Previously published in The Times of India, January 21, 2010
Death, Be Not Proud:
The Use Of Suicide Bombing Has No Theological Support
The Use Of Suicide Bombing Has No Theological Support
Suicide attacks have been used in history by various cultures, and the motivation has not always been religious. Germans, Japanese, Sri Lankans and Vietnamese have used suicide attacks as a weapon in war but, in popular imagination, suicide attacks are irrevocably and primarily associated with Islamist militancy. The death tolls of suicide attacks have been rising exponentially and recent times perhaps have been the bloodiest in Pakistan's history. This has forced members of the ulema to address the problem of suicide attacks according to Islamic jurisprudence. Jurists have come out to unequivocally state that this form of fighting is absolutely impermissible.
Often comparisons are made between the Abrahamic religions showing how they narrate stories of the same prophets. However, it is significant that the Quran omitted the story of the prophet Samson, who prayed to God to give him strength for the last time so that he could pull down the pillars he was chained to in order to kill as many Philistines as possible and die with them. Many people, including Milton and Handel, have eulogised this act of “bravery.”
Two verses of the Quran are often quoted in order to show that suicide is forbidden: verse 195, “The Cow,” and verses 29-30, “The Women.” Yusuf Ali translates the former as “And spend of your substance in the cause of Allah, and make not your own hands contribute to (your) destruction; But do good; for Allah loveth those who do good.” There is some debate about the second verse, as to whether the phrase “la taqtalu anfusakum” should be translated as “do not kill yourselves” or “do not kill amongst yourselves.” However, most Shia and Sunni exegetes of the Quran write that this verse deems suicide unacceptable. In theological arguments, scholars have declared suicide attacks “haram,” forbidden, on two levels. First, they argue that committing suicide is itself a sin and, second, this sin is made greater if suicide is used to kill innocent people.
A number of prominent jurists have spoken out against suicide attacks. Sheikh Mohammad Afifi al-Akiti, an Oxford-based jurist, Sheikh Mohammad Sayid al-Tantawi, a senior cleric at Al-Azhar, Ayatollah Yusuf Sanei, a famous Iranian jurist and many others, have declared suicide attacks impermissible. Most interestingly, sometime ago senior clerics of the Deoband seminary came out to oppose terrorism. Deoband is extremely influential and perhaps second only to Al-Azhar. Their declarations are made more significant because Iraqi mujahideen, the Taliban, Harkate Islam and Jaish-e-Muhammad in Pakistan and a host of other militant organisations claim to draw ideological inspiration from Deobandi thought. Nearly half of the mosques in Britain are controlled by Deobandis.
In the recent past, tens of thousands of students and clerics came out to proclaim that Islam is a religion of peace. “Those who use the Quran or the sayings of the Prophet Mohammad to justify terrorism are perpetuating a lie.” The wording of the whole fatwa is couched in theological language to some extent; familiar verses of the Quran and some hadith are mentioned in order to base its reasoning in scripture. An earlier fatwa was signed not only by Habib ur-Rehman but his three deputies also, thus making it even more iron-clad. But unfortunately for those who want to find loopholes, they are easy to uncover.
In analyzing the fatwa by clerics from across the Muslim world, it becomes clear that radically new thinking is not needed. The theological arguments against suicide and murder of innocent people have existed within Islamic jurisprudence for centuries. The only thing required of the ulema is to formulate these arguments so as to unambiguously declare that suicide bombing is not permissible. The problem with doing this has also existed for centuries and the crucial related question to be asked is how and when jihad can be declared and who can declare it.
In order to come to a consensus about the impermissibility of suicide bombing, many other theological arguments also have to be addressed. Unfortunately, there are people like Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, the famous TV cleric, who have caveats for when suicide bombing becomes acceptable. He argues that the Palestinian resistance's use of suicide bombs as a weapon against Israel is a jihad and leads to martyrdom.
Perhaps prominent ulema from various countries—but specifically Pakistan and India—need to come together and give a joint declaration against use of suicide attacks. It is important to remember that people who become bombers often do so out of desperation; it is crucial to understand and address these problems as well. Declaring suicide bombing haram will not mean the economic, political, social and other problems which give rise to such extreme behaviour will also disappear. Suicide bombing is the ultimate manifestation of egoism, often compounded by frustration. All religions, not just Islam, endeavour to remove the stain of egoism from a person's soul. By his selfish act, the bomber merely reaffirms what is said in the Quran: for in murdering one innocent person he murders all of humanity (Al-Maidah 5:32).
Ali Khan Mahmudabad is a religious studies student. Archana Kapoor is a SAVE Member, director, filmmaker, and a founding member of SMART, an NGO that works to bring social change to marginalized sectors of Indian society through literacy and empowerment.