Question by smart-doctor-egypt: “Does Islam condone suicide?
Rabbi Reuven Firestone, author of “Jihad: The Origin of Holy War in Islam” and Professor of Medieval Judaism and Islam at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, offers his insights into the events of September 11.
The queries have come in steadily since the great increase in suicide bombings by Muslim Palestinians during the past year, but since Sept. 11, they have come virtually non-stop. “Does Islam condone suicide? Does Islam condone killing noncombatants? Does Islam teach that a martyr who enters heaven gets the pleasure of 70 virgins? Does Islam really teach the universal doctrine of ‘Islam or the sword?’ Does Islam hate Jews and Judaism?” or, “Does Islam fundamentally hate anyone and anything not Muslim or Islamic?”
Americans know almost nothing about Islam beyond what they pick up from films and novels and news reports (much of it erroneous). Israelis probably know even less, though many have the bad habit of claiming (with some swagger) that they know Muslims because they live with them. The truth of the matter is that Israelis don’t live with Muslims, hardly see them beyond what they see on their own televisions, and tend to have an extremely distorted view of Islam. We few who know something about Islam are bombarded with questions and asked for interviews, but given the hurry and the nature of media discourse, the short answers often confuse more than clarify.
Simplistic clarifications by so-called “Muslim scholars” often confuse the situation even more, because virtually any Muslim can claim to be a scholar and speak on behalf of Islam. From my own experience, many of them seem not to know what they are talking about.
So how do we arrive at the truth about Islam? Is it a fundamentally violent and hateful religion, as its detractors have claimed? Or is it a religion of compassion and reason, as its Muslim adherents insist? To answer this question, we must first look inward. How have its champions and its enemies characterized Judaism? We have suffered the abuse of religious character assassination by those who not only have hated us, but also by those who have feared us. Anyone who can read is able to find excerpts in translation from the Bible and from our Talmud and midrash that would curdle the blood of any innocent reader who doesn’t know the context of the citations. Our great King David arranged the murder of an innocent man because he lusted over the poor man’s wife (2 Samuel 11). Rabbis incinerate their opponents (Shabbat 34a, Sanhedrin 100a). The Torah even calls for mass extermination, for genocide of the native Canaanite inhabitants of the land (Deuteronomy 7). It is just as easy to find violent material in the Quran and in the second most important source of Islamic religious teaching: the Hadith literature (parallel to Oral Law in Judaism). It almost need not be said that one can just as well find material urging compassion for the needy, the poor, the homeless, the orphan and widow.
One of my criticisms of self-proclaimed pundits of Islam is that they do not cite their sources. Take a look at some of the key issues that lie at the core of the questions listed above.
About a week before the suicide massacres and destruction of the World Trade Center towers in New York, “60 Minutes” claimed to have interviewed a Palestinian working for and with suicide bombers intending to kill Israelis. Interviewed in Arabic, the English voice-over translation had the man claiming that a martyr who enters Paradise will enjoy the sexual pleasures of 70 or 72 virgin women.
A number of self-proclaimed Muslim scholars accused “60 Minutes” of distorting the transcript and demanded an apology. They claimed to have heard the original Arabic in spite of the loud English voice-over and emphatically stated that he said nothing of the sort. They even went further, to claim that Islam would never teach such a thing. This was clearly an attempt to avoid public embarrassment, but the truth is that according to Islamic lore and tradition, a male who enters heaven enters what we in the West would consider a hedonistic paradise full of physical and sensual pleasures. This is simply a fact. The origin of this view most certainly lies in the context of the extremely stark and difficult life of ancient Bedouin Arabia. Something as simple as the constant flow of water in a stream was considered miraculous, so it would be natural to imagine heaven as flowing with streams of water under the shade of huge trees.
But there are other delights as well, according to a Hadith in an authoritative collection called Sunan al-Tirmidhi, which would be on the shelves of any Muslim scholar. In my edition, published in Beirut, it can be found in a section called “The Book of Description of the Garden,” chapter 23, titled “The least reward for the people of Heaven,” Hadith number 2562. The Hadith reads literally as follows: “Sawda (Tirmidhi’s grandfather) reported that he heard from Abdullah, who received from Rishdin b. Sa’d, who in turn learned from Amr b. al-Harith, from Darraj, from Abul-Haytham, from Abu Sa’id al-Khudri, who received it from the Apostle of God [Muhammad]: The least [reward] for the people of Heaven is 80,000 servants and 72 wives, over which stands a dome of pearls, aquamarine and ruby, as [wide as the distance] between al-Jaabiyya and San’a.” That these 72 wives are virgin is confirmed by Quran (55:74) and commentaries on that verse. Al-Jaabiyya was a suburb of Damascus, according to the famous 14th century commentator, Isma’il Ibn Kathir, so one personal jeweled dome would stretch the distance from Syria to Yemen, some 1,600 miles.
Was this tradition intended to be believed literally? Do Muslims believe it literally? Are they required to? This particular Hadith has technical weaknesses in its chain of transmitters and is therefore not considered impeccable, though it is listed in an authoritative collection. As a result, Muslims are not required to believe in it, though many inevitably do (but an even more respectable Hadith with virtually the same message can be found in Tirmidhi K. Fada’il al-Jihad 25:1663). I am sure that many believe that they will experience incredible physical pleasures when they enter heaven. I personally have no problem with that. Religions inevitably expect their adherents to believe things that would seem absurd to believers of other religions.
The more important question is, who is privileged to enter heaven according to Islam? Does a suicide bomber who kills innocent people merit entrance into heaven? The answer to this question would appear to be quite clear. Because Islam is a religious civilization that has been associated with political power for many centuries, its religious scholars have had the responsibility to deal with issues of state and with issues of war. Islam, therefore, has a lot to say on such issues. On the issue of suicide and harming innocents, Islam is unambiguous.
The four schools of Islamic law expressly forbid the harming of noncombatants. These include women, children, monks and hermits, the aged, blind and insane. In the most authoritative collection of Hadith, the Sahih al-Bukhari (The Book of Jihad, chapters 147-147, Hadiths 257-258), Muhammad expressly disapproves and then forbids the slaying of women and children. “A woman was found killed during one of the Apostle of God’s battles, so the Apostle of God forbade the killing of women and children.” This message is found in a number of authoritative collections and has been formalized in the legal literature. Islam also expressly forbids suicide, the punishment for which is eternal reenactment of the act and revisitation of the pain. Sahih al-Bukhari (K. Jana’iz 82:445-446) has the following on the authority of the Prophet: “Whoever commits suicide with a piece of iron will be punished with the same piece of iron in Hell. Whoever commits suicide by throttling shall keep on throttling himself in Hell [forever], and whoever commits suicide by stabbing shall keep on stabbing himself in Hell [forever].”
On the other hand, martyrdom in war for Islamic cause is praised extensively throughout the literature. The Quran teaches (3:169): “Do not consider those killed [while engaging] in God’s cause dead. Rather, they live with their Lord, who sustains them!” The Quranic idiom, “killed while engaging in God’s cause” is a reference to martyrdom for acting on being a Muslim, whether as a persecuted and powerless individual or as a warrior fighting for the expansion of the world of Islam. Perhaps the most compelling expression is composed of the idioms found in the most authoritative sources and attributed to the Prophet, “Paradise is [found] under the shade of swords,” or “Paradise is under the gleam of swords” (Sahih Bukhari, Jihad, 22:73). Muhammad’s companion, Abu Hurayra, said that he heard the Prophet say: “By the One in Whose hands is my soul [i.e., by God], I would love to be martyred [while engaged] in God’s cause, then be resurrected, then martyred, then resurrected, then martyred, then resurrected, and then martyred” (Sahih Bukhari, Jihad 7:54). A Hadith in Sunan al-Tirmidhi states that in contrast to the suicide, the martyr does not even feel the pain of his death (Fada’il al-Jihad, 26:1663). He is also forgiven all his sins and has the right to intercede on behalf of his own family to enter Heaven.
So suicide is forbidden, killing of noncombatants is forbidden, but martyrdom is rewarded with entrance into heaven and, therefore, with great material rewards in the world to come. We are beginning to uncover the complexity of the problem. It rests to a great extent on interpretation and the authority of those who make the interpretations. One stable person’s definition of suicide may be interpreted as martyrdom by a fanatic. All these categories may be easily manipulated by fanatical, desperate, or evil people. A reasonable person’s obvious identification of innocent noncombatants may be categorized as Satan’s hordes by someone who is desperate and confused. Add to this the fact that most, though not all, suicide bombers are in desperate economic straits.
We need to add one more ingredient to an already complex soup, and this is the perception of the West (and the West includes Israel) among many Muslims who live in the Middle East. The West prides itself with having brought many gifts to the civilized world: tolerance, democracy, pluralism, freedom. To the natives of many parts of the world that were exploited by colonialism, imperialism and today’s “globalism,” these noble contributions are meaningless. Many Muslims in the Middle East see them as no more than slogans that attempt to hide the true intent of the West: political and religious domination and economic exploitation.
To a poor peasant or middle-class urban dweller who suffers the loss of children to disease, lacks opportunities for improvement, and has a grim and downtrodden daily existence while watching TV-movie portrayals of Western wealth and decadence, it is not a stretch to conceive of the United States and Israel as the greater and lesser Satans.
Of course, local corrupt leadership often takes advantage of such sentiment in order to prop up its own crooked regimes. In fact, the secular leaders of Muslim countries have always tried to manipulate Islamic symbols and images in order to manipulate their populations. Add this also to our soup. Islam is a noble and compassionate religion, but like all good things, Islam may be cynically used and manipulated. Misguided people may also manipulate it in good faith.
The outrageously unstable political situation in the Middle East, the terrible economic situation, the lack of freedoms and lack of a tradition of open inquiry for the past six centuries all contribute to an environment of suspicion and bitterness.
Whom can you trust, if not God? But God has also been manipulated, and this is the saddest aspect of the complex we call the Middle East. God has been hijacked by terrorists. Islam is not the problem. Terrorism is the problem, and terrorists have hijacked both Islam and God.
This article appeared originally in The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, September 28, 2001
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