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The Religious Foundations of Suicide Bombings
Suicide terrorism has been the scourge of the last quarter century. A suicide bomb attack on the U.S. marine barracks in Beirut compelled Ronald Reagan in 1983 to withdraw peacekeepers from Beirut. Palestinian leaders deploy suicide bombers to force Israeli concessions, and Iraqi insurgents use suicide bombings to derail the new political order. Al-Qaeda terrorists attacked the U.S.S. Cole in Aden in 2000 and, on September 11, 2001, the World Trade Center and Pentagon. While some scholars argue there is no religious component to suicide bombing—often citing Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers, who are not Muslims—they are wrong.
All Muslim suicide bombers justify their actions with their religion and, more specifically, with the concept of jihad.
What Is Jihad?
Muslim self-justification of suicide bombing lies in interpretation of jihad. While Western scholars of late argue that jihad refers primarily to internal struggle, Islamic writings feature jihad as physical warfare. Historian Bernard Lewis finds that "the overwhelming majority of classical theologians, jurists and traditionalists ... understood the obligation of jihad in a military sense."
Islamic jurisprudence has distinguished four different ways in which a believer may fulfill jihad obligations:
1) with faith in his heart;
2) by preaching and proselytizing with his tongue;
3) by good deeds with his hands; and
4) by confronting unbelievers or enemies with the sword.
In practice, the first three are part of the da'wa (missionary activity), actions that support jihad by the sword.
Muslim theologians were explicit in the combination of nonviolent and violent jihad to spread Islam. Jihad is central to the Muslim perception of the world, dividing it into dar al-Islam (abode of Islam) and dar al-harb (abode of war) which is destined to come under Islamic rule. Jihad both purifies the dar al-Islam and is the tool to shrink and eradicate the dar al-harb. As a doctrine, the aim of jihad is clear: to establish God's rule on earth by compelling non-Muslims to embrace Islam, or to force them to accept second class status if not eradicate them altogether. Such an understanding constituted one of the main ideological bases of the dynasties that ruled the Islamic world from the late seventh century until Mongol hordes put an effective end to their control in the thirteenth century.
A comparison between the concept of martyrdom in Islam on one hand and in Judaism and Christianity on the other illustrates the emphasis on violent jihad within Islamic jurisprudence. In Islamic practice, the martyr is one killed in jihad. He is entitled to special status in paradise and on Judgment Day. In Judaism and Christianity, a martyr is someone who endures torture and death rather than renounce his or her belief.
Jihad against Unbelievers
All four schools of Sunni Islam as well as mainstream Shi‘ism consider idolatry (shirk), apostasy (irtidad), and hypocrisy (nifiq, munafaqah, or riya') to be capital offenses. In each case, jihad is a means to counter such threats and assert the predominance of Islam.
There is little tolerance for idolaters within Islam: the first article of faith is the profession, la ilah illa-llah (there is no deity but God). Muslim jurisprudence considers shirk to be the worst form of disbelief. The Qur'an commands Muslims to kill those who commit shirk and is replete with examples calling for jihad against idolaters. For example, sura (chapter) 9:5 reads, "When the sacred months have passed, slay the idolaters whenever you find them, and take them captive or besiege them." Sura 8:39 reads, "So fight them so that sedition might end and obedience is wholly Allah's"; and sura 9:123 states, "Fight the unbelievers who are near to you, and let them find ruthlessness in you." Muslims living under the rule of idolaters are obliged to fight their rulers. The Qur'an likewise commands believers to conduct jihad against hypocrites, seize them, and do away with them. All infidels, unbelievers, and hypocrites—those who commit blasphemy or treason—are relegated to hell.
Prominent Muslim scholars consider the general jihad declaration against the unbelievers to be crucial to Islamic success. Those who sacrifice their material comfort and bodies for jihad win salvation. By their sacrifice, they obtain all the pleasures of paradise, be they spiritual—the close presence of God—or material. As an additional incentive, Muhammad promised those mujahideen who fight in a jihad war a reward of virgins in paradise. Importantly, those conducting suicide bombings do not consider themselves dead but rather living with God. As sura 2:154 explains, "Do not think that those who are killed in the way of Allah are dead, for indeed they are alive, even though you are not aware." Therefore the prohibition on suicide need not apply to bus bombers or other kamikaze jihadists. Martin Lings, a British scholar of Sufism, argues that this linkage between martyrdom and paradise was probably the most potent factor that Muhammad brought to the annals of warfare, for it transformed the odds of war by offering a promise of immortality.
