Sin, A Disease, A Vampire or All Combined
By Mohammad Ashraf Chaudhry
The Economist of June
23, ’07 writes, “People end their lives
for many reasons, only some of which are well understood”.
Is it something that is so elusive, and so unstoppable?
Perhaps, it is.
W. B. Yeats defines these lovers of death as “Nor
dread nor hope attend a dying animal”.
Shakespeare never condemns a suicidal mind whole-heartedly.
Fourteen of his main characters commit suicide in
eight works. “Then is it sin to rush into
the secret house of death, ere death dare come to
us?” If his King Lear, without friends or
family or employment is at the verge of self-destruction;
Gloucester actually attempts to end his life, Hamlet
contemplates of committing it; his love, Ophelia
after drowning herself receives a scanty religious
disapproval. The priest who had denied her the full
funeral rites gets ridiculed by Laertes in an aside:
“I tell thee, churlish priest; a minist’ring
angel shall my sister be, when thou liest howling”;
Romeo and Juliet’s double suicide goes even
without a hint of condemnation; and Othello’s
suicide actually establishes his nobility.
In the past, suicide meant self-homicide; now it
means destruction of others. Whatever its theories
and fallacies, the fact is that a suicidal man bent
upon self-destruction with a view to bringing destruction
on others, in the present times, is more dangerous
than a nuclear bomb; more pernicious than the Black
Death, and more lethal than any WMD.
WHAT MAKES PEOPLE TAKE THEIR LIVES? Emile Durkheim,
the father of modern sociology wrote in 1897 that
suicide rates were a key sign of the state of a
community, and that it was no longer the morality
of the act but social conditions which produce such
despair. He presents three theories and insists
emphatically that every suicide can be classified
scientifically as belonging to one of these three
general types: Egoistic type in which the individual
fails to properly integrate himself into the society,
and instead gets thrown out onto his own resources.
Protestantism in Christianity and Wahhabism in Islam
that lay emphasis on intellect and free will tend
to encourage suicide more than the Catholics and
Hanifi Islam that stick to the rituals.
The second type is “altruistic suicide”,
which is just the opposite of the first type. It
occurs when an individual gets completely absorbed
in the group to the extent that its goals and its
identity become his. Clan and tribal affiliations
breed this type of suicides. Rajputs in India, and
Islamic extremists in the tribal areas, and many
other Hindus, who throw themselves under the wheel
of the Juggernaut; they appear to be acting under
this type of suicide; Captain Oates did a similar
thing when he chose to die in order to help his
The third type is “anomic suicide”.
This type is very common in the modern times. It
occurs when a sudden change takes place in a man’s
social position. The change occurs so abruptly that
he/she finds himself unable to cope with the new
situation. Great unexpected wealth, or loss in a
gambling game or in stocks. To Durkheim, suicide
is not much of an enigma: it has social causes which
can be discussed and analyzed rationally.
Professor Erwin Stengel, however, believes that
an attempted suicide is, in fact, a cry for help.
London police once could unfailingly distinguish
between those who drowned themselves in Thames because
of unhappy love affairs and those who drowned for
debt. The fingers of the lovers were almost invariably
lacerated by their attempts to save themselves by
clinging to the piers; the debtors apparently went
down like slabs of concrete, without putting up
In India, 17,000 killed themselves in 2003 due to
bad debts, in Pakistan over 400 have taken up their
lives this year alone; hunger, humiliation, drought
and the ready access to pesticides that served as
poison facilitated these deaths. In Afghanistan
and in the tribal areas of Pakistan, the poor social
conditions, lack of education and distortion of
religion promote suicidal trends. Inner turmoil,
social dislocation, family tensions, long-term depression
also become the major causes behind the surge in
The Economist, interestingly, lists one new trend
which is pushing the real incidents of suicide up.
It is the growing use of Internet. People having
symptoms of this sickness learn a lot through this
source as to how to plan or even execute self-killing.
And such deaths are most common in Japan.
One more interesting cause compelling many to commit
suicide is attributed to bad weather. In the early
18th Century one French novel began thus: “In
the gloomy month of November, when the people of
England hang and drown themselves…”.
In India, it is the month of June, according to
the Sinha Suicide Prevention Center in Chennai,
which registers a tremendous surge in suicides in
this month. The reason being that it’s the
time for examination results there. Interesting
A yet another popular fallacy is that with some
nations, suicidal death is a national habit. South
Koreans, once called a hermit nation, had to erect
barriers in metro stations to stop people throwing
themselves in front of the trains. Some Indian states
still pay the bereaved families compensation for
the loss of a breadwinner. In Pakistani villages
any youth, male or female that indulges in self-destruction,
finds himself/herself immersed in an instant flood
of glory, and receives a burial in a bridal attire.
To perch oneself on the roof of the house and threaten
parents for a suicidal death unless a certain demand,
mostly unreasonable, is not acceded to, is a common
pattern in India and Pakistan.
Even in America, high barriers had to be erected
on San Francisco’s Golden Gate bridge that
had helped some 1250 people take their lives by
leaping into the cold Pacific water since it opened
in 1937. The Japanese have a tradition of self-killing
through belly-cutting, called Seppeiku, and many
still consider such a death as honorable and noble.
I once witnessed how a man hanged in the jail on
murder charges instantly received a hero’s
funeral. People in our times do the same as the
Romans did; they look for some sort of stylishness
in death, otherwise death means nothing to them.
