Thursday, April 10, 2008

Do not kill . . . yourselves? . . . one another? . . . your people?

The Inestimable Qur'an
(Image from Wikipedia)

In yesterday's post, I quoted Quintan Wiktorowicz's remark stating that "Islam explicitly prohibits suicide" (Wiktorowicz, "A Genealogy of Radical Islam," (Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 28:75-97, 2005), page 93).

Although Wiktorowicz supplied no quotes from the Qur'an or the hadith, I had no reason to doubt the accuracy of his remark, for I've read this sort of statement before. Still, I like to know for sure, so I asked readers to direct me to original sources . . . in English translation, of course. An old friend from my hometown, Jeanie Oliver -- daughter of my old math teacher and surveyor extraordinaire, "the Magnanimous Mr. Jim Scott" -- supplied the directions:
There is only one verse in the Koran that contains a phrase related to suicide: "O you who believe! Do not consume your wealth in the wrong way -- rather through trade mutually agreed to, and do not kill yourselves. Surely God is Merciful toward you." (4:29)
Everything, however, depends on translation of the original Arabic and I had -- after posting my entry -- uncovered an ambiguity:
Thanks, Jeanie. I happened across that one myself after posting this entry. I may blog on it tomorrow, for there's apparently a grammatical ambiguity that jihadis use to their advantage.

But the hadith ought to settle the issue...
I haven't yet come across the hadith against suicide, although I'm assuming that such hadith exist, but I did look into the Qur'anic ambiguity far enough to discover that three different translators have rendered the the expression in Qur'an 4:29 quite differently:
Yusuf Ali: O ye who believe! Eat not up your property among yourselves in vanities: But let there be amongst you Traffic and trade by mutual good-will: Nor kill (or destroy) yourselves: for verily Allah hath been to you Most Merciful!

Pickthal: O ye who believe! Squander not your wealth among yourselves in vanity, except it be a trade by mutual consent, and kill not one another. Lo! Allah is ever Merciful unto you.

Shakir: O you who believe! do not devour your property among yourselves falsely, except that it be trading by your mutual consent; and do not kill your people; surely Allah is Merciful to you.
These variant translations from the "An-Nisa (Women)" sura of the Qur'an can be found online at the USC Muslim Students' Association website, hosted by the University of Southern California.

I don't know Arabic, unfortunately, but I take it that the ambiguity lies in whether to read the verbal expression as Yusuf Ali's reflexive, Pickthal's reciprocal, or Shakir's transitive. This ambiguity would seem to allow the jihadis some hermeneutic space within which to elaborate a defense of what they call "martyrdom operations" and what we call "suicide bombings."

That still seems odd, however, for most jihadis these days are Sunni Salafis, who usually take as an indisputable point the view that innovation (bid'ah) is utterly forbidden (haram) -- and suicide bombings are surely a radical innovation.

But I suppose that the tactic is useful enough for even Salafis to agree that a little bid'ah never hurt anybody . . . at least, not anybody who matters.

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At 8:27 AM, Blogger jeanie oliver said...

"Martyrdom vs. Suicide
But, some object, doesn't Islam forbid suicide? How can being a suicide bomber be considered Islamic?

Let's look at the basis in the Qur'an for the prohibition against suicide:

O ye who believe! Eat not up your property among yourselves in vanities: But let there be amongst you Traffic and trade by mutual good-will: Nor kill (or destroy) yourselves: for verily Allah hath been to you Most Merciful! If any do that in rancour and injustice, - soon shall We cast them into the Fire: And easy it is for Allah. (4:29-30)
Although these verses are often cited to show that the Qur'an forbids suicide, the wording is ambiguous. Most translations say "Do not kill each other," and that most likely is the original meaning. In any event, there is an escape clause. The prohibition holds "if any do that in rancor and injustice." The mujahid always believes he is fighting for justice!

The prohibition against suicide comes not from the Qur'an but from the hadith:

If somebody commits suicide with anything in this world, he will be tortured with that very thing on the Day of Resurrection. (Sahih Bukhari, 8:73:73 [see also 2:23:445, 2:23:446, 8:73:126, 8:78:647])
But does this apply to someone who kills himself for the purpose of fighting in jihad?