Jihad in the Hadith
The Hadith collections, the second important source of Shari‘a after the Qur'an, devote considerable attention to jihad, most often in terms of military action against non-believers. Indeed, most Islamic theologians in the classical period (750-1258 C.E.) understood this obligation to jihad as military. There is a whole genre of hadith known as fada'il al-jihad (the merits of the holy war), based on the nine-volume Hadith collection of Muhammad ibn Isma‘il al-Bukhari (810-70) and considered to be the most respected and authoritative collection. He dedicates almost one-third of his fourth volume on jihad as physical holy war against infidels. For example, he relates a hadith of Muhammad commenting that there are one hundred stages in paradise for those who fight for the way of God.  Only those who participate in jihad deserve paradise without any checks and reservations. To exemplify this notion, Bukhari relates a story of a woman asking Muhammad if her son, who was killed in the battle of Badr, is in paradise, and he replied that her son is in a higher paradise.
Consistent with the Qur'an, these hadith generally demonstrate the necessity for Muslims to spare no means to spread Islam by force and strike terror into the hearts of the enemies of God. The main motif of jihad in the Hadith reinforces the concept that death on the battleground in the cause of God leads to paradise and receipt of a "sacred wedding" to black-eyed virgins. From among 262 traditions that are mentioned by Abdallah Ibn al-Mubarak (736-97), a renowned Khorasani scholar who concentrated on jihad warfare as the most important method to Islamic success, thirteen reinforce the concept of virgins in paradise as a reward for martyrdom.
The Hadith also emphasize the necessity for all believers, whenever called upon, to commit to a jihad war. In one example, Bukhari cites Ibn ‘Umar, one of the transmitters of accounts about the Prophet traditionally accepted by Muslims, who relates, "Muhammad said: ‘I have been ordered to fight against all the people until they testify that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is Allah's messenger, and offer the prayers perfectly, and give the obligatory charity. So if they perform all that, then they save their lives and property from me and their reckoning will be done by Allah.'" And, in another, a transmitter narrated, "O Allah, you know that there is nothing more beloved to me than to fight in your cause against those who disbelieved your messenger."
Just as in the Qur'an, the Hadith give ample justification for those who would fight heterodox interpretations of Islam within their own society. Muslim jurists in four schools of law have agreed that the apostate should be given three days to repent and, if he did not, he was to be killed by believer's jihad. Bukhari cites Abu Musa, another accepted transmitter, who related how "a man embraced Islam and then reverted back to Judaism. Ibn al-Mu'azz, one of the Hadith story tellers, said: ‘I will not sit down unless you kill him, as the verdict of Allah and his messenger.'" In another hadith, Ali bin Abu Talib, Muhammad's nephew and son-in-law, narrated, "I heard the Prophet saying ... whenever you find the apostates, kill them, for there will be a reward on the Day of Resurrection."
The Hadith are graphic about punishment for such apostates. According to Anas bin Malik, an Arab thinker and theologian from Medina (d. 795) and founder of the Maliki School of Islamic jurisprudence, "The Prophet ordered the apostates to have their hands and feet cut off. Then he ordered nails, which were heated and passed over their eyes, and they were left in the Harra [a rocky land in Medina], till they died."
Not as theologically important and seldom cited by modern jihadists are the Assassins, a twelfth and thirteenth century Shi‘ite movement which staged assassinations against prominent political leaders who did not share their ideas. While their actions do not directly affect the intellectual evolution of contemporary suicide bombers, their actions demonstrate precedent and the ability of theologians to interpret Islamic doctrine to justify suicide terrorism. As with today's terror masters, the group's founder Hasan al-Sabbah (d. 1124) promised its members paradise if they died in the course of their missions.
Early interpretations of jihad contributed a theological framework which proponents of suicide bombing adopted. First was the idea that jihad was violent. It was a tool not only to purify the domains of Islam and purge the heterodox but also to defeat non-Muslims. Today, academics and scholars may argue that jihad is peaceful and represents internal struggle, but they either obfuscate or misunderstand that for most Islamic theologians and as described in detail by Islamic historians, the first three nonviolent components of jihad form a larger, more violent aggregate.
Those who argue that jihad is peaceful base their assertions almost entirely on Qur'anic verses from the Meccan period, in which Muhammad and his band of followers were small and relatively weak and so prone to compromise. Islamists, though, justify their violence with verses revealed to Muhammad after his December 623 expedition to Nakhlah. Prominent classical scholars acknowledged the principle of nasikh wa-mansukh (abrogation) which placed greater emphasis on later Medinan verses of violence and jihad. For contemporary Western scholars and journalists to down play Medinan verses suggests a critical misunderstanding of Qur'anic studies.
Many Islamists are unapologetic about violent jihad. They use Qur'anic interpretation to justify terrorism, suicide bombings, and beheadings. They seek to emulate the aggressive jihad waged by Muhammad and his successors from 626 to 740 in their own struggle. These are the Islamic apocalyptic terrorist groups of today who agree with the idea that jihad is so important that every believer must accept it as a compulsory duty, even when unbelievers have not started it.
