Islam and Suicide Bombing

Say the word ‘terrorism’ today and the first image that will pop up in the minds of many is the Islamic extremist. This association is not baseless, of course, considering the numerous and tragic attacks that have been carried out by groups like ISIS, al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, and others. Their activities are sometimes widespread, frequently reported on in the media, and tend to dwarf the number of lives taken by a lot of other terrorist organizations. However, white terrorists such as Timothy McVeigh, Anders Breivik, Wade Michael Page, and Dylann Roof have also committed terrible atrocities and there has not been the kind of outraged reaction we have seen against Islam in the wake of Islamic terrorism.

There are scores of articles, websites, books, and videos dedicated to arguing that Islam is evil and responsible for fostering the sort of mindset that leads to hatred, violence, and terrorism. Radicalized sects and politically extremist Muslim groups are not the real problem, these people claim, Islam itself is the problem. Some atheists have even bought into this picture, criticizing their fellow unbelievers on the Left for not being concerned enough about this so-called greater threat. But one wonders how much these individuals try listening to others, especially when those on the Left, including Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, have spoken out against Islamic extremism. And contrary to another claim often made, many “moderate Muslims” have also come out and condemned the actions of radical jihadis. The site Muslims Condemn is devoted entirely to documenting such instances in the hopes of raising public awareness.

In this article, I will be focusing mainly on the phenomenon of suicide bombing as a way of examining the relationship between Islam and terrorism. I believe that this subject in particular provides a useful lens through which to illustrate a few areas of conflict and contrast that seldom seem to make it into the media or into most diatribes on these issues. There are obviously other common tactics employed by Islamic terrorism, like beheadings, which will not be discussed here, and there are other means of considering the question of Islam and violence too, such as female genital mutilation. Even so, the points I address in this piece can and do cover more than just suicide bombing, and this selection of topic is simply what I see as one way of approaching the material that is most conducive to reflection.

I. Suicide Bombing in Modernity

Despite the image we might have today of terrorism and suicide bombing in intimate connection with Islam, their modern origins are quite different. Prior to the 19th century, there were soldiers and assassins who would engage in suicide attacks during wartime, but the first known suicide bomber was the Russian terrorist Ignaty Grinevitsky, who died in 1881 while taking out Alexander II.1 European and American anarchists committed a number of terrorist and suicide attacks in the late 1800s, but their groups were lacking the organization and structure we see in most modern terrorism. The Japanese Kamikaze pilots of the 1940s are perhaps one of the best known examples of suicide bombing, yet historians have often remarked on how the ‘success’ of the Kamikazes tended to be more in their psychological effect than anything else.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that the world began to see suicide bombing in the Middle East, sparked by the Israeli invasion into Lebanon. Notably, it was politics and not religion that drove radical Shiites to adopt this response, and it came during the Lebanese Civil War at a time of intense desperation – something which many political scientists and terrorism experts have identified as a strong motivating factor in terrorist recruitment efforts. Until the millennium, the Tamil Tigers held the highest number of deaths by suicide bombing, committed during the Sri Lankan Civil War. The Tigers are sometimes described as a Hindu organization, however this is misleading when it merely means that most of its members are Hindu. The group itself has claimed to be secular, and it can hardly be doubted that their political, nationalist aspirations are what primarily fueled the terrorist actions taken in the Eighties.2

For a short while throughout the 90s, suicide bombings seemed to fall off the radar. Then after the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001, they resumed at an alarming rate. One detail that distinguishes suicide bombing in the 21st century from most of its past iterations is the disturbing focus on civilian targets. ISIS and some of these other terrorist groups are largely outsiders to the societies they hide in, and they in turn have rejected many of the structures and norms of those societies. A 2015 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center found that there is overwhelming disdain for ISIS among countries with a significant Muslim population.3 It bears repeating that there have been and continue to be large numbers of Muslim civilians who perish in Islamic terrorist attacks.

This history tells us a couple of important things. First, it’s very clear that suicide bombing is carried out for more than just religious reasons. Ehud Sprinzak writes in an article for Foreign Policy about how the first suicide bombings in Lebanon and Kuwait shocked the experts. Most terrorists, it was thought, wanted to live out their lives in order to see the changes they were fighting for, but this new breed of terrorism seemed “qualitatively different, appearing almost supernatural, extremely lethal, and impossible to stop.”4 Suicide bombing is terrifying, as it’s intended to be, and like with the Kamikaze pilots of WWII, there is an air of mystery and awe tied up with it. It’s easy to imagine that such an apparently irrational, extreme, and reprehensible action can only come from a twisted religious fervor, but this is not always the case.