The Economist of June 23 writes that in the four-fifths
of suicide cases that occur across 50 countries,
the major factors behind them have been: divorces,
unemployment, inequality of government; religious
beliefs; trust in other people and membership of
non-religious groups. Among the rich countries,
Hungary, Japan, Belgium and Finland exceed their
counterparts in this practice. Ireland beats England
in high suicide rates; and China beats all in a
unique way; their women kill themselves more than
WHAT DO RELIGIONS SAY ABOUT SUICIDE? A. Alvarez
in his insightful book titled “The Savage
God: a study of suicide”, and from which I
have benefited immensely in the writing of this
article, writes, “As for suicide; the sociologists
and psychologists who talk of it as a disease puzzle
me now as much as the Catholics and Muslims who
call it the most deadly of mortal sins”. The
statement is important because it rejects the popular
Western claim that “Islam promotes death through
Jihad, and glorifies it”. “…Nor
kill (or destroy) yourselves: for verily Allah hath
been to you Most Merciful” 4:29. “Take
not life, which Allah hath made sacred, except by
way of justice and law: thus doth He command you,
that ye may learn wisdom” Qur’an 6:151.
The Qur’an and the Prophet, both declare self-destruction
and murder as the murder of the entire human race.
The Islamic worldview on this topic is crystal clear.
Life is a gift from Allah; it is a trust that should
be preserved and kept well until Allah decrees that
it was time for the return. It is He who giveth
and it is He who taketh.
No degree of pain or suffering permits suicide,
not even for political reasons. Some try to justify
suicidal killings when people fall under an occupation,
and get humiliated. Deprivation should not lead
to depravity. Suicidal killings of innocent people
still don’t get justified. Non-violent resistance
as practiced by the Prophet in Mecca still remains
a viable solution. Nelson Mandela, Gandhi and Martin
Luther King Jr., provide good examples. The IRA
of Ireland finally had to abandon it; the Sikhs
of India tried it and failed; the Palestinians did
more damage to themselves through this approach
than the pain inflicted upon them by Israel and
the West; the Tamils became a lost people through
The worst loss that accrues through this gory approach
is the loss of sympathies of a majority of the people
to even a right cause. The loss of life when people
get entrenched in violence makes reconciliation
a remote possibility. As Dr. Mustafa Abu Sway says,
“Violence is the result of a context not a
text. In fact, there are no “cycles”
of violence. Violence is linear with a specific
historical beginning.” Those who initiate
it, must end it, too.
This view of Islam is very much in conformity with
the Christian Europe’s view. The Romans were
neutral on the issue. For them it was a crime more
of an economic nature than of a moral kind. A slave
committing suicide was a financial loss to the state.
Elizabethan England, however, described a man who
committed suicide in hateful terms, as one who ‘is
drawn by a horse to the place of punishment and
shame, where he is hanged on a gibbet, and none
may take the body down but by the authority of a
magistrate”. The suicide was deemed as low
as the lowest criminal. Blackstone, a great legal
authority of the time wrote, “The burial was
in the highway, with a stake driven through the
body as though there were no difference between
a suicide and a vampire”. In France, the corpse
was hanged by the feet, dragged through the streets
on a hurdle, burned, thrown on the public garbage
heap… in many cases the corpse was not allowed
to leave by the door; instead it was lowered by
pulleys from the window; and the window frame was
In Plato’s Athens, one who committed suicide
was buried outside the city and away from other
graves; his self-murdering hand was cut off and
buried apart. In England a suicide was declared
a felon. In France and England, his property was
reverted to the Crown. Confiscation of the property
and defamation of his memory remained in force until
1770. With the French Revolution the code disappeared
in France. Professor Joad wrote, “In England
you must not commit suicide, on pain of being regarded
as a criminal if you fail and a lunatic if you succeed”.
In Pakistan where suicidal killings are having a
heyday these days, it is still a crime punishable
by death if a person makes a failed attempt.
Death by choice remained a deadly mortal sin. St.
Bruno, in the eleventh century, called suicides
“Martyrs for Satan”. St Aquinas sealed
up the whole question in the Summa: suicide is a
mortal sin against God; a sin against justice and
against charity; St Augustine attacked suicide as
a preventive measure against the cult of Martyrdom.
The cult had got out of hand in the 4th Century.
It had to be declared an offence against respect
for life. But such religious attitudes and edicts
did not completely blunt the desire for “nobility
and stylishness” in death by those who viewed
life, at best as unimportant; and at worst as evil.
For them, death, somehow, remained a release awaited
or sought out with great impatience.
That was then: now it is with the religious extremists
in the tribal belt across the border of Afghanistan
and Pakistan, as it has been in Iraq, that the suicidal
trend is revived with fresh vigor under such slogans
as “martyrdom wipes out all the past and subsequent
transgressions”. As once in the European churches,
same way in some mosques, posthumous glories are
showered on the suicides, and their names are celebrated
annually in the mosque events. Which way Islam!
The word suicide did not appear in Dr. Samuel Johnson’s
Dictionary published in 1755. He uses such terms
for suicide as, self-murder; self-destruction; self-killer;
self-homicide; self-slaughter; expressions reflect
the association of the suicide with murder because
suicide was equated with murder. (To be continued)