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Suicide

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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

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    Suicide

    For centuries, the topic of suicide generated little discussion among Muslims. In recent years, however, it has become a divisive issue in the Islamic world. The Qur'an mentions suicide only once in the phrase “do not kill yourselves.” Most scholars interpret the phrase as “do not kill each other,” as the two are the same in Arabic. The hadith discuss suicide in greater detail. Several reports warn a believer against the action, stating that the person who kills himself will eternally suffer by the method used to end his life. For example, an individual who dies after drinking poison will repeatedly drink poison in hell. Some scholars believe the hadith indicate the existence of a high rate of suicide in Arabia, and Muhammad's desire to end the practice. In any case, suicide is condemned in Islamic law.

    Islamic Teachings.

    Muslims disapprove of suicide for many reasons. Islamic doctrine regards God as the sole giver of life and affirms that only He has the right to take it. Islam also teaches perseverance and the patient endurance of hardship. The religion prohibits suicide even in cases of severe pain or grave illness. A believer should not hope for death, let alone attempt to bring it about. Muhammad emphasized that God has total control over human affairs. According to a hadith, God disapproved of a man who killed himself after receiving a fatal wound in battle, stating, “My servant has attempted to preempt me; thus have I forbidden Paradise to him.”

    Most Muslim scholars, however, take a less strict view of suicide. They refuse to believe that the action brings eternal punishment in hell. Some hold that suicide is forgivable, similar to other sins. They conclude that a Muslim who takes his or her own life is still a believer and will receive torments in the afterlife for a limited amount of time before reaching paradise. Religious leaders typically recite funeral prayers for suicide victims, further confirming their status in the Muslim community.

    Modern Muslim thinkers have devoted little attention to the topic of suicide, in part because Islamic societies have enjoyed relatively low suicide rates compared with Western nations and non-Islamic developing countries. Some scholars believe that the low suicide rate among Muslims stems from the benefits of living in traditional communities. Others, however, hold that Muslims who live in small villages underreport incidents of suicide. Some thinkers have stressed the idea that faith prevents most Muslims from taking their own lives. They view atheism as a leading cause of suicide.

    Muslim Suicide Attacks.

    In the late 1900s, the issue of suicide took on a new relevance in the Islamic world as certain Muslim groups promoted suicide bombing and other forms of warfare that resulted in the death of the attacker. Their leaders encouraged suicidal practices by referring to them as acts of martyrdom. Both Sunni and Shi'i Muslims have participated in these suicide missions.

    In the early 1980s, radical Muslim groups hit American and French military targets in Lebanon. A suicide bomber in Beirut drove a truck into American and French military barracks, killing hundreds of troops. Shi'is participated in suicide attacks during Iran's war against Iraq in the 1980s. Muslims in Southeast Asia have also taken up the practice as a protest against Western influence.

    Muslim suicide bombings have attracted much attention in the 21st century. Many incidents revolve around the Arab-Israeli conflict. Palestinian suicide bombing began as a reaction to a 1994 attack in which a Jewish settler opened fire in a mosque, killing 29 Muslims during early morning prayers. In retaliation, Hamas initiated a series of bombing campaigns, attacking civilians inside Israel and the West Bank. Suicide bombings have increased in recent years as tensions continue to rise in these areas. The most dramatic example of suicide bombing, however, occurred in the United States on September 11, 2001, when hijacked passenger jets crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, killing around 3,000 people.

    The recent wave of suicide attacks has sparked much debate inside the Islamic world. Leaders and scholars remain split over the issue. Sheikh al-Sheikh, the head of Egypt's al-Azhar mosque, opposes the practice as un-Islamic, and has drawn the support of many Muslim scholars. These thinkers view suicide attacks against civilians as acts of terrorism and a violation of God's will. They condemn suicide bombers for distorting the true message of Islam, which forbids the harming of civilians. They warn that God will punish suicide bombers in the afterlife.

    Groups that promote suicide bombings also use Islamic doctrine to justify their position. Their leaders claim to be the true defenders of the faith. They view suicide attacks as part of a jihad against injustice, foreign oppression, and lack of religious belief. The promise of a glorious afterlife has inspired some young Muslim men—and increasing numbers of women—to volunteer for suicide missions.

    Muslims living under Israeli occupation are especially vigorous in their justification of suicide attacks. They view their actions as a necessary defense and last resort against an overwhelmingly powerful opponent. Palestinian resistance fighters blame Israel for creating an atmosphere of despair, economic hardship, and violence and for causing the deaths of dozens of Palestinian civilians while targeting militant leaders. Because most Israelis serve in the army, suicide bombers believe that an attack on civilians does not target the innocent.

    Several prominent Muslims have openly supported suicide attacks. Leading scholars have issued fatwas defending the practice on religious grounds. The influential Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, for example, considers suicide bombing in the case of Palestine to be an act of self-defense, maintaining that God will reward the bomber with eternity in paradise. Some other scholars agree with al-Qaradawi. In March 2003 , Syria's top religious leader called for suicide bombings to stop U.S. aggression in Iraq. See also Afterlife; Arab-Israeli Conflict; Death and Funerals; Martyrdom.

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