Tawriya: Islamic Doctrine of ‘Creative Lying’


Perhaps you have heard of taqiyya, the Muslim doctrine that allows lying in certain circumstances, primarily when Muslim minorities live under infidel authority.  Now meet tawriya, a doctrine that allows lying in virtually all circumstances—including to fellow Muslims and by swearing to Allah—provided the liar is creative enough to articulate his deceit in a way that is true to him. (Though tawriya is technically not “new”—as shall be seen, it has been part of Islamic law and tradition for centuries—it is certainly new to most non-Muslims, hence the need for this exposition and the word “new” in the title.)

The authoritative Hans Wehr Arabic-English Dictionary defines tawriya as, “hiding, concealment; dissemblance, dissimulation, hypocrisy; equivocation, ambiguity, double-entendre, allusion.”  Conjugates of the trilateral root of the word, w-r-y, appear in the Quran in the context of hiding or concealing something (e.g., 5:31, 7:26). 
As a doctrine, “double-entendre” best describes tawriya’s function.  According to past and present Muslim scholars (several documented below), tawriya is when a speaker says something that means one thing to the listener, though the speaker means something else, and his words technically support this alternate meaning.
For example, if someone declares “I don’t have a penny in my pocket,” most listeners will assume the speaker has no money on him—though he might have dollar bills, just literally no pennies. Likewise, say a friend asks you, “Do you know where Mike is?” You do, but prefer not to divulge.  So you say “No, I don’t know”—but you keep in mind another Mike, whose whereabouts you really do not know.
All these are legitimate according to Sharia law and do not constitute “lying,” which is otherwise forbidden in Islam, except in three cases: lying in war, lying to one’s spouse, and lying in order to reconcile people.  For these, Sharia permits Muslims to lie freely, without the strictures of tawriya, that is, without the need for creativity.
As for all other instances, in the words of Sheikh Muhammad Salih al-Munajid (based on scholarly consensus): “Tawriya is permissible under two conditions: 1) that the words used fit the hidden meaning; 2) that it does not lead to an injustice” (“injustice” as defined by Sharia, of course, not Western standards).  Otherwise, it is permissible even for a Muslim to swear when lying through tawriya.  Munajid, for example, cites a man who swears to Allah that he can only sleep under a roof (saqf); when the man is caught sleeping atop a roof, he exonerates himself by saying “by roof, I meant the open sky.” This is legitimate.  “After all,” Munajid adds, “Quran 21:32 refers to the sky as a roof [saqf].”
Here is a recent example of tawriya in action: Because it is a “great sin” for Muslims to acknowledge Christmas, this sheikh counsels Muslims to tell Christians, “I wish you the best,” whereby the latter might “understand it to mean you’re wishing them best in terms of their [Christmas] celebration.” But—here the wily sheikh giggles as he explains—“by saying I wish you the best, you mean in your heart I wish you become a Muslim.”
As with most Muslim practices, tawriya is traced to Islam’s prophet.  After insisting Muslims “need” tawriya because it “saves them from lying,” and thus sinning, Sheikh Uthman al-Khamis  adds that Muhammad often used it.  Indeed, Muhammad is recorded saying “Allah has commanded me to equivocate among the people inasmuch as he has commanded me to establish [religious] obligations”; and “I have been sent with obfuscation”; and “whoever lives his life in dissimulation dies a martyr” (Sami Mukaram, Al Taqiyya Fi Al Islam, London: Mu’assisat al-Turath al-Druzi, 2004, p. 30). 
More specifically, in a canonical hadith, Muhammad said: “If any of you ever pass gas or soil yourselves during prayers [breaking wudu], hold your nose and leave” (Sunan Abu Dawud):  Holding one’s nose and leaving implies smelling something offensive—which is true—though people will think it was someone else who committed the offense.
Following their prophet’s example, many leading Muslim figures have used tawriya, such as Imam Ahmed bin Hanbal, founder of one of Islam’s four schools of law, practiced in Saudi Arabia.  Once when he was conducting class, someone came knocking, asking for one of his students.  Imam Ahmed answered, “He’s not here, what would he be doing here?”—all the time pointing at his hand, as if to say “he’s not in my hand.” The caller, who could not see Ahmed, assumed the student was simply not there.
Also, Sufyan al-Thawri, another important Muslim thinker, was once brought to Caliph Mahdi who refused to let him leave, until Thawri swore to return.  As he was going out, Thawri left his sandals by the door.  After a while, he returned, took his sandals and left for good. When the caliph asked about him, he was told that, yes, Thawri had sworn to come back—and, indeed, he had come back: only to take his sandals and leave.
Lest it seem tawriya is limited to a few colorful anecdotes more befitting the Arabian Nights than the religious law (Sharia) of a billion people, here are some more modern Muslim authorities—Sheikh Muhammad Hassan, the famous cleric who says Islam forbids Muslims from smiling to infidels, except when advantageous, and Dr. Abdullah Shakir—justifying it. They both give the example of someone knocking on your door, you do not wish to see them, so a relative answers the door saying, “He’s not here,” and by “here” they mean the immediate room, which is true, since you will be hiding in another room. 
Likewise, on the popular Islam Web, where Muslims submit questions and Islamic authorities respond with a fatwa, a girl poses her moral dilemma: her father has explicitly told her that, whenever the phone rings, she is to answer saying “he’s not here.”  The fatwa solves her problem: she is free to lie, but when she says “he’s not here,” she must mean he is not in the same room, or not directly in front of her.
Of course, while all the sheikhs give examples that are innocuous and amount to “white” lies, tawriya can clearly be used to commit terrible, “black” lies, especially where the adversarial non-Muslim infidel is concerned. As Sheikh al-Munajid puts it: “Tawriya is permissible if it is necessary or serves a Sharia interest.” Consider the countless “Sharia interests” that run directly counter to Western civilization and law, from empowering Islam to subjugating infidels.  To realize these, Muslims, through tawriya, are given a blank check to lie—a check that surely comes in handy; not just in trivial occasions, like avoiding unwanted callers, but momentous ones, such as at high-level diplomatic meetings where major treaties are forged.
Note: The purpose of this essay was to document and describe the doctrine of tawriya.  Future writings will analyze its full significance—from what it means for a Muslim to believe the Supreme Being advocates such lying, to how tawriya is liable to suppress one’s conscience to the point of passing a lie detector test—as well as compare and contrast it with the practices of other religions, and more.