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Islamic Sharia Laws ( 20 Apr 2010, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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The Status of ‘Suicide Attacks’ or ‘Martyrdom Operations’ in the Shariah

By Maulana Waris Mazhari

(Translated from Urdu by Yoginder Sikand/Noor Mohammad Sikand)

Suicide attacks have become a fairly frequent phenomenon today. Many of them are the handiwork of disgruntled Muslim elements. Indeed, in some countries what are known as fidayeen attacks undertaken by Muslim groups have become so common as to pose a major challenge to internal security and peace, emerging as a grave threat to the lives of ordinary citizens. Of these countries, perhaps Pakistan is the most hard-hit by suicide bombings, which now seem to occur there on an almost daily basis, not even sparing Muslims worshipping in mosques. Perhaps nothing worse can be conceived of than Muslims taking the name of Islam to kill innocents and thereby  tarnishing the image of Islam.

The issue of whether fidayeen attacks are allowed at all in Islam and of what their status is in the shariah continues to be hotly debated. However, these questions have not received the sort of serious attention that they deserve by the ulema and other Islamic intellectuals. In fact, much effort has be expended by a section of Islamic scholars to seek to provide legitimacy to such attacks by drawing from rules and details contained in the books of medieval fiqh or Muslim jurisprudence. These scholars have, by and large, based their opinion on fidayeen attacks by focusing on the particular case of Palestine, where they believe that such attacks are the last resort by the Palestinian resistance in the face of Israeli barbarism and aggression.

  However, now that fidayeen attacks are no longer confined just to Palestine and directed only at Israelis, but have become a global phenomenon, targeting even Muslim countries and Muslim peoples, as in the case of Pakistan, those who sought to provide legitimacy for such actions are faced with a peculiar dilemma. It is true that, prior to the American aggression against Iraq and Afghanistan, fidayeen attacks by Muslim groups were confined only to Palestine. However, continued American imperialist offensives, including America’s unstinting support to the Israeli occupiers, have driven many Muslim youth to the wall, forcing them to take to such radical steps as suicide bombings in utter desperation. This must be recognized as the basic root of the phenomenon of fidayeen attacks by Muslim groups that has now spread out from Palestine to expand to other lands. Ultimately, the dominant Western powers, particularly America, are to blame for this development, which they berate as inhuman and cruel. The fact of the matter is that these bombings are a result of pent-up feelings of revenge in the face of intolerable oppression. At the same time, it must also be recognized that seeking to right wrongs in this manner has led to these Muslim groups exceeding the bounds of Islam and morality. Hence, it is crucial for Islamic scholars to seriously ponder on the legitimacy of suicide bombings in Islam, especially since Muslim groups who engage in such attacks often do so precisely in the name of Islam and claim that in doing so they are acting according to Islamic commandments.

In a range of countries, such as Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and so on, the continuing wave of suicide attacks have not received the approval of any noteworthy Islamic scholar till date. Thus, such attacks in Muslim-majority countries, in which the victims are mostly Muslims, may be clearly said to be un-Islamic, according to the vast majority of the ulema. The case is different, however, in Muslim lands under non-Muslim occupation or with regard to suicide attacks against countries that commit aggression against Muslims and/or Islam. Those ulema who regard such attacks as a legitimate response to aggression and oppression regard them as permissible actions in the course of jihad. They view them as legitimate acts of defence and as a powerful deterrent. For this they use the fiqh principle al-inghimas fi al-aduve, which means ‘to enter the ranks of the enemy and attack’ so as to inflict damage on the enemy. They argue that if such actions, which might well cause the death of the attackers themselves, can help to put an end to aggression and war or can serve the larger interests of Islam, they are permissible. If the death of the attackers is certain, they do not consider such actions as tantamount to suicide, which is sternly forbidden in Islam. To further back their stance, they invoke the fiqh principle according to which if some enemy forces use some Muslims as human shields (tatarus) in such a way that if the enemy is attacked the death of the human shields is also certain, to attack the enemy is permissible if this serves the greater good and the larger purposes of Islam. In such a case, the death of the human shields would be treated as an unavoidable loss.

