Actually the idea of suicide in the cause of jihad is no innovation. It is founded upon Qur’an 9:111, which guarantees Paradise to those who “kill and are killed” for Allah. It is a phenomenon that is actually found throughout Islamic history, and is not new. In the 18th century John Paul Jones wrote about Ottoman sailors setting their own ships on fire and ramming the ships of their enemies, although they knew this meant certain death for them.
And centuries before that, the Assassins, Hashishin, went into their missions knowing that death was virtually certain, and energized by the promise of Paradise that had been made vivid for them in an artful scenario that was used as a recruitment tool: the prospective assassin would be given hashish and then taken into a garden full of beautiful women, and told that he was enjoying a taste of Islamic Paradise. Then to return to that Paradise, he was told that he had to go out and kill his victim, and be killed in the process.
Wow. Let us address the verse in question (9:111):
Behold, God has bought of the believers their lives and their possessions, promising them paradise in return, [and so] they fight in God’s cause, and slay, and are slain: a promise which in truth He has willed upon Himself in [the words of] the Torah, and the Gospel, and the Quran. And who could be more faithful to his covenant than God? Rejoice, then, in the bargain which you have made with Him: for this, this is the triumph supreme!
As outlined by the Quran, fighting in Islam is allowed in defense, and aggression is prohibited (2:190-193). Thus, those who “fight in God’s cause” in the verse are fighting in a battle to defend “those [civilians] who have been expelled from their homes” (22:40) by an aggressor. In this context, able-bodied men are called to defend the people with their lives. When one fights a battle, he tries to kill his enemy and avoid being killed himself. Spencer, however, claims that those who “slay and are slain” are actually committing suicide. Huh?
Suicide is when you take your own life: the death blow comes from your own hand. This is dramatically different than valiantly fighting the enemy in battle when the odds are heavily stacked against you, such that death is “near certain.” The former is suicide, the latter is not. Unless Robert Spencer is being un-American and claiming that the countless U.S. soldiers who have thrown themselves upon the enemy–facing “near certain death” by doing so–committed suicide? In fact, the medal of honor is routinely given to soldiers who throw themselves upon the enemy (thereby facing “near certain death”) to protect their fellow soldiers and advance their position.
There are several examples of this during World War II. For example, Private First Class Leonard Foster Mason received the medal of honor for “his exceptionally heroic act in the face of almost certain death.” The American soldiers were under heavy fire, and with total disregard for his own life, Mason ran out of his foxhole and killed five enemy soldiers. He was critically wounded in the arm and shoulder, and subsequently died. Today, he is remembered as a hero who fought and died for his country. Would Spencer like to claim that he committed suicide, and that the U.S. military has been using “suicide jihad” tactics during WWII?
Private George Phillips received the medal of honor because he “unhesitatingly threw himself on [a] deadly missile, absorbing the shattering violence of the exploding charge in his own body and protecting his comrades from serious injury.”
And let’s read about the bravery of Private First Class Harold Glenn Epperson who gave up his life for his country:
Determined to save his comrades, Pfc. Epperson unhesitatingly chose to sacrifice himself and, diving upon the deadly missile, absorbed the shattering violence of the exploding charge in his own body. Stouthearted and indomitable in the face of certain death, Pfc. Epperson fearlessly yielded his own life that his able comrades might carry on the relentless battle against a ruthless enemy. His superb valor and unfaltering devotion to duty throughout reflect the highest credit upon himself and upon the U.S. Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.
Another suicide jihad terrorist attack, I suppose? In fact, what about the American soldiers who took the island of Iwo Jima? According to historians, the Japanese fought tenaciously for the island, and only 216 out of more than 18,000 soldiers were alive at the end of hostilities. This invasion must have “meant certain death” for the scores of American soldiers who took part. Were these American soldiers “committing suicide”? What about the soldiers who took part in the invasion of Normandy? The odds against the Allied soldiers were tremendous, and it “meant certain death” for the scores of soldiers who valiantly chose to be on the front line. Did these American heroes also “commit suicide”?
Anyways, the Quran is crystal clear on suicide:
“And do not take a life that God has made sacred, except for just cause.” (17:33)
“And spend for the sake of God, and do not invest in ruin by your own hands. And do good, for God loves those who do good.” (2:195)
“And do not kill yourselves, for God has been merciful to you.” (4:29)
But I do know of a holy book that mentions (and seems to condone) suicide attacks. You may have heard of it, Spencer. It’s called the Bible. The Mighty Samson kills himself in order to kill three thousand men and women (civilians):
Samson said to the servant who held his hand, “Put me where I can feel the pillars that support the temple, so that I may lean against them.” Now the temple was crowded with men and women; all the rulers of the Philistines were there, and on the roof were about three thousand men and women watching Samson perform. Then Samson prayed to the LORD, “O Sovereign LORD , remember me. O God, please strengthen me just once more, and let me with one blow get revenge on the Philistines for my two eyes.” Then Samson reached toward the two central pillars on which the temple stood. Bracing himself against them, his right hand on the one and his left hand on the other, Samson said, “Let me die with the Philistines!” Then he pushed with all his might, and down came the temple on the rulers and all the people in it. Thus he killed many more when he died than while he lived. (Judges 16:26-30)”
Samson was one of the good guys in the Bible, and nowhere are his actions condemned. Far from it: he got the strength from God to do it. How are his actions any different than the Palestinian suicide bombers who blow themselves up in shopping malls to kill Israeli men and women? And in 1 Samuel 31:1-6, we have another good guy in the Bible killing himself rather than being taken alive by the enemy; in fact, it’s a group suicide–Saul, his three sons, his armor bearer, and all of his men commit group suicide in this battle. Two can play at this, Mr. Spencer.
With regard to the example of the Ottomans ramming their ships, this is a technique that dates to antiquity. As a last resort (since they were going to lose/die anyways), the captain would order that they use the ship to ram the enemy’s. To use another American example, even civilian boats were equipped with this capability: the Seattle fireboat Duwamish, built in 1909, was designed to ram wooden vessels, as a last resort. More “suicide jihad” I suppose?
As for the Hashashin, or Assassins, they belonged to an extremely heterodox extremist sect of Islam. They did not believe in committing suicide, but rather put themselves in harms way to complete missions such that oftentimes they would be facing “near certain death.” In any case, even at that time the orthodox Muslims used to write about how crazy they thought these Hashashin were, so how can we take the most extreme example as indicative of the general rule? In fact, at the time of the Hashashin, there were the Crusaders. Would Spencer like to take the bloodthirsty Crusaders (who engaged in cannibalism and mass murder) as indicative of Christianity overall?