Tragedy Sheds Light on Religion, Suicide

Novermber 24, 1999

By MARY ROURKE, Times Staff Writer

     Muslim 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 eternal suffering."
     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 Christian-Muslim relations.
     "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 else."
     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."