May 2, 2001 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 53

Debating the Religious, Political and Moral Legitimacy of Suicide Bombings Part 1: The Debate over Religious Legitimacy

May 2, 2001
Palestinians, Jordan, Egypt | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 53

The Arab media has recently plunged into a debate concerning the religious, political and moral legitimacy of the Palestinian suicide bombings against Israel. The leading Sunni-Islamic authorities, as well as political officials and columnists took part in the debate.

The question of the religious legitimacy of suicide attacks that prompted the debate was a non-conforming religious ruling by the Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Sheik Abd Al-Aziz Bin Abdallah AAl Al-Sheik: "I am not aware of anything in the religious law regarding killing oneself in the heart of the enemy['s ranks], or what is called 'suicide'. This is not a part of Jihad, and I fear that it is merely killing oneself. Although the Koran permits and even demands the killing of the enemy, this must be done in ways that do not contradict the Shari'a [Islamic Religious Law]."[1]

The Mufti's fatwa [religious ruling] raised objections among Palestinian religious authorities. The PA's Mufti of Jericho, Sheik Muhammad Isma'il Al-Jamal, published a fatwa of his own in the PA daily Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, in which he explained the "great difference" between "martyrdom", which is allowed and even desirable in Islam, and suicide, which leads to "torments in Hell on Judgment Day".[2]

Sheik Hamed Al-Bitawi, head of the Palestinian Islamic Scholars Association [affiliated with Hamas], stated that, according to the Shari'a, "Jihad is a collective duty [Fardh Kifaya]..." However, if infidels conquer even an inch of the Muslims' land, as happened with the occupation of Palestine by the Jews, then Jihad becomes an individual duty [Fardh 'Ayn]", and therefore, suicide attacks are permissible.[3]

Dr. Abd Al-'Aziz Al-Rantisi, one of the leaders of Hamas, joined Sheik Al-Bitawi and explained that "suicide depends on volition. If the martyr intends to kill himself, because he is tired of life --it is suicide. However, if he wants to sacrifice his soul in order to strike the enemy and to be rewarded by Allah -- he is considered a martyr [rather than someone who committed suicide]. We have no doubt that those carrying out these operations are martyrs." Bitawi and Rantisi based their statements on a fatwa by Sheik Yussuf Al-Qaradhawi.[4]

Sheik Yussuf Al-Qaradhawi, one of the leaders of the "Muslim Brotherhood", and a highly recognized religious authority in Sunni Islam today, countered the fatwa of the Saudi Mufti, saying: "These operations are the supreme form of Jihad for the sake of Allah, and a type of terrorism that is allowed by the Shari'a." Al-Qaradhawi cited a Koranic verse stating that one must be prepared to "spread fear among one's enemies and the enemies of Allah", and added that "the term 'suicide operations' is an incorrect and misleading term, because these are heroic operations of martyrdom, and have nothing to do with suicide. The mentality of those who carry them out has nothing to do with the mentality of someone who commits suicide."[5]

Sheik Al-Qaradhawi had already published a Fatwa stating that suicide attacks are allowed according to Islamic law. In a recent interview in an Egyptian newspaper, Al-Qaradhawi explained his ruling: "He who commits suicide kills himself for his own benefit, while he who commits martyrdom sacrifices himself for the sake of his religion and his nation. While someone who commits suicide has lost hope with himself and with the spirit of Allah, the Mujahid is full of hope with regard to Allah's spirit and mercy. He fights his enemy and the enemy of Allah with this new weapon, which destiny has put in the hands of the weak, so that they would fight against the evil of the strong and arrogant. The Mujahid becomes a 'human bomb' that blows up at a specific place and time, in the midst of the enemies of Allah and the homeland, leaving them helpless in the face of the brave Shahid who... sold his soul to Allah, and sought the Shahada [Martyrdom] for the sake of Allah."

Sheik Qaradhawi added that these operations are allowed even when the casualties are civilians: "Israeli society is militaristic in nature. Both men and women serve in the army and can be drafted at any moment. [On the other hand] if a child or an elderly is killed in such an operation, he is not killed on purpose, but by mistake, and as a result of military necessity. Necessity justifies the forbidden."[6]

Sheik Al-Qaradhawi explained why there are contradicting fatwa's on this subject by different Islamic authorities, saying: "the fatwas that were made against these heroes, in which they were labeled 'terrorists', were not issued by authoritative religious sources... but rather by a group of people who are alien to the Shari'a and the religion. They probably serve the regimes or are agents of the police."[7]

