Are Muslims allowed to kill themselves?

Answers to your questions about the news.
June 12 2006 6:29 PM

Are Muslims Allowed To Kill Themselves?

Only if they have a really good reason.

Download the MP3 audio version of this story here, or sign up for The Explainer's free daily podcast on iTunes.

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."

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

Advertisement

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.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Jonathan Brockopp of Penn State University.

Correction, June 13, 2006: This piece originally stated that the crash of EgyptAir 990 took place in 2002. It happened in 1999. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

Even When They Go to College, the Poor Sometimes Stay Poor

Republicans Want the Government to Listen to the American Public on Ebola. That’s a Horrible Idea.

The Most Ingenious Teaching Device Ever Invented

Tom Hanks Has a Short Story in the New Yorker. It’s Not Good.

Brow Beat

Marvel’s Civil War Is a Far-Right Paranoid Fantasy

It’s also a mess. Can the movies do better?

Space: The Next Generation

An All-Female Mission to Mars

As a NASA guinea pig, I verified that women would be cheaper to launch than men.

Watching Netflix in Bed. Hanging Bananas. Is There Anything These Hooks Can’t Solve?

The Procedural Rule That Could Prevent Gay Marriage From Reaching SCOTUS Again

Behold
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 20 2014 8:14 PM You Should Be Optimistic About Ebola Don’t panic. Here are all the signs that the U.S. is containing the disease.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 20 2014 7:23 PM Chipotle’s Magical Burrito Empire Keeps Growing, Might Be Slowing
  Life
Outward
Oct. 20 2014 3:16 PM The Catholic Church Is Changing, and Celibate Gays Are Leading the Way
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I Am 25. I Don't Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 20 2014 6:32 PM Taylor Swift’s Pro-Gay “Welcome to New York” Takes Her Further Than Ever From Nashville 
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 20 2014 4:59 PM Canadian Town Cancels Outdoor Halloween Because Polar Bears
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Oct. 20 2014 11:46 AM Is Anybody Watching My Do-Gooding? The difference between being a hero and being an altruist.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.