Category Archives: Middle East


The Martyr: On Jihad, Suicide, and Martyrdom


Ayatollah Murtaza Mutahhari (also spelled Morteza Motahhari or Motah-hary), a traditional Shi’ite mujtahid and scholar influential in the Islamic Revolution of Iran (1978–79), was born in a small town in the province of Khorasan, Iran, and studied at the Madrasah-e Fayziyah in Qom, later famous as a center of revolutionary students of theology. Mutahhari studied Islamic jurisprudence under Ayatollah Khomeini, whom he found impressive for his knowledge of philosophy and ethics, and was his devoted student for 12 years. At 23, Mutahhari began the formal study of philosophy; at 25, he discovered communist literature; and at 29, he began to study the works of the 10th-century Islamic thinker Ibn Sina (Avicenna). Mutahhari wrote works in philosophy, jurisprudence, and theology; he taught philosophy at the University of Tehran. Despite his comparatively scholastic and traditional scholarship, he voiced strong social concerns, and played both a philosophical and a political role in the leadership of the Iranian Revolution. In 1978, at Khomeini’s request, Mutahhari founded the Council of the Islamic Revolution, which continued to organize revolutionary forces even after the Shah was deposed. Mutahhari was assassinated in 1979 as he left a meeting and is now regarded as a martyr of the Islamic Revolution.

In the lecture presented here, Mutahhari examines the notions of jihad and shahadat. The Arabic term jihad, which means struggle, exertion, or expenditure of effort, and may include personal strivings for one’s own purity of motive and commitment, as well as armed struggle with the enemies of Islam, does not coincide precisely with the notion of holy war, though it is often used that way in the West; the Arabic shahadat may mean martyrdom or witnessing. In his lecture, Mutahhari argues that war intended to spread Islam by force among disbelievers is not allowed, but at the same time, one must fight to resist persecution and oppression, thus both helping the weak and simultaneously preparing the ground for the spread of Islam by peaceful means. Islam is to be defended by violent means if necessary—this is jihad, and the shahid (i.e., witness, martyr) who commits himself to this cause is one who “infuses new blood into an otherwise anaemic society.” Mutahhari distinguishes sharply between suicide or self-murder, “the worst kind of death,” and shahadat, the conscious, elective sacrifice of life for the sake of a sacred cause: This is “the only type of death which is higher, greater and holier than life itself.”

Morteza Motah-hary [Mutahhari], The Martyr (Houston, TX:  Free Islamic Literatures, Inc., 1980), pp.  3-28.  Quotations in introductory material from Mehdi Abedi and Gary Legenhaus, eds., Jihad and Shahadat: Struggle and Martyrdom in Islam (Houston, TX: Institute for Research and Islamic Studies, 1986), pp. v-vii, 2, 12, 35-38, 128.





There are certain words and expressions to which, in general use or particularly in Islamic terminology, a certain sense of dignity, and sometimes even, sanctity is attached.

Student, teacher, scholar, inventor, hero, reformer, philosopher, zakir (preacher), momin (faithful), zahid (pious), mujahid (soldier), siddique (truthful), wali (saint), mujahid, Imam, and Prophet are some of the words of this category.  A sense of dignity or even of sanctity is attached to them in general use and especially in Islamic terminology.

It is evident that a word, as such, has no sanctity. It becomes sacred because of the sense which it conveys. The sanctity of a sense depends on a particular mental outlook, and the values which are cherished generally or by a particular section of people.

In Islamic terminology, there is a word which has a special sanctity. When anyone familiar with the Islamic modes of expressions hears this word, he feels it to be invested with a special glory. This word is shaheed or martyr. A sense of grandeur and sanctity is associated with it, in its use by all the people.  Of course the standards and the criteria vary. At present we are only concerned with the Islamic usage of it.

From the Islamic point of view, only that person is regarded to have secured the status of a martyr whom Islam recognizes as having acted according to it’s own standard. Only he, who is killed in an effort to achieve the highest Islamic objectives and is really motivated by a desire of safeguarding true human values, attains this position, which is one of the highest a man can aspire for. From what the Holy Qur’an and the hadith say about the martyrs, it is possible to infer, why so much sanctity is attached to this word by the Muslims and what the logic behind it is.

The Martyr

Martyr’s Proximity to Allah
The Holy Qur’an in respect of the Martyr’s proximity to Allah says: “Think not of those who were slain in the way of Allah, as dead.  Nay, they are alive, finding their sustenance with their Lord.

In Islam, when a meritorious person or deed is to be exalted, it is said that particular person has the status of a martyr, or a particular act merits the reward of martyrdom. For example, with regards to a student, who seeks knowledge with the motive of finding out the truth and gaining the favour of Allah, it is said, that if he dies while learning, he dies the death of a martyr. This expression denotes the high status and sanctity of a student. Similarly, with regards to a person who takes pain and labours strenuously for the support of his family, it is said that he is like a fighter in the way of Allah. It may be noted that Islam is severely opposed to lethargy and parasitism, and regards hard work as a duty.

Martyr’s Prerogative
All those who have served humanity in one way or the other, whether as scholars, philosophers, inventors or as teachers, deserve the gratitude of mankind. But no one deserves it, to the extent the martyrs do, and that is why all sections of the people have a sentimental attachment to them. The reason is, that all other servants of humanity are indebted to the martyrs; whereas the martyrs are not indebted to them. A scholar, a philosopher, an inventor and a teacher require a congenial and conducive atmosphere to render their services, and it is the martyr, who with his supreme sacrifice provides that atmosphere.

He can be compared to a candle, whose job is to burn out and get extinguished, in order to shed light for the benefit of others. The martyrs are the candles of society. They burn themselves out and illuminate society. If they do not shed their light, no organization can shine.

A man who works in the light of the sun during the day, and in the light of a lamp or a candle at night, pays heed to everything, but his attention is not drawn to the source of light, while it goes without saying, that without that light he can accomplish nothing.  The martyrs are the illuminators of society.  Had they not shed their light, on the darkness of despotism and suppression, humanity would have made no progress.

The Holy Qur’an has used a delightful expression about the Holy Prophet. It has compared him to an illuminating lamp.  This expression combines the sense of burning and enlightening.  The Holy Qur’an says: “O Prophet! Surely We have sent you as a witness, a bearer of good news and a warner; and as a guide to Allah, by His permission and as an illuminating lamp.”

There is no doubt that according to the Islamic terminology, the martyr is a sacred word and for those who use an Islamic vocabulary, it conveys a sense, higher than that of any other word.

Islam is a juridical religion. Every Islamic law is based on a social consideration. According to an Islamic law, the dead body of every Muslim has to be washed ceremoniously, and shrouded in neat and clean sheets. Thereafter prayers have to be performed and only then it is buried. There are good reasons for doing all this, but we need not discuss them in the present context.

Anyhow, there is an exception to this general rule. The body of a martyr is neither to be washed, nor is it to be shrouded in fresh sheets. He is to be buried in those very clothes, which he had on his body, at the time of his death.

This exception has a deep significance. It shows that the spirit and the personality of a martyr are so thoroughly purified that his body, his blood and his garments are also affected by this purification. The body of martyr is spiritualized, in the sense that certain rules applicable to his spirit, are applied to them. The body and the garments of a martyr, acquire respectability because of his spirit, virtue and sacrifice. One who falls martyr on a battle-field is buried with his blood-stained body and blood-soaked clothes without being washed.

These rules of the Islamic law are a sign of the sanctity of a martyr.

Reasons of Sanctity
What is the basis of the sanctity of martyrdom? It is evident that merely being killed can have no sanctity. It is not always a matter of pride. Many a death may even be a matter of disgrace.

Let us elucidate this point a bit further. We know that there are several kinds of death:

1) Natural Death: If a man dies a natural death, after completing his normal span of life, his death is considered to be an ordinary event. It is neither a matter of pride nor of shame. It is not even a matter of much sorrow.

2) Accidental Death: Death as the result of accidents or an epidemic disease like small-pox, plague, or due to such natural disasters, as an earthquake or a flood, is considered to be premature, and hence is regarded as regrettable.

3) Criminal Death: In this case, a person kills another in cold blood simply to satisfy his own passion or because he considered the victim to be his opponent or rival. There are many instances of such murders. We often read in the daily newspapers that a particular woman killed the small child of her husband because the father loved the child while the woman wanted to monopolize his attention, or that a particular man murdered the woman who refused to accept his love. Similarly, we read in history, that a particular ruler massacred all the children of another ruler, to foil the chances of any future rivalry.

In such cases, the action of the murderer is considered to be atrociously criminal and heinous, and the person killed is regarded as a victim of aggression and tyranny, whose life has been taken in vain. The reaction which such a murder creates, is one of horror and pity. It is evident that such a death is shocking and pitiable, but it is neither praise-worthy nor a matter of pride. The victim loses his life unnecessarily, because of malice, enmity and hatred.

4) Self-murder: In this case, the death itself constitutes a crime, and hence, it is the worst kind of death. Suicidal deaths and the deaths of those who are killed in motor accidents because of their own fault, come under this category. The same is the case of the death, of those who are killed while committing a crime.

5) Martyrdom: Martyrdom is the death of a person who, in spite of being fully conscious of the risks involved, willingly faces them for the sake of a sacred cause, or, as the Holy Qur’an says, in the way of Allah.

It has two basic elements: a) The life is sacrificed for a cause; and b) the sacrifice is made consciously. Usually in the case of martyrdom, an element of crime is involved.  As far as the victim is concerned, his death is sacred, but as far as his killers are concerned, their action is a heinous crime.

Martyrdom is heroic and admirable, because it results from a voluntary, conscious and selfless action. It is the only type of death which is higher, greater and holier than life itself.

It is regrettable that most of the zakirs who narrate the story of Karbala, call Imam Husain, the Doyen of the Martyrs, although they have little analytical insight into the question of martyrdom. They describe the events in such a way, as though he lost his life in vain.

Many of our people mourn Imam Husain for his innocence. They regret that he was a victim of the selfishness of a power-hungry man, who shed his blood, through no fault of his. Had the fact been really so simple, Imam Husain would have been regarded, only as an innocent person whom great injustice was done, but he could not have been called a martyr, let alone his being the Doyen of the Martyrs.

It is not the whole story, that Imam Husain was a victim of selfish designs. No doubt the perpetrators of the tragedy, committed the crime out of their selfishness, but the Imam consciously made the supreme sacrifice. His opponents wanted him to pledge his allegiance, but he, knowing fully well the consequences, chose to resist their demand. He regarded it as a great sin to remain quiet at the juncture. The history of his martyrdom, and especially his statements, bear witness to this fact.

Jihad or Martyr’s Responsibility
The sacred cause that leads to martyrdom or the giving of one’s life, has become a law in Islam. It is called Jihad. This is not the occasion to discuss its nature in detail, nor to say whether it is always defensive or offensive, and, if it is only defensive, whether it is confined to the defence of the individual or at the most, of national rights, or that its scope is so wide as to include the defence of all human rights such as freedom and justice. There are other relevant questions also, such as whether the faith in the Divine Unity is or is not a part of human rights, and whether jihad is or is not basically repugnant to the right of freedom.  The discussion of these questions can be both interesting and instructive, but in its proper place.

For the present, suffice it to say, that Islam is not a religion directing that should some one slap your right cheek, offer the left one to him, nor does it say: pay unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and unto God what belongs to God. Similarly, it is not a religion which may have no sacred social ideal, or may not consider it necessary to defend it.

The Holy Qur’an in many of its passages, has mentioned three sacred concepts, side by side. They are faith, hijrat and jihad. The man of the Qur’an is a being attached to faith and detached from everything else. To save his own faith, he migrates, and to save society he carries out jihad.  It will take much of the space, if we reproduce all the verses and the hadiths on this subject. Hence we will content ourselves by quoting a few sentences from the Nahj al Balagha: “No doubt jihad is an entrance to Paradise, which Allah has opened for His chosen friends. It is the garment of piety, Allah’s impenetrable armour and trust-worthy shield. He who refrains from it because he dislikes it, Allah will clothe him in a garment of humiliation and a cloak of disaster.”

Jihad is a door to Paradise, but it is not open to all and sundry. Everyone is not worthy of it; Everyone is not elected to become a mujahid. Allah has opened this door for his chosen friends only. A mujahid’s position is so high that we cannot call him simply Allah’s friend.  He is Allah’s chosen friend.  The Holy Qur’an says that paradise has eight doors. Evidently, it does not have so many doors to avoid over-crowding, for there is no question of it in the next world. As Allah can check the accounts of all people instantly. (The Holy Qur’an says: “He is quick at reckoning.”) He can also arrange their entry into Paradise through one door. There is no question of entering in turn or forming a queue there. Similarly, these doors cannot be for different classes of people for there is no class distinction in the next world. There, the people will not be classified according to their social status or profession.

There, the people will be graded and grouped together on the basis of the degree of their faith, good deeds and piety only, and a door analogous to its spiritual development in this world, will be opened to each group, for the next world is only a heavenly embodiment of this world. The door through which the mujahids and the martyrs will enter, and the portion of Paradise set aside for them, is the one which is reserved for Allah’s chosen friends, who will be graced with His special favour.

Jihad is the garment of piety. The expression, garment of piety has been used by the Holy Qur’an in the Sura al A’raf. Imam Ali says that Jihad is the garment of piety. Piety consists of true purity, that is, freedom from spiritual and moral pollutions which are rooted in selfishness, vanity and aliveness, merely for personal profit and pleasure. On this basis, a real mujahid is the most pious. He is pure because he is free from jealously, free from vanity, free from avarice and free from stinginess. A mujahid is the purest of all the pure. He exercises complete self-negation and self-sacrifice. The door which is opened to him, is different from the doors opened to others morally undefiled. That piety has various grades, can be deduced from the Holy Qur’an itself, which says: “On those who believe and do good deeds there is no blame for what they eat, as long as they keep their duty and believe, and do good deeds then again they keep their duty and believe, and keep their duty and do good to others. And Allah loves the good.”

This verse implies two valuable points of the Qur’anic knowledge.  The first point is that, there are various degrees on faith and piety.  This is the point under discussion at present.  The other point concerns the philosophy of life and human rights.  The Holy Qur’an wants to say that all good things have been created for the people of faith, piety and good deeds.  Man is entitled to utilize the bounties of Allah only when he marches forward on the path of evolution prescribed for him by nature.  That is the path of faith, piety and worthy deeds.

Muslim scholars inspired by this verse, and by what has been explicitly or implicitly stated in other Islamic texts, have classified piety into three degrees:
(a)    average piety;
(b)   above average piety; and
(c)    outstanding piety.

The piety of the mujahids, is one of supreme self-sacrifice. They sincerely renounce all they possess, and surrender themselves to Allah. Thus, they put on a garment of piety.

Jihad is an impenetrable armour of Allah. A Muslim community equipped with the spirit of Jihad, cannot be vulnerable to the enemy’s assaults. Jihad is a reliable shield of Allah. The armour is the defensive covering worn during fighting, but the shield is a tool taken in hand, to foil the enemy’s strokes and thrusts. A shield is meant to prevent a blow, and an armour is meant to neutralize its effect.  Apparently, Imam Ali has compared jihad to both an armour and a shield, because some forms of it have a preventive nature and prevent the onslaught of the enemy, and other forms of it have a resistive nature and render his attacks ineffective.

Allah will clothe with a garment of humiliation, a person who refrains from Jihad because he dislikes it. The people who lose the spirit of fighting and resisting the forces of evil, are doomed to humiliation, disgrace, bad-luck and helplessness. The Holy Prophet has said: “All good lies in the sword and under the shadow of the sword.” He has also said: “Allah has honoured my followers, because of the hoofs of their horses, and the position of their arrows. This means that the Muslim community is the community of power and force. Islam is the religion of power. It produces mujahids. Will Durant in his book, “History of Civilization,” says that no religion has called its followers to power to the extent that Islam has.

