Following the fiasco of the secular nationalist experience in countries like Egypt and Iran, the radical components of each group have since the 1970s enjoyed great notoriety and exerted a notable influence. Their differing conceptions of jihad and martyrdom.

This article was published in Oasis 13. Read the table of contents

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The 1970s were marked by the rebirth of radical Islam, above all after the failure of the secular nationalist experience in the two principal Muslim countries of the Middle East, Egypt and Iran. The return of Islam in its militant version took place more or less everywhere under the influence of Muslim intellectuals who looked to the Muslim Brotherhood, like Sayyid Qutb and his Pakistanti equivalent Mawdûdî. Iran saw the development of a revolutionary Shi’ism, in particular under the aegis of Ali Shariati, and in Egypt a new generation of Islamist intellectuals and ideologues, for whom ‘Islam is the solution,’ gave life to movements like al-takfîr wa l-hijra.

In the Shi’ite version of religious radicalism the central place is occupied by the notion of martyrdom. Jihad is associated with it, but in a symbolically subordinate form. In radical Sunnism the opposite is true, since martyrdom is perceived as an instrument for the achievement of jihad. It goes without saying that neither martyrdom nor jihad are pillars of Islam. Neither of the two notions is in fact mentioned directly in the five principles of Islam. Both of the radical currents have however tried to deduce these notions from their own reading of the principles of Islam. Shariati refers to the tawhîd (the divine oneness), the founding notion of Islam on the basis of which the Muslim affirms that ‘there is no god but God.’ For him the negation -precedes the affirmation in this statement and this negation conflicts with all the ‘idols’ (taghût), i.e. the three pillars of the illegitimate political order: Gold (capitalism), Violence (imperialism) and Hypocrisy (the adulterated version of Islam adopted by governments which maintain the illegitimate order founded on capitalism and imperialism).

For the upholders of radical Sunnism it is the reference to al-walâ’ wa l barâ,’ or loyalty (to Islam) and the antagonism (to idolatry), that underlies the merciless battle with the crusaders, the Zionists and their agents in the Muslim world, impious government lackeys of impious imperialism. The two currents base themselves on the tawhîd to legitimise a pitiless opposition to the ‘idolatries,’ or to all the powers that base themselves on a principle different from Islam (secular powers and, among them, democracy).

[1]Radicalised jihad belongs in this context: it is war without pity against the impious principles of a political order that is illegitimate from the Islamic point of view. To realise the Islamic ideal through jihad the Muslim must stake his own life, according to the notion of imperative individual duty (fard al-‘ayn). Martyrdom is situated within this logic: to give one’s own life to save Islam and to make Islamic order reign over the world. For radical Shi’ites the ‘universal’ version of Islam is subordinate in pratice to their own hegemony over the version that is dominant among the Sunnis (who represent nine tenths of the Muslims of the world, against one tenth Shi’ites).

This minority instinct means that the Shi’ites do not aim so much to expand globally as to keep control at least of the part of the Muslim world where they are in a majority, as in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon. Rather than pursuing a universal hegemony of Islam, their conception strives for the recognition of Shi’ism as a legitimate version of the religion of God. Martyrdom is part of a Shi’ite vision of ‘pathos’ that has long been persecuted by majority Sunnism. On the other hand martyrdom has its model in the sacred death of Husayn, the third Shi’ite Imam, in the battle against the Umayyad Caliph Yazîd who for the Shi’ites incarnates absolute evil. The martyrdom of Husayn does not take place in the battle against non-Muslims, but in the war against the Sunni Muslims who deny to Husayn, nephew of the Prophet, the legitimate leadership of the Muslim world, in the name of a dynastic principle, that of the Umayyad who were holders of the Caliphal power. The martyrdom of Husayn has been brought centre stage again by Shi’ite ideologues in the conduct of their battle against evil: first of all against the regime of the Shah of Iran (overthrown by the Islamic ¬Revolution in 1979) and then in Lebanon in the battle against the Sunnis, the (Christian) Maronites, and the Israelis. In Iraq the struggle against the Sunnis (first under Saddam Hussein) and then against the anti-Shi’ite Sunnis after the overthrow of the regime of Saddam at the hands of the Americans in 2003, is the pillar of martyrdom. In its Shi’ite version, martyrdom is the struggle to death against injustice and evil as embodied in the impious world order, but also in the majority version of Islam, Sunnism.


