The two Saudi detainees who reportedly hanged themselves at Guantanamo Bay must have been the victims of foul play, their relatives said on Monday. Since the men were strict Muslims, the families reasoned, they would never have taken their own lives. “It’s impossible for Yasser to commit suicide,” said the brother of one of the inmates. Are Muslims allowed to kill themselves?
No. There’s a clear prohibition on suicide in the collected sayings of the Prophet, known as the hadith. In particular, anyone who kills himself must spend an eternity repeating the act in the afterlife: “He who commits suicide by throttling shall keep on throttling himself in the Hell Fire (forever) and he who commits suicide by stabbing himself shall keep on stabbing himself in the Hell Fire.”
You won’t find as clear a statement in the Quran. This passage provides the closest thing to a ban: “Do not consume your wealth in the wrong way—rather through trade mutually agreed to, and do not kill yourselves.” But the word for “yourselves” could just as well be translated as “each other”—which would make this a ban on homicide, not suicide.
Muslim scholars throughout history have noted this ambiguity but have tended to support the prohibition nonetheless. Eight hundred years ago, Fakhr ad-Din ar-Razi acknowledged that the passage could be interpreted either way but argued that it’s better to assume that it’s about suicide.
The long-standing prohibition—which had become entrenched by the ninth century—may have something to do with the low suicide rates in Muslim countries. On the other hand, not all suicides get reported as such. In some cases a family will deny that a suicide has occurred, or they’ll keep the cause of death to themselves. Entire communities sometimes join in the denial. (See, for example, the case of the Egyptian airline pilot who is said to have killed himself and everyone on his plane in 1999. *)
What about suicide bombers? There’s no general agreement about how to distinguish between suicide (intihâr) and martyrdom (istisyhâd). Some argue that you’re not committing a sin if you’re trying to kill the enemies of God. It’s only suicide if you’re taking your life for your own benefit.
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Explainer thanks Jonathan Brockopp of Penn State University.