According to another hadith, the Holy Prophet has been quoted as having said: “He who did not fight and did not even think of fighting, will die the death of a sort of hypocrite.” Jihad, or at least a desire to take part in it, is an integral part of the doctrine of Islam. One’s fidelity to Islam is judged by it. Another hadith reports the Holy Prophet as having said, that a martyr would not be interrogated in his grave.  The Holy Prophet said that the flash of the sword over his head, was enough of a test. A martyr’s fidelity, having once been proved, has no need of any further interrogation.

Longing for Martyrdom
In the early days of Islam, many Muslims had a special spirit, which may be called the spirit of longing for martyrdom. Imam Ali was the most prominent of such people. He, himself says: “When the verse ‘Do men feel that they will be let off, because they say we believe and will not be tried by an ordeal’, was revealed, I asked the Holy Prophet about it. I knew that so long as he was alive, the Muslims would not be subject to an ordeal. The Holy Prophet said that after him, a civil strife would break out among the Muslims. Then I reminded him, that on the occasion of the Battle of Ohad, when I was dejected because a number of Muslims had been killed, and I had been deprived of martyrdom, he consoled me, saying that I would attain martyrdom, he consoled me, saying that I would attain martyrdom in future. The Holy Prophet affirmed it, and asked me whether I would observe patience, at that time. I said that, that would be an occasion of being thankful to Allah, and not that of merely being patient. Then the Holy Prophet gave me some details of the events to come.” This is what we mean by the longing for martyrdom.  Had Imam Ali lost the hope of attaining martyrdom, life would have become meaningless for him.

We always have Imam Ali’s name on our lips, and claim to be devoted to him. If, mere verbal professions could do, no one would be better Shia than we are. But, true Shia’ism requires us to follow in his footsteps, too. We have given just one example of his conduct above.

Apart from Imam Ali, we know of many other people who longed for martyrdom. In the early days of Islam, every Muslim prayed to Allah for it, as is evident from the supplications which have come down to us from the Imams.

In the supplication, which is offered during the nights of the holy month of Ramazan, we say: “O Allah! Let us be killed in your way, in the company of your friend (Imam) and attain martyrdom.”

We find that during the early days of Islam everyone, whether young or old, high or low had this longing. Sometimes the people came to the Holy Prophet and expressed this desire. Islam does not allow suicide. They wanted to take part in jihad, and to be killed while doing their duty. They requested the Holy Prophet, to pray to Allah to grant them martyrdom.

In the book, Safinat al Bihar there is a story of a man named Khaythumah (or Khathimah). At the time of the Battle of Badr, he and his son were both keen to take part in the fighting and to get killed. They argued with each other. In the end they drew lots. The son won, and accordingly went to the battle-field where he laid down his life. Some time later, the father had a dream in which he saw his son living a very happy life, and who told him that Allah’s promise had come true. The old father came to the Holy Prophet and narrated the dream. He told the Holy Prophet, that though he was too old and too weak to fight, he was desirous of taking part in the fighting and falling a martyr. He requested the Holy Prophet, to pray to Allah to grant him, his desire. The Holy Prophet prayed accordingly. Within less than a year the old man had, not only the good fortune of taking part in the Battle of Ohad, but also of achieving martyrdom.

There was another man, whose name was Amr ibn Jamuh. He had several sons. He was lame in one leg and so according to the Islamic law, exempt from taking part in the fighting.  The Holy Qur’an says: “The lame are not under constraint.” On the occasion of the Battle of Ohad all his sons equipped themselves with arms. He said, that he must also go into battle and lay down his life. His sons objected to his decision and asked him to stay behind, as he was not under any obligation to go to battle. But, still he insisted. His sons brought the senior member of their family, to exert pressure on him, but the old man would not change his mind. He went, instead to the Holy Prophet, and said: “Prophet to Allah, who do not the children let me become a martyr? If martyrdom is good for others, it is good for me too.” The Holy Prophet, then, asked his sons, not to restrain him. He said: “This man longs for martyrdom. If he is under no obligation to fight, neither is he forbidden from it. You should have no objection.” The old man was pleased. He immediately armed himself. On the battle-field, one of his sons was watching him. He saw his father, in spite of being aged and weak, fought recklessly and zealously. At last he was killed. One of his sons was also killed.

Ohad is situated near Medina. There, the Muslims suffered heavy losses and their position became critical. In the meantime, a report reached Medina that the Muslims had been defeated. The men and women of Medina hurried to Ohad. One of the women was the wife of this Amr ibn Jamuh. She went to Ohad, found out the dead bodies of her husband, son and brother. She loaded them onto a strong camel, and set out for Medina with the intention of burying them in the cemetery of Baqi. On the way, she noticed that her camel moved very haltingly and slowly towards Medina and turned constantly towards Ohad. Meanwhile, other women including some of the wives of the Holy Prophet, were coming towards Ohad.

One of the wives of the Holy Prophet asked her where she was coming from. She replied that she was coming from Ohad.

“What are you carrying on your camel?”
“Nothing.  Only the dead bodies of my husband, son and brother.  I want to take them to Medina.”
“How is the Prophet?”
“Thank Allah!  Everything is all right.  The Prophet is safe.  The designs of the infidels have been frustrated by Allah.  So long as the Holy Prophet is safe, everything else is immaterial.”

Then, the woman said that there was something queer about her camel. It appeared that it did not want to go to Medina. It should have been going towards his manger eagerly, but it wanted to go back to Ohad. The Prophet’s wife proposed that they should go together to the Holy Prophet and tell him about that. When they met the Holy Prophet, the woman said: “I have a strange story. This animal goes on to Medina with difficulty, but comes to Ohad easily.” The Holy Prophet said: “Did your husband say anything when he came out of his house?” “Yes, when he came out of the house, he raised his hands in prayer and said: ‘O Allah, grant me, that I don’t come back to this house,” said the woman. “That’s it. Your husband’s prayer has been granted. Now let him be buried at Ohad along with the other martyrs,” advised the Holy Prophet.

The Commander of Faithful Imam Ali used to say: “I prefer a thousand strokes of the sword to dying in bed.” Imam Husain on his way to Karbala, used to recite certain lines of poetry. His father is also reported to have recited these verses occasionally.  We give a translation of them below:

Though worldly things are fine and charming,
The recompense of the Hereafter is far better,
If all the possessions and wealth are to be left behind,
Why should one be stingy about them?
If our bodies are meant to die and decay,
Is it not better that they are cut to pieces in the way of Allah?

Martyr’s Motivation
A martyr’s motivation is different from that of ordinary people. His logic is the blind logic of a reformer, and the logic of a Gnostic lover. If the two logics, namely the logic of an earnest reformer, and the logic of a zealous and Gnostic lover are put together, the result will be the motivation of a martyr. Let us elucidate this point further.

When Imam Husain decided to leave for Kufa, some prudent members of his family tried to dissuade him. Their argument was that his action was not logical. They were right in their own way. It was not in conformity with their logic, which was the logic of worldly wise man. But Imam Husain had a higher logic. His logic was that of a martyr, which is beyond the comprehension of ordinary people.

Abd Allah ibn Abbas was no small a person. Muhammad ibn Hanafiyyah was not an ordinary man. But their logic was based on the consideration of personal interests and political gains. From their point of view, Imam Husain’s action was not discreet at all. Ibn Abbas made a proposal, which was politically very sound. It is the usual practice of clever people to use others as their tools. They push others forward and remain behind themselves. If others succeed, they take full advantages of their success. Otherwise, they lose nothing. Ibn Abbas said to Imam Hussain, “The people of Kufa have written to tell you, that they were ready to fight for your cause. You should write back asking them to expell Yazid’s officials from there. They would either do what you suggest or they won’t. If they do, you can go there safely. If they are unable to do so, your position is not affected.”

The Imam did not listen to this advice. He made it plain that he was determined to proceed. Ibn Abbas said:

“You will be killed.”
“So what?” said the Imam.
“A man who goes knowing he may be killed, does not take his wife and children along with him.”
“But I must.”

A martyr’s logic is unique. It is beyond the comprehension of ordinary people. That is why the word martyr is encircled with a halo of sanctity. It occupies a remarkable position in the vocabulary of sacred and highly glorious words. It connotes something higher, than the sense of a hero and a reformer. It cannot be replaced by any other word.

Martyr’s Blood
What does a martyr do? His function is not confined to resisting the enemy, and in the process, either giving him a blow or receiving a blow from him. Had that been the case, we could say, that when his blood is shed, it goes waste. But at no time is a martyr’s blood wasted.  It does not flow on the ground. Every drip of it is turned into hundreds and thousands of drops, nay into tons of blood, and is transfused into the body of his society. That is why the Holy Prophet has said: “Allah does not like any drop, more than the drop of blood shed, in His way.” Martyrdom means transfusion of blood into a society, especially a society suffering from anemia.  t is the martyr who infuses fresh blood into the veins of the society.

Martyr’s Courage and Zeal
The distinctive characteristic of a martyr, is that he charges the atmosphere with courage and zeal. He revives the spirit of valour and fortitude, courage and zeal, especially divine zeal, among the people who have lost it. That is why Islam is always in need of martyrs. The revival of courage and zeal is essential for the revival of a nation.

Martyr’s Immortality
A scholar serves the society through his knowledge. It is on account of his knowledge that his personality is amalgamated with the society, just as a drop of water is amalgamated with the sea. As the result of this amalgamation a part of personality, namely his thoughts and ideas, become immortal. An inventor is amalgamated with the society through his inventions. He serves the society, by making himself immortal, by virtue of his skill and inventions. A poet makes himself immortal through his poetic art, and a moral teacher through his wise sayings.

Similarly, a martyr immortalizes himself in his own way. He gives invaluable fresh blood to the society. In other words, a scholar immortalizes his thoughts, an artist his art, an inventor his inventions, and a moral teacher his teachings. But a martyr, through his blood, immortalizes his entire being. His blood for ever flows in the veins of the society. Every other group of people can make only a part of its faculties immortal, but a martyr immortalizes all his faculties. That is why, the Holy Prophet said: “Above every virtue, there is another virtue, but there is no virtue higher than being killed in the way of Allah.”

Martyr’s Intercession
There is a hadith which says, that there are three classes of people who will be allowed to intercede with Allah on the Day of Judgement. They are the prophets, ulema and martyrs. In this hadith, the Imams have not been mentioned expressly, but as the report comes down from our Imams, it is obvious that the term, ‘Ulema” stands for the true divines, who par excellence include the Imams themselves.

The intercession of the prophets is quite apparent. It is the intercession of the martyr’s, which we have to comprehend. The martyrs secure this privilege of intercession because they lead the people onto the right path. Their intercession will be portrayal of the events which took place in this world.

The Commander of the Faithful, Imam Ali says: “Allah will bring forward the martyrs, on the Day of Judgement, with such pomp and splendour, that even the prophets if mounted, will dismount to show their respect for them.” With such grandeur, will a martyr appear on the Day of Judgement.”

Lamenting Over the Martyr
Among the martyrs of the early days of Islam, the name of the most brilliant martyr was, Hamzah ibn Abd al Muttalib. He was given the epithet of the Doyen of the Martyrs. He was an uncle of the Holy Prophet, and was present at the Battle of Ohad. Those who have had the good luck of visitingMedina, must have paid a visit to his grave.

When Hamzah migrated from Mecca, he was alone, for nobody lived with him in his house. When the Holy Prophet returned from Ohad, he found women weeping in the houses of all the martyrs, except that of Hamzah. He uttered just one sentence “Hamzah has no one to weep for him.” The companions of the Holy Prophet went to their houses and told their womenfolk that the Holy Prophet had said that Hamzah had no body to weep for him. All the women who were weeping for their sons, husbands and brothers immediately, set out for the house of Hamzah and wept there, out of respect for the wish of the Holy Prophet. Thereafter, it became a tradition, that whenever anybody wanted to weep for any martyr, he or she first went to the house of Hamzah and wept there. This incident shows, that though Islam does not encourage lamenting the death of an ordinary man, it tends to want the people to weep for a martyr. A martyr creates the spirit of valour, and weeping for him, means participation in his valour and in conformity with his longing for martyrdom.

The title of the Doyen of the Martyrs was first applied to Hamzah. After the tragedy of the 10th Muharram and the martyrdom of Imam Husain which overshadowed all other cases of martyrdom, it was transferred to him. No doubt this epithet is still applied to Hamzah but he was the Doyen of the Martyrs of his own time, whereas Imam Husain in the Doyen of the martyrs of all times, just as the Virgin Mary was the Doyen of the Virgins in her time, and the lady of light Fatima is the Doyen of wives of all times.

Prior to the martyrdom of Imam Husain it was Hamzah who was regarded as the symbol of lamentation over the martyrs. Weeping for him, meant participation in a martyr’s valour, in conformity with his spirit, and in harmony with his longing.  Since his martyrdom, Imam Husain occupies this position.

We deem it necessary at this juncture to refer briefly to the philosophy of lamentation over a martyr. Nowadays, many people object to the weeping for Imam Husain. Some of them assert that this custom, is the result of incorrect thinking and a wrong conception of martyrdom. Moreover, it has had bad repercussions, and is responsible for the backwardness and decline of the people who have adopted it.

The present writer remembers, that when a student at Qum, he read a book by Muhammad Masud, a well-known writer of those days. In it he drew comparison between the Shia custom of weeping for Imam Husain and the Christian practice of celebrating the crucifixion (according to their own belief) of Jesus Christ with festivities.

The author wrote: “It is to be noticed that one nation weeps for its martyr because it regards martyrdom as something undesirable and regrettable, whereas another nation rejoices at the death of its martyr, because it regards his martyrdom as a great achievement and a matter of pride. A nation which weeps and mourns for a thousand years, naturally loses its vitality and becomes weak and cowardly, whereas the nation which celebrates the martyrdom of its hero becomes powerful, courageous and self-sacrificing. For one nation martyrdom means failure. Its reaction is weeping and lamenting which lead to weakness, helplessness and submissiveness. But for the other nation, martyrdom means triumph, and hence, its reaction is joy and rejoicing which bolsters up its morale.”

This is the gist of the criticism made by this author. The same arguments are advanced by other critics also. We would like to analyse this question and prove that the festive celebration of martyrdom by the Christians stems from their individualistic approach, and the weeping for the martyrs by the Muslims, from their social approach.

Of course, we cannot justify the attitude of those of our masses who look at Imam Husain only as a person to whom great injustice was done, and who was killed just for nothing. They express profound regret at his death, but pay little attention to his heroic and praise-worthy performance. We have already denounced this attitude. We intend to explain why the Imams have exhorted weeping for a martyr, and what the real philosophy of this exhortation is.

We do not know since when and by whom the festive celebration of the martyrdom of Jesus Christ was initiated. But we know, that weeping for the martyrs has been recommended by Islam, and it is an indisputable doctrine of the Shiite School of Islam. Now to analyse the main point, let us first discuss the individual aspect of death and martyrdom.

  • Is death an achievement on the part of the individual or something undesirable?
  • Should others regard it as a heroic deed on the part of the individual concerned?

We know that in this world there have been schools of thought, and they may still be existing, which believed that the relationship between man and the world, or in other words, between the soul and the body, was similar to the relationship between a prisoner and a prison, between a man who falls into a well and the well or between a bird and it’s cage. Naturally, according to these schools, death is equivalent to liberation and emancipation. Therefore, they allow suicide. It is said that the famous false prophet, Manikhaios held the same view. According to this theory, death has a positive value and is desirable for everyone. No one’s death is regrettable. A release from prison, getting out of a well, and the breaking of a cage, is a matter of joy and not of sorrow.

Another theory holds that death means nonexistence, complete annihilation and utter destruction, whereas life means to be and to persevere. Obviously, existence is better than nonexistence. It is a matter of instinct that life, whatever its form may be, is preferable to death.

