Being generally taboo, the topic of suicide is not discussed seriously, let alone extensively, in the Muslim world. The causes are often predictable and understandable, but are nevertheless rejected or treated lightly, despite such concerns being only on the rise in the Muslim world. The article at hand intends not only to provide an overview on the issue, but also indicate the root causes, how potential victims, or even those suffering from similar symptoms, should be approached, and what steps such individuals may take to better their mental states.
While the causes generally revolve around some form of suffering, there is no single manner in which it manifests, and nor is it the case that the act is always spontaneous. With hopelessness, despair, alienation, mental health problems and other issues being on the rise, the modern world, despite all its technological advancements, has not yet been able to succeed where it matters most: emotional and spiritual well-being. In the midst of this chaos, what does Islam say about the matter, or offers in terms of a solution?
Tribulations through the lens of Islam
Islām abhors self-harm, as the bodies given to human beings are seen as a blessing from Allāh ﷻ, whose preservation is an obligation upon every Muslim. It is against hopelessness and despair, as what occurs does so due to Allāh’s ﷻ will. Allāh ﷻ says:
Do people think once they say, ‘We believe,’ that they will be left without being put to the test? We certainly tested those before them. And ˹in this way˺ Allah will clearly distinguish between those who are truthful and those who are liars.1
He ﷻ also says:
“And We will surely test you with something of fear and hunger and a loss of wealth and lives and fruits, but give good tidings to the patient,”2
The dīn is not dismissive of the afflictions that may plague an individual, but rather acknowledges such and advises patience, promising that one is not burdened beyond what he can bear. As it says in the Qurʾān:
“Allāh does not charge a soul except [with that within] its capacity. It will have [the consequence of] what [good] it has gained, and it will bear [the consequence of] what [evil] it has earned. “Our Lord, do not impose blame upon us if we have forgotten or erred. Our Lord, and lay not upon us a burden like that which You laid upon those before us. Our Lord, and burden us not with that which we have no ability to bear. And pardon us; and forgive us; and have mercy upon us. You are our protector, so give us victory over the disbelieving people.”3
Allāh also reassures that His help is near for those who show patience, as He says:
“Or do you think that you will enter Paradise while such [trial] has not yet come to you as came to those who passed on before you? They were touched by poverty and hardship and were shaken until [even their] messenger and those who believed with him said, “When is the help of Allāh?” Unquestionably, the help of Allāh is near.”4
People are tested according to their capacity and the help of God is never far away. It also holds that patience is the key, in essence holding that nothing is permanent, either it be suffering or ease.
Legality & Spirituality
The general ruling about taking one’s own life is that it is a major sin and not disbelief. This means that if such a person is Muslim, he would eventually enter paradise by the Mercy of Allāh.5 It should likewise be noted that sanity is a precondition for one to be held accountable for his deeds.6
No absolute judgment, thus, may be passed on those who engage in such, and it is likewise a myth that they will undergo eternal damnation, given the incident of the companion who, unable to bear his agony, slit his forearms. The Prophet ﷺ, upon hearing from his friend that he saw him in a dream in Paradise with bandages on his arms, told him that while he had been forgiven due to his emigration, the effects of his actions remained and decreased his share of the Hereafter. He ﷺ then supplicated for the forgiveness of his arms as well.7
As complex as the issue of suicide is, there are some general identifiable causes, with epistemic uncertainty being one of the primary ones. The modern world is being increasingly globalized, but it is because of globalization that by the time a person is in their mid teenage years, they are exposed to a wide array of ideologies and beliefs they are not yet prepared for, as they lack the epistemic foundations required to tackle novel ideas.
One is thus left confused in terms of his beliefs and what he ought to believe in and or what the truth is regarding any matter, thus leading to a lack of confidence in his beliefs, overwhelming them to the point where they question why life should be lived to begin with, given that welfare and happiness are to a large degree fundamentally governed by a set of existing principles. Should they be stripped apart, the person is left with no purpose to begin with, as purposes and principles are essentially intertwined.
