From the first Hezbollah suicide attacks to Isis and Boko Haram’s spectacularization of violence: a history of the word shahīd

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:34:23

100 years ago, during Jan. 1916 the British, encouraged by Winston Churchill, began testing the first tanks during World War I. It was believed that these tanks would be complete game-changers in the impasse at the Western Front, but within a short time it was clear that in fact far from being that, they were merely tactical innovations. Indeed, by the beginning of World War II many tanks could be destroyed by Molotov cocktails. In the same way, in the early 1980s, when suicide attacks were first introduced into the Arabic-speaking Muslim world, they were considered to be the poor man’s weapon of choice. Using people as smart bombs, who could adjust themselves to their targets in order to maximize casualties was seen first of all tactically by Hezbollah and then later strategically by Salafi-jihadi groups as a game-changer equal to the euphoric first reviews of the tank.


It is worth considering, now some 35 years after the first use of suicide attacks by Hezbollah what is the status of the suicide attack or martyrdom operation. One must note that neither Salafi-jihadis nor even Arabs had the primacy in the use of suicide attacks. Both the Tamils and the Kurds outside of the Arab world, and secular nationalists in Lebanon inside of it used this tactic previously. However, since the late 1990s the suicide attack has become emblematic of Salafi-jihadi to the point where today virtually no non-Salafi group actually carries out these types of operations. This change is also worth noting and exploring. First of all, we should explore martyrdom and its connection to martyrdom operations.


The early history of Islam

Martyrdom,[1] while important as a component of the religion, is not really central to Islam as a whole. During the earliest level of Islam, the ministry of Muhammad in Mecca (approximately 610-22), there were individual Muslims who suffered or were killed for their belief as opposed to the dominant pagan belief.


This suffering and the social isolation that accompanied it were primary factors in Muhammad’s hijra (immigration) to Medina in 622, which was the beginning of the Muslim polity. The sufferings of these early Muslims are well-known through the contemporary Muslim world. However, inside the Qur’an these early “martyrs” are not given any specific title (even mustad‘af, “downtrodden” is a product of later revelations like 8:26 or perhaps indirect allusions like 28:5), and one cannot say that their historical experience is normative for Islam.[2]


It is comparatively rare for Muslims (historically speaking) to die as the result of non-Muslims’ persecution with the objective of their apostasy. For the most part Muslims have been enjoined to live under Muslim rule, or to make hijra in the event of their homeland coming under non-Muslim rule, and therefore only comparatively rarely have had to choose between Islam and death (or persecution). The more common Muslim martyrological memory derives from the narratives of the first battles of the Muslims against the pagan Meccans (between 622-32). The only unambiguous allusion to martyrdom in the Qur’an (using the word shahīd, shuhadā’) is in 3:140:[3]


“If you have been afflicted by a wound, a similar wound has afflicted the others. Such is the times; We alternate them among the people, so that Allah may know who are the believers and choose martyrs (shuhadā’) from among you.”[4]


This verse is associated with the defeat suffered by the Muslims at the Battle of Uhud (625) in which a number of early Muslim heroes fell. The sense of the word shahīd in this verse appears to be from the process of testing that occurs when one is required to give one’s life for the sake of a belief-system. Among Muslims world-wide the best-known verse associated with martyrdom also stems from the aftermath of the Battle of Uhud:


“And do not think of 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.”(Qur. 3:169-70)


This verse is to be found on most martyrs’ gravesites. However, one should note that the word shahīd is not mentioned in it, nor are the rewards designated for the martyr substantially different from those given to other Muslims (at least in this earliest level of Qur’anic martyrdom; there are differences in later Islam covered below). This is consistent with the fact that while there are graphic descriptions of the rewards of the next world inside the Qur’an, they seem to be accorded to all Muslims.


The legal issues

For Sunnis, who have the historical experience of mostly being in the majority and only rarely facing persecution, the martyrological narrative proceeds from the two Qur’anic verses. Martyrdom was closely associated with battle, and while fighting one gained “one of the two best outcomes” (Qur. 9:52), victory or martyrdom. Therefore, martyrdom was sought after in battle and not imposed by a persecuting government or authority. Martyrdom was in itself a victorious process, since although the individual died, the collective victory of Islam was assured or at least the personal redemption of the martyr. Because only a tiny part of Sunnis ever have taken part in jihad fighting, the martyrs, while lauded, are hardly a major component of the population. On the other hand, given the importance of the martyrdom narratives from the time of Muhammad, it is perfectly possible that this emphasis could change if the circumstances warranted it.