Second, there is a deeper question lurking behind the history of suicide bombing and modern terrorism. If these behaviors are just the logical consequence of following a religion that is allegedly inherently violent, then it’s difficult to explain their relatively recent emergence. One can look to other examples of Islamic violence perpetrated prior to the 20th century, but these will be very different in kind from what usually gets thrown around today as proof that Islam is fanatical at its heart, and there will arguably be parallels to quite a few other religions, political groups, and so forth. A careful examination of the evidence has to do better than a hasty generalization from where we are casually standing at this moment in space and time.

II. Profile of a Suicide Bomber

Aside from the critical narrative that paints Islamic terrorism as predominantly or exclusively driven by religious belief, another common but deeply flawed narrative depicts the Islamic terrorist as a victim of circumstance. Someone raised in poverty, suffering under conditions both social and psychological that have played a large part in rendering them susceptible to the appeals of terrorist recruiters. Certain people believe that the promise of an eternal reward in heaven inspires suicide bombers, while others believe it’s the promise of an earthly reward, such as leaving money or assets to a bomber’s family. Motivations like these probably are true of some who join terrorist organizations, but research has not shown much support for a general identifiable factor behind it all.

Sociologist Riaz Hassan cautions against ascribing influences of this sort to suicide bombers. “Apart from one demographic attribute,” he writes, “that the majority of suicide bombers tend to be young males – the evidence has failed to find a stable set of demographic, psychological, socioeconomic and religious variables that can be causally linked to suicide bombers’ personality or socioeconomic origins.”5 Biographies of Iraqi insurgents have shown a more complicated mixture of “desperation, pride, anger, sense of powerlessness, local tradition of resistance and religious fervor,” and Hassan suggests the image is similar among Pakistani and Afghan suicide bombers. Anthropologist Scott Atran reminds us further:

In targeting potential recruits for suicide terrorism, it must be understood that terrorist attacks will not be prevented by trying to profile terrorists. They are not sufficiently different from everyone else. Insights into homegrown jihadi attacks will have to come from understanding group dynamics, not individual psychology. Small-group dynamics can trump individual personality to produce horrific behavior in otherwise ordinary people.6

In terms of group dynamics, Luis de la Corte and Andrea Giménez-Salinas note several strategic goals involved in the use of suicide bombing, such as the expulsion of foreign occupying forces, obtaining national independence, the destabilization or replacement of a political regime, intensifying an ongoing violent conflict, or interrupting an effort towards a peaceful solution for a political, ethnic or religious conflict.7 The authors go on to mention three factors that can increase the likelihood of suicide bombing in a terrorist campaign: (i) a feeling of stagnation, crisis or failure in the use of other insurgent methods, (ii) the coexistence of several insurgent groups pursuing equivalent goals, and (iii) the pre-existence of suicidal activity that spreads out among other groups.

Having understood all this, it should not be surprising that one recurring theme in the literature concerns the heroism imbued on suicide bombers. This isn’t necessarily a heroism endorsed by the culture or the society at large, but may be much more limited in scale. It’s difficult even to view this at the level of the terrorist cell itself, when so many terrorist attacks have been carried out either without an organization operating behind them or without the organization’s specific encouragement. Granted, it’s been well established that ISIS and many Islamic terrorist groups are quite organized and actively encouraging the use of strategies like suicide bombing. But it also cannot be denied that to those who feel as powerless, desperate, depressed, proud, and infuriated as Hassan characterizes them, suicide bombing can seem like a very powerful way to make a statement.

III. Terrorism in the Making?

As mentioned above, the Internet is awash with all kinds of media on the supposedly violent nature of Islam. There are indeed some parts of the Qur’an that can give this impression, like An-Nisa 4:76, which reads, “Those who are believers, fight in the cause of Allah and those who are unbelievers fight in the cause of Shaitan: so fight against the helpers of Shaitan; surely, Shaitan’s crafty schemes are very weak.” However, the real question with citing scripture is always how it should be interpreted, and this has produced literally centuries of debate not just within Islamic communities, but regarding the Bible among Christians, the Torah among Jews, as well as other religious texts and their communities. There are instances where some verses do get taken out of context, and sometimes a greater understanding of the original language or of ancient history can help illuminate the meaning of a text. Even certain people who profess belief in a religious scripture may lack these skills or knowledge, leading them to behavior that could rightly be described as aberrant by a few standards.

