Comparing Sunni-Shia Taqqiya

8 min readMar 1, 2021

This work seeks to establish that the Iranian state regularly practices taqiyya in order to export the Shiite Revolution all over the Muslim world. The use of taqiyya or lying as a political strategy is not something unique to the Iranian state. Indeed, virtually all states have utilized one form of deception or another in order to advance state interests. What is unique about the Iran state post-Shiite Revolution, however, is that it concealed their religious practices to have better relations with Sunni governments, as well as to garner favor with Sunni populaces around the world. This form of taqiyya was only employed the level due to Khomeini’s vision of pan-Islamism, and of attempting to “export the Iranian revolution” to the Muslim world. It is important to note that both Sunnis and Shiites view taqiyya as being a valid religious practice. Shiite apologists argue that taqiyya is practiced by both Sunnis and Shi’a, and as such, argue that taqiyya is regularly practiced by both religious denominations. As such, they would reason that it would be unfair to ascribe the practice of taqiyya to be unique to the Shiite denomination.

However, such apologists would be going against the leading Shiite ulema, ulema translating to scholars or “learned ones”. Khomeini in page 2 of al-Rasa’il states “taqiyya is wajib (obligatory) with those who differ with us — Ahlul Sunnah — even if there is no fear on oneself or someone else’s.” Al-Shirazi states in page 1 of al-Qawai’d al-Fiqhiyah “the purpose of taqiyya is not limited to preserve one’s self and to repel harm and danger from the self and the family and the wealth.” Shaykh al-Saduq al-Qummi in page 114 of al-I’tiqadat states “our belief regarding taqiyya is that it is obligatory. He who leaves it is like he who leaves praying, and it’s impermissible to dismiss it until the Mahdi rises, he who leaves it before al-Mahdi rises has left the religion of Allah and the religion of the Imami Shiite and has disobeyed Allah and the Prophet and the Imams”. Shiite narrations of the Prophet PBUH state that “he who leaves taqiyya is like he who leaves prayer”. The Shiite have also narrated from their Imams is that “he who leaves taqiyya is a kafir” (kafir roughly translated to infidel or unbeliever). There are many such instances of Shiite ulema speaking about the virtues of taqiyya¸ and how it is a noble practise as well as an act of worship.

By contrast, the leading Sunni scholars have stated that that taqiyya is only permissible when a Muslim is faced with great harm, but it is better to tell the truth and face the harm for the sake of Allah. This the consensus within the Sunni Islamic jurisprudential tradition. Imam Al-Qurtubi, a leading Sunni jurist, states “taqiyya is not permissible except if one fears death, or being cut up (into pieces), or great harm”. A table has adapted from the Department of Islamic Law in Dar Al-Qisam in order to summarize and highlight the differences between Sunni and Shiite views on taqiyya. It should be noted that the table may not necessarily reflect the views of Shiite laymen. Rather, it reflects the views of the vast majority of Twelver Shiite scholars and statesmen.

Table 1: A table highlighting the differences between Sunni and Shiite taqiyya

The permissibility of taqiyya in Twelver Shiite doctrine has heavy implications for the permissibility of lying for state interests, especially by clergymen. While it is reasonable to posit that all clergymen of all religions are sometimes used to advance state interests, it is unreasonable to posit that the religious doctrines which these clergymen live by have no effect on the utilization of the aforementioned clergymen to advance state interests. Indeed, the secular orientalist conceptualization of all religions being virtually the same in both the private and public sphere, especially non-Christian ones, severely limits the level of analysis done at an academic level.

Pan-Islamism is an idea that is unique to Khomeini, and the pan-Islamist ideology is only possible by hiding Shiite religious rituals from their Sunni counterparts.

It should be noted that while Pan-Islamism is also found in some of the works of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, such as the works of Sayed Qutub. However, the pan-Islamism pushed by some strands of the Muslim Brotherhood is much different from the pan-Islamism pushed by Khomeini as to be wholly different ideologies. Moreover, the Muslim Brotherhood does not govern a state as the Shiite Revolution of Iran does, and so cannot be used as a comparison. In fact, the only member of the Muslim Brotherhood who has governed a state, Mohammad Morsi, praised the three sahaba, or companions of the Prophet Muhammad PBUH, most hated by the Shiite: Abu Bakr RA, Omar RA, and Uthman RA in the Islamic unity conference based in Tehran. Conversely, Ayatollah Alavi said in a Farsi lecture to a Twelver-Shiite audience “in the daily prayers six times loudly and four times quietly — about ten times, it is obligatory upon every Muslim to say Ali is the Wali, and Omar, Abu Bakr, Uthman etc are not — may Allah curse them”. The pan-Islamism of the Muslim Brotherhood can be better understood as pan-Sunnism, rather than pan-Islamism which Khomeini preached.

Khomeini has made numerous calls for pan-Islamist unity around the globe on Iranian state TV:

“Muslims should be awake, Muslims should be alert that if a dispute takes place among Sunni and Shiite brothers, it is harmful to all of us. It is harmful to all Muslims. Those who want to sow discord are neither Sunni nor Shiite, they are agents of the superpowers and work for them.”

