Tragedy Sheds Light on
Novermber 24, 1999
religious leaders and educators have been barraged with questions about
Islamic teachings on suicide as the crash of EgyptAir Flight 990
continues to be investigated. Since the plane went down near Nantucket
Island on Oct. 31, news reporters as well as students of Islam and
others curious about the faith have prompted on-the-spot instruction by
religious experts in Los Angeles and across the country.
Early investigators of the crash suggested
that a common Muslim saying--Tawakalt ala Allah, an Arabic prayer that
means, "I depend on God"--was spoken by co-pilot Gamil Batouty
of Cairo as the plane dropped from the sky. They suggested that it could
indicate an intentional crash.
Muslim leaders were quick to point out
that the report showed a lack of understanding about the basic teachings
of the faith.
"Suicide is a major sin, not accepted
under any circumstance," said Maher Hathout, spokesman for the
Islamic Center of Southern California. "Muslims believe that God is
more compassionate than I am. Suicide is the assumption that I am more
compassionate than God."
An act of self-destruction has eternal
consequences, according to Islamic teaching.
"Muslims believe that death is not an
end; it is the beginning of eternity," Hathout said. "It can
be spent in hellfire or heaven. To commit suicide is to begin a life of
A native of Egypt who lost a cousin in the
crash, Hathout said he offered his services to the FBI, to help
interpret the tape, but he has not yet been contacted.
Those familiar with Egyptian culture point
out that both Muslims and Christians invoke the name of God dozens of
times every day. Georgetown University professor Yvonne Haddad, a
Presbyterian born in Egypt, teaches the history of Islam's
"In the Arab culture, you pray all
day long," she said. "Arab Muslims started it, and Arab
Christians took up the habit. It is a cultural practice to call upon
Allah. I do it when I sit down, stand up, bang my head or anything
Haddad said that the words "I depend
on God" are displayed in homes and stores throughout the Middle
East as an expression of piety. In reading about Batouty's last prayer
on the plane, she had a strong reaction.
"I thought: That man was in
distress," she said. "He put his trust in God, he was
dependent on God." The fact that he repeated the phrase as many as
14 times suggests that he was constantly asking God to be with him and
give him strength, Haddad said.
Muslim terrorists also call on God before
committing violent acts, reciting the Shahada, the official declaration
of faith: "There is no god but God, and Muhammad is his
messenger." But other Muslims speak the same words at the start of
the formal prayers they say five times daily. Converts to Islam can say
the Shahada before five witnesses as a sort of baptism into the faith.
No prayer is associated exclusively with terrorist acts, Haddad said.
* * * The basic teaching against taking
one's own life is similar in Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Suicide
was condemned as a mortal sin from the time of the early Christian
church. It is only in the modern age that most Christian denominations
allow suicide victims to be buried in the church cemetery.
"Well past the Middle Ages, church
ground was considered sacred, and only saints could be buried
there," said Ray Andersen, professor of theology at Fuller
Theological Seminary in Pasadena. In Judaism, the law prohibits suicide,
but a person can allow himself to be killed if the only other option is
to murder another, commit adultery or perform idolatry, said David
Lieber, professor of biblical literature and thought at the University
of Judaism in Los Angeles.
Nasreen Haroon, a lifelong Muslim and
member of the West Side Interfaith Council in Los Angeles, speaks about
her faith to college students and non-Muslim religious congregations.
"The question will come up," she
said of the EgyptAir crash and its aftermath. "In Islam, there is
no such thing as committing suicide for some religious
reason--especially if it involves killing so many other people who were
also in the plane. It doesn't fit, not with Islam or any faith."
Michael Wolfe, an author of travel books
and a Muslim convert from Christianity, said that conversations he has
had about the crash all lead to similar conclusions.
"To impugn the character of the
co-pilot at this point is very premature," he said. The crash is
likely to take months to investigate.
Two recent disasters--the bombing of a
federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995 and the crash of TWA Flight
800 off the Long Island coast in 1996--raised early speculation about
Islamic terrorism, only to be disproved in later reports. Religious
observers see the need for a different approach in the future.
"Government needs to pull up its
socks," said David Little, an expert in religious conflict who
teaches at Harvard Divinity School. Little argues that government
investigators of the EgyptAir crash should have called on Egyptian
religious and cultural experts from the beginning. "Supervisors
need to reach out to the experts immediately," he said. "A
public statement early on, explaining that 'we need help in this
sensitive area,' would help."