by A. K. Dewdney
Beginning with September 11, 2001, Muslims around the world have been bewildered by the seemingly endless news stories about suicide bombers, not only the headline-grabbing Bali, Madrid, and London bombings, but the almost daily bombings in Iraq. In all cases, evidently, the targets have been innocent civilians.
The bewilderment stems from the implication that the bombers are carrying out these wanton and despicable acts because (somehow) Islam makes them do it. Most bewildered are the majority of Muslims who appear to accept the truth of reports from western media (including its mid-eastern outlet, Al Jazeera). They cannot understand what is driving their co-religionists to such acts of desperation. They cannot understand why the targets are (almost) always civilian and why suicide is necessary, in any case. After all, it is strictly forbidden for Muslims to harm enemy civilians, no matter how desperate the struggle. It is also forbidden for a Muslim to commit suicide under any circumstances – with no exceptions.
Less bewildered are the minority of Muslims who treat the reports with scepticism. They look beyond the story to see who benefits. However, very few of these seem to be involved in active research into the subject.
Completely unbewildered are the vast majority of non-Muslim news consumers in the west. Their complete ignorance of Islam (as well as that of reporters themselves) guarantees a free ride for the neoconservative line: for all they know, Islam is an evil religion, just as the reports imply.
Given this intriguing condition, it makes sense, as an additional test of this website’s central thesis, to put Islam under a microscope. Have the majority of Muslims a right to feel bewildered? After outlining Islam as a faith, I will explore media labeling, then search for elements that might possibly encourage “terrorism.” Finally I will examine the lifestyle of the alleged key hijacker on September 11 2001 – Mohammed Atta.
The Spiritual Framework
The following description of Islam is based on standard sources treated by all Muslims as reliable. To take the reader “inside” Islam, I will also use the same language of basic ideas and concepts employed within Islam itself. If I succeed in this endeavor, you will not be a Muslim, but you will at least have a reasonable grasp of the Islamic world-view, particularly as it relates to 9/11.
At the broadest philosophical level, Islam declares that all the monotheistic faiths (both known and unknown) as brought by prophets to their respective peoples over thousands of years, are all instances of the same faith. A cycle of decay and resurgence typifies the prophetic cycle. The decay consists in the abandonment of faith or in constant revision of text and practice in non-spiritual directions. Islam, then, is but the renewal of this ancient faith by the prophet Mohammed, just as Abraham, Isaac, Moses, and Jesus renewed it.
At the level of practice and liturgy, the simplest description of Islam begins with the “Five Pillars.” Briefly, they consist of
1. Shahadah: Bearing witness in a formal statement that “There is no god but God and Muhammed is his messenger.”
2. Salat: Prayers said every day, five in all, at dawn, solar noon, afternoon, sunset, and night. The prayers themselves follow a fixed framework and are divided into cycles of standing, kneeling and prostrating positions. Specific passages are recited in each position. It is interesting to note that the postures themselves recapitulate the two previous Abrahamic traditions, carrying it one step further: Judaism (standing), Christianity (kneeling), Islam (prostrating).
3. Sawm: Fasting during the 29 or 30 days of Ramadan. The fast runs from dawn to sunset of each day and during that time a Muslim must not eat or drink.
4. Zakat: Charity is given at the rate of 2.5% of one’s retained financial assets, annually.
5. Hajj: A Pilgrimage to Mecca must be made at least once in his or her lifetime by every Muslim, if financially and medically feasible.
The Five Pillars of Islam are obligatory on everyone who call themselves “Muslim.” Compared to protestant Christianity or reform Judaism, these requirements seem rigorous indeed. Yet in pre-reformation times, Christianity had a structure that closely paralleled the Islamic one:
1. the Nicene Creed, 2. eight daily prayers, 3. avoiding certain foods during the 40 days of Lent, 4. almsgiving, 5. the Pilgrimage to Rome.
The Islamic prayers are fajr, duhur, ‘asr, maghrib, and ‘isha, each recited at a certain time of day. The traditional Christian prayers (Church of Rome) are Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline, again, each recited at a certain time of day.
