July 27, 2001 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 65

Debating the Religious, Political, and Moral Legitimacy of Suicide Bombings: Part III

July 27, 2001
Palestine, Egypt | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 65

Over the last few months in light of the increased Palestinian "martyrdom operations," the Arab media has been engaged in a heateddebate about the religious, political and moral legitimacy of suicide bombings against Israel. The participants are the leadingSunni-Islamic authorities, as well as political officials and senior columnists. Following is the third part of a comprehensive review ofthis debate:

Civilian and Military Israeli Victims are One and the Same

The Sheik of Al-Azhar, Muhammad Sayyed Tantawi, ruled that "the Palestinian youth who bomb themselves amongst people who fight against them, are considered martyrs (Shuhada). On the other hand, if they bomb themselves amongst babies, women, and elderly, they are not considered martyrs."[1]

This statement by the highest religious authority in Egypt helped those who believe that innocent people should not be targeted. Ashraf Abd Al-Fattah Abd Al-Qader, an Egyptian author living in Paris wrote that "the rulings by the Saudi Mufti and by Sheik of Al-Azhar, forbidding suicide attacks against Jewish civilians, women, and children are in accordance with the principles of Islam, that attribute a kind of holiness to human life that is not matched even by modern law..."

"Whoever unjustly kills even one person is like someone who committed a crime against all of humanity. What murder can be more abominable than the murder of a civilian, a woman, a child, out of revenge? Islam has preceded modern law by more than twelve centuries when it ruled the custom of blood vengeance of that time as a crime...The instruction of [the Caliph] Abu Bakr [who succeeded the Prophet Muhammad] to his army served as the basis of international law and the Geneva Convention, which prohibits harming of civilians in time of war and view it as a crime against humanity..."[2]

However, there have been many writers and Muslim clerics who defied the ruling of Sheik Tantawi and explained that there is no justification for the distinction between Israeli civilians and military. One example is Dr. Mustafa Ghalush, a lecturer at the Al-Azhar University, who stated "he who incites and he who carries out are the same, according to Islam."[3]

Dr. Muhammad Kamal Al-Din Al-Imam, a Lecture on Islamic law at the Alexandria Law Faculty, also suggested that "there are no [Israeli] civilians". Dr. Al-Imam said: "The [Israeli] society as a whole attacks the land of Palestine. They are all armed, they are all part of a military force, they are all recruited. They came from various countries in order to occupy someone else's land. Can someone who committed such a crime be treated as a civilian?!! Israel is a Dar Harb[4] and its citizens are considered aggressors and plunderers… These (Muslim warriors) by no means commit suicide. Each part in their bodies speaks [the language] of Martyrdom for the sake of Allah."

Dr. Al-Imam added a different perspective: "The religious authorities have allowed (even) the killing of a Muslim, if the heretic enemy is using him as a shield and there is no other way of killing this heretic, but to kill the Muslim along with him." He explained, "in such a case, the killing of the Muslim is permitted." [5] If it is permissible to kill a Muslim, it is surely permissible to kill civilian enemies.

Dawud Al-Shiryan, a columnist from Al-Hayat, distinguished the difference between killing civilians and the killing of those in the military, but only in attacks against American targets, not when the targets are Israeli: "...The Islamic movement should have denounced this operation [the failed attempt to bomb the American embassy in New Delhi], which could have caused the loss of innocent lives."

Such a position directly supports the Martyrdom operations carried out by the heroes of the Intifada in the occupied land against the Zionist enemy, because such a rejection may protect the image of the Arabs and Muslims worldwide…"

"The political dispute with the US does not justify the murder of American and other civilians ... [On the other hand] in the struggle against the occupier, all means are allowed in order to prevent the continuation of this occupation..."[6]

Subhi Al-Hadidi, a Syrian author living in Paris, wrote about "the clear and single" difference between Sa'id Al-Hotari, who committed the Tel-Aviv Disco bombing and his victims: "They are the killers and he is the victim." He asked: "Are people who came from Russia to settle in a land that is not theirs and who shout, 'Death to the Arabs', innocent? Why are these "innocents" allowed to join extremist political parties, elect a war criminal like Sharon, and dance to the music of their barbaric soldiers in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip?..."[7]

Dr. Muhammad Hassan Abd Al-Khaleq, a Hebrew lecturer, added his "expertise" regarding the nature of Jews and stated that anyone who is familiar with the Jews, like himself, understands that suicide operations against them are commendable: "Anyone who forbids these operations does not know anything about these Jews. How can anyone forbid the killing of people who believe that stealing and killing is part of their false faith? The Jews have interpreted the Commandment 'Thou shall not kill' as 'Thou shall not kill a Jew'... Many cases of inhuman acts of murder carried out by them for religious motives have been registered in history, like the murder of a Christian priest and the collecting of his blood in order to make of it Passover matzah. This happened at the beginning of the nineteenth-century in Damascus and has been proven to be true..."[8]

What Does Islamic Tradition Rule?
Many of the supporters of suicide bombings have criticized the Saudi Mufti[9], claiming that he has not based his ruling on [religious] authorities from early Islam as he should have.

Sayyed Al-Shamuti, a columnist for the Egyptian opposition weekly, Al-Haqiqa, recollected the case of Anas Ibn Al-Nadhr, "who did not participate in the battle of Badr, and as a result, suffered insomnia. He told the Prophet [Muhammad]: 'I did not attend the fighting against your enemies, and if I survive, until the next raid, you will hear of my deeds'. And, indeed, in the battle of Uhud... He threw himself on the Polytheists' swords and daggers and fought powerfully and ferociously, until he was martyred. Eighty stabs were found in his body and his sister could only recognize him by a scar on his hand."

