Shahid or Suicide – Martyr or Murderer?
The Muslims’ Rules of Engagement
Both the Qur’an1 and the hadith2 make it clear that it is haram (forbidden) either to murder
someone or to commit suicide, both of which will take you to the Fire:
And do not kill yourselves,
Allah is Most Merciful to you.
As for anyone who does that out of enmity and wrongdoing,
We will roast him in a Fire.
That is an easy matter for Allah.
(Qur’an : 4. 29-30)
As for anyone who kills a mumin3 deliberately,
his repayment is Hell,
remaining in it timelessly, for ever.
Allah is angry with him and has cursed him,
and has prepared for him a terrible punishment.
(Qur’an : 4. 92)
So We decreed for the tribe of Israel
that if someone kills another person –
unless it is in retaliation for someone else
or for causing corruption in the earth –
it is as if he had murdered all mankind.
And if anyone gives life to another person,
it is as if he had given life to all mankind.
Our Messengers came to them with Clear Signs
but even after that many of them
committed outrages in the earth.
(Qur’an : 5. 32)
Ibn Mas‘ud related that the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and
grant him peace, said, “The blood of a Muslim may not be legally spilt
other than in one of three situations: the married person who commits
adultery; a life for a life; and one who forsakes his deen4 and abandons
the community.” (Al-Bukhari).
As in the case of most legal systems, the Shari‘a 5 of Islam permits Muslims to fight in self-
defence if they are attacked – but even in times of war, it is forbidden to kill non-combat-
ants, especially women and children and old men:
Yahya related to me from Malik from Nafi from Ibn Umar that the
Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, saw the
corpse of a woman who had been slain in one of the raids, and he disap-
proved of it and forbade the killing of women and children.
Yahya related to me from Malik from Yahya ibn Sa’id that Abu Bakr as-
Siddiq was sending armies to ash-Sham. He went for a walk with Yazid
ibn Abi Sufyan who was the commander of one of the battalions. It is
claimed that Yazid said to Abu Bakr, “Will you ride or shall I get down?”
Abu Bakr said, “I will not ride and you will not get down. I intend these
steps of mine to be in the way of Allah.”
Then Abu Bakr advised Yazid, “You will find a people who claim to
have totally given themselves to Allah. Leave them to what they claim to
have given themselves. You will find a people who have shaved the mid-
dle of their heads; strike what they have shaved with the sword.”
“I advise you ten things: Do not kill women or children or an aged,
infirm person. Do not cut down fruit-bearing trees. Do not destroy an
inhabited place. Do not slaughter sheep or camels except for food. Do
not burn bees and do not scatter them. Do not steal from the booty, and
do not be cowardly.”
Yahya related to me from Malik that he had heard that Umar ibn Abd
al-Aziz wrote to one of his governors, “It has been passed down to us
that when the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him
peace, sent out a raiding party, he would say to them, ‘Make your raids
in the name of Allah in the way of Allah. Fight whoever denies Allah.
Do not steal from the booty, and do not act treacherously. Do not muti-
late and do not kill children.’ Say the same to your armies and raiding
parties, Allah willing. Peace be upon you.” (Al-Muwatta of Imam Malik:
As regards suicide, the hadith not only confirm that it is haram to commit suicide and that
the punishment for it is to repeatedly commit the same act in the Fire without ever dying,
forever – but also clearly confirm that it is forbidden to commit suicide even in war:
Narrated Sahl bin Sad As-Sa’idi: “The Messenger of Allah, may Allah
bless him and grant him peace, and the kafirun 6 faced each other and
started fighting. When the Messenger of Allah returned to his camp and
when the kafirun returned to their camp, someone talked about a man
amongst the companions of the Messenger of Allah who had been pur-
suing and killing with his sword any kafir fleeing alone. He said, ‘No-
one fought as hard today as that man.’ The Messenger of Allah said,
‘Truly, he is one of the people of the Fire.’ A man among the people said,
‘I shall follow him (to see what he does).’ So he followed him, and wher-
ever he stood, he would stand with him, and wherever he ran, he would
run with him.
“Then the (brave) man was wounded seriously and decided to bring
about his own death quickly. He slanted the blade of the sword in the
ground directing its sharp end towards his chest between his two breasts.
