God’s Attributes: Between Mercy and Wrath
Classical discussions on the topic of suicide center not just on the act of suicide, but how this act is related to the divine attributes of mercy, punishment, and forgiveness. The texts related to these attributes are multifaceted and their interpretations must be contextualized and tempered through a holistic reading.
God describes himself in sacred texts as having “beautiful names, so call upon him using them.” These names impart divine attributes, qualities and characteristics which He has described Himself by. They inform us of how God himself views our actions and how He will hold us accountable for them. God describes himself as Merciful, Kind, and Loving. He also describes himself as Judge, Wrathful, and Retributing.
How then do we reconcile these seemingly contradictory attributes? How can God be Merciful and Kind, while Wrathful and Severe in punishment? In the Quran 7:156 God states: “My chastisement — I smite with it whom I will; and My mercy embraces all things, and I shall prescribe it for those who are God-fearing and pay the alms, and those who indeed believe in Our signs… (156).” So while God is Merciful and His mercy embraces all things, He still punishes his servants for their transgressions. He exacts justice from wrongdoers on behalf of those who’ve been wronged. This act is done within the embrace of His mercy. To treat all – sinner and saint – the same, would not be just or merciful.
In a hadith related by al-Bukhari in his Sahih, the Prophet said “When God ordained creation, He wrote with Him above the throne: My mercy outstrips my wrath” In Surat al-Zumar 39:53 God says: “O my servants who have been excessive against themselves, do not despair from God’s mercy. God forgives all sins.” Al-Bukhari (#4810) relates Ibn ‘Abbas as saying that a group of polytheists came to the Prophet, having committed excessive murder and fornication. They said to Muhammad “What you say and call to is good, if you can inform us of an expiation for our actions.” This verse was then revealed “…those who call not upon another god with God, nor slay the soul God has forbidden except by right, neither fornicate, for whosoever does that shall meet the price…(68) ” (al-Furqan 25:68) as well as this verse “O my servants who have been excessive against themselves, do not despair from God’s mercy. God forgives all sins.” (Zumar 39:53)
These as well as other texts indicate that the primary objective of Islamic theology, and thus its law, is the actualization of compassion and grace coupled with necessary penance and penalty. The byproduct of these two being justice in both clemency and correction. Thus, an individual seeks forgiveness and hopes for mercy, while being persuaded to repent and admit responsibility when having committed a wrong. God embraces all in mercy, punishes whom He wills, and relegates by His will those He wishes to reward. Thus a function of God’s mercy and a manifestation of it is His taking those who have committed some wrong to account. Whether they are punished or forgiven however is another issue.
The Sin of Killing
Killing another soul is a deadly sin, likened to killing all of humanity. “Therefore We prescribed for the Children of Israel that whoso slays a soul not to retaliate for a soul slain, nor for corruption done in the land, shall be as if he had slain mankind altogether; and whoso gives life to a soul, shall be as if he ha given life to mankind altogether. Our Messengers have already come to them with the clear signs; then many of them thereafter commit excesses in the earth.” (Quran 5:32) and His statement, “And slay not the soul God has forbidden, except by right.” (Quran 17:33) as well as “And whoso slays a believer wilfully, his recompense is Hellfire, therein dwelling forever, and God will be wroth with him and will curse him, and prepare for him a mighty chastisement.” (4:93) In Bukhari and Muslim the Prophet said, “Beware of the seven deadly sins… killing a soul God has forbidden except by right.” In another hadith found in al-Nasa’i, “The cessation of this world is easier in God’s sight then the killing of a Muslim person.”
Commenting on these verses, al-Razi says in Mafatih al-Ghayb (20/336), “As for killing, it is a form of eradication after existence… the prohibition of killing then refers back to the prohibition of eliminating life.” While these words may sounds like al-Razi is saying something as obvious as “Water is wet” in reality he’s trying to drill down on the sin of killing. Killing isn’t sinful simply because it was forbidden. Killing is sinful because it destroys life and eliminates it from existence, something that only God has the right to do “and that it is He who makes to die, and that makes to live.” (Quran 53:44)
So if eliminating life is a sin, does this apply to killing one’s self?
Does this Apply to One’s Own Soul?
In Surat al-Nisa, verses 29-30 “And kill not yourselves. Surely God is compassionate to you. But whosoever does that in transgression and wrongfully, him We shall certainly roast at a Fire; and that for God is an easy matter.”
The phrase in the verse “kill not yourselves” and those similar to it in the Quran like “Do not spill your blood…” (Quran 2:84) can be interpreted in one of three ways (al-Zarkashi, al-Bahr al-Muhit, 1/465):
- One of you should not kill another, the killer and killed being different.
- Do not do things that would obligate your execution, by killing others, committing Zina, or terrorizing the populace,
- One of you should not kill himself.
Al-Shatibi says “Stringent warnings have been issued against one that kills himself. Likewise, drinking wine was forbidden due to its effect on one’s mental capacity and how it removes one’s cognizance for a time; how much worse then is someone who removes it outright and permanently?” He then says “Maintaining sanctity of life, mind, and body is a right belonging to God over his servants, not one of theirs. The fact that these things were not left up to their choice is evidence of this. So when God Most High has granted his servant life, mind, and body by which he is able to fulfill that required of him, it is then impermissible for him to eliminate them.” (al-Muwafaqat 3/102)
Therefore killing oneself is an act which is a sin, a major sin at that. However, does the commission of an act of sin necessitate one be sinful in all cases? And when one sins, is that sin unforgivable? In other words, if a person were to die by suicide, does that mean they’ve committed a major sin in all cases? Or that if they did they are not worthy of prayers, forgiveness, and compassion?
These are the questions we’ll explore in part 3.