Secret Muslims

Are Muslims allowed to hide their faith?

Barack Obama

According to a poll published in March, one in 10 registered voters believes that Barack Obama is a Muslim. He’s not—the presumptive Democratic nominee for president is a Christian —but this rumor got the Explainer wondering whether there’s a history of Muslims who deny their faith publicly while maintaining it privately. Are Muslims allowed to pass?

Yes, if you’re a Shiite; maybe, if you’re a Sunni. According to Chapter 16, Verse 106 of the Quran, “Any one who, after accepting faith in Allah, utters Unbelief—except under compulsion, his heart remaining firm in Faith—but such as open their breast to Unbelief, on them is Wrath from Allah, and theirs will be a dreadful Penalty.” Shiites cite this verse to justify taqiyya, a religious dispensation by which persecuted Muslims may hide their beliefs. But Sunni scholars have a more equivocal take. Some reject taqiyya as unacceptable hypocrisy and evidence of cowardice: Muslims shouldn’t fear other humans, only Allah. Others argue that concealment is warranted under life-threatening circumstances.

The difference in interpretation may have to do with the historical relationship between the two Islamic sects. Since Shiites make up just 15 percent of the global Muslim population, they have sometimes faced persecution as a minority group. (Sunnis are the minority in certain countries, including Iran and Azerbaijan.) As a result, Shiite leaders have for centuries allowed followers to dissimulate publicly rather than face discrimination.

Some Muslims would argue that it’s better to run away than hide your faith, citing Chapter 4, Verse 97 of the Quran: “Those whose lives are terminated by the angels, while in a state of wronging their souls, the angels will ask them, ‘What was the matter with you?’ They will say, ‘We were oppressed on earth.’ They will say, ‘Was God’s earth not spacious enough for you to emigrate therein?’ For these, the final abode is Hell, and a miserable destiny.” According to one interpretation of this verse, those who can’t practice Islam freely and publicly should simply move to a more hospitable country.

Outside the Islamic world, there are two major historical examples of Muslims practicing taqiyya. During the 16th century, Catholic authorities in Spain gave the local (predominantly Sunni) Muslim population an ultimatum: Convert or leave the country. Some of the converts (called Moriscos by the Spanish) became sincere Catholics while others perpetuated their faith in private. Crypto-Muslims attended church services on Sundays but used Aljamiado—an Arabic alphabet for transcribing Romance languages—to secretly pass down Islamic traditions. In antebellum America, slaves from West Africa, many of whom were Muslim, were forced to convert to Christianity. As in medieval Spain, some slaves converted sincerely while others maintained their religion in secret.

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Explainer thanks Edward E. Curtis IV of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis,Frederick Denny of the University of Colorado, Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad of Georgetown University, Muqtedar Khan of the University of Delaware, and Maria Rosa Menocal of Yale University.