Did the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) Intend to Commit Suicide?


Examining the charge that the Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. desired to commit suicide

by Ibn Anwar, BHsc (Hons)

Among the many nefarious attacks that are thrown at the prophet Muhammad s.a.w. none has received so scarce and miniscule a treatment as the serious charge that the Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. intended to kill himself by jumping off a cliff. This is one of the favourite charges levelled against Islam by Arab Christian polemicists. Is there any truth to it? Let us begin by reading the tradition(hadith) in question:

Waraqa said, “This is the same Namus (i.e., Gabriel, the Angel who keeps the secrets) whom Allah had sent to Moses. I wish I were young and could live up to the time when your people would turn you out.” Allah’s Apostle asked, “Will they turn me out?” Waraqa replied in the affirmative and said: “Never did a man come with something similar to what you have brought but was treated with hostility. If I should remain alive till the day when you will be turned out then I would support you strongly.” But after a few days Waraqa died and the Divine Inspiration was also paused for a while and the Prophet (peace be upon him) became so sad as we have heard(come to know) that he intended several times to throw himself from the tops of high mountains and every time he went up the top of a mountain in order to throw himself down, Gabriel would appear before him and say, “O Muhammad! You are indeed Allah’s Apostle in truth” whereupon his heart would become quiet and he would calm down and would return home. And whenever the period of the coming of the inspiration used to become long, he would do as before, but when he used to reach the top of a mountain, Gabriel would appear before him and say to him what he had said before. (Ibn ‘Abbas said regarding the meaning of: ‘He it is that Cleaves the daybreak (from the darkness)’ (6.96) that Al-Asbah. means the light of the sun during the day and the light of the moon at night). (Sahih Bukhari, Volume 9, Book 87, hadith 111).

The above hadith indicates that the Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. attempted to commit suicide several times whenever there was a pause in the revelation (fatra al-wahy). This story is extremely suspect on many levels despite the fact that it is included in Bukhari’s Jami’ al-Sahih.Dr. Mohar Ali has a good treatment on the matter and he shows that the text and chain of transmission both show that the story is actually inauthentic:

“This story of extreme frustration on the Prophet’s part on account of the pause in the coming ofwahy and, in consequence, of his alleged suicide attempts, is not at all worthy of credence. As Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani points out, the story is only an addition and surmise on Al-Zuhri’s part and no statement of the Prophet himself, nor of A’ishah (r.a.) nor even of ‘Urwah ibn al-Zubayr (Fath al-Bari, XII, 376. Ibn Hajar’s words are:من بلاغات الزهري وليس موصولا) . This addition has been so mixed up with the text that it appears to be part of the original narration. That it is Al-Zuhri’s addition is very clear from his qualifying clause, “as we have come to know”, with which he introduces this section. Had it been the Prophet’s or A’ishah’s (r.a.) statement, there would have been no need to add this expression, for the chain of narrators had already been given at the beginning of the narration.

The second technical defect in the story has been pointed out by Muhammad Nasir al-Din al-Albani. He states that it is a shadh (strange or odd) report in that it has come down only once through a chain of narrators subsequent to Al-Zuhri among whom there is Ma’mar, and that in all other forms in which the matter is reported, even though Ma’mar is mentioned as one of the narrators, this addition does not occur. Nor is this addition found anywhere else with an uninterrupted chain of narrators worthy to be cited as evidence.

Apart from these technical considerations, the Prophet’s character and personality do not admit of such a conduct on his part. The story is all the more unworthy of credence because it speaks not of one such alleged suicide attempt but several such attempts; as if the assurance given by Jibril for the second time (i.e. after the first appearance at the cave of Hira’) would not have satisfied the prophet! The story might have originated, as one scholar points out, in someone’s seeing the prophet frequenting the hills, as he naturally did during the pause in the coming ofwahy, and then supposing on the basis of that sight that the Prophet was about to throw himself down from the top of the hill! And once such a surmise was circulated it easily found its place in subsequent reports with further mixing up of the facts and circumstances (See Musnad, II, 232-233; Abu Nu’aym, Dala’il, 68-69; Al-Bayhaqi, Dala’il, I., 393-395.)” [1]

Based on the above analysis one can safely consign the story to the bucket and throw it out the window. Dr. G. F. Haddad comments on the hadith in the following:

“This conclusion excludes the chainless, broken-chained reports, or unattibuted reports sometimes adduced by al-Bukhari in his chapter-titles or appended to certain narrations. An example of the latter is the so-called “suicide hadith” – one of al-Zuhri’s unattributive narrations (balaghat) which is actually broken-chained and therefore weak. It does not meet the criteria of hadith authenticity used by the lesser and greater hadith Masters, much less that of al-Bukhari who mentioned it only to show its discrepancy with two other chains whose versions omit the attempted suicide story, and Allah knows best.” [2]