Sheik of Al-Azhar, Muhammad Sayyed Tantawi, the leading religious authority in the Sunni Muslim establishment in Egypt, joined in the debate, saying that "the suicide operations are of self-defense and a kind of martyrdom, as long as the intention behind them is to kill the enemy's soldiers, and not women or children."[8] It is interesting to note, that Sheik Tantawi had in the past published a stronger version of his stance on this issue, in which he stated: "Any explosion that leads to the death of innocent women and children is a criminal act, carried out only by people who are base, cowards and traitors, because a rational man with just a bit of respect and manliness, refrains from such operations altogether." It is noteworthy that this declaration by Sheik Tantawi referred to the attacks against the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and it does not seem to apply to Palestinian attacks against Israelis.[9]

However, an Egyptian law professor, Tawfiq Al-Shawi, recalled that Tantawi had issued in the past an opposite religious ruling, namely, that the suicide attacks are acceptable in the Shari'a: "On August 4, 1998, in an interview in the Al-Hayat daily, Sheik Tantawi described suicide operations as a legitimate defense against the enemy who attacks the Palestinian people, and who has no mercy on the elderly, women or children... On a previous occasion, on May 27, 1998, Sheik Tantawi stated: 'It is every Muslim, Palestinian and Arab's right to blow himself up in the heart of Israel, an honorable death is better than a life of humiliation. All religious laws have demanded the use of force against the enemy and fighting against those who stand by Israel; there is no escape from fighting, from Jihad, and from [self-]defense, and whoever refrains from such things is not a believer.'"

Al-Shawi added that, in his opinion, there is no contradiction between the ruling of the Saudi Mufti and those of Sheik Tantawi of Al-Azhar, Sheik Qarashawi and the Palestinian scholars, since the Saudi Mufti's ruling refers to the principles of Shari'a in times of peace, and not in a state of war, as is currently the case.[10]

Jordanian columnist, Yasser Al-Za'atra, former editor of the Hamas journal, Filastin Al-Muslima, gave another explanation for the unusual ruling by the Saudi Mufti. He explained that the Mufti did not rule out suicide attacks, but simply said that he is not aware of any religious precedent for them. According to Al-Za'atra, a supporter of suicide attacks, "it is difficult to find precise authorization from the lives of our ancestors, ... because of differences in means, time and place." However, Al-Za'atra states that there are many traditions [Hadiths] that describe Muslims who entered into a battle whose result was known in advance: martyrdom; although they did this with ancient means, and not with explosives, in Al-Za'atra's opinion, this is a precedent for suicide attacks in religious law.[11]

The 'Scholars of Al-Azhar' and the 'Al-Azhar Center for Islamic Research', published their own religious ruling in support of suicide attacks. According to them, "He who sacrifices himself [a 'fidaai'] is he who gives his soul in order to come closer to Allah and to protect the rights, respect and land of the Muslims... On the other hand, he who commits suicide loses his soul and kills himself, because of his desperation... and in order to escape from life, and not for a higher goal, whether religious or national, or for the sake of the liberation of his robbed land... When the Muslims are attacked in their homes and their land is robbed, the Jihad for Allah turns into an individual duty. In this case, operations of martyrdom become a primary obligation and Islam's highest form of Jihad."

Al-Azhar's scholars added that "the participation of Palestinian children and youths in the Intifada is a type of Jihad... when Jihad becomes an individual duty, all Muslims must join in, and children must go [to battle], even without asking permission from their parents. Those who sell their soul to Allah are the avantgarde of the Shahids in Allah's eyes, and they express the revival of the nation, its steadfastness in struggle, and the fact of its being alive and not dead."[12] This ruling was signed by Dr. Muhammad Rafat Othman, Dean of the Department of Shari'a and Law at Al-Azhar University, Dr. Muhammad Ibrahim Al-Fayyumi, a professor at Al-Azhar University, and Dr. Muhammad Rushdi; All three members of the 'Al-Azhar Research Center'.[13]

*Yotam Feldner is MEMRI's Director of Media Analysis.

[1] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), April 21, 2001. On this occasion, the Saudi Mufti also expressed his objection to plane hijackings.

[2] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (PA), April 27, 2001.

[3] Al-Hayat (London-Beirut), April 25, 2001.

[4] Al-Hayat (London-Beirut), April 25, 2001.

[5] Al-Raya (Qatar), April 25, 2001.

[6] Al-Ahram Al-Arabi (Egypt), February 3, 2001.

[7] Al-Istiqlal, the newspaper of the organization, "Palestinian Islamic Jihad", August 20, 1999.

[8] Sut Al-Ama (Egypt), April 26, 2001. [quoted in Al-Hayat (London-Beirut), April 27, 2001.]

[9] Al-Quds (PA), August 17, 1998.

[10] Al-Hayat (London-Beirut), April 27, 2001.

[11] Al-Dastur (Jordan), April 26, 2001.

[12] Sheik Al-Qaradhawi said similar things regarding the participation of children in Jihad without their parents' permission, in an interview in Al-Raya (Qatar), April 25, 2001.

[13] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (PA), April 27, 2001.

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