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Often translated as "dissimulation," the word taqiyya is etymologically linked to piety and devotion. In Twelver Shi˓ite thought it has come to refer to the tactic employed by the imams (and recommended to the Shi˓ites) of hiding one's beliefs when faced with oppression. Normally, a Muslim is expected to declare his belief, so to deny it is a grave sin (kabira). However, according to tradition, the Shi˓ite imams were faced with oppression from the Sunni majority, and in order to preserve the well-being of both their followers and themselves, they dissimulated. Outwardly they would conform to Sunni belief and practice; inwardly they would remain Shi˓ite. When the Abbasid caliph al-Mansur embarked on a campaign against the supporters of the sixth imam, Ja˓far, the imam is said to have encouraged the Shi˓a to dissimulate in order to save themselves. The doctrine was based upon a certain interpretation of the Qur˒anic verse 16:106, where the wrath of God is said to await the apostate "except those who are compelled while their hearts are firm in faith." This exceptive clause is interpreted in Shi˓ite Qur˒anic commentaries as referring to "those who are forced to practice taqiyya."

Taqiyya, within the Shi˓ite tradition, can be seen as a balance to shahada—the willingness to expose oneself to danger in the cause of truth. While Imam Ja˓far recommended taqiyya, the example of Imam Husayn seems to encourage self-sacrifice in the face of oppression. Shi˓ite theologians and jurists have debated long and hard about when one should be willing to face martyrdom, and when one may resort to taqiyya. There has not emerged a unanimous orthodox position or teaching on this point, though the factors to be considered include the magnitude of the evil perpetrated by the oppressor and the estimated risk to oneself, one's family, and the community of believers. The different tactics have been employed at different times in Shi˓ite history. The Shi˓a in the Ottoman empire, living under Sunni rule, were encouraged by some Shi˓ite ulema to perform taqiyya. At the beginning of the revolutionary movement in modern Iran, on the other hand, martyrdom was seen as a virtue, and taqiyya was discouraged by some ulema.

In Shi˓ite law, taqiyya was employed as an explanation of why at times the reports from the imams contradict each other. The occurrence of contradictions was explained by designating one of the reports (hadiths or khabars) as being generated by "taqiyya." While for most jurists and hadith scholars, reports were evaluated on the basis of the chain of authorities, taqiyya served as an alternative means of rejecting a report as inauthentic (or rather, as an inauthentic source of law). This, in turn, gave rise to extensive debates about how to recognize a taqiyya report, and whether one receives punishment in the hereafter if one follows one, and thereby transgresses the law. Among the means of recognizing a taqiyya report was a direct comparison with Sunni doctrine. If one of the contradictory reports agreed with Sunni doctrine, then it was clearly a taqiyya report. The imam was obviously agreeing with the Sunnis to avoid persecution of himself or his community.

See alsoShi˓a: Imami (Twelver) .


Gleave, Robert. "Silence, Obscurity and Contradiction in Revelation." In Inevitable Doubt. Edited by Robert Gleave. Leiden: E. J.Brill, 2000.

Kohlberg, Etan. "Some Imami-Shi˓a Views on Taqiyya." Journal of the American Oriental Society 95 (1975): 395–402.

Robert Gleave