All liturgy and prayer in Islam is conducted in Arabic, the language of the Prophet Mohammed. Prayers in English or any other language have no formal validity, although personal supplications can be made in one’s own language.
The two great texts of Islam are the Qur’an and the Hadith. The Qur’an consists of 114 chapters of greatly varying length and constitutes the written record of what Mohammed recited after each revelatory period. The Qur’an then, is the record of God’s instructions to Mohammed and, through the prophet, to humanity. The Qur’an is so revered by Muslims that very strict rules accompany the treatment of the physical book. Normally, it is kept inside a cloth cover or protected in some other way. It is never abandoned or left anywhere and the owner of the book is required to protect it at all times. Pages from the Qur’an or from any other printed material containing the name of God cannot be disposed of as ordinary waste, no matter how old or worn or torn, for fear of dishonoring the sacred words. A special procedure must be followed.
The “Hadith” refers to collections made by various early Muslim scholars of the sayings and doings of Mohammed. Needless to say that during his lifetime, Mohammed’s behavior fell under the closest scrutiny by his companions and followers; almost everything he said and did was committed either to memory or to writing. For example, Mohammed had preached that it was best to avoid piling up of goods and wealth, that it was better to eat less, rather than more. It is recorded in various hadith, that Mohammed ate very little indeed, breaking his fast during Ramadan with nothing more than a few dates and some water. As for wealth, his house was a modest dwelling that was practically empty of furniture.
The Hadith thus became a guide to spiritual practice, giving shape, substance, and contextual reference to the more general guidance offered by the Qur’an. Together, the Qur’an and the Hadith are roughly analogous to the old and new testaments of the Holy Bible. The former recounts history and prophecy, the latter focuses on the example given by Jesus as a guide to Christian practice.
Here is an example of a particular hadith. Every hadith has a “narrator” or transmitter. The narrator in this case is Abu Huraira, one of the closest companions to the prophet Mohammed and considered by all compilers of hadith to be authentic.
Narrated by Abu Huraira:
“The Prophet said, ‘Religion is very easy and whoever overburdens himself in his religion will not be able to continue in that way. So you should not be extremists, but try to be near to perfection and receive the good tidings that you will be rewarded; and gain strength by worshipping in the mornings and during the last hours of the nights.'” (Bukhari, vol. 1, Bk. 2, #38)
I selected this particular hadith because I will refer to it in the next section of this article. Suffice it to say that it discourages “extremism.”
The Shari’ah or Law of Islam is based primarily on the Qur’an and hadith. How much of the Shari’ah is applied within a given community varies with the circumstances. In the west, only Shari’ah that does not conflict directly with the laws of the land are generally followed. In the rest of the world, Shari’ah is applied more completely, although not necessarily fully.
Justice within the Shari’ah generally takes a very strict line, not only in the punishment, but in the trial. For example, in the matter of adultery, the punishment is by stoning, as in traditional Jewish law. But in Islam, a person cannot be charged unless there are at least two witnesses to the act. The rules of evidence are so strict that a principle is clearly embodied in this part of the Shari’ah: it is better to let a guilty party go free for lack of evidence under strict rules than to punish an innocent party on evidence that would be sufficient under more lenient rules. After all, even if a party is guilty of a particular crime and goes free for lack of evidence, God will punish him or her in the afterlife.
The unchanging character of Islam runs directly counter to the (strictly) modern trend of Christian churches seeking “relevance” to societal conditions of the day. The search for relevance has produced, in consequence, many changes that, taken collectively, amount to a senescence of faith, rather than a strengthening. By changing nothing in its text or liturgy, Islam might be said to remain forever young.
It must be stressed that a practicing Muslim will base his or her worship on rules that are derived from the Qur’an and hadith. Some rules (such as the five pillars) are obligatory, while others are merely recommended. Thus, a man is not obliged to wear a head-covering (such as a turban or prayer cap), but he is encouraged to do so. In the west, many Muslim men have stopped wearing a prayer hat (shaped like a yarmulke and about twice the size) because, since 9/11, they have been getting too many stares, not all of them friendly.
