Today's date:
Summer 2006

Suicide Bombing Cannot Bring Salvation: An Islamic Perspective

Munawar A. Anees was founding editor-in-chief of Periodica Islamica.

Kuala Lumpur—In recent times, a violent culture of martyrdom has arisen that glorifies suicide terrorism as a means to salvation. In the last five years alone, starting with the September 11 tragedy, there has been a significant increase in suicide terrorist attacks across the Muslim world. Among the major victims of this self-destructive act is the Islamic concept of salvation itself. Whereas there is no Koranic evidence to support the myth of multitudes of perpetually regenerating virgins in paradise, as popularized by the Western media, the Koran unequivocally condemns the perpetrators of suicide to Hell:

“And do not kill yourselves. Surely, God is Most Merciful to you. And whoever commits that through aggression and injustice, We shall cast him into the Fire, and that is easy for God.” (4:29–30)

Islam teaches that life is a sacred trust given to human beings by the Creator. Like other Abrahamic faiths, it prohibits suicide as a grave sin. It is forbidden under all circumstances, including war. Abu Hurairah narrated that the Prophet said: “Whoever kills himself with an iron tool, then his tool will be in his hand and he will be stabbing himself with it in the Fire of Hell, forever and ever.” And, “Whoever kills himself with poison, then his poison will be in his hand and he will keep taking it in the Fire of Hell, forever and ever. Whoever kills himself from a mountain will keep falling in the Fire of Hell, forever and ever.” (Bukhari and Muslim)

In the continuing mayhem of suicide terrorism, the Muslim voices of sanity seem to have lost their intended impact. For instance, Mufti Al-Sheikh of Saudi Arabia maintained that suicide attacks have no basis in Islamic law. However, his juridical opinion was rejected as a political statement! Another Saudi scholar, Sheikh Ibn Fauzan, interpreting on the authority of the Koran and the authentic ahadith on the conduct of war, argued against the use of suicide terror tactics, but to no avail.

It is debatable whether the politics of occupation in Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq play a pivotal role in formulating a highly radicalized theological stance among some Muslims. However, one must question the use of suicide terrorism for resolving intra-Muslim conflicts. These terrorist acts remain widely spread across several Muslim countries where sectarian strife is ripe.

The epic of this madness is depicted in suicide terrorism when, during the holy month of Ramadan, innocent worshippers in a mosque are ruthlessly targeted for vengeance killing. This symbolizes three major violations committed in a single act of gross transgression:

  1. Defying interdiction against suicide
  2. Flouting a ban on hostilities during the month of Ramadan
  3. Molesting the sanctity and peace of a mosque

Beyond wild generalizations and stereotyping, any understanding of the motivation for these ghastly acts—committed in the name of a religion that expressly and forcefully rejects and condemns them—poses a daunting challenge on several counts: theological, political, social and economic. Nonetheless, given the pristine teachings of the Koran and the Traditions of the Prophet against suicide, a highly distorted theology is at work behind this terrorist macabre. It plays upon the young vulnerable psyche that yearns for leading a purposeful life. It systematically misconstrues and misrepresents the Islamic doctrine of salvation to the point of instilling the belief that taking one’s own life is the highest form of worship that pleases God.

The death cult erected around the use of religion as a political weapon portrays suicide terrorism as an act of heroism and ultimate atonement. The individual who supposedly “redeems” his soul offers the highest sacrifice in the name of his religion for earthly glory and the final salvation. This indoctrination exploits the religious sentiments as well as the political realities to prepare the youth for the self-sacrifice whereby they come to feel it as an honorable act not only for themselves but for their family, country and religion as well.

Impressionable minds are taught that there is religious sanction for murdering civilians. The most potent weapon in the hands of those who shamelessly misguide Muslim youth to the path of death and destruction is the alleged guarantee of salvation winning the rank of a martyr (shahid). Moreover, the suicide mission is presented as the supreme form of jihad.

The regularity and the systematic manner in which a seemingly unending cadre of suicide bombers is in active supply cannot be dismissed as a minor aberration in the Muslim society. One needs to look much deeper into the causative factors, including widespread poverty, foreign occupation, lack of democratic freedom, absence of opportunities for personal growth and fulfillment, among others. Understandably there is a complex and intricate web of factors at play. Reducing them to a caricature of religious sentiments of a sizable population of the world or inventing imaginary binaries of “us” and “them” plays only in the hands of religious militants.

Perhaps isolating the role of political precursors in triggering religious militancy is one way of clearing the fog that hampers our understanding of the motives underlying the flourishing death cult. Peeling off the political layers, it would appear that a methodical exploitation of religious sentiments is the driving force behind suicide terrorism invoking eternal salvation as its prime attraction for recruitment.

