CAIRO — Haitham Nasser is very happy with his life in Lebanon. The 30-year-old has three children, a university degree in journalism and a comfortable home. But Nasser is every Israeli's nightmare: a man who wants nothing more than to strap explosives on his chest, slip into the Jewish state and blow himself up, taking with him as many of the enemy as possible.
Nasser's motivation is political, but his justification is religious. A devout Muslim, he believes that his sacrifice would be an act of martyrdom assuring automatic entry to heaven, and so he is frustrated that the military leaders of the radical Hezbollah militia have allowed him to fight but not become a bomber.
"I am ready now, tomorrow and every time because we have territory occupied by Israel," he said in a telephone interview arranged by Hezbollah. "We are believers, deep believers."
But even believers disagree on whether such acts lead to salvation or damnation. Although the concept of martyrdom is promoted by many religious and hard-line political leaders as they recruit bombers, two of the region's highest religious authorities have recently issued statements that question the legitimacy of the practice. One called it haram, or a sin, and the other said it is only permissible when aimed at combatants, not civilians.
"As for the method by which a person kills himself among the enemy . . . I do not know it to have justification in the Sharia," said the supreme religious leader of Saudi Arabia, Sheik Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah al Sheik, speaking of Islamic law. "I fear that it is considered suicide."
That fatwa, or religious edict, printed in a Saudi newspaper at the end of April, was followed a few weeks later by comments from one of the most influential doctrinal authorities in the Sunni Muslim world, Mohammed Sayed Tantawi.
"If a person blows himself up, as in operations that Palestinian youths carry out against those they are fighting, then he is a martyr," Tantawi said in comments published in Egypt's semiofficial newspaper, Al Ahram. "But if he explodes himself among babies or women or old people who are not fighting the war, then he is not considered a martyr."
The distinction is an especially emotional point for Muslims because their faith is unforgiving about suicide. Those who take their own lives are cast out from the religion, denied burial in a Muslim cemetery and condemned to eternal damnation.
"Do not kill yourselves, for Allah is compassionate toward you. Whoever does so, in transgression, and wrongfully, we shall roast in a fire," reads one verse in the Koran.
As a result, many have looked to the comments of one of Islam's most influential scholars, Sheik Yousef al Qaradawi, a moderate Egyptian cleric based in Qatar who upheld the practice.
"They are not suicide operations," the sheik told the Qatari newspaper Al Raya in April. "These are heroic martyrdom operations, and the heroes who carry them out don't embark on this action out of hopelessness and despair but are driven by an overwhelming desire to cast terror and fear into the hearts of the oppressors."
Like many religions, Islam has no one authoritative voice, so there is not one person or body to resolve the debate. Not only are there the two major branches, Sunni and Shiite, which split in the 7th century and differ in doctrine, religious law and theology, but each Muslim is theoretically free to follow his own sage.
As a result, there is a great deal of theological hairsplitting taking place, with proponents focusing on the motivation, and critics on the act itself.
In the middle is an Arab public that strongly supports the Palestinians in their fight with Israel and has generally come to accept the practice as necessary. But this support rests on a fragile foundation, leading proponents to lash out at anyone, even a respected religious leader, who takes an opposing view.
"What was said against the suicide operations was meant to undermine the anti-Israeli struggle," Hezbollah cleric Sheik Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah charged on the group's Web site shortly after Tantawi's statements were published. "It is the duty of all Muslims to engage in Islamic jihad [holy war] if it ensures the ultimate goal, which consists in inflicting losses on the enemy."
Yet even Hezbollah had to engage in a bit of theological sleight-of-hand on Tantawi's main point, which is not in dispute: that blowing up innocent civilians does not make one a martyr. To justify attacks like the bombing May 18 that left six dead outside a shopping center in the Israeli coastal city of Netanya, some clerics argue that all Israeli citizens--except, perhaps, children--are fair game because the Jewish state is in effect a military camp.
"If it were anywhere else but Israel, [Tantawi's] words would be fully implemented, but not in Israel, because its society is a military barrack," said Hezbollah cleric Sheik Afif Naboulsi.