Ideas concerning martyrdom in Sunni Islam for the most part date from the period of the great Islamic conquests (634-740) or perhaps the century beyond that time. Definitions of martyrdom in either Sunni or Shi‘ite Islam are difficult to come by. One prominent tradition in the authoritative collection of al-Bukhari (d. 875) is the following:


“The Messenger of Allah [Muhammad] said: ‘God Most High has established [the martyr’s] reward according to his intention. What do you count as the circumstances of martyrdom?’ They said: ‘Dying in the path of Allah [jihad]’. The Messenger of Allah said: ‘There are seven categories of martyr other than being killed in the path of Allah. The one who dies of a stomach complaint is a martyr, the one who drowns is a martyr, the one who dies of plague is a martyr, the one who dies of pleurisy is a martyr, the one who dies in a structural collapse is a martyr, the one who dies in a fire is a martyr, and the woman who dies in childbirth is a martyr.’”[5]


This tradition appears to widen the categories of martyrdom considerably beyond those of merely fighting. In the 16th century collection of al-Suyūtī (d. 1505) the author lists over 50 different circumstances that lead to a person being called a martyr.[6] There is not much evidence that these broad categories of martyrdom had much impact upon the broader Muslim perception of martyrdom, but citing them illustrates the difficulties in defining what exactly constitutes martyrdom.


Probably the major reason why the categories of martyrdom widened so much in the classical period was because of the rewards. It was not long before the martyrs (shuhadā’), who are mentioned as a separate category together with the prophets and the other pious people (sālihīn) in the Qur’an (4:69, 39:69), began to be the recipients of more extravagant rewards than other Muslims. The most prominent tradition affirming that idea can be found in another of the six canonical collections, that of al-Tirmidhī (d. 910), who cites:


“In the sight of God the martyr has six [unique] qualities: He [God] forgives him at the first opportunity, and shows him his place in paradise, he is saved from the torment of the grave, he is safe from the great fright [of the Resurrection], a crown of honor is placed upon his head – one ruby of which is better than the world and all that is in it – he is married to 72 of the houris [women of paradise], and he gains the right to intercede for 70 of his relatives.”[7]


With these types of rewards, it is easy to see the reasons why Muslims wanted the rank of martyr. The two rewards that usually garner the most attention are the final two, the marriage to the houris or the women of paradise, and the intercession for one’s relatives (the number 70 should be understood to mean “a considerable number”). Although the practice of intercession is problematic within Islam, both Sunnism and Shi`ism, because it enables the person receiving the intercession to avoid any penalties for their sins, the concept has always been a popular one.


Martyrdom during the pre-modern period was problematic unless one was killed fighting non-Muslims. But frequently the “martyrs” were those who were killed while fighting other Muslims, like Shi‘ites. With the advent of European domination, the religious connotations of the term shahīd became considerably less, and the term was frequently bestowed upon those who fought for independence against the Europeans, whether they were devout Muslims or not. Some who were either socialists or communists have been honored with this title. Whole lists of shuhadā’ are available from the Algerian War of Independence (1954-62) or from various Arab-Israeli wars.[8]


But with the Afghan war against the U.S.S.R. (1979-89, and continuing on against the regime of Najibullah until 1992) the term shahīd began to come back into prominence. ‘Abdallāh ‘Azzām, the Palestinian founder of al-Qaida, began to publish in his journal al-Jihād starting in almost the very first issue, stories of martyrs.[9]


The martyrdom stories published in al-Jihād have become normative for radical Muslims, and today can be found in numerous collections, usually focusing upon either thematic collections devoted to a certain conflict or country-based collections that highlight the number of martyrs from a given area. But while the stories in al-Jihād are quite gory and filled with graphic pictures of the martyrs, the later literary collections are devoid of pictures (perhaps because of the unwillingness of some of the radical Muslims to either be photographed or to be commemorated in a manner that they might deem un-Islamic).


‘Azzām himself also contributed significantly to the doctrine of martyrdom by publishing a continual series of articles discussing the legal issues of martyrdom. He also preached a form of martyr-based salvational Islam that held to the revolutionary ideal of martyrdom = redemption.[10] He also was apparently the first Sunni radical Muslim to promote the ideal of suicide attacks. While commenting on a tradition enjoining the fighter to go out to the battlefield even if he is alone, he states:


“This is proof that it is desirable for the Muslim to fight, even alone, and even if he is certain of death, if this is to the benefit of the Muslims…and it is a proof that it is desirable for the Muslim to carry out suicide attacks (‘amaliyyāt intihāriyya), knowing that he will die during them, if this is for the benefit of the Muslims.”[11]


One should note that ‘Azzām does not hesitate to use the term “suicide attacks” rather than the term that would become popular in the late 1990s, “martyrdom operations” (‘amaliyyāt istishhādiyya). There is no evidence, however, that any suicide attacks were carried out by radical Muslims in Afghanistan during the war against the communist regime.


‘Azzām also contributed substantially to the popularization of a radical Muslim martyrdom mythology. In martyrologies using this mythology there is a heavy supernatural component: dreams and visions of the dead martyr, or prognostications of his death, the sanctity and purity of his body from corruption after his death, and miracles associated with either his body or things formerly his (weapons, possessions, etc.).