While some academics and commentators argue that jihad is restricted to religious wars, from an Islamic perspective, all wars against non-Muslims (or Muslims redefined by jihadists as non-Muslims) are religious. This is the reason why some Muslim scholars regard jihad as the sixth pillar of Islam, as it is in Shi‘ite doctrine. The most influential Islamist thinkers of the twentieth century—Abu al-A'la al-Mawdudi (1903-79), Hasan al-Banna (1906-49), and Sayyid Qutb (1906-66)—have addressed the centrality of jihad at length. Activists such as Muhammad Abd al-Salam Faraj, an Egyptian electrical engineer and a follower of Qutb, call it "the neglected duty," and interpret it to justify a fight against any ruler or government that does not adhere to the Shari‘a.
Most recent jihadists have relied on Qutb to justify their own theories of violent jihad. ‘Abdullah Yusuf ‘Azzam (1941-89), a Palestinian who fled to Jordan after the Six-Day war, adopted many elements of both Ibn Taymiya, an early fourteenth century Islamic scholar who laid the philosophical groundwork for the Islamic fundamentalism adopted by Saudi Arabia centuries later, and Qutb to promote the belief in an inevitable clash of civilizations. He emphasized the necessity of violent revolution through jihad against both secular governments in majority Muslim states and against the West. He is credited with being the first Sunni Islamic figure to instill the Islamic community with a divine myth of invincibility of jihad and terrorism.
‘Azzam was a major intellectual influence upon Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda. In his book Knights under the Banner of the Prophet, bin Laden's number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri, identified his organization's goals as da'wa and violent jihad against both an "internal enemy," i.e., existing Arab infidel regimes, and an "external enemy" in areas not controlled by Muslims. To Zawahiri, Muslims who accept Western values such as democracy and those who renounce jihad as a means to establish the Islamic state are infidels deserving of death. The Islamic nation, he maintained, would be established only through jihad for the sake of God, compulsory duty vested upon all the Islamic community. He believed that a "Crusader-Jewish" alliance would mobilize all its resources to counter Islamic power.
Bin Laden embraced similar logic. Beginning in August 1996, he used verses from the Qur'an and the Hadith to argue that jihad was compulsory to expel non-Muslims and Westerners from Saudi Arabia. On February 23, 1998, though, he expanded his jihad when, with Zawahiri at his side, he announced the creation of the International Islamic Front for Jihad against the Jews and Crusaders.
The writings of Qutb also influenced Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi, the late leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq. Zarqawi peppered his speeches and declarations with verses from the Qur'an and Hadith to demonstrate God's promise of the inevitability of the creation of a pure Sunni Islamic state so long as Muslims fight jihad against the enemies of Islam by jihad. Zarqawi called jihad "the crest of the summit of Islam."
Bin Laden granted Zarqawi permission to kill Iraqi security forces and Shi‘ites in order to achieve a "state of truth" and uproot the "state of the lie." Zarqawi did so with both car bombs and suicide bombers. On May 18, 2005, Zarqawi legitimized the killing of Muslims under the principle of overriding necessity and the victory of jihad. "Islamic law states that the Islamic faith is more important than life, honor, and property," and the Shi‘ites are worse than the Crusaders, he argued. He declared both collateral killing of Muslims and murder of noncombatant non-Muslims legitimate and, on September 14, 2005, declared jihad war on the Shi‘ites.
In the words of Rudolph Peters, an expert on contemporary Islam, the ultimate aim of jihad is the subjection of the non-believers and the eradication of non-belief. Islamic law is the ultimate solution, and it has full answers to all possible situations and problems, present and future. This is why the fanatic Muslims of today—religious, ideologists, and practitioners—denounce all the existing political systems and demand their liquidation. The current Arab-Islamic system represents a "new age of ignorance" and the Western political systems are "the new Crusaderism," all doomed to extermination by jihad warfare.
Jihad becomes a binding duty on all Muslims as individuals. Abdulaziz A. Sachedina, an Indian Muslim expert on the Shi‘ites who lives in the West, explained, "There is no doubt that the Muslim jurists conceived jihad in the sense of engaging in a war to increase the Dar al-Islam as an integral part of Islamic faith ... with the essential aim of uprooting unbelief and preparing the way for a creation of Islamic order on earth."
The violence of contemporary jihad was also apparent in the reaction of Islamists to cartoons published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. Muslim rioters and Arab and Islamic governments seized upon the contention that it is against Islam to depict the Prophet Muhammad and to argue that the apostates and non-believers should be punished.
Violence accompanied demonstrations in Europe and in Muslim countries. By far the greatest number of fatalities was in Nigeria, which is neither European nor Muslim. In London, protestors marched under banners reading, "Slay those who insult Islam," "Butcher those who mock Islam," "Behead those who insult Islam," "Exterminate those who slander Islam," "Massacre those who insult Islam," "Europe is the cancer, Islam is the answer," "Europe take lessons from 9-11," "Europe you will pay. Your 9-11 is on its way," "Be prepared for the real holocaust," and "Islam will dominate the world." To many jihadists, such threats are literal, not hyperbole. Suicide bombing becomes a legitimate technique to carry them out.