Then he leaned on the sword and killed himself. The other man came to
the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, and
said, ‘I testify that you are the Messenger of Allah.’ The Prophet asked,
‘What happened?’ He replied, ‘(It is about) the man whom you de-
scribed as being one of the people of the Fire. The people were greatly
surprised at what you said, and so I said, “I will find out his reality for
you.” So, I followed him and watched him. He was severely wounded,
and hastened to die by slanting the blade of his sword in the ground and
directing its sharp end towards his chest between his two breasts. Then
he leant on his sword and killed himself.’
“Then the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace,
said, ‘A man may seem to the people as if he were practising the deeds of
the people of Paradise while in fact he is from the people of the Fire, and
another may seem to the people as if he were practising the deeds of the
people of Hell, while in fact he is from the people of the Garden.’”
(Sahih Al-Bukhari Volume 4, Book 52, Number 147).
Narrated Abu Huraira: “We were in the company of the Messenger of
Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, in a ghazwa, 7 and he
remarked about a man who claimed to be a Muslim, saying, ‘This man
is one of the people of the Fire.’ When the battle started, the man fought
fiercely until he was wounded. Somebody said, ‘O Messenger of Allah,
the man whom you described as being one of the people of the Fire
fought fiercely today and died.’ The Prophet, may Allah bless him and
grant him peace, replied, ‘He will go to the Fire.’ Some of the people
were on the point of doubting (the truth of what the Prophet had said)
and while they were in this state, someone came and said that the man
was still alive but severely wounded. When night fell, the man lost pa-
tience and committed suicide. The Prophet was informed of this and
said, ‘Allah is Greater! I testify that I am the Messenger of Allah and His
slave.’ Then he ordered Bilal to announce to the people: ‘No-one will
enter Paradise unless he is a Muslim, and Allah can support this deen (of
Islam) even with a disobedient man.’” (Sahih Al-Bukhari Volume 4, Book
52, Number 297).
Narrated Jundub: “The Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and
grant him peace, said, ‘Amongst the nations before you there was a man
who received a wound, and growing impatient (because of the pain), he
took a knife and cut his wrist with it and the blood did not stop flowing
until he died. Allah said, “My Slave hurried to bring death upon himself
so I have forbidden him the Garden.”’” (Sahih Al-Bukhari Volume 4,
Book 56, Number 669).
The verses of Qur’an and hadith quoted above are not the only ones on the subject, but in
my opinion they summarise what the Shari‘a has to say about killing another human being
or committing suicide, whether in peace time or during war.
I cannot see, in the light of these verses of Qur’an and hadith,how any well-informed
Muslim can believe that blowing him or her self up and killing and maiming anyone in the
vicinity will take him or her to the Garden. Historically only certain members of the Ismaili
sect have held this kind of view – and they are not accepted as being Muslims or as repre-
senting Islam by the main body of Muslims. These acts have nothing to do with the Sunna.
I can understand how someone whose home and family and friends have been annihilated
by laser precision bomb or rocket attacks may be driven in anger to carry out such a
nihilistic act against civilian targets – using the rationale, “If they are killing our families,
we will kill their families,” – but both indiscriminate bombing (whether by land, sea or
air) and suicide bombing remain nevertheless unacceptable from a balanced Islamic per-
spective and neither course of action can be condoned. They have nothing to do with the
Sunna. They cannot possibly have positive consequences either in this world or in the next.
In the Palestinian conflict, both sides are blowing each other up, each claiming that it is
retaliation – and ascertaining at this stage who committed the first act of aggression (pos-
sibly the massacre of some 250 civilian inhabitants, mostly women and children, of Deir
Yaseen by the Stern Gang and Irgun Zvai Leumi terrorists on the 9th April 1948) will not
in itself halt this chain reaction which appears to be out of control and leading ineluctably
to fulfilment of the prophecies in chapters 38 and 39 of Ezekiel.
It is true that the shahid, the martyr who dies in the way of Allah, is promised many
rewards in the next life, both in the Qur’an and in the hadith, but in my opinion anyone
who murders an innocent bystander or non-combatant or commits suicide cannot die as
a shahid. It is also true that there is more than one kind of martyr:
Yahya related to me from Malik from Sumayy, the mawla of Abu Bakr
ibn ‘Abd ar-Rahman from Abu Salih from Abu Hurayra that the Messen-
ger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, said ... “Martyrs
are five: the one killed by a plague, the one killed by a disease of the
belly, the one who drowns, the one killed by a collapsing building, and
the martyr in the path of Allah.” (Al-Muwatta’ of Imam Malik : 8.2.6)
Ahmad Thomson is a practising barrister and author, whose more recent works include
The Last Prophet, The Islamic Will, The Difficult Journey, The Way Back, Making History
and the revised editions of Jesus, Prophet of Islam, Blood on the Cross (in two parts: For
Christ’s Sake and Islam in Andalus), and Dajjal – the AntiChrist.
