The “Ulama” and the Cult of Death in Palestine

Meir Hatina. Israel Affairs. Volume 12, Issue 1. Winter 2006.

Suicide attacks, which were traditionally rare in the Middle East and limited to the Shi’ite arena—in Iran and Lebanon—became widespread during the Israel-Palestinian conflict of the 1990s. They increasingly turned into a religious ritual, positing their perpetrators as symbols of a revolutionary theology and have engendered a debate in the Arab Muslim world as to their religious legitimacy, involving both the self-inflicted death of the perpetrator and the killing of civilian targets. Most of the ‘ulama’ provided theological justification for Palestinian suicide acts against Israel, crowning them the epitome of faith in Allah, while still other ‘ulama’ renounced them as non-sacred acts of violence unfit for reward in paradise. Both groups of scholars delved into historical and judicial sources to reinforce their arguments, but have also adopted creative interpretations inspired by contemporary political considerations.

Islam is a multi-faceted culture encompassing the sacred and the profane, religion and politics, moderation and radicalism. During the final quarter of the twentieth century, the radical dimension appeared to have overshadowed that of moderation and became the showcase of Islam to foreign observers. This type of radicalism was identified particularly with Islamic movements that called for jihād (holy war) against the perceived ‘new paganism’ of Arab regimes, or against the ‘new crusade’ of the West and its ally in the Middle East, Israel. The ultimate embodiment of this ideology was provided by the phenomenon of suicide attacks, or human bombs, which caused multiple casualties and public demoralization, an optimal combination in any strategy for violence.

Suicide attacks were defined by Islamists as martyrdom (istishhad), but were perceived by Western observers, who had long since ceased to regard religion as a central priority, simply as fanaticism or, alternatively, as an activist version of nihilism. Such nihilistic behaviour, in this view, does not sanctify higher values but merely satisfies a self-destructive instinct, an urge to ruin for the sake of ruination, reflecting a pessimistic outlook holding that everything in the modern world is worthless. Other psychological analyses put forward in the West were a cult-like adherence to a single absolute truth resulting in total obedience and robotic behaviour going so far as suicide for the sake of murder; a distorted love for a father figure, in this case God, who is perceived as authorizing killings and who provides an outlet for the frustrations of candidates for suicide missions; or the sexual frustration of young people unable to socialize with the opposite sex due to restrictive moral and social codes characteristic of traditional societies. In the last context, the sexual reward projected for suicide volunteers in the form of 70 dark-eyed virgins awaiting them in paradise was given special emphasis. Whatever the explanation, the willingness to die, as distinct from the willingness to kill, has captured Western attention.

The willingness to give up one’s life for God exists in all three monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam. However, the early history of each religion dictated a specific kind of death on the part of the believer. In Judaism, the defensive context in which the Jewish people found themselves, especially in terms of persecution by the Greek and Roman Empires, fostered the notion of martyrdom for God in the face of forced conversion or violation of the prohibition of idolatry, incest and murder. The death of Hannah and her seven sons during the persecutions by Antiochus, and similar acts of self-sacrifice in the Bar-Kokhva rebellion during the persecutions by Hadrian, became a cornerstone in the historical ethos of Jewish martyrdom. In Christianity, the model established by Jesus as the sacrificial lamb who thereby atones for the people’s sins nurtured the willingness for passive death by persecuted believers in the Roman Empire during the first four centuries of the Common Era. An apt explanation for the acceptance of martyrdom as a key for salvation was provided by the theologian Tertullian (d. 230), who declared to a Roman governor, ‘Your cruelty is our glory’. A more activist concept of death in the name of faith emerged in Christianity during the Crusades in the eleventh century, when fallen Crusaders were viewed as martyrs, although this development was never entrenched theologically.

Islam, in contrast to Judaism and Christianity, was from its beginnings an assertive, conquest-oriented faith, and as such sanctified martyrdom in the battle against infidels and heretics. Martyrdom became a formative ethos in the Muslim collective conscience. It receded in importance in the ninth century in the face of a loosening of imperial authority and the halt of new conquests. Religious compensation for believers was provided by elevating the status of the ‘large jihād’, that is, the struggle with one’s baser instincts, and by expanding the parameters of martyrdom to include death while carrying out the duties of worship or as a result of disaster or disease. However, the ethos of jihād and self-sacrifice in confronting the infidels gained renewed momentum during the Crusader and Mongol invasions of the medieval period, as well as in the Ottoman drive to regain and expand Islamic territory between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries. It lost ground again with the rise of European imperialism and the thrust towards nationalism during the nineteenth century. By then, episodes of jihād and self-sacrifice were mainly the province of revival and anti-colonial movements on the fringes of the Islamic world, especially in central Asia and Africa.

The Arab states that were established on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire following the First World War nationalized Islam to promote their own agenda. This development encompassed the concept of jihad as well, but with important alterations. The combative meaning of jihad was marginalized in favour of the spiritual and social thrust of good works for the benefit of the community. Shaykh Mahmud Shaltut, rector of al-Azhar University in revolutionary Egypt (1958-63), stated, typically, that Islam has a strong aversion to the use of force as a means to spread the faith, and that the obligation of jihad is enforceable only in times of self-defence against external aggression. Clearly, the aim during this period was to stabilize the state system and to neutralize the traditional dichotomy between the ‘house of Islam’ and the ‘house of war’ (which encompasses the infidels), thereby facilitating integration into the international community.

