Dec 2001 Journal

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Islam Hijacked

Who is privileged to enter Heaven according to Islam? Does a suicide bomber who kills innocent people merit entrance into Heaven? Islam is unambiguous on these questions.

The four schools of Islamic law expressly forbid the harming of non-combatants. These include women, children, monks and hermits, and the aged, blind and insane. In the most authoritative collection of hadith, the Sahih al-Bukhari (The Book of Jihad, chapters 147–47, Muhammad expressly forbids the slaying of women and children. This message, found in a number of authoritative collections, has been formalised in the legal literature. Islam also expressly forbids suicide, the punishment for which is eternal re-enactment of the suicide and revisitation of the pain.

Martyrdom for the Islamic cause

On the other hand, martyrdom in war for the Islamic cause is praised extensively throughout the literature. The Qur'an teaches (3:169): “Do not consider those killed [while engaging] in God’s cause dead. Rather, they live with their Lord, who sustains them!” The qur’anic idiom “killed while engaging in God's cause” is a reference to martyrdom for acting on being a Muslim, whether as a persecuted and powerless individual or as a warrior fighting for the expansion of the world of Islam. Perhaps the most compelling expression of this sentiment are the idioms found in the most authoritative sources and attributed to the Prophet: “Paradise is [found] under the shade of swords”, or “Paradise is under the gleam of swords” (Sahih Bukhari, Jihad, ch. 22, #73). Muhammad’s companion Abu Hurayra said that he heard the Prophet say: “By the One in Whose hands is my soul [i.e. God], I would love to be martyred [while engaged] in God’s cause, then be resurrected, then martyred, then resurrected, then martyred, then resurrected, and then martyred” (Sahih Bukhari, Jihad 7, #54). A hadith in Sunan al-Tirmidhi states that in contrast to the suicide, the martyr does not even feel the pain of his death (Fada’il al-Jihad, 26, #1663). He is also forgiven all his sins and has the right to intercede on behalf of his own family to enter Heaven.

So suicide is forbidden and the killing of non-combatants is forbidden, but martyrdom is rewarded with entrance into Heaven and, therefore, with great material rewards in the World to Come. The complexity of the problem rests to a great extent on interpretation and the authority of those who make the interpretations. One stable person’s definition of suicide may be interpreted as martyrdom by a fanatic. All these categories may easily be manipulated by fanatical, desperate or evil people. A reasonable person’s obvious identification of innocent non-combatants may be categorized as Satan’s hordes by someone who is desperate and confused. Add to this the fact that most suicide bombers are in desperate economic straits.

God hijacked by terrorists

We need to add one more ingredient to an already complex soup: the perception of the West (which includes Israel) among many Muslims who live in the Middle East. The West prides itself on having brought many gifts to the civilised world: tolerance, democracy, pluralism, freedom. To the natives of many parts of the world who have been exploited by colonialism, imperialism and today’s ‘globalism’, these noble contributions are meaningless. Many Muslims in the Middle East see them as no more than slogans that attempt to hide the West’s true intent: political and religious domination and economic exploitation.

To a poor peasant or even a middle-class urban dweller who suffers the loss of children to disease, the lack of opportunities for improvement, and a grim and downtrodden daily existence while watching television and movie portrayals of Western wealth and decadence, it is not difficult to conceive of the US and Israel as the greater and lesser Satans. Of course, local corrupt leadership often takes advantage of such sentiments in order to prop up crooked regimes. The secular leaders of Muslim countries have always tried to manipulate Islamic symbols and images in order to manage their populations.

Islam is a noble and compassionate religion but it may be cynically manipulated. It may also be manipulated in good faith by misguided people. The unstable political situation in the Middle East, the terrible economic situation, the lack of freedoms and of a tradition of open inquiry for the past six centuries all contribute to an environment of bitterness. Who can you trust if not in God? But God has also been manipulated, and this is the saddest aspect of the complex we call the Middle East. God has been hijacked by terrorists. Islam is not the problem. Terrorism is the problem, and terrorists have hijacked both Islam and God.

The author is Professor of Medieval Judaism and Islam at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. The first part of this article appeared in the November issue of AJR Journal.
Reuven Firestone

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