Unlike the Western paradigm which begins with doubt, ours begins with certainty, from which all else follows. The purpose of life is clear: our task and only task is to follow and know God in hardship and ease. This gives the Muslim a source of strength to pass through windier times and hurdles. As the Prophet ﷺ says, “If Allah loves a slave, he afflicts him with trials”8
So not only is hardship a sign of Divine favor, but it shows man that his life is not in vain. The rigorous guide to life which Islām offers, whereby it handles all matters from manners to business and from sleep to war, there is no lack of guidance on how life is to be traversed. This does not end here, as the Muslim is born into a community, and unlike other societies, the community as a whole is valued more than the individual, which enables the individual to not only feel welcomed in this communitarian society but to be a part of a bigger whole, therefore making his existence more than merely himself.
But that life is mere vanity should not lead man to forget its dissipation and every-changing nature. Imagine a farmer in twelfth century Egypt who works hard, lives from harvest to harvest, and builds a life for his family. He can be quite certain that this state of affairs will continue into the foreseeable future—that his mode of life will remain the same and continue onto his children and grandchildren. But this is due to man having garnered a sense of permanence due to having hardly witnessed changes, when every aspect of our lives—the fact that we age, that we love and grieve, and then lose those we hold most dear—shows that there is nothing permanent to be found in the life of the dunyā.
With the lack of permanence, anxiety and uncertainty runs in the mind of man, as he can never be certain of what tomorrow holds. From the secular perspective, there is no answer to this question of permanence, there are attempts especially from the western perspective to name any specific change as a progress, but this is superficial and lacks substance. From the Islāmic perspective, we are reminded that this life is nothing more than a temporary abode to be tested and made into something that is befitting of paradise. For the Muslim there is no permanence to this world, for him it is merely temporary existence, and hence what the future holds is irrelevant because he is not here to stay. Regardless, he knows that what befalls him will, in one way or another, be good, and in spite of his contemporary trials, there will come a time wherein he will be shown the Divine Wisdom behind his tribulations. He is advised to keep death in his heart at all times and know that he is a mere traveler in this world, who takes what he needs along the way and never calls a place home. As the Prophet ﷺ says,
“Be in this world as if you were a stranger or a traveler along a path.” Ibn Umar would say, “If you make it to the evening, do not wait for the morning. If you make it to the morning, do not wait for the evening. Take from your health for your sickness, and from your life for your death.”9
His destiny, his sustenance, and his livelihood have already been determined, so he can rest assured in knowing that he will receive what his Lord has written for him. In this way he balances the lack of permanence of the world and certainty of the future, knowing that this world is merely temporary, henceforth having no real affection to it, while also knowing that his Lord has promised to take care of him if he relies upon Him, irrespective of the changes in the tides of the sea, but it is nevertheless crucial for him to understand that he must suffer if he is to grow intellectually and spiritually beyond himself.
This is perhaps the most important issue at hand, be it due to the loss of a loved one, financial ruin, or simply due to hopelessness. Even those who are usually happy and optimistic can hardly help but ask, “Why me?” In essence there is nothing in life that does not entail a level of detriment. People are emotional creatures who allow their grief to stop them from realizing the goodness in any matter. Those who are in the state of mind in which they contemplate taking their own life fail to see a path forward.
The most basic reality of human existence is suffering, from which meaning, fundamentally, is derived. To climb Everest is not a monumental feat due to its height, but rather due to the struggle required to reach the peak. Relationships, similarly, are strengthened therewith. We love our mothers because they are the ones who have and are willing to suffer the most for us. Human beings are a product of this reality—the more we struggle, the more value we attach to the endeavor. It is by suffering that we fulfill our purposes. As the Ṣūfīs said, “He is a disbeliever who is not ruined in your path.”
