The convenient truth behind Suicide Attacks in Islamic legal texts – Restrictions on Asymmetric Warfare

Jihadists and like-minded Salafi ideologues regularly advocate the legitimacy of suicide murder as a legitimate offense tactic, and certain sectors of Muslim society today appear to accept its authenticity with little reservation. Based on a principle popularized by the 13th century Muslim theologian Ibn Taymiyya, suicidal missions have become a staple tactic in the Jihadi playbook.  In response, a counter-argument must be carefully constructed by engaging the same sources in order to afford policy makers, law enforcement agencies and media outlets a viable means of debunking the myth of the principle’s legitimacy and a way to eradicate what has become a persuasive argument in the terrorist recruitment process at the ground level.

The principle mentioned is that of “plunging into the enemy” (Arabic inghimas), and it was developed, in part, in Ibn Taymiyya’s seven-century-old treatise titled A Principle Regarding Plunging into the Enemy, and is it Permitted?.[1]  Ibn Taymiyya, who is probably the most widely cited medieval scholar by the Salafi-jihadist trend in Islam,[2] understands “plunging into the enemy” very differently from today’s jihadists, although they refer to his writings and use the principle to justify suicide attacks in the explication of their ideology and their legal opinions (fatwas). Furthermore, and maybe even more importantly, their interpretation is not derived in accordance with appropriate Shari`a procedure, and it certainly does not override explicit Qur’anic and other legal texts prohibiting suicide.[3]

So how is this principle presented in the aforementioned treatise?

Right off the bat, Ibn Taymiyya, like other legal scholars, restricted the application of “plunging into the enemy” by stating that it would be “more appropriate” to carry it out in a situation of military asymmetry, when “an individual or group is fighting [an enemy] that outnumbers them, on condition there is some benefit to Islam in fighting, even if the (individuals) are likely to be killed.” Next, the author introduced three scenarios in which the principle specifically applies (translated here from the original text):

1. (Line 23) first scenario:

Like [in the case of] a man who storms the ranks of the infidels and penetrates them. Scholars call this “plunging into the enemy,” since [the man] is swallowed up in them like a thing that gets submersed in something that engulfs it.

2. (Line 24) second scenario:

And like a man who kills an infidel officer among his friends, for instance, by pouncing on him publicly, if he [can] get him by deceit, thinking he can kill him and take him unawares like that.

3. (Lines 25-26) third scenario:

And [like] a man whose comrades have fled and so he is fighting the enemy alone or with a few others, and yet this is inflicting harm on the enemy, despite the fact they know they are likely to be killed.

The Salafi-jihadi argument in support of suicide operations is neutralized through the following restrictions that emerge from the text-

1. Asymmetric warfare

The notion of “plunging into the enemy” is inextricably tied in the text with the undesirable asymmetric situation of confronting a numerically superior army, and lines 23-25 correctly read as cases in which a soldier on the battlefield decides to carry out an attack that will likely result in his death. Jihadist ideologues extended the medieval scholars’ idea of numerical superiority of the enemy to include the current technological superiority of Western militaries as justification for their interpretation of the scope of the “plunging into the enemy” principle. While including technical superiority is not a stretch, the leap to legitimizing suicide-murder is a far cry. In fact, the analogy as a whole becomes invalid, because it ignores the other restrictions (below) that must be considered in order to complete a valid analogy in Islamic law. Ibn Taymiyya was obviously aware of the notion of asymmetry in warfare, and despite that (or perhaps, because of that?) he placed several conditions on the principle’s applicability. Jihadist ideologues did not follow proper Shar`i procedure, because if they did they could not have manipulated the language of “the plunging” principle to suit their case.[4]

