Aaron Bushnell and Islam’s stance on suicide and self-immolation

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Jazib Mehmood, Jamia Ahmadiyya International Ghana

On the afternoon of 25 February 2024, outside the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C., 25-year-old Air Force service member Aaron Bushnell placed his phone on the ground to set up a livestream. Addressing his online viewers, he said:

“I’m about to engage in an extreme act of protest — but compared to what people have been experiencing in Palestine at the hands of their colonizers, it’s not extreme at all. This is what our ruling class has decided will be normal.” (“Aaron Bushnell Refused to Be Silent on the Horrors in Gaza”, www.jacobin.com)

He then stood before the embassy gates and lit himself on fire in a protest against the war in Gaza while shouting “Free Palestine”, which were his last words. And while anti-war self-immolation is not new, Bushnell’s protest is extremely rare since he was an active U.S. military member. (“US Airman Self-Immolates in Front of Israeli Embassy, Yelling ‘Free Palestine’”, www.truthout.org)

The reaction

The response to this act of self-immolation (setting oneself on fire, usually for political reasons) has been divided. Some have called him a hero, while others have expressed concerns that Bushnell was mentally unstable and needed help. (“Aaron Bushnell Called a ‘Hero’ for Pro-Palestinian Self-Immolation”, www.newsweek.com)

Others have also expressed their grief on the young man’s death, and while they may not condone his action, it is clear that the war in Gaza and the US’s complicity is having an impact on the American people. (“Vigil for Aaron Bushnell held outside Israeli embassy in DC”, www.middleeasteye.net)

This is especially proven true when we take into consideration that this is not the first such protest against the Gaza war in the United States in recent months. In December last year, a woman with a Palestinian flag lit herself on fire outside of the Israeli consulate building in Atlanta; she was not identified, and she has remained hospitalized, currently listed in stable condition. (“U.S. Airman’s Winding Path Ended in Self-Immolation to Protest Israel”, www.nytimes.com)

Hamas praised the act by stating that “he immortalised his name as a defender of human values and the oppression of the suffering Palestinian people because of the American administration and its unjust policies.” (“Hamas blames US for death of ‘heroic’ airman Aaron Bushnell who set himself on fire over Gaza”, www.newarab.com)

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a political party in Palestine, released a statement honouring Bushnell, stating that:

“[…] the act of an American soldier sacrificing his life to draw the attention of the American people and the world to the plight of the Palestinian people, despite its tragic nature and the great pain it involves, is considered the highest sacrifice and medal, and the most important poignant message directed to the American administration.” (“Aaron Bushnell Called a ‘Hero’ for Pro-Palestinian Self-Immolation”, www.newsweek.com)

Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei also stated:

“The West’s disgraceful antihuman policies with regard to the genocide in Gaza have reached such a point that a US military officer sets himself on fire.” (“Iran’s Khamenei: Western culture and Gaza ‘genocide’ killed Aaron Bushnell”, www.jpost.com)

He also stated that the “genocide in Gaza is even too much for that young person who was brought up in the Western culture. His conscience was hurting, and he set himself on fire.” (Ibid.)

Why does Islam forbid suicide?

Given the mixed nature of the reactions by the West and by Muslim authorities in Palestine and Iran, it is pertinent to ask about Islam’s stance on suicide. We know that Islam forbids suicide as the Holy Quran clearly states:

“And kill not yourselves.” (Surah an-Nisa’, Ch.4: V.30)

Similarly, the Holy Prophetsa also condemned suicide in the strongest terms. He once stated: “Whoever commits suicide with a piece of iron will be punished with the same piece of iron in the Hell Fire.” (Sahih al-Bukhari, Kitab al-janaiz, Bab ma ja’a fi qatili n-nafs, Hadith 1363)

Similarly, the Holy Prophetsa is reported to have said, “A man was inflicted with wounds and he committed suicide, and so Allah said: ‘My slave has caused death on himself hurriedly, so I forbid Paradise for him.’” (Ibid.)

An incident from the life of the Holy Prophetsa also sheds further light on this. A man once fought bravely for the Muslims during a battle and was severely injured as a result. Unable to bear the pain, he committed suicide. The Holy Prophetsa informed his Companions that he was hell-bound. (Sahih al-Bukhari, Kitab al-jihadi was-sair, Bab inna Allaha yu’ayyidu d-dina bi r-rajuli l-fajir, Hadith 3062)

And although it is not forbidden to offer the janazah (funeral prayer) of a person who kills himself, a certain discretion is observed when offering the funeral prayer of a person who kills himself, i.e., the imam or leading religious figures of the area do not pray the janazah of such a person. (Islamic Verdicts [Darussalam: 2002], Vol. 3, p. 140)

This is in line with the practice of the Holy Prophetsa, who also did not offer the janazah of such a person. (Sahih Muslim, Kitab al-jana’iz, Bab tarki s-salat ‘ala l-qatili nafsah, Hadith 978)

Apart from the obvious reason for reprimanding or condemning suicide, a deep philosophy underlines this Islamic practice of a discreet janazah. According to studies in social psychology, suicide is contagious; suicides lead to suicides. And the more public the suicide, the more likely it is to inspire others to copy the act. (“Suicide Deaths Are Often ‘Contagious.’ This May Help Explain Why”, www.time.com)

The concept of suicide as a social contagion is also explored in detail in The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell.