The world is indeed here to break you down, strip you bare, attack you, harm you, and abandon you, but in all this, it is Allāh who is there for you, never turning a blind eye. If we look back to the life of the Prophet ﷺ, we see a life filled with loss and grief. His ﷺ parents died when he ﷺ was a mere child; his ﷺ society disowned him ﷺ, he ﷺ lost daughters and sons, best friends, wives and he ﷺ was attacked, ridiculed, and abused, but he ﷺ shows by his ﷺ life that indeed patience is the best of virtues. Man, in a state of suffering, forgets that like all things in life, his trials too shall pass. Life at its core is evanescent, and no state lasts forever, whether it be ease or suffering.
The Muslim is satisfied for he knows that all that befalls him is bestowed to him by Allāh. When times are difficult, he thanks God and remains patient; and when times are easy, he thanks God and knows that times will change. He recognizes the vicissitudes of time and the temporary nature of the life of the dunyā, and thus places his hopes in the will of God. The Prophet ﷺ explicitly states this principle:
“Wondrous is the affair of a believer, as there is good for him in every matter; this is not the case for anyone but a believer. If he experiences pleasure, he thanks Allah and it is good for him. If he experiences harm, he shows patience and it is good for him.”10
Suffering, as elucidated by Rūmī, arises from attachment to the world. If one expects the world to abide by his wishes, he will only be met with disappointment, for while sorrow and pain are natural byproducts, suffering is a choice. Man chooses to suffer by tormenting himself with visions and expectations of a lost future. Should the reader be in a state of hopelessness, he ought to know that Islam considers him the best of creation—that it is he who decides his own worth. The doors of mercy are always open for the seekers of mercy, regardless of what it is that they have committed. He who recognizes his Lord and follows his Messenger is worth more than this world and everything therein; his praises are sung by the angels and his being illuminates the darkness in the world. The Prophet ﷺ referring to the Ka’ba, clarifies:
“How pure you are and how pure is your fragrance! How great you are and how great is your sanctity! By the one in whose hand is the soul of Muhammad, the sanctity of the believer is greater to Allah than your sanctity, in his wealth, his life, and to assume nothing of him but good.”11
Even if there is no one in the world the reader is loved by, he is loved by He who created him, and should he hold on to his hopes, there will come a time wherein he will witness the wisdom behind his suffering. It is indeed as Ibn al-Qayyim writes: “O you who are patient, bear a little more, just a little more remains”12
For the sake of brevity, we shall conclude the first part of our discussion here, and will upload the final part shortly, discussing other relevant factors, as well as potential wisdoms and solutions underlying both tribulations and their respective causes. One may also refer to our “Reflections on Love and Suffering” for related deliberations.
- Qurʾān, 2:215.
- Shams al-Dīn al-Dhahabī mentions it in Al-Kabāʾir, Shams al-Dīn Ibn ‘Abd al-Hādī in Irshād al-Ḥāʾir, Ibn al-Nahhās in Tanbīh al-Ghāfilīn. Shaykh al-Islām Ibn Ḥajar al-ʿAsqalānī also also added a chapter in his al-Zawājir.
- Al-Āmidī mentions it in Iḥkām al-Aḥkām, As-Ṣafiyy al-Hindī in Nihāyat al-Wusūl, az-Zarkashī in Tashnīf al-Masāmi.
- “Two men from the same tribe as Abū Hurayrā (A companion of the Prophet ﷺ) moved to Medinā to be with the Prophet ﷺ. Upon reaching there, they both got ill. One of them could not bear the agony, so he slit his forearms and killed himself. His friend prayed for a year to see him in a dream, which he did. He was in a good state – in Paradise, it seems – but he had bandages on his arms. The friend asked him what Allāh did with him, and he replied that Allāh forgave him because he emigrated to Medinā. However, he was told, “We won’t fix what you damaged,“ hence the bandages.” [Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim].
- Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 6416.
- Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 2999.
- Sunan Ibn Mājah 3932.
- Al-Fawaid p.119.