace treaties based on false information. In Sahih Bukhari 49:857, this principle is explicitly stated.: Narrated Um Kulthum bint Uqba: That she heard Allah’s Apostle saying, “He who makes peace between the people by inventing good information or saying good things, is not a liar.

Coming back to Al Swealmeen, I have no special insight into his devotion to Islam (or Christianity for that matter). It would, however, based on the above be foolish in the extreme to discount the possibility that his ‘conversion’ was nothing more than an elaborate confidence trick taken straight from the pages of the Qur’an.

Ps. For much more about the links between Islamic teaching and violence, please see my book ‘Nothing to do with Islam? – Probing the West’s Most Dangerous Blind Spot’