Labeling in the Media
The mythical labels applied by the mainstream media in the suicide bomber concept could only have been propagated within a society that is (and remains) completely ignorant of Islam. To clear the way for the analysis that follows, I will dispose of the more prominent labels.
First on the list is the concept of the “fundamentalist” or “extremist” Muslim. In a western context that is dominated by Christianity and its historical remnants – as well as Judaism and its remnants – the concept of “fundamentalist” makes sense. In a relaxed Christianity, one that has largely forsaken its traditional roots, it is possible to be considered a good Christian if one goes to church only occasionally or prays only occasionally, there being no obligatory prayers or other religious practices; everything is left to individual volition. The Christian who prays daily and who reads the Bible frequently is seen as a kind of oddball, certainly a “fundamentalist,” not to mention an “extremist.”
In Islam, there is no such division. There is, to be sure, a continuous spectrum of commitment, but even those who pray little will declare themselves to be “Muslim” and, if pressed, will admit that they are falling short. Even as Islam grows with unprecedented speed in the west by the entry of new people, it decays by the gradual loss of those seduced into a purely secular life style. However, the lapsing Muslim is not part of any recognizable or formally constituted body or organization.
It therefore follows that, to apply the “fundamentalist” or “extremist” label in an Islamic context is to imply a false dichotomy, one that simply doesn’t exist. The word itself acts, however, to invoke the same contempt that mainstream media express for Christians who take their commitment a little too seriously. Moreover, if “extremist” is taken to mean someone who practices their faith too assiduously, there is the hadith quoted in the previous section of this article. The prophet Mohammed argued against it.
In the context of the War on Terror, we frequently encounter the non-word, “Islamist.” I haven’t the slightest idea what this word means or is supposed to mean. If the adjective “Muslim” will not serve as an adequate substitute, then one must wonder whether the neocons who coined this term intended to let its meaning filter into place in our collective psyche after seeing it used in a sufficient number of media reports where “Islamist” militants or terrorists are referred to. One suggestion is that “Islamist” is meant to act in apposition to “Zionist,” the basic equations being, Islamist = evil, so that Zionist = good.
A third label is implied by continued use of the word “Allah” in a context-free manner, as though it represented an alien deity that is never linked to the concept of God. In fact, within Islamic theology, Allah refers to the One God, being specifically identified with the God of the Jews (Yaweh) and the God of the Christians (Deus). Indeed, all deities that are defined as the “Being besides Whom none other exists” must, logically speaking, be identical. To put the clincher on the matter, Arabic-speaking Jews and Christians refer to God in daily discourse as “Allah.” The word itself carries its own definition, Al = The; lah – god. In other words, The (unique) god.
A fourth label, “jealous,” was applied by the mainstream media following the September 11 attacks; Ousama Bin Laden and his followers were “jealous” of Western civilization. The assertion rings hollow no matter which definition of “civilization” one takes. For example, if “civilization” means the moral conduct of its citizens, there is probably less civilization in the west than elsewhere in the world. Second, if “civilization” means freedom of action, it’s not at all clear why Muslims of any stripe would pine after such an estate. For example the freedom for women to dress as skimpily as they like would not be a freedom that the women of any Muslim community would find particularly desirable, much less jealousy-inspiring. Third, if “civilization” means technical development, it’s not clear why anyone with full access to the fruits of that development would feel particularly jealous. Taken overall, this neocon-inspired assessment is self-serving to say the least, reminding us strongly of statements made about communism during the cold war: “They want what we have.”
What Does Islam Say About Suicide Bombing?
The Qur’an mentions “fighting” (military jihad) in some 38 verses. Fourteen of the verses make glancing reference to “fighting in the way of Allah” (which can mean anything from defensive military operations to a purely personal struggle to improve spiritual conditions). Seven of the verses criticize cowardice in battle. Three verses deal with God’s commands to the (ancient) people of Israel to fight against oppressors, two verses deal with the subject of those who break treaties, two refer to losses in battle suffered by unbelievers and two concern the offering of peace. The remaining verses refer variously to the account of a battle, an attack on Muslims, the experience of fighting, provisions for battle, and fighting during Ramadan.
