Search Asia Times

Advanced Search

Middle East

Suicide bombing: Theology of death
By Rabbi Moshe Reiss

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

In the three monotheistic religions, redemption is the ultimate goal. Most believers expect the kingdom of heaven to occur in Paradise rather than on this Earth. Some, however, call the "heavenly world" the "True World". All believe humanity began in a "Garden of Eden"; mankind was exiled to a place of suffering and evil as a punishment. The objective is to return to the "Garden of Eden".

Rifat Mukdi, aged 25, a failed suicide bomber, stated: "Dying for martyrs doesn't mean real death" (quoted by Eric Schecter in the Jerusalem Post, August 6). Is this a form of discontent of living, an asphyxiation of hope?

How did Islamic clerics react to this distorted sense of religious mysticism? Muhammad Sa'id Tantawi, sheikh and mufti of Egypt's famous al-Azhar Mosque and University, had signed the Alexandrian Document in January 2002 with other religious leaders, both Christian and Jewish, stating: "We declare our commitment to ending the violence and bloodshed that denies the right to life and dignity." In 2003 he was unequivocal about the issue of suicide bombers. He declared that the Sharia (Islamic law) "rejects all attempts on human life, and in the name of the Sharia, we condemn all attacks on civilians" (Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2003).

But the fundamentalist clerics objected. The harshest rebuttal came from Egyptian-born Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, known as the theologian of the Muslim Brotherhood and currently head of the Sunni studies faculty at Qatar University: "I am astonished that some sheikhs deliver fatwas that betray the mujahideen, instead of supporting them and urging them to sacrifice and martyrdom." He argued that "Israeli society was completely military in its make-up and did not include any civilians ... How can the head of al-Azhar incriminate mujahideen who fight against aggressors? How can he consider these aggressors as innocent civilians?"

Tantawi began to equivocate, issuing contradictory statements, finally declaring and effectively abrogating his earlier fatwa: "My words were clear ... a man who blows himself [up] in the middle of enemy militants is a martyr, repeat, a martyr. What we do not condone is for someone to blow himself up in the middle of children or women. If he blows himself up in the middle of Israeli women enlisted in the army, then he is a martyr, since these women are fighters". (Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2003).

Who are these young bombers and what are their motives? Robert Jay Lifton, a psychiatrist at Harvard and Yale universities and an expert on cults and suicide, stated that "they believe there's a higher purpose, that in some way they are bringing about a purification, a perfection. They are destroying the world in order to save it ... I think in this sense, all suicide has to do with making a lasting statement one could not make in life" (quoted by Benedict Carey, Los Angeles Times, July 31, 2002). Clark McCauley, a psychologist at Bryn Mawr College in the United States and a writer on terrorism, stated: "It's the group that's abnormal and extreme. The bombers themselves are psychologically as normal as you and I. The best evidence that these terrorists are mentally competent is the planning and patience required for many of their missions. They are not socially dysfunctional" (for the Social Science Research Council).

What brings a young Palestinian to detonate him/herself amid a crowd of other young persons? Is it a religious upbringing with promises of Paradise in reward for acts of martyrdom? Is it the parental support he receives for his convictions? Is it the payment his family will receive raising them out of poverty? Is it brainwashing, or encouragement from a Palestinian society that see no other means of fighting back against occupation, oppression and humiliation?

A Friday-night bombing outside a Tel Aviv discotheque took the lives of 20 young Israelis. The suicide bomber was identified as 22-year-old Saeed Hotary, a Jordanian who had lived at Kalkilya. Saeed's father Hassan told the Associated Press, "I am very happy and proud of what my son did and I hope that all the men of Palestine and Jordan would do the same." His brother said Saeed "was very religious since he was young; he prayed and fasted" (Middle East Media and Research Institute, or MEMRI, June 25, 2001).