Emile Durkheim, a French sociologist, writing in the early 20th century, gave us some important insights into behavioral dynamics of suicide. His study showed that while no religion has a monopoly over the crop of suicide bombers, there are behavioral traits that may help us understand the personality of the suicide terrorist. For instance, the idea of total immersion of the self is one that may be extrapolated to gain some insight into the behavior of the bomber.

As we have observed, along the ideational spectrum, the life of a Muslim is totally devoted to the pleasure of God. The fine line is drawn by the Koran itself where, in addition to God’s mercy, good deeds are deemed to be required for salvation. It is precisely for this reason that the Koran asks Muslims to pray to God for success both in this world and in the afterlife. Extremism in devotion to this world or to the afterlife is, therefore, antithetical to the balancing spirit of the Koran.

It is the latent need for the balance in life that hermitism never gained a strong foothold among the mainstream Muslims. Perhaps a simple exception could be made for a small group of sufi devotees who renounced the worldly acts for total devotion to religious rituals. On the contrary, a more refined form of Sufism, apart from its scholastic high status, has made enormous contributions in peacefully spreading the message of Islam to places as far as Malaysia and Indonesia.

One can only surmise that a distorted version of the “total immersion” is at work in case of suicide terrorism. One needs, however, to probe further if the proponents of suicide terrorism, under the guise of eternal salvation, are consciously or unconsciously advocating the vulgarized tenets of “total submission” to God. If so, then the culpability of those responsible for these criminal acts increases manifold.

It is rightly feared that an aberration initially directed against the external enemy is increasingly being invoked for settling internal disputes. If unchecked it is more than likely to engulf several strata of the society in a degenerating spiral of death and destruction. Encouraged by their “success” in recruiting zealots and a near total absence of ideological resistance, a highly radicalized theology is on the rise, inflicting damage one is unable to foresee.

It must be made clear, however, that whatever the pretense, these acts are in dire violation of the teachings of Islam. There is no Koranic support for taking one’s own life to kill and maim innocent children and women—even when in a state of war with the enemy. There is no evidence from the life of the Prophet that such acts were encouraged or permitted by him. Therefore, a shift in focus from external to internal, or vice versa, does not exonerate these mass producers of suicide bombers.

Riding high on the booty of eternal salvation, the jihadi incarnations of Osama bin Laden and his group have infiltrated deeply into the Muslim world. Totally oblivious of the natural face of Islam they are busy painting a picture tainted with the blood of innocents, both Muslim and non-Muslim.

It is ironic that their murderous acts are beginning to transform many deeply held notions about salvation, martyrdom, the ethical conduct of war, the combatant and the overall concept of jihad. Otherwise infirm before the dominating power of the enemy, they rejoice looking at the civilian carnage caused by suicide terror. It is the crowning affirmation of defeat when religious scholars take it upon themselves to defend the suicide terrorist achieving eternal salvation through the very act of murder and mayhem. The argument that the deprived and the dispossessed have suicide as their final weapon against the all-powerful enemy is nothing but bankrupt logic and crippled morality.

At one time or another, all nations have transgressed the rules of war. What distinguishes the war waged by the suicide terrorist from the rest is that the combatant serves as a metaphor for a grotesque vision of Islamic doctrine of human salvation. The commission of sin by suicide and the vengeful murder of innocents notwithstanding, this is the ultimate debasement of Islamic ideals.

The Concept of Salvation | Salvation is a critically important concept common to several religions. In Islamic doctrine, salvation or deliverance from sinful condition is in part based upon one’s deeds. While there is Koranic support for the idea of divine predestination (24:21, 57:22), the purpose of a Muslim’s life is to live for the pleasure of God.

A Muslim should aspire to please God by performing good deeds. All Muslims must observe the Five Pillars of Islamic faith:

  1. Shahadah: bearing witness that there is no deity but God and Muhammad is His messenger;
  2. Salat: performing the prescribed five daily prayers;
  3. Sawm: observing fast throughout the month of Ramadan;
  4. Zakat: contributing to regular charity to help the poor;
  5. Hajj: going on pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a lifetime, if one can afford it.

Muslims hope that by engaging in these religious observances, on the Day of Judgment, their good deeds will outweigh the bad ones, allowing them to enter the paradise (56:12–40).