The Islamic Roots of Suicide Bombings
What is the connection between religious sources of over a millennium ago to the suicide bombings of today? There is a direct link between the jihadists of yesterday and contemporary jihadists. Many jihadists cite the works of Taqi al-din Ahmad Ibn Taymiya (1263-1328), an Islamic scholar born in Harran, in modern-day Turkey, who wrote extensively on the need for jihad and exalted it even above the Islamic obligations of fasting and pilgrimage (hajj). He attacked many practices prevalent among Muslims of his time and favored a literal interpretation of the Qur'an. Modern jihadists have used his fatwas commanding Muslims to fight the Mongols as precedents legitimizing suicide bombing. Mawdudi, Banna, and Qutb have also developed Ibn Taymiya's philosophy, writing extensively on jihad as the means to fight the re-emergence of the age of ignorance, with its tribal savagery and anarchy. They also suggested that the Islamic order can be maintained and protected, if not expanded, through violence.
In recent decades, the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas has embraced suicide bombings to lethal effect. Its 1987 charter shows its intellectual and theological justifications. It cites the Qur'an to promote the idea of Muslim exclusivity and hadith from Bukhari and the Sahih Muslim calling for the murder of Jews to hasten the Day of Judgment. More recent exegesis also influenced Hamas. The charter cites Banna's call for Islam to obliterate Israel and is explicit about the violent nature of jihad: Article 13 argues that there is no solution to the Palestinian question but through jihad, and Article 15 declares the necessity to instill jihad in the heart of the Muslim nation.
The 9-11 suicide attacks sparked significant debate in the Islamic world about the merits of suicide attacks. Sheikh Muhammad Sa'id al-Tantawi, head of Cairo's Al-Azhar, the most prestigious university for Sunni jurisprudence, declared that the Shari‘a rejects all attempts on taking human life, and Sheikh Muhammad bin ‘Abdallah al-Sabil, a member of the Saudi Council of Islamic Clerics and imam at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, decried the suicide attacks on the basis that Islamic law forbids killing civilians, suicide, and protects Jews and Christians. But both Tantawi and Sabil sidestep the question of "martyrdom operations." Because preserving the life of dhimmis (Jews and Christians) is conditional to their acceptance of Muslim rule, suicide attacks upon Israelis or Jews and Christians outside majority Muslim countries may be permissible. Indeed, other Al-Azhar scholars, for example, ‘Abd al-'Azim al-Mit'ani, say it is permissible to kill Israeli civilians in the cause of jihad.
Today's Al-Qaeda splinter and successor groups and their fellow travelers use the writings of Ibn Taymiya and those influenced by him. The linkage is concrete. They often cite the same Qur'anic passages and hadith that justified the violent jihad of the seventh century. Religious clerics issue fatwas citing them. Perhaps the most prominent of these is Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who has built upon such interpretations to justify suicide bombing, other acts of terrorism, and the murder of civilians, all in the cause of jihad. He has called suicide bombing a supreme form of jihad for the sake of God and, therefore, religiously legitimate. Those who object to his ideas he labels as agents of ignorance. While he argues that the Qur'an does not allow attacks against the innocent, his definition of innocence is so narrow as to obviate such assurances.
September 11 hijacker Muhammad Atta's last will and testament shows how deep such interpretations of jihad have penetrated Muslim life as his verbiage and instructions for burial showed how he believed himself a good Muslim, even as he participated in an event which murdered almost 3,000 civilians.
Suicide bombing in the Muslim world cannot be separated from religion. Its perpetrators believe jihad to be synonymous with war and mandate Muslims to strike not only at non-Muslims but also at co-religionists deemed insufficiently loyal to their radical cause. The ideological basis of such an interpretation has deep roots in Islamic theology, but it came to prominence with the twentieth-century rise of Muslim Brotherhood theorists such as Banna and Qutb and was further developed by their successors. While much of the exegesis developed out of Sunni jurisprudence, the Islamic Republic in Iran encouraged the phenomenon. Many of Tehran's proxy groups embraced the tactic.
It is fashionable among Western analysts and academics to explain away suicide bombing with discussion of "root causes" that omit religion. Many cite a history of exploitation by Western powers, Israel's existence, government oppression, poverty, lack of education, and alienation as reasons why desperate individuals decide to blow themselves up to murder others. But attention to suicide bombers' own justifications suggest that, for them, Islam and its call for jihad is the primary motivation.
David Bukay is a lecturer in the school of political science at the University of Haifa.
"David Bukay | Fall 2006 MEQ