Iran’s Forbidden Nukes and the Taqiya Lie

The Iranian and Chinese teams at the negotiations in Istanbul this weekend between the UN Security Council plus Germany on the one hand, and Iran on the other, are leaking that the meetings were felt productive and that the group will reconvene in Baghdad on May 23. The price of petroleum fell in Asian markets on the news of the negotiations.

It is said that Iranian negotiators stressed that the decisions on the nuclear program are taken by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and that he has given fatwas or considered legal rulings, against having or using nuclear weapons.

New York Times intelligence correspondent James Risen reported the debates inside the US intelligence community regarding Khamenei’s stance.

The analysts who talked to him acknowledged that Khamenei has repeatedly denounced having or using nuclear weapons. But skeptics among them pointed to two counter-arguments.

One is that Khamenei criticized Muammar Qaddafi for giving up his nuclear plans in the face of Western pressure, which left him a sitting duck when NATO turned on him.

The other is that Shiite Muslims practice taqiyya or pious dissimulation. That is, they are allowed to lie for their faith under certain circumstances.

These are the only two counter-arguments the analysts appear to have conveyed to Mr. Risen, and they are both false.

What Khamenei said about Qaddafi does not imply that Khamenei wants a nuclear weapon for Iran. Qaddafi did not have a nuclear weapon. But having a nuclear program of some sort could function as a deterrent to foreign invasion, assuming the invaders could not know exactly how far the traget country was from having an atom bomb. Nuclear latency or a nuclear breakout capability, where a country could quickly construct a nuclear warhead if it felt sufficiently threatened, is probably what Iran is actually trying for. Khamenei’s statement on Libya is perfectly in accord with the principle that nuclear latency can have deterrent effects.

As for taqiyya, or pious dissimulation, it is widely misrepresented by Muslim-haters and does not apply in Khamenei’s case. (The analysts quoted may or may not be bigots, but it is certainly wrong to see all Muslims or all Shiites as inveterate liars assured of divine forgiveness for their trespesses).

It is often alleged by the haters that all Muslims recognize a principle whereby it is all right to lie about their true beliefs. Some weird Scandinavian smear of Muslims went viral on the internets that began with falsehoods about all Muslims being licensed to lie. But in fact Islamic ethics forbids lying (kidhb), and it is mainly the Shiite branch of Islam that practiced taqiyya as a doctrine, not the Sunni. (There is a distinction between occasional Sunni mentions of taqiyya and a Shiite doctrine of same.)

For Shiites, who were often a minority in early Muslim societies, the doctrine of pious dissimulation was permission to say that they were actually Sunni Muslims if saying that would save their lives or their big property.

Al-Shaykh al-Mufid (d. 1022) of Baghdad, a great Shiite scholar, wrote:

“”I say that taqiyya is permissible in religion when there is fear for one’s life. It may [also] be sometimes permitted when there is danger to one’s property or when the well-being [of the community] may be promoted. I say that sometimes it is obligatory and its observance becomes a religious duty, and sometimes it is permissible but not obligatory . . .”

(Etan Kohlberg, “Some Imāmī-shīʿī Views on Taqiyya,” Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 95, No. 3 (Jul. – Sep., 1975), p. 400).

But as Kohlberg notes, there are restrictions on the practice of pious dissimulation. The Shiite would have to feel that his or her lives and property were in immediate danger. That is, if you had a Sunni mob with torches coming up the hill to your house, you could go out and say you were Sunni.

But say some Sunni Muslims of the Hanafi school believe drinking wine is all right. A Shiite could not join them in a glass of wine even when practicing pious dissimulation. You can dissimulate your basic religious identity to protect your life or big property, but you can’t just throw religious law out the window on a wholesale basis.

That is, it would not be permitted for a Shiite religious scholar in no immediate danger of being killed to issue a false fatwa on some issue other than whether he was a Sunni or Shiite, out of pious dissimulation.

Taqiyya is therefore not a license to just lie about anything at all, or to commit perfidy. It is just a permission to avoid dying uselessly because of sectarian prejudice.

From 1501 Iran had a Shiite dynasty and it gradually became a Shiite-majority country. The existence of a powerful Shiite society over centuries brought into question the need for pious dissimulation. After all, in Shiite Iran, it was the Sunnis who were often persecuted or discriminated against. In the twentieth century, the tide of Shiite legal opinion has been running against pious dissimulation.

The great Shiite scholar Husayn Al Kashif al-Ghita’ (d. 1954) wrote of taqiyya, according to Kohlberg, “(a) It is obligatory if its abandonment would cause useless death; (b) When a person might derive an inner strength from publicly professing his true beliefs, he is at liberty to follow his impulse and abandon taqiyya, though he may still practise it; (c) Taqiyya is forbidden if its practice would lead to the spreading of falsehood and injustice.”

Then we come to the Khomeinist tradition. Imam Ruhullah Khomeini, who led the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, demanded that taqiyya be abandoned in favor of holy war or jihad. Shiite expert Rainer Brunner argues that pious dissimulation has “completely lost its importance” in contemporary, Shiite-majority Iran.