None of these entries throw any light on military jihad, except within the context stated. For example, the last entry simply mentions that in battles during Ramadan, fighters are exempted from fasting, an eminently practical provision.
Exactly three entries are not included in the list above. These provide the most detailed guidance on when it is appropriate to fight. They emphasize the defensive nature of battle. The second sura in the Qur’an (Al Baqara) gives the first definition in two verses:
190: “And fight in the way of Allah with those who fight with you, and do not exceed the limits, surely Allah does not love those who exceed the limits.
191: And kill them wherever you find them, and drive them out from whence they drove you out, and persecution is severer than slaughter, and do not fight with them at the Sacred Mosque until they fight with you in it, but if they do fight you, then slay them; such is the recompense of the unbelievers.”
The eighth sura (Al A’raf) reinforces the basic idea.
39: “And fight with them until there is no more persecution and religion should be only for Allah; but if they desist, then surely Allah sees what they do.”
A search of the hadith (Bukhari) reveals much the same result. Because there are so many hadith, even the (relative) few that relate to jihad are best laid out in a table of summary descriptions.
|topic||essence||number of narrations|
|jihad:||a good deed||4|
|times and timing of battles||6|
|death by arrows||1|
|no fasting in||1|
|logistical, medical support||12|
|obeying leaders in||6|
|role of prophet in battle||1|
|keeping plans secret||3|
|post-battle:||no killing civilians||2|
|conditions of peace||1|
|no burning of prisoners||2|
|prisoners freed or killed||5|
|disposal of spoils of war||6|
|traitors and spies||5|
|victory to the prophets||2|
|victory from God||1|
|other:||fall of emperors||1|
|investing a fort||1|
|paradise without jihad||1|
|no Qu’ran in war zone||1|
|decoration on weapons||1|
A principle that can be applied broadly to hadith in general could be called the principle of ceteris paribus: other things being equal. In other words, a fighter killed in a military operation could be said to have a guaranteed place in paradise (or heaven), other things being equal. But it may be that the same fighter committed some earlier sin that God will not forgive. In the end, no one can be sure of his or her ultimate status. The situation is well illustrated by another hadith in which Ali, the closest of Mohammed’s companions was near death. One of the people asked him if was looking forward to the other side, as it were. Ali replied that he was half in hope and half in fear. If there was no guarantee for Ali, there is no guarantee for any Muslim. Every Muslim knows this.
None of these hadith mention suicide and none mention killing civilians, except one which forbids it. There is an additional hadith, however, that refers to a suicide within the Muslim ranks during a battle. This hadith, longer than most, is worth quoting because it illustrates the true attitude toward suicide urged upon Muslims. (Bukhari, Vol. 1, Bk. 52, #147) Square bracketed words clarify the text:
Narrated by Sahi bin Sad As-Sad’idi:
“Allah’s Apostle [Mohammed] and the pagans faced each other and started fighting. When Allah’s Apostle returned to his camp and when the pagans returned to their camp, somebody talked about a man amongst the companions of Allah’s Apostle who would follow and kill with his sword any pagan going alone. He said, “Nobody did his job (i.e. fighting) so properly today as that man.” Allah’s Apostle said, “Indeed, he is amongst the people of the (Hell) Fire.” A man amongst the people said, “I shall accompany him (to watch what he does).” Thus he accompanied him, and wherever he stood, he would stand with him, and wherever he ran, he would run with him.