Although some of this mythology has some basis in classical Muslim teachings, it is in fact an adoption of the miracles and blessings associated with popular Sufi saints (ironically condemned by radical Muslims worldwide) into the jihadi mythology.[12] With all of these contributions ‘Azzām himself has been granted the title of shahīd after he was blown up in November 1989, but this title of martyr merely illustrates the problem of according it, because no one knows who killed him. Even among Salafi-jihadi Muslims, shahīd is more of a recognition of one’s life’s work rather than a statement that the person was killed for certain by a non-Muslim.


A number of martyrologies of radical Muslims were developed after the death of ‘Azzām, focusing upon those fighters killed in the Afghan war, the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Chechen conflict and those in Afghanistan (2001 to present) and Iraq. Taken together these martyrologies convey a formula for the creation of the image of the martyr. The person must go through some type of trial or temptation in order to come to the battlefield.


This means either familial opposition, temptations of this world (women, good job offers, possibilities of study or furthering oneself), or physical obstacles to fighting. Then the fighter distinguishes himself by being the most pious person in the group. He is usually a loner, set apart for death as it were, always helping others out, but never really close to anybody. Dreams and visions of his upcoming martyrdom are often granted to him and his friends, sometimes of an extremely specific nature.


The martyr is a hero, he boldly and singly confronts the enemy and usually takes a number of them with him when he dies. After his death he is often seen by his fellow fighters, telling them of his place in heaven. His body is always uncorrupted and pure in contradistinction to the bodies of the non-Muslims around him.[13]


The other image that the martyrology creates is the defiant hero who confronts and possibly overcomes the enemy’s superior firepower. Certain of those martyrs are also comparatively helpless and recall the image of the Chinese demonstrator confronting the tanks in Tiananmen Square in 1989. The more interesting types of martyrs are those who are actively engaged in fighting (in military or para-military units), those fighters who go out on suicidal missions, and those who carry out martyrdom operations. Although these groups are mixed together, and not all of the martyrdom operations perpetrators are actually listed[14] these serve as a counter-point for the helpless martyrs.


Al-‘Ayyirī and al-Zarqawi

Since the time of the Palestinian Intifada the two greatest radical Muslim popularizers of martyrdom narratives have been Yūsuf al-‘Ayyirī, the former leader of al-Qaida in Saudi Arabia who was killed in 2003, and Abu Musa‘b al-Zarqawi, the al-Qaida leader in Iraq killed in 2006. Al-‘Ayyirī was the first radical Muslim leader who moved the discourse of martyrdom operations away from the Palestinian arena and began a focus upon Chechnya by composing Hal intaharat Hawa Barayev? [Did Hawa Barayev commit Suicide?], referring to the Chechen woman who carried out the first martyrdom operation in that country in June 2000.[15]


In this document al-‘Ayyirī brought out all of the significant arguments in favor of carrying out martyrdom operations as a normative tactic on the part of globalist radical Muslims (this point will be discussed below).

Al-‘Ayyirī was also responsible for writing Haqīqat al-harb al-sālibiyya al-jadīda [The Truth of the New Crusader War] in which he took the discussion of globalist martyrdom operations further by explaining the justifications for the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Although Haqīqat al-harb al-sālibiyya al-jadīda is too long for most readers to go through, true to his popularizing nature al-‘Ayyirī and his cohorts published a number of abbreviated texts of it.[16] With al-‘Ayyirī and the other justifications of Sept. 11 for the most part the intellectual and religious framework of contemporary radical Muslim martyrdom is complete.


Al-Zarqawi, by way of contrast, has served to develop the conception of martyrdom as theater. Although the suicide attacks of Sept. 11 and other prominent al-Qaida operations were similarly theatrical in nature, al-Zarqawi took the continual martyrdom operations happening in Iraq and, using the possibilities of the internet, turned the martyrdom scenarios laid down by ‘Azzām and others into a production.


In this production one is given a very standard drama of emotional incitement (treading on the sanctities of Islam, the honor of the Arab and Muslim world, the humiliation of the oppressor, etc.), leading to an individual response (a suicide attacker) who responds with a powerful statement of further incitement, and then carries out the operation in full view of the world. The videos published by Zarqawi and his successors in the Islamic State have literally revolutionized the discourse of Salafi-jihadi martyrdom. Already the literary descriptions of al-‘Ayyirī and others are out of date, and probably only read by a few, while the videos are devoured by many viewers.[17]


In the Shi’ite world

For Shi’ites one would have to say that martyrdom is a primary component of the belief system. Shi’ism harks back to the early tragic history of the descendants of Muhammad, many of whom were killed by the Sunni-dominated or influenced governments. These descendants were according to Shi’ite political theology supposed to have been the rightful rulers of the Muslim world after the time of Muhammad. The majority group of Shi’ites, the Twelver Shi’ites, hold to a series of twelve imams that followed the time of Muhammad until the last of them is said to have gone into occultation (disappeared from human eyes) until his future appearance as a messianic figure.