Later, the emphasis on the pacifistic nature of Islam was aimed at neutralizing the religious militancy that gained momentum in the 1970s. If the state sought to domesticate the jihad theology, radical Islam sought to release the potential energy in it to overturn the political order. The imperative of jihad was directed first and foremost against the state and its rulers, who, by their abuse of authority and their advocacy of Westernization, bore primary responsibility for the material and moral bankruptcy of Muslim societies. Still, religious violence in such countries as Egypt and Syria in the 1970s and 1980s took the form of conventional armed attacks focused on the state apparatus, rather than suicide acts. This reflected the internalization of the theological prohibition of suicide, as well as moral reservations about killing innocent people in societies that were, after all, Muslim even if they had strayed from the authentic faith. Domestic jihad had become a religious ritual, like prayer and fasting. It had not become death worship.

Indeed, the phenomenon of suicide acts in the name of Islam had been rare in the Middle Eastern landscape. Not surprisingly, it was limited to the Shi’ite arena, primarily revolutionary Iran. Led by Ayatollah Khomeini and the clerical regime in Tehran, the Shi’a creed, fuelled by a sense of humiliation and nurturing an eschatological expectation of salvation, became a culture of rage and active confrontation with the forces of injustice and tyranny. Jihād and self-sacrifice became key concepts in the entrenchment of the Islamic Revolution. The shahid, or martyr, who bears witness to faith by sacrificing his life for it, was depicted as infusing society with new blood and a new light. No wonder, claimed Ayatollah Murtaza Mutahhari, that the shahid‘s status is far superior to that of other social agents such as scholars, philosophers, inventors or teachers: it is he who creates the atmosphere that is conducive to their productive work on behalf of humanity. According to Mutahhari, ‘The shuhada are the candles of society. They burn themselves out and illuminate society … Had they not shed their light on the darkness of despotism and suppression humanity would have made no progress’. A prominent Iranian revolutionary ideologist, ‘Ali Shari’ati, went further, defining a separate, ultimate category of martyrdom, in which the believer walks towards death consciously and deliberately in order to convey the message of sacrifice for the faith in the most effective way possible. The historic model, in Shari’ati’s view, was the acquiescent death in 680 of Imam Husayn at the hands of the Umayyid army in Karbala, rather than the death in battle of Hamza, the Prophet’s uncle, at Uhud (625).

Elevating martyrdom, the revolutionary regime dispatched teenagers to be exploded in the Iraqi minefields during the Iran-Iraq War in the name of Islam. Martyrdom also served as a source of inspiration for the followers of Khomeini in Lebanon (notably, Hizballah), who mounted a series of successful suicide attacks against Western and Israeli military targets in 1983-84. Historian Sa’d Abu Diya, in an essay in 1987, explained the moral imperative behind these attacks as twofold: the necessity to oust an alien and infidel occupier without delay, and the effectiveness of using an unconventional weapon. The latter indeed proved itself, first in the withdrawal of the American and French troops from Lebanon, and later in the retreat of the Israeli forces to a narrow strip along the Lebanese-Israeli border.

Such martyrdom was not surprising, Abu Diya pointed out. Its historical roots lay in the resolute resistance and moral immutability of the people of the East in the face of their enemies. He referred especially to the residents of the Fertile Crescent, but also to populations in the Far East, exemplified by the Japanese kamikaze pilots during the confrontation with the United States in the Second World War. With this, Abu Diya also quoted Lebanese ‘ulama’ (religious scholars), who emphasized that suicide attacks did not constitute a systematic or mass modus operandi, but were implemented in emergency situations only and within specific Islamic parameters.

Suicide attacks constituted one of the formative elements in the development of the Hizballah movement and helped increase its influence in Lebanese politics. Although the attacks came to a near halt in 1985, replaced by a more conventional style of guerrilla warfare, they were mythologized in the Muslim world and were copied in other war arenas, such as Chechnya, Kashmir and, especially, Palestine.

The Exaltation of Death as a Formative Ethos of Palestinian Islam

The phenomenon of suicide acts in the struggle for Palestine, promoted by amās and the Islamic Jihād since the early 1990s, became an important component of the Islamist politics of identity, merging theological elements with a political agenda. The very act of killing in the name of a moral code was a political statement, delivering a dramatic and effective message. Suicide acts aimed at exposing the vulnerability of the enemy’s civilian sector. They were also meant to serve as a formative ethos in moulding a moral community as an alternative to the corrupt order established by the Palestinian Authority (PA). The suicide weapon was used by amās and the Islamic Jihād as an effective mode of resistance in a period of peace treaties, even at the cost of operational damage inflicted by Israel or the PA. This ideological agenda resulted in the obsessive glorification of the suicide perpetrators by both movements, producing a form of hagiographical literature that praised them and quoted their wills. Such commemoration also co-opted the spheres of pedagogy and art, turning martyrdom into a lever for the emergence of a communal memory that cherished the martyrs’ message of protest and heightened the antagonism between ‘us’ (the good) and ‘them’ (the evil). This ‘us-them’ dichotomy, typical of dualistic politics with a world view of irreconcilable contrast between two forces or ideas, became an important foundation of the political rhetoric of Palestinian Islam. It aimed to reinforce the exclusivity of Palestinian identity and to lock the gates to political compromise.

Indeed, the suicide phenomenon emerged in the heat of a struggle for independence by a society in which Islamic symbols of heroism and sacrifice were inherent national elements. According to the noted French sociologist Emil Durkheim, suicide acts, while having a distinct personal dimension, cannot be disconnected from the social and historical ethos of the community in which they occur. In the Palestinian case, the Islamic umbrella of judicial, moral and political legitimation of suicide acts blurred the personal motives of the perpetrators—whether socioeconomic distress or personal and familial trauma under the Israeli occupation.

The exalted cause of death for Allāh was positioned at the fore, with the perpetrator attaining the highest level of sanctity as a martyr of this and the next world, buried in his clothing, without even prayers for his soul, since his sins have already been forgiven and his reward in paradise is assured. In the words of the Qur’an, ‘Count not those who were slain in God’s way as dead, but rather living with their Lord’ (Sura 3: 169); and ‘whosoever fights in the way of God and is slain, or conquers, We shall bring him a mighty wage’ (Sura 4: 74).

