Is Every Suicide a Transgression? – Suicide in Islamic Thought Part 4

Joe Bradford

| 01/18/2019

When is Killing Transgressive?

When is an act of killing considered oppressive or transgressive? Certainly when that the killing is intentional and malicious. Under Islamic law, there are three categories of killing that are crimes that may be sentenced in court:

1. Intentional malicious killing of another person (al-qatl al-ʿamd al-ʿudwān)
2. pseudo-intentional killing (shibh al-ʿamd)
3. Accidental killing (qatl al-khaṭaʾ)

I mention these here not because they are directly related to the topic of suicide, but because the idea of intentionality is core to approximating the status of the person who dies by suicide. More on this later. What’s important here is that all three of these types are related to one discerning, sane adult killing another person. They do not relate to instances of a discerning, sane adult taking their own life or instances of a person of diminished mental capacity taking their own life. The core differentiating factor here is intent. What did the person who died by suicide intend?

Demonstrating Intent

For intent to be demonstrated, certain conditions must be present. When a person exhibits any diminished capacity (they are clinically insane, chronically depressed, or any similar condition that impairs their judgment and sense of self) then their culpability for the act of killing must be abated. What’s that mean? If a person kills another or even themselves when they are not in their right mind, they may not be morally blameworthy for the act, although they would be legally responsible.

In the case of killing another person, they would pay compensation (see details of pseudo-intentional and accidental killing here). In the case when a person kills herself, there would be no compensation or legal effect per se, but understanding their mental state helps us to understand how post-death legalities are carried out (funerals, etc.)

Competing Notions of Suicide in the Hadith Literature

This tweet thread is by no means exhaustive or comprehensive to all of the text related to this topic. But let’s look at two more Hadith on this topic.

In Bukhari, the Prophet said about a man before battle “he is from the people of the fire.” That man then fought valiantly in battle, but was badly injured, then died. Someone said “that person you said was in hell fought valiantly, then died.” He replied “To the fire.”

While people were doubting what was said and wondering about his fate, someone approached and informed that he did not die in battle, but instead had been fatally wounded. Instead of succumbing to his injuries or seeking help, he fell on his sword and killed himself. In another narration he tried to kill himself with an arrow, then used his sword.

This Hadith and those like it, such as the one in Abu Dawud where a man cut his wrists in frustration with his sickness, indicate those who killed themselves did not do so out of desperation or despair, but merely out of frustration, shame, false pride, and righteous indignation that they did not deserve to live with such an injury or sickness, that such was beneath them and they knew better what they deserved.

Contrast this with the Hadith in Muslim of al-Tufayl b. Amr al-Dawsi.

A man from his tribe migrated to Medina, but then fell ill due to the weather. He fell into depression and grief and so one night he took a blade and cut open his knuckles, and bled out until he died. TufayI saw him later in a dream yet he was covering his hands. He said “What did God do with you after you’d gone?” He replied, “He forgave me due to my migrating to the Prophet.” He said “Why are you hiding your hands?” He said “I asked and was told we won’t fix what you damaged.” Tufayl informed the Prophet of this dream and he raised his hands in supplication and said “Lord God, even forgive even his hands.”

This Hadith is cited universally as proof that one that died by suicide is not unequivocally in the hellfire and is additionally deserving of prayer and forgiveness. So even by doing the sin of killing oneself, it doesn’t follow that one is a sinner or committed the sin of killing oneself.

Substantive Differences between the Two

Let’s take a look at some of the substantive differences between this Hadith and the one of the man who threw himself on his sword. In those that mention the phrase “nahar bihi nafsahu” or “qatala bihi nafsahu” there is an indication of false pride and righteous indignation at being afflicted with sickness or injury.

In the Hadith of Al-Tufayl, the phrasing is different: “He fell ill, into depression, then took a blade he had and cut open his knuckles then bled until he died.” The key term here being “hatta maat,” meaning his own death was not directly attributed to him but simply a result of his action. i.e. death was not by active intent, but due to desperation and depression. He did not take his life due to pride or displeasure with God’s will, but instead did something he thought may make his pain subside. Understanding the mindset of the person who is suffering from a particular illness, medical condition, or mental state is key in rehabilitating their condition and helping them improve beyond suicidal thoughts.

This is a key differentiation that many do not take into consideration and because of this they cause considerable pain to both those who have suicidal thoughts as well as those who are left behind after they die by suicide.

Article One: Suicide, God’s Oneness, and Theological Precepts related to suicide.

Article Two: God’s Attributes, The Sin of Killing, & Is Suicide a sin?

Article Three: What Effect Does Sin have on Faith?

Article Four: Is Every Suicide a Transgression? (This Article)

Article Five: Summary and Resources (TBD)


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