“Then the (brave) man got wounded seriously and he decided to bring about his death quickly. He planted the blade [handle] of the sword in the ground directing its sharp end towards his chest between his two breasts. Then he leaned on the sword and killed himself. The other man came to Allah’s Apostle and said, “I testify that you are Allah’s Apostle.” The Prophet asked, “What has happened?” He replied, “(It is about) the man whom you had described as one of the people of the (Hell) Fire. The people were greatly surprised at what you said, and I said, ‘I will find out his reality for you.’ So, I came out seeking him. He got severely wounded, and hastened to die by slanting the blade [handle] of his sword in the ground directing its sharp end towards his chest between his two breasts. Then he eased on his sword and killed himself.” Then Allah’s Apostle said, “A man may seem to the people as if he were practicing the deeds of the people of Paradise while in fact he is from the people of the (Hell) Fire…”
In all military conflicts, Muslim or non-Muslim, there are inevitably cases where exceptionally brave soldiers will engage in combat that is “suicidal” in the sense that it will almost certainly result in the soldier’s death. But it is nevertheless traditional combat.
But in a modern situation, such as the Israeli occupation of Palestine, the question would be twofold; is the occupation a clear case of “oppression” and is suicide bombing a valid option within Islam? As for the occupation, it has not only been declared illegal under Islamic Law, it has been declared illegal under international law. Palestinians were being driven from their homes by terror tactics well before the formation of El Fatah in the 1960s by Yassir Arafat – and increasingly ever since. Their homes are regularly bulldozed into rubble, they are denied any but the most rudimentary access to business opportunities, their universities have been closed, they cannot travel freely within their own country and to make it absolutely clear that Israel means, eventually, to have all of Palestine for itself, a network of over 300 Israeli settlements inside the west bank are connected by a system of roads that chops Palestine into little fragments (approximately 150) that can be gobbled up one at a time.
Any Muslim living in the West Bank or Gaza has a clear duty to struggle against the occupation by any means acceptable within Islam. In ancient times, ancient weapons (spear, bow-and-arrow, etc.) were used in military conflicts. In modern times modern weapons (guns, grenade launchers, etc.) are the preferred means of dealing with an enemy. Such weapons are currently in use in the occupied territories and Palestinians who use them against Israeli military personnel (not civilians) are within their Islamic right to do so.
It must be remarked that there is another, purely military contradiction at the heart of the notion of a suicide bomber. Assume for the moment that we’re dealing with a bomber that has decided (for reasons that are unclear) to attack civilians with a bomb, anyway. Does it make sense, from a purely military point of view, to strap explosives onto oneself and walk into a crowded venue within Israel, when a less dramatic use of explosives is more effective?
Consider the current (rather fetishistic) obsession with the belt of explosives worn by the stereotypical “suicide bomber.” What happens to the force of the explosion once the device is triggered? Clearly, the person wearing the belt gets the worst of it. Indeed, nearly half the explosive force of every unit of C4 (excuse me, “homemade”) explosive is directed at the body of the bomber. Not being an expert in explosives, I am unsure what unit of energy I should use, nor how many units of energy would be released by a typical suicide bomber’s belt of explosives. But lets just say that the belt releases 1000 units of energy. Slightly fewer than 500 units of that takes out the suicide bomber, leaving barely 500 units for everyone else. This seems, on the face of it, rather inefficient.
In what follows I face a risk that I might be charged later with aiding and abetting terrorism by suggesting a more effective way for a (pedestrian-type) suicide bomber to proceed. I will therefore indicate what every Israeli and Palestinian teenager can figure out for themselves. Wouldn’t throwing the bombs work better? Think about it. The bomber adopts the tactic used by the stereotypical anarchist in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. The bomber reaches under his cloak and whips out three bombs. (They can obviously be moulded to fill the same space as the suicide belt.) Having some training in the use of explosives in a civilian context, he throws the bombs for maximal destructive effect, presses the remote trigger and runs away. Better still, he runs away and then presses the trigger. In the first instance the bomber runs a real risk of serious personal injury: a sloppy throw and he could receive up to 100 units of that energy.
But I realize that the improved method may not be adopted, owing to what can only be called “suicide bomber fashion.” You see, there’s a certain “look” favoured by all the great design houses – or houses of design. Throwing the bombs and running away does not have the dramatic power of the (stupid) suicide bomber who is blown to glory and infamy at the same time. It’s really a question of artistic tension, I suppose. But I’m not an expert on Hollywood, either.
