By Moin Qazi, New Age Islam
9 October 2015
One of the issues that has continually perplexed both Islamic theology and libertarian scholarship is the proper conception of martyrdom m [Shahada or Istishhad]. The debate over the position of martyrdom in Islam has resonated both in the Islamic and non Islamic world. Martyrdom and suicide have a wafer thin line demarcating them; both are characterized by surrender of one’s life .In Islam the consequences of each occupy two extreme ends of the spectrum .While martyrdom is a highly supreme virtue suicide is a sin of grave depravity.
How do we delineate the contours of each of them given the fact that this self killing may be actuated by the temptation for a splendorous after-life? While Islam extols martyrdom and goads Muslims to attain it as a gateway to an assured paradise, it severely condemns suicide with the act directly leading the doer through the doors of Hell. In terms of Islamic belief, our life is God’s gift; what we do with it is our offering to Him. Life is a trust and has to be honoured and respected.
The role of indoctrination in propelling individuals to take recourse to self killing need not be overemphasized. But what is the role of human will in the calculus. We see so many young boys, and in some cases even girls, blowing themselves for what they call safeguarding or furthering their faith
Indoctrination is an expertise and it has the capacity to totally transform the mind. Where there are young, immature but fertile minds doctrinaires can turn them into breeding soil for virulent emotions .They then become remotely controlled robotic tools who seem to have forfeited their mental apparatus .their emotions are so craftfully manipulated by the doctrinaires that the core objectives are achieved with great precision .So lethal is the doctrinal armoury.
The real challenge is the analysis and formulation of a position as to whether these deaths are suicides or martyrdoms. The Islamic discourse repeatedly emphasizes the selflessness of the acts of the individuals with death being a by-product of a pursuit of a Islamic ideal. The simple formulaic maxim is: if you are blowing yourself up in the hope and inducement of being rewarded Paradise and the attendant virgins and that remains the primary objective, it is not martyrdom but suicide .The death is not a planned act in martyrdom but is incidental to an action undertaken for defending the faith.
The martyr operation is the greatest of all sorts of jihad in the cause of Allah. A martyr operation is carried out by a person who sacrifices himself, deeming his life [of] less value than striving in the cause of Allah, in the cause of restoring the land and preserving the dignity. To such a valorous attitude applies the following Qur'anic verse: "And of mankind is he who would sell himself, seeking the pleasure of Allah; and Allah hath compassion on (His) bondmen." (Q 2: 207)
Suicide is an act or instance of killing oneself intentionally out of despair, and finding no outlet except putting an end to one's life. On the other hand, martyrdom is a heroic act of choosing to suffer death in the cause of God, and that's why it's considered by most Muslim scholars as one of the greatest forms of jihad.
Today the jihadist ideology, slickly packaged and repackaged on the Internet and social media, seems able to lure an endless supply of new recruits to terrorist groups who are killing themselves believing that they would go down in the twilight of Islam’s history as shining knights .These killing are being given a gloss of martyrdom without any serious efforts to ponder or explore deeply into the Islamic discourse on the subject. Despite the powerful works of a few ideologues, a majority of Muslim scholars reject the use of violence and particularly abhor suicide, arguing that the Prophet of Islam prohibited taking one’s life. According to the Prophet, suicide prohibited a believer from entering paradise (i.e. the gates of Paradise will be closed forever to anyone who takes his/her own life). And yet the literature of martyrdom by militant groups argues the opposite. The main distinction is that militants reject the Western use of the word “suicide” and choose to label their attacks “martyrdom operations” (‘Amaliyat Istishhadiyaa), recognizing that Islam strictly forbids suicide. By carefully selecting the word “martyrdom” (literally to bear witness and to sacrifice for faith), religious radicals / elites and their followers justify “suicide” as legitimate, legal, and laudable.