In contrast, other Islamic scholars regard attacks and bombings by Muslims in which the attackers are certain to lose their lives as wholly illegitimate and even forbidden or haram. Numerous contemporary Saudi ulema, including the late Shaikh Abdul Aziz Ibn Baz, Shaikh Nasiruddin Albani, Shaikh Mohammad Ibn Saleh al-Uthaimeen, Shaikh Saleh al-Fauzan, and the present Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Shaikh Abdul Aziz Aal-e Shaikh, fall into this category. These ulema regard even such attacks in occupied Palestine as suicide attacks and, hence, as illegitimate in Islam. Obviously, then, fidayeen attacks in other countries, including Muslim countries, would, according to this view, be even more illegitimate. These scholars refer to verses in the Quran and references in the Hadith that clearly declare suicide as haram in order to condemn such attacks as illegitimate in Islam, as for instance, the Quranic commandment ‘make not your own hands contribute to [your] destruction’ (2:195), and the statement of the Prophet, as contained in the Sahih al-Bukhari, according to which what a person uses to kill himself will be used to punish him.

Undeniably, the position of those who declare fidayeen attacks as illegitimate is, on every count, much closer to the Quran and the Hadith and to the spirit of the shariah than those who consider such attacks as permissible. The verses in the Quran and the references in the Hadith that condemn suicide provide clear, direct and obvious arguments (mohkam dala‘il), and the commandment of the shariah in this regard can be easily understood from the ‘direct texts’ (dalat an-nass). In contrast, the position of those who regard such attacks as legitimate is based on arguments that are not absolutely evident. Rather, their arguments are indirect and ambiguous (mutashabeh dala‘il). According to the principles of Muslim jurisprudence (usul al-fiqh), such arguments must be interpreted, elaborated upon and clarified in the light of clear, direct and obvious arguments from the scriptures.

In this regard, those who legitimize such attacks seek to draw analogies with cases considered permissible in the books of traditional fiqh, such as entering the ranks of the enemy to destroy them and oneself for the greater good, or inflicting grave damage on the enemy even if this means the loss of life of innocents used by the enemy as human shields. This, however, is not proper or justified. What their supporters hail as ‘martyrdom operations’ and their critics as ‘suicide bombings’ cannot be regarded permissible analogies of these instances described and legitimized in the books of medieval fiqh. Those who enter the ranks of the enemy without caring about their own lives are not killed at their own hands, which is the case in suicide, but, rather, are slain by their enemies. Killing human shields is regarded as permissible in the fiqh tradition only if and when there is no other way out, when the benefit of this course of action is clear and obvious, and when such action is sanctioned by the Imam or leader. For this rule to apply, it is imperative that the Muslims be engaged in a genuine jihad in the path of God (jihad fi sabilillah) for the sake of the protection and promotion of the faith. Such actions are wholly impermissible if committed for communal or worldly purposes. It is obvious that an oppressed people must defend themselves from aggression, but to use the argument that attacking human shields is permissible in order to hit at the enemy in order to legitimize fidayeen attacks is, in general, not permissible, unless, of course, defence against the enemy is not possible without this or if by doing so a greater evil is avoided. As the noted classical Islamic scholar Imam Qurtubi writes in his book al-Jami‘ li Ahkam al-Quran:

‘Sometimes, the killing of a human shield (tatarus) is permissible […] and this is when the benefit of this action is certain and complete, when it is not possible to attack the aggressor without attacking the human shield, and also when [the benefit of this action] is absolute with regard to the entire community […] Our ulema are unanimous on the legitimacy of this matter, provided that these conditions are met […]’

The stringent conditions that Imam Qurtubi has laid down for the permissibility of killing human shields if this becomes unavoidable in order to take on the aggressor do not appear to apply in the case of present-day fidayeen attacks. However, in defence of such attacks, some scholars and others claim that they are permissible because they are resorted to for noble aims. In response, one can argue that this claim is an obvious contradiction of the fiqh rule:  ‘No aim, no matter how lofty, can justify the use of any wrongful means’ (al-ghayatu la tubarrirul wasilah).