All of the imams starting with the Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law (and according to the Shi’ites rightful successor) ‘Alī Ibn Abī Tālib were martyrs, and therefore as a status, the title of martyr is much more normative in Shi’ite Islam. There can be no doubt of the centrality of the martyrdom of Husayn (killed at Karbala in southern Iraq in 680) for Shi’ites, as Husayn’s sacrifice is seen as paradigmatic and redemptive. In classical times, in general, Husayn was seen as a tragic figure, who had foreknowledge of his own death, and willingly participated in the gruesome butchery of his family for the sake of attaining the rights of the Prophet’s family. Indeed, Husayn is venerated by both Sunnis and Shi’ites today, all of whom see his cause as having been the just one. But Sunnis do not accord the descendants of Muhammad necessarily the right to rule, and thus the sacrifice of Husayn is not qualitatively different from others (with the exception of the fact that he was Muhammad’s grandson).


But for Shi’ites, the martyrdom of Husayn is not only paradigmatic, but also an actual sin that needs expiation generation after generation. The blood of Husayn can be compared to some degree to that of Jesus in Christianity (although Husayn is not a god-like figure and cannot actually confer salvation upon his followers). As an event, the martyrdom stands out not just (as Sunnis would see it) as one more tragic event, but as the paradigmatic and unjust way in which the Sunnis treated the family of Muhammad. Thus, Husayn is a symbol of everything that is wrong, in Shi`ite eyes, with the Muslim world, and commemorating the unjust shedding of the blood of Husayn is a means by which this injustice is actively combated.


While in classical times Husayn’s sacrifice was seen as a tragic event, during the past 50 years gradually he has achieved the position of a revolutionary and a proactive leader who actively confronted oppression and (at least morally) defeated it. To a large extent this turn-around was achieved by activist leaders of the Shi’ite community such as Muhammad al-Bāqir al-Sadr, Ayatollah Khomeini and Mūsā al-Sadr in Lebanon. This change in Husayn’s image has had the effect of creating something of the Sunni “hero” image. However, it should be noted that there does not seem to be any comparable figure to Husayn in Sunni Islam. Because of the yearly commemoration of the death of Husayn and other prominent figures in Shi’ism the idea of martyrdom is never very distant.


While the concept of martyrdom is much more central to Shi’ism, it is also considerably more focused upon the group of the Prophet Muhammad’s family and some of their very close early supporters rather than upon the common Shi’ites who might have also died heroic deaths for their beliefs. To some extent this trend changed also with the introduction of a more activist form of martyrdom,[18] especially in Iran during the course of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) and among southern Lebanese Shi’ites (Hezbollah) during the course of their struggle with Israel (1983-2000).


Martyrologies from the Iran-Iraq War fall into several broad categories. The first one is the more specifically Islamic type of martyrologies that date from the first desperate years of the war (1980-2). This was the period when Iran was most on the defensive, and the slaughter of its soldiers significant. The discourse from this period frames the war very much in Islamic and Shi’ite terms, the Iranians are types of Husayn, while the invading Iraqis are types of Yazīd (Husayn’s opponent and the person most hated in Shi’ite Islam).[19]


The later and more copious martyrdoms are those that were mostly published in the 1990s by survivors of the war in recollection of their comrades. These accounts are much less Islamic, although they can occasionally contain the usual Islamic themes, but have more in common with soldiers’ stories the world over.[20] They are published, however, within the overall framework of martyrdoms. Perhaps the reason for the more muted Islamic quality of this literature is the fact that the issues of the Iran-Iraq War are less immediate and Iran during the 1990s was going through a period of considerable liberalization.


Hezbollah has frequently published pictures and commemorations of martyrs during the period when it fought against the Israeli domination of south Lebanon. The only period where it exhibits some reticence is its earliest period (1982-84) when it used suicide attacks against the United States and France in west Beirut. None of the official documents of the organization make any mention of the actions during this time, probably fearing the retribution of the U.S. The organization also officially denies the 1994 suicide attack in Buenos Aires against Jewish targets. However, the balance of the fighting against Israel is proudly remembered. Like the Pakistani and the Palestinian groups Hezbollah in its martyrologies does not make a substantial differentiation between ordinary fighting, suicidal attacks (fidā’ī attacks) and actual suicide attacks, and this is reflected its martyrologies. From a literary point of view, its official publications are surprisingly muted. All of the collected martyrologies in the official Hizbullāh: al-muqāwama wa-l-tahrīr [Hezbollah: Resistance and Liberation], of which there are 104 listed, are commemorated by letters from their mothers (the vast majority), families, sisters, wives, or children of the martyrs.[21]


This is even more apparent with another official Hezbollah book, Mawsū‘at Hizbullāh [The Hezbollah Encyclopedia] which contains a volume dedicated to martyrs. But only ‘Abbās Mūsawī and Mūsā al-Sadr are listed, with a short tribute to the numerous other martyrs (unnamed) at the end of the book.[22]