So the idea that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the theocratic leader of a Shiite-majority Islamic Republic, would give a dishonest fatwa about a key principle in Islamic law (the prohibition on killing innocent non-combatants in war) is a non-starter. Khamenei, being in Khomeini’s tradition, is bound by the latter’s hostility to dissimulation. Moreover, there is no imminent threat of death hanging over Khamenei’s head that would justify such dissimulation even in classical Shiite Islamic law.

In March, Khamenei again said,

“The Iranian nation has never pursued and will never pursue nuclear weapons. There is no doubt that the decision makers in the countries opposing us know well that Iran is not after nuclear weapons because the Islamic Republic, logically, religiously and theoretically, considers the possession of nuclear weapons a grave sin and believes the proliferation of such weapons is senseless, destructive and dangerous.”

Khamenei has been perfectly consistent on this issue for many years. Moreover, the tradition of jurisprudential thinking on which he is drawing, which forbids the killing of innocent non-combatants in war, is well known.

Even by the laws of classical Shiism, no such formal ruling by a Shiite clerical leader could legitimately be dissimulation. If you can’t dishonestly so much as drink wine, you certainly couldn’t dishonestly make and blow up an atomic bomb! But in today’s Khomeinist, Shiite-majority Iran, such dissimulation would be not even be considered.

Some argue that the Prophet Muhammad allowed the misleading of the enemy in war. But if he hadn’t, he wouldn’t have been so much as a wise man, much less a prophet. There is a key difference between misleading your enemy and issuing a binding legal ruling to your own community!

So the taqiyya argument is just some weird form of Islamophobia, and policy-makers and analysts can safely disregard it.

17 Responses

  1. Since lying and deception are near physiological traits of our political class, I can understand the skepticism about the integrity of the Iranian pronouncements. If they are telling the truth, what lies are they trying to hide?

  2. Accusing Iran of being liars is quite funny. Where are those “mobile biological labs” and “babies ripped from incubators” again?

  3. “As for taqiyya, or pious dissimulation, it is widely misrepresented by Muslim-haters and does not apply in Khamenei’s case.”

    HOWEVER THAT MAY BE, it appears that lying to the American public is a standard operating procedure of certain “neocons” who learned it as a preferred technique from Prof. Leo Strauss, who advocated use of the so-called Noble Lie in politics.

    So, even if true, why pick SELECTIVELY on Iranians?

  4. To me the mere discussion of the “taqiyaya” without context is racist and conveys a double standard. In the US our beloved leaders refer to proclamations as “campaign promises”, but are rarely suffer such denigration as the analysts provide. Our leaders merely have a “policy recaliibration”.

  5. Your argument about taqiya seems very well reasonsed and I don’t disagree with it.

    I would argue though that Ali Khamenei is no more bound by religious virtue than any other person who claims a false mantle of moral leadership. He is the unelected, unpopular leader of a corrupt regime which only stays in power because it has shown that when millions of its citizens take to the streets it will shoot and beat them.

    So he steals elections, disregarding (or lying) the will of his countrymen, but we are to believe that he is being honest about never ever wanting to pursue nuclear weapons?

    Sorry. He’s a politician and a very ruthless one at that, who will do and say anything to stay in power.

    This is not to say that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons or would ever use them if it had them–that’s a different discussion.

    Just because they’re bad people doesn’t mean we should go to war with them (there are a lot of bad people out there and our actions aren’t always perfect), but please, let’s not deceive ourselves about the gang of brutal murderers that runs Iran and their despicable leader.

  6. Juan,

    Fantastic elucidation of the conept of Taqyia in Shi’a Islam. This idea must be understood in historical context viz., the minority status of Shi’ite Muslims in the past and the persecution they were subjected to by Sunni rulers of the time. Hence, being a pragmatic ideology, Shi’ism permitted the concealing of one’s faith if it were a choice between disclosing it and facing possible death or concealing it and saving your life.

    To the other commentators who pointed out the ‘selective’ demonisation of Shi’ahs by the neocons for their belief in “Taqyia”, well pointed out. Todays statemen practise “realpolitik” every day. Yet they exercise such deception not for the fear of their lives but for the promotion of their interests.

    In the final analysis, they have no right to point their finger at Iran based on a twisted and deformed understanding of “Taqyia”, while they lie to their own people and impact the lives of those all over the world with their deceit and fraud.

  7. Just curious, Does the prohibition on killing innocent non-combatants in war, factor into their use of non-nuclear weapons such as missiles/bombs that also kill non-combatants in a war. Iran has not been in a war since the war with Iraq but I assume there must have been plenty civilian casualties on both sides in that long conflict. I realize that modern warfare has a lot higher human cost and it is impossible to avoid it entirely in an active conflict, but just wondering if this has ever been brought up for non-nuclear weapons as well.

  8. In addition to the other qualifications on situational lying, there is the psychological dimension underlying anythings believability.