2. Suicide

Since suicide is absolutely forbidden in Islam, there would have to be a clear benefit to the outcome of a war, or a “decisive repulsion” (sic.) of the enemy’s damage to Islam, in order to permit a dangerous mission that could surely end with an individual’s death and/or create other Muslim casualties.[5]  In a case where a mission is deemed unquestionably beneficial to a battle, only then, “it is more appropriate” to apply the principle. This is an important restriction. The highly contextualized permission to “self-destruct” is taken out of context by the Salafis and constitutes a pivot point in their attempt to ground suicide bombing in Islamic law. They analogize a suicide bomber with an individual “plunging into the enemy”. However, in the case of plunging into the enemy, a combatant is expected to die at the hands of the enemy, not by his or her own doing. What this means is that the component of self-endangerment in plunging into the enemy does NOT include intentionally killing oneself. Furthermore, when one considers, let’s say, the last thirty years since the tactic gained popularity, it is clear that even the worst wave of suicide bombings (including the events of 9/11/2001) has never been able to demonstrate “a decisive repulsion of the enemy’s damage to Islam”.   Hence endangering oneself with the intention of inflicting harm on the enemy that does NOT decisively repulse the enemy’s damage to Islam is NOT permitted.

3. Non-combatants

According to Muslim scholars like Ibn Taymiyya, Plunging into the enemy clearly pertains to a battlefield-type situation in the course of a conventional war, involving combatants rather than a single event occurring in a concentration of non-combatants. Ibn Taymiyya is neither implying nor legitimizing “suicide mass-murder” of non-combatant men, women and children (Muslim or other Shari`a protected groups, like Jews and Christians). Instead, Ibn Taymiyya offers a highly restricted context within which an almost certainly “suicidal-type attack” on numerically (or by analogy) technologically superior enemy combatants could be rendered “more appropriate.” Ibn Taymiyya repeatedly states in his writings that Muslim and non-Muslim non-combatants must NOT be harmed and collateral damage should be avoided.

4. Chances of Survival

Finally and indubitably, Ibn Taymiyya sees the possibility of coming out alive from such a dangerous mission even when advocating martyrdom in the cause of God.[6] He neither asserts that the lone fighter will, in fact, be killed, nor argues that the success of the mission depends entirely on the fighter’s certain death. This is crucial, since the possibility of surviving is entirely absent when considering the intention and state of mind of a suicide terrorist, up to and during the act of taking his or her own life, especially with a weapon of choice that is explosive.[7]

Take-away

The promotion of suicide murder as a legitimate case of plunging into the enemy (inghimas) is an unfortunately successful name-game and an evasive legal device.[8] With false legal reasoning and a manifold decontextualization of an historical term, jihadist ideologues have managed to apply the term to a staple tactic in their strategy book. They have been spinning the Islamic tradition and law to suit their cause. Today’s jihadists are not faced with similar historical and geopolitical conditions as the medieval scholars they quote. Unlike the medieval scholars who possessed a structural disposition to cooperate with the state, Jihadists and many Salafists rebel against authority and delegitimize Sunni Muslim society in a manner that in certain regions is contributing to a breakdown of governance and social stability (Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan).[9] In fact, Jihadists’ form of dissent fits Islamic legal definitions of brigands (muharibun)[10] and rebels (bugha) who spread terror and destruction and whose terror-based methods and pursuit of indiscriminate slaughter and lawlessness are difficult to distinguish from those of bandits with all the Shari`a consequences of that. In doing so Jihadists have blurred the lines within Islamic law between a perceived expression of bravery and anti-Shari`a, deviant criminal behavior.

Dr. R. M. holds an M.A. and PhD in Arabic and Middle Eastern studies from NYU. She taught Arabic as an adjunct assistant professor at Queens College (SUNY) and New York University, and continues to privately prepare doctoral candidates for their proficiency exams in Arabic. Research interests and expertise involve medieval Arabic linguistic theory, Islamic legal reasoning, and Qur’anic exegesis. R. has been involved in West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center projects since 2005, including Gaining the Initiative project, the Salafi Ideology Project (Militant Ideology Atlas), and Jihadi ideology. As an FBI fellow at the CTC, she designed the curriculum for the CTC’s Arabic Familiarization course, Arabic Name Analysis and Phraseology. R is involved in CTC’s external education division for FBI/JTTF regional training, is currently a Terrorism Intelligence Analyst for InterPort Police.


