The religious phrase allegedly uttered by a co-pilot of EgyptAir 990 is not one a Muslim would likely recite in the face of imminent death, especially by his own hand, according to several local Muslims.
More likely, they said, he would recite the shehada, Islam's basic profession of belief: "There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet."
If the pilot "had said the shehada and then taken off the autopilot, I'd have considered that he committed suicide," said Amira Sonbol, an Egyptian American who teaches women's studies and law at Georgetown University. "And there are other things he could have said, including 'Forgive me, God,' " she added.
Muslims also find it puzzling that the everyday phrase on the cockpit voice recorder--translated as "I put my faith in God"--has acquired such a large profile in official efforts to determine what brought down the fatal flight.
"It's a phrase that could be used in so many circumstances that it's difficult to draw conclusions from it," said Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad of the Minaret of Freedom Institute in Bethesda. It would be "appropriate in a time of uncertainty, say if there were some problem with the plane and he was taking action to deal with it."
But to put it in a context of suicide, he added, "seems self-contradictory because Muslims believe suicide is one of the most serious sins one could commit. So to say, 'I put my trust in God' is like saying 'I'm looking forward to going to hell.' "
"It's just very strange. It doesn't add up," Ahmad said. "Of course, it doesn't mean it's impossible. One doesn't know what is in people's heads."
Another prayer often prompted by the nearness of death is the Koranic verse (2:156), which closely resembles the Christian reflection on death: "To Allah we belong and to him is our return."
"If that prayer had been [heard on the tape], then I would say someone is ready to go to his maker," said Mohamad Yusuff, editor of the Voice of Islam, a newsletter in Silver Spring. "That is the prayer every Muslim, especially someone in distress or when someone dies, says."
Ahmad of the Minaret of Freedom Institute sought to explain why many Muslims are perplexed. "Suppose it was a Christian pilot and at that same moment he said, 'God help us all.' What would you conclude from that?" he asked. "It would be a bit of a stretch to say that is evidence of a suicide."
These Muslims reflect mainstream Islam, which regards suicide as a grave sin. But some radical Islamic political movements, mainly in the Middle East, have developed an alternative belief: that self-inflicted death, as in a suicide-bombing, is permissible when fighting enemies of Islam.
So far, there is no evidence from the investigation that the co-pilot who put his fate in God's hands subscribed to that minority belief.