Khomeini also said in a different appearance on Iranian State TV: “Shiite and Sunni brothers should avoid every king of dispute. Today, discord among us will only benefit those who follow neither Shiite nor Hanafi. They neither want this or that to exist and know the way to sow dispute between you and us.” His books demonstrate an entirely different mentality. In page 1 of Al-Makasib Al-Muharramah ­he writes “the rest (of Muslims) are not our brothers even if they are (called) Muslims.” In page 250 of the same work he writes “there is no brotherhood between us [the Shi’a] and them [the Sunnis], after it was made obligatory to disown them and their sect and their leaders as the narrations and usool [meaning fundamentals] stated.” There are many similar statements disparaging Sunnis in his book Kashf Al-Asrar.

Perhaps the most egregious example of the doublespeak done by the Iranian state in terms of Sunni religious doctrine can be seen in Ayatollah Khamenei’s fatwa that “cursing religious figures revered in the Sunni orthodoxy is haram [meaning forbidden]”. However, if such a fatwa were to be actually applied then Khomeini’s books would be banned. In Volume 3 and page 457 of Kitab Al-Tahara Khomeini states “Aisha, Zubair, Talha, Mu’aaaya and their likes… are more impure than dogs and pigs.” Khamenei’s fatwa should be understood as a form of taqiyya, and a political strategy to attempt to appease Sunnis, rather than what Twelver Shiite clergymen actually believe. Indeed, a popular Shiite cleric who regularly appears on Iranian State TV, Shaykh Mahdi Daneshmand, has stated that “every Sunni is a bastard.” Shaykh Mohammad Tehrani, another Shiite cleric, has stated “cursing Sunni revered figures is the foundation of the Shiite religion”.

These differences in doctrine, however, have their historical causes. Perhaps the biggest difference between Sunni and Shiite interpretations, and their recognition of authentic texts, is the importance of isnad chains. Isnad can be roughly translated to a series of transmissions. It is a historiographic methodology of verifying the authenticity of hadith, the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad PBUH. This science started within the Sunni tradition, but was later exported to the Shiite Twelver tradition. However, because the Twelver-Shiite make takfir [excommunication] of all of the sahaba except for three, the vast majority of authenticated hadith chains within the Sunni tradition are unavailable to them. The hadith science of the Twelver-Shiite has no methodology for classifying hadiths as being authentic or inauthentic. Many hadiths classified as sahih or authentic within the Shiite tradition have breaks in transmission, sometimes hundreds of years, and even have animals such as donkeys who narrate hadiths.

What this means, essentially, is that the method for classifying hadiths as authentic or inauthentic is almost entirely arbitrary. It is through this method through which the Shiite tradition, compared to the Sunni one, is entirely more in-line with modern sentiments, and can be molded in order to suit the desires of modern society. For example, there are many hadiths which prohibit the mu’tah marriage, literally translated to “fun marriage”, meaning temporary marriage. The allowance of mu’tah marriages in the Sunni tradition was for three days for a very specific group of people. In the same vein, Khomeini issued a fatwa asserting that transgenderism is permissible in Islam, despite the many hadiths speaking out against attempting to change one’s gender. While some analysts would justify the rejection of the Sunni-authenticated hadiths by Shiite scholars as being academically consistent, it is not so. To reject Sunni-authenticated hadiths would be to reject the authenticity of the Qur’an, which was also authenticated by Sunnis through a Sunni methodology. The Qur’an was transmitted by the sahaba which the Twelver-Shiite deem as apostates.

In any case, it is evident from the data presented that Sunni Islam is viewed as an obstacle in exporting the Iranian Revolution. The daughter of Akbar Rafsanjani, President of Iran 1989–1997, states in a TV interview:

“We don’t allow there to be a single Sunni mosque in Tehran. In Tehran, we don’t allow there to be a single Sunni school principal. We don’t have a single Sunni military commander. Islamic Republic is unsuccessful, I believe that it has ruined Islam.”

This discrimination against Sunnism is part of Khomeini’s ideology and the Shiite Revolution’s agenda. They view Sunnism as being an obstacle to exporting the Iranian Revolution across the Muslim world. It is evident from their theological works as well as their discriminatory practices against Sunnis at a state-level that Islamic unity is a ploy in order to advance Iranian ideological interests. By attempting to present a tolerant Shiite front to the Sunni masses, while cursing the Sunnis in their theological works, the Shiite Revolutionaries are attempting to spread Shiitism through taqiyya and their proclaimed belief in pan-Islamism. The differences between Sunni and Shiite faith are too deep to be reconciled under one banner. Indeed, the call for unity between Sunnis and Shiites is almost exclusively done by Shiite clergymen. This is because the Shiite orthodoxy allows for a much more liberal use of taqiyya and compromising fundamental beliefs in order to advance sociopolitical and economic interests. The Shiite Revolution has utilized the liberal application of taqiyya in order to achieve Khomeini’s pan-Islamist vision and increase their influence over the Muslim world. Khomeini best describes his taqiyya in Volume 2 page 174 as “the act of making those who differ with us, ahlul Sunnah, love us and lure them by friendliness in a situation where there is no fear of harm or damage to the Shiite, unlike the taqiyya of fear.”