The Oneness of God

The martyrdom of Husayn is brought centre stage again by Shi’ite ideologues so that it can be globalised and applied to the modern world. Jihad is subordinate to this archetypal notion, henceforth translated into new formulae: the Shi’ite warrior can make his appeal to it when giving his life in the endless struggle against the hegemony of impious power, just like Husayn when he accepted death in an unequal battle (72 of the faithful accompanied him) against the army of thousands of Caliph Yazîd. In the long war launched by Saddam Hussein against revolutionary Iran (1980-1988) the Iranian army recruited the Bassije, an organisation of Shi’ite volunteers which numbered 400 thousand members. They fought to safeguard the territorial integrity of Iran but also to defend the recent Islamic Revolution, which proved capable of mobilising a good proportion of the youth of the people. The young bassiji were duly indoctrinated by the Islamist regime, which encouraged them to embrace martyrdom following the example of Husayn, the prince of the martyrs (sayyid al-shuhadâ’), who had not been afraid to die. Moreover they fed on the certainty of finding a place in paradise together with the Holy Family of the Prophet. Against the regime of Saddam Hussein, as in the ideological battle against the West, the radical Shi’ites never took into consideration the notion of jihad as the directive principle of the war. In the same way, the theocratic regime of Ayatollah Khomeini never made use of jihad against the internal Iranian opposition to it.

This notion – in certain respects fundamental and in others marginal among the Shi’ites – has on the other hand been widely utilised by radical Sunni Islamists. For them jihad must be understood in close connection with the notion of divine oneness (tawhîd): this postulates a struggle to the death against impiety and idolatry, or ultimately against the international political system (istikbâr) and non-Islamic, i.e. idolatrous, regimes – given that these defer to the people and its hegemony rather than to God and His absolute sovereignty. The notion of istikbâr (arrogance) is the revamping of a Qur’anic idea which the Shi’ites made fashionable in the battle against the regime of the Shah in Iran and which subsequently spread into Sunnism – above all in relation to the battle against American and more generally Western hegemony.

In Sunnism martyrdom (shahâda) does not have the pathos that it takes on in Shi’ism. Husayn, the third Imam, and more generally the family of the Prophet, a considerable part of which is widely believed among the Shi’ites to have been decimated by the Sunni Caliphs, do not play the role of models to be followed and imitated. There is nothing in common between the respect with which the family of the Prophet is regarded in Sunnism and its sacralisation in Shi’ism, for which it is the depository of salvation. Each Imam (down to the twelfth, who is hidden and who will reappear as Messiah at the end of time) is as it were the bearer of infused knowledge and his person is infallible and ‘impeccable:’ he is pure and so cannot sin and he is directly inspired by God and so cannot make mistakes. In short, the Shi’ite Imam is ma‘sûm, or gifted with the dual capacity for being without sin and without the tendency to make mistakes or deviate from the Straight Way (al-sirât al-mustaqîm, the right way, the orthodox one).

The Sunni jihad is based on an imperative duty, founded on the reinterpretation of the Qur’an but also on a ‘re-visitation’ of the Sunna, i.e. of the hadîth (the sayings of the Prophet) which authorise recourse to legitimate violence in the holy war against the impious and the heretics. In practice it was through the Hezbollah of Lebanon, created at the beginning of the 80s with the direct assistance of Iran, that the Shi’ite model of martyrdom spread through the Muslim world, especially among the Palestinians; Hamas and the other radical Islamic groups are directly inspired by them. The Sunni suicide bombers, though ferociously anti-Shi’ite, follow in their footsteps. In particular they apply the model of abnegation of the Iranian bassiji, marked not only by an implacable will to fight against the enemy, but also by the ‘fervent desire’ to die in the service of Islam, in its activist version.


Universalism and Hegemony

Among the radical Sunnis, the prevalent idea is not that of a limited hegemony, as with the Shi’ites, but the will to spread Islam throughout the world by violence. The Shi’ites are restricted by their minority status within Islam, and their jihad is at the most of a local type (the struggle against Israeli, American, Western hegemony in Shi’ite territory but also where non-Muslims have irrupted among Muslims, as in the Palestinian territories), while the radical Sunnis aim directly at ‘globality’, at the conquest of the world in the name of the vocation of Islam to be a universal religion. In their opinion it is not so much the logic of persuasion and peaceful proselytism that must conquer the hearts and minds of men, but a form of self-affirmation marked by the legitimate violence of a religion that has as its ultimate goal the conquest of the world.

