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Inside the head of an Islamic suicide bomber

Religious beliefs and texts drive them to kill


Iraqi civilians and security forces gather at the site of an ISIS suicide bombing in Baghdad, Iraq, on Jan. 21, 2021. Associated Press/Photo by Hadi Mizban, file

Inside the head of an Islamic suicide bomber
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Examples of suicide attempts seem to abound in headlines involving Muslim extremism and terrorism. Consider one from earlier this year. In this tragic suicide bombing attack, an Afghani Sunni Muslim entered a Shiite mosque in Peshawar, Pakistan and killed dozens, wounding almost 200 people.

Islam has two major branches or sects, Sunni (85 percent of Muslims) and Shiite (13 percent), in addition to other minor marginal groups. Pakistan and Afghanistan are not only neighbors, but they are also significantly committed to Sunni Islam. In both countries, the minority Shiite Muslims are often marginalized, persecuted, and, as this massacre reveals, attacked and killed.

The bomber appeared in a video, moving quickly toward the mosque, firing shots at the police protecting it, then detonating a powerful explosive belt strapped to his body. The timing was strategically deadly: It was during the Friday noon prayer—the most important congregational prayer for Muslims. This ensured the death toll was higher.

The Islamic State (the radical militant group also known as ISIS) declared responsibility for the attack, and praised the Afghani suicide bomber as one of its devoted soldiers: “Islamic State fighters are constantly targeting Shi’ites living in Pakistan and Afghanistan.”

ISIS is a Sunni militant group that often targets non-Muslims and views Shiite Muslims as misguided and untrue Muslims who should be killed unless they repent and seek the true Sunni Islamic teaching.

This massacre reveals a great deal about Islam’s inner conflict and the ideology of violence associated with Islamic commands, promoted by Islamic doctrines, and built on authoritative texts.

Most people are unaware of the nature and reasons for the Sunni-Shiite divide in Islam, especially as public discourse mistakenly tends to dilute it and portray the schism as mainly political. This is simplistic, as there are various doctrinal, theological, and textual differences between Sunnis and Shiites, to the extent that, according to a Pew Research study, many in each of the two camps, especially in the heartland of Islam, declare the other to be kafir (unbelievers).

The word “Shiite” (or Shia) means “supporter” or “devotee” in Arabic, while the word “Sunni” refers to a loyal adherent to the “Sunna,”—Muhammad’s traditions (hadith in Arabic).

According to major Islamic texts, there is no eternal assurance in Islam, except for martyrs who give their lives for Allah’s sake.

After Muhammad’s death in 632, Muslims were in total disarray, quarrelling and fighting with each other over who deserved to be his successor. It was a tribal fight, and the entire Muslim community could be largely divided into two camps, Shiites and anti-Shiites. The Shiites were a faction of devotees to Muhammad’s cousin, Ali, while the rest of the Muslims were anti-Shiites (thus, anti-Ali) who won the fight by dismissing Ali and elevating another choice, Abu Bakr, to be Muhammad’s successor, the caliph.

For almost a century after Muhammad, there were no “Sunnis” as we know the term today. Muslims mainly included a minority of Ali’s supporters (Shiites) against the rest of the Muslims in power, largely Ali’s enemies.

Under powerful caliphs, the majority of Muslims were anti-Shiites who created traditions, projected them back in time, and attributed them to Muhammad’s own word. These Muslims became the earliest manifestation of Sunnis, the adherents and lovers of Muhammad’s Sunna (commands and pattern of life). The Shiites, on their part, created a different set of religious traditions, established opposing doctrines, and advanced different practices to elevate Shiism and fault Sunnism.

Each camp sought legitimization by inventing more traditions, claiming the other mistaken at best or unbeliever at worst. Identifying the other as an unbelieving “infidel” was an additional layer, needed for political and religious advancement.

Against this backdrop, we can now understand more what was in the head and heart of the Afghani Sunni bomber.

He sought to kill as many Shiites as he could. After all, he views them as unbelievers and “Allah is an enemy to the disbelievers.” For the bomber, the Quran literally commands him to slay the infidels wherever he finds them.

But why would anyone seek to commit a suicide to kill unbelievers?

For the Afghani bomber, this was not a suicide. It was martyrdom and it guaranteed him eternal life in paradise. According to major Islamic texts, there is no eternal assurance in Islam, except for martyrs who give their lives for Allah’s sake. Only martyrs are guaranteed a blissful afterlife, as Allah promises they would marry “fair women with beautiful, big, and lustrous eyes.”

Thus, for such Sunnis, violence against Shiites is religiously sanctioned. Religious teachings matter, as Christians especially understand.


A.S. Ibrahim

A.S. Ibrahim, born and raised in Egypt, holds two PhDs with an emphasis on Islam and its history. He is a professor of Islamic studies and director of the Jenkins Center for the Christian Understanding of Islam at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has taught at several schools in the United States and the Middle East, and authored A Concise Guide to the Life of Muhammad (Baker Academic, 2022), Conversion to Islam (Oxford University Press, 2021), Basics of Arabic (Zondervan 2021), A Concise Guide to the Quran (Baker Academic, 2020), and The Stated Motivations for the Early Islamic Expansion (Peter Lang, 2018), among others.


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