Unlike with the Palestinians there is no attempt to build an impersonal portrait of the martyr in these martyrological books, and in surprisingly few of the accounts are there any details of in what operation he was killed (all the martyrs are male). Usually just details of the person’s life are given, and some recollections (especially on the part of the mothers) of childhood, and then some standard Islamic themes of the promise of paradise. There is no sense from any of these accounts of any doubt that the fighters are actually martyrs. However, just as with the Sunni miracle stories associated with al-Qaida and ‘Azzām listed above, Hezbollah collects miracle stories associated with martyrs. From the 2006 campaign with Israel there are stories, very strikingly similar to those from the Afghan war or Bosnia, in which martyrs who have been slain rise up and kill those Israelis who have killed them, or render aid to the Hezbollah fighters at key moments.[23] With these types of miracle stories, radical Sunnis and Shi’ites record martyrdom quite similarly.


What is the ruling on committing suicide?

The fatwas (legal opinions) concerning martyrdom operations are interesting because they give the legal, Islamic justification for the tactic.


These fatwas are themselves problematic, because citation of a fatwa or even notation of how many people read it (or download it on the internet) does not necessarily indicate the number of people who see themselves as bound by it. In general, a fatwa is binding upon the person who solicited it, and upon those who see the person giving the fatwa as a figure with spiritual prestige. In practice, this tends to obscure a number of fatwas whose authors are non-entities, and whose following is minimal, but to make super-stars out of very prominent `ulama or other non-traditional religious and politicized religious leaders.


An excellent example of a Salafi-jihadi fatwa concerning martyrdom operations is the one given by al-Shaykh Sulaymān Ibn Nāsir al-‘Ulwān (Saudi Arabia):


“The sacrificial operations that are taking place in Palestine against the Jewish usurpers and in Chechnya against the Christian aggressors are martyrdom operations and legitimate (shar‘ī) forms of fighting. They have stunned the aggressors, proven their effectiveness and caused the usurpers to taste the bitterness of their crime, and the evil of what they have done such that the infidels have become afraid of everything and expect death from every direction. Some of the papers have mentioned that the criminal Sharon has demanded the stopping of these operations. Thus these operations have become a woe and destruction upon the Israelis, who have usurped the lands, violated honor, spilled blood and killed the innocent. The Most High said ‘And make ready for them whatever you can of fighting men and horses, to terrify thereby the enemies of Allah and your enemy’ (Qur. 8:60), and also ‘Fight the polytheists with your wealth, yourselves and your tongues.’ (Abū Dawūd)”[24]


It is quite easy to see the intellectual and religious sloppiness behind this fatwa. Most of the force of it relies upon the author’s religious prestige, here he merely makes a number of pronouncements and assertions, without any attempt at serious verification or quantification. The citations at the end of the fatwa reveal the weakness of the case that he has built (if it can even be called a case), since both the Qur’anic verse and the hadīth citation are extremely general and do not answer the basic questions about whether a person who is blowing themselves up is actually a martyr or is fighting a form of jihad.


Justifications of martyrdom operations had to wait for the beginnings of the al-Aqsā Intifada. With the publication of Nawāf al-Takrūrī’s initial edition of Al-‘Amaliyyāt al-istishhādiyya fī al-mizān al-fiqhī [Martyrdom Operations in the Legal Balance] one has a true collection, and immediately following him Muhammad Sa‘īd Ghayba’s much smaller collection and discussion.[25]


Because Takrūrī collected 29 fatwas from a wide variety of ulama from all over the Arabic-speaking Muslim world, the book confers upon the subject the sense of consensus (which is one of the bases for Sunni Islam). And Takrūrī himself, in the rest of the book, demonstrates himself to be quite an expert at teasing out classical authorities on suicide attacks, which were virtually unknown in classical Islam. But like ‘Ulwān above, the real arguments that are given on behalf of martyrdom operations are twofold: political exigencies and the fact that they (apparently) work. Most of the fatwas of the ulama cite either Israeli, American, Russian or Indian incursions as the justification for the use of suicide attacks.


This fact raises the question of whether suicide attacks are purely political with a religious veneer or whether there is something intrinsically Islamic to them. Other than the stray reference by Ibn al-Nahhās al-Dumyātī (d. 1411) there are no pre-modern references to anything remotely resembling suicide attacks,[26] although there are cases of Muslims carrying out suicidal attacks or attacks where there was no reasonable chance that the fighter would return. But in not a single case can any of the fatwas or other religious justifications cited marshal up a case where there was something precisely the same as someone who blows themselves up in order to maximize casualties among an enemy. The most that can be found are examples of suicidal attacks that are not different kind (but in degree) from what all soldiers are expected to do.


The political element of the argument for suicide attacks is therefore, in my opinion, the primary driving force behind their appearance among Muslims today.[27] However, having said that, I would also say that the problematic aspects of suicide attacks within the context of Islam are sufficiently great that it has been necessary (within Sunnism) to defend them out of all proportion to their relative value for jihad as a whole. In other words, common statements such as “jihad is the pinnacle of Islam, and martyrdom operations are the pinnacle of jihad”[29] actually cover up the problematic justification of suicide attacks. Only by lionizing them and literally putting them on a pedestal (beyond question as it were), and by sort of an “emperor who has no clothing” attitude towards the whole issue can it be fully justified.


The consensus that has been achieved on behalf of suicide attacks in Sunni Islam, in my opinion, is quite brittle and could very well fall apart were someone of serious religious stature and prestige to challenge it. It is my opinion that the religious justifications serve to paper that problem over and give some “respectability” to the whole matter.


Broad acceptance of martyrdom operations raises the question of whether the ulama are leading or following with regard to martyrdom operations. Ordinarily the conservative nature of the ulama establishment would render it virtually impervious to being stampeded into a decision, but the fact remains that within a very short period of time (1997-2002) a substantial percentage of prominent ulama were willing to join in the support of martyrdom operations. Only a very few, usually those at the very highest level of the governmental religious establishment (Tantāwī of Egypt, Āl al-Shaykh of Saudi Arabia) or those that are generally independent thinkers (al-Būtī, Ibn ‘Uthaymīn, Hasan Ayyūb, etc) were able to either oppose or at least to go back and forth between support and opposition.


Support for suicide attacks at this critical juncture, I think, revealed the fact that the ulama were (collectively) feeling very vulnerable to the sustained attacks by various radical Muslim groups and felt that they needed to support something as dubious as suicide attacks in order to boost their popularity.


The mediatization of violence

Previous to 2003 martyrdom operations enjoyed a rather high prestige among Arabic-speaking Muslims. However, that attitude changed abruptly when suicide attacks began to be utilized by Salafi-jihadis against Muslim targets. Previously strong supporters of the use of suicide attacks, such al-Qaradāwī of Qatar (and al-Jazeera fame) began to define the operations much more carefully, and state that they should only be used against an occupying enemy.


Unfortunately for them, the logic of Salafi-jihadism is that the Muslim apostate governments (tāghūt) and the people who paid them allegiance were occupiers on exactly the same level as Israel, Russia or the U.S. made it possible to reread the carelessly worded fatwas cited above as justification for any suicide attack.


Starting with Zarqawi, Iraqi al-Qaeda groups began to use these operations beyond any measure previously known. Until the Iraq war, the longest sustained campaigns of suicide attacks had been those of the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka (1984-2009) and the Palestinians against Israel. In both cases, however, the numbers involved were in the low hundreds. In Iraq, there were at least 1010 suicide attacks between 2003-2010, almost all against Iraqi Shi’ite civilians. The Islamic State carried out 782 suicide attacks since the beginning of 2016.[29] Numbers are incomplete for earlier years, but this would imply roughly a total of 3500-4000 since the rebirth of the organization in 2011-2012.


Boko Haram in Nigeria has carried out at least 150 suicide attacks since it swore allegiance to IS in March 2015. Obviously other groups, such as al-Shabab and Afghani-Pakistani groups also commonly use suicide attacks as well.


It is clear with such numbers, that the old paradigms have completely disappeared. No longer is the suicide attacker a single lone warrior, fighting against a superior foe, but usually especially with IS one who is part of a larger military strategy.

In many cases the suicide attacker will be the initial phase of an assault – what would be in other circumstances, a shock attack. Two-pronged attacks are common, such as the Kano Mosque attack by Boko Haram in Nov. 2014, in which a suicide attacker drove a truck filled with explosives into the mosque, while assailants waited for the worshippers fleeing the carnage outside with machine guns. [As it happened in Egypt, when a mosque in Bir al-Abed, northern Sinai, was attacked in November 2017]


This type of operation has been perfected by Salafi-jihadis, and is usually directed against civilian targets to maximize the dead. Several conclusions can be drawn from the experience of 2003-2017 in suicide attacks. First of all, the religious legitimacy of suicide attacks/martyrdom operations is no longer in question among Salafi-jihadis. It is now one of their signature operations, and will continue to be so for the immediate future.


As an operation it gives them everything they need: spreads terror, promotes the idea that they are spearheading a self-sacrificial type of Islam, as well as constitutes a strike against the authority of the mainstream ulama they despise. Boko Haram when it took up suicide attacks in 2011 did not even bother to justify the use of the tactic, even though such operations had never previously been known in Nigeria.


Secondly, suicide attacks are primarily a weapon of terror, rather than a military tactic. While in a concerted sequence suicide attacks can both kill large numbers of people, and progressively drive a population into panic, there is no analogous paradigm for suicide attacks against military targets. This is for the simple reason that while suicide attacks can catch a military target at unawares and inflict momentary damage, a military target is capable of quickly learning from its mistakes and simply killing or avoiding likely suicide attackers. The only exceptions to this rule are militaries that have systematically refused to learn lessons, and have regularly been attacked. But while one can find initially heavy military casualties among military targets, usually there is a sharp fall-off later on.