The famous mystic poet, Mawlavi, quotes the Greek physician Galen, as having said, that in all circumstances he preferred to live rather than to die, no matter what form life took. He preferred life, even if it meant living in the belly of a mule, with only the head protruding out for breathing. According to this theory, death has only a negative value.

There is another theory, according to which death does not mean annihilation. It means only shifting from one world to another. The relationship between man and the world, and between the soul and the body, is not similar to that between a prisoner and the prison, between a fellow in a well and the well, and between a bird and the cage. It is similar to the relationship between a student and his school, and between a farmer and his farm.

It is true, that occasionally a student has to live away from his home and roost, where he misses the company of his friends, and has to pursue his studies within the limited atmosphere of his school, but the only way to lead a happy life in a society is to complete his course of studies successfully. It is also true that a farmer has to leave his house and family life, to work on his farm, but that provides him a good means of livelihood, and enables him to pass a happy family life, throughout the year.

The relationship between this world and the next, and between the soul and the body, is of this very nature. To those who have this outlook on the world, but who fail in practical life because of their lethargy and malpractices, the idea of death naturally appears to be dreadful and terrible. In fact, they are afraid of death because they fear the consequences of their own deeds.

But the attitude of those who are successful in their practical life, is naturally that of the student who has paid his whole-hearted attention to his studies, and of the farmer who has worked hard. Such a student, and such a farmer, yearn for their return home, but do not think of leaving their task incomplete.

The holy men are like the successful students. They long for death, which means going into the next world. Every moment, they impatiently wait for it. Imam Ali has said about them: “If Allah had not fixed the time of death, their soul would not have remained in their body for a moment, because of their desire for recompense and fear of retribution.”

At the same time, they do not run after death, for they know that it is only this life which gives them an opportunity to work and attain spiritual development. They know that the longer they live, the greater is the perfection they achieve.  Hence they resist death, and always ask Allah to grant them a long life. Thus, we know that it not contradictory that the holy men on the one hand consider death to be desirable and on the other, resist it and pray for a long life.

Addressing the Jews who claimed to be the friends of Allah, the Holy Qur’an says, “If you are friends of Allah (as you claim to be) then wish for death.” It further says that they will never wish for death, because they know what deeds they have committed, and what retribution they are to receive in the Hereafter. These people belong to the third category mentioned above.

There are two conditions, in which the holy men refrain from praying for a long life. First, when they are not attaining continuous success in doing virtuous deeds, and they fear that instead of progressing, they may retrogress. Imam Ali ibn al Husain used to say: “O Allah, prolong my life only so long as it is spent in obeying You, but if it becomes the grazing field of the Devil, carry me to Yourself.”

Secondly, the holy men pray for martyrdom unconditionally, for it constitutes a virtuous deed as well as spiritual progress. We have already quoted a prophetic saying to the effect that martyrdom is the highest virtue. Further, martyrdom means going into the next world, which the holy men so much yearn for. That is why we find, that Imam Ali’s, joy knew no bounds when he felt that he was going to die as a martyr.

Many sentences uttered by Imam Ali during the interval between his being wounded and his demise, are recorded in books including the Nahj al Blagha. One sentence has a bearing on the point under discussion. He said: “By Allah, nothing unexpected and undesirable has occurred. What has occurred, is what I had wanted.

I have achieved martyrdom, which I had desired. I am like a man, who was in search of water and suddenly struck upon a well or a spring. I am like the man, who was strenuously looking for something, and got it.”

In the early morning of the 19th Ramazan when his assassin struck him on the head, the first or the second sentence which was heard from him was: “By the Lord of the Ka’ba, I have succeeded.” So, from the Islamic point of view, martyrdom is a great, nay the greatest achievement as far as the martyr himself is concerned.

Imam Husain said: “My grandfather told me that I was destined to attain a very high spiritual position, but that could not be attained except through martyrdom.”

So far, we have analysed the individual aspect of death and martyrdom, and have arrived at the conclusion, that death in the form of martyrdom, is really an achievement as far as the martyr himself is concerned. From this angle, no doubt death is a happy event, and that is why, a great scholar, Ibn Tawus has said: “Had we not been given instructions about mourning, I would have preferred to celebrate the days of the martyrdom of the Imams, with festivity.”

On this ground, it may be said that Christianity is right in celebrating the martyrdom of Christ as a festive event. Islam also fully recognizes the martyrdom, to be an achievement of the martyr. But, from the Islamic point of view, the other side of the picture is also to be seen. From the social point of view, martyrdom is a phenomenon which takes place in specific circumstances, and is preceded and followed by events which have to be duly assessed. Similarly, it creates a reaction in society, not depending merely on the success or the defeat of the martyr, but is mainly based on the opinion held by the people, on the respective positions of the martyr and his opponents.

One more aspect of martyrdom is important. It is the martyr’s two-fold relationship with the society: (a) his relationship with those who have been deprived of his presence among them; and (b) his relationship with those, who by their depravity, created an atmosphere in which he had to stand against them and lay down his life. It is evident that from the view point of his followers, a martyr’s death is a great loss. When they express their emotions, they really cry over their own bad luck.

Martyrdom is desirable, if we consider the situation in which it takes place. It is necessitated by an undesirable and ugly situation. In this respect, it is comparable to a surgical operation which becomes necessary, as in the case of appendicitis, duodenal or gastric ulcer and the like.  In the absence of such as situation, the operation will obviously be a mistake.

The moral which the people should draw from martyrdom, is that they should not allow similar situations to develop, in the future. The idea of mourning, is to project the tragedy as an event which should not have happened.  Emotions are expressed, to condemn the villains of oppression and the killers of the martyr, with a view to restrain the members of society from following the example of such criminals. Accordingly, we find that none of those trained in the school of the mourning of Imam Husain would like to have the least resemblance of Yazid, Ibn Ziyad and the like.

Another moral which the society should draw, is that whenever a situation demanding sacrifice arises, the people should have the feelings of a martyr and willingly follow his heroic example. Weeping for the martyr means association with his fervour, harmony with his spirit and conformity with his longing. Now let us see whether festivity, rejoicing, dance and sometimes even mockery, drinking and revelry as witnessed during the religious feasts of the Christians, are more in keeping with the spirit of martyrdom or weeping and mourning are.

Usually a misconception prevails about weeping and it is thought that weeping is caused by pain and distress, and hence it is a bad thing. Weeping and laughter are two peculiar characteristics of human beings. Other animals feel pleasure and pain and get happy and sad, but they neither laugh nor weep. Laughter and weeping are the manifestations of intense emotions, peculiar only to human beings.

Laughter has many varieties, which we do not intend to discuss at present. Weeping also has varieties, but it is always concinnity with a sort of sensitivity and excitement.  We are all aware of tears of love and longing. When one weeps because of the excitement of love, he feels closer to his beloved.  Joy and laughter rather have an introvertive aspect. On the other hand, weeping has an extrovertive aspect, and means self-negation and unification with the object of love.

Because of his noble personality and heroic death Imam Husain evokes the deepest emotions of hundreds of millions of people. The whole world could be reformed, if our preachers could utilize this enormous fund of emotions to bring the spirit of the common man into harmony with the spirit of Imam Husain.

The secret of Imam Husain’s immortality, lies in the fact that on one hand, his movement was logical and rational, and on the other hand it evoked deep emotions. The Imams gave the most judicious direction, when they resorted to weeping for him, for it is weeping that has firmly rooted his movement in the hearts of the people. We again wish that our preachers knew how to utilize this emotional treasure.

When her father gave Fatima Zahra the well-known liturgical formula, which we, also, usually repeat after prayers, or at the time of going to bed (Allahu Akbar 34 times, Al hamdo lillah 33 times and Subhan Allah 33 times), she went to the grave of her grand uncle, Hamzah ibin Abd al-Muttalib, and collected earth from there to make a rosary. What is the significance of her action? The grave of a martyr is sacred. The earth of its vicinity is sacred. She required a rosary for counting the liturgical formula. Actually, it made no difference whether a rosary was made of stone, wood or clay. The earth could be taken from anywhere. But she preferred to take it from the vicinity of the martyr’s grave. Her action meant paying respect to him. After the martyrdom of Imam Husain the epithet of the Doyen of the Martyrs, was taken away from Hamzah and given to the grandson of his brother. Now, if anybody wants to seek the blessing of a martyr’s grave, he should make a rosary of the earth of Imam Husain’s mausoleum.

We have to offer our prayers. At the same time, we do not regard it, permissible to perform sajdah (prostration) on rugs, carpet or anything which is eatable or wearable. Hence, we keep with us a piece of stone or clay. But the Imams have said, that it is better to perform sajdah on the earth of martyr’s grave. If possible the earth of Karbala should be obtained, for it emits the smell of the martyrs. While offering your prayers, you can put your head on any earth, but if for this purpose you use the earth which has had some sort of contact with the martyrs, your reward will be enhanced a hundred times.

And Imam has said: “Perform sajdah on the grave of my grandfather, Husain ibin Ali. When a person offering prayers, performs sajdah on that sacred earth, he pierces seven veils.” The idea is to urge the people to realize the importance of the martyr, and to caress the earth of his grave.

Martyr’s Night
It is the usual practice in the modern world, to dedicate a day every year to a certain group or class of people, to pay homage to them. Mother’s Day, Teacher’s Day, are the examples of such days. But we do not find any day, being dedicated to the martyrs by any people, except the Muslims. It is the day of Ashura (10th Muharram). Its night may be regarded as the Martyrs’ Night.

We have already said, that a martyr’s logic is a combination of the logic of a lover and that of a reformer. If the personalities of a reformer and a Gnostic lover are combined a martyr comes into existence. A Muslim ibn Awsajah, a Hibib ibn Muzahir and a Zuhayr ibn Qayn comes into being. Anyhow, it must be remembered that all martyrs do not hold the same status.

Evidence of the Doyen of the Martyrs
Imam Husain has offered a testimony concerning the martyrs of Ashura which indicates their high status. It is known that the martyrs occupy a prominent position among the pious and the virtuous, and the companions of Imam Husain occupy a prominent position among the martyrs. Do you know what Imam Husain’s testimony was? Though his companions had been screened previously and those found unfit had been asked to leave, on the night of Ashura, he tested them finally. This time, not a single person was rejected.

There are two versions of the report. According to the first version, Imam Husain had a tent where the water was placed. He is reported to have assembled all his companions in the evening. Why he chose that tent, we do not know exactly. Probably he did so because that night there were no water-skins there. The only water which might have been available was that which was brought by Imam Husain’s son, Ali Akbar from the watering place of theEuphrates.

It is reported by the authentic chroniclers, of the Battle of Karbala that on the night of 10th Muharram, Imam Husain, sent his son with a small contingent to fetch water. The mission was successfully accomplished. All drank from the water he brought. Later Imam Husain asked them to take a bath and wash themselves. He told them, that it was the last supply of the water of this world, that they were getting. Whatever be the case, he assembled together all his companions and permitted everyone to leave, should they wish to do so. He delivered and eloquent and forceful sermon to them, in which he referred to the development of that afternoon.

You must have heard that the enemy had delivered his last ultimatum, on the evening of 9th Muharram, according to which the Imam had make his final decision by the morning of the 10th Muharram. Imam Zayn al-Abidin, who was present on that occasion, related that Imam Husain assembled his companions in a tent, adjacent to the tent in which he (Imam Zayn al Abidin) was confined to bed, and delivered a sermon. He began saying: “I praise Allah with the best praise. I am thankful to Him in all circumstances, whether pleasant or otherwise.”

For a person who takes a step, in the pursuit of truth and righteousness, all that happens is good. A righteous man, consciously performs his duty in all circumstances, irrespective of the consequences. In this connection, Imam Husain gave a very interesting reply to the celebrated poet Farazdaq, who met him while he was on his way to Karbala. Farazdaq explained the dangerous situation of Iraq. In reply the Imam said: “If things develop as we want, we will praise Allah and seek His help for being thankful to Him, but if anything untoward happens, we won’t be the losers, because our intentions are good and our conscience is clear.  Hence whatever comes about is good, not bad.”

“I am thankful to Him in all circumstances, whether pleasant or otherwise.” What he meant to say, was that he had seen good days and bad days in his life. The good days were when, in childhood, he sat on the lap of the Holy Prophet and when he rode on his shoulder. There was a time when he was the most favourite child in the Muslim world. He was grateful to Allah for those days. He was grateful to Him for the present hardships also, for all that came about, was good to him. He was thankful to Allah, who chose his family for Prophethood and who enabled his family to understand the Holy Qur’an fully and to have a true insight into the religion.

After stating that the Imam produced his historic testimony in respect of his companions and the members of his family, he said: “I do not know of any companions better or more faithful than my own companions, nor do I know of any kinsmen more virtuous and more dutiful than my own.”

Thus, he accorded to his own companions, a status higher than that of those companions of the Holy Prophet who were killed fighting in his company, and of those companions of his own father, Imam Ali, who were killed in the battles of Jamal, Siffin and Nahrawan. He said that he was not aware of any kinsmen more virtuous and more dutiful than his own. Thus, he accorded recognition to their high position and expressed his gratitude to them.  Then he went on to say: “Gentlemen! I would like to tell you all, my companions and my kinsmen both, that these people are not concerned with anybody except me.  They regard me to be their sole adversary. They want me to take the oath of allegiance. If they could eliminate me, they would have nothing to do with you.  The enemy is not concerned with you. You have pledged your allegiance to me.  Now I release you from your commitment.  You are under no obligation to stay here.  You are compelled by no friend or foe.  You are absolutely free.  Whosoever wants to go, may go.” Then addressing his companions, he said: “Let each one of you take hold of the hand of one of my kinsmen, and leave.”

The members of Imam Husain’s family included both adults and minors. Moreover, they were all strangers there. The Imam did not want them all to leave together.  So he asked each of his companions to hold the hand of one of them and leave the battlefield.

This incident throws light on the high character of Imam Husain’s companions. They were under no compulsion from any side. The enemy was not concerned with them.  The Imam had set them free from their obligation. In these circumstances, the heart warming reply, that each of the companions and relatives of the Imam gave, was remarkable.

Events that Satisified the Imam
On the 10th of Muharram, and during the night preceding it, it was a matter of great satisfaction for the Imam to see that all his relatives from the smallest child to the most aged person, were following in his footsteps.

Another matter of satisfaction for him was that none of his companions showed the slightest sign of weakness. None of them joined the enemy. On the other hand, they brought a number of hostile personnel over to their side. Such people joined them, both on the day of Ashura and the night preceding it. Hur ibn Yazid was one of them.

In all, 30 people joined him during the night of Ashura. These were the gratifying events for the Imam. One by one, Imam Husain’s companions said to him: “Sir! Do you permit us to go away and leave you alone? That can not be. Life has no value, in comparison with you.” One said: “I wish that process were repeated 70 times. To be killed only once, means nothing.” Another said: “I wish I were killed a thousand times consecutively. I wish I had a thousand lives, all to be sacrificed for you.”

Each One of Them Talked in the Same Vein
The first one to speak, was his conscientious brother, Abu al Fazl al Abbas. Others repeated what he said.

This was their last test. After they had all pronounced their decision, Imam Husain disclosed what was going to happen the next day. He said: “I tell you, that you will all be killed tomorrow.”  hey all thanked Allah for being given an opportunity to sacrifice their lives for the sake of their Holy Prophet’s descendant.

Here, there is good food for thought. Had it not been a question of a martyr’s logic, it could have been argued that the stay of those people, was useless. If Imam Husain was to be killed in any case, what should they sacrifice their lives for?  But still they stayed.

Imam Husain did not compell them to depart. He did not tell anyone that their stay was useless; they would only lose their lives in vain; and hence their stay was forbidden.

