Why do some Muslims become suicide bombers or “martyrs”? In fact, these two near antithetic words — on the one hand, broken, desperate suicides, on the other, heroic martyrs — intrinsically demonstrate the radically different epistemologies the average Westerner and Muslim will articulate their answer through. In other words, that Westerners consider them suicides while Muslims consider them martyrs in and of itself speaks volumes on motivation.
To the secular Western mind, such Muslims are simply frustrated: oppressed and depressed, and with nothing to lose, these Muslims (so the logic goes) end their suffering in the name of some “noble” cause — be it the “liberation of al-Aqsa” or the razing of U.S. skyscrapers. All their talk about Islam, “obligations,” or 72 dark-eyed virgins is but a cover for their true motivation: “revenge” on the one hand, escape from an oppressive existence on the other. Most recently, “shame” has been cited as another culprit: al-Qaeda has been raping and thereby shaming women — and men — into becoming “martyrs.”
Conversely, from a purely Muslim point of view, becoming a martyr is not only a guarantee to eternal paradise — which, if many secular Westerners deem “silly,” the devotees of Allah take very seriously — but a paradise that may appeal to some of man’s most libidinous desires. Thus, whereas the Christian heaven is purely spiritual — “they shall neither marry nor give into marriage” (Matthew 22:30) and not necessarily “enticing” — some Muslim accounts of paradise are downright hedonistic.
Scriptural references demonstrative of this are many. Consider Koran 36:55-56: “For the inhabitants of paradise on that day shall be engaged in joyous activities [shughlin fakihun] — they and their wives, reclined on raised cushions.” A number of the most authoritative exegetes, such as Ibn Kathir (see here), have interpreted “engaged in joyous activities” as meaning “they will be busy deflowering virgins.” (See also al-Jalalayn‘s tafsir, where he concurs.)
That said, it is of course difficult to accept that any Muslim man would become a suicide bomber primarily because he wants to copulate in perpetuity — even if Islam’s prophet is on the record saying that men in heaven will have the sexual potency of 100 men (to better handle the countless maidens). Also, what about women, who have increasingly taken to becoming suicide bombers? Surely sex is not their motivation.
However, before concluding that Muslims become suicide bombers purely out of desperation, frustration, or shame, it should be borne in mind that, aside from the theological guarantee of a hedonistic paradise, there is yet another, antithetical reason that may subtly compel Muslims to seek martyrdom.
This is the little-known doctrine of ‘adhab al-qabr, or the “torments of the grave.” Anyone familiar with Islam’s texts has repeatedly come across this curious phrase; anyone who has listened to Muslim sermons has been severely warned against it. The torments of the grave are a very real doctrine that has the tendency to drive believers to despair — I have watched grown men and women on Arabic satellite relay the terror this doctrine has worked in their lives — making them eager to do whatever is necessary to avoid it.
Based on a close reading of Islam’s texts, the following account represents Sunni Islam’s standard teachings of after-death experiences:
First, the soul is said to return to the corpse while it is interred. As the pallbearers carry the body to the grave, its soul follows behind crying, “Oh my, wherever are they taking me?!” — all while the gaping grave moans, “I am the house of strangeness; I am the house of loneliness; I am the house of dust; I am the house of worms.”
After being laid to rest by the gravediggers, the dead “hear” the gravediggers as they walk away — implying, as the forthcoming torments suggest, and ulema maintain, that the dead experience “physical” sensations. (Perhaps this is why Muslims are in the habit of offering audible “greetings” to the dead — who “hear” — whenever they pass their graves?)
Every soul, once entombed along with its body, is tried by two angels. The hadith states: “His [the dead's] soul returns to his body; then two angels arrive and sit him up for questioning” — specifically, “Who is your lord, what is your religion, who is your prophet?” If he answers Allah, Islam, and Muhammad, respectively, he is granted paradise; if not, the torments begin.
While these questions appear deceptively easy to answer, and thus even the most nominal Muslim should be able to pass this ghoulish inquisition unscathed, the reason Muslims fear failing the test may be associated with Islam’s infamous fatalism: “Those who believe, Allah will strengthen with a firm word, in this world and the hereafter; but the unjust he leads astray [in this world and the hereafter]. Allah does what he will” (Koran 14:27). Ulema have interpreted this verse as revolving around the angels’ interrogation and the ability of the dead — or rather, Allah’s desire for them — to answer right or wrong.
As for infidels and nominal Muslims (al-muslim al-‘assi), their response to each of the angels’ questions is inevitably: “Uh, uh … I don’t know.” After being verbally chastised by the angels and a “voice from heaven,” the torments begin in earnest.