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SUICIDE. Qatl al-nafs, literally “self-murder,” is the term used to denote suicide in classical Islamic texts. Intihar, originally meaning “cutting of the throat,” is the common word in modern Arabic speech.

There is only one phrase in the Qur’an relevant to the subject of suicide: “O you who believei Do not consume your wealth in the wrong way-rather only through trade mutually agreed to, and do not kill yourselves. Surely God is Merciful toward you” (4.29). The connection with suicide of even these few words of the revelation is however rather tenuous, as the key phrase (Ar., wa-ld taqtulu anfusakum), despite the coincidence with the Arabic term for suicide (qatl al-nafs), may also be understood as meaning “do not kill each other.” This is the interpretation favored by Muslim exegetes both classical and modern, ultimately on the grounds that it best fits the context of the verse; consequently, the subject of suicide is also little discussed in the exegetical literature.

The prophetic tradition (hadith), on the other hand, frequently, clearly, and absolutely prohibits suicide. These traditions are the basis for subsequent discussion of the subject. The most frequently reported tradition on suicide is the following: the Prophet said, “Who throws himself from a mountain and kills himself shall be in the Fire of Hell, there ever falling [that is just as he caused his own fall from the mountain] eternally and forever; and he who drinks poison and kills himself shall stand drinking poison from his own hand, eternally and forever; and he who kills himself with a sharp blade shall stab himself in his stomach with a blade held by his own hand, in the Fire of Hell eternally and forever.” Another hadith condemns to eternal torment those who “strangle themselves”; still others mention falling on one’s sword, piercing oneself with an arrow in order to bleed to death, and cutting one’s throat. Such reports suggest frequent and varied occurrence of suicide in the early Arabian environment, a tendency the prophet Muhammad may have sought to overcome.

The traditions agree that suicides shall be in hell forever, and the heinousness of self-murder is emphasized by description of their tortures in that place. Punishment consists (as in the hadith quoted above) of unending repetition of the act by which the suicide delivered himself to death. “Those who kill themselves with a thing,” the Prophet is reported as saying, “shall be tormented with that thing on the Day of Judgment.”

Commentators on the hadith, however, have been reluctant to admit that the suicide is condemned eternally to hell. They maintain that suicides-like murderers and other sinners-are still to be regarded as believers despite their sins. This is because the orthodox are reluctant to accept that believing Muslims can be eternally in the fire; they hold instead that they are tormented only for a time. Similarly, although it is reported in tradition that the Prophet told the people not to pray over a man who had killed himself by cutting his throat with a razor, almost all authorities have permitted suicides the funeral prayer, for to do otherwise would imply exclusion of the deceased from the Muslim community. (The opposite opinion has sometimes prevailed, however, and instances are recorded of suicides having been refused the final prayer.) Apart from the question of the funeral prayer, suicide is very rarely mentioned in the legal literature. Where it appears, it is incidental to discussion of other subjects such as inheritance and marriage. There seems to be no idea, as in Christianity, that the corpse of the suicide is to be roughly treated as punishment for self-murder, nor is there a special penalty for the parasuicide. Thus the attitude of classical Islam to suicide is less rigid than suggested by the hadiths.

The prohibition of suicide reflects the Islamic ethic of forbearance and patient acceptance of hardship, joined with reverence for life as a gift from God. Hence it is forbidden by the tradition even to wish for death, let alone inflict it on oneself. Nor is suicide permitted, according to the tradition, to those in extreme conditions such as severe and painful illness or grievous wounding. Suicide is finally not to be contemplated because it is God, not humankind, who has absolute power over human affairs and the term of human life; it is recorded that when a man who was mortally wounded in war killed himself, the Prophet reported God as saying, “My servant has attempted to preempt me; thus have I forbidden Paradise to him.”

Religious suicide in search of transfiguration (the type of suicide found, for instance, in Jainism and Catharism) is unknown in Islam. Nor has there been any history of collective suicide, perhaps because Islam has not often been in the position of a persecuted minority. Religious suicide in the sense of self-sacrifice for a religious cause is restrained by the ethic of taqiyah (“caution”), according to which the beliefs of an individual must remain concealed or even dissimulated in order to avoid danger and ensure individual and community survival. This ethic is current in both Shi’i and Sunni Islam, each of which accepts the well-known tradition, “Taqiyah is the shield of the believer.” In Sh!’! Islam, however, taqiyah is elevated to a cardinal virtue, the result of a sometimes precarious minority position. Thus-despite the example furnished by the passion of Husayn ibn `All, the grandson of the Prophet and one of the most prominent of the Shi’i imams-the Shl’is in particular have disapproved of sacrificial religious suicide. [See Taqiyah. ] A significant exception to the prohibition of sacrificial religious suicide is the sect of the Nizari Isma’ilis, who in the twelfth century became notorious for sending suicidal assassins against their enemies.