[1] Qa`ida fi al-inghimas fi al-`aduww wa-hal yubah fiha?. This treatise has not been published in the West and is currently available only in Arabic, edited and prepared by Abu Muhammad Ashraf b. `Abd al-Maqsud, Qa`ida fi al-inghimas fi al-`aduww wa-hal yubah fiha? (Riyadh: Adwa’ al-Salaf, 2002). The only copy of the manuscript (#444) is said to be located at the Egyptian National Library in Cairo.

[2] For a detailed account on the proliferation of suicide attacks and popularization of martyrdom, see Assaf Moghadam, The Globalization of Martyrdom: Al Qaeda, Salafi Jihad, and the Diffusion of Suicide Attacks (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008).

[3] Jihadist lexicon does not use the term “suicide attack,” rather one finds phrases like “carrying out jihad.”

[4] Partial statements by Ibn Taymiyya were isolated, stripped of deliberate restrictions, and elaborated on devoid of syntactic, juridical and historical contexts. In fact, Ibn Taymiyya himself criticizes those who use partial statements of Ibn Hanbal (d. 855 C.E.) thereby ignoring the complexity of his juridical opinion, al-Sarim al-maslul (Saudi Arabia: al-Haras al-Watani al-Sa`udi, n.d), vol. 2, pp. 483-484. In this respect, the jihadists’ case for their brand of martyrdom attacks lacks the legal reason (Ar. `illa) identified in the case of inghimas (plunging into the enemy). On the concept of `illa, see Nabil Shehaby, “`Illa and Qiyās in Early Islamic Legal Theory,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 102:1 (1982): pp. 27-46.

[5] A mission that falls under the definition of “plunging into the enemy” is dangerous and self-destructive, and in this sense, perhaps can be termed “suicidal.” This is different from other meanings signified by the word “suicidal” that relate to an explicit intention of ending one’s own life. For example Qur’an 4:29-30 says, “And do not take your own lives for God has mercy on you. And so he who does this in transgression and violation, We shall burn him in Hellfire. This is an easy feat for God.”

[6] Ibn Taymiyya, Qa`ida fi al-inghimas fi al-`aduww wa-hal yubah fiha? (Riyadh: Adwa’ al-Salaf, 2002), p. 36, line 45; refers to the Qur’an, chapter 9, verse 52.

[7] Dr. Boaz Ganor, “The Rationality of the Islamic Radical Suicide Attack Phenomenon,” International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, March 31, 2007.

[8] On prohibition of evasive legal devices, see Dr. Ahmad al-Raysuni, Imam Al-Shatibi’s Theory of the Higher Objectives and Intents of Islamic Law (Herndon, VA: International Institute of Islamic Thought, 2005), pp.56-57.

[9] Compare with ideological roots of the Sovereign Citizen Movement in the U.S. and the movement’s rejection of U.S. government’s legitimacy.

[10] In a video in 2000, Abu Mus`ab al-Suri called jihadists to commit larceny, murder, arson, against non-Muslims in Muslim countries. And see Emrullah Uslu, “al-Qa`ida robbers target jewelry stores,” Jamestown Foundation: Eurasia Daily Monitor, 6:25 (2009) (accessed online http://www.jamestown.org/single/?no_cache=1&tx_ttnews[tt_news]=34476&tx_ttnews[backPid]=7&cHash=fdae903bb8). It is noteworthy that Ibn Taymiyya and other Muslim jurists have expressed their condemnation of such groups pursuing indiscriminate slaughter and lawlessness. For example, Ibn Taymiyya, Majmu` al-Fatawa, (al-Madina: Majma` al-Malik Fahd li-Taba`at al-Mushaf al-Sharif, 1995), vol. 4, pp. 440-441, 444, 450-452; and Minhaj al-Sunna al-Nabawiyya (Riyad: Ibn Sa`ud University, 1986), vol. 2, pp. 233, 244

Advertisements