Imam Husain did not say any of this. On the other hand, he hailed their willingness to make the supreme sacrifice. This shows that a martyr’s logic is different form that of other people. A martyr often sacrifices his life, to create fervour, to enlighten the society, to revive it and to infuse fresh blood into its body. This was one such occasion.

To defeat the enemy, is not the only object of martyrdom. It aims at creating fervour also. If Imam Husain’s companions had not laid down their lives that day, how could so much fervour have been created? Though Imam Husain was the central figure in this event of martyrdom, his companions added to its lustre, grandeur and dignity. Without their contribution, Imam Husain martyrdom might not have assumed such a significance as to move, educate and encourage people for hundreds, nay thousands of years.

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(12-14th centuries)

On Avodah Zarah 18a
On the Torah: Concerning Genesis    Rabbah (Genesis 9:5)


Tosafot, meaning “additions,” refers to a body of explanatory and critical remarks made by a group of Talmudic scholars known as the tosafists, who wrote in France and Germany from the late 11th–12th through the 14th centuries, during the time of the Crusades, and while Spanish Jewry in the 14th and 15th centuries was subject to the Inquisition and the Expulsion. The first recorded tosafists, Meir ben Samuel of Ramerupt and Judah ben Nathan, were sons-in-law to the famous 11th-century Talmudic scholar Rashi; it is debated whether the Tosafot were written as direct commentary on the Talmud [q.v., under Babylonian Talmud] or as a supplement to Rashi’s commentary. Another of the first recorded tosafists, Rashi’s grandson Jacob ben Meir Tam, was the leading figure in the French school of Tosafot. Many schools of Tosafot followed in the next two centuries; the commentaries they produced were gathered together to form a significant contribution to rabbinic literature. They were intended for those well advanced in the study of Talmud, and their seeming simplicity presupposes extensive familiarity with a complex prior tradition.

Two tosafist selections are included in this volume. The first is a commentary on the description of the death of Rabbi Chanina ben Tradyon in Avodah Zarah, a tractate of the Babylonian Talmud [q.v.]. In the commentary, the tosafist states a general conclusion that despite Rabbi Chanina’s pronouncement that he should endure death by fire rather than “harming himself” {i.e., hastening his death by inhaling the flames}, it is proper to commit suicide to avoid sinning {i.e. apostasy} under great duress not only is such an act permissible, but in these circumstances, it ought to be done. The tosafist approvingly cites as precedent the suicides of the 400 boys and girls who drowned themselves to escape forced prostitution.

The second passage presented here is a 13th-century commentary from the Tosafot on the Torah [q.v., under Hebrew Bible], which reflects some of the arguments relating to the brief statements in Genesis Rabbah [q.v.] regarding the prohibition of suicide and some possible exceptions. In this passage, the tosafist raises questions about suicide and martyrdom, including opposing views about whether allowing oneself to be martyred or actively killing oneself in times of persecution are rightful acts. Some later commentators, such as Luria [q.v.] will argue no; others, like Margolioth [q.v.], appear to say yes, and the question raised here remains a pressing one throughout the later Jewish tradition.


Tosafot: On Avodah Zarah 18a, on Genesis 9:5. Trans. Baruch Brody.



R. Tam said: In those cases in which they are afraid that idolaters may force them to sin by tortures that they will not be able to withstand, then it is a mitzva to destroy themselves as in the case of the young people taken captive to be used as prostitutes who threw themselves into the sea.


This means that I might think that even people like they [Channanyah, Mishael, and Azaryah] who gave themselves to martyrdom could not kill themselves if they were afraid that they could not stand the test. “But” tells me that in times of persecution one can allow oneself to be killed and one can kill oneself. The same with Saul…And it is from here that those who killed the children in the time of persecution brought a proof [to justify their action]. Others prohibit the practice. They explain [the remarks of Breishit Rabbah] as follows; I might think that this prohibition applies even to Channanyah and his friends who are already sentenced to death. We are told otherwise by “but.” Even they, however, cannot kill themselves….Saul acted against normative opinion…There was one rabbi who killed many children in the time of persecution because he was afraid that they would be forcibly apostasized. A second rabbi who was with him was very angry and called him a murderer.  He [the first rabbi] paid no attention…Afterwards, the decree was lifted and if he had not killed the children, they would have lived.


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from Revival of the Religious Sciences


A native of Khorasan, of Persian origin, the Muslim theologian, sufi mystic, and philosopher Abu-Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali is one of the great figures of Islamic religious thought, as well as a critical figure in the debates over the preservation of classical Greek and Roman thought during the Dark Ages in the Christian West. Al-Ghazali taught at in Baghdad between 1091 and 1095, but, allegedly suffering from a nervous illness that made it physically impossible for him to lecture (“God put a lock unto my tongue,” he wrote in his autobiography), he gave up his teaching position in order to live a life of mystical asceticism. He describes his spiritual crisis:

One day I would determine to leave Baghdad and these circumstances, and the next day change my mind. . . . The desires of this world pulled at me and entreated me to remain, while the voice of faith cried out “Go! Go! Only a little of your life remains, yet before you there lies a lengthy voyage. All the knowledge and works that are yours today are but eye service and deceit. If you do not prepare now for the Afterlife, then when shall you do so?”

Al-Ghazali embarked on a two-year period of wandering, teaching, and writing. He traveled to  Damascus on the pretext of making a pilgrimage, then to Jerusalem, finally making the hajj or Pilgrimage in 1096 as he pursued the Sufi path of self-purification and a quest for direct knowledge of God.

Al-Ghazali’s extensive writings include The Just Mean in Belief, written before his wanderings, and The Revival of the Religious Sciences, written during them. The latter shows a distrust of scholastic theology and intellectualism. In The Precious Pearl, a reworking of Book 40, al-Ghazali describes the four categories of persons who will be questioned in the grave by interrogating angels and affected by personifications of their good and bad deeds: the most learned and pious, the ulama, who are allowed into the Garden after questioning; those who did good works but were not fully spiritually advanced are made to gaze upon Hell before being released into the Garden; those who have succumbed to temptations at death, waywardness, or doubt are punished through the intermediate time they spend in grave; and finally the profligates, those unable to answer even the first of the angels’ questions, “Who is your Lord?”—their punishment in the grave is the most severe. The first selection here, a short passage from Book 26 of the Revival of the Religious Sciences, affirms Islam’s rejection of suicide and describes two forms of suicide or para-suicidal activity that are unacceptable: suicide motivated by a desire to avoid suffering and to reach heaven, and the delayed or “slow suicide” that results from extreme asceticism and self-mortification. The second selection, from Book 40 of the Revival, “The Remembrance of Death,” describes the Angel of Death asking Muhammad if he may enter Muhammad’s house and thus take him; the Angel gives Muhammad the choice of whether to die now.Muhammad replies that he is ready to go, that is, that he is willing to die. Book 40 also describes “the most perfect of delights” that is the reward of martyrdom in the afterlife; martyrs are rewarded with entrance to the Garden immediately after death. It portrays a man already in Heaven weeping, because he can only be slain for God’s sake once, but wishes he could be martyred many more times than this.


Al-Ghazali, The Revival of the Religious SciencesBook 26 from Al-Ghazali, Al-Ghazali’s Ihya’ulum al-Din (Revitalization of the Sciences of Religion), abridged by Abd el Salam Haroun, rev. and tr. Dr. Ahmad A. Zidan, Vol. 1, Cairo: Islamic Inc. Publishing and Distribution, 1997, pp. 394-397. Book 40 from Ai-Ghazali, The Remembrance of Death and the Afterlife. Kitab dhikr al-mawt wa-ma ba’dahu, Book XL of The Revival of the Religious Sciences, Ihya’ ‘Ulum al-Din. tr. T. J. Winter, Cambridge, UK: The Islamic Texts Society, 1989, pp. 65-67, 128-129; quotation in biographical note, p. xvii. See also Jane Idleman Smith and Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad, The Islamic Understanding of Death and Resurrection, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1981, pp. 43-45.  Comments from Salman Bashier.


He who is aware in what respect these means and occupations are needed and what is truly intended from them, let him not engage himself in an occupation, profession, or labor until he is fully knowledgeable of their meaning, what part he takes in them, and what falls to his lot from them.  Let him know that the ultimate purpose for engaging in these matters is attending his body with nutrition and clothing so that it does not perish.  For if he follows in this affair the course of moderation, his occupations will be driven away, his heart will be cleared and overcome by the remembrance of the abode of the hereafter, and his concentration will be turned to the preparation for it.  But if he exceeds the limits of necessity, his occupations will multiply, leading him from one occupation to another, and the affair will be endless.  Then his worries shall branch out, and one whose worries have branched out in the valleys of this world even God will be careless in which one of these valleys he shall perish.  Such is the situation of those who are absorbed in the occupations of this world.

Some people had noticed this and turned away from the world altogether.  Satan envied these people and did not leave them to themselves and misled them even in their shunning the world.  Then they divided into groups.  One group imagined that the world is an abode of affliction and hardship and that the hereafter is the abode of delight for whosoever comes to arrive at it, regardless of whether they perform the service of God or not.  Hence they thought it was appropriate for them to kill themselves for the sake of fleeing from the ordeal of life.  To this conclusion reached some sects from among the inhabitants ofIndia, who hurl into the fire and kill themselves while thinking that this would be deliverance for them from the afflictions of life.  Another group believed that killing the body alone does not deliver and that there is a need first for annihilating the human qualities and severing them from the soul altogether, since they thought that happiness consists in oppressing desire and anger.  Thus they embarked upon fighting the self and overburdened themselves so much so that some of them perished out of immoderation in exercising the toil.  Some damaged their minds or became insane or sick so that the path of worshiping was blocked in their faces.  Some failed to suppress their instincts completely and thought that what the Law had prescribed was untenable and that the Law was a baseless fraud, and consequently they became heretics….

And behind all this lie many erroneous doctrines and enormous falsehoods the mention of which may take long and their number amounts to seventy and some sects.  From among all these sects only one will be saved and this is the one sect which follows the path which was followed by the Prophet (God bless him and grant him salvation) and his Companions.  To follow this path means that one should not desert the world altogether and suppress his desires entirely.  One should take from the world whatever provides him with provisions and suppress whatever desires distract him from obeying the Law and the reason.  One should not pursue all desires nor abstain from all desires.  But one should observe the correct measure and not forsake everything of the world and not seek everything of the world and know for what purpose things in the world were created and observe each thing according to the purpose for the sake of which it was created.

The Remembrance of Death and the Afterlife. On the Death of the Emissary of God (may God bless him and grant him peace), and of the Rightly-guided Caliphs after Him

…And ‘A’isha said (may God be pleased with her), ‘When the day of the Emissary of God’s death came (may God bless him and grant him peace), the people saw an improvement in him at the day’s beginning, and the men went apart from him to their homes and tasks rejoicing, leaving him with the women. While we were there we were in a state of hope and joyfulness the likes of which we had never known. And then the Prophet of God said, “Go out, away from me; this Angel seeks leave to enter.” At this, everyone but myself left the house. His head had been in my lap, but now he sat up and I retired to one side of the room. He communed with the Angel at length, and then summoned me and returned his head to my lap, bidding the women enter. “I did not sense that that was Gabriel, upon him be peace,” I said. “Indeed, ‘A’isha,” he replied. “That was the Angel of Death, who came to me and said, ‘I am sent by God (Great and Glorious is He!), Who has commanded me not to enter your house without your consent. So if you should withhold it from me I shall go back, but should you give it me, then shall I enter. And He has enjoined me not to take your spirit until you so instruct me; what, then, might your instructions be?’ ‘Hold back from me’, I said, ‘until Gabriel has come to me, for this is his hour’.”

And ‘A’isha [continued, and] said, (may God be pleased with her), ‘So we came into the presence of a matter for which we had neither answer nor opinion. We were downcast; it was as if we had been struck by a calamity about which we could do nothing. Not one of the people of the Household spoke because of their awe in the face of this affair and because of a fear which filled our depths. At his hour, Gabriel came (I felt his presence) and gave his greeting. The people of the Household left, and he entered, saying, “God (Great and Glorious is He!) gives you His greetings, and asks how you are, although He knows better than you your condition; yet He desires to increase you in dignity and honour, and to render your dignity and honour greater than that of all creatures, that this may be a precedent [sunna] for your nation.” “I am in pain,” he said. And the Angel replied, “Be glad, for God (Exalted is He!) has willed to bring you to that which He has made ready for you.” “O Gabriel,” he said. “The Angel of Death asked for permission to enter!” and he told him of what had transpired. And Gabriel said, “O Muhammad! Your Lord longs for you! Has He not given you to know His purpose for you? Nay, by God, never has the Angel of Death sought permission of anyone, no more than is his permission to be sought at any time. It is only that your Lord is making perfect your honour while He longs for you.” “Then do not leave until he comes,” he said.

…Then he allowed the women to enter, and said, “Fatima, draw near.” She leaned over him and he whispered in her ear. When she raised her head again she was weeping, and could not bear to speak. Then he said again, “Bring your head close,” and she leaned over him while he whispered something to her. Then she raised her head, and was smiling, unable to speak. What we saw in her was something most astonishing. Afterwards we questioned her about what had happened, and she said, “He told me, ‘Today I shall die,’ so I wept; then he said, ‘I have prayed to God to let you be the first of my family to join me, and to set you with me,’ so I smiled.”

‘Then she brought her two sons close by him. He drew in their fragrance. Then the Angel of Death came, greeted him, and asked leave to enter. He granted it to him, and the Angel said, “What are your instructions, O Muhammad?” “Take me now to my Lord,” he said. “Yes indeed,” he responded, “on this day of yours. Truly your Lord longs for you. He has not paused over any man as He has paused over you, nor has He ever forbidden me to enter without permission upon anyone else. But now, your hour is come.” And he went out. Then came Gabriel, who said, “Peace be upon you, O Emissary of God! This is the final time I shall ever descend to the earth. Revelation is folded up, the world is folded up, and I had on the earth no business save with you. Upon it now I have no purpose save being present with you, after which I shall remain in my place. No! By He Who sent Muhammad with the Truth, there is no-one in the house able to change one word of what I have said. He will never be sent again despite the greatness of the discourse concerning him which shall be heard, and despite our affection and sympathy.”

…I would say to him when he came round, “May my father and mother be your ransom, and myself and all my family! How your forehead perspires!” And he said, “O ‘A’isha, the soul of the believer departs with his sweat, while that of the unbeliever departs through his jaws like that of the donkey.” At this, we were afraid and sent for our families.

‘The first man to come not having seen him was my brother, whom my father had sent. But the Emissary of God (may God bless him and grant him peace) died before the arrival of anyone…


On the True Nature of Death, and what the Dead Man Undergoes in the Grave Prior to the Blast on the Trump

 Said Ya’la ibn al-Walid, ‘I was walking one day with Abu’l-Darda’, and asked him, “What do you like to happen to those you like?” “Death,” he replied. “But if one has not died yet?” I asked, and he answered, “That his progeny and wealth should be scanty. I feel a liking for death because it is liked only by the believer, whom it releases from his imprisonment. And I like one’s progeny and wealth to be scanty because these things are a trial, and can occasion familiarity with the world, and familiarity with that which must one day be left behind is the very extremity of sorrow. All that is other than God, His remembrance, and familiarity with Him must needs be abandoned upon one’s death”.’

For this reason ‘Abd Allah ibn ‘Amr said, ‘When his soul, or spirit, emerges, the believer is as a man who was in a prison, from which he was released and travelled about and took pleasure in the world.’

This [Narrative just] mentioned refers to the state of the man who withdrew from the world, being wearied of it and finding no pleasure in it save that which is the remembrance of God (Exalted is He!), and who was kept by the distractions of the world from his Beloved, and who was hurt by the vicissitudes of his desires. In death he found a release from every harmful thing, and won unrestricted solitude with his Beloved, who was ever his source of consolation. How right it is that this should be the pinnacle of bliss and beatitude!

