Taqiyya, Imam Madhi, and the Iran deal
Following news of the nuclear deal with the United States, Iranians celebrated in the streets over what they viewed as a national victory. The victory’s significance was especially heightened as it took place during the most holy Muslim month of Ramadan. The celebration was marked by the relief they felt from three decades of isolation…
Following news of the nuclear deal with the United States, Iranians celebrated in the streets over what they viewed as a national victory. The victory’s significance was especially heightened as it took place during the most holy Muslim month of Ramadan. The celebration was marked by the relief they felt from three decades of isolation due to U.S. sanctions which began in 1987, followed by those of the U.N. and European Union which started in 2006. This deal would strengthen Iran’s economy and surely support them as a Shiite power in their long-known combat with their surrounding Sunni counterparts.
Beyond Iran, the world is divided: some rejoice, some have concerns, and others are absolutely horrified. Saudi Arabia, the famous Sunni nation, welcomed the deal “cautiously,” which reflects the unease between the two Muslim major powers in the region. While the U.S. and its five allies approached the 18-day negotiation primarily with strategic political concerns, the Islamic Republic of Iran came not only with its political aims but also with goals embedded in its Shiite ideology. While American leaders are convinced that this deal is their country’s “best means of assuring that Iran does not get a nuclear weapon,” I as a Middle Eastern observer view this nuclear deal with Iran as a misstep, as it does not account for a very important dimension of the Iranian perspective. The deal naively ignores serious ideological Muslim Shiite beliefs. Here are only two such undercurrents which have likely played an important role in these talks.
First, in Shiite Islam, the official religion in Iran, there is an Islamic principle known as taqiyya. This term refers to the concealment of beliefs, or pretending what opposes the inner thoughts or convictions. Taqiyya is a form of religious and lawful tactical deception, or a form of a legitimate ideological lie. According to the Quran (16:106) and its various Shiite interpretations, taqiyya is an acceptable religious tenet that encourages hiding or suppressing the truth, or what one really believes, to escape dangerous situations and avoid consequences of severe risk or great pressure. Appealing to taqiyya, a Shiite Muslim man can even deny his faith or claim various blasphemies to escape religious or political persecution. This religious conviction emerged and was highly supported during the time when the Shiite Muslims lived under the hostile Sunni majority. Since the Iranian regime has intertwined its political and religious power, there is no legal or religious reason to believe that taqiyya could not be applied today. Taqiyya is a principle of survival among the Shiite — a man must keep his beliefs secret, and pretend to agree with his rivals and their views, to avoid undesired results.
For Iran, this deal is not about being a “good citizen of the world” or a desire to participate in international society — it is a matter of survival, power consolidation, and economic and militaristic strategic advancement of Allah’s people. To that end, what would prevent Iran from cheating? They can even apply a legitimate religious principle to justify it as they aim to avoid hardships and afflictions. In their own ideological perspective, they are not cheating — they are actually advancing the Islamic cause. Certainly, the majority would not expect any international deal to actually take into account or mention taqiyya; considering it, however, when you are dealing with a rival that uses and wholeheartedly believes in it would definitely change the terms of your deal.
President Barack Obama acknowledges that we cannot trust Iran and emphasizes the ability to “verify” their compliance, reassuring Sunni Muslims like Saudi Arabia that there are still “deep disagreements” with Iran. However, the deal leaves room for the kind of concealment from one’s rival permissible under the taqiyya Shiite principle. For instance, this deal obliges the international community to request Iran’s permission to inspect its nuclear activities. It requires stringent inspection permission to see a presumably “peaceful” program. Moreover, it allows Iran two complete weeks to grant or dismiss this permission. If it is not granted, the other party has 10 days to respond. This grants the Islamic nation more than three weeks to rearrange the house. While some experts affirm that even a month would not be enough for Iran to conceal the pieces of evidence of any illegal activity, this does not seem to be the rigorous “verification” one would like to see when dealing with another party who views concealment the truth and deceiving enemies as a sacred virtue.
Some Americans may view this deal as a step towards “preventing the most serious threat of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon.” But this step is seriously undermined if we consider the Iranian dream for power and its political interest in the region, in addition to the significant religious layer of taqiyya that could allow the largest Shiite nation to conceal truth to accomplish their, and in their perspective Allah’s, crucial interests.
Second, while Sunnis tend to look back to the golden days of Muhammad, his companions and the Rightly Guided Caliphs, Shiite Muslims look forward to the future, to the days when the hidden Imam Mahdi (the Shiite Messiah) will appear as the savior of Islam, and “will gain victory over the whole east and west of the world.” He will rule for a debated number of years, wage war against the infidels, and then the end will come. Most Shiites today believe that Imam Mahdi is already alive, as he was born in the middle of the third century of Islam in the city of Samarra, and has been alive since then but is currently hidden through the so-called “second heavenly concealment.” His reappearance is linked with strong resurgence of Shiite Islam and victorious Muslim community.
If taqiyya relates to present days, the advent of the Imam Mahdi is a religious conviction that is eschatological and apocalyptic. Taqiyya is a principle that comforts the lives of many “oppressed Shiites” as they await the victory that is sure to come with the advent of the new reign of Imam Mahdi. For him to appear, Iranians believe they must be prepared. A significant part of this preparation is building a strong country. His advent is not a simple naive myth among many Iranians; it is real and vivid. They are willing and ready to use every chance to end the persecuting sanctions that pulverized their country, and to be ready for the reappearance of the hidden Imam. They approach this nuclear deal, as a part of a broader scene, with a crucial ideological layer that equally drives their political terms. To that end, Iran can affirm whatever the U.S. and its five allies want to hear, supported by its ideological beliefs and eschatological expectations. When an opportunity arises to break the treaty to Iran’s advantage, deal or no deal, every option is still on the Iranian table.
Ayman Ibrahim is assistant professor of Islamic studies and senior fellow for the Jenkins Center for the Christian Understanding of Islam at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. A native of Cairo, Egypt, Ibrahim earned his Ph.D. with an emphasis in Islamic studies from Fuller Theological Seminary.