As far as the civilian status of ordinary Israelis is concerned, it can be argued that most of them have no idea of what their government is actually up to. They think of themselves as victims of one kind instead of realizing the double nature of their victimhood. They have been hoodwinked by all their governments since 1948. One could say that to the extent that they did not realize this, they qualify as genuine “civilians,” even though they have been taught to hate Palestinians by their government. In my opinion, Israeli civilians are subject to the rule of immunity from violence during a military jihad.
What could have motivated the putative hijackers of the four commercial airliners on the morning of September 11, 2001?
If the hijackers did not hate our freedom and were not jealous of our civilization, then what on earth (or heaven) could have motivated them? As a second line of attack, the neoconservatives have explained that the hijackers had been promised paradise for their acts of martyrdom. This could certainly not be the case within standard Islam, as we have already seen. One cannot rule out an isolated “cleric” making such a promise to his followers, but such a case would be considered pathological in the extreme and well outside the pale of Islam.
Muslim “terrorists” are frequently described as Muslim “extremists.” It is never said just what facet of Islam they are taking to extremes. As we have already seen, even extremism (per se) was discouraged by the prophet Mohammed. Small wonder that the issue is so perplexing (on the face of it).
According to several sources, the leader of the hijackers (and therefore the exemplar of them all), Mohammed Atta, could hardly have called himself a “Muslim.” While in Florida over the summer of 2001, Atta shacked up with a pink-haired floozie named Amanda. A few nights before September 11 Atta was seen in a bar in the town of Venice, Florida, drinking beer and enjoying the commercial attentions of a lap-dancer. He also left a Qur’an on the bar. Thus in one summer, Atta committed enough sins, it would seem, to buy a one-way ticket to hell. Is this the behaviour of someone who is observing the minutiae of the hadith and Shari’ah?
Hardly. Perhaps he thought he would make it all up in one glorious act of martyrdom. What about suicide? As we have already seen, suicide is not an option. Just to clinch that argument, here are statements by two top Islamic authorities:
Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar University, has stated, “The aggressors who blow up themselves, their cars and bombs against innocent men, women and children will not be given any mercy by God and His angels.” (CNEWS 2005)
He has added that those who killed dozens of innocents, “have no justification,” and if they claim they are obeying orders of Islam, “then they are liars, liars and charlatans, and Islam disavows them,” he said.
Shaykh Abd al-Aziz, Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, has stated that, “What you call suicide bombings in my view are illegitimate and have nothing to do with jihad in the cause of God. I am afraid it is another form of killing oneself.” (Washington Inst. 2001)
Such declarations are sometimes contradicted by Hamas or by isolated “clerics” here and there. The western media, fond of quoting these non-authorities, gives wide coverage to their pronouncements, while minimizing the foregoing declarations, or omitting them altogether. We cannot vouch for the authenticity of the declarations of Hamas, nor even for Hamas itself. Suffice it to say that any actual suicide bombers from Palestine committed their acts out of a desperation so great that they committed them not because of Islam, but in spite of it. It is not clear, either, how many suicide bombings, as reported in the western media, are actually carried out by Palestinians. Suffice it to say that “suicide bombings” serve not only to cast a shadow of suspicion on Islam, but are well-nigh essential for Israel to maintain its stranglehold on the occupied territories. As we have made clear in other postings on this website, almost any suicide attack is relatively easy to fake.
Finally, it might be asked on what authority a western scientist may write so confidently about the nature of Islam. The author has been a muslim for over 35 years, has studied it closely, has traveled extensively in Muslim lands, and has met over his lifetime literally thousands of Muslims of every race and from almost every country. At no time, in his many conversations with fellow Muslims, has he ever heard any Muslim sing the praises of Osama bin Laden. As for bin Laden, there is ample evidence that in the late 1990s, he was increasingly afflicted with severe kidney disease. According to credible reports in the French newspaper, Le Figaro, he was visited in the hospital in Dubai in July of 2001 by a local CIA agent.
He may well have died sometime late in 2001. This would guarantee an endless hunt for the elusive “terrorist.”