By Syed Mansoor Hussain
October 24, 2015
Today we commemorate the most famous martyr in Muslim history. For Muslims who believe in the sanctity of the Prophet (PBUH) and his immediate family, and accept the commonly presented history of what happened in Karbala more than 1,400 years ago, the martyrdom of Imam Hussain (AS) is indeed an important part of Islamic history. The appropriate way for believing Muslims to commemorate this event is not the purpose of my discussion today. Personally, I believe that all people of all faiths must have the freedom to practice their faith as they see fit as long as they stay within established legal and social limits. For me today, the more important question is that of martyrdom. Martyrdom comes in different shapes and sizes. Over the last few years, the definition of martyrdom in Pakistan has, at least in my opinion, been expanded a bit too much. On one side we have the martyrs of Karbala and then we have all others who are called martyrs in the media as well as by our politicians.
Most believing Muslims will agree that Imam Hussain (AS) and his companions who perished in Karbala were martyrs. Based upon my understanding of the concept of martyrdom not just in Islam but also in other religious, political and even secular traditions, three things distinguish a martyr. First is devotion to a particular point of view or cause, religious or political, which in the opinion of that person is just. Second is that the cause that he or she is fighting for is also generally perceived to be a righteous one and, third, that the option of not fighting the ‘good fight’, and with it survival, exists. Most of the famous martyrs especially in Muslim history had available to them the option to withdraw or recant from their point of view and, if they did so, they could escape certain death. Both the people I am named after had that option but chose death with honour. Is there honour in death is a question for another day.
The history of Muslims is full of war and, depending on the choice of enemy, those who died fighting were often called martyrs. The question that bothers me is that if a soldier dies during combat while performing his expected duty, is that death an act of ‘martyrdom’ and should he then be called a martyr? For instance, does an army cook who dies when a shell explodes in his field kitchen deserve the label of martyrdom? In any army, all those who join know that they will have to fight if so ordered and that they might die during battle. When we as Pakistanis refer to members of our armed forces who gave their lives defending this country, we accept them as martyrs. But even among them there are those who went beyond the call of duty and received awards for gallantry. Do the armed forces then separate the ‘real’ martyrs from those it calls martyrs just for the sake of appearances?
The need for such appearances has led to a situation where we in Pakistan even refer to civilians killed accidentally during cross border actions as martyrs. Also, all victims of terrorism are now referred to as martyrs. If on a sightseeing trip to the border areas I were killed by an errant bullet from across the border, or if I were killed as a bystander when a particular sect was being targeted, would I automatically achieve martyrdom? And one must remember that martyrdom in Islamic eschatology provides a direct path to heaven. No, I do not think that being an accidental victim of cross-border or sectarian violence justifies my direct entry into heaven. The same in my opinion is true of others who are victims of such violence. All of them are not martyrs but rather victims of circumstance. The worst case scenario recently was that of the pilgrims who died during the recent Hajj. They are being referred to as martyrs. These pilgrims went to the holy city for religious reasons and the last thing they expected or were looking forward to was being suffocated and trampled to death. To call them martyrs is obviously an attempt to absolve the perpetrators of the crime that killed them.
Terrorists justify accidental deaths during sectarian attacks and other acts of religious terrorism through an interesting and rather twisted logic. Those who die during such attacks, if they are deserving of such death were justifiably killed. Those who are innocent, especially children, are martyrs and as such will go straight to heaven. By dispatching all these good people to heaven, the religious terrorist has done them a favour. What better goal in life can a good Muslim aspire to besides martyrdom and immediate ascension to heaven? So, perhaps inadvertently and possibly deliberately many in the media and the political system who carry sympathy for the religious terrorists label the victims of terrorism as martyrs to somehow make their deaths seem as if it was almost a favour to those who died. The same could be said for those who call the victims of Hajj martyrs.
There was a time our religious establishment became completely confused. When the Taliban types were killed by US drones, the dead Taliban were called martyrs. When the same Taliban types that were being targeted by the US drones killed ordinary Pakistanis, the Pakistani victims were also called martyrs. So, it seemed that martyrs-to-be were being killed by martyrs-to-be. For an ordinary Pakistani keeping track of the martyrs, all this became rather complicated. Fortunately, the Pakistani army eventually stepped into the fray and resolved this confusion.
My point basically is that today, as we think of the martyrs of Karbala, perhaps we should also make an effort to separate those who truly deserve the label of martyr from those who we call martyrs for the sake of ‘public relations’.
The author is a former editor of the Journal of Association of Pakistani descent Physicians of North America (APPNA)