It is clear then that the addition about the Prophet’s intent to commit suicide in the above narration that is used to tarnish his reputation has little merit. However, even if one were to grant the detractor that the hadith is viable simply for the sake of argument that in no way discredits the Prophet’s righteous personality or his prophetic office either in the Islamic perspective or the biblical one. According to the narration in question the Prophet s.a.w. intended to commit suicide but did not actually complete the action which according to standard Islamic teaching is blameless! According to the agreed upon doctrine in the Ahl Sunnah wal Jama’ah or Sunni Islam anyone who intends to do good but does not do it for whatever reason is rewarded for that good intention. If the person manages to perform the deed that was intended that his reward is multiplied. If on the other hand a person plans to do a deed that would be deemed as sinful but does not in fact do it then God rewards him with one complete good deed. If he plans to do an evil deed and does actually complete the action then it is recorded for him as one evil deed. This beautiful teaching is narrated in الاربعين النووية or the Forty Narrations of Imam al-Nawawi, the narration of which is founded upon the narrations of both Bukhari and Muslim:

عن ابن عباس رضي الله عنهما ، عن رسول الله صلى الله علية وسلم فيما يرويه عن ربه تبارك وتعالى ، قال : ( إن الله تعالى كتب الحسنات والسيئات ، ثم بين ذلك ، فمن هم بحسنة فلم يعملها كتبها الله عنده حسنة كاملة ، وإن هم بها فعملها كتبها الله تعالى عنده عشر حسنات إلى سبعمائة ضعف إلى أضعاف كثيرة ، وإن هم بسيئة فلم يعملها كتبها الله عنده حسنة كاملة ، وإن هم بها فعملها كتبها الله عنده سيئة واحدة ).

رواه البخاري [ رقم : 6491 ] ومسلم [ رقم : 131 ] في ( صحيحيهما ) بهذه الحروف …

Ibn Abbas, r.a., reported that the Messenger of Allah,s.a.w. , related from his Lord:

“Verily Allah has recorded the good deeds and the evil deeds.” Then he clarified that: “Whosoever intends to do a good deed but does not do it, Allah records it with Himself as a complete good deed; but if he intends it and does it, Allah records it with Himself as ten good deeds, up to seven hundred times, or more than that. But if he intends to do an evil deed and does not do it, Allah records it with Himself as a complete good deed; but if he intends it and does it, Allah records it down as one single evil deed.”

(Narrated by Bukhari and Muslim in their Sahihayn…) [3]

Thus based on the above narration the Prophet’s turning back  and failure to complete the alleged suicidal intention is praiseworthy and he is blameless of any wrongdoing in the eyes of Islamic sacred law. Let us now turn our attention to Christianity. Where exactly in the Bible does it teach that committing suicide is a sin? We know however, that the narration says that the Prophet intended to commit it but he did not actually do it! Surely if there is not a single biblical injunction prohibiting the act of  suicide then one should not expect to find one on the intent to commit it. As a matter of fact there are six recorded biblical cases of suicide:

1) Ahimelech commits suicide (Judges 9:54)

2) Samson, the celebrated Jewish hero commits suicide (Judges 16:29-31)

3) Saul and the one who bore his armor commit suicide (1 Samuel 31:3-6)

4) Achithopel committed suicide (2 Samuel 17:23)

5) Zimri committed suicide (1 Kings 16:18)

6) Judas (Matthew 27:5)

None of the above cases received a single admonition from God or anyone else for that matter. Peter Rabee astutely writes:

“These biblical accounts of actual suicide and thoughts of suicide lead to two important conclusions: first, there is no prohibition in the Bible against a person taking his or her own life; the Bible makes no reference to the sinfulness of suicide. In fact sometimes suicide is treated as an acceptable act which was necessary to advance God’s plans for the future of humankind.”[4]

Echoing the same understanding as the above, Donal O’Mathuna writes:

“The lack of explicit condemnation of suicide in the Bible has not gone unnoticed in the current debate over the morality and legality of assisted suicide and euthanasia. In November 1994, voters in Oregon approved physician-prescribed lethal doses of medications. The official voters’ guide included the following supporting argument from a pastor and chaplain: “In the Bible, five people [sic] are reported to have ended their own lives (1 Sam. 21; 2 Sam. 17; 1 Kings 16; Matt. 27) and the fact of their action is simply reported with no moral judgment implied; at no point is condemnation expressed for their having done so.

