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.