Notwithstanding this disapprobation, Muslims, especially Shi`i Muslims, have recently become known for carrying out “suicidal” military missions. Such incidents have taken place in this century not only in the Middle East but also elsewhere in the Muslim world, for instance in Islamic Southeast Asia and have invariably been a response to the overwhelming force of Western hegemony. Many Muslims, however, have perceived these actions as a necessary part of active armed struggle and the death that results as martyrdom (shahddah) rather than suicide. The phenomenon is therefore best considered under that heading. Cases in which there is a pure idealization of death sanctioned by religious authority (as happened to a degree in Iran during the Iran-Iraq war) are more difficult to classify. [See Martyrdom.]

The rate of suicide among Muslims in modern times appears to be remarkably low. It is a fraction of the rate in Western countries, and also much lower than that of most non-Muslim developing countries. Moreover, in mixed populations Muslims consistently demonstrate a lower rate of suicide than non-Muslims (although the rate may be dramatically higher among emigrants in Western settings, as has been shown to be the case in France). These conclusions, however, have been questioned on the grounds that there are few reliable statistics for Islamic nations. In particular, is is likely that the rate of suicide and parasuicide has been underreported, since concealment of suicide is thought to occur more frequently in traditional societies, in which it may involve greater social consequences. Finally, there is the suspicion that a low incidence of suicide is correlated with the factor of traditional society, with which Islam still largely coincides, rather than with a particular religion. Nevertheless, a recent crossnational statistical study (Miles E. Simpson and George H. Conklin, “Socio-economic Development, Suicide and Religion: A Test of Durkheim’s Theory of Religion and Suicide,” Social Forces 64.4 [June 1989]: 945-964) finds the percentage of Muslims in the population to be in significant negative relation to a nation’s suicide rate, a result that holds even when controlling for economic, social, and demographic modernity. Sociological, medical, and other scientific studies on Muslim suicide have not, however, inquired specifically into the nature of religious beliefs or other religious factors inhibiting selfinflicted violence.

Modern Muslim thinkers have shown little interest in the question of intihdr. This is very different from the case of the Western world, where vigorous debate on suicide began in the seventeenth century as a protest of secular humanism against the rigid attitudes of Christianity and was intensified in the centuries following owing to an exploding rate of suicide. In the Islamic world, in contrast, there has been no great wave of secularism or humanism nor any rapid rise in the suicide rate to force the question. Furthermore, Islam does not stipulate, as Christianity does, gruesome temporal punishments for the parasuicide and the body of the suicide, practices that helped spark the debate in the West.

Contemporary Islamic discussion of suicide proceeds along the lines of the traditions and classical interpretation. The familiar themes are present: suicide is a sin because only God has the right to take the life he has granted; it is forbidden for Muslims to wish for death, no matter what their condition; and the suicide may receive the funeral prayer. It is also sometimes asserted by modern Muslim thinkers that suicide indicates a decrease in faith, since religion tends to alleviate mental depression and the pain of life’s tragedies, and that atheism is a prime cause of the spread of suicide. This may indicate an awareness of the conclusions of Western research into the subject of suicide and religion.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Headley, Lee A., ed. Suicide in Asia and the Near East. Berkeley, 1983. Includes medical/statistical studies on Singapore, Sri Lanka, Iran, Pakistan, Kuwait, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt, but neglects religious factors.

Mahmood, Tahir, et al. “Symposium: Organ Transplant-Euthanasia-Right to Die: Indian and Islamic Legal Responses.” Islamic and Comparative Law Quarterly 7.2 (1987): III-164. Rare discussion of suicide and “the right to die” from the perspective of Islamic law and Islamic medical ethics.

Rosenthal, Franz. “On Suicide in Islam.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 66 (1946): 239-259. Consideration of the Qur’an and hadith material, followed by discussion of nontheological opinions, including those influenced by Greek thought. The standard study, with copious references. Notes occurrences of suicide in classical times, but does not cover the modern period.

Rosenthal, Franz. “Intihar.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed., vol. 3, pp. 1246-1248. Leiden, 196o-. Contains some material additional to the earlier article by Rosenthal listed above.

The hadiths referred to are recorded, in different versions, in the standard collections. They may be found in the following “books”: Funerals (Jana’iz), Sickness or Medicine (Marad; Tibb), Jihad, and Faith (Iman). The collections of al-Bukhari, Muslim, and Abu Dawud have been translated into English.

A small number of scientific studies on suicide in individual Islamic countries and Muslim populations have been published in various disciplines; refer to the appropriate indexes. Reliable statistics are scarce. A starting point useful for comparison of suicide rates is the World Health Statistics Annual (Geneva, 1962-) of the World Health Organization (United Nations).

 

Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/suicide/
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  • writerPosted On: August 21, 2017
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