In addition to the fundamentals of Islamic faith, the Koran makes it clear what are, in the eyes of God, some of the good deeds:

“Say ye: We believe in God, and the revelation given to us, and to Abraham, Ismail, Isaac, Jacob and the Tribes, and that given to Moses and Jesus, and that given to (all) prophets from their Lord: We make no difference between one and another of them: And we submit to God (in Islam).” (2:136)

“It is not righteousness that ye turn your faces toward East or West; but it is righteousness to believe in God and the Last Day, and the Angels, and the Book, and the Messengers; to spend of your substance, out of love for Him, for your kin, for orphans, for the needy, for the wayfarer, for those who ask and for the ransom of slaves; to be steadfast in prayer and give Zakat (regular charity); to fulfill the contracts which ye have made; and to be firm and patient, in pain (or suffering) and adversity, and throughout all periods of panic. Such are the people of truth, the God fearing.” (2:177)

“For Muslim men and women, for believing men and women, for devout men and women, for true men and women, for men and women who are patient and constant, for men and women who humble themselves, for men and women who give in charity, for men and women who fast, for men and women who guard their chastity, and for men and women who engage much in God’s remembrance, for them has God prepared forgiveness and great reward.” (33:35)

Furthermore, the Koran is explicit in reminding the believers that obedience to the Prophet is one of their prime obligations:

“Those are limits set by God. Those who obey God and His Messenger will be admitted to Gardens with rivers flowing beneath; to abide therein (forever) and that will be the supreme achievement. But those who disobey God and His Messenger and transgress His limits will be admitted to a Fire, to abide therein: And they shall have a humiliating punishment.” (4:13–14)

“He who obeys the Messenger obeys God. But if any turn away, We have not sent thee to watch over their (evil deeds).” (4:80)

Salvation, according to Muslim belief, is not simply a balancing act between good and bad. Beyond the confines of exacting justice, salvation begs the mercy of God. While one’s good deeds can certainly hasten one’s journey to paradise, there can be no redemption without God’s mercy.

The Koran is replete with references to Divine mercy and forgiveness. Every chapter (surah) of the Koran (except surah 9) begins with the proclamation that God is Most Merciful (ar-Rahim):

“When those come to thee who believe in Our Signs, say: ‘Peace be on you: Your Lord hath inscribed for Himself (the rule of) Mercy: verily, if any of you did evil in ignorance, and thereafter repented, and amended (his conduct), lo! He is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful.’” (6:54)

“He that doeth good shall have 10 times as much to his credit: He that doeth evil shall only be recompensed according to his evil: no wrong shall be done unto (any of) them.” (6:160)

“If ye loan to God a beautiful loan, He will double it to your (credit), and He will grant you Forgiveness: for God is All-Thankful, Most Forbearing.” (64:17)

In a tradition (hadith) Prophet Muhammad is reported to have counseled the believers on the dual need for good deeds and God’s mercy for the ultimate salvation: “Do good deeds properly, sincerely and moderately, and rejoice, for no one’s good deeds will put him in paradise.” The Companions asked, “Not even you, O Messenger of God?” He replied, “Not even me unless God bestows His pardon and mercy on me.” (Narrated by Abu Hurairah and Aisha vide Sahih al-Bukhari)

On the question of salvation of people other than Muslims, the Koran speaks in the following manner:

“Those who believe (in the Koran), and those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Christians and the Sabians—any who believe in God and the Last Day, and work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.” (2:62)

“Those who believe (in the Koran), those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Sabians and the Christians—any who believe in God and the Last Day, and work righteousness—on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.” (5:69)

It would appear that the Koranic doctrine of salvation, revolving around good human deeds and Divine mercy, is cognate to the concept of creation as a manifestation of Divine purpose: “And We created not the heavens and the earth, and what is between them, in sport.” (21:16) The Divine purpose, in turn, entails realization of the inherent human potential in understanding God’s creation. Here one is forced to seek a balance between predestination and free human action, creating an arena for a fulfilling and purposeful life.

The path to purification is through self-attainment. The Koran proclaims that “Truly he succeeds that purifies it; and he fails that corrupts it.” (91:9–10) Clearly, one is given the wisdom to choose between good and bad and to shape one’s life in accordance with those dictates. That sets the rationale for the Islamic concept of salvation whereby a freely acting individual passes through the rigor of justice as balanced by his own deeds. Yet, recognizing the fallibility of human beings (12:53) the door to salvation remains open through Divine mercy and forgiveness.

In order to achieve salvation one must realize that reward and punishment are but the natural consequences of one’s approach to self-attainment and purification. This is in consonance with the archetypal concept of justice as laid down in the Koran: “No burden do We place on any soul, but that which it can bear.” (7:42)