Mouin Rabbani, director of the Palestinian American Research Center in Ramallah, stated that the common thread among all suicide bombers is the "bitter experience of what they see as Israeli state terror. Without exception, the suicide bombers have lived their lives on the receiving end of a system designed to trample their rights and crush every hope of a brighter future ... Confronted by a seemingly endless combination of death, destruction, restriction, harassment and humiliation, they conclude that ending life as a bomb - rather than having it ended by a bullet - endows them, even if only in their final moments, with a semblance of purpose and control previously unknown" (MEMRI, December 16, 2003).

Children in this culture have increasingly grown to idolize suicide bombers and others who are seen as having sacrificed their lives for the Palestinian cause, said Dr Eyad Serraj, a psychiatrist in the Gaza Strip (interviewed in the Christian Science Monitor, March 10). The reason, he says, is that they see "martyrdom" as the ultimate redemption. In a poll held in the summer of 2003, 36% of 12-year-old boys in Gaza said they believed that the best thing in life was to die as a martyr, according to Dr Serraj.

"In their minds, the only model of power and glory is the martyr," he said. "Palestinian society glorifies the martyr. They are elevated to the level of saints and even prophets. Out of the hopeless and the inhuman environment they live in, there is the promise that they will have a better life in heaven."

The martyr's image contrasts sharply with the way Palestinian youth view their fathers, Serraj said. In studies he has conducted, fathers are seen as "helpless, unable to protect his children in the face of bombings".

Recently females have joined the ranks of male suicide bombers. According to a women's magazine published by al-Qaeda in September, "We will stand covered by our veils and wrapped in our robes, weapons in hand, our children in our laps, with the Koran and the Sunna of the Prophet of Allah directing and guiding us. The blood of our husbands and the body parts of our children are the sacrifice by means of which we draw closer to Allah, so that through us, Allah will cause the Shahada for His sake to succeed ... [Our reward will be] the pleasure of Allah and His Paradise."

Barbra Victor in a column in The Guardian (April 25) stated that "without exception, these women had been trained by a trusted member of the family - a brother, an uncle - or an esteemed religious leader, teacher, or family friend, all of whom were men. I also learned that all four who died, plus the others who had tried and failed to die a martyr's death, had personal problems that made their lives untenable within their own culture and society." Female suicide bombers are concerned with private issues rather than public issues. These women were primarily single, independent, unable to bear children or considered illegitimate in one way or other. There performances are choreographed by men. Despite Victor's statement, to the best of the author's knowledge no child of a leader has ever attempted suicide bombing.

These men had managed to convince women associated with them that given their "moral transgressions", or the errors made by a male family member or for revenge, the only way to redeem themselves and the family name was to die a martyr's death. Only then would these women enjoy everlasting life filled with happiness, respect and luxury, and finally be elevated to an equal par with men. Only in Paradise, and only if they killed themselves; they are truly "black widows".

The mother of 14-year-old Muhammad Sha'rawi, when speaking of her son who was killed in the conflict: "He had sought martyrdom and found it ... He always said he would die as a shahid and asked me not to cry for him or be sorry, because he was going to heaven" (MEMRI, June 25, 2001).

The mother of two sons killed on the same day from the village of Ya'bad describes how religious belief helps her overcome the pain: "During the day, when I try to forget and calm myself. I read the Koran and thank Allah and ask for forgiveness for my children, and especially when I hear that the shahids [belong] in heaven. I ask Allah to forgive them and recite the verses of the Koran that I know by heart. However, when I am alone even for some moments, I live with them and imagine all their movements ... then I feel the pain exhausting me" (MEMRI, June 25, 2001).

Another mother whose son was killed describes the feelings she experienced when she received the news of his death: "I felt deep sorrow, but the fact that my son died as a shahid cooled the fire in my heart and alleviated my pain" (MEMRI, June 25, 2001).

A father whose son died as a suicide bomber felt differently: "I ask, on my behalf and on behalf of every father and mother informed that their son has blown himself up: 'By what right do these leaders send the young people, even young boys in the flower of their youth, to their deaths?' Who gave them religious or any other legitimacy to tempt our children and urge them to their deaths?