The word Shahid (plural Shahada) has the meaning of “martyr” and is closely related in its development to the Greek martyrios in that it means both a witness and a martyr (i.e., a person who suffers or dies deliberately for the sake of affirming the truth of a belief system). Although Shahid in the first sense occurs frequently in the Qur’an, in the latter sense only once is it attested (3:141). In the Hadith literature, and most especially in the subset of the jihad literature that was parallel to it, the term is frequently used, and it gradually makes an appearance in the historical and literary texts as well. Martyrdom in Sunni Islam, other than the very earliest period of persecution by the polytheists of Mecca, has been closely associated with death in battle. Other forms of death or suffering, such as enduring plagues, suffering persecution for theological issues (the mihna, 833–861 CE, for example), and a wide range of other less-accepted circumstances have also been considered to generate martyrdom.
In general, the attitude of the Sunni Muslim toward martyrdom has been a positive one, and inside the literature on martyrdom there are rewards that are specific to the martyr as opposed to other Muslims. However, the balance of martyrdom literature and narratives has not been created by Sunnis, but by Shiites who hark back to the violent and tragic deaths of many of the descendants of the Prophet Muhammad during the first three centuries of Islam and most especially to the martyrdoms of the fourth caliph Ali ibn Abi Talib (reigned 656–661) and his younger son al-Husayn (d. 680). The martyrdom of al-Husayn near the Iraqi town of Karbala at the hands of Umayyad governmental forces sent to kill him is the single most dramatic martyrdom in Islam. For Shiites it is the epitome of the cruelty of the opponents of Muhammad’s blood descendants, and it is a stain that can never be fully removed from the collective consciousness.
The martyr [Shahid] is given a special funeral and members of the martyr's family are entitled to receive charity and other compensatory benefits from the community and the Islamic State. The participant in a military jihad often makes arrangements for such benefits in advance, in anticipation of the possibility of martyrdom. The martyr's behaviour is held up to the community as a positive example, to be emulated and praised by all Muslims." The term suicide [Qatl Al Nafs or Intihar], under the classical Islamic definition, is an act of self-murder by the believer, acting with the clear and unequivocal intention to take his or her life. Suicide is a very serious misdeed in Islamic theology and law. Theologically, the believer who commits suicide commits a grave sin and is consigned to hell. Although there is some dispute about it, many jurists hold that the suicide victim is not entitled to the funeral rites ordinarily bestowed upon other deceased Muslims. Although the family of the suicide victim is not condemned or punished, there is never any emulation or praise for the suicidal act. Hence, suicide must be carefully distinguished from martyrdom.
The key verse that proclaims the virtuousness of the martyr is:
“'And do not think those who have been killed in the way of Allah as dead; they are rather living with their Lord, well provided for. Rejoicing in what their Lord has given them of His bounty, and they rejoice for those who stayed behind and did not join them, knowing that they have nothing to fear and they shall not grieve'. (Q 3:169-70”)
“And do not say about those who are killed in the way of Allah,”They are dead.” Rather, they are alive, but you perceive [it] not. “(Q2: 154)
This verse is perhaps the most direct proof that martyrs are separated from other Muslims, though martyrdom is hardly a central tenet of belief. Instead this verse is to comfort those bereaved during legitimate just warfare deemed (in the words of the Prophet (SAW) 'the lesser Jihad'.
The jihadist literature has taken this verse and distorted its intent to the extreme degree, justifying pre-emptive acts of terror in the interests of political and ideological gain as a means of conferring the status of martyrdom on those who perpetrate terror through premeditated suicide attacks.
Martyrdom is, in a certain sense, central to the Christian tradition, insofar as this is their description for Christ’s Passion. Islamic notions also link martyrdom to “bearing witness” to faith and God. In Christianity, martyrdom is not necessarily limited to those who are persecuted or die in having their faith opposed; a martyr can be one who leads a good, charitable life. Martyrdom in Islam is similarly a manifold matter. In both instances, the association of religious martyrdom with political terror has a complex legacy
Maimonides, Aquinas, and Augustine all discussed the problems of defining and classifying martyrdom, the behaviour motivated by the desire for martyrdom, and the difficulties in distinguishing martyrdom from suicide.
Maimonides argued that choosing martyrdom where the circumstances do not demand it is essentially suicide."0 In spite of this prohibition, [n]orthern European communities throughout the Middle Ages frequently chose such martyrdom, and in the course of the centuries a strong case was made for its permissibility, possibly even its commendability. It is this view that generally prevailed. Committing suicide so as to avoid being tortured into changing one's religious allegiance would appear to be forbidden. But again northern European Jewry did so frequently, and post-facto justifications were found.
