One of the most misunderstood aspects of Shi’ism is the practice of dissimulation or taqiyyah. With the wider meaning of taqiyyah, “to avoid or shun any kind of danger,” we are not concerned here. Rather, our aim is to discuss that kind of taqiyyah in which a man hides his religion or certain of his religious practices in situations that would cause definite or probable danger as a result of the actions of those who are opposed to his religion or particular religious practices.
Among followers of the different schools of Islam, Shi’ites are well known for their practice of taqiyyah. In case of danger, they dissimulate their religion and hide their particular religious and ritual practices from their opponents.
The sources upon which the Shi’ites base themselves in this question include the following verse of the Holy Qur’an: “Let not the believers take disbelievers for their friends in preference to believers. Whoso doeth that hath no connection with Allah unless (it be) that ye but guard yourselves against them [tattaqu minhum, from the same root as taqiyyah], taking (as it were) security [tuq?tan, again from the same root as taqiyyah]. Allah biddeth you beware (only) of Himself. Unto Allah is the journeying” (Qur’an, III, 28). As is clear from this sacred verse, God, the Most Exalted, forbids with the utmost emphasis wilayah (meaning in this case friendship and amity to the extent that it affects one’s life) with unbelievers and orders man to be wary and have fear in such a situation.
In another place He says, “Whoso disbelieveth in Allah after his belief—save him who is forced thereto and whose heart is still content with Faith—but whoso findeth ease in disbelief: On them is wrath from Allah. Theirs will be an awful doom” (Qur’an, XVI, 106). As mentioned in both Sunni and Shiite sources, this verse was revealed concerning ‘Ammar ibn Yasir. After the migration (hijrah) of the Prophet, the infidels of Mecca imprisoned some of the Muslims of that city and tortured them, forcing them to leave Islam and to return to their former religion of idolatry. Included in this group who were tortured were ‘Ammar and his father and mother. ‘Ammar’s parents refused to turn away from Islam and died under torture. But ‘Ammar, in order to escape torture and death, outwardly left Islam and accepted idol-worship, thereby escaping from danger. Having become free, he left Mecca secretly for Medina. In Medina, he went before the Holy Prophet—upon whom be blessings and peace—and in a state of penitence and distress concerning what he had done asked the Prophet if by acting as he did he had fallen outside the sacred precinct of religion. The Prophet said that his duty was what he had accomplished. The above verse was then revealed.
The two verses cited above were revealed concerning particular cases but their meaning is such that they embrace all situations in which the outward expression of doctrinal belief and religious practice might bring about a dangerous situation. Besides these verses, there exist many traditions from the members of the Household of the Prophet ordering taqiyyah when there is fear of danger.
Some have criticised Shi’ism by saying that to employ the practice of taqiyyah in religion is opposed to the virtues of courage and bravery. The least amount of thought about this accusation will bring to light its invalidity, for taqiyyah must be practiced in a situation where man faces a danger which he cannot resist and against which he cannot fight. Resistance to such a danger and failure to practice taqiyyah in such circumstances shows rashness and foolhardiness, not courage and bravery. The qualities of courage and bravery can be applied only when there is at least the possibility of success in man’s efforts. But before a definite or probable danger against which there is no possibility of victory—such as drinking water in which there is probably poison or throwing oneself before a cannon that is being fired or lying down on the tracks before an onrushing train—any action of this kind is nothing but a form of madness contrary to logic and common sense. Therefore, we can summarize by saying that taqiyyah must be practiced only when there is a definite danger which cannot be avoided and against which there is no hope of a successful struggle and victory.
The exact extent of danger which would make permissible the practice of taqiyyah has been debated among different mujtahids of Shi ism. In our view, the practice of taqiyyah is permitted if there is definite danger facing one’s own life or the life of one’s family, or the possibility of the loss of the honor and virtue of one’s wife or of other female members of the family, or the danger of the loss of one’s material belongings to such an extent as to cause complete destitution and prevent a man from being able to continue to support himself and his family. In any case, prudence and the avoidance of definite or probable danger which cannot be averted is a general law of logic accepted by all people and applied by men in all the different phases of their lives.
Adapted from: “Shi’ah” by: “Allamah Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Tabataba’i”