    Namely, projection, when the analysts attribute their own lack of integrity and disposition to lie as a given with others. Not that you shouldn’t assume them to be: that really would be naive if not downright suicidal. But it reminds me of a Shawn O’Hannity rant I caught back in 2002/3, when he said to get Osama Bin Laden turned in, all the US had to do is raise the price of the reward. His opinion said more about him being a whore, than the Taliban or those in AQ who operate on a more spiritual level.

    In fact money has been effective in getting information and encouraging betrayal, but there is an essential blind-side we see in the general population and even amongst specialists who should have the background and discipline to transcend their weaknesses.

    These things are more nuanced than even this post presents. How well-educated is any given Ayatollah, and how closely will he adhere to a tradition that I doubt is any more black and white than the New Testament? Even the best informed people, with the most self-knowledge and insight gained through maturity and costly mistakes, carry with them a blind-spot when it comes to seeing what they want/expect to see, and disregarding whatever evidence there is to the contrary.

  9. There is a cottage industry of non-Muslims holding forth on Islamic doctrines. You sometimes see them arguing with actual Muslims, claiming to understand “Islam” better than those who practice it on a daily basis. As if the heart of a religion is what an outsider with no instruction gleans from scripture several hundred years after the fact.

  10. The fact is that during Iran-Iraq war, Saddam was using chemical weapons (supplied to him by US/European companies) against Iranians. Iran never retaliated by using chemical weapons against Iraq forces. Because there again, it was seen as against Islamic values. If they didn’t lie when there were targets of the chemical weapons, they woud not be lying about Nuclear weapons now either.

    Members of P5+1 counties negotiating with Iran on the other hand, have had a history of lies, deception, and not to mention hypocrisy.

  11. An amazingly precise parallel which I have not seen brought up in this context is that of the Jesuits’ “mental reservation” or “mental equivocation” which allowed them to withhold truth for grave purposes such as the saving of life, and which anti-Catholics such as our American Know-Nothings regarded as a license to lie. I wonder if there are others–if religious or ethnic libels can come in families?

  12. Dr. Cole:

    You argue that Iran is essentially looking for the “Japan option”–being able to build a nuclear bomb in a quick timeframe if it is threatened. However, for Israel, that option is not a reality that is willing to accept. Thus, if you are correct, there will be war soon! Israel will never tolerate Iran having such a capability, and by extension the USA will also not allow it

    • The US was once adamantly opposed to an Iranian nuclear program, but now recognizes enrichment as an Iranian fait accompli. The only disagreement is the level of enrichment, but whether its 2, 5 or 20 percent its a win for Iran and a loser for Israel.

      It doesn’t end there. The US and its partners in the P5+1 group not only conceded Iranian enrichment, they have further accepted to engage this issue under the terms of the NPT, not under UNSC decrees and sanctions, a long held Iranian demand and another win.

      Nor does it matter whether these negotiations are heated, long & rocky, or interrupted or postponed, they are perennial occurrences driven by changing regional and geopolitical factors beyond Israel’s control, an unwanted consequence of conspiring with Bushite’s, traitors and fellow travelers in stooging the US into a war in the M/E.

  13. The remark about lying Muslims makes me laugh. We Jews pray every year, on the Day of “atonement” (at-one-ment) in their temples that any vow, promise or contract for the following year is null and void. It’s called the Kol Nidre, just search engine it. It is funny to see these two negotiate!

  14. Actually, Khomeini did use the concept of “taqqiya”. In fact, as a non “Muslim-hater” who experienced what happened during the Revolution, I laughed out loud at your knee-jerk defense of Khomeini. You are know a religious scholar as well a political professor? Yes, taqqiya does exist.

    From wikipedia (emphasis on last few sentences):

    This revolutionary vision of theocratic government was in stark contrast to the quietist Shiism that called for withdrawal from political life, or at least government, until the return of the Mahdi. And needless to say it was in conflict with the hopes and plans of Iran’s democratic secularists and Islamic leftists. At the same time Khomeini knew a broad revolutionary base was necessary and did not hesitate to encourage these forces to unite with his supporters to overthrow the Shah.[20] Consequently, the ideology of the revolution was known for its “imprecision”[21] or “vague character”[22] prior to its victory, with the specific character of velayat-e faqih/theocratic waiting to be made public when the time was right.[23] Khomeini believed the opposition to velayat-e faqih/theocratic government by the other revolutionaries was the result of propaganda campaign by foreign imperialists eager to prevent Islam from putting a stop to their plundering. This propaganda was so insidious it had penetrated even Islamic seminaries and made it necessary to “observe the principles of taqiyya” (i.e. dissimulation of the truth in defense of Islam), when talking about (or not talking about) Islamic government. [24][25]

    link to en.wikipedia.org

    • thanks for quoting wikipedia to me

      I think if you look into it you’ll find that Khomeini decided taqiyya is unnecessary once the Islamic Republic was established.

      When you have studied the subject for 40 years, then you can use the word knee jerk about me

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