Insanity, Suicide, Kufr, and the Need for Scholars

Shaykh Faraz Rabbani untangles certain recurring misconceptions regarding insanity, suicide, kufr, how these misconceptions arise, and how to dispel them through knowledge.

I’ve been told that people who suffer from mental illness may be exempt from certain aspects of Shari‘a. If that’s the case, why is suicide punishable given that a lot of people that commit suicide surely have some sort of mental illness?

Moral Responsibility and Legal Capacity

Our religion is the religion of Allah, the Wise, the Just,the Merciful, and in that not everything is black or white. There are also gradations in between. When we look at a soul there are those who are considered morally responsible. The same adult who is an adult with full legal capacity. Then you have those who don’t have legal capacity, such as the children or the insane.

But then there are also intermediate cases, e.g. with children there’s a difference between the young child and the discerning child. The child is gradually morally responsible, without being morally accountable. It is a responsibility granted as training for when they hit adulthood. So they’re generally encouraged, then, specifically encouraged, then, commanded with respect to the obligations.

Degrees of Insanity

Similarly not all those lacking mental capacity, short of full sanity, are at the same level. You have what’s called al-majnun. Someone who is legally insane or lacking legal capacity. But then there are different cases of insanity.

Some people are bereft of sanity. Day in day out, they’re not able to discern and distinguish between benefit and harm, right and wrong. They’re not able to make informed choices. That’s one type of insanity: insanity that lasts.

Then there’s also the lunatic. There’s incapacity that affects someone such that they may be sane at times and lacking sanity at other times. For example in our times like someone who’s bipolar in intense cases could be oscillating between when they have capacity and when they don’t.

Then there’s also an intermediate state between full legal capacity and the legally insane or the one without legal capacity, which is someone with partial legal capacity. A person with partial legal capacity is treated like the discerning child. To the extent of their capacity to discern, they’re encouraged to do the good. They’re encouraged to uphold legal responsibility in the things within their capacity but they”re not ultimately legally accountable, just like a discerning child.

Suicide Is a Major Sin

Different cases differ. Allah Most High tells us: “Allah does not hold the soul responsible for more than its capacity.” (Sura al-Baqara 2:286) We have a very nuanced, balanced, fair, set of legal criteria by which to outwardly judge different types of individuals and their capacity so that we are able to guide them towards their best interests.

Ultimately, Allah knows every single person and where they are with respect to their responsibilities. When it comes to suicide, the ruling of suicide is that committing suicide is prohibited, and suicide is itself a major sin. However, committing suicide is not kufr. Sins are one thing. Disbelief is another.

Just as we preserve the lives of others the first life that we preserve is our own, and no one should willfully take their life. That has implications in terms of end-of-life issues and so on. However, if someone commits suicide, we don’t hasten to judge. We don’t know what triggered it. What was their mental state and what would we call legal capacity at the time they made that decision?

Sensitivity Is Key

We have to be sensitive, firstly, with respect to the person themselves. We don’t know what state they were in. Secondly, we also have to be sensitive to the living. Their family has suffered a serious loss and so on. But at the same that we don’t affirm the absurd.

We’re not there to judge in the accusation manner: “That was wrong. They’re going to hell.” – Well, who are you? Are you the Lord? At the same time, we don’t we don’t go into conjectural rulings as well: “O, Allah will forgive him because he was in a bad situation.” It’s not your decision to make. These are sensitive situations.

Most of the times these kinds of confusions arise when things like that happen within a within a family, within a community – the trouble arises in these kinds of difficult situations because of two reasons. One is from people who take religion directly from texts without appreciating their context and understanding.

Textual Literalism and the Need for Scholars

People say, “O, there are hadith that say the person who commits suicide will be punished forever.” No, there isn’t. That’s not what the hadith is saying. What is the understanding sound understanding of that hadith? That’s one danger. And the connecting danger is, especially, the application of specific rules to particular situations is a specialized skill. That is why communities require scholars of guidance.

When people deal with a sensitive situation, how do you deal with it with these considerations? One cannot take a ruling from a book and apply it to a specific situation just like that, without training, because it is likely that the harm would be greater. There’s likely harm.

We should heed the divine command: “Ask the people of remembrance if you know not.” This of course requires attention to supporting institutions that facilitate scholars to be teaching in their communities. We have to have people of knowledge in every community.

It is obligatory that there be jurists who have the capacity, who have learned our religious tradition soundly and reliably, and who are trained to apply that to the the social and lived context of individuals and communities that they operate in. That is critical and we have grave shortcomings in that around the world.

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"Whoever guides someone to goodness will have a similar reward"-- The Prophet (Peace and Blessings Be Upon Him)