My aim in this section is not to respond to every passage of the Qur’an that can conceivably be taken as violent. Instead, I’m going to focus on some points from one specific article making such claims. Of course, suicide bombing is not explicitly discussed anywhere in the Qur’an, the Hadith, or other Muslim texts, so what I will be doing here is mostly attempting to see if there is room for reasonable doubt.

In an essay on “The Religious Foundations of Suicide Bombings”, David Bukay argues for the necessity of seeing suicide bombing in the Islamic world as primarily a religious problem.8 Like many who have made this claim, Bukay must rest practically his entire case on source material from outside of the Qur’an. This is troublesome for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that Muslims do not all agree on which hadith are authentic (some even accept none), nor do they regard them as authoritative in the same sense as they regard the Qur’an. Bukay devotes a whole section of his article to discussing the fada’il al-jihad genre, which centers around the ‘excellences of jihad’, and nowhere does he mention the controversial nature of this genre. Dr. Asma Afsaruddin has referred to this collection of traditions as containing “unreliable and spurious reports,” and has documented a broad range of views on jihad among early Muslims during the period in which this literature was developing.9

Elsewhere, Bukay does cite a small handful of excerpts from the Qur’an, but pulls some of them almost completely out of context. Sura (At-Tauba) 9:5 is quoted, which talks about slaying idolaters or taking them captive, yet there is convenient omission of verses 3-4 that state, “proclaim a painful punishment to those who are unbelievers, except those mushrikeen who honored their treaties with you in every detail and aided none against you.” Nor is verse 6 mentioned, which instructs: “If anyone from the mushrikeen asks you for asylum, grant it to him so that he may hear the Word of Allah, and then escort him to his place of safety”. Al-Anfal 8:39 speaks specifically of fighting until there is no more oppression, and Bukay omits the rest of the passage that clarifies “if they cease oppression” then mercy can be given. Other quotes in the article, like sura 9:123 constitute only the vaguest notion of conflict, and certain translations replace Bukay’s use of “ruthlessness” with “firmness.” Yet other references to the Qur’an seem to drop any semblance of honest interpretation. Of Al-Hajj 22:39, it’s said, “Muslims living under the rule of idolaters are obliged to fight their rulers.” But this verse cited can hardly be judged as such: “Permission to fight back is hereby granted to the believers against whom war is waged and because they are oppressed” (italics mine).

As I said, I’m not going to lay out every argument and counter-argument pertaining to Qur’anic verses here. I think this alone is quite sufficient to demonstrate that there is room for reasonable doubt, particularly when there are various ways of understanding the term “jihad”. Despite the best efforts of some opposing Islam, scholarship simply has not shown that a militant conception of jihad is either the earliest or the most appropriate meaning. Even if this were the case, though, we are still a long ways from anything resembling terrorism or suicide bombing. Bukay is forced to rely on later and later sources to support the conclusion of his article (i.e. 13th century scholar Taqi al-din Ahmad Ibn Taymiya, and 20th century figures Abu al-A’la al-Mawdudi and Sayyid Qutb), and one could argue that this is because there just is not any early evidence connecting Islam and terrorism. Texts on war and the rules of engagement are a far cry from exposing the religious foundations of suicide bombing, not to mention how par for the course even many of the suras on resisting and fighting unbelievers are in comparison to a lot of other ancient religious documents.

IV. Islam Confronting Terrorism

For this section, I want to tie together a few of these threads. First, it should be noted that suicide is condemned in Islam. Al-Baqarah 2:195 reads,

Give generously for the cause of Allah and do not cast yourselves into destruction by your own hands. Be charitable: Allah loves those who are charitable.

How does a teaching like this fit in with the actions of suicide bombers? In a sense, this is the million dollar question. The Islamic suicide bomber does not think of it as taking his life in a suicidal way. The narrative they embrace is one of heroic sacrifice or martyrdom. Yusuf al-Qaradhawi, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, has openly stated as much.10 Of course, terrorism experts, sociologists, and religious scholars do not see what these people are doing as heroic, and most would also say it’s not really martyrdom, either. With suicide bombing, the goal is not so much about the act of self-sacrifice as it is about the casualties.