St. Thomas Aquinas pondered the merit of martyrdom as an aspect of his analysis of the virtue of courage and its opposed vices. Aquinas first asked whether martyrdom itself can be an act of virtue. In answering this question, Aquinas considered the relation between suicide and martyrdom. Relying upon St. Augustine's citation to the example of certain holy women who, in a time of persecution, threw themselves into a river to avoid attacks on their chastity, Aquinas posited that, since suicide is unlawful, and many acts of martyrdom are accomplished through the vehicle of suicide, martyrdom arguably cannot be a virtuous act because no unlawful deed can be an act of virtue. Aquinas ultimately rejected this argument, relying on citations to Augustine and the testimony of the scripture that sacrifice of life for God is a praiseworthy act. Aquinas' overall analysis of the virtue of courage, described by him as one of the four "cardinal virtues," was revolutionary in that he assigned central importance to the Aristotelian view, which placed great premium on the merit of reason in all virtuous acts, including acts of courage. Aquinas condemned fearless acts motivated by pride, insufficient love, lack of reason ("foolishness"), fanaticism, dim-wittedness, or bravado.36 This followed the Aristotelian framework that labelled "utter fearlessness" as "madness" and daring as "the mark of the imposter.
Aristotle did not, however, directly address the question of martyrdom in his treatise and Aquinas' treatment of the issue was therefore the product of his original thinking. 8 Relying on Matthew, Luke, Cicero, St. Augustine, St. Cyprian, and St. Paul, Aquinas concluded that martyrdom is the highest form of courage and that the scriptural imperative, demanding the ultimate sacrifice in some cases, is sufficient justification for the martyrdom of the believer.39 This argument would seem to imply that self-annihilation for the sake of one's belief would not be suicide but simply meeting death for another greater purpose. Such action would, therefore, in some cases, be an acceptable form of martyrdom in the eyes of the Church.4" These Christian and Jewish sources show that there is an abundant mine of robust materials on martyrdom in Judeo-Christian religious traditions, even though Christian and Jewish concepts of just war or holy war are now somewhat obsolete and anachronistic. The pre-eminence of secular governments in the West has, to a large extent, marginalized the role of religious law governing war in those communities
The Qur'anic provisions on martyrdom are rather spare. The most frequently cited verse, 9:52, promises true believers the "two glorious things" [Husnayaeen], and these are, by common convention of the Arabic language, construed to be "martyrdom or victory."6 4 In another important verse, 3:169, the Qur'an declares: "Think not of those who are slain in Allah's way as dead. Nay, they live, finding their sustenance in the Presence of their Lord."65 Thus, the Holy Book provides that those who die in the cause of God do not actually die but rather proceed directly to paradise. In several other provisions, notably, at 3:140, 4:69, 3:170, and 57:19, the phrasing is not as clear. This is because the Qur'an uses the term Shuhada' [literally "witnesses"] in these verses to describe people who will be rewarded for being truthful and steadfast in the cause of God. Such steadfastness might reasonably include the sacrifice of life. Indeed, by wide consensus, the language in these verses is interpreted to describe "martyrs" rather than "witnesses." gives evidence in a legal proceeding.
The question arises: How is the interpretive leap from "witness" to "martyr" made in reading the Qur'anic text? It is often suggested that the reason the Qur'an refers to martyrs as "witnesses" is that the act of martyrdom is viewed as a clear form of testimony in support of the Islamic theological creed. It is through the testimony of the martyr that mankind is able to know the truth of the Islamic theological creed and to be able to distinguish the true believers from the non-believers. Amassing proof of belief in the creed is not an easy task, and those who are willing to strive (the literal meaning of jihad) and face death are among the best examples of the kind of witness it takes to establish the truth of religious belief. The act of martyrdom is therefore a form of testimony of the martyr's faith in God, one that his fellow Muslims should emulate and celebrate
In addition to the Qur'anic references, the terms Shahid and its plural Shuhada' are found in hundreds of Hadiths and in Sira literature [biographical accounts] recounting events from the earliest times in the Prophet Muhammad's mission, especially battlefield events after the Prophet established the new Islamic State in Medina. These accounts are at the heart of the juristic discourse on martyrdom and they make it clear that the early Muslims understood the foundational Qur’anic references to the Shuhada' as referring to those who died in battle during a military jihad.