Many Islamic authorities say no. They make a distinction between suicide and martyrdom. The motivation for each is entirely different. And so one scholar gleans the classical Islamic sources for evidence that one may seek martyrdom by fighting even when one knows one is going to die. His conclusion:

It is important to know that suicide is forbidden because of its evil objectives; such as impatience, desperation or any other bad and evil objects....

On the other hand, the one who contributes his life to the cause of Allah, Islam and Muslims his doing is sacrificial; he gives his life away for Islam and Muslims, which is the highest sacrifice. (8)
Daniel Pipes, a scholar of Islamic history, affirms this conclusion:

Islamists consider suicide as not just legitimate but highly commendable when undertaken for reasons of jihad (sacred war). Going into war knowing with certainty that one will die, they argue, is not suicide (intihar) but martyrdom (istishhad), a much-praised form of self-sacrifice in the path of God, a way to win the eternal affection of the houris in paradise.

A leading Islamist authority, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, recently explained the distinction this way: attacks on enemies are not suicide operations but "heroic martyrdom operations" in which the kamikazes act not "out of hopelessness and despair but are driven by an overwhelming desire to cast terror and fear into the hearts of the oppressors."

In other words, Islamists find suicide for personal reasons abominable, suicide for jihad admirable. (9)
The earliest sources express both the prohibition on suicide and the encouragement to fight to the death in a sacred cause. In fact, the latter receives far more emphasis in the classical sources. Undeniably, it has inspired Muslim jihad fighters over many centuries to risk their lives for the cause of advancing Muslim rule. Today some Islamic authorities may emphasize the forbidding of suicide, and some may emphasize the virtue of martyrdom. Which will ultimately prevail can be decided only within Islam itself. But one cannot say that suicide fighting is by its very nature un-Islamic. In fact, it is not new. In the same article Daniel Pipes notes the existence of jihad suicide nearly a thousand years ago:

Jihad suicide has been around for a millennium. The Assassins, a fanatical religious sect that flourished in the twelfth century developed jihad suicide into a powerful tool of war that succeeded in killing dozens of leaders and cast a long shadow over the region's politics for decades.
And certainly there is no prohibition on terrorism when suicide is not involved. When seen as a sacred struggle against non-believers, terrorism by any means becomes a virtue, whether or not one knows one's life will be forfeit. As Ibn Warraq states, when the two values collide, martyrdom trumps suicide:

Those who blow themselves up almost daily in Israel and those who died on September 11 were dying in the noblest of all causes, Jihad, which is an incumbent religious duty, established in the Koran and in the Traditions as a divine institution, and enjoined for the purpose of advancing Islam. While suicide is forbidden, martyrdom is everywhere praised, welcomed, and urged. (10)
Recall the words of the hadith cited earlier: "If anyone sincerely asks Allah for being killed and then dies or is killed, there will be a reward of a martyr for him." According to the hadith, which is the source of the prohibition against causing one's own death, Jihad is the great exception.

The Extent of Jihad
Just before we close, a couple more ahadith demonstrating that jihad does not stop with self-defense, but that its real purpose is to promote the supremacy of Islam over other religions:

One of the last things that the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, said was, "May Allah fight the Jews and the Christians. They took the graves of their Prophets as places of prostration. Two [religions] shall not co-exist in the land of the Arabs." (Malik's Muwatta, 45:5:17)

I found this at

I know that this is long for a comment and it contains stuff that you have just posted on, but I got really interested in it and ended up copying and pasting.

At 8:50 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Jeanie, here's a link to the article that you found:

Jihad in the Hadith

The larger website, Peace with Realism, certainly has its agenda, but the citations provided are very useful.

Thanks for posting the information, even if it was long.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting the information, even though I couldn't be bothered to read it.

At 12:15 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I also thought it was interesting and informative, and I didn't have any problem taking time to read it.

At 4:09 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Uncle Cran, I suppose that some people have time only for commenting, not for reading. As for me, I find myself reading more and commenting less on other blogs these days. Lack of time, too, so spent more frugally...

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't make many comments because (1) of a lack of knowledge on these subjects, and (2) I read somewhere "...Better to remain silent and be thought a fool, as to speak and remove any doubt." I don't know who said that, but if Mark Twain wasn't the one, he should have been.

At 7:32 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

It's been attributed to Lincoln, but I've read that he didn't say it. I don't know who said it first.

Jeffery Hodges

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