Islam grants a special status to those who lose or sacrifice their lives in the service of their religion. Such a person is a martyr, or shahid, the Arabic term for “witness.” To die in defense of Islam is considered the highest form of witness of faith in God.
The Qur'an contains many passages that honor martyrs. It states: “Whosoever obeys God, and the Messenger—they are with those whom God has blessed. Prophets, just men, martyrs, the righteous; good companions they!” Scripture teaches the virtue of martyrdom: “Say not of those who die in the path of God that they are dead. Nay rather they live.” Moreover, according to the hadith, the Prophet Muhammad clearly indicated his support of martyrs. Like other major religious traditions of the world, Islam admires self-sacrifice for a higher moral, ethical, or spiritual idea or cause.
The Promise of Reward.
In Islamic teaching, a martyr's motives must be religious. In the hadith, the Prophet noted: “Whosoever partakes of the battle from desire of glory, or in order to show his courage, is no martyr.” Instead, “a martyr is only he who fights in order that Allah's Word may be prevalent.” Islam also makes an important distinction between suicide and martyrdom. Muslims are forbidden to commit suicide. According to tradition, the punishment for such a deed is the unending repetition of the act by which the individual took his or her life.
The theme of martyrdom is closely associated with the theme of rewards in the afterlife, which are elaborated in popular traditions. Unlike ordinary Muslims, after they die martyrs do not have to undergo the intimidating review of their deeds by the angels Munkar and Nakir. A martyr proceeds directly to the highest station in paradise, near the throne of God. According to some Muslim traditions, martyrs are so devoted to their faith that they would leave the bliss of paradise and return to earth so that they may be martyred again—up to ten times.
Different Set of Qualifications.
The religious leaders of Sunni Islam traditionally discouraged the deliberate pursuit of martyrdom, which they considered equivalent to suicide. Sunni scholars taught that a life of good deeds was equal to or even preferable to martyrdom. Individuals who performed acts of worship, prayer, and charity could qualify for the status of martyr, depending on how perfect and pure their motives were when they performed such acts. Indeed, Sunni theologian Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (died 1111 ) wrote: “Every one who gives himself wholly to God in the war against his own desires, is a martyr when he meets death going forward without turning back. So the holy warrior is he who makes war against his own desires, as it has been explained by the apostle of God.” In addition, collections of hadith identify several types of death that confer martyr status. These include death in an epidemic, by drowning, by fire, and in childbirth.
Despite Sunni opposition to the idea of dying to become a martyr, scholars respected the jihad of the early community at Medina against their Arab opponents in Mecca. Moreover, Sunnis recognize the early martyrs of Islam. In general, Sunni tradition values martyrdom less as a means of individual salvation or happiness in the afterlife than as a way for individuals to defend the Muslim community.
The Burial Site.
The ideal of martyrdom is a vital element of belief for Shi'i Muslims. Twelvers, the largest subgroup of Shi'i Muslims, recognize a long list of martyrs, beginning with Abel (the son of Adam and Eve who was killed by his brother Cain) and including Muhammad and eleven of the twelve imams. The first imam, Ali ibn Abi Talib, was murdered, and each of his successors suffered persecution or death at the hands of a caliph or the caliph's supporters.
Shi'is make annual pilgrimages to mashhads, the gravesites of notable martyrs, especially the imams. They believe that their devotion to the imams will grant them forgiveness of their sins, and they also regard the shrines as places where they can share in the holiness of the imams. Weeping for the martyrs has special religious value, as does enduring the same type of suffering that the martyrs experienced, such as extreme thirst and hunger.
Of all the imams, Husayn ibn Ali is considered one of the most important. He not only suffered the torments of thirst and hunger in the desert, but he also was slaughtered in an ambush by his enemies at Karbala (in present-day Iraq). His tomb was probably the first mashhad. The tombs of other imams are also regarded as important holy sites.
Various Muslim rulers donated great riches to expand and decorate the mashhads of the imams. Towns and cities grew up around the mashhads. In addition, the sites have become centers of Shi'i learning, and Muslims have established important madrasahs (colleges for higher studies) nearby. Many Shi'is seek their final resting place in the holy surroundings of the beloved imams, as demonstrated by the growth of large cemeteries at all the mashhads.
A New Understanding.
Beginning in the 1700s and 1800s, much of the Muslim world came under colonial rule. Muslim soldiers who died in wars of independence were referred to as martyrs, leading to a new understanding of martyrdom.
Since the late 1900s, Muslims have identified all struggles in defense of Islamic land as jihad, and those who lose their lives in such a struggle as martyrs. In the war between Iran and Iraq during the 1980s, for example, both Sunni Iraqi leaders and Shi'i Iranians relied heavily on the ideal of martyrdom to motivate their troops. Iranians created martyr cemeteries for soldiers who died in the conflict and for the clergy and others who died during the 1979 revolution.
By the beginning of the twenty-first century, martyrdom had taken on controversial dimensions as Islamic extremists introduced the use of suicide bombing against civilian targets, particularly in Israel, but also in the United States and elsewhere. Instead of merely dying for their faith, these martyrs use their deaths to kill as many of their enemies as possible. Critics condemn this practice as terrorism and argue that the perpetrators of such acts violate the teachings of Islam and are not martyrs. Those who support such actions, however, believe that the self-sacrifice of suicide bombers honors the faith and is a necessary form of resistance to the oppression of the Islamic community.
Although most suicide bombers are young single men, teenagers have begun to volunteer for these missions. The practice of recruiting adolescents and children as Islamic martyrs has aroused widespread criticism. Even so, between 70 and 80 percent of Palestinians continue to support suicide bombing as a tactic against Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. See also Afterlife; Arab-Israeli Conflict; Karbala and Najaf; Shrine; Suicide; Terrorism.