By John Esposito, Ph.D.

WASHINGTON - Why is Islam such a violent religion? Does the Qur'an condone acts of terrorism? Why haven't Muslims denounced the 9/11 attacks and suicide bombing?

Whether in the media or public discussions, these are common and persistent questions. But, in fact, major Muslim religious leaders and Muslim organisations have and do speak out. The media tends not to find these fatwas (religious legal opinions) and statements newsworthy but they are available on the internet.

Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, for example, Muhammad Abdur-Rashid, the most senior Muslim chaplain in the American armed forces, asked for a fatwa about whether American Muslim military could participate in the war in Afghanistan and in other Muslim countries. A group of prominent religious authorities concluded that "All Muslims ought to be united against all those who terrorise the innocents, and those who permit the killing of non-combatants without a justifiable reason" and that it was acceptable "to partake in the fighting in the upcoming battles, against whomever their country decides has perpetrated terrorism against them."

Islam, like other religions, distinguishes between legitimate and illegitimate acts of violence. The Qur'an does not advocate or condone illegitimate violence or terrorism. The Islamic tradition places extensive limits on the use of violence and rejects terrorism, hijackings and hostage taking. However, Muslims are permitted, indeed at times required, to defend their religion, their families and the Islamic community from aggression.

What about suicide bombers? What about violence against non-combatants? Since the late twentieth century, these issues have resurfaced in Israel-Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq, Pakistan, Indonesia, America and Europe as suicide bombing has come to be equated with martyrdom, relinquishing one's life for defence of Islam and the community.

Debates over legitimate versus illegitimate violence have been highlighted by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Prophetic traditions (narrative stories about Muhammad's words and deeds) clearly and absolutely prohibit suicide because only God has the right to take the life he has granted. Historically, both Sunni and Shi'a Muslims have generally forbidden religious suicide and acts of terrorism.

Suicide attacks, especially those that target innocent civilians or non-combatants, have precipitated a sharp debate among prominent religious authorities in the Muslim world. Sheikh Ahmad Yasin, the late religious leader and founder of Hamas, and Akram Sabri, the Mufti of Jerusalem, as well as many other Arab and Palestinian religious leaders, have argued that suicide bombing is necessary and justified when faced with Israel's illegal occupation and overwhelming military power.

Others condemn suicide bombings, in particular those that target civilians, as terrorism. The Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia condemns all suicide bombing as un-Islamic and forbidden by Islam. Sheikh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, the former Grand Mufti of Egypt and current Sheikh of al-Azhar, and thus a major religious authority, draws a sharp distinction between suicide bombings that are acts of self-sacrifice and self-defence to defend one's land and help the oppressed and the killing of non-combatants, women and children, which he has consistently opposed.