A similar incident, mentioned by Shamuti, is the one of Ikrima Ibn Abi Jahl who saw the Byzantine forces nearing the tent of the Muslim commander, Khaled bin Al-Walid, in the battle of Al-Qadisiya, and "the blood of Martyrdom boiled in his veins. He shouted at the Muslims that whoever took a pledge to die, should follow him. Four hundred of the Muslims have realized... that there is no escape from death and annihilation, except through Martyrdom, and they achieved that which they have sought."

"Had the Muslim knights possessed explosives at the time," concludes Shamuti, "they would have used them... Therefore, what the Palestinian (Martyr) does to the Zionist enemy with his belt of explosives is the highest form of Martyrdom..."[10]

The PA Mufti, Ikrima Sabri, also criticized the Saudi Mufti in a Friday sermon at the Al-Aqsa Mosque that was aired live by the PA radio, on the basis of early Islam. He explained that in the seventh-century Battle of Mu'tah, the Muslim army included only 3,000 soldiers, while the Byzantine army was more than one hundred thousand soldiers. Nevertheless Sabri explained, "the commanders of the Muslim army discussed [the plans of the battle] and decided to clash with the masses of Byzantine soldiers. The first commander of the Muslim army sacrificed his life. It was the Prophet's companion, Zayd Ibn Al-Haritha. So the command was passed to the next, the companion Ja'far Ibn Abu Taleb who came down off his horse and launched an attack into the Byzantine multitudes until his right hand palm was cut off. He passed the banner to his left hand, but that one too was severed. He still continued to hold the flag between the two stumps where his hands had been, until he was struck by a Byzantine soldier."

"It was a hard hit that cut his body in two. In his body there were fifty stabbings, none of them in the back, because he did not retreat. He faced the enemy and was amongst them. That is the nature of believers who do not retreat at the time of the assault. And I ask: Is Ja'far's breaking into the ranks of the enemy regarded as suicide? No, Allah forbid. No. It is Martyrdom for the sake of Allah. The Prophet named him "Ja'afar the Flyer" because when he reached paradise Allah granted him two wings in place of his two hands that were amputated in the battle... We say to those who consider this suicide: Be careful with your religious rulings..."[11]

Dr. Mustafa Al-Shka', a member of the Al-Azhar Islamic (Egypt) Studies Center, defied Sheik Tantawi who heads the institution that employs him and stated: "We were commanded to fight against the enemies using all means. Our [military] capability does not equal theirs, and therefore we should modify our means. My blood is required for the sake of Allah, but the form of its [sacrifice] was not determined. The important thing is that I kill as many enemies as possible and turn into a Martyr (Shahid). He who fights with a sword, kills one heretic; on the other hand, he who bombs himself and kills many of the enemies of Allah, and therefore this is a higher level of Martyrdom."[12]

Among columnists there were a few who supported the opposite position, i.e. that suicide operations are the result of desperation, rather than of great hope. Galal Duweidar, Editor of the Egyptian government daily Al-Akhbar, for example, claimed that "desperation and frustration always function as a powerful fuel for the forces of the struggle ... What happened in Tel Aviv is merely a reaction to the irresponsible obstinacy of the Sharon government who insist on toying with all the efforts to reach a formula for peaceful relations between Israelis and Palestinians..."[13]

However, this position remained unpopular and the opposite opinion, that of Lawyer Mamdouh Isma'il, a columnist for the Egyptian opposition weekly Al-Ahrar, who was more reflective of the general trend in the Arabic media, stated: "While Muslims all around the world smell the scent of honor and are overcome with joy for the brave Martyrdom operations carried out by the youth of Jihad in Palestine, this strange Fatwa [by the Saudi Mufti] appeared from nowhere... How, in the name of Allah, can anyone compare a man who lost hope in himself and the mercy of Allah, to a Mujaheed who prays in a mosque full of hope in Allah and his mercy? How, in the name of Allah, can anyone compare someone who kills himself for his own sake after despairing from achieving a woman, money, honor, or authority, to someone who sells his soul to Allah for the sake of his religion and for the sake of the holy places that are being desecrated by the enemies? How can anyone compare one who got rid of himself and of his problems by killing himself, to someone who fights the enemies of Allah and his own enemies and sacrifices his soul easily by turning his body into a human bomb, knowing for sure that the explosives he carries will go off amongst the enemies of Allah and the enemies of the religion and cause them sorrow, damages, and death...?"[14]

[1] Ruz Al-Yussuf (Egypt), May 18, 2001.

[2] Al-Hayat (London-Beorut), May 16, 2001.

[3] Al-Liwa Al-Islami (Egypt), June 14, 2001.

[4] According to Islamic doctrine, the world is divided to the area where Islam prevails, known as Dar Al-Islam, and an area not under Islam's control is defined as Dar Al-Harb.

[5] Al-Liwa Al-Islami (Egypt), June 14, 2001.

[6] Al-Hayat (London-Beirut), June 18, 2001.

[7] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), June 8, 2001.

[8] Al-Liwa Al-Islami (Egypt), June 14, 2001.

[9] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis #53 and #54

[10] Al-Haqiqa (Egypt), May 12, 2001.

[11] The Voice of Palestine Radio (PA), May 25, 2001.

[12] Al-Liwa Al-Islami (Egypt), June 14, 2001.

[13] Al-Akhbar (Egypt), June 3, 2001.

[14] Al-Ahrar (Egypt), June 9, 2001.

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