1Qur’an : the ‘Recitation’, the last Revelation from Allah to mankind and the jinn before
the end of the world, revealed to the Prophet Muhammad, may Allah bless him and grant
him peace, through the angel Jibril, over a period of twenty-three years (beginning in 610
and ending in 632), the first thirteen of which were spent in Makka and the last ten of
which were spent in Madina. The Qur‘an amends, encompasses, expands, surpasses and
abrogates all the earlier revelations revealed to the earlier Messengers, peace be on all of
them. The Qur‘an is by far the greatest of all the miracles given to the Prophet Muhammad
by Allah, for he was illiterate and could neither read nor write. The Qur‘an is the uncreated
word of Allah. The Qur‘an still exists today exactly as it was originally revealed, without
any alteration or change or addition or deletion. Whoever recites the Qur‘an with courtesy
and sincerity receives knowledge and wisdom, for it is the well of wisdom in this age.
2 hadith : reported speech of the Prophet Muhammad, may Allah bless him and grant
3 mumin : a mumin (the plural is muminun) is someone who possesses iman; iman is
belief, faith, acceptance in the heart of Allah and His Messenger. Iman consists of believing
in Allah, His angels, His Books, His Messengers, the Last Day, the Garden and the Fire,
and that everything, both the good and the bad, is by the decree of Allah.
4 deen : means life transaction, the way you live and behave towards Allah, submission
and obedience to a particular system of rules and practices. Literally it means the debt or
exchange situation between two parties, in this usage the Creator and the created, or as
some say between the conditioned and the unconditioned, the limited and the limitless, or
the many and the One. Allah says in the Qur‘an that surely the deen with Allah is Islam.
5 shari‘a : lit. road, the legal modality of a people based on the Revelation of their Prophet.
The final Shari‘a is that of Islam. Islam can be defined briefly as: ‘submission to the will of
Allah, the way of life embodied by all of the Prophets, given its final form in the guidance
brought by the Prophet Muhammad, may Allah bless him and grant him peace.’
Shaykh ‘Abd’al-Qadir as-Sufi writes, ‘It is the behaviour modality of a people based on
the revelation of their Prophet. The last Shari‘a in history has proved to be that of Islam.
Its social modality abrogates all previous shara’i e.g. Navaho, Judaic, Vedic, Buddhic, etc.
These shara’i however, continue until the arrival and confrontation takes place in that culture with the final and
thus superior Shari‘a – Islam. It is, being the last, therefore the easiest to follow, for it is ap-
plicable to the whole human race wherever they are.’ (Qur‘anic Tawhid. Diwan Press. 1981).
6 kafirun : the plural of kafir, disbelievers. The kafiris the one who denies the Existence
of Allah and who rejects His Prophets and Messengers, and who accordingly has no peace
or trust in this life, and a place in the Fire in the next life. Shaykh ‘Abd’al-Qadir as-Sufi
writes, ‘Kufr means to cover up reality: kafir is one who does so. The kafir is the opposite of
the mumin. The point is that everyone knows ‘how it is’ – only it suits some people to deny
it and pretend it is otherwise, to behave as if we were going to be here for ever. This is called
kufr. The condition of the kafir is therefore one of neurosis, because of his inner knowing.
He ‘bites his hand in rage’ but will not give in to his inevitable oncoming death.’ (Qur‘anic
Tawhid. Diwan Press. 1981).
7 ghazwa : a raid, a military expedition, especially a desert raid.
8 sunna : the customary practice of a person or group of people. It has come to refer
almost exclusively to the practice of the Messenger of Allah and of the first generation of
[Definitions of Arabic terminology are from A Glossary of Islamic Terms by Aisha Bewley,
(Ta-Ha Publishers, London, 1998). Quotations from the Qur’an are from THE NOBLE QUR’AN
– a New Rendering of its Meaning in English by Abdalhaqq and Aisha Bewley, (Bookwork,
Norwich, 1999). Quotations of hadith are from Al-Muwatta of Imam Malik translated by
Aisha Bewley and Yaqub Johnson (Diwan Press, Norwich, 1982) and the Sahih of Imam
Al-Bukhari translated by Dr. Muhammad Muhsin Khan (Madina University Press, 1971).]