Paul Jackson, S.J.
A request to put “suicide bombers” in context got me thinking. Possibly a more accurate expression of what my friend had in mind would be “Muslim Suicide Bombers.” This will be my topic. It might be helpful to go back to the beginning, much like the first words of the Bible – “In the beginning...” The setting of our story is early seventh-century Arabia, with special reference to Medina, which is 400 kilometres north of Mecca, where Muslims situate the beginnings of what is believed to be the Word of God – the Quran. The initial revelations took place there between 610 and 622. Muhammad was accepted as a prophet and became the religious leader of his band of followers. By 622 they were compelled to leave Mecca. Muhammad responded to the invitation of a group of delegates from the faction-ridden town of Medina and went there as an arbitrator, where he became the political leader, in addition to being an acknowledged prophet and religious leader.
This influx of refugees meant that arrangements had to be made to look after them. A time-honoured source of income for the Arabs of the region was to raid and loot caravans. Muhammad also resorted to this practice. In his earliest extant biography, translated as The Life of Muhammad by Guillaume, it is instructive to read about the first six recorded raids. Muhammad himself led three of them, but did not go on the other three. The only fighting recorded was that one arrow was shot. Sometimes no caravan was found. On one occasion a caravan with a very large contingent of guards was spotted. It was not attacked, as it would have been too dangerous to do so. The ideal situation was to encounter a caravan with a smaller contingent of guards than the attacking force. A skirmish would take place. Some of the fighters would get wounded. The guards could then honourably surrender and boast about how bravely they had resisted the large force of attackers, and have some wounds to prove it. The attackers would then depart with the confiscated goods. The aim was clearly to rob, not to kill, but the honour of those attacked had to be preserved.
“Death before dishonour” was no empty slogan for the Arabs of Muhammad’s time. It expressed the core of an Arab’s identity. Wounds inflicted during battles were much like the injuries sustained by modern sportsmen, but with the added halo of being “marks of honour.” In Arab society of the period poets fulfilled the role of the media of our own days. We know how the media can deal with individuals or groups. For example, while the Indian cricket team was on a winning run the Indian media presented Dhoni, the captain, as a world-class sportsman. Now, after the England and Australia fiascos, he is being roundly condemned. His hefty bank balance will undoubtedly cushion the blow to his pride! The Arab, on the contrary, had few possessions. His greatest treasure was his honour. That had to be safeguarded at all costs. This meant he could not do anything that would expose him to the ridicule of the poets. That was something he could not bear! Muhammad clearly understood this when he led a large group of his unarmed followers on pilgrimage from Medina back to Mecca. A large band of fully armed Meccans rode out to meet them. They could easily have killed them, but that would have exposed them to the taunts and ridicule of all the poets of Arabia. That was not an acceptable option for honourable Arabs! Negotiations took place, and a compromise was reached.
After the death of Muhammad in 632 Abu Bakr was elected as the new religious and political leader, but was not considered a prophet. As a method of dealing with tribal factionalism Abu Bakr sent armies on external missions. These Arab warriors were still imbued with their hallmark sense of honour. Their conquests brought them much booty, but there was now the added dimension of being instrumental in spreading God’s kingdom, as embodied in Islam. If a soldier was killed while trying to do so, he would be a – ghazi – a man who was killed while fighting for God’s cause. God would naturally reward him with the joys of paradise, as delineated in the Quran, and embellished by Tradition. The aspects of personal honour, quest for booty, and spreading Islam coalesced to form a powerful motivating force to fight bravely, yet honourably. This meant killing only those who fought against them. There was no question of killing unarmed civilians, women or children. Moreover, although it was clearly recognized that some attacks were so dangerous they could be termed ’suicidal,’ yet the actual killing was done by the enemy. There was not even a concept of our modern “suicide bomber,” where a Muslim kills himself or herself as a means of killing others. Moreover, these ‘others’ are nowadays usually ordinary citizens – mostly Muslims – going about their normal activities such as shopping in the bazaar, praying together or joining in a funeral procession. Clearly, nothing in the early formative period of Islam can be adduced as a precedent for this contemporary practice.
It is instructive to take a closer look at the word ghazi. Platts gives the first meaning as “One who engages in a warring expedition.” This focuses our attention on the act of fighting in a battle. Its emphasis is on fighting courageously, and so the word also became used to denote a conquering hero. Perhaps the religious connotation is best gleaned from the recorded exhortation of the Prophet in 623 at the beginning of the battle of Badr: “By God, in whose hand is the soul of Muhammad, no man will be slain this day fighting against them (the Meccans) with steadfast courage, advancing and not retreating, but God will cause him to enter Paradise.” If we look at another word in the same dictionary, shahid, we read “A witness; one who is slain in the cause of Islam; a martyr.” It is interesting to note that the basic meaning of the Arabic root of the word shahid is “to bear witness.” If we look up the Greek verb underlining our common English word, ‘martyr,’ we find that it also means “to bear witness.” It is the current word for a martyr in both Hindi and Urdu.
A subtle shift underlines this change. Attacks on caravans in Arab society were not for any ‘cause,’ but purely and simply for material gain. Implicit in the whole process, however, was the felt need to safeguard one’s honour. The main aim of the suicide bomber, on the other hand, is ideological. In its purest form, the suicidal attack means striking a blow for the cause of Islam. All other considerations, including rational discourse, are considered of secondary importance. For example, by what stretch of the imagination or rational thinking can a suicide bomber’s attack which kills about forty Muslims gathered to shop in a bazaar, pray in a mosque, or participate in a funeral procession, be regarded as a blow “for the cause of Islam?” It goes against all the tenets of Islam, as briefly indicated earlier on. It also negates the clear prohibition of suicide. It is worth recalling that this discussion is about the ‘purest’ form of suicide bombing, not about its clear sectarian or political manifestations, although these are not necessarily excluded in any particular attacks.
The sad thing is that the actual bombers consider themselves to be martyrs in the cause of Islam, destined for the delights of Paradise, if men, or to become “pure angels,” if women – as one apprehended female suicide bomber expressed it. The cold, calculating ‘handlers’ of such people have shed all vestiges of humanity and concern for others, even for their Muslim compatriots, not to mention the brain-washed bombers themselves. They have their personal agendas, but seek justification for sending young people out to certain death, as well as the deaths of many innocent people, by taking refuge in the notion of ‘victimhood.’ They project themselves as ‘victims’ who have a God-given right to adopt any form of protest against their imagined victimization. It is instructive to ask a simple question concerning the media portrayal of attacks by suicide bombers: “Is the focus on the identity of the bombers and their alleged grievances, or on the victims, so cruelly deprived of life or limb?” A prominent ‘victim’ would be considered worthy of news coverage, but ordinary citizens would be considered simply as one more victim contributing to the total number. Shock and grief lay hold of the victims’ families and friends, but the media scarcely ever give their names, let alone a description of them. Both handlers and perpetrators milk their own claimed ‘victimhood’ for all it is worth, yet ignore the very real victims of their own suicidal attacks.
Underpinning their claim to sympathetic understanding, if not downright approval, is the ultimate origin and focus of all Christian sympathy for victims, namely, the reality of the Crucified Jesus. We need not dwell on the Passion of Jesus, from the heart-rending struggle in Gethsemane to the agony on the cross, to realize that He was a victim of human cruelty and injustice. Christians, however, believe that this is not the ultimate reality of what their senses can grasp. They believe that the pierced heart of Jesus is symbolic of the life-bestowing love of the heart of Jesus. “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16). This death that leads to life is in stark contrast to a death that leads to further death!