The most perfect of delights is that which is the lot of the Martyrs who are slain in the way of God. For when they advance into battle they cut themselves off from any concern with the attachments of the world in their yearning to meet God, happy to be killed for the sake of obtaining His pleasure. Should such a man think upon the world he would know that he has sold it willingly for the Afterlife, and the seller’s heart never inclines to that which has been sold. And when he thinks upon the Afterlife, he knows that he had longed for it, and has now purchased it. How great, then, is his rejoicing at that which he has bought when he comes to behold it, and how paltry his interest in what he has sold when from it he takes his leave!

. . .Said Ka’b, ‘In Heaven there is a weeping man who, when asked, “Why do you weep, although you are in Heaven?” replies, “I weep because I was slain for God’s sake no more than once; I yearn to go back that I might be slain many times’.”

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(c. 923-1023)

from Borrowed Lights: On Suicide


Abu Hayyan al-Tawhidi, probably of Persian origin, was born in or around Baghdad sometime between 922 and 932. He was a man of letters and a scholar, influenced by Sufism and the neo-Platonic philosopher Abu Sulayman. Although said to be a difficult personality, he was considered a master of Arabic style and one of the major thinkers at the conclusion of the formation of Islamic thought.

Abu Hayyan’s most famous work, compiled late in his life, was al-Muqabasat, “Borrowed Lights,” a collection of 106 philosophical conversations providing a glimpse into the intellectual milieu of 10th-century Baghdad. The Muqabasat includes a lengthy discussion of the suicide of an impoverished and socially ostracized Muslim, articulating arguments both for and against it. According to Franz Rosenthal, despite the strong prohibition of self-killing in Islamic thought, this passage in al-Tawhidi’s work shows that the idea of suicide was justified to some thinkers in 10th-century Arabia. It is the only such detailed discussion of suicide that has been preserved in the extant Arabic literature.


Abu Hayyan al-Tawhidi, from al-Muqabasah, quoted in Franz Rosenthal, “On Suicide in Islam,” Journal of the American Oriental Society, 66(1946):239-259, text from pp. 249-250, citing as source, ed. Hasan as-Sandubi, Cairo, 1928-29.



Recently we saw what happened to a learned Šayḫ. This Šayḫ had come to live in very reduced circumstances. Therefore, people began to avoid him more and more, and his acquaintances no longer wanted to have anything to do with him.  This went on for a while until one day he entered his home, tied a rope to the roof of his room, and hanged himself, thus ending his life.

When we learned about the affair, we were shocked and grieved.  We discussed his story back and forth, and one of those present said: What an excellent fellow!  He acted like a man!  What a splendid thing he did of his own free will!  His action indicates magnanimity and a great staunchness of mind.  He freed himself from a long drawn-out misery and from circumstances which were unbearable, on account of which nobody wanted to have anything to do with him, and which brought him great privations and a steady reduction of his means.  Everybody to whom he addressed himself turned away from him.  Whenever he knocked at a door, it was closed before him.  Every friend whom he asked for something excused himself.

While that person thus defended the action of the suicide, someone else replied: If that Šayḫ escaped from the dreadful situation which you have just described, without getting himself into another situation which might be considerably more frightful and of a much longer duration than that which he had been in, it would indeed be correct to say that he did a splendid thing.  What noble fellow, one might then say, he was, considering the fact that he found strength and the means to commit such a deed!  One would have to admit that every intelligent person should feel compelled to do the same thing, to imitate him and to arrive at the same decision of his own free will.

However, if he had learned from the religious law—no matter whether the ancient or the new one*—that such and similar actions are forbidden, it would be necessary to say that he did something for which God has ordained quick punishment and disgrace in the painful fire of Hell.  My God!  He could surely have learned from any intelligent and judicious, learned and educated person, from anybody who has some intelligence and knows the elements of ethics—let alone him who knows what to say and to do and to choose always the best procedure of and occasion for doing things—that such actions are forbidden and that even the commission of much lesser deeds is prohibited.  Why did he not suspect himself and scrutinize his motives and consult someone who might have given him good advice?  And all this happened on account of a situation which was such that if he had extricated himself from it, he would thereafter have encountered many things so much worse that they would have made him forget his former hardships.

He ought to have known that it is necessary to avoid any connection with such an action, which is detested by the intellect, considered sinful by tradition and shunned with horror by nature; for the generally known injunctions of the religious laws and the consensus of all in each generation and region show that suicide is forbidden and that nothing should be done which might lead to it.  The reason for the prohibition of suicide is that suicide might be committed under the influence of ideas and hallucinations which would not have been supported by a clear mind and would not have occurred to a person in the full possession of his mental faculties.  Later on, in the other world, the person who committed suicide under such circumstances would realize the baseness of his action and the great mistake he made; then, he cannot repair, correct, or retract what he did.

Even if compliance with the demands of the intellect, or information derived from both intellect and revelation would have required him to commit such a deed, he should not have handed himself over to destruction.  He should not have of his own free will done something which is despised by persons who are discerning and ingenious, religious and noble.  He should not have broken established customs, opposed entrenched opinions, and usurped the rights of nature.  But all the more so should he have refrained from his deed since intellect and speculation have decided, without leaving the slightest doubt, that man must not separate those parts and limbs that have been joined together (to form his body); for it is not he who has put them together, and it is not he who is their real owner.  He is merely a tenant in this temple for Him Who made him dwell therein and stipulated that in lieu of the payment of rent for his dwelling he take care of its upkeep and preservation, its cleaning, repair and use, in a manner which would help him in his search after happiness in both this world and the next world.

If and individual’s aspirations are limited to gathering provisions for his journey to the abode of righteousness, he can be certain to reach his goal and to stay there.  There he will find, all at the same time, plenty of good things, continuous rest, permanent beatitude, and ever-present joy; there will be no indigence or need, no damage or loss, no sadness, or grief, no failure or difficulties.  This will be the reward of an acceptable way of life and of a long practice of sublime human qualities, as well as a belief in the truth, propagation of righteousness, and kindness toward all creatures.  If an individual lives in a manner contrary to this, the permanent misery which he will have to endure and from which he will not be able to escape will be correspondingly great.

We ask God in Whose hands rests the power over everything that He may guide us toward that way of life which is preferable for this world and which will lead to greater happiness in the world to come.  For if we were left without His kind care and customary benevolence, we would be lost and forsaken.  We would have to expect a very sad fate at the resurrection in the other world, and long suffering and great grief would be our lot.

O God!  Have mercy with our weakness and cover us with Your kindness and helpfulness, so that we may turn to You wholeheartedly, entrust our affairs to Your guidance willingly, place our confidence in You in repentance, and enter into Your protection with a sincere heart, O Lord of the worlds!

   *  I.e., the laws of the ancient philosophers and of the Muslim religion.

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(fl. 920s)

from The Risala: By the River Volga, 922: Viking Ship-Burial


Ahmad ibn Fadlan, a Muslim diplomat and secretary to an ambassador for the Caliph of Baghdad, was sent in 921 to the Khaganate of Bulgars along the Middle Volga. His account of his travels with the embassy, The Risala, describes his confrontation with a people called the Rus or Varangians, who were traders and marauders of Swedish origin and Viking ideals. “I have never seen more perfect physical specimens,” he says of the Rus, “tall as date palms, blond and ruddy; they wear neither tunics nor caftans, but the men wear a garment which covers one side of the body and leaves a hand free. Each man has an axe, a sword, and a knife and keeps each by him at all times.” Ibn Fadlan has been described as a keen observer and good narrator, and The Risala contains valuable ethnographic accounts of early Europe.

In 922, Ibn Fadlan recorded sacrifices and mortuary customs among the Rus. A leader has died; one of this man’s slave women volunteers to be killed and burned together with her master in the practice of ship burial. The voluntary death of a master’s slave will be echoed in later Norse sagas [q.v.], especially Gautrek’s saga, where a slave is “rewarded” for faithful service by being permitted to jump from the Family Cliff. What is at issue in these Viking practices that end in death, like those in many other cultures, is the sense in which they can be said to be voluntary and the degree to which the apparently free choices that lead to them are socially controlled.


Ibn Fadlan’s account quoted in Johannes Brøndsted, The Vikings,  tr. Kalle Skov, Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books, 1965, pp. 301-305.



I had been told that when their chieftains died cremation was the least part of their whole funeral procedure, and I was, therefore, very much interested to find out more about this.  One day I heard that one of their leaders had died.  They laid him forthwith in a grave which they covered up for ten days till they had finished cutting-out and sewing his costume.  If the dead man is poor they make a little ship, put him in it, and burn it.  If he is wealthy, however, they divide his property and goods into three parts: one for his family, one to pay for his costume, and one to make nabid [probably a Scandinavian type of beer] which they drink on the day when the slave woman of the dead man is killed and burnt together with her master.  They are deeply addicted to nabid, drinking it night and day; and often one of them has been found dead with a beaker in his hand.  When a chieftain among them has died, his family demands of his slave women and servants: ‘Which of you wishes to die with him?’  Then one of them says: ‘I do’; and having said that the person concerned is forced to do so, and no backing out is possible.  Even if he wished to he would not be allowed to.  Those who are willing are mostly the slave women.

So when this man died they said to his slave women: ‘Which of you wants to die with him?’  One of them answered, ‘I do.’ From that moment she was put in the constant care of two other women servants who took care of her to the extent of washing her feet with their own hands.  They began to get things ready for the dead man, to cut his costume and so on, while every day the doomed woman drank and sang as though in anticipation of a joyous event.

When the day arrived on which the chieftain and his slave woman were going to be burnt, I went to the river where his ship was moored.  It had been hauled ashore and four posts were made for it of birch and other wood.  Further there was arranged around it what looked like a big store of wood.  Then the ship was hauled near and placed on the wood.  People now began to walk about talking in a language I could not understand, and the corpse still lay in the grave; they had not taken it out.  They then produced a wooden bench, placed it on the ship, and covered it with carpets of Byzantine dibag [painted silk] and with cushions of Byzantine dibag.  Then came an old woman whom they call ‘the Angel of Death’, and she spread these cushions out over the bench.  She was in charge of the whole affair from dressing the corpse to the killing of the slave woman.  I noticed that she was an old giant-woman, a massive and grim figure.  When they came to his grave they removed the earth from the wooden frame and they also took the frame away.  They then divested the corpse of the clothes in which he had died.  The body, I noticed, had turned black because of the intense frost.  When they first put him in the grave, they had also given him beer, fruit, and a lute, all of which they now removed.  Strangely enough the corpse did not smell, nor had anything about him changed save the colour of his flesh.  They now proceeded to dress him in hose, and trousers, boots, coat, and a mantle of dibag adorned with gold buttons; put on his head a cap of dibag and sable fur; and carried him to the tent on the ship, where they put him on the blanket and supported him with cushions.  They then produced nabid, fruit, and aromatic plants, and put these round his body; and they also brought bread, meat, and onions which they flung before him.  Next they took a dog, cut it in half, and flung the pieces into the ship, and after this they took all his weapons and placed them beside him.  Next they brought two horses and ran them about until they were in a sweat, after which they cut them to pieces with swords and flung their meat in to the ship; this also happened to two cows.  Then they produced a cock and a hen, killed them, and threw them in.  Meanwhile the slave woman who wished to be killed walked up and down, going into one tent after the other, and the owner of each tent had sexual intercourse with her, saying: ‘Tell you master I did this out of love for him.’

It was now Friday afternoon and they took the slave woman away to something which they had made resembling a doorframe. Then she placed her legs on the palms of the men and reached high enough to look over the frame, and she said something in a foreign language, after which they took her down.  And they lifted her again and she did the same as the first time.  Then they took her down and lifted her a third time and she did the same as the first and the second times.  Then they gave her a chicken and she cut its head off and threw it away; they took the hen and threw it into the ship.  Then I asked the interpreter what she had done.  He answered: ‘The first time they lifted her she said: “Look!  I see my father and mother.”  The second time she said: “Look!  I see all my dead relatives sitting round.”  The third time she said: “Look!  I see my master inParadise, andParadiseis beautiful and green and together with him are men and young boys.  He calls me.  Let me join him then!”’

They now led her towards the ship.  Then she took off two bracelets she was wearing and gave them to the old woman, ‘the Angel of Death’, the one who was going to kill her.  She next took off two anklets she was wearing and gave them to the daughters of that woman known by the name ‘the Angel of Death’.  They then led her to the ship but did not allow her inside the tent.  Then a number of men carrying wooden shields and sticks arrived, and gave her a beaker with nabid.  She sang over it and emptied it.  The interpreter then said to me, ‘Now with that she is bidding farewell to all her women friends.’  Then she was given another beaker.  She took it and sang a lengthy song; but the old woman told her to hurry and drink up and enter the tent where her master was.  When I looked at her she seemed completely bewildered.  She wanted to enter the tent and she put her head between it and the ship.  There the woman took her head and managed to get it inside the tent, and the woman herself followed.  Then the men began to beat the shields with the wooden sticks, to deaden her shouts so that the other girls would not become afraid and shrink from dying with their masters.  Six men entered the tent and all of them had intercourse with her.  Therefore they laid her by the side of her dead master.  Two held her hands and two her feet, and the woman called ‘the Angel of Death’ put a cord round the girl’s neck, doubled with an end at each side, and gave it to two men to pull.  Then she advanced holding a small dagger with a broad blade and began to plunge it between the girl’s ribs to and from while the two men choked her with the cord till she died.

The dead man’s nearest kinsman now appeared.  He took a piece of wood and ignited it.  Then he walked backwards, his back towards the ship and his face towards the crowd, holding the piece of wood in one hand and the other hand on his buttock; and he was naked.  In this way the wood was ignited which they had place under the ship after they had laid the slave woman, whom they had killed, beside her master.  Then people came with branches and wood; each brought a burning brand and threw it on the pyre, so that the fire took hold of the wood, then the ship, then the tent and the man and slave woman and all.  Thereafter a strong and terrible wind rose so that the flame stirred and the fire blazed still more.

I heard one of the Rus folk, standing by, say something to my interpreter, and when I inquired what he had said, my interpreter answered: ‘He said: “You Arabs are foolish.”’  ‘Why?’  I asked.  ‘Well, because you throw those you love and honour to the ground where the earth and the maggots and fields devour them, whereas we, on the other hand, burn them up quickly and they go toParadisethat very moment.’  The man burst out laughing, and on being asked why, he said: ‘His Lord, out of love for him, has sent this wind to take him away within the hour!’  And so it proved, for within that time the ship and the pyre, the girl and the corpse had all become ashes and then dust.  On the spot where the ship stood after having been hauled ashore, they built something like a round mound.  In the middle of it they raised a large post of birch-wood on which they wrote the names of the dead man and of the king of the Rus, and then the crowd dispersed.

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(7th-9th centuries)


The hadith, speech or tradition, record the Sunnah (“practice”), the Prophet Muhammad’s sayings and actions, which Muslims believe were memorized and recorded by his companions and handed down from generation to generation. Many hadith are found in the biography (sira) of Muhammad. The historical tradition of hadith literature (sing. hadith, pl. hadith [collective sense]  or hadiths, Arabic ahadith) includes procedures for comparative assessment among various reporters intended to identify lines of transmission and to differentiate genuine hadith from weak or fabricated ones. While the legal content of the Quran [q.v.] is very limited, the hadith establish precedents for regulating nearly every aspect of life. Unlike the Quran, which is believed to be the word of Allah revealed to Muhammad during his prophetic life, the hadith are not considered infallible; however, followers of Islam consider them to be genuine records of Muhammad’s sayings and actions, and regard them as indispensable and as a source almost as fundamental as the Quran. Sunni and Shi’a Muslims recognize different hadith canon collections, for which authentication is based on differing methodologies of evaluation and analysis of the chains of transmission. Western scholarship beginning in the 19th century tended to argue that many of the hadith accounts are not always actual reports of Muhammad’s sayings but instead represent opinions of the early generations of Muslim thinkers, subsequently attributed to the Prophet during the long period of oral transmission spanning some 200 years following Muhammad’s death, but the compilers did place great stress on the reliability of the chain of transmission. The hadith were finally collected, selected, and published in six standard editions between the 9th and 11th centuries.