In some verses, the Qur’an also seems to place a high value on human life. Al-Ma’idah 5:32 says that “whoever kills a person, except as a punishment for murder or mischief in the land, it will be written in his book of deeds as if he had killed all the human beings and whoever will save a life shall be regarded as if he gave life to all the human beings.” Another passage talks of how Allah calls the follower of Islam to life, or to “that which gives you life” (Al-Anfal 8:24). There is commentary in the hadith (Tafsir al-Tabari) that explains sura 2:190 as: “Do not kill women, or children, or old men, or whoever comes to you with peace and he restrains his hand from fighting, for if you did that you would certainly have transgressed.” These teachings, along with the injunctions to cease fighting where there is no oppression, would appear to pose substantial problems for the suicide bomber believing himself to be justified according to Islamic beliefs.

Unfortunately (but predictably), those who engage in acts of terrorism have found ways of rationalizing even this. Al-Qaradhawi claims that because everyone in Israel is drafted into the army, Israeli “‘civilians’ are in effect ‘soldiers'”.11 According to this logic, there are no civilians in countries like Israel that are perceived as a military threat by Islamic terrorist groups, and thus there can be no civilian casualties. This absurd perspective could be used to justify nearly any kind of atrocity committed against any kind of target. There may be circumstances where collateral damage is justifiable, or where we have to rethink our standard picture of what a combatant looks like, but none of this excuses obliterating any distinction between civilians and military targets. And what also deserves to be highlighted is the fact that there is really nothing like this perspective to be found anywhere in the Qur’an or the Hadith.

So it isn’t all that surprising to find that most Muslims in the Middle East oppose the suicide bombing of civilian targets, or that there are high levels of concern about Islamic extremism even in predominantly Muslim countries.12 Dr. Muhammad Tahir-Ul-Qadri has held numerous lectures and seminars denouncing terrorism, and issued a fatwa against it in 2010. Likewise, Ayatollah Ozma Seyyed Yousef Sanei issued a fatwa declaring that suicide bombing is only justifiable in the context of war. The Council on American-Islamic Relations has participated in a large number of anti-terrorism campaigns.13 There are Muslims actively discouraging the type of thinking that seems to be behind radical Islamic terrorist organizations. Statements like those made by Osama Bin Laden, Yusuf al-Qaradhawi, and others have been studied extensively and critiqued by a wide range of scholars and clerics.14

While it has become fashionable in certain circles to accuse Western liberal academics of being too easy on Islam, or of failing to grasp the “real” nature of the religion, this rhetoric all too often substitutes for careful and contextual analysis.

V. Conclusion

Extremist Islam is a legitimate concern, and terrorism is a true danger to peace on this earth. But framing the central problem as one of religious adherence not only seems to be unsupported by the evidence, it may also be counter-productive. A report from MI5 leaked in 2008 found that a great deal of those involved in terrorism do not practice their religious faith regularly, were not raised in strongly religious homes, tend to be new coverts, and are lacking in religious literacy.15 As many commentators have observed, including those that have served in the armed forces, anti-Islamic sentiments are “a gift” to Islamic extremist recruitment.16 They validate radicalist propaganda, turn potential allies against us, and make it more difficult to determine where the most credible threats are coming from.

This article has used suicide bombing as its focal point, but it draws attention to several things that should factor into our consideration of religion’s role in terrorism overall. Looking at history, at religious tradition, at contemporary religious responses, and applying critical scrutiny to counter-arguments helps to avoid a narrow, one-sided understanding of the issues. I think this also reveals a broader picture that makes things more complicated than the simplistic depiction of Islam as an inherently peaceful religion.

The challenge we face in interacting with others whose experiences we do not share is always about finding a middle ground between taking their claims seriously and taking them too naively at face value. To the extent that one blames Islam for Islamic terrorism on grounds of how the terrorists justify their actions, we must be wary of oversimplification. It’s well known that people may adopt a behavior for one reason – sometimes unknown even to them – and then justify it with their other, existing beliefs ex post facto. The list of ways that Islamic terrorists have justified their own actions is fairly long too, and it certainly exceeds religious reasons.