These and other verses, which were frequently quoted in the wills left behind by the perpetrators, laid down the theological and eschatological foundation for positing martyrdom as an act of worship akin to prayer, fasting or pilgrimage to Mecca. The aim is to promote the values of Islam. Martyrdom, moreover, was bound up with another moral duty, no less central: to command right and forbid wrongdoing, defined by the renowned medieval scholar Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111) as ‘the most important pillar of religion’. This imperative implies self-sacrifice. For a person who gives up his life to fulfil it is considered a martyr. The fact that the Sunni tradition tended towards a narrow interpretation of forbidding wrongdoing as applying mainly to the Muslim sphere did not prevent Palestinian Islam from enlisting it in the external struggle against the infidel—Israel. In this context, intensive use was made of the verse, ‘You are the best nation ever brought forth to men, bidding to honour, and forbidding dishonour, and believing in God. Had the people of the Book believed, it were better for them; some of them are believers, but the most of them are ungodly’ (Sura 3:110). For Palestinian Islam, this verse embodies all the necessary justifications for martyrdom: the moral superiority of Muslims over other people; the explicit command to uproot all indecent behaviour; and the deviation of many ‘people of the book’, including the Jews, from God’s path.

Backed by scriptural imperatives demanding moral activism—death for the sake of Allāh and the duty to forbid wrongdoing—self-sacrifice became a moral code justifying suicide attacks and removing them, in the consciousness of the Palestinian (and broader Arab) public, from the category of forbidden self-immolation in Islam. Forbidden self-immolation occurs away from the battlefield and is motivated solely by a desire for relief from personal distress (tahaluka), thereby lacking religious purpose. In sharpening the barrier between exalted and contemptible death, Palestinian Islam was assisted by the sociological factor of the low rate of suicide in the population, which pointed to the sustained presence of moral restrictions and patriarchal control. While self-immolation from melancholia was denounced as beyond the pale, martyrdom became an ideal.

Palestinian Islam perceived martyrdom both as a personal guarantee of pleasure in paradise and as collective insurance for the emancipation of the political entity. In relating personal salvation to collective well-being, and in emphasizing the central role of Palestine in the struggle against the enemies of Islam, amās and Islamic Jihād moulded a particular response to the vicissitudes of their community under the Israeli occupation. The Islamization of the Palestinian entity, in this context, did not have as its goal nullifying geographical boundaries for the sake of establishing a broad caliphate state, but rather injecting metaphysical content into the domestic structure side by side with political liberation. This particularist Islamist agenda in Palestine constituted further evidence of the political fragmentation in modern Islamic thought in dealing with the Middle Eastern political reality.

The suicide attacks also had an emotional and psychological function in empowering a weak and marginalized people, such as the Palestinians, in a struggle that was difficult to win in view of the asymmetry of power with Israel. The symbolic rather than operative importance of martyrdom in Islam was defined by ‘Ali Shari’ati as far back as the early 1970s:

By shedding his own blood, the shahid is not in a position to cause the fall of the enemy, for he cannot do so. He wants to humiliate the enemy, and he does so. … By his death, he condemns the oppressor and provides commitment for the oppressed. He exposes aggression and revives what has hitherto been negated. He reminds the people of what has already been forgotten. In the icy hearts of a people, he bestows the blood of life, resurrection and movement. For those who have become accustomed to captivity and thus think of captivity as a permanent state, the blood of a shahid is a rescue vessel.

Symbolic empowerment could help the Palestinians sidestep or compensate for their inferior tangible abilities and focus on inherent moral capabilities. By taking control of their lives in the time and place of their choosing, and by exposing their victims as helpless, the perpetuators of suicide attacks claimed power for the powerless in the name of a superior metaphysical authority. To quote Emmanuel Sivan, they were ‘walking dead men’ who symbolized, in their death, the victory of theology over technology and the ability of the weak to resist the strong. In a broader cultural sense, the suicide perpetrators, to use Thomas Friedman’s phrase, embodied the resilience of the olive tree, i.e., an authentic, rooted identity, vis-à-vis the Lexus, i.e., Western progress that strives for global cultural homogeneity.

The phenomenon of suicide acts, which had been imported from Lebanon by the Islamic Jihād and amās, first in the format of written manifestos and then in practice, gradually became entrenched in the early 1990s. It was grimly distinctive in two ways: in the scale of the acts, and in the targeting of civilians. This development, which may be viewed as a defensive reaction to the momentum of the peace process that peaked with the Oslo Accords of 1993, engendered a debate in the Arab Muslim world as to its religious legitimacy. Various elements across the Islamic spectrum took part in this debate, ranging from reformists to radicals but also establishment ‘ulama’, in this case Sunni.

The Sunni ‘ulama’ had been relegated to a secondary status politically and socially during the process of modernization in the Middle East in the nineteenth century, and even more so with the formation of nation states in the early twentieth century. The emergence of the modern state expropriated their judicial and economic power bases and placed the ‘ulama’ under governmental supervision. Simultaneously, the emergence of a new intelligentsia of modernists, nationalists and Islamists ended their monopoly over religious interpretation and the moulding of social values. With the growing rivalry between the Arab regimes and the Islamic forces of opposition, especially following the military victory of Israel in 1967, the ‘ulama’ were forced onto the defensive, exposed to two-pronged criticism: from the Islamic opposition, for their submissiveness to secular and repressive regimes; and from the regimes themselves, for their impotence in countering the Islamist challenge with a tolerant, quietist version of Islam.

