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The Centrality of Martyrdom in Contemporary Islam

Samir Khalil Samir

The word shahîd, which is currently used nowadays to designate a 'martyr', and its plural shuhadâ', correspond etymologically to the Greek martys and they mean 'witness'. In the Koran we encounter the term fifty-five times, in the majority of cases in the juridical sense of witness. In three cases we are clearly dealing with 'martyrs'. Here are the texts [in Arberry's translation]: 'Whosoever obeys God, and the Messenger - they are with those whom God has blessed, Prophets (nabiyyîn), just men (siddîqîn), martyrs (shuhadâ'), the righteous (sâlihîn); good companions they!' [4,69]; 'And the earth shall shine with the light of its Lord, and the Book shall be set in place, and the Prophets (nabiyyîn) and witnesses (shuhadâ') shall be brought, and justly the issue be decided between them, and they not wronged' [39, 69]; 'And those who believe in God and His Messengers - they are the just men (siddîqîn) and the martyrs (shuhadâ') in their Lord's sight; they have their wage, and their light. But the unbelievers, who have cried lies to Our signs, they are the inhabitants of Hell' [57,19].


I will confine myself here to three textual observations. The first is that in the French translation of the Koran by Muhammad Hamidullah, which has taken on an almost official character in the Francophone Muslim community, the term 'martyr' is to be found only twice in the Koran - at 3, 140 and 4, 69; secondly, that in all the three cases that have just been quoted there is a listing of the 'just men' that recalls certain passages in the New Testament - here the succession is nabî, siddîq, shahîd and sâlih; and thirdly that the three verses are the only passages in the fifty-five occurrences of shahîd that have a listing of just men divided into categories. I propose therefore the translation 'Prophets, just men, martyrs, saints', even though this may be surprising. The Koran never uses the word qiddîs which Christians usually employ to designate a saint. On the other hand, the plural noun sâlihûn/în is found thirty times and corresponds quite precisely to this meaning. If things at the level of the discourse of the Koran are in these terms, how can one explain that martyrdom has acquired such an importance in Islam? And above all that the term shahîd is used very frequently to designate all kinds of dead people?


1. Every person killed violently is called a 'martyr'. Thus the 168 Lebanese soldiers who died in the north of the Lebanon between 20 May and 2 September 2007 at the time of the clashes between the 'fighters' (terrorists) of Fath al-Islâm in the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared are unanimously called shuhadâ'. Should one call the Palestinian or Lebanese civilians who were killed by mistake during these cashes 'martyrs' as well? In the same way, the people who died at the end of January 2008 during the demonstration of the Shiites were called 'martyrs' by the crowd and the press. And all the men of state, journalists, and others who have been killed in the attacks in recent years in the Lebanon are unanimously called 'martyrs' and receive the honours of martyrs. This is especially evident in the case of President Rafiq al-Hariri but also in the case of many others. To summarise: every person killed in a violent way, furthermore for political reasons or simply following a political riot, is endowed with the title of martyr.


2. Other examples: deaths by accident or because of illness. In the month of November 2007 the bodies of twenty-six Egyptians were found along the coast of Italy and their bodies were sent back to Egypt. These were immigrants who had been trying to enter Europe illegally. The Islamic University of al-Azhar, the highest point of reference of Sunnite Islam, declared that these Egyptians who had died while trying to reach Europe illegally were 'martyrs' and it expressed 'its sincere condolences to the families of these 'martyrs' because they were travelling in the quest for a licit way of earning their livings'. On 13 November of the same year the Grand Mufti of Egypt, Sheykh Ali Gomaa, opposed this appellation, which according to the Muslim faith gives direct access to paradise. 'I cannot say that they are martyrs', he stated. 'They threw themselves at death, the aim of their voyage was not to serve God…They were moved by greed and the search for money'. In Morocco the mufti and deputy Abdelabari Zemzmi reacted in an outraged way: 'I do not understand why a grey eminence like Skeikh Gomaa can make such grave statement. His initiative has an evident political character'. For him, 'the illegal immigrants drowned because they were looking for a better life and for this very reason they are martyrs'. And the Moroccan newspaper Tel Quel hurried to observe: 'in paying too much attention to Zemzini, everyone would go to drown in the sea to enter paradise'. Recently, on 3 December 2007, the Director General of religious policy in the Egyptian ministry of the waqf, Sheikh Ahmad Abu Yussuf, issued a fatwa in which he stated that AIDS victims should be seen as martyrs. He justified this stance with the well known hadith, 'whoever dies because of a stomach problem (mabtûn) is a martyr', and added that 90% of those who die of AIDS 'return to God at the end of their lives'.