The six compilers of hadith include Muhammad ibn Isma`il al-Bukhari (810–870) and Muslim al-Hajjaj (817/821–875). Both Bukhari and Muslim were traditionists, and both were the sons of traditionists, themselves collectors and memorizers of sayings of the Prophet. Bukhari is said to have begun to study traditions at the age of ten and to have spent 40 years traveling the Muslim world collecting hadith from every learned man; he claimed to have “heard traditions from over 1,000 shaykhs.” Muslim inherited a large fortune from his father and travelled widely in order to learn hadith. Of the hadith  presented here, some are voiced by Bukhari, some by Muslim, and some agreed on by both. Hadith narrated by Ad-Dahhak, Abu Huraira, and Sahl As-Sa`idi are also included. Bukhari is said to be the most reliable of all the compilers; it is said that he selected 7,397, or 2,762 without repetitions, out of 600,000 traditions and memorized 220,000 of them; he recorded each after ablution and prayer, and carefully scrutinized them for consistency with other narrators. Later in life, Bukhari was expelled by the governor of the region for refusing to give the governor’s children preferential treatment by educating them at home; in the wake of this hostility, Bukhari is said to have been overheard praying one night that God might take him, and he died within the month.

The Quran itself does not contain an explicit, incontrovertible prohibition of suicide. The hadith, however, do; both Bukhari and Muslim make fully explicit the unlawfulness of suicide. As Franz Rosenthal pointed out, by the time of Muhammad, both Judaism and Christianity  had developed negative attitudes toward suicide, and it is likely that Muhammad would have shared these. Bukhari reports a saying of Muhammad’s that the person who commits suicide is punished eternally by a perpetual, forced repetition of the act of self-killing. Suicide is equated in severity with the sin of murder. Muslim gives an account of self-mutilation resulting in death. No distinction is made between suicide associated with what would now be recognized as mental illness  and suicide associated with principle, religious zeal, military self-sacrifice, jihad, or the like.  These hadith are the clearest canonical sources for the Islamic belief that suicide is a violation of divine law.


Hadith, Al-Bukhari, Vol. 2, Book 23, nos. 445, 446; Vol. 4, Book 52, no. 297; Vol. 5, Book 59, nos. 514, 515, 518; Vol. 8, Book 73, nos. 73, 126; Book 76, no. 500; Book 77, nos. 603, 604; Book 78, no. 647; see e.g. Muslim, from Mishkat-ul-masabih, Vol. II, ch. 25, section 6, paragraph 1178, tr. al-Haj Maulana Fazlul Karim, Lahore, Pakistan: Law Publishing Company, 1938, material in bibliographic note, pp. 18–19. Some modifications in translation. See also Franz Rosenthal, “On Suicide in Islam,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 66 (1946): 239–259, p. 240.




The Holy Prophet said: Whoso kills himself with a thing will be punished on the Resurrection day therewith—24:5. From this as well from the traditions of this section, it appears that the sin of suicide is not less than that of murder. He will permanently reside in Hell, as he killed a soul which remembered Allah, or which, if alive, would have remembered Him. Suicide is the result of pangs and overwhelming anxieties which are in turn so many boons for leading a man to Paradise.

Abu Hurairah reported that the Messenger of Allah said: Whoso hurls himself down from a mountain and thus kills himself will be in Hell hurling himself down therein, abiding therein and being accommodated therein for ever; whoso takes poison and thus kills himself, his poison will be in his hand; he will be tasting it in Hell, always abiding therein, and being accommodated therein forever; and whoso kills himself with gun [lit., “piece of iron”], his gun will be in his hand; he will be shooting himself therewith against his belly in Hell, abiding therein and being accommodated therein forever.


Same reported that the Messenger of Allah said: Whoso strangles himself to death, will strangle it in Hell; and whoso shoots it, will shoot it in Hell.


Jundub-b-Abdullah reported that the Messenger of Allah said: There was a man among those who were before you who received an wound. It became unbearable. Then he took a knife and cut off his hand therewith. Whereupon blood began to ooze out, so much so that he died. The Almighty Allah said: My servant hastened himself to Me and so I made Paradise unlawful for him.


Jaber reported that Tofail-b-Amer and al-Dausi migrated to the Messenger of Allah when he had migrated to Medina. A man of his tribe also migrated with him. Then he fell ill and became exasperated. He took a scissor of his and cut off therewith his hand-joints. His hands bled till he died. Tofail-b-Amer saw him in his dream. He was handsome in appearance, but he found him with his hands covered. He asked him: What did your Lord do with you? He said: He has forgiven me owing to my migration to His Prophet. He asked: What is with me that I see your hands covered? He said: It was said to me: What you yourself destroyed will not be cured for you. Tofail narrated it to the Messenger of Allah who said: O Allah, forgive his two hands.



Volume 2, Book 23, Number 445:

Narrated Thabit bin Ad-Dahhak:
The Prophet said, “Whoever intentionally swears falsely by a religion other than Islam, then he is what he has said, (e.g. if he says, ‘If such thing is not true then I am a Jew,’ he is really a Jew). And whoever commits suicide with piece of iron will be punished with the same piece of iron in the Hell Fire.” Narrated Jundab the Prophet said, “A man was inflicted with wounds and he committed suicide, and so Allah said: My slave has caused death on himself hurriedly, so I forbid Paradise for him.”

Volume 2, Book 23, Number 446:

Narrated Abu Huraira:
The Prophet said, “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.”

Fighting for the Cause of Allah

Volume 4, Book 52, Number 297:

Narrated Abu Huraira:
We were in the company of Allah’s Apostle in a Ghazwa, and he remarked about a man who claimed to be a Muslim, saying, “This (man) is from the people of the (Hell) Fire.” When the battle started, the man fought violently till he got wounded. Somebody said, “O Allah’s Apostle! The man whom you described as being from the people of the (Hell) Fire fought violently today and died.” The Prophet said, “He will go to the (Hell) Fire.” Some people were on the point of doubting (the truth of what the Prophet had said) while they were in this state, suddenly someone said that he was still alive but severely wounded. When night fell, he lost patience and committed suicide. The Prophet was informed of that, and he said, “Allah is Greater! I testify that I am Allah’s Slave and His Apostle.” Then he ordered Bilal to announce amongst the people: ‘None will enter Paradise but a Muslim, and Allah may support this religion (i.e. Islam) even with a disobedient man.’

Military Expeditions Led By The Prophet

Volume 5, Book 59, Number 514:

Narrated Sahl bin Sad As Saidi:
Allah’s Apostle (and his army) encountered the pagans and the two armies fought and then Allah’s Apostle returned to his army camps and the others (i.e. the enemy) returned to their army camps. Amongst the companions of the Prophet there was a man who could not help pursuing any single isolated pagan to strike him with his sword. Somebody said, “None has benefited the Muslims today more than so-and-so.” On that Allah’s Apostle said, “He is from the people of the Hell-Fire certainly.” A man amongst the people (i.e. Muslims) said, “I will accompany him (to know the fact).” So he went along with him, and whenever he stopped he stopped with him, and whenever he hastened, he hastened with him. The (brave) man then got wounded severely, and seeking to die at once, he planted his sword into the ground and put its point against his chest in between his breasts, and then threw himself on it and committed suicide. On that the person (who was accompanying the deceased all the time) came to Allah’s Apostle and said, “I testify that you are the Apostle of Allah.” The Prophet said, “Why is that (what makes you say so)?” He said “It is concerning the man whom you have already mentioned as one of the dwellers of the Hell-Fire. The people were surprised by your statement, and I said to them, “I will try to find out the truth about him for you.” So I went out after him and he was then inflicted with a severe wound and because of that, he hurried to bring death upon himself by planting the handle of his sword into the ground and directing its tip towards his chest between his breasts, and then he threw himself over it and committed suicide.” Allah’s Apostle then said, “A man may do what seem to the people as the deeds of the dwellers of Paradise but he is from the dwellers of the Hell-Fire and another may do what seem to the people as the deeds of the dwellers of the Hell-Fire, but he is from the dwellers of Paradise.”

Volume 5, Book 59, Number 515:

Narrated Abu Huraira:
We witnessed (the battle of) Khaibar. Allah’s Apostle said about one of those who were with him and who claimed to be a Muslim, “This (man) is from the dwellers of the Hell-Fire.” When the battle started, that fellow fought so violently and bravely that he received plenty of wounds. Some of the people were about to doubt (the Prophet’s statement), but the man, feeling the pain of his wounds, put his hand into his quiver and took out of it, some arrows with which he slaughtered himself (i.e. committed suicide). Then some men amongst the Muslims came hurriedly and said, “O Allah’s Apostle! Allah has made your statement true so-and-so has committed suicide.” The Prophet said, “O so-and-so! Get up and make an announcement that none but a believer will enter Paradise and that Allah may support the religion with an unchaste (evil) wicked man.”

Volume 5, Book 59, Number 518:

Narrated Sahl:
During one of his Ghazawat, the Prophet encountered the pagans, and the two armies fought, and then each of them returned to their army camps. Amongst the (army of the) Muslims there was a man who would follow every pagan separated from the army and strike him with his sword. It was said, “O Allah’s Apostle! None has fought so satisfactorily as so-and-so (namely, that brave Muslim).” The Prophet said, “He is from the dwellers of the Hell-Fire.” The people said, “Who amongst us will be of the dwellers of Paradise if this (man) is from the dwellers of the Hell-Fire?” Then a man from amongst the people said, “I will follow him and accompany him in his fast and slow movements.” The (brave) man got wounded, and wanting to die at once, he put the handle of his sword on the ground and its tip in between his breasts, and then threw himself over it, committing suicide. Then the man (who had watched the deceased) returned to the Prophet and said, “I testify that you are Apostle of Allah.” The Prophet said, “What is this?” The man told him the whole story. The Prophet said, “A man may do what may seem to the people as the deeds of the dwellers of Paradise, but he is of the dwellers of the Hell-Fire and a man may do what may seem to the people as the deeds of the dwellers of the Hell-Fire, but he is from the dwellers of Paradise.”


Good Manners and Form

Volume 8, Book 73, Number 73:

Narrated Thabit bin Ad-Dahhak:
(who was one of the companions who gave the pledge of allegiance to the Prophet underneath the tree (Al-Hudaibiya)) Allah’s Apostle said, “Whoever swears by a religion other than Islam (i.e. if somebody swears by saying that he is a non-Muslim e.g., a Jew or a Christian, etc.) in case he is telling a lie, he is really so if his oath is false, and a person is not bound to fulfill a vow about a thing which he does not possess. And if somebody commits suicide with anything in this world, he will be tortured with that very thing on the Day of Resurrection; and if somebody curses a believer, then his sin will be as if he murdered him; And whoever accuses a believer of Kufr (disbelief), then it is as if he killed him.”

Volume 8, Book 73, Number 126:

Narrated Thabit bin Ad-Dahhak:
The Prophet said, “Whoever swears by a religion other than Islam (i.e. if he swears by saying that he is a non-Muslim in case he is telling a lie), then he is as he says if his oath is false and whoever commits suicide with something, will be punished with the same thing in the (Hell) fire, and cursing a believer is like murdering him, and whoever accuses a believer of disbelief, then it is as if he had killed him.”


To Make the Heart Tender

Volume 8, Book 76, Number 500:

Narrated Sa’d bin Sahl As-Sa’idi:

The Prophet looked at a man fighting against the pagans and he was one of the most competent persons fighting on behalf of the Muslims. The Prophet said, “Let him who wants to look at a man from the dwellers of the (Hell) Fire, look at this (man).” Another man followed him and kept on following him till he (the fighter) was injured and, seeking to die quickly, he placed the blade tip of his sword between his breasts and leaned over it till it passed through his shoulders (i.e., committed suicide). The Prophet added, “A person may do deeds that seem to the people as the deeds of the people of Paradise while in fact, he is from the dwellers of the (Hell) Fire: and similarly a person may do deeds that seem to the people as the deeds of the people of the (Hell) Fire while in fact, he is from the dwellers of Paradise. Verily, the (results of) deeds done, depend upon the last actions.”

Volume 8, Book 77, Number 603:

Narrated Abu Huraira:
We witnessed along with Allah’s Apostle the Khaibar (campaign). Allah’s Apostle told his companions about a man who claimed to be a Muslim, “This man is from the people of the Fire.” When the battle started, the man fought very bravely and received a great number of wounds and got crippled. On that, a man from among the companions of the Prophet came and said, “O Allah’s Apostle! Do you know what the man you described as of the people of the Fire has done? He has fought very bravely for Allah’s Cause and he has received many wounds.” The Prophet said, “But he is indeed one of the people of the Fire.” Some of the Muslims were about to have some doubt about that statement. So while the man was in that state, the pain caused by the wounds troubled him so much that he put his hand into his quiver and took out an arrow and committed suicide with it. Off went some men from among the Muslims to Allah’s Apostle and said, “O Allah’s Apostle! Allah has made your statement true. So-and-so has committed suicide.” Allah’s Apostle said, “O Bilal! Get up and announce in public: None will enter Paradise but a believer, and Allah may support this religion (Islam) with a wicked man.”


Divine Will

Volume 8, Book 77, Number 604:

Narrated Sahl bin Sa’d:
There was a man who fought most bravely of all the Muslims on behalf of the Muslims in a battle (Ghazwa) in the company of the Prophet. The Prophet looked at him and said, “If anyone would like to see a man from the people of the Fire, let him look at this (brave man).” On that, a man from the People (Muslims) followed him, and he was in that state i.e., fighting fiercely against the pagans till he was wounded, and then he hastened to end his life by placing his sword between his breasts (and pressed it with great force) till it came out between his shoulders. Then the man (who was watching that person) went quickly to the Prophet and said, “I testify that you are Allah’s Apostle!” The Prophet asked him, “Why do you say that?” He said, “You said about so-and-so, ‘If anyone would like to see a man from the people of the Fire, he should look at him.’ He fought most bravely of all of us on behalf of the Muslims and I knew that he would not die as a Muslim (Martyr). So when he got wounded, he hastened to die and committed suicide.” There-upon the Prophet said, “A man may do the deeds of the people of the Fire while in fact he is one of the people of Paradise, and he may do the deeds of the people of Paradise while in fact he belongs to the people of Fire, and verily, (the rewards of) the deeds are decided by the last actions (deeds).”


Oaths and Vows

Volume 8, Book 78, Number 647:

Narrated Thabit bin Ad-Dahhak:
The Prophet said, “Whoever swears by a religion other than Islam, is, as he says; and whoever commits suicide with something, will be punished with the same thing in the (Hell) Fire; and cursing a believer is like murdering him; and whoever accuses a believer of disbelief, then it is as if he had killed him.”

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Filed under Hadith, Islam, Middle Ages, Middle East, Selections

(traditional date c. 632-c. 650)

Surahs 2.54, 2.154, 2.195, 2.207, 3.145, 3.169-70, 4.29-30, 4.66, 4.74-80, 9.111, 18.6


The Quran (meaning “recital” in Arabic) is the sacred scripture of Islam, and Muslims believe that it is the direct word of God given through the archangel Gabriel to the prophet Muhammad over a period of about 23 years, from 610 until 632. 