The public debate over the Palestinian suicide phenomenon rehabilitated a measure of the ‘ulama’s prestige in light of the need of Palestinian Islam for religious sanction for this type of jihad to win over local and Muslim public opinion. The Islamic Jihād, and even more so amās, demarcated Islam as the legitimate standard bearer of the struggle against Israel, but failed to produce prestigious ‘ulama’ of their own, as had emerged in Egypt, Jordan or Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, both movements were concerned that suicide attacks would be interpreted as an act of Palestinian despair over the ongoing occupation, and as such damage the attraction of Islam as a theology of liberation and as the only path to bring about the final victory. Outside religious sanction was therefore sought to legitimize the suicide phenomenon.

Both lower-level and senior ‘ulama’ in the religious establishment throughout the Muslim world were enlisted to back the phenomenon in statements, interviews and fatwas (legal opinions). Fatwas, the traditional medium for religious and moral guidance, and a forum for popular sentiment, proved to be a valuable source for Palestinian Islam. The wide exposure of the fatwas in mosques and in the print and electronic media (including internet websites) made them an effective means for sanctifying the Palestinian ideal of death. Fatwas provided the theological depth needed to legitimize suicide acts and sharpened the distinction between martyrdom on the battlefield—as the epitome of faith in Allāh—and forbidden suicide, whose fate is eternal damnation and torture in hell. According to Shaykh Ibrahim al-‘Al of Jordan, while self-immolation reflects discontent with Allah’s will, martyrdom reflects an elevated transaction in which Allāh buys the soul and the property of the believer, who thereby earns a place in paradise. The fact that the target was Israel provided diverse religious justifications for such attacks, based on the defamation of Israel in modern Islamic historiography as an aggressive infidel entity threatening the sanctity of Islam and the Palestinian people. The struggle against Israel was presented as a defensive jihād that obligates the recruitment of every sound and healthy believer to join the campaign.

In depicting the campaign in Palestine as a defensive jihād—in contrast to an offensive jihād which aims at expanding Islamic rule over territories inhabited by infidels—the ‘ulama’ highlighted the issue of protecting Muslim territory and people, or regaining occupied Muslim territory. The notion of a defensive jihād created a sense of existential urgency, and as such was less subject to the normative rules of battlefield behaviour outlined extensively in Islamic judicial literature (for example, armistice, the treatment of non-combatants, or the avoidance of an indiscriminate use of arms). Relating the suicide acts to the concept of jihād, which was identified primarily with the duty to reaffirm the superior morality of Islam, also facilitated a reliance on ancient legalist traditions that explicitly prioritized martyrdom over the sanctity of life. These traditions held that a fighter is permitted to attack enemy troops if his intent is to become a true martyr, and if there is a chance that he will strike one of them. Otherwise, such an act is a forbidden suicide. Obviously, a fighter equipped with explosives would likely cause serious damage to the enemy, and consequently the suicide perpetrators in Palestine easily fulfilled the requirements for martyrdom and entry into paradise. In this sense, no difference existed between someone who carries a rifle and someone who explodes himself.

The largest body of fatwas issued by ‘ulama’ in support of Palestinian suicide acts (for example, following the series of bus explosions in Israel in February-March 1996), were essentially related to the absence of any theological barrier to martyrdom in the cause of fighting the infidel. This was in stark contrast to the prohibition against internal Muslim strife (fitna), which had left a traumatic mark on early Islamic history. The ‘ulama’ took care, therefore, to position jihad in a proper historical and geographical context, namely as a struggle solely against the Zionist entity in Palestine, which was defined a priori as infidel, and not against Muslims or their rulers.

The Other Narrative: Suicide Attacks as Non-Sacred Violence

Other opinions in the scholarly religious community were critical of the perpetrators of suicide acts, denouncing them as bereft of faith in Allāh and unfit for reward in paradise. These dissident voices, however, were drowned out by the outpouring of supportive declarations and fatwas, and did not attain significant airing in public or in the scholarly discourse. Studying these views reveals a considerable degree of religious conviction and judicial restraint, but also of creative interpretation inspired by political considerations.

The counter-arguments were diverse, ranging from emphasizing the moral and pacifistic nature of Islam, which prohibits the premeditated killing of any person, to the institutional nature of the jihad imperative, which requires the a priori presence of a caliph or military commander familiar with the rules of war and how to conduct it. Shaykh Nimr Darwish, founder of the Islamic movement in Israel and its spiritual leader for many years, emphasized that in contrast to the militaristic image attributed to the Prophet Muhammad by ‘ulama’ who supported the jihād against Israel, the Prophet had engaged in political and social activity, not just military campaigns. His goal was the establishment of a stable and harmonious society.

In Darwish’s view, the ‘ulama’, by expressing support of, or alternatively remaining silent over the suicide phenomenon, projected a message of death, distorting the image of Muslims and shaming them in the eyes of the world. These ‘ulama’, he said, must assemble immediately and adopt a political solution as the only option for settling the Arab-Israeli conflict. Other Arab ‘ulama’ in Israel backed Darwish’s appeal, expressing concern over the increasingly fragile coexistence between Arabs and Jews in Israel.

Denunciation was also voiced by Iranian ‘ulama’ in exile in Paris, such as Mahdi Ruhani, considered one of the leaders of the Shi’ite population in Europe; and by Turkish ‘ulama’ under the leadership of the Mufti of Istanbul Salah al-Din al-Qiyya. Qiyya’s rejection of Palestinian suicide acts reflected Turkey’s foreign policy agenda, that is, its interest in enhancing its strategic alliance with Israel, but also its domestic agenda in containing militant leftist groups and the Kurdish labour movement (the PKK), which also used the suicide weapon.