This attitude is opposed to the position of the great majority of the Muslim world, which aims first of all to embrace a peaceful version of religion that can ensure coexistence and the economic and social progress of Muslim societies. This is why the Sunni jihadists are completely out of step with the Muslim diaspora in Western societies. According to them Muslims should leave the Western countries to go back to the land of Islam, with the exception of a minority that must spread the Word of God and in case of necessity have recourse to violence to impose their own version of religion on the whole world. Jihad plays a central role then in radical Sunni Islam, while martyrdom is simply a means to the realisation of the ultimate goal, the conquest of the whole world by Islam. For the Shi’ites, martyrdom and jihad provide a great deal of emotional baggage which ultimately turns out to be no more than an abstract principle to which reference is made only intermittently; for in their perspective the struggle against Sunni hegemony is as significant as the war against global arrogance (estekbar jahani).

The establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979 has created a new situation in radical Shi’ism: for the first time a revolution has been accomplished in the name of God and to a great extent by radical Shi’ites, and the main task of the believer consists in preserving its achievements and ensuring their survival and continuity. The regime has tried to spread its version of Islam, but the only place where it has had a degree of success is Lebanon, where the Shi’ites are numerically very strong, perhaps the majority of the population, although for political reasons they do not have available any recent census information about the confessional makeup of the population. Elsewhere, the message of the Islamic regime (velayat-e faqih) has not been crowned with success and Shi’ite particularism makes it difficult for the Sunnis to accept it, since they see in it a project for Shi’ite hegemony. The notions of martyrdom and jihad are therefore put at the service of the Iranian regime, rather than being directed to a global project aiming at the hegemony of Islam on the global stage.

In radical Sunnism on the other hand, the vocation to global hegemony is exactly what we do find, and that is the reason why ideologues of this version of Sunnism exploit notions like jihad or martyrdom to achieve an ambition which, in their opinion, is an Islamic categorical imperative. Trans-national jihadism (trans-national terrorism which appeals to jihad) promotes a version of Islam whose objective is to direct the violent struggle against the external world in the name of Islamic ideals, and first and foremost that of jihad. By its radicalism and its intransigence this new version breaks with the traditional vision, which placed the emphasis on defensive jihad (the struggle to defend Muslim countries and societies) rather than on offensive jihad (the conquest of non-Muslim countries by imposing Islam on them as a religion or as a hegemonic principle). This conception of jihad is directed not only against the Western world, but also and above all against Islamic regimes and in particular the Shi’ites, perceived at best as fake Muslims, ‘hypocrites’ (munâfiq) who sow discord in the Muslim world, and at worst as idolaters, more dangerous than avowed non-Muslims.


Strategic Change

The ‘Arab spring’ which began at the end of 2010 is distinguished by the democratic social movements in the greater part of the Arab countries; crowned with success in Tunisia and in part also in Egypt, it has thrown radical Islamists, whether Shi’ites or Sunni, onto the back foot. For the former, largely guided by Iran, the call for democracy, made in Iran too by the ‘Green Movement’ in June 2009, is dangerous for Islamic theocracy, which is the reason why those who direct it are considered leaders of fitna, of dissent and discord in Islam. For the Sunni Islamists the democratic movement has of course had as its consequence the overthrow of two of the Arab regimes that were most opposed to the cause of the jihadists but, on the other hand, they are afraid that the call for democracy also signifies the end of the call for a dur et pur Islamic regime. Democracy actually signifies the sovereignty of the people and not that of God as emerging from a restrictive and highly exclusive reading of the Qur’an, embodied in a group of radical Islamist theologians and jurists who seek to take power in the name of their own religious competence and political commitment. That is why the new era which is opening with these movements also changes the strategy of the jihadists in the face of the newly emerging powers. We are still in a phase of hesitation and uncertainty, but from now on we can anticipate that the push for democracy will have as its consequence a weakening of the legitimacy of the jihadists in the eyes of Arab public opinion. If the democratic experiment fails, they will be able to reap the dividends by presenting their model as the only credible one. On the other hand, if democratisation becomes a stable part of Arab political systems, offensive jihad and unconditional martyrdom will come to a full stop.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation

[1]Farhad Khosrokhavar, Inside Jihadism: Understanding jihadi movements worldwide (Yale Cultural Sociology Series, Paradigm Publishers, London, 2009); Les nouveaux martyrs d’Allah (Flammarion, Paris, 2005).

To cite this article

Printed version:
Text by Farhad Khosrokhavar, “My war is holier than yours”, Oasis, year VII, n. 13, July 2011, pp. 31-34.

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Text by Farhad Khosrokhavar, “My war is holier than yours”, Oasis [online], published on 1st July 2011, URL: