the Prophet Would Want
How Can Islamic Scholars Sanction Suicidal Tactics?
By Sohail H. Hashmi
Sunday, June 9, 2002; Page B01
For months, a chorus
of Western leaders has joined the Israeli government in demanding that
Yasser Arafat condemn Palestinian suicide bombings, and that he do so
in Arabic. But Wednesday's attack at Megiddo, and several others during
the past three weeks, demonstrate that no matter how loudly or in what
language Arafat condemns the attacks, they will continue.
The emphasis on Arafat
and his Palestinian Authority is misplaced, for what drives the bombers
is not just a volatile combination of frustration, hatred and political
ambition, but the potent sanction of religion. It is the religious scholars
as much as the bomb makers who are responsible for sending young men and
women -- often impressionable teenagers -- on their murderous missions
with promises of a martyr's reward. Religious imagery and justifications
suffuse the videotaped "suicide notes" of even the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade,
an offshoot of Arafat's generally secular Fatah organization. When a BBC
interviewer recently suggested to Hamas spokesman Mahmoud Zahhar that
his group's tactics were nothing but murder, Zahhar retorted, "That's
not the opinion of our Islamic scholars."
is only partially correct. The upsurge in suicide attacks as the preferred
tactic of groups claiming to be Islamic warriors has sparked controversy
among some of the leading interpreters of Islamic law.Most scholars of
any standing were quick to condemn the Sept. 11 attacks on the United
States as contrary to Islamic injunctions to spare noncombatants. But
as has happened many times in the past, excuses and exceptions have been
made in the Palestinians' war against Israel. The popular Egyptian scholar
Sheik Yusuf Qaradawi, now based in Qatar, strongly condemned the terrorist
attacks against American civilians. Yet last December he publicly challengedSheik
Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, the rector of Egypt's al-Azhar university and
mosque, for condemning the killing of innocents in Israel.
Reflecting this turmoil
in intellectual circles, a meeting of the 57-member Organization of the
Islamic Conference ended in early April with a communique pledging Muslim
support for the war against terrorism, but -- under pressure from Arab
members -- rejecting "any attempt to link terrorism to the struggle of
the Palestinian people." In the wake of Israel's military actions in the
West Bank and Gaza, Muslim voices to the contrary have fallen silent.
It is simplistic
to lump the Palestinian terrorists with al Qaeda in terms of their motivations
or how to deal with them. Only the most morally obtuse would deny the
genuine suffering of the Palestinian people during the past 60 years or
the legitimacy of their demand for a state. But it isn't simplistic to
argue that their methods and the destruction they cause are morally equivalent
to al Qaeda's terrorism, and, no matter how different the circumstances
or justifications, that they amount to murder. This conclusion is supported
by the long and rich tradition of Islamic moral reasoning on martyrdom
and war. It is time for the Muslim scholars who hold this view to tap
Islamic resources to develop and sustain a clear moral position that unambiguously
renounces the deliberate targeting of civilians.
challenge two fundamental principles of Islamic ethics: the prohibitions
against suicide and the deliberate killing of noncombatants. Suicide for
any reason has been strongly condemned throughout Islamic history and
its practice is extremely rare in Islamic societies. In the context of
war, however, the line between suicide and combat is often extremely fine
and easily crossed. Just as some Americans still commemorate the "suicidal"
military exploits of the defenders of the Alamo or Gen. George Pickett's
division at Gettysburg, so Muslims honor many a doomed struggle, most
famously perhaps the challenge of the prophet's grandson Husayn to the
Umayyad caliph. Husayn's stand against all odds at Karbala in 680 has
made him the "prince of martyrs" for both Shiites and Sunnis.
Yet the prophet Muhammad,
the principal exemplar of Islamic ethics (including military ethics),
clearly sought to draw a line separating martyrdom in battle from suicide.
According to several reports, the prophet repudiated those who deliberately
took their own lives in the course of battle, even the soldier suffering
from severe wounds. The Muslim fighter enters battle not with the intention
of dying, but with the conviction that if he should die, it is for reasons
beyond his control. Martyrdom is the will of God, not humans.