Some ‘ulama’, including Saudis such as Muhammad bin Salih Ibn ‘Uthaymin and Muhammad Nasir al-Din al-Albani, did not share the vision of coexistence with Israel, yet opposed the current suicide trend. They glorified self-sacrifice for Islam as the pinnacle of jihād, exemplified by the individual who attacks the enemy and causes casualties and demoralization in its ranks, knowing that he will not be saved, as by sinking a ship or taking over a factory or military camp. However, these ‘ulama’ rejected the type of warfare in which the perpetrator wears a belt of explosives and blows himself up, an act they defined as self-immolation, strictly forbidden in Islam. Ibn ‘Uthaymin even quoted a hadith (saying of the Prophet) stating that ‘Whoever kills himself with an iron weapon will retain this weapon in his hand, thrusting it in his stomach in the fires of hell forever and ever’. Ibn ‘Uthaymin and al-Albani did not rule out the possibility that the suicide might gain Allāh’s mercy if the perpetrator acted out of ignorance and had assumed that he was fulfilling the will of Allāh. But they quickly closed the door to such an escape from the fires of hell by pointing out that the prohibition of suicide is well known, and the ignorant can easily seek the council of knowledgeable persons, that is, the ‘ulama’, to avoid committing a grave sin. He who avoids doing so seeks only blind revenge by any means, permissible or forbidden.

In the same vein, a Lebanese jurist, Shaykh Hasan Ayyub, pointed out that in contrast to previous situations in which the perpetrator kills enemy persons, yet is obliged to escape if he can, in the current situation the suicide bomber kills himself first and then others. This is an explicit act of self-immolation. In other words, a person may expose himself to a situation in which he might be killed, but he may not kill himself on purpose. Furthermore, such a person does not benefit Muslims, for the killing of tens, or hundreds, of infidels will not lead that community to embrace Islam. On the contrary, they will become more embittered and determined to take revenge against the Muslims. Suffice to cite the brutal retaliation by the Jews in Palestine against the Palestinians for every suicide attack on their citizens. Ayyub thus sanctified the welfare of the public (maslaha) based on the judicial principle that prohibits retaliation for damage by causing graver counter-damage.

Criticism of suicide acts also emanated from religious circles close to the Palestinian Authority. This censure was coloured by political antipathy for Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, which adopted an oppositionist stance to the PA’s peace policy following the Oslo Accords. Shaykh Majdi Hasan Badah, of the Palestinian Ministry of Religious Endowments, declared that war and martyrdom are not the essence of the life of the believer unless they are forced upon him. Even then, his conduct must fulfil several conditions before he can earn the title of shahid, such as showing total loyalty to Allah and acting to benefit his community. Otherwise his act is self-immolation for the sake of succour from the hardships of life. Such conditions, Badah claimed, are not fulfilled in the current reality. On the contrary, he argued, the impulse for suicide acts is for the most part material and sectarian, aimed at gaining political advantage or covering up the organizational impotence of the Islamic movements. Moreover, the damage from such acts exceeds the benefit and detracts from the constructive work of the newly independent Palestinian entity.

This critical attitude was not shared by most Palestinian ‘ulama’, who ruled out historical conciliation with Israel despite the official PA policy. Inter alia, their stance revealed that their co-option into the bureaucratic structure of the PA was weak. Typically, the mufti of Jerusalem, ‘Akrama Sabri, praised the virtue of martyrdom, pointing to it as the key distinction between the Palestinian and the Israeli value systems. Israeli society, he observed, is ‘a selfish society that loves life. These are not people who are eager to die for their country and their God. The Jew will leave this land rather than die for it, but the Muslim is happy to die [for it]’. Sabri’s colleague, ‘Abd al-Salam Abu Shakhydim, the mufti of the Palestinian security forces, described the seven rewards for such a Muslim, beginning with the purging of all his sins so that he suffers no torment in his grave, through marriage to 70 dark-eyed virgins, and, finally, the guarantee for 70 of his relatives of a place in heaven.

The religious polemic against suicide acts by a dissident minority of ‘ulama’ during the 1990s prompted a ‘war of fatwas’ but did not gain momentum. Most of its spokesmen lacked the religious and moral prestige of their adversaries in the scholarly community, and as such made little impact on shaping the judicial discourse on the issue. This judicial inferiority was exacerbated by the events of the al-Aqsa intifada which broke out in September 2000. The intifada, with its emphasis on the sanctity of the al-Aqsa mosque, reinforced the historical narrative promoted by amās and the Islamic Jihād with regard to the nature of the struggle in Palestine as being religious and cultural rather than territorial. The violent events also forged areas of coalescence between the Islamic narrative and the national narrative of the PA on such loaded issues as Jerusalem, the refugee problem and the settlements. Despite the pronounced asymmetry in power vis-à-vis Israel, the Palestinians succeeded in creating a certain deterrent balance during the intifada. Their main weapon for this was suicide attacks.

If the first intifada (1987-92) witnessed the canonization of civic resistance, the second intifada (al-Aqsa) witnessed the sanctification of suicide acts. The sharp increase in these attacks in light of the violent confrontation with Israel also resulted in a rapid increase in the scale of Israeli fatalities and casualties, mainly civilian. This development revealed the effectiveness of the suicide weapon, which in the Palestinians’ perception placed their side on a more equal footing vis-à-vis Israel’s conventional, and sophisticated, arms, exposing the Israeli Achilles’ heel. The mythologization of the cult of death in Palestine was aptly summarized by the Palestinian scholar ‘Azzam Tamimi, a Hamas sympathizer:

Do not call them suicide bombers; call them shuhada, as they have not escaped the miseries of life. Life is sacred, but some things, like truth and justice, are more sacred than life. The shuhada are not desperate, they are hopeful. … The al-Aqsa Intifada is horrendous, and there have been many casualties, but the Palestinians are not complaining. They are the victims, and they have the right to fight. The Israelis have guns, we have the human bomb. We love death, they love life. … Our history is made by blood and sweat.