In this regard, it is crucial to note that all over the world, including in Palestine, wherever such fidayeen attacks are being undertaken by Muslim groups, generally in the name of Islam, it is the Muslims who suffer the most—not just in terms of loss of life, but also in the form of heightened anti-Islamic and anti-Muslim sentiments which such attacks inevitably provoke. Numerous fidayeen attacks by Palestinian groups in Israel have only made the Israelis even more violent and aggressive, provoking them to stage revenge attacks that have caused the deaths of thousands of innocent Palestinians. In other words, such attacks have proven to be counter-productive from the Muslim point of view.

There is yet another reason why such attacks are impermissible. Those who participate in fidayeen attacks present themselves before other people as ordinary, unarmed people with no violent aim or intention, although they are heavily armed and their sole objective is to inflict violence and cause death and destruction. This is, needless to say, a form of cheating, which is incompatible with Islamic rules governing the conduct of the affairs of war.

In this connection, it is undeniable that contemporary Islamic political thought in general is characterized by great confusion and extremism. The noted Egyptian Islamic scholar, Allama Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, who argues that fidayeen attacks in Palestine are legitimate, discusses this aspect of marked imbalance in current Islamic political thought in great detail in his recently published book Fiqh al-Jihad (‘Jurisprudence of Jihad’). This imbalance, the lack of proper religious awareness among ongoing Islamic movements and the vast numbers of Muslim youth who are fired by emotionalism make it impossible for fidayeen attacks to abide by the rules and restrictions laid down in the shariah. Thus, numerous Arab ulema who had regarded fidayeen attacks in Palestine as permissible and even considered all Israeli citizens as legitimate targets (muharib or ‘rebels’), when faced with the reality that today more such attacks are occurring in Pakistan than in Palestine, are now loudly condemning such attacks as impermissible ‘strife on earth’ (fasad fi al-arz), which the Quran sternly condemns, and a grave danger to the Muslims themselves.

As regards all matters, including the vexed issue of fidayeen strikes, it is absolutely necessary to consider not just the present context but also present and possible future consequences of actions. Lamentably, our ulema have not devoted any attention at all to developing a ‘fiqh of consequences’ (fiqh ul- ma‘al) and a ‘future-oriented fiqh’ (fiqh al-mustaqbaliyat). However, this is really necessary in order to develop rules and issue fatwas regarding the permissibility or impermissibility of certain actions, keeping in mind their possible consequences.

Seen in this light, one can argue that the fatwas that have been issued in favour of fidayeen attacks, even in the context of Palestine, are wholly incorrect because, as has been indicated above, the radical Muslim movements active today that claim to be engaged in protecting Islam or enforcing the shariah are based not so much on a proper understanding of Islamic teachings as on passion and emotionalism, and a profound and pervasive desire for revenge. They are, in general, ignorant of, or insensitive to, the difference between what is legitimate in Islam and what is not, particularly on issues related to violence. This lamentable state of affairs calls for serious introspection and for a proper ascertainment of methods and priorities on their part.

In actual fact, the opinion of the Saudi ulema who I referred to earlier, who condemn all forms of fidayeen attacks, is the right one and is, I believe, in accordance with the spirit and rules of the shariah. 

Maulana Waris Mazhari is the editor of the New Delhi-based monthly Tarjuman Dar ul-Uloom, the official organ of the Graduates’ Association of the Deoband madrasa. He can be contacted on

Yoginder Sikand works with the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion at the National Law School, Bangalore.