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Violence and Terrorism >
Does Islam permit suicide bombers?

On February 25, 1994, Dr. Baruch Goldstein, a Jewish settler who emigrated to Israel from the United States, walked into the Mosque of the Patriarch in Hebron and opened fire, killing twenty-nine Muslim worshipers during their Friday congregational prayer. In response, Hamas (Islamic Resistance Movement) introduced a new type of warfare in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, suicide bombing. Promising swift revenge for the Hebron massacre, the Hamas militia, the Qassem Brigade, undertook operations within Israel itself, in Galilee, Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv. In Israel-Palestine, the use of suicide bombing increased exponentially during the second (al-Aqsa) intifada (uprising), which began in September 2000. The most horrific examples of suicide attacks were seen in the 9/11 attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Traditionally, Muslims are unconditionally forbidden to commit suicide, because only God has the right to take life. There is only one phrase in the Quran that appears relevant to suicide: “O you who believe! Do not consume your wealth in the wrong way—rather only through trade mutually agreed to, and do not kill yourselves. Surely God is Merciful toward you” (4:29). Many Muslim exegetes have believed that “do not kill yourselves” can mean “do not kill each other,” based on the context of the verse. The subject of suicide is therefore little discussed in exegetical literature. The Prophetic traditions (hadith), however, frequently, clearly, and absolutely prohibit suicide. Punishment for killing oneself consists of the unending repetition of the act by which the suicide was committed. Many commentators, however, have been reluctant to say that a person who commits suicide is necessarily condemned to hell.

Historically both Sunni and Shii Muslims have generally forbidden “sacrificial religious suicide” and acts of terrorism. The Nizari Ismailis, popularly called the Assassins, who in the eleventh and twelfth centuries were notorious for suicidal attacks on their enemies, were rejected by mainstream Islam as fanatics. In the late twentieth century the issue resurfaced as many, Shii and Sunni alike, came to equate suicide bombing with martyrdom, relinquishing one's life for the faith. Although usually associated with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, suicide bombings have also occurred in Lebanon, Indonesia, and elsewhere. In Lebanon, Hizbollah and al-Jihad used suicide bombings in attacks against the U.S. Marine barracks and French military headquarters in Beirut in 1983, in which several hundred were killed.

In Israel-Palestine, increased Israeli violence, brutality, and targeted assassinations reinforced the belief among many Palestinians and Muslims that so-called suicide bombers were committing not an act of suicide but one of self-sacrifice, engaged in resistance and retaliation against Israeli occupation and oppression. As student posters at universities in the West Bank and Gaza declared: “Israel has nuclear bombs, we have human bombs.” Or as a Palestinian fighter remarked: “The Israelis blow us up. Why shouldn't I go to Israel and take some of them with me?”

The use of religious concepts like jihad and martyrdom to justify and legitimate suicide bombing provides a powerful incentive: the prospect of being a glorified hero in this life and enjoying paradise in the next. But what about the promise of seventy virgins? There is nothing in the Quran that rewards a martyr with virgins in paradise. The Quran does speak of houris, dark-eyed or black-eyed heavenly companions, as a reward in paradise, but not specifically for martyrdom. Many interpreters consider these descriptions metaphorical; tradition suggests that the ultimate reward of heaven is dwelling in God's presence. The reward of seventy virgins to martyrs is based on a “weak” Prophetic tradition used in medieval times to encourage Muslims to military activities and by extremist groups in recent years to recruit and motivate suicide bombers. However, there is no mention in the Quran nor any Prophetic tradition of suicide bombers.

Suicide bombings, especially those that target innocent civilians or noncombatants, have precipitated a sharp debate in the Muslim world, garnering both support and condemnation on religious grounds. Prominent religious leaders have differed sharply in their legal opinions (fatwas). Sheikh Ahmad Yasin, who was the religious leader and founder of Hamas, and Akram Sabri, the Mufti of Jerusalem, as well as many other Arab and Palestinian religious leaders, have argued that suicide bombing is necessary and justified. Others, however, condemn suicide bombings, in particular those that target civilians, as terrorism.

Prominent Islamic scholars and leaders have been sharply divided in opinion. Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Sheikh, Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, condemned all suicide bombing as un-Islamic and forbidden by Islam. Sheikh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi (d. 2010), the former Grand Mufti of Egypt and Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar University, drew a sharp distinction between suicide bombings that are acts of self-sacrifice and self-defense and the killing of noncombatants, women, and children, which he has consistently condemned. He stated, “Attacking innocent people is not courageous; it is stupid and will be punished on the Day of Judgment … It is not courageous to attack innocent children, women and civilians. It is courageous to protect freedom; it is courageous to defend oneself and not to attack.”

Today, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi is among the most influential religious authorities in the world. Although he condemned the 9/11 attacks, he has given fatwas that recognize suicide bombing in Israel-Palestine as an act of self-defense, the giving of one's life for God with the hope that God will grant him or her paradise. Like similar-minded religious leaders, Qaradawi has legitimated the killing of civilians, arguing that Israel is a militant and military society in which both men and women serve in the military and reserves and that if an elderly person or a child is killed in such acts, it is an involuntary killing.

Qaradawi and Tantawi clashed when Tantawi condemned the suicide attack that killed twenty-six Israelis in December 2001. Qaradawi dismissively retorted:

How can the head of Al-Azhar incriminate mujahedin [Islamic fighters] who fight against aggressors? How can he consider these aggressors as innocent civilians? … Has fighting colonisers become a criminal and terrorist act for some sheikhs? … I am astonished that some sheikhs deliver fatwas [religious rulings] that betray the mujahedin, instead of supporting them and urging them to sacrifice and martyrdom.

However, Tantawi was not alone. On December 4, 2001, Sheikh Muhammad bin Abdullah al-Subail, imam of the Grand Mosque of Mecca, also declared that killing Israelis is not permissible:

Any attack on innocent people is unlawful and contrary to Shariah [Islamic law] … Muslims must safeguard the lives, honor and property of non-Muslims who are under their protection and with whom they have concluded peace agreements. Attacking them contradicts Shariah.

A key issue that has emerged in these debates is that of proportionality, that the response or retaliation must be in proportion to the crime committed.

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