Although the primary element responsible for turning suicide attacks into the ultimate Palestinian weapon was the Islamic movements, nationalist groups identified with the PA eventually joined them during the course of the al-Aqsa intifada. The enlistment of these groups initiated a process of mass indoctrination that helped entrench the concept of martyrdom in the Palestinian collective consciousness as a symbol of strength. This indoctrination included the pedagogic sphere as well. Elementary schools taught the popular ‘Song of the Shahid‘, whose lyrics went: ‘Better my death than my stolen right and homeland; the sound of the explosion is pleasant to me and the flow of blood cheers me’. Public opinion polls showed a support rate of 65-75% for suicide acts. As the phenomenon expanded, the pool of perpetrators widened out to include not only young unmarried religious males, but also older men, heads of families, and even women.

However, women carrying out suicide acts remained taboo in Palestinian Islamic circles and especially in amās. In contrast to support by nationalist and feminist groups in the Palestinian and Arab world for women suicide perpetrators, amās leader Shaykh Ahmad Yassin argued that such a development was unnecessary. The number of men willing to sacrifice themselves was satisfactory, but, more importantly, the suicide of women was dangerous because it would put the survival of the Palestinian people at risk. Combat was the province of men, Yassin implied, while the duty of women was essentially demographic, namely producing children and increasing the power of the Muslim nation. Yassin’s stance underscored the conservative ideology of amās, which, while assigning a key role to women in the resistance to the occupation, defined it as more a familial and communal than a military or leadership role.

Other indications of amās’ careful use of the suicide weapon included the avoidance of forming permanent suicide units, with candidates recruited and trained on an ad hoc basis only; and the prohibition of recruiting children into this type of activity, following the involvement of young teenage perpetrators, which evoked criticism in the community. According to Isma’il Abu Shanab, a amās leader in the Gaza Strip, the suicide attacks were to be mounted by means of a well-thought-out plan, under organizational leadership and with a defined target, usually in retaliation for an Israeli attack. They were not to be carried out by young children, and were to be planned so that there was a realistic chance of inflicting damage on Israel. ‘These operations’, Abu Shanab stated, ‘are not part of the regular resistance. They are carried out when the Israelis exceed the limits.’ Hamas thus aimed to avoid being labelled merely a militaristic movement, in contrast to the Islamic Jihād. It wanted to show that while military jihad was central to its platform, it did not overshadow communal jihād, which was the focal point of the mother movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, during the two decades preceding the outbreak of the first intifada. While amās’ publicly stated opposition to using women or children for suicide missions did not resolve this issue completely, the small numbers of such perpetrators marginalized the phenomenon in the collective Palestinian and Arab perception.

This was not the case for male suicide perpetrators. The canonization of suicide attacks in the al-Aqsa intifada, and the Israeli military retaliations, captured the Arab imagination and evoked widespread praise for the Palestinian cult of death. The London-based al-Quds al-‘Arabi wrote that ‘the culture of martyrdom has become acceptable and a model for imitation, just as the [throwing of] stones symbolized the previous Intifada’. Arab political elements, too, justified the Palestinian suicide acts, whether explicitly or implicitly, as a litmus test for support of the Palestinian cause. As a consequence, the Islamic judicial discourse on this issue constricted, with fewer critical voices fuelling it.

A prominent exception was a statement by the mufti of Saudi Arabia, ‘Abd al-‘Aziz bin ‘Abdullah Al al-Shaykh, who in April 2001 ruled that war against the enemy is obligatory, but only in ways determined by religious law. These do not include suicide acts, which are self-immolation per se, or hijacking ships and airplanes whose passengers might be Muslim, protected subjects (dhimmis), or protected foreign citizens (mustaminin). The mufti also denounced the practice of accusations of heresy against Muslim individuals and rulers ostensibly in the name of the Qur’anic commandment to ‘forbid wrongdoing’. He stated that both issues—military jihād and the punishment of Muslims—are too sensitive to be left in the hands of laymen. In this, he defied the militant Islamists, whom he described as devoid of religious or moral authority and as motivated solely by alien considerations that lead to social anarchy.

In renouncing the radicals, Al al-Shaykh was following a quietist tradition by such muftis as ‘Abd al-‘Aziz bin Baz (d. 1999), who warned against distorting Allah’s words; discrediting the authority of the ‘ulama’ as the ‘heirs of the Prophets’; or revolting against legitimate rulers. In their view, the elimination of immoral phenomena in society must be accomplished only by spiritual and communal jihad through dialogue and reproof. Where enforcement was required, the only bodies authorized to do so were the government and the judiciary.

Conceivably, the timing of this critical pronouncement by the Saudi mufti regarding suicide acts was not coincidental, and was directed more at domestic Saudi affairs than at the Palestinian arena. The statement was issued some time after the suicide attack against an American ship in the port of Aden in October 2000 and the hijacking of a Saudi plane flying from Jeddah to London in that same month. These, and other acts, were attributed to the subversive al-Qa’ida network led by Osama bin Laden, the Saudi whose opposition to the West and to the Saudi royal family had become increasingly violent. Moreover, in his statement the Saudi mufti did sanction military jihād against an enemy who conquers Muslim territory, and declared that a person who dies in defence of his property, his life or his people is a martyr. This further blurred the significance of his pronouncement about suicide attacks against Israel.

The Saudi mufti’s statement, nevertheless, gained wide coverage in the Arab and Western media and evoked angry responses within the ranks of the ‘ulama’. Most of them dismissed his ruling as religiously baseless, certainly with regard to the Palestinian case, for which all means of fighting the Jews are legitimate. Other ‘ulama’, such as the Egyptian Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, in exile in Qatar, questioned the integrity of the mufti’s motivation for issuing such a controversial statement, inasmuch as he owed his eminent position to the Saudi royal family. According to Qaradawi, any jurist who rules against suicide attacks belongs to ‘those who are ignorant of religion and its laws’. A more prestigious counter-ruling was sought to refute that of the mufti in Mecca, which was one of the centres of religious scholarship in the Muslim world.

