Beliefnet
Editor's Note: This article was originally published on Beliefnet August 16, 2001.

Q: Some readers have asked: "What is the religious motivation behind the suicide bombings in Israel?"

A: The holy book of Islam does not call on young volunteers to strap explosives to their bodies and set them off in crowded public areas in Israel. That much is clear. Suicide bombers are waging a distinctly modern type of warfare not sanctioned in any faith.

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Its advocates -- young, poor and desperate -- say they base their beliefs on the Islamic concept of "jihad," which means to strive or struggle. Jihad is one of the foundational beliefs of Islam and it is applied in various ways. There is jihad of the hand, which means the struggle to put faith into action by doing good deeds; jihad of the heart, which is the struggle to make the faith real as a spiritual force; jihad of the tongue, the struggle to speak about the faith with others; and jihad of the sword, the struggle to defend the faith when it is under attack. Jihad of the sword is probably best known to non-Muslims by another term, "holy war."

The Holy Koran does not justify aggression in its pages. It does, however, call on Muslims to defend themselves, their families and their countries against oppression. Suicide bombers believe they are fighting against oppression, in this case, Israel's occupation of their land. Although Islam strictly forbids suicide and condemns to hell those who take their own lives, suicide bombers claim they are soldiers who would most likely die in war anyway. Islam also forbids attacking noncombatants, such as women, children and the elderly. On this point, suicide bombers claim that Israeli society, because it drafts men and women, is essentially made up of soldiers and therefore there is no distinction between civilians and conscripts.

Like other Muslims, suicide bombers insist that those who die performing jihad are martyrs, and are entitled to everlasting life.

The Koran is very detailed about heaven. It is called the garden, a place of clean water, with rivers of milk and honey, luscious fruit, chaste women or virgins, and of course Allah, or God.

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"Allah hath promised to believers -- men and women-- gardens under which rivers flow, to dwell therein, and beautiful mansions in gardens of everlasting bliss. But the greatest bliss is the good pleasure of Allah: That is supreme felicity," Surah 9:72.

But many Muslim clerics and scholars have criticized the theology of suicide bombers, and the practice is very controversial within Islam. In the past year alone, the supreme religious leader of Saudi Arabia, Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah al Sheik, said he feared that using explosives in this manner is a form of suicide, and therefore condemned. And an influential Sunni cleric, Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, said bombers who detonate explosives among civilians are not fighting a true war and cannot be considered martyrs.

These voices are not often heard because the Muslim community is united in the moral righteousness of the Palestinian cause.

"Even though some oppose this type of bombing, they approve of the struggle against Israel," said Ihsan Bagby, a professor of international relations at Shaw University in Raleigh. "They are all united in ... the frustration of the Palestinians in not realizing the end of the occupation."

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