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.
from BORROWED LIGHTS: ON SUICIDE
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!