Such a counterweight was soon provided by the religious authorities in Cairo, a centre of Islam whose status was no less distinguished. The Grand Mufti of Egypt Nasir Farid al-Wasil declared in May 2001 that Palestinian suicide attacks constitute legitimate jihad aimed at putting an end to injustice, protecting the places sacred to Islam, and providing a suitable response to Israeli aggression. He called on all Arabs to assist the Palestinians with funding and weapons, and to boycott Israeli products. Should political and economic jihad fail, Wasil ruled, the only solution is military jihad. In the same vein, a group of ‘ulama’ from al-Azhar University, the bastion of orthodoxy in Egypt, stated in a signed manifesto that the jihad in Palestine is a personal obligation that encompasses children as well, even without their parents’ permission.

A more nuanced position was taken by the rector of al-Azhar, Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, reflecting the dilemma of a religious scholar who had to manoeuvre between three elements: jurisprudence, public opinion, and the interests of his political patrons. Tantawi had a record of relative openness on such current public issues as improving the social status of women, allowing bank interest, and permitting organ transplants. He was also known for his ecumenical approach in promoting interfaith dialogue between Muslims, Christians and Jews.

From this perspective, he was more attuned to the government’s national agenda than his predecessor, Jadd al-Haqq ‘Ali Jadd al-Haqq. His relative liberalism, however, angered many of his colleagues in al-Azhar and obliged him to walk a narrow intellectual line with regard to the issue of suicide attacks against Israel. In various statements which gained the status of fatwas, Tantawi argued that the Palestinians’ suicide attacks constitute self-defence against an enemy who kills their people and defiles their homeland, and that the perpetrators of such acts are martyrs. This will remain the case as long as the aim is to kill enemy fighters, but not the weak among the enemy—women, children and the aged—since such an act violates the commandments of Islam and of humanity at large.

Tantawi’s statements were perceived as reinforcing the ruling of the Saudi mufti and elicited bitter criticism by his rivals in Egypt and the Arab world. In turn, the religious debate that raged through fatwas and counter-fatwas prompted various commentators to try to neutralize the controversy by creative interpretation that would present a unified stance in support of suicide attacks in Palestine. One such figure was the Egyptian jurist Tawfiq al-Shawi, who argued that the negative position of the Saudi mufti referred to times of peace, which indeed prevailed in the Muslim countries far from Palestine. However, the mufti’s adversaries referred to times of war, as in Palestine, where sacrifice for the homeland is a religious duty.

The moral dilemma addressed by the Saudi mufti and the rector of al-Azhar involved not only the self-inflicted death of the perpetrator, but the death of innocent civilians. Once this issue was placed on the Islamic public agenda, the supporters of Palestinian suicide acts were compelled to provide pointed judicial arguments, since the notion of attacking civilians went to the heart of the message of Islam and became a primary issue of debate in the wake of these attacks. On the doctrinal level, those ‘ulama’ who justified attacking Israeli civilians ruled that Islam prohibits killing civilians, such as women, small children, the aged, the blind, farmers and workers attending to their jobs. There are, however, two exceptional situations: when these civilians take part in war or assist it by incitement and the provision of material or moral assistance; and when harming them is unavoidable due to the difficulty of distinguishing them from soldiers, or when they serve as human shields against a Muslim attack.

Moving from the doctrinal to the practical level in the Palestinian context, the ‘ulama’ that supported the suicide phenomenon narrowed the category of immune civilians to babies, children and the insane. Women, they pointed out, are capable of carrying arms and can be drafted in wartime. Furthermore, they corrupt the morality of young Muslims and estrange them from religion. The other groups, such as elders, farmers and workers, inhabit land expropriated from Muslims and are prepared to defend it at all times. Another judicial theme cited to justify harming civilians was the principle of reciprocity (al-mu’amala bi’l-mithl) dealt with in the Qur’an (Sura 2: 190), which allows deviation from the rules of war when the aggressor deviates from them first. In this respect, the Jews’ crimes against the Palestinian people are brutal and well known to all, the ‘ulama’ argued. Some ‘ulama’ used their adversaries’ point of departure—the rejection of killing civilians—to justify such an act. Even if suicide attacks are evil, these ‘ulama’ reasoned, they constitute a legitimate deviation from the Shari’a based on the doctrine of necessity (al-darurat), and all the more so in the case of a far worse evil as represented by Israel, a repressive and degrading entity. In assessing the two evils—suicide attacks and Israeli policy—they found the first to be the lesser evil.

The loosening of religious restraints regarding suicide attacks in Palestine contrasted with the overall condemnation by the religious establishment in the Middle East of the al-Qa’ida suicide attacks in the US on 11 September 2001. Most ‘ulama’ denounced the 11 September events as profane violence and their perpetrators as violators of Islamic morality. The revelation of the involvement of Arabs—Saudis, Egyptians, Yemenis and others—in planning and carrying out the attacks prompted the ‘ulama’ to denounce bin Laden’s acts firmly and explicitly. The religious establishment feared the tarnishing of Islam by extremism and terror. It also felt impelled to show conformity with the Arab regimes’ condemnation of the attacks, given the deteriorating image of the Arab countries in American and European public opinion. These ‘ulama’ condemned bin Laden and al-Qaida as no more than ‘an apostate footnote in the annals of Islamic history’. Some ‘ulama’ even urged the Islamic government in Kabul to extradite bin Laden to the US so as to prevent a graver evil, namely a destructive war against the Afghan people. The religious objection, or, in many cases, indifference, to the sweeping global jihad proclaimed by bin Laden against the US and the West left him and his patron, the Taliban regime, without moral backing, facing the American counter-attack in Afghanistan.