3. Is Saddam Hussein a martyr? One event that has provoked a great deal of controversy is the question of knowing whether Saddam Hussein is a martyr or not. For a considerable number of Sunnite Muslims, Saddam has become a martyr. His courageous attitude in the face of death, as opposed to the juridical treatment unworthy of a president inflicted on him by the Americans and the fact that he distinctly pronounced and twice the dual shahâda (witness, profession of faith) before dying made him a shahîd, a martyr. But what helped very much to 'canonise' him is the fact that he was hanged on the first day of the 'Great Feast' (al-'Îd al-kabîr, or 'Îd al-Adhà, l'Aïd as the Muslims of North Africa call it). The Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak declared: 'nobody will forget the circumstances in which the death sentence on Saddam was carried out. They made him a martyr', and he added 'I sent a message to President George W. Bush to tell him that it was necessary to avoid carrying it out on the first day of Aïd because this would have transformed him into a martyr'. The Tunisian Ben Yahia thought that 'the carrying out of the sentence constitutes a grave attack on the feelings of Muslims peoples, at the moment when they celebrate a holy religious feast'. Algeria deplored that the hanging took place on a day 'whose original spirit, evocative of sacrifices, was sublimated in the values of forgiveness, clemency and generosity for the whole of the Arab-Islamic world'. A television interview with the Jordanian Iman, Salâh Ibn Fawzân, presented Saddam as a repentant sinner who attained the level of being a martyr with his death, and a death on the day of the feast of the sacrifice of Abraham. One can listen to the interview in Arabic on the YouTube site and it lasts a few minutes. On this site tens of people react to the words of the Imam, Sunnites in general and Wahabites in particular, in the most offensive style possible. These texts are so vulgar that they can be neither transcribed nor translated. Some Sunnites answer in the same style. Numerous other videos reproduce the funeral orations, praises, poems,elegies or songs, in classic Arabic or in dialect, of his admirers, all of whom see him as a martyr. Other videos of Shiite origins do not fail to express their hatred for him, but hundreds of sites, in particular Jordanian or Iraqi Sunnite ones, exalt Saddam, 'the martyr of the nation' (shahîd al-umma). For his part, a famous Saudi jurist (faqîh) issued a fatwa in which he declared that Saddam was an 'unbeliever' (kâfir) and that the fact of pronouncing the dual profession of faith (shahâda) did not make him a Muslim.Along the same lines were the pronunciations of the Shiite Iman, Fâlih al-Harbî, who accused Saddam of impiety or atheism (zandaqa), on a par with the hypocrites (munâfiqûn) of the time of Mohammed. In the face of these contradictory fatwas, many Muslims no longer know what to think. Of significance is the reaction of a surfer on Internet who gave herself the name of the famous pre-Islamic poetess, al-Khansâ' al-Saghîra, and wrote: 'I wish that all those who do not consider him a martyr (shahîd), despite the fact that he remained fixed (murâbata) in a country at war when he had the possibility of fleeing and saving his skin, I wish they would not state peremptorily that he is a part of the people of hell…It is precisely these people with their fatwas against the Ba'ath Party who taught me that "whoever dies to defend his honour ('ird) or his belongings or his life is a martyr (shahîd)"…With extreme simplicity I must say: "by God, I no longer know what is the truth and what is error! By God, I no longer know who is the executioner and who is the victim…All at the same time are Muslims and unbleivers (kâfir). All are right and all are wrong. The murâbitûn who practice jihâd are terrorists and the defeatist cowards are democrats…The first amongst us casts his anathema (yukaffir) against the least of us and who is in the middle is divided and no longer knows what direction to take'.