Because the designation as a martyr can have important juridical implications for the deceased's family and compatriots, much of the attention of the early jurists was concerned with defining martyrdom and identifying behaviours that would qualify one for the designation. There are two main types of martyr recognized by Muslim jurists and theologians. The first type is the martyr "both in this world and the next world." The "battlefield martyr" who dies in a military jihad is of this type.7" The second type of martyr is "of the next world only." This classification of lesser martyrs contains a number of interesting categories, including, inter alia: those murdered while in the service of God; those killed for their beliefs; those who die from disease or accident; women who die in childbirth; those who love, remain chaste, conceal their love, and die with their secret intact ("martyrs of love"); and those who die a natural death while engaged in a meritorious act, such as the pilgrimage to Mecca, a worthwhile scholarly pursuit, or after leading a virtuous life.
What really matters, is the intention of the believer in his struggle with his inner self and his adversaries in life; not self-aggrandizing heroics. The extrapolation of a secondary class of martyrs from the Hadith may also have been a product of the Sunni suspicion of fanatical and suicidal endeavours. In any event, the existence of "martyrs in the next life only" does not generate a significant discourse today, even among pious Muslims, except perhaps regarding those who are persecuted and killed by tyrants because of their religious beliefs.Accepting the cliché that "Islam prohibits suicide" is much easier than explaining exactly where or how Islamic tradition makes suicide prohibited (Haram) .On the rare occasions that Islamic texts are examined, few authors delve into the Hadiths, but some cite the Qur'an. The cited passage is always Q 4:29, which they claim means "do not kill yourself."
Yet the issue is far from settled. At best, one might argue that Q 4:29 appears to contain a prohibition against self-slaughter. This view hinges on the word Anfusakum, most often translated as "oneself" or "yourself" while an equally convincing argument can be made that it be translated as "others like one."
A Hadith report provides clear guidance in this matter. This report is found in various books of Hadith—for instance, in Sahih Bukhari (Hadith no. 3062), Sahih Muslim (Hadith no. 112), Musnad Imam Ahmad (Hadith no. 8090), etc. The narrative in these different texts is worded roughly identically. According to this narrative, a companion of the Prophet reports:
“We were accompanying the Prophet in a war (Ghazwa). Along with us was a person named Quzman who had already embraced the faith. During the war he suffered a serious injury. People began to praise him before the Prophet for the bravery he had exhibited in the war. But the Prophet said: Innahu Min Ahl An-Naar. That is, ‘He is surely one of the people of Hell. ‘The companions were taken aback by the Prophet’s words, so he asked them to go and investigate the matter. It was then that they learnt that Quzman had been severely injured during the and when he could not bear the pain any more; he killed himself with his own weapon. When the Prophet was told about this, he uttered these words: “God is great, and I bear witness that I am His messenger.”’
Martyrdom , occupies a significant place in the Islamic discourse. There is a very interesting incident in Islamic history which throws light on the principle of martyrdom.. The account describes the travails of Bara' ibn Malik, a brave and seasoned warrior for Islam. Bara' spent a good part of his adult life seeking martyrdom. This particular episode occurred in a battle against an army led by Musailamah (known as "Musailamah the Liar"), a man who also claimed to be a prophet of God. The battle occurred during the "Apostasy Wars" that closely followed the death of the Prophet. Abu Bakr determined that he should put down the rebellion by force. In a particular battle involving Bara' ibn Malik, the enemy garrisoned itself in a fort and put up fierce resistance. The Muslims were taking many losses because they were unable to gain entry to the fort. Bara' volunteered to be catapulted over a parapet by his compatriots so that he could open the gates to the fort and allow the Muslims to enter He knew that he faced certain death in this endeavour but he proceeded with the plan anyway, probably out of his desire to be martyred. The plan succeeded but, miraculously, Bara' was not killed. He was severely wounded, receiving eighty wounds from strikes of swords.