Thirdly, there is no longer any connection between a sense of “occupation” and the use of suicide attacks. While Robert Pape was able to make this connection based upon the numbers from the 1980s until 2003, since Salafi-jihadis believe that the entire world is occupied, occupation no longer has any meaning.


Governments and civilians are legitimate targets. However, this does not mean that there are no ideological weaknesses in the Salafi-jihadi camp that cannot be exploited. For example, Boko Haram has split several times over the question of legitimate targets. The faction around Shekau really believes that anyone who lives in the unbelievers’ land is an unbeliever themselves – an ideology that is particularly vicious, and has led to Boko Haram repeatedly attacking refugee camps, as the denizens are “dwelling in the lands of the unbelievers.”


Fourthly, the media promotion of martyrdom operations has become extraordinarily slick, but is no longer the highlight of Salafi-jihadi attempts to horrify their opponents. On the contrary, in the media realm it is possible to see the routinization of suicide attacks. Truly barbaric acts, such as crucifixion, beheading, dissolving people in vats of acid or hanging them up to die on meat hooks, are now the staple of IS media. Suicide attacks are still sometimes featured, but they no longer have the infinite capacity to horrify as they did 10 years ago. Terrify, but not horrify.


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] I define martyrdom for the purposes of this paper as “a narrative sequence or portrayal of the sufferings and/or death of an individual who as a result of this experience is seen by the larger community as a paradigmatic exemplar.”

[2] By “normative” throughout the paper I mean within the ijmā‘ consensus of either Sunni or Shi’ite Muslims.

[3] The word shahīd or shuhadā’ is used in the Qur’an mostly in its primary sense of “witness” or in lists of laudable figures (prophets, righteous people) in which the meaning is not clear (e.g., 4:69).

<[4] Qur’an translation, Majid Fakhry, The Qur’an: A Modern English Version (Garnet, London, 1997).

[5] al-Bukhārī, Sahīh, ed. ‘Abdallāh b. Bāz, (Dār al-Fikr, Bayrūt, 1991), iii, p. 278 [nos. 2829-30].

[6] al-Suyūtī, Abwāb al-sa‘āda fī asbāb al-shahāda, (al-Maktaba al-Qayyima, al-Qāhira, 1987).

[7] Al-Tirmidhī, Al-Jāmi‘ al-sahīh, (Dār al-Fikr, Bayrūt s.d.), iii, p. 106 [n. 1712].

[8] Bassām al-‘Asaylī (ed), Jihād sha‘b al-Jazā’ir, (Dār al-Nafā’is, Bayrūt, 1982); ‘Ārif al-‘Ārif al-Maqdisī, Sijill al-khulūd: asmā’ shuhadā’ al-umma al-‘arabiyya fī harb Filistīn ‘ām 1948, (Maktabat al-Jīl al-Jadīd, San‘ā’, 2006).

[9] Al-Jihād 6 (May 1985), p. 26.

[10] See his “Martyrs: The Building Blocks of Nations” (from and his comments in al-Jihād 15 (October 1985), pp. 38-39 “al-Shahīd wa-l-shahāda: al-halqa al-thālitha.”

[11] ‘Abdallāh ‘Azzām, Ithāf al-‘ibād fī fadā’il al-jihād, (Markaz al-Shahīd ‘Abdallāh ‘Azzām, Peshawar, 1990), reprint, p. 91.

[12] For ‘Azzām’s doctrines on the subject, see his Ayāt al-rahmān fī jīhad al-Afghān; for further examples, see “In the Hearts of Green Birds,” at (2003); and Qari Mansur Ahmed, “Why the difference?” at (2002) in addition to the martyrologies cited below.

[13] The martyrologies upon which this was based are ‘Ādil b. ‘Alī al-Shādī, Min qisas al-shuhadā’ al-‘arab fī Afghānistān, (Maktabat al-irshād, al-Qāhira, 1990), (listing a total of 25 martyrs); Hamd al-Qatarī e Mājid al-Madanī, Min qisas al-shuhadā’ al-‘arab fī Būsniya wa-l-Hirsak (at (listing 45 martyrs, his website has since the publication of this book added on 23 additional martyrs); “In the Hearts of Green Birds” (idem); Usūd al-Kuwayt fī bilād al-rāfidayn (at; and Yahyā al-Ghāmidī, Shuhadā’ al-Hijāz ilā ridwān Allāh, in Sawt al-jihād 16 (1425), pp. 27-29.

