Suicide: A Sin, A Disease, A Vampire or All Combined
By Mohammad Ashraf Chaudhry
Pittsburg, CA

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 friends.
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 any struggle.
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 suicides.
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 logic.
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 men.
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 this approach.
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 subsequently burned.
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)



Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
2004 . All Rights Reserved.