"Yes, I say 'death', not 'martyrdom'. Changing and beautifying the term, or paying a few thousand dollars to the family of the young man who has gone and will never return, does not ease the shock or alter the irrevocable end. The sums of money [paid] to the martyrs' families cause pain more than they heal; they make the families feel that they are being rewarded for the lives of their children.

"Do the children's lives have a price? Has death become the only way to restore the rights and liberate the land? And if this be the case, why doesn't a single one of all the sheikhs who compete amongst themselves in issuing fiery religious rulings, send his son? Why doesn't a single one of the leaders who cannot restrain himself in expressing his joy and ecstasy on the satellite channels every time a young Palestinian man or woman sets out to blow himself or herself up send his son?" (MEMRI, October 10, 2002).

These acts are not suicides. A suicide is based on individual pathology. The individual who performs suicide bombing do not commit suicide; they are involved in a culture of death.

How does the Koran respond to killing?

"We ordained for the Children of Israel that if any one slew a person - unless [or except] it be for murder or for spreading mischief [or corruption] in the land - it would be as if he slew the whole people: and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people. Then although there came to them Our messengers with clear signs, yet, even after that, many of them continued to commit excesses in the land (5:32).

This appears to be a clear prohibition of killing confirming the importance of every single human being. The problem is that the words "unless" and "except" when combined with the words "spreading mischief" and "corruption" can be problematic. This can be a justification for almost any "jihad" operation.

Throughout the history of Islam there were periods when tolerance, pluralism and respect of multi-ethnic groups were prevalent. This was true for several hundred years in each of the following periods: the Ottoman Empire, the Muslim Spanish Empire (known by Jews as their Golden Age), the Indian sub-continent and the Muslim control of the Bosnia. During these ages Muslims excelled in mathematics, the sciences, astronomy and philosophy. The Islamic world was scientifically and intellectual ahead of the remainder of the world. This intellectual supremacy is no longer true. As noted by two United Nations reports (2002 and 2003) done by and for the Mideast, Arabism currently is a failed culture.

Sheikh Ikremeh Sabri, the highest-ranking cleric in the Palestinian Authority preached in al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem: "They think they scare people. We tell them: Inasmuch as you love life, the Muslims love death and martyrdom." It is not his Islamic theology that is abhorrent, it is his culture. His culture sees death as standing as the appetizer of a lifetime ending before it really begins. His "they" who are the rest of us accept death as a dessert after a lifetime.

Culture and religion differ from each other. Religion can and is intended to purify hostile and violent human cultural tendencies. Arabism is a culture in which shame, honor and vengeance, particularly as related to women, play decisive roles. It is not unrelated that this culture debases women in many ways, not least by promising 72 black-eyed virgins for male martyrdom death. What an extraordinary definition of masculinity that he - the Arab male - can handle 72 virgins. One wonders what the physical reward is for female shahids - male virgins? (The author notes that the virgin reward, like much of the shahid ideology, is not to be found in the Koran.)

What we have seen is a culture of death that has developed over a long period of time in the Arabic culture. Despite Arabs representing less than one-fifth of the Muslim world, Arab influence is much greater. The Koran is written in Arabic and all Muslims pray in Arabic. Islam and the Koran do not represent a theology of death; however, they have not yet purified the Arabic culture of its desire to hasten the end result of its death wish.

Moshe Reiss currently resides in Israel, previously having resided in the United States, the United Kingdom, Belgium and Germany. He has lectured in of all those countries (and others) and has degrees in literature, economics and Judaism from the City University of New York, Oxford University and Yale. He was formerly assistant rabbi at Yale University. His website is

(Copyright 2004 Moshe Reiss.)

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

Oct 22, 2004
Asia Times Online Community

Killers turn to suicide (Oct 15, '04)

Squeegee men and suicide bombers (Sept 28, '04)

Youth become fodder for terror 
(Jun 16, '04)

Women suicide bombers defy Israel (Oct 25, '03)

Live and work in the USA


Click Here!
No material from Asia Times Online may be republished in any form without written permission.
Copyright 2003, Asia Times Online, 4305 Far East Finance Centre, 16 Harcourt Rd, Central, Hong Kong