There is only one verse in the Koran that deals with suicide. Its content seems pretty clear: ‘Do not kill yourselves’ (4:29). Of course, the verse has not stopped waves of Muslim suicide bombers in the past twenty-five years. Nor has it stopped a smattering of extremist Muslim clerics from using the Koran to promote or justify suicide missions. Their somewhat contorted reasoning usually goes like this: the Koran promises an afterlife to so-called martyrs who die ‘struggling in the way of God’ (2:154); therefore, those who are killed in Allah’s way are not considered dead but ‘are alive, are provided sustenance from their Lord’ (3:169). Thus, suicide bombers have not transgressed verse 4:29 but are martyrs who have died defending Islam and will live on in the afterlife.
That some Muslim scholars have been able to twist themselves out of the prohibition on suicide hardly comes as a surprise. All canonical texts can bend to interpretation; this is, in part, what keeps them alive for so long. The Koran – like the Old Testament, the New Testament or the works of Marx or Shakespeare – has formed the basis for countless competing interpretations. Does ‘An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’ promote vengeance or just compensation? Did Das Kapital lead to Pol Pot? Can The Taming of the Shrew be rescued from its misogyny?