[14] See Intifādat al-Aqsā, iv, pp. 89-91 (Mahmūd Marmash), pp. 97-99 (Nimr Darwīsh Abū al-Hayjā’ e ‘Alāʾ Hilāl ‘Abd al-Sattār Sabāh), pp. 167-169 (Nidāl Abū Shādūf), pp. 203-204, (‘Izz al-Dīn Misrī), pp. 259-262 (Hishām Abū Jāmūs), pp. 268-281 (Hasan Husayn al-Hūtarī), v, pp. 209-210 (Sāmir ‘Umar Shawāhina), pp. 266-268 (Ahmad Darāghima) vi, pp. 74-80 (Wafā’ Idrīs), pp. 216-217 (‘Andalīb Tiqātaqa), vii, pp. 113-115 (Muhammad al-Ghūl), viii, pp. 149-151 (Samīr al-Nūrī e Burāq Khalfa), ix, pp. 59-61 (Ahmad al-Khatīb), 102-103 (Hiba Darāghima), 173-176 (Īhāb e Rāmiz Abū Salīm), x, pp. 84-93 (Hanādī Jarādāt).

[15] This document in a concise form has been translated into English as The Islamic Legitimacy of Martyrdom Operations: Did Hawa Barayev commit suicide? (Hal intaharat Hawa um ustushihdat? Available at Although it is signed “a council of scholars from the Arabian Peninsula” is now known that ‘Ayyirī penned it.

[16] See, e.g., my Understanding Jihad (University of California Press, Berkeley, 2005), appendix 3, pp. 175-81 for a translation of one of them.

[17] See Mohammed Hafez, “Martyrdom Mythology in Iraq: How Jihadists Frame Suicide Terrorism in Videos and Biographies,” Terrorism and Political Violence 19 (2007), pp. 95-115.

[18] Note the lectures translated by Mehdi Abedi and Gary Legenhausen, Jihad and Shahadat: Struggle and Martyrdom in Islam (Houston: Institute for Research and Islamic Studies, 1986), especially the lecture by Ayatollah Murtadā Mutahharī on the shahīd (chapter 4).

[19] See Werner Schmucker, “Iranische Märtyrertestamente,” Die Welt des Islams 27 (1987), pp. 185-249; and Farhad Khosrokhavar, Les Nouveaux Martyrs d’Allah (Flammarion, Paris, 2002, revised), chapter 2.

[20] See M. Jalali, Akhirin nasl; Hamza Va`izi, Bidrud, khak-i avliya; Sayyid, khuda hafiz; Surkhjamagan, bamdadi, majmu`a-yi khatirat; and the series Majmu`ah-yi khatirat-i sardan-i shahīd (a total of 7 volumes so far); also the Yadnama-yi shuhada-yi sal-i avval-i difa` muqaddas-i Shahristan va-Qumm.

[21] Hizbūllah: al-Muqāwama wa-l-tahrīr, (al-Safīr, Bayrūt, 2006), xii (devoted to the shuhadā’); for the materials on the martyrdom operations, see vol. ii on military tactics.

[22] Mawsū‘at Hizbullāh (Mu’assasat al-Hana International, Beirut, 2007), ix (entire volume).

[23] See Mājid Nāsir al-Zabīdī, Karāmāt al-wa‘d al-sādiq, (Dār al-Mahajja al-Baydā’, Bayrūt, 2007), pp. 178-181, pp. 204-7, etc.

[24] (2002); there are other versions of this fatwa cited in the appendix under #42 (‘Ulwān).

[25] Nawwāf al-Takrūrī, al-‘Amaliyyāt al-istishhādiyya fī al-mīzān al-fiqhī (al-Takrūrī, Dimashq, 20044), pp. 102-79; Muhammad Sa‘īd Ghayba, al-‘Amaliyyāt al-istishhādiyya wa-ārā’ al-fuqahā’ fīhā, (Dār al-Maktabī, Dimashq, 2001); see also the collection and discussion of Muhammad Tu‘mat al-Qudāt, al-Mughāmara bi-l-nafs fī al-qitāl wa-hukmuhā fī al-Islām, (Dār al-Furqān, ‘Ammān, 2001), pp. 27-47; and the collection of Masā’il jihādiyya (note 34).

[26] Ibn al-Nahhās al-Dumyātī, Mashāri‘ al-ashwāq, (Dār al-Bashā’ir, Bayrūt, 2004), i, pp. 557-60.

[27] Although I obviously do not subscribe to everything that Muslims themselves write about suicide attacks, in this analysis I am influenced by Ghāzī Husayn, Al-irhāb al-isrā’īlī wa-shar‘iyyat al-muqāwama wa-l-‘amaliyyāt al-istishhādiyya, (Matba‘at al-Zahrā’, Dimashq, 2004); Nawwāf al-Zarw, al-‘Amaliyyāt al-istishhādiyya, (al-Mu’tamar al-sha‘bī, ‘Ammān, 2003); Hāni’ b. Jubayr, al-‘Amaliyyāt al-istishhādiyya, (Dār al-Fadīla, Riyādh, 2002); Husayn al-Bash, al-‘Amaliyyāt al-istishhādiyya, (Dār Qutayba, Dimashq, 2003).

[28] Qaradāwī has stated this numerous times, and see also the statements of Ahmad ‘Abd al-Karīm Najīb, Al-Dalā’il al-jaliyya ‘alā mashrū‘iyyat al-‘amaliyyāt al-istishhādiyya, (Dimashq 2006), pp. 5-7.