We ought to guard against the error of overgeneralizing, especially where it concerns our fellow human beings. Persecution and bigotry can ensue whether this takes the shape of assuming that all Westerners are out to undermine Islamic values or assuming that all Muslims tend towards fundamentalism and violence. This can be a very hard truth to accept when we are hurting and see others around us hurting, and we feel the need to lash out and find some guilty party against whom we can direct all of our pain and anger. One of the big ways we can fight terrorism, according to Robert Pape and other strategists, is in forging alliances, with local moderates, with leaders in the Arab world, and even in domestic grassroots organizations aimed at spreading ideas for political action. This will be a much tougher feat to manage if we allow for the growth of division based on a prejudice against religion or against a particular religious identity.



1. Jeffrey William Lewis, The Human Use of Human Beings: A Brief History of Suicide Bombing, (April 2013). Retrieved May 23rd, 2017.
2. Dan Eggen and Scott Wilson, Suicide Bombs Potent Tools of Terrorists, Washington Post (July 17, 2005). Retrieved May 23rd, 2017.
3. Jacob Poushter, In nations with significant Muslim populations, much disdain for ISIS, Pew Research Center (Nov. 17, 2015). Retrieved May 23rd, 2017.
4. Ehud Sprinzak, Rational Fanatics, Foreign Policy (Nov. 20, 2009). Retrieved May 23rd, 2017.
5. Riaz Hassan, What Motivates the Suicide Bombers? YaleGlobal Online (Sept. 3, 2009). Retrieved May 23rd, 2017.
6. Scott Atran, The Moral Logic and Growth of Suicide Terrorism, The Washington Quarterly (Spring 2006), p. 141.
7. Luis de la Corte and Andrea Giménez-Salinas, Suicide Terrorism as a Tool of Insurgency Campaigns: Functions, Risk Factors, and Countermeasures, Perspectives on Terrorism 3, no. 1 (2009). Retrieved May 23rd, 2017.
8. David Bukay, The Religious Foundations of Suicide Bombings, Middle East Quarterly (Fall 2006), pp. 27-36.
9. Asma Afsaruddin, in Shari‘a As Discourse: Legal Traditions and the Encounter with Europe, ed. Jørgen Nielsen and Lisbet Christoffersen (New York: Ashgate Publishing, 2010), 34; “Early Competing Views on Jihad and Martyrdom,” in Twenty-first Century Jihad: Law, Society and Military Action, ed. Elisabeth Kendall and Ewan Stein (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2015), 70-81; “Recovering the Early Semantic Purview of Jihad and Martyrdom: Challenging Statist-Military Perspectives,” in Crescent and Dove: Peace and Conflict Resolution in Islam, ed. Qamar-ul Huda (Washington: United States Institute of Peace Press, 2010), 39-62.
10. Steven Stalinsky, Sheikh Yousef Al-Qaradhawi in London to Establish ‘The International Council of Muslim Clerics’, The Middle East Media Research Institute (July 8, 2004). Retrieved May 24th, 2017.
11. Ibid.
12. Jacob Poushter, Concerns about Islamic Extremism on the Rise in Middle East, Pew Research Center (July 1, 2014). Retrieved May 24th, 2017.
13. CAIR’s Condemnation of Terrorism, (Dec. 22, 2015). Retrieved May 25th, 2017.
14. See for example: The Blackwell Companion to Contemporary Islamic Thought, ed. Ibrahim Abu-Rabi (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006); The Oxford Handbook of Islam and Politics, ed. John L. Esposito and Emad El-Din Shahin (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013); ElSayed M.A. Amin, Reclaiming Jihad: A Qur’anic Critique of Terrorism (Leicestershire: Kube Publishing Ltd., 2015); Countering Radicalisation and Violent Extremism Among Youth to Prevent Terrorism, ed. Marco Lombardi et al. (Amsterdam: IOS Press, 2015); Muslim Societies and the Challenge of Secularization: An Interdisciplinary Approach, ed. Gabriele Marranci (New York: Springer, 2010).
15. Alan Travis, MI5 report challenges views on terrorism in Britain, The Guardian (Aug. 20, 2008). Retrieved May 25th, 2017.
16. Thomas M. Hickley, Blaming Islam For Paris Attacks Is Both Immoral and Bad Strategy, Task & Purpose (Nov. 23, 2015). Retrieved May 25th, 2017.