One commentator's account suggests that he was denied martyrdom because he sought aggrandizement rather than the justice of God's cause. He was seeking death not out of his commitment to God’s cause but with a narrow selfish interest of achieving Paradise through illusory martyrdom. His compatriots nursed him back to health. He complained to Abu Bakr about his failure to achieve martyrdom. Abu Bakr replied: "Strive for death and you will live!" The lesson of this episode points out the differences between battlefield heroism for the sake of aggrandizement and true martyrdom, as well as the difference between suicide and martyrdom in service of the cause.
An attempt to lay down one’s life in pursuit and greed of Paradise without making God’s cause as a primary purpose may amount to suicide. The actions of Bara', although not suicidal, might be seen as heroically self-annihilatory because he knew that he faced certain death in seeking to be catapulted over the parapet. Yet, his actions are condemned because he sought self-aggrandizement through death rather than the purity of advancement of the cause, which might also require his death, but only incidentally or instrumentally. This distinction is important because it focuses on the actor's intention rather than the result of the action.
According to a Hadith report, the Prophet of Islam said: ‘“By Him in whose hands is my soul, the world will not end until a time comes when the killer will not know why he killed and the slain will not know why he was killed.” Someone asked the Prophet why this would happen. He answered: “This will happen in the age of Harj [the age of fighting and bloodshed]. Both the killer and the slain will go to Hell.”’ (Sahih Muslim, 2908)
Hadith commentators generally translate the word Harj as excessive fighting and bloodshed. This sort of mad, frenzied slaughter happens among a people when, driven by communal supremacism, it is fired by blind enmity for others. This is the condition of present-day Muslims. This mindset has become so widespread and deeply-rooted among them that in their narrow communalism they think of other communities as their eternal foes. They have begun to imagine that others are constantly engaged in conspiracies against them. On the basis of this self-created idea of theirs, their hearts are now filled with feelings of unimaginable hate for others. The extremist violence among Muslims today is a result of this. They are now drowned in hate, not only for other communities but also for those co-religionists of theirs whom they regard as supporters of their enemies. Today, scores of Muslim terrorist groups are engaged in horrific violence in different parts of the world—not sparing even little children in schools, worshippers in mosques and people grieving for the dead in graveyards
Ayatollah Khomeini changed modern Muslim attitudes to Islamic martyrdom by focusing on the epicentre of Shi'ism, the martyrdom of Al-Husain. Al Husain was portrayed by Khomeini as a willing martyr rather than a tragic figure doomed to die. In this revision of the ancient martryology, Khomeini catalyzed the evolution of quietist Shi'ism into radicalized, proactive advocates of political martyrdom. Khomeini articulated this equal-opportunity martyrdom crisply.
“the action of seeking out martyrdom is among the highest forms of martyrdom and sacrifice in the path of religion........there is no difference between male and female ( in this) "
Muslim women have a very significant role in the furtherance of martyrdom in Islamic history. In early Islamic history, the term Mujahidaat was coined to honour the women who protected the Prophet during the early battles of Islam in seventh-century A.D. These women included members of the Prophet’s family and new converts to Islam.
The tales of these heroic women are recorded not only in Islamic literature but told to following generations to highlight the significant contribution women made to Islam’s survival. Of the most glorified female fighters is Nusayba bint Ka’ab, also known as Umm Umarah, who during the Battle of Uhud (625.), lost one arm and suffered eleven wounds while defending Prophet Muhammad. She is one of the most celebrated Muslim fighters, having fought in at least six battles during her lifetime, and is one of the few female fighters mentioned in the Quran. Nusayba fought in the Battles of Uhud, Hunain, Yamama and Hudaibiyah. Initially, she accompanied the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) to battle to provide assistance in a similar manner as A’isha and Ramlah. During the Battle of Uhud, the Prophet Muhammad’s (peace be upon him) archers deserted their posts. In response, Nusayba physically defended him with her own sword. In a famous tradition Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is recorded as saying that when he turned to his left, he saw Nusayba; when he turned to his right, he saw Nusayba. She in fact sustained a deep wound in her shoulder during a combat.