The traditional biographies (the sira literature) of Muhammad’s (c. 570–632) life holds that he was born in Mecca to a poor but respected clan, Hashim, within the powerful and influential tribe of Quraish, and that he was orphaned by the age of six and raised by his uncle. Muhammad is said to have displayed an acute moral sensitivity at an early age. He later impressed a rich widow, Khadija, with his honesty and ability in managing her caravan business, and so she offered him marriage, which he accepted at the age of 25. They had six children, of whom only one daughter survived. Muhammad is said to have experienced his first revelation in about 610 while on retreat in a cave on Mount Hira outside Mecca. Hostilities were raised against him because of his preaching against the polytheism of the Meccans, and in 622, he led his people on the flight known as the hijra from Mecca to Medina. His armies attacked Mecca and repulsed a retaliatory siege; he eliminated his internal enemies, including all of the men in one of three Jewish clans in Medina, and forced the Meccans to surrender. According to tradition, Muhammad eventually became the most powerful leader in western Arabia and enforced the principles of Islam, giving unbelievers the choice between the sword and the Quran. He granted Jews and Christians comparative autonomy as “peoples of the Book,” whose revelations and prophets—Abraham, Moses, and Jesus Christ—he saw as anticipating himself. Muhammad’s social teachings emphasized economic justice and improving the situation of women, slaves, orphans, and the poor.

The traditional accounts of Muhammad’s life are largely gleaned from the Prophet biographies, the sira, and the “sayings” of Muhammad or hadith [q.v.]. Muhammad preached what can be called an Abrahamic monotheism at the time of the Roman-Persian wars (603–630), a monotheism that Christians and Jews, among others, had interpreted according to their respective apocalyptic traditions. The developed tradition of Islam as it is known today is the work of religious scholars attempting to establish a viable, standardized form of written Arabic, living in the sophisticated, cosmopolitan Iraq of the 800s and 900s—a period during which wine poetry, Greek philosophy, and the Sassanian royal cult were freely celebrated, and in which foreigners had arrived from lands subject to the Conquest—projecting, in the view of some scholars, a utopian religious community back into the earlier deserts of Arabia.

The Quran consists of 114 surahs or chapters of unequal length. According to tradition, secretaries and early followers of Muhammad began to collect his revelations before his death in 632, writing verses on palm leaves, bark, pieces of wood, parchment or leather, flat stones, and the shoulder blades of camels. Several hundred companions are said to have memorized the Quran by heart. Also according to modern research, the Quran was arranged and given diacritical marks definitively sometime in the mid 700s by Arabic scholars, and the final text was completed in the early 800s. The dates cited here for the Quran’s composition, c. 632–c. 650, are the traditional ones. The Quran, together with the hadith, contains the central theological and political doctrines of Islam. These texts differ in that the Quran, in its original Arabic form, is believed to be the direct word of God; first-person expressions such as “We” or “Our” refer to the voice of God, and Muslims accept the Quran as divinely authoritative and beyond fallibility or criticism. In Muslim belief, the Quran was revealed by God to Muhammad in the Arabic language; translations thus introduce interpretation and the possibility of error. In distinction from the Quran, the traditions or hadith are a collection of Muhammad’s sayings and actions. The hadith are understood as foundational, but they are not held to be divine revelation.

The main tenets of Islam established in the Quran hold that there is only one true God, Allah, and one true religion, Islam; that all human beings were created by Allah and belong to him; that all persons must make an accounting of their lives at a final judgment and will be rewarded with eternal happiness in a paradise among gardens and fountains, or punishment by fire in hell, predicated on their actions in this life; and that Allah sends prophets—the most important being Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad—to lead all people to moral truth. The ideal of human endeavor is to “reform the earth” by leading people beyond their petty, self-interested, self-deceptive characters to altruism that involves concern for the poor, dedication to the benefit of humanity, and loyalty to the cause of Allah. In the Quranic view, resurrection and judgment are central. Death is the transition to a new life; it is willed by God, who has appointed a time for each individual to die. Repentance for sin is possible, but only immediately after the evil has been committed; deathbed repentance after a life of sin does not prevent punishment in the afterlife.

The Quran is taken to be the source of a divine proscription against self-killing, a prohibition that is not questioned or debated by most followers of Islam. Suicide is clearly forbidden in shari`ah, Islamic law. However, there is no fully explicit text in the Quran (understood as Muhammad’s recitation of the word of God), which states this prohibition unambiguously, though the prohibition is fully clear in Muhammad’s own sayings preserved in the hadith. Sunni or majority Islam has no central dogmatic authority; hence, the passages from the Quran presented here are those variously taken by different teachers, commentators, and scholars to pertain to the question of suicide. Several of the surahs (e.g., 2.154, 3.169–70, 2.07, 4.74, and 9.111) appear to distinguish martyrdom from suicide, although martyrs have knowingly and voluntarily sacrificed their lives; some hold that martyrs go directly to Paradise after death.

Surah 2.54 describes a rebuke from Moses to the people of Israel in which he commands them to seek forgiveness from the Creator and, in some translations, “kill yourselves” (Mawdudi), or in others, “slay the culprits among you” (Dawood). This passage is usually interpreted as an order to righteous Israelites to put to death those of their own number who, engaging in the cult of cow-worship absorbed from the Canaanites, had made a calf (the “Golden Calf”) and actually worshipped it. Some scholars read it as an exhortation to commit a form of spiritual destruction of the self by conquering the inner passions or lusts, appropriately translated “let each one of you slay the evil propensities of his mind” (Khan). Still others see the passage as referring to a different kind of “spiritual suicide,” a death through severe grief or self-condemnation.

Surah 2.195, “make not your own hands contribute to (your) destruction,” forms part of a mandate requiring charitable spending to help the poor. According to one interpreter, the direct meaning of the verse is that to fail to give alms to the poor will eventually mean self-destruction of the community; according to another, it holds that self-interest rather than charity in spending will lead to one’s ruin both in this world and in the next: “do not push yourselves into ruin with your own hands” (Khan).

Surah 3.145, translated as “It is not given to any soul to die except with the leave of Allah, and at an appointed time” (Mawdudi), “No one can die except by Allah’s leave, that is a decree with a fixed term” (Khan), or “No one dies unless God permit. The term of every life is fixed” (Dawood), is cited by some contemporary commentators as grounds for the prohibition of suicide. However, it is not universally so cited; the passage is also understood to hold that it is not possible to hasten or escape death so that it occurs at a time earlier or later than that preordained for it by God.

Surah 4.29 is the passage most often cited as the authoritative proscription against self-killing in Islamic scripture, “do not kill yourselves (anfusakum)” or “do not destroy yourselves,” yet its direct meaning appears to refer to mutual killing (anfus- is understood as reciprocal), that is, “do not kill each other,” a reading that is supported by the context. This, according to a contemporary source, is taken to assume that “a Muslim’s killing another Muslim is tantamount to killing himself or herself.” Surah 4.30, “If any do that . . .” can be read as either complementary to 4.29 or independent; if the former, it means that to consume one’s own wealth in vanity (or to consume the property of others wrongfully) is to court one’s own destruction, since this corrupts society; if the latter, it can mean either that one should not kill others or that one should not kill oneself.

Surahs 4.66 and 4.74 may seem to condone suicide if it is committed with a worthy objective. Surah 4.66 concerns the possibility that followers of Islam might be required to “slay yourselves” (Mawdudi) or “kill yourselves in striving for the cause of Allah” (Khan) or “lay down your lives” (Dawood), though most Quranic commentators interpret the passage as a commandment to Muslims in general to be prepared to sacrifice their lives or seek death in jihad, “struggle in the cause of God” or holy war, and not as an appeal to individual suicide. Similarly, surah 4.74, about “those . . . who sell the life of this world for the hereafter,” appears to raise the issue of voluntary death sought in order to reach the afterlife—a matter that had also been an issue for early Christians. Some Quranic commentators understand this passage as concerning jihad [q.v., under Mutahhari], not suicide. Jihad is the only way a Muslim can—and is expected to—take and give life.

The third interpretation of surah 2.54, above, is related by some scholars to the final surah, 18.6, “Thou wouldst only, perchance, fret thyself to death, following after them, in grief, if they believe not in this Message,” which some scholars believe hints that Muhammad might torment himself to death through grief over disbelief among his people: “Wilt thou grieve thyself to death for sorrow over them, if they believe not in this Discourse?” (Khan). These scholars have held that on several occasions during the prolonged period without revelation (the “Fatra,” lasting some 2½ to 3 years) that followed his early divine inspirations, Muhammad—in desperation—ascended the highest hill near Mecca, intending to hurl himself from the top. Most scholars concur, however, that the passage was never intended to show that Muhammad would choose any form of suicide.

Regardless of these differences in translation and interpretation of the various surahs, however, a belief in the divine unlawfulness of suicide became a part of Islamic theology early in its history, and the Quran is most often cited as the original source of this doctrine.


Quran, tr. Yusuf Ali, online at See also The Yusuf Ali English text is based on the 1934 book, The Holy Quran, Text, Translation and Commentary (published in Lahore, Cairo, and Riyadh), a version widely used because it is a clear, modern, and eloquent translation by a well-respected Muslim scholar. The English text was revised in 2009-10 to more closely match the source book. Explanatory material and/or alternative translations in the bibliographical note from N. J. Dawood, tr., The Koran. London: Penguin Books, 5th rev. ed., 1990; Sayyid Abul A’la Mawdudi, Towards Understanding the Qur’antr. and ed. Zafar Ishaq Ansari.  Leicester, UK: The Islamic Foundation, vols. I-III, 1988, 1989, 1990;  Muhammad Zafrulla Khan, tr., The Quran, London and Dublin: Curzon Press,  1972, 2nd ed., rev., 1975;  and from Fazlur Rahman, Health and Medicine in the Islamic Tradition: Change and Identity, New York: Crossroad, 1987. References concerning surah 18.6 from Franz Rosenthal, “On Suicide in Islam,” Journal of the American Oriental Society  66 (1946): 239-259, p. 240, and Theodor Nöldeke, Geschichte des Qorans, Part I.  Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1961, pp. 84-85.  Material also supplied by Peter von Sivers and Lois A. Giffen.





And remember Moses said to his people: “O my people! Ye have indeed wronged yourselves by your worship of the calf: So turn (in repentance) to your Maker, and slay yourselves (the wrong-doers); that will be better for you in the sight of your Maker.” Then He turned towards you (in forgiveness): For He is Oft-Returning, Most Merciful.



And say not of those who are slain in the way of Allah: “They are dead.” Nay, they are living, though ye perceive (it) not.



And spend of your substance in the cause of Allah, and make not your own hands contribute to (your) destruction; but do good; for Allah loveth those who do good.



And there is the type of man who gives his life to earn the pleasure of Allah: And Allah is full of kindness to (His) devotees.



Nor can a soul die except by Allah’s leave, the term being fixed as by writing. If any do desire a reward in this life, We shall give it to him; and if any do desire a reward in the Hereafter, We shall give it to him. And swiftly shall We reward those that (serve us with) gratitude.



Think not of those who are slain in Allah’s way as dead. Nay, they live, finding their sustenance in the presence of their Lord;



They rejoice in the bounty provided by Allah: And with regard to those left behind, who have not yet joined them (in their bliss), the (Martyrs) glory in the fact that on them is no fear, nor have they (cause to) grieve.



O ye who believe! Eat not up your property among yourselves in vanities: But let there be amongst you traffic and trade by mutual good-will: Nor kill (or destroy) yourselves: for verily Allah hath been to you Most Merciful!



If any do that in rancour and injustice, soon shall We cast them into the Fire: And easy it is for Allah.



If We had ordered them to sacrifice their lives or to leave their homes, very few of them would have done it: But if they had done what they were (actually) told, it would have been best for them, and would have gone farthest to strengthen their (faith);



Let those fight in the cause of Allah Who sell the life of this world for the hereafter. To him who fighteth in the cause of Allah – whether he is slain or gets victory – Soon shall We give him a reward of great (value).



And why should ye not fight in the cause of Allah and of those who, being weak, are ill-treated (and oppressed)? Men, women, and children, whose cry is: “Our Lord! Rescue us from this town, whose people are oppressors; and raise for us from thee one who will protect; and raise for us from thee one who will help!”



Those who believe fight in the cause of Allah, and those who reject Faith fight in the cause of Evil: So fight ye against the friends of Satan: feeble indeed is the cunning of Satan.



Hast thou not turned Thy vision to those who were told to hold back their hands (from fight) but establish regular prayers and spend in regular charity? When (at length) the order for fighting was issued to them, behold! a section of them feared men as – or even more than – they should have feared Allah: They said: “Our Lord! Why hast Thou ordered us to fight? Wouldst Thou not Grant us respite to our (natural) term, near (enough)?” Say: “Short is the enjoyment of this world: the Hereafter is the best for those who do right: Never will ye be dealt with unjustly in the very least!



“Wherever ye are, death will find you out, even if ye are in towers built up strong and high!” If some good befalls them, they say, “This is from Allah”; but if evil, they say, “This is from thee” (O Prophet). Say: “All things are from Allah.” But what hath come to these people, that they fail to understand a single fact?



Whatever good, (O man!) happens to thee, is from Allah; but whatever evil happens to thee, is from thy (own) soul, and We have sent thee as a messenger to (instruct) mankind. And enough is Allah for a witness.



He who obeys the Messenger, obeys Allah: But if any turn away, We have not sent thee to watch over their (evil deeds).



Allah hath purchased of the believers their persons and their goods; for theirs (in return) is the garden (of Paradise): they fight in His cause, and slay and are slain: a promise binding on Him in truth, through the Law, the Gospel, and the Qur’an: and who is more faithful to his covenant than Allah? then rejoice in the bargain which ye have concluded: that is the achievement supreme.



Thou wouldst only, perchance, fret thyself to death, following after them, in grief, if they believe not in this Message.

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(3rd-6th century)

Bava Kamma 91b
Avodah Zarah 18a
Gittin 57b
Semahot 2:1-2


The Babylonian Talmud, the most comprehensive body of rabbinic literature and a central text of Jewish civil and religious law, dates from the 2nd century b.c. to its final redaction during the 5th and 6th centuries A.D.. Talmudic literature, including the Mishnah, the Babylonian and Palestinian (Jerusalem) Talmuds, and the various midrashic commentaries on the Hebrew Bible [q.v.] including Genesis Rabbah [q.v.], provides the classical, canonical statement of rabbinic Judaism.

The Mishnah, the oldest text of the talmudic literature, is a codification of laws derived from an oral tradition. These legal and folkloric teachings, normative statements, and anecdotes relating to rabbinic practice and instruction developed over a period that began several centuries before the Christian era. In the 3rd century a.d., Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi compiled the existing traditions and gave them the fixed form now known as the Mishnah. The word “mishnah” is a noun formed from the verb “shannah,” which means “to repeat” or “to learn,” specifically indicating an education derived orally through continual recitation. The Mishnah is the foundation of both Talmuds.

The Palestinian Talmud, also called the Jerusalem Talmud, contains both the Mishnah and a commentary on the Mishnah called the Gemara. This Talmud was collected and written by Palestinian scholars from the 3rd century A.D. to the 5th century A.D.. The Babylonian Talmud includes both the Mishnah and its own Gemara written mostly in Aramaic, different from the commentaries found in the Palestinian Talmud. The contents of the Babylonian Talmud were collected and composed by scholars in the 3rd century A.D. through the 6th century. While the two Gemaras partially overlap, the Babylonian Talmud is generally more extensive and its discussions are more fully developed; within the later Jewish tradition, it is considered the authoritative Talmud.

Several selections from the Babylonian Talmud are included in this volume. The first is from Bava Kamma (“First Gate”), a treatise of the order Nezikin (“Injuries”) on compensation for damages it cites disagreement among the Tanaim, scholars of the period of the Mishna (sing. Tana). This text again cites the same midrash regarding suicide, though in somewhat different form, that had been earlier “creatively” developed in Genesis Rabbah. It confirms the prohibition of suicide midrashically derived from Genesis 9:5, and explores both sides of the issue of whether a person is allowed to harm himself or herself. Clearly, some early sources in the Jewish tradition appear to allow self-harm (see the selections from the Hebrew Bible [q.v.]); the Talmud here seems to labor to find a clear source for a more restrictive view. As is common in talmudic discussions, this remains an unresolved issue.