Politically motivated acts of self-immolation

Given the circumstances of Bushnell’s self-immolation and the pain he expressed at the state of affairs in the Middle East, it is clear that publicising his suicide by self-immolation can encourage copycats and therefore must not be glorified.

A recent article in The Atlantic titled “Stop Glorifying Self-Immolation” also voices this concern:

“In addition to being an immoderate act, self-immolation is a violent one, indeed one of the most violent, and if you dislike violence, then you should abhor it no matter your view on the war in Gaza. Self-immolators choose that method over hunger strikes, civil disobedience, marches, and a long menu of other morally exemplary tactics.” (“Stop Glorifying Self-Immolation”, www.theatlantic.com)

The author states that some self-immolators have inspired others to rededicate themselves to the immolator’s cause, and some really do spur political change. But the author also writes that Oxford sociologist Michael Biggs, who has done comprehensive research into this, has concluded that “most acts of self-immolation fail to generate any collective response.” (Oxford University Press, Making Sense of Suicide Missions, 2005, p. 203)

Moreover, self-immolation to protest a war – no matter how unjust or bloody – is not in line with the teachings of Islam, which asks us to seek justice through proper, appropriate means.

How should we seek justice?

Is there a better way to seek justice in these circumstances, when all calls for a ceasefire or justice are falling on deaf ears? The Holy Prophetsa stated that if a Muslim sees injustice happening, he must stop it either by hand, by speaking out against it, or by deeming it unjust in his heart. (Sahih Muslim, Kitab al-iman, Bab kawni n-nahyi ‘ani l-munkari mina l-imani wa anna l-imana yazidu wa yanqusu wa anna l-amra bil ma’rufi wa n-nahya ‘anil munkari wajiban, Hadith 49a)

Speaking about this hadith in light of the injustices happening in Palestine, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad, Khalifatul Masih Vaa stated:

“How does it [this hadith] apply to the Israel-Palestine [conflict] for Ahmadis? You see, we don’t have worldly power; we are not ruling any country. So here, with regard to power, we cannot use it. As far as disliking, stopping it verbally or saying something is concerned, that is what we have been doing all this time. […]

“What the Ahmadiyya Community is doing – within its sphere, within its reach and what it can do – is speaking out against cruelty and brutality being committed. And [through] our contacts with politicians of the big powers of the world, for example, the UK and America, we try to meet the politicians and those people who are in power, those who are in contact with us or those who listen to us, that [they must] try to use their resources, their influence to stop this brutality and cruelty.” (“Gambian journalists seek answers for world peace from Hazrat Khalifatul Masih V”, www.alhakam.org)

How should a Muslim react?

Despite all this, given the events of the war in Gaza, one might be moved to understand – to some extent – the pain Bushnell felt when seeing the blatant disregard for the sacred nature of human life in Palestine, and that this pain caused him to carry out a misguided act of self-immolation.

Such a tragic death under dark circumstances might drive one to pity him, or express condolences – perhaps in the hope that people in power would realise how the horrific acts of war in Palestine have deeply affected the general public and would work to end the war.

Given Islam’s stance on suicide and self-immolation, is this allowed? To answer this, consider the following statement of Hazrat Amirul Momineenaa:

“Islam does not teach us to hate any humans, only to detest their evil deeds. As far as anyone’s going to Paradise or Hell is concerned, Allah the Exalted has kept this decision in His hands and has not given any human being in this world the right to pass judgement on whether someone is destined for Paradise or Hell.” (“Praying for a friend who died as a non-Muslim”, www.alislam.org)

Huzooraa was also once asked if we could say “To Allah do we belong and to Him shall we return” for non-Muslims upon their demise. He replied:

“Generally speaking, one should seek the mercy of Allah the Exalted for everyone except if one is an idolater. You should not pray for someone who is an idolater – who associates partners with Allah the Exalted. Aside from that, there is no harm in seeking the mercy of Allah the Exalted for those people who follow a particular religion.” (“Can one recite ‘inna Lillahi wa inna ilaihi raji’un’ upon the demise of a non-Muslim?”, www.alhakam.org)

In conclusion, while there is no doubt that Bushnell’s actions go against the clear teachings of Islam, this does not mean that we must vilify him, nor does it mean that we should glorify him.

His act, committed in ignorance or misguidance and self-described as “extreme”, serves little purpose in the grand scheme of things, and can be seen as a waste of a life that could have lived for a better cause. However, the weight of his tragic act also rests on those who continue to perpetuate or allow injustice in the world, giving little regard to how it scars the people of the world.





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