Martyrdom, Self-Sacrifice, and Self-Immolation

Religious Perspectives on Suicide

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Margo Kitts
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , June
     360 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


A veteran contributor to scholarship on religion and violence, Margo Kitts brings fifteen essays into a coherent and wide-ranging presentation on martyrdom and suicide across religious traditions. Rejecting the theological apologetic that dismisses suicide as an act that is not “genuinely religious,” the contributors to Martyrdom, Self-Sacrifice, and Self-Immolation examine Jewish, Christian, Islamic, Hindu, Jain, Sikh, Daoist, and Buddhist motivations for suicide from literary, sociopolitical, psychological, philosophical, and theological standpoints.

In her introduction, Kitts reminds readers that early Christian martyrs, whose reputations for sanctity have been burnished with the patina of centuries, scandalized ancient writers from Marcus Aurelius to Lucian. Controversy over the acceptability of suicide, or willingly subjecting oneself to martyrdom, does not simply separate insiders and outsiders in any given tradition; rather, the morality of suicide is debated within various religions. Philo and Josephus did not use the example of the besieged Jews at Masada to outline general conditions under which suicide would be acceptable, and elective death is viewed more positively in some hadith than it was in the beginnings of Islamic tradition. Particularly valuable in the introduction is Kitts’s sharp distinction between martyrdom and the category of sacrifice, the latter of which is often uncritically equated with ritual killing and violence. This is not a book primarily about scapegoating or violence against othersbut an anthology with a specific focus on self-sacrifice. 

Shmuel Shepkaru’s essay on early Jewish martyrdom debunks the assumption that biblical characters who voluntarily submitted to death provide models for Jewish attitudes towards suicide. He also notes that Isaac’s attitude towards his near-death in Genesis is not discernible from the Torah. Contact with Roman imperialism and its heroic ideology of death, however, prodded Jews like Josephus to develop a Jewish ideal of martyrdom that persisted into the talmudic period. Gail Streete reviews strategies by which early Christians such as Justin Martyr and Augustine distinguished martyrdom from suicide, even while a Christian like Tertullian praised the suicide of the pagan noblewoman Lucretia. The ideology of early Christian martyrdom opened boundaries of gender fluidity in a patriarchal culture, as women like Perpetua gained access to masculinity by accepting death. Catherine Wessinger brings the presentation into the 1990s with her profile of the Branch Davidians and Heaven’s Gate, probing the trajectory by which these two millennial groups moved from dualistic worldviews to a willingness to die for their beliefs.

The next three essays examine Islamic history and theology. Asma Afsaruddin and Mohammed Hafez’s essays are high points in the book as both historicize Muslim ideologies of suicide too often reified both by Islamists and their Western opponents without an acknowledgement of social contexts. Afsaruddin’s essay stands apart as one valuable for use in classrooms, as she walks readers through texts from the Qur’an and the hadith to demonstrate that debates over the proper qualification for a shahid (i.e., pious believer or military martyr) were as contested at Islam’s beginnings as they are today. With suicide forbidden by the Qur’an, it was incumbent upon early Muslim writers to make a distinction between suicide and martyrdom, and such a distinction allowed the heroic ideal of the self-sacrificing warrior to take root within three centuries of Islam’s beginnings. Hafez’s chapter provides a contemporary look at the same issue, highlighting the gap between the jihadist appeal to scriptures and jihadi hermeneutics, which prefers subjective intentionality and figurative interpretation to literal exegesis of the Qur’an. 

Moving to India, Mary Storm reminds us that modern Western understandings of the self are very different from premodern constructions of the same: “It may be a challenge for our contemporary selves to understand the motivations for mors voluntaria in societies so removed by time and philosophy” (141). Vedic understandings of sacrifice posit a link between devotees and cosmology, and the reactions to Vedic religion on the subcontinent over the centuries are reminiscent of the manner in which contemporary identity politics have prompted a reexamination of the meaning of selfhood. David Brick’s essay on sati provides another example of internal debate about sacrifice within a tradition, as apologetic attempts to find textual support for sati in the vedic corpus mask what in fact was a dramatic departure from classic soteriology. Self-starvation (sallekhanā) in Jainism is the subject of Anne Vallely’s chapter, and she explains how this traditional ascetic practice has had to differentiate itself from suicide under pressure from both colonial and post-colonial legal strictures. Benjamin Schonthal profiles what happens in Sri Lanka when the militant Liberation Tigers craft a rationale for suicide attacks that tries to appeal to both religious and non-religious audiences.

The final three essays in the book present Buddhist perspectives, beginning with Reiko Ohnuma’s essay on the ambivalent evaluation of embodiment in rationales for elective death. Jacqueline Stone’s concluding essay on suicide in Japanese Pure Land Buddhism makes clear that intentionality and mental purity provided the decisive criterion for distinguishing between elective deaths that liberate and suicides that indicate spiritual delusion and grief.

Kitts has recruited a first-rate lineup of scholars who cover a vast array of classical and contemporary texts. The volume, however, remains tightly focused and cohesive. Whatever theories one desires to proffer about suicide and religion must be grounded in a recognition of the diverse panoply of attitudes towards self-sacrifice in history and diverse cultures. A common theme throughout the essays is the continuing attempt to reinterpret normative religious texts in the light of changing historical contexts. This demonstrates that religious violence, even violence against the self, always has a genealogy. A second unifying motif, emerging in groups from Indian Buddhists to the members of Heaven’s Gate, is the anxious and persistent urge to provide a compelling evaluation of embodiment as it relates to suicide: are religious adherents sloughing off a useless skin or offering up something of tremendous value? However readers answer these questions, this book, with copious works cited lists for each chapter, is recommended for scholars researching the nexus of religion and voluntary death.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Christopher Denny is Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at St. John's University in New York City.

Date of Review: 
September 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Margo Kitts is Professor and Coordinator of Religious Studies and East-West Classical Studies at Hawai'i Pacific University. She is the author or editor of six books and over 30 articles dealing with ancient literature and/or religion and violence. She edits the Journal of Religion and Violence, and co-edits the monograph series, Cambridge Elements of Religion and Violence.


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