The second inclusion from the Babylonian Talmud is found in Avodah Zarah (“Idolatrous Worship”), also of the order Nezikin, a treatise on the laws regulating the conduct of the Jews toward other forms of worship and practices regarded as idolatry. In this selection, Chanina ben Tradyon, a rabbi and teacher, is condemned to die by the Romans for continuing to teach Jewish law. Initially, when his students suggest hastening his death, R. Chanina refuses their offer and affirms the general prohibition of suicide by appealing to the idea that God alone has sovereign power over all life. Then, in a seeming contradiction, he agrees to have the executioner bring about his death quickly and promises the executioner—a pagan—eternal life in exchange for helping him. The executioner increases the flame, precipitating R. Chanina’s death, and then promptly leaps into the fire himself. A heavenly voice approves of the actions of both men, saying, “R. Chanina b. Tradyon and his executioner are invited to the world to come.”

The third and fourth selections from the Babylonian Talmud come from the treatise Gittin (“Documents”) of the order Nashim (“Women”). Both excerpts offer examples of suicide during times of persecution, in one case to escape sexual slavery, and in the other as a response to severe grief. The first example, from the aftermath of the failed Jewish rebellion against Rome, describes the suicides of 400 boys and girls who were intended for use as prostitutes. Responding to a question by one of the girls, the eldest boy cites a verse from Psalms to show that they would be brought into the world to come if they jumped into the sea. Each group then throws themselves into the water. This selection raises several important questions about the relationship between suicide and martyrdom, including whether actively committing suicide to escape an evil like forced prostitution is morally distinct from allowing oneself to be killed, as in the biblical account of Chananyah, Mishael, and Azaryah, or Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego, and why the suicide of the boys and girls is acceptable when it was inappropriate, at least initially, for R. Chanina to hasten his death to escape the torture of immolation.

The Gittin also depicts the suicide of a woman whose children allowed themselves to be martyred to avoid the sin of idolatry. The woman, who was not a martyr like her children, is nevertheless represented as an example of an appropriate an appropriate example of suicide: she throws herself from a roof and then “rejoices with her sons” in the afterlife. No explanation is given for the licitness of the woman’s death, although it is possible that her suicide was excusable in her unique circumstances because of extreme grief.

The final inclusion from the Babylonian Talmud is in Semahot (“Joys,” a circumlocution for mourning), a later treatise that is placed after the order Nezikin in more recent editions of the Talmud; it deals with mourning for the dead. Semahot is a post-talmudic composition that arrived at its present form in the 8th century a.d.; it is included here because it undoubtedly contains earlier material. The selection describes what is to be done in terms of rites and mourning for a person who has committed suicide. However, the passage ensures that few deaths will be classified as suicide by holding that one may be treated as a suicide only if witnesses can testify that the deceased expressed clear intent and acted immediately following the expression of intent. (This requirement presumably incorporates the usual rules requiring two reliable witnesses who are independently cross-examined and excluding circumstantial evidence.) This attempt at defining suicide opened a subsequent debate within Judaism spanning several centuries and comprising an enormous body of rabbinic literature.


Babylonian Talmud: Bava Kamma 91b, Abodah Zarah 18a, Gittin 57b, Semahot 2:1-2, tr. Baruch Brody.  Comment in introduction from Noam Zohar.


Bava Kamma 91b

There is a disagreement among the Tanaim, for some say that a person is not allowed to harm himself while others say that he is. Which Tana says that a man is not allowed to harm himself?

Is it the Tana who taught: “But your blood from yourself I will seek punishment [Genesis 9:5]”? R. Elazar says, from you yourself I will seek punishment for your blood.Perhaps self-killing is different…

It is the Tana who taught: R. Elazar Hakfar said, what do we learn from the verse [about the Nazirite] which says, “it will redeem him from the sin that he sinned in himself?” What is his sin? He denied himself wine. We can argue afortiori. If this person who just denied himself wine is considered a sinner, then the person who more fully harmed himself is certainly considered a sinner.


Abodah Zarah 18a

They took him [Chanina b. Traydon], wrapped a Scroll of the Law around him, and placed bundles of branches around him, which they set on fire. They brought wool soaked in water and placed it on his heart so that he could not die quickly…His students said to him, “Open your mouth and let the flame enter [so that you will die].” He said to them, “It is better that [life] should be taken by He who gave it and a person should not harm himself.” The executioner said to him, “Rabbi, if I increase the fire and take the wool from your heart, will you bring me to the world to come?” He said, “Yes.” “Swear that to me.” He did. Immediately he [the executioner] increased the flame and took the wool from his heart, and he died. He [the executioner] jumped into the fire. A Heavenly Voice said, “R. Chanina b. Traydon and his executioner are invited to the world to come.”


Gittin 57b

It happened that 400 boys and girls had been taken captive to be used as prostitutes. They realized for what they were wanted. They asked, “If we drown in the sea, will we enter the world to come?” The eldest taught, ”I will bring from the depths of the sea (Ps. 68:22); these are those who drown in the sea.” When the girls heard this, they all jumped into the sea. The boys argued a fortiori about themselves. “If these for whom it [the intended sexual act] is natural did this, we, for whom it [the intended sexual act] is not natural should certainly do so.” They also jumped into the sea…

The mother [of the seven martyrs] said to them, “Give him to me so that I may kiss him a little.” She said to him, “My son, go and say to Abraham your father, you sacrificed on one altar and I sacrificed on seven altars.” She went up to the roof and fell and died. A Heavenly Voice came and said, “The mother of the sons rejoices.”


Semahot 2:1-2

If someone commits suicide, we do not perform any rites over him. R. Yishmael says, “We say over him, Woe! He has taken his life.” R. Akiva says, “Leave him in silence. Neither honor him nor curse him. We do not rend any garments over him, not take off any shoes, do not eulogize him. But we do line up for the mourners, and we do bless them because this honors the living. The rule is: we do whatever honors the living…”

Who is someone who has killed himself? It is not the person who has gone up to the top of the tree and fallen or the person who has gone up to the top of the roof and fallen. It is the person who says, “I will go to the top of the roof or the top of the tree and throw myself down and kill myself” and we see him do just that. This is the person about whom we presume he has committed suicide.

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(c. 260-339)

from Ecclesiastical History


Eusebius, referred to as Eusebius of Caesarea, was the first and most prominent historian of early Christianity. He lived most of his life in Caesarea Maritima. He was also known as Eusebius Pamphili, taking the surname from his friend and mentor Pamphilus of Caesarea, whose expansive library—founded by Origen—provided Eusebius with historical records for his later works. Eusebius fled to the Egyptian desert following the martyrdom of Pamphilus during the persecutions under Diocletian, but was arrested and imprisoned. After his release, Eusebius became bishop of Caesarea, around 313 or 314. As a supporter of Arius and the leader of the Origenist Semi-Arians, the middle party in the Arian conflict over the theological issue of whether belief in Christ as being fully God could be reconciled with strict monotheism, Eusebius held that the nature of the Trinity could not be rationally understood. He was excommunicated by the synod of Antioch for this view; however, he was later exonerated by the emperor Constantine I. Eusebius played a role in the council of Nicaea in 325, where he tried to reconcile the opposing parties while repudiating extreme Arianism.

Appointed under Constantine as court historian, Eusebius wrote both religious and secular histories, as well as several Christian apologies. He was an immensely prolific writer, although his treatments of some issues are inadequate and his historical accounts are often selective and difficult to distinguish from apologetics; some have denounced him as dishonest, though his works are nevertheless of great value, preserving in excerpts many sources that would have otherwise been lost. Eusebius was the author of the Chronicon, a history of the world from the famous peoples of antiquity to the year 303 (later continued to 325), and the Historia Ecclesiastica, a history of the Church from its beginning up to the year 324, as well as many apologetic, exegetical, and dogmatic works. The Ecclesiastical History is the first major attempt to explain the relationship of Christianity and the Roman Empire; its approach in describing the development of the church is primarily historical, and it has been described as both a political theology and a theology of history.

In Book 2 of the Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius narrates the suicide of a woman of Antioch—by legend, St. Pelagia—and her two daughters who, to avoid sexual violation by the Roman soldiers guarding them, ended their lives by throwing themselves into a river. This account occurs among reports of other martyrs who endured extraordinary suffering without resorting to suicide and, as does the more celebratory account of the self-drowning of Pelagia later given by Ambrose [q.v.], implicitly recognizes the challenges in distinguishing between suicide and genuine martyrdom among Christians who did kill themselves to avoid violence.


The Church History of Eusebius, Book 8, ch. 12, tr. Rev. Arthur Cushman McGiffert. From  Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Philip Schaff, ed., New York: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1890, Vol. I: Eusebius Pamphilus.  Available online from the Christian Classics Ethereal Library.



Many Others, both Men and Women, who suffered in Various Ways

Why need we mention the rest by name, or number the multitude of the men, or picture the various sufferings of the admirable martyrs of Christ? Some of them were slain with the axe, as in Arabia. The limbs of some were broken, as in Cappadocia. Some, raised on high by the feet, with their heads down, while a gentle fire burned beneath them, were suffocated by the smoke which arose from the burning wood, as was done in Mesopotamia. Others were mutilated by cutting off their noses and ears and hands, and cutting to pieces the other members and parts of their bodies, as in Alexandria.

Why need we revive the recollection of those in Antioch who were roasted on grates, not so as to kill them, but so as to subject them to a lingering punishment? Or of others who preferred to thrust their right hand into the fire rather than touch the impious sacrifice? Some, shrinking from the trial, rather than be taken and fall into the hands of their enemies, threw themselves from lofty houses, considering death preferable to the cruelty of the impious.

A certain holy person,—in soul admirable for virtue, in body a woman,—who was illustrious beyond all in Antioch for wealth and family and reputation, had brought up in the principles of religion her two daughters, who were now in the freshness and bloom of life. Since great envy was excited on their account, every means was used to find them in their concealment; and when it was ascertained that they were away, they were summoned deceitfully to Antioch. Thus they were caught in the nets of the soldiers. When the woman saw herself and her daughters thus helpless, and knew the things terrible to speak of that men would do to them,—and the most unbearable of all terrible things, the threatened violation of their chastity,—she exhorted herself and the maidens that they ought not to submit even to hear of this. For, she said, that to surrender their souls to the slavery of demons was worse than all deaths and destruction; and she set before them the only deliverance from all these things,—escape to Christ.

They then listened to her advice. And after arranging their garments suitably, they went aside from the middle of the road, having requested of the guards a little time for retirement, and cast themselves into a river which was flowing by.

Thus they destroyed themselves. But there were two other virgins in the same city of Antioch who served God in all things, and were true sisters, illustrious in family and distinguished in life, young and blooming, serious in mind, pious in deportment, and admirable for zeal. As if the earth could not bear such excellence, the worshipers of demons commanded to cast them into the sea. And this was done to them.

In Pontus, others endured sufferings horrible to hear. Their fingers were pierced with sharp reeds under their nails. Melted lead, bubbling and boiling with the heat, was poured down the backs of others, and they were roasted in the most sensitive parts of the body.

Others endured on their bowels and privy members shameful and inhuman and unmentionable torments, which the noble and law-observing judges, to show their severity, devised, as more honorable manifestations of wisdom. And new tortures were continually invented, as if they were endeavoring, by surpassing one another, to gain prizes in a contest.

But at the close of these calamities, when finally they could contrive no greater cruelties, and were weary of putting to death, and were filled and satiated with the shedding of blood, they turned to what they considered merciful and humane treatment, so that they seemed to be no longer devising terrible things against us.

For they said that it was not fitting that the cities should be polluted with the blood of their own people, or that the government of their rulers, which was kind and mild toward all, should be defamed through excessive cruelty; but that rather the beneficence of the humane and royal authority should be extended to all, and we should no longer be put to death. For the infliction of this punishment upon us should be stopped in consequence of the humanity of the rulers.

Therefore it was commanded that our eyes should be put out, and that we should be maimed in one of our limbs. For such things were humane in their sight, and the lightest of punishments for us. So that now on account of this kindly treatment accorded us by the impious, it was impossible to tell the incalculable number of those whose right eyes had first been cut out with the sword, and then had been cauterized with fire; or who had been disabled in the left foot by burning the joints, and afterward condemned to the provincial copper mines, not so much for service as for distress and hardship. Besides all these, others encountered other trials, which it is impossible to recount; for their manly endurance surpasses all description.

In these conflicts the noble martyrs of Christ shone illustrious over the entire world, and everywhere astonished those who beheld their manliness; and the evidences of the truly divine and unspeakable power of our Saviour were made manifest through them. To mention each by name would be a long task, if not indeed impossible.

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(compiled 3rd-5th century)

Commentary on Genesis 9:5


Because of its age and significance, the expository commentary on the book of Genesis [q.v., under Hebrew Bible] Bereshit Rabbah, commonly known in English as Genesis Rabbah, is considered to be of primary position in the Midrash, a collection of scriptural exegesis and commentary that is part of the larger body of rabbinic literature. The Talmudic literature, including the Mishnah and the Babylonian [q.v.] and Palestinian Talmuds, along with the midrashic commentaries like Genesis Rabbah, forms the primary written authority for Jewish civil and religious law.

The midrashic writings of the rabbinic literature are a collection of biblical exegesis divisible into two main categories: the Midrash Aggadah, or exegesis with a didactic or edifying purpose, and the Midrash Halakha, or exegesis with the purpose of establishing law. The word “midrash” means “to study” or “to investigate,” and it is used to signal works of expository exegesis, either didactic or legal, from different periods of time.

The midrash Genesis Rabbah is attributed by tradition to the rabbinic teacher R. Hoshaiah, who lived in Palestine during the 3rd century a.d. However, there is evidence of numerous later additions to the work, and it is probable that the text was not fixed for several centuries after its original composition. Genesis Rabbah is of primary importance in the midrashim, and the biblical commentary it includes has exerted a significant influence on subsequent exegesis and Jewish law.

In Genesis Rabbah, the text of Genesis is explicated in an unbroken sequence, verse by verse, except for the genealogies and a few repetitious passages, which are omitted. The commentary on Genesis 9:5 presented here—just a few short sentences—is of signal importance in Jewish theology and law because it “creatively,” as Noam Zohar puts it, finds in this passage the basis for the prohibition of suicide. The commentary defines suicide as a form of murder. However, the fact that the verse is prefaced by “but” or “yet”(omitted in most translations) is taken, following midrashic practice, to signify that the prohibition may also allow for exceptions applies, as in cases like that of Saul, who first asked his armor-bearer to kill him and then fell on his sword to avoid capture and torture by the Philistines, and in cases like those of Chananyah, Mishael, and Azaryah (often called by their foreign names, Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego) in the Book of Daniel, where they choose to die in the fiery furnace rather than worship Nebuchadnezzar’s idol. No explicit reason is given for such exceptions, though the distinction may refer to the motive for choosing death, rather than the causal manner of bringing it about. Nevertheless, the passage has been of signal importance in Jewish thought, serving to differentiate martyrs from suicides; whether martyrs may actively kill themselves would later be hotly debated in medieval Judaism.


Genesis Rabbah, tr. Baruch Brody. Material in introduction from Noam Zohar and Daniel J.H. Greenwood.



This [prohibition of murder (in Genesis 9:5, “for your life-blood I shall demand satisfaction,”)] includes the person who strangles himself. I might think it applies in the case like that of Saul. The verse says “but.” I might think that it applies to Chananyah, Mishael, and Azaryah. The verse says “but.”

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