Palestinian Militants



Where does this unprecedented development of the theme of martyrdom come from, given that the Koran is so discreet on the subject? First of all, the Muslim scholars, the Ulema, have looked for, and found, in the Koran other verses that encourage warriors to give their lives on the pathway of God. In addition, amongst the words attributed to the Prophet of Islam, the hadiths, there are various ones that promise paradise to these very warriors. Lastly, there is no doubt that the political situation of the Muslim world, which feels attacked on all sides (even though it is often the aggressor), has led a large part of the Muslim community to develop a spirituality of martyrdom based on voluntary death to fight 'the enemy'. Thus a true mysticism of jihâd and mujâhidîn (fighters in the name of Islam) has developed. This spirituality has been explored in particular by Palestinian militants (or militants from other backgrounds) in order to defend Palestine from Israel.


The ideology of Fath, the Movement for the Liberation of Palestine, was secular. It aimed at freeing Palestine from foreign occupation. It made an appeal not to religion but to the right of peoples to govern themselves and to international law. However, with the growth of the Islamic movement everywhere in the world, above all beginning in the 1970s, a new ideology was introduced - the Islamic ideology. Palestine became an 'Islamic land' and the whole of the Muslim community (and no longer the Palestinians) was obliged to defend it against the invading aggressors. There gradually developed a war based on terror in order to respond to Israeli aggression and occupation and to the state terrorism of Israel. Thus the mujâhidûn of God appeared, who have different names but all of which refer to Muslim figures of the first century of Islam.


A rare opinion: the authors of suicide attacks are not martyrs. There is, however, the question of Islamic law. Suicide is clearly forbidden by the Koran [4,29-30]: 'O you who believe…You shall not kill yourselves. God is Merciful towards you. Anyone who commits these transgressions, maliciously and deliberately, we will condemn him to Hell. This is easy for God to do'. What, therefore, should one think about suicide attacks or positive suicides as some people call them? Do they belong to the category of jihâd? Are those who commit them martyrs or are they suicides, like all those people who take their own lives?


The most common and widespread opinion amongst Muslims is that mujâhidîn are those who defend Islam against its aggressors and thus belong to the category of martyrs. I will present this point of view below shortly. However, I have found a contrary opinion, which is reproduced on many sites, that of the great traditionalist (muhaddith), the Imam Muhammad Nâsir ad-Dîn al-Albânî, a venerated Albanian teacher, who lived in Damascus and then in Medina and died on 3 October 1999 at the age of eighty-five. This opinion deserves to be reproduced: 'Let us turn our attention to suicide missions. They have become famous [throughout the world] because of the Japanese practice of the kamikaze. A man launched his warplane against an American ship, thereby dying in the plane and killing as many enemy soldiers as he could. All suicide missions of our epoch are unpunished acts that should be considered forbidden (harâm). Suicide missions can lead those who carry them out into the eternal Fire or put them amongst those who will not dwell there eternally, as I have just explained. But to see in suicide missions a means by which to draw near to God [an act of worship worthy of praise] by killing oneself today for one's land or one's country, to such an idea we say: No! These suicide missions are not Islamic! In fact I say today what constitutes Islamic reality - not the reality looked for by a minority of Muslim activists: no jihâd exists in Islamic countries. Certainly there are fights in a significant number of Muslim countries, but there is no jihâd that has been established [solely] under an Islamic flag and according to Islamic rules…That a blind [to the facts and the complexity of the war] young man should decide alone - as we often hear - to climb a mountain and enter a fortified stronghold used by Jews, killing some and being himself killed …What is the advantage of this act? They are only individual acts without positive results benefitting the Islamic Call. Thus I say to Muslim young men: 'protect your lives, on the condition that you employ them in the study of your Dîn [religion] and your Islâm. Be well aware of this and act as best you can'. These are the kinds of actions and acts, however slow and boring they may appear, that will bring the fruit that all Muslims are looking for, independently of their different ideologies and methods. All in fact agree that Islam must be that which [we use] to govern, but they diverge on the pathway to be taken [towards this objective]. And certainly the best guidance is that of Mohammed'.


A common opinion: they are martyrs. The above-outlined opinion is rather exceptional. Common thought holds today that suicide volunteers are martyrs. Here by way of example is the fatwa pronounced by the Association of the Ulema of Palestine which bears the title 'Operations involving voluntary death (istishhâdiyya) are amongst the finest forms of jihâd on the way of God'. The Ulema establish this opinion beginning with three verses from the Koran, a number of hadîth and unanimous consensus (ijmâ') from the wise men of the Middle Ages (Abû Ayyûb al-Ansârî, Abû Mûsâ al-Ash'arî, 'Umar Ibn al-Khattâb, Ibn Taymiyya, al-Ghazâlî, and al-Nawawî) and of the contemporary epoch, in particular Dr. Yûsuf al-Qaradâwî and shaykh al-Shu'aybî. They then go on to refute the arguments of those contemporaries which refuse to consider people who act in this way as martyrs, in particular the arguments of Shaykh 'Abd al-'Azîz Âl Shaykh, the Mufti of Saudi Arabia, who issued a fatwa in relation to these operations in which he stated: 'I do not see juridical legitimation for these and I do not see them as jihâd on the way of God. I fear that they are simple suicide operations'. Or the fatwa of the Rector of al-Azhar, Shaykh Muhammad Sayyid al-Tantawî, who declared: 'suicide operations (intihariyya) are martyrdom if they are directed against soldiers and not if they are directed against women and children'. A long argument, based upon the opinion of a large number of Ulema, refutes these two opinions.


Martyrdom and Redemption



The Muslim point of view on the phenomenon of martyrdom would seem to be not very clear at the juridical level. It appears that political motives play an important role in this, both to support the licit character of suicide attacks and to reject them, as in the case of the official authorities of Egypt and Saudi Arabia. A spiritual and theological opinion such as that held by Shaykh Nâsir ad-Dîn al-Albânî is rare. Shiitism has developed the idea of redemptive martyrdom, in particular through the celebration of the violent death of al-Husayn, which from certain points of view recalls the role attributed by Christian spirituality and theology to the death of Christ. In definitive terms, common opinion holds that every person who dies a violent death can be called a 'martyr', including personalities who are notoriously not very Muslim such as Saddam Hussein. Those who have opposed this view are all Shiites and this well demonstrates how the criteria are partial and each person tends to defend their own political position.


In Christianity, the first martyr was Christ. His death did not involve any form of violence against anybody. Specifically the contrary: he accepted the violence of other people and he took it upon himself in order to destroy violence and hatred, as St. Paul well put it in this magnificent passage from his Letter to the Ephesians [2:13-19]: 'But now in Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances , that he might create in himself our new man out of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in our body through cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him we both have access in one spirit to the Father. So that you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God'.


Subsequently Stephen, the 'proto-martyr', imitated the gesture of Christ to the smallest detail [cf. Acts, 7]. Whoever uses the sword, even to defend a group or a community, will die by the sword, as Christ says, and cannot be seen as a martyr. A Christian martyr is non-violent by nature and he or she bears witness (yashhad) to the Love of God who always forgives in world where violence reigns. Only a non-violent person animated in all his or her actions by love can have the title of martyr.


In definitive terms, we are dealing with two visions that are very different of love for God: a vision in which I bear fitness to love for God by fighting as far as my self-sacrifice for His Name, and another in which I bear witness to this love by forgoing all violence in order to cast out hatred and violence from this world. Each person is called to make his or her choice.

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