Like Umm Umara, Umm Sulaim and her sister Umm Haram bint Milhan from the tribe of Ansar in Medina joined the Prophet in the Battle of Uhud. Carrying a dagger, Umm Sulaim is recorded as having said, “O Messenger of Allah! I carry the dagger, so if any disbeliever approaches me, I will split his stomach open!” Umm Sulaim’s martyrdom is recorded in a Hadith, in which the Prophet said, “I entered Paradise, and I heard somebody walking. I said, ‘Who is this?’ They said ‘This is al-Ghumaisa’ bint Milhan (Umm Sulaim).
In addition, the Prophet’s own female relatives took part in jihad. His wife, Ayesha, led the Battle of the Camel, and his granddaughter Zaynab bint Ali fought in the Battle of Karbala. The Prophet’s aunt and sister of his beloved uncle Hamza, Safiya, is “noted for killing a spy with a tent peg while her terrified male guard cringed nearby. In the Battle of the Trench, Safiya killed a warrior and threw away his severed head into the enemy camp.
After the Prophet’s death, Muslim women continued to take part in warfare. The story of a Bedouin woman, Khawlah bint al-Azwar al-Kindiyyah, is less known or documented, but she is regarded as one of the early female martyrs in Islam. Ali ibn Abu Talib (the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law) discovered Khawlah after the battle against Heraclius the Byzantine and his army. Dressed like a knight, she entered the battle with her female companions and “slashed the head of the Greek. This event was the turning point in the battle. Muslims fought until the Byzantines retreated, and Khawlah made herself known to Ali. Impressed by her heroic deed, Ali marries the “woman of rank and honour” shortly after becoming the fourth Rightly Guided caliph (656 C.E.).
Despite these women’s participation in Islam’s conquests and defence, most Muslim women served in a supporting role. In her work, ‘Aliyya Mustafa Mubarak compiled a list of 67 women, many of whom participated in battles in a supporting role. A notable example is t Asmaa, who counselled her sons to pursue warfare. When the Syrians took hold of the Ka’aba in Mecca, her son Abdullah sought his mother’s advice: “My son! Degrading and disgraceful peace for fear of death is not better to being killed because to fight with sword in honor is better than to be beaten with a whip in dishonour.” In another account, she is recorded to have told her son: “if you are fighting for the cause of Allah and are siding with truth, then you must put a bold front. Go and fight as befits a brave man … If you are martyred, it shall be my highest pleasure.” Like Asma, the mother of Sayed Ahmed Shaheed encouraged her son to fight in the name of the Islam: “My dear son! Go. But listen don’t ever show cowardice. Fight valiantly. And if you run away from the battlefield, I shall never see your face.” Shaheed was eventually martyred, fulfilling his mother’s wish.
In short, a woman’s primary role in classical Islamic literature is that of mother, sister, daughter, and wife of Muslim men at war. However, over time, the meaning of the word Mujahidaat has changed. Like their male counterparts, some women have now accepted suicide as the preferred weapon of choice. In asymmetric warfare, women likely perceive suicide attacks as garnering wider media attention as well as achieving greater operational and tactical success than alternate tactics.
As far modern women jihadists are concerned the well known scholar Dr Yusuf Qaradawi opines that when jihad becomes an individual duty, as when the enemy seizes the Muslim territory, a woman becomes entitled to take part in it alongside men. Jurists maintained that when the enemy assaults a given Muslim territory, it becomes incumbent upon all its residents to fight against them to the extent that a woman should go out even without the consent of her husband, a son can go too without the permission of his parent, a slave without the approval of his master, and the employee without the leave of his employer. This is a case where obedience should not be given to anyone in something that involves disobedience to God, according to a famous juristic rule.
Moin Qazi is a well known banker, author and Islamic researcher. He holds doctorates in Economics and English. He is author of several books on Islam including bestselling biographies of Prophet Muhammad and Caliph Umar. He writes regularly for several international publications including Daily Sabah (Turkey) Moroccan Times, Chicago Monitor, Sudan Vision and Times of Malta. He was also a Visiting Fellow at the University of Manchester. He is based in Nagpur.