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A Subtle Difference: On Ending One's Own Life in Muslim Religious Thought 1


In the focus of this article is the complex problem to validate the deliberate disposal of a Muslim's own life for an Islamically sustained cause – popular modus operandi in the contemporary religiously inspired militant contexts – from a range of religious perspectives. While the general tenor suggest that such an action constitutes deliberate suicide (qatl nafsah) and is to be firmly rejected, the eschatological concept of ‘martyrdom’ (istishhād) adds an alternative interpretation that allows for a positive and even commendable appraisal of such an act.

It is shown here that, from the formative period of Islam onwards, Muslim exegetes, theologians, jurists and philosophers have struggled to come to some kind of agreement over what delineates ‘suicide’ from ‘martyrdom’. Underlying all those attempts is the question what constitutes ‘life’: it appears that the substantial differences in the appraisal of a Muslim's disposal of her or his own life are, in fact, rooted in different conceptions of ‘life’ itself. It is shown how the dismissal of such acts as ‘suicide’ or endorsement as ‘martyrdom’ was, and is, sustained by complex theological and philosophical arguments, including those of volition versus predetermination, as well as such on vegetative growth versus the eudemonistic ‘good life’. Depending on which view is being adopted, one and the same act of disposing one's own life can either be consistently denounced as religiously reprehensible, or equally consistently as religiously commendable.

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This essay is a substantially revised and enlarged version of an earlier one in German, published as ‘»Und tötet Euch nicht!« Martyrium im Islam zwischen Heilversprechen und Heilserwartung’, in Leben und Sterben für Gott? Martyriumsvorstellungen in Auseinandersetzung mit dem Gebot der Lebensbewahrung in Antike und Mittelalter, (ed.) R. Grundmann and S. Fuhrmann (Leiden, 2012), pp. 275-305.

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M. Kramer , ‘Hizbullah: The Calculus of Jihad’, American Academy of Arts & Sciences 47:8 (1994), pp. 2043

E. Alshech , ‘Egoistic Martyrdom and Ḥamās’ Success in the 2005 Municipal Elections: A Study of Ḥamās Martyrs’ Ethical Wills, Biographies, and Eulogies’, Die Welt des Islams 48:1 (2008), pp. 2349

M. Hatina , Martyrdom in Modern Islam: Piety, Power, and Politics (Cambridge, 2014)

R. Sellheim , ‘Prophet, Chalif und Geschichte. Die Muhammed-Biographie [sic] des Ibn Isḥāq’, Oriens 18 (1965-6), pp. 3391

J. Brown , The Canonization of Bukhārī and Muslim: The Formation and Function of the Sunnī Ḥadīth Canon (Leiden, Boston and Cologne, 2007)

M.Q. Zaman , ‘The Caliphs, the ʿUlamāʾ, and the Law: Defining the Role and Function of the Caliph in the Early ʿAbbāsid Period’, Islamic Law and Society 4:1 (1997), pp. 136

W. Ende , ‘The Flagellations of Muḥarram and the Shiʿite ʿUlamāʾ’, Der Islam 55 (1978), pp. 1936

B. Krawietz , Die Ḥurma. Schariatrechtlicher Schutz vor Eingriffen in die körperliche Unversehrtheit nach arabischen Fatwas des 20. Jahrhunderts (Berlin, 1991)

T. Hildebrandt , Neo-Muʿtazilismus? Intention und Kontext im modernen arabischen Umgang mit dem rationalistischen Erbe des Islam (Leiden, Boston and Cologne, 2007), pp. 194438

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Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society
  • ISSN: 1356-1863
  • EISSN: 1474-0591
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-the-royal-asiatic-society
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