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 http://www.quran.com See also http://www.sacred-texts.com/isl/quran/index.htm. 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’an, tr. 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.