Significantly, this episode revealed how anachronistic the ethos of universal jihād against the world of the infidels had become in modern Islamic thought, both in the religious establishment and the Islamist movements. It had been replaced by an acceptance of the post-First World War political order and a shift of emphasis to the struggle over the moral image of the territorial state, whether by revolutionary or evolutionary means.

Denouncing jihād against the great Satan—America—did not mean turning away from jihad against the little Satan—Israel. Israel continued to dominate the Islamic discourse, and jihad against it was presented in heroic terms as the struggle of the deprived against an oppressive enemy.


The emergence of Palestinian radical Islam in the late 1970s reflected, inter alia, a reaction to the marginalization of the Palestinian cause on the Islamist agenda of the Arab Middle East, especially after the 1967 war. Defying this agenda, however, did not abolish the need by Palestinian Islam for religious backing and popular Arab support in promoting armed struggle against Israel, especially with the advent of the peace process and the adoption of suicide acts. Clearly, Hamas and Islamic Jihad were not indifferent to the religious debate over the suicide phenomenon raging in the Arab Muslim world. Both groups articulated a persuasive case for the cult of death, relying on judicial arguments and on the critical nature of the struggle in Palestine.

Typically, Islamic Jihād leader Shaykh ‘Abdallah al-Shami of the Gaza Strip argued: ‘We do not take depressed people. If there were [even] a one-in-a-thousand chance that a person was suicidal, we would not allow him to martyr himself. In order to be a martyr bomber, you have to want to live’ In the same vein, Hamas spokesmen emphasized that those who explode themselves in the enemy’s centres are ‘people of the mosques, aware of the prohibition against suicide and the fate of the suicide in the next world’.

Palestinian suicide attacks became a religious ritual and their perpetrators were perceived as symbols of a revolutionary theology. The suicide phenomenon, depicted by Islamic spokesmen as ‘the daily bread’ of the Palestinians, was aimed not only at the Zionist enemy but at Arab and Muslim public opinion as well. In this respect, a central role was assigned to the community of religious scholars, most of whom expounded a favourable attitude towards martyrdom in the media, in fatwas, and in the state network of mosques and schools at their disposal. This religious backing purified the suicide acts of their violent content and projected them as a faithful agent of Allah’s will in Palestine.

The intense involvement of the official ‘ulama’ with the issue of suicide attacks reflected their desire to regain religious authority in the areas of guidance and judicial rulings which they had lost to leaders of the Islamist movements (largely self-educated) or to charismatic unaffiliated ‘ulama’. The official ‘ulama’ played a key role in the issue on three main levels: the canonization of suicide attacks in the Arab Muslim discourse as the fulfilment of the ideal of jihad, that is, of ‘walking in the path of Allah in promoting good, justice and truth’; the enhancement of the religious dimension of the conflict in Palestine; and the entrenchment of the legitimate status of Palestinian Islam in Middle Eastern politics. The dominant supportive approach towards the suicide attacks in the religious discourse also relegated ecumenical efforts by senior Christian clerics to form a unified religious front against ‘killing in the name of God’ to an intellectual exercise. Significantly, the ‘ulama’ were careful to confine their support for the phenomenon of suicide attacks to the Palestinian arena only, lest it spill over into neighbouring Arab states where Islamist movements were on the defensive and might adopt it.

The official ‘ulama’ also played a key role in the obstruction of normalization (tatbi’) with Israel in the wake of the Egyptian-Israeli peace accord in 1979, and even more so with the growing political momentum in the early 1990s. Some ‘ulama’ ruled that Muslims who visited Israel or cooperated with it in the economic sphere risked exposure to hardship, disease and even punishment based on the Islamic imperative to forbid wrongdoing. The fate of such a Muslim in the next world was dire, for he would be subject to punishment for hypocrisy (nifaq), having betrayed Islam and violated the contract of solidarity with the nation of believers.

The enlistment in the anti-normalization campaign of other opinion moulders both from the religious and the secular intelligentsia rendered the Israeli desire for cultural, and not only political, inclusion in the region a utopian vision, alien to the Arab collective consciousness.

The resolute stance of the religious establishment regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict, as well as its position towards the broader issue of Islam in the Arab public sphere, calls into question the scholarly narrative regarding the eroded status of the Sunni ‘ulama’ in modern times. These ‘ulama’ frequently found themselves between a rock and a hard place, forced to comply with the policies of the Arab regimes they serve and at the same time reaffirm their loyalty to Islam under threat of degradation by the Islamist opposition.

Still, they displayed considerable assertiveness on issues close to their hearts, paralleling the Islamist agenda in such areas as ensuring the superior position of the Shari’a in matters of personal status, keeping a visible Islamic presence in the public sphere, or reinforcing Arab opposition to integrating Israel into the regional milieu. In this sense, observations by Western commentators regarding the relegation of Sunni ‘ulama’ to the status of mere preachers in the service of the regime, or their diminished relevance to Islamic politics, are inaccurate and need to be re-examined.

The other view of the ‘ulama’, as distancing themselves from, and even denouncing, the Palestinian suicide acts as self-immolation, clearly referred to a dissident minority that was marginal in the Islamic discourse. Still, such reservations, marginal as they were and prompted by political considerations of various kinds, continued to fuel the public debate over the suicide phenomenon, a cult of death that emerged on the threshold of the third millennium. These dissident ‘ulama’ were joined by some Arab intellectuals and public figures who called for a halt to the attacks on Israeli civilians, which distort and debase the image of the Palestinian struggle against the occupation. A prominent spokesman for this position, Edward Said, pointed out that suicide attacks dehumanize the Palestinian liberation cause. As Said argued, ‘All liberation movements in history have affirmed that their struggle is about life, not about death. Why should ours be an exception?’