The pastor, mentioned in the previous chapter, who invited Jack Kevorkian to speak at his church to promote legalizing euthanasia, promotes the idea that “there are six or seven incidents in scripture where a suicide is reported, and it’s treated kindly and tragically. In no way at all is the person condemned.”” [5]

Cherrie Coghlan and Imran Ali in their article ‘Suicide’ in Spirituality and Psychiatry writes:

The Bible does not specifically condemn suicide (Alvarez, 2002; Koch, 2005), but it is implicitly condemned in the sixth commandment, ‘You shall not murder’ (Exodus 20:13), and in Genesis 9:5, ‘For your lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning’. Both Alvarez and Koch note that actual and possible deaths by suicide are recorded in Hebrew and Christian scriptures in a factual way that neither praises nor condemns the act. The context is generally one of personal crisis and only in the case of Saul is there also evidence of prior mood swings (Barraclough, 1992). Koch (2005) notes that those expressing suicidal ideas are treated with compassion; for example, Sarah is comforted by thoughts of her family and prayer (Tobit 3: pp. 10-16).” [6] (emphasis added).

Once again we see a clear recognition that the Bible is silent about suicide being wrong  and does not clearly condemn it at all. In fact, having thoughts of suicide are “treated with compassion” which means that simply thinking of suicide does not cause you to err before God.

The alleged implicit condemnation of suicide in the sixth commandment is succinctly refuted by Lewis Aiken in his Dying, Death, and Bereavement writes:

Although the sixth commandment in the book of Exodus states “Thou shalt not kill,” taking one’s own life is not specifically forbidden by the scriptures. The five recorded incidents of suicide in the Bible (Samson, Saul, Ahimelech, and Achitophel in the Old Testament and Judas Iscariot in the New Testament) are described without comment. For example, the Bible simply states that “Saul took a sword, and fell upon it,” and Achitophel “puts his household in order, and hanged himself.” The Koran, on the other hand, strongly forbids suicide; it was and still is most severely condemned in Islamic countries.” [7] (emphasis added)

“Thou shall not kill” is not an absolute rule that can be applied widely to every case involving a person’s life according to the Bible. For example, the Bible time and again shows God specifically commanding Israelites to kill left, right and centre with Moses at the helm e.g. Numbers 31. In such a case the sixth commandment is pushed under the carpet and trampled on. If there can be such exceptions to the commandment why can’t suicide be exempted to? Unless there are corroborating verses indicating the error of suicide the sixth commandment is inconsequential to its prohibition. Prof. Mark Williams pertinently writes:

“…the Christian Church has always had to contend with the difficulty that suicide is nowhere explicitly condemned in the Bible. Christian thinkers and philosophers have always had to resort to the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.’ Appealing to this commandment has difficulties of its own, since most Christian thinkers have wished to make an exception for people who kill as part of a just war. Clearly the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill’, if taken as absolute in every circumstance, would prevent this sort of killing too. If killing could be excused in times of war, why were there no other circumstances in which the commandment could be set aside? …

Since the Bible did not condemn suicide explicitly, Christian thinkers had to find other arguments.” [8]

It is evidently clear that there is no biblical foundation to condemn suicide in Christianity, much less to condemn Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. for allegedly thinking of committing suicide. As pointed out by Dr. Aiken, it is Islam that vehemently condemns suicide and so the vociferous condemnation of suicide from Christians is actually a very Islamic call. We congratulate the Christians for ever coming closer to Islam.

References:

[1] Muhammad Mohar Ali (1997). Sirat al-Nabi and the Orientalists. Medina, Saudi Arabia: King Fahd Complex for the Printing of the Holy Qur’an. pp. 374-375

[2] G. F. Haddad (2006). Weak Hadiths in Sahih Bukhari? Retrieved from http://www.livingislam.org/k/whb_e.html

[3] Al-Nawawi (2001). Imam Al-Nawawi’s Collection of Forty Hadith. Petaling Jaya: Islamic Book Trust. p. 68

[4] Raabe, P. B. (2002). Issues in Philosophical Counseling. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 168

[5] O’Mathuna, D. P. (1997). But the Bible Doesn’t Say They Were Wrong to Commit Suicide, Does it?. In Timothy J. Demy & Gary P. Stewart, Suicide A Christian Response: Crucial Considerations for Choosing Life. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications. pp. 349-350

[6] Coghlan, C. & Imran Ali (2009). Suicide. In Andrew Powell & Andrew Sims, Spirituality and Psychiatry. London: The Royal College of Psychiatrists. pp. 65-66

[7] Aiken, L. R. (2000). Dying, Death, and Bereavement. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associated, Inc., Publishers. p. 78

[8] Williams, M. (2001). Suicide and Attempted Suicide. London: Penguin Books. pp. 2-3

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