Suicide bombers cross
another line clearly drawn in Islamic military ethics when they intentionally
set out to kill civilians. Again, numerous traditions of the prophet establish
the principle that noncombatants, especially women and children, are not
to be directly targeted.
At the same time,
Muslim theorists have long recognized the possibility of "collateral damage"
and excused Muslim fighters who unintentionally kill noncombatants in
the course of military operations. But the Muslim scholars who defend
Palestinian bombers can hardly raise the issue of collateral damage when
it is apparent that families eating in a pizzeria or riding a bus are
themselves direct targets. So they have turned to other justifications,
such as the argument that every Israeli is involved in the oppression
and killing of Palestinians because they are citizens who support their
state, or that every Israeli adult is a potential soldier. They are saying,
in effect, that in Israel, there are no civilians.
however, cannot be reconciled with Islamic teachings on discriminating
between those who are fighting and those who are not. How is the random
targeting of people in a hotel or a marketplace a blow against Israeli
military occupation? Nor can these contentions be reconciled with Islam's
rejection of the idea of collective responsibility. How are teenagers
in a disco or a baby in a stroller responsible for the alleged crimes
of "their" government?
frequently made by Muslim scholars is that of reciprocity. As Sheik Ahmed
Yassin, leader of Hamas, has repeatedly said, "As long as they target
our civilians, we will target their civilians." No doubt Israel's occupation
and attacks have inflicted terrible civilian casualties, if not through
direct targeting, then through the disproportionate use of force, such
as sending tanks against boys throwing stones or using helicopter gunships
to assassinate suspected militants and to bomb targets in heavily populated
But the justification
of suicide bombings as retaliation is a curious moral position, if it
can be called that at all. It not only abnegates moral responsibility,
it also effectively demolishes the ethical underpinning of the jihad tradition,
which is that Muslims behave according to the dictates of divine law,
not in response to the actions of their enemies. The argument for reciprocity
is generally made on the basis of Koranic verses such as, "Fight the polytheists
all together as they fight you all together" (9:36). The scholars who
cite this verse usually fail to consider its historical context, as well
as how it ends: "But know that God is with those who restrain themselves."
Leaving aside the
principled objections, suicide bombings also must be rejected because
of the adverse consequences that result from them. Again, Muslims hold
that there is no greater exemplar of the military strategist or tactician
than the prophet himself. He was no leader of a suicide cult. What stands
out clearly from the prophet's actions is his flexibility and adaptability
to changing circumstances. For the first 12 years of his mission, he pursued
a policy of nonviolent resistance grounded in principle and prudence.
For the next 10 years, he did not hesitate to fight when required, but
he also continued to use nonviolent means when appropriate, including
diplomacy and tactical retreat. Above all, his policies demonstrate an
abiding concern for the welfare of the people he led, not just in their
immediate, individual circumstances, but also in their evolution as a
who defend suicide bombings -- or terrorism in general -- must ask themselves
if their tactic is yielding any result except death and misery for themselves
and the Israelis, not to mention an erosion of international confidence
in their willingness to live peacefully within their own state. Beyond
that, they must ask what type of nation they hope to become. The way people
struggle against oppression determines in large part what type of nation
they will be once they are free. The Algerian struggle against French
colonialism saw atrocities committed by all parties, leaving a fractured
society and polity once the occupiers had left. The wounds from that liberation
struggle festered into the gruesome civil war of today.
Finally, those Muslim
scholars who justify Palestinian terrorism must weigh the consequences
of any exception to the rule against killing innocents. If young Palestinians
are justified in strapping bombs to themselves and killing randomly in
Israel, then it isn't a far stretch for young Egyptians and Saudis to
crash civilian airplanes into skyscrapers in the name of Islam. Once the
rule against killing innocents is breached, what comes next? The use of
anthrax or nuclear weapons? If Muslims are to excuse these acts, then
they might as well discard the centuries-long tradition of moral reflection
on jihad and instead embrace the idea that harb (war) is hell.
teaches international relations at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.
© 2002 The Washington