Today, in a time of wars and rumors of wars emanating from the Islamic world — from the current conflict in Gaza, to the saber-rattling of nuclear-armed Pakistan and soon-to-be Iran — the need for non-Muslims to better understand Islam's doctrines and objectives concerning war and peace, and everything in between (treaties, diplomacy), has become pressing. For instance, what does one make of the fact that, after openly and vociferously making it clear time and time again that its ultimate aspiration is to see Israel annihilated, Hamas also pursues "peace treaties," including various forms of concessions from Israel — and more puzzling, receives them?
Before being in a position to answer such questions, one must first appreciate the thoroughly legalistic nature of mainstream (Sunni) Islam. Amazingly, for all the talk that Islam is constantly being "misunderstood" or "misinterpreted" by "radicals," the fact is, as opposed to most other religions, Islam is a clearly defined faith admitting of no ambiguity: indeed, according to Sharia (i.e., "Islam's way of life," more commonly translated as "Islamic law") every conceivable human act is categorized as being either forbidden, discouraged, permissible, recommended, or obligatory. "Common sense" or "universal opinion" has little to do with Islam's notions of right and wrong. All that matters is what Allah (via the Koran) and his prophet Muhammad (through the hadith) have to say about any given subject, and how Islam's greatest theologians and jurists — collectively known as the ulema, literally, the "ones who know" — have articulated it.
Consider the concept of lying. According to Sharia, deception is not only permitted in certain situations but is sometimes deemed obligatory. For instance, and quite contrary to early Christian tradition, not only are Muslims who must choose between either recanting Islam or being put to death permitted to lie by pretending to have apostatized; many jurists have decreed that, according to Koran 4:29, Muslims are obligated to lie.
The doctrine of taqiyya
Much of this revolves around the pivotal doctrine of taqiyya, which is often euphemized as "religious dissembling," though in reality simply connotes "Muslim deception vis-à-vis infidels." According to the authoritative Arabic text Al-Taqiyya fi Al-Islam, "Taqiyya [deception] is of fundamental importance in Islam. Practically every Islamic sect agrees to it and practices it. We can go so far as to say that the practice of taqiyya is mainstream in Islam, and that those few sects not practicing it diverge from the mainstream. … Taqiyya is very prevalent in Islamic politics, especially in the modern era [p. 7; my own translation]."
Some erroneously believe that taqiyya is an exclusively Shia doctrine: as a minority group interspersed among their traditional enemies, the much more numerous Sunnis, Shias have historically had more "reason" to dissemble. Ironically, however, Sunnis living in the West today find themselves in a similar situation, as they are now the minority surrounded by their historic enemies — Christian infidels.