Martyrdom in Islam – A Brief Conceptual Clarification


“Abu Barakat Thaqafi has related that the Holy Prophet (saw) said: When two Muslims confront each other with swords and one is killed, both end up in hell. I said: Messenger of Allah (saw), as to the one who kills it is understandable; but why the other? He answered: The other was also eager to kill his opponent.” [1]

“All the soldiers who died in the battle on the Iraqi side were applauded as great martyrs by the Iraqi media. All the Iranian soldiers who died at the hands of the Iraqis were condemned as infidels dispatched straight to hell by the Iraqi media. Exactly the same story was repeated in reverse day in and day out on the other side of the border in Iran. Whenever an Iraqi soldier was bayoneted to death the battlefield resounded with the cry of ‘Allaho Akbar’ (God is the greatest). On which side was Islam? One wonders! All this demonstrates the hollowness of these slogans. The only point which can be proved beyond a shadow of doubt is that the Iraqi and Iranian soldiers who laid down their lives for an apparently noble cause were duped by their leadership. Islam was neither here nor there.” [2]– Mirza Tahir Ahmad.


The totality of Islamic beliefs, doctrines and ideologies and their cosmic expressions or manifestations by the contemporary Muslim world occupy a central position in contemporary world socio-religious and political discourse. Particularly critical are such topical discussions on the various extremist re-interpretations of Islamic theological and legal doctrines and their fanatical applications by various radical Muslim individuals, groups and governments at all local, national and international levels.

One of such Islamic doctrines that has been subjected to such extremist re-interpretation and radically applied is the concept of martyrdom in Islam. Observably, as numerous recent events have shown,  whether it was the thousands of young Iranian boys in the Bassidj organization who sacrificed themselves during the Iran-Iraq war in 1980s, the Shia militants in Islamic Jihad that  bombed the U.S. embassy and French barracks in Beirut in 1983, the Hezbollah attacks against Israel targets in southern Lebanon in the 1980s, the 9/11 hijackers flying commercial airliners into the World Trade Center, or during the last five years frequent reports of suicide bombings in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, Muslims across the world are committing suicide to attack their perceived enemy and become martyrs for their cause.[3] In the same vein, of particular note are the ongoing bloodshed resulting from the protracted Syrian civil war cum ISIS’s militancy, the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen and as well as Boko Haram’s guerrilla war and suicide bombings in the North-East Nigeria. Every case of death resulting from the brutalities perpetrated by each of these bodies is regarded as Islamic martyrdom.

Obviously, the concept of martyrdom as currently being understood and manifested in the contemporary Muslim world presents before us a quite disturbing phenomenon that seriously calls for critical re-assessment and, of course, clarification and re-presentation of what the true Islamic conception of the philosophy of martyrdom is.

Who is a martyr? Or, to put more objectively, who is an ideal Muslim martyr, according to Islam? Can a Muslim suicide bomber be Islamically referred to as a martyr? Similarly, based on true Islamic conception of martyrdom, can the word ‘Islamic martyr’ be applicable to every Muslim soldier,/rebel and civilian who died as a result of any political war, for instance, the ongoing Syrian, Yemen and Nigeria-Boko Haram wars etc?  What fundamental principle and condition define, determine and justify true Islamic martyrdom? This short article attempts a brief conceptual clarification of a subject that is, evidently, being increasingly misconstrued, badly-expressed and abused whether through the so-called contemporary radical Islamist-Jihadists’ martyrdom operations or suicide terrorism, or the various internal civil wars or inter-state political wars being engaged in by some Muslim individuals, groups and governments in the name of Islam.

Concept of Martyrdom in Islam

The Arabic word for martyr, as used in the Quran and in Muslim theology and jurisprudence as well as by major Muslim world languages, is shahid. The word is derived from the Arabic trilateral root verb, shahida, meaning “he witnessed, “he experienced an event personally”, “he was physically present”. According to Cook, the term…..has almost the same semantic field as the Christian word “martyr”, meaning both a “witness’ and “one who dies or suffers because of his beliefs” (and thus bears witness to the truth of those beliefs).”[4] As defined by Kilani, martyr is the name given to those who, in fearless profession of their religion or in an effort of establishing or propagating it, prefer to die rather than abandon it or its teaching or practices. [5] Again, it is similarly defined as somebody who suffers persecution and death for advocating, renouncing, refusing to renounce, or refusing to advocate a belief or cause as demanded by an external party. This refusal to comply with the presented demands results in the punishment or execution of the martyr by the oppressor. The death of a martyr or the value attributed to it is called martyrdom,[6] which, in Arabic, is termed as shahadah.

The doctrine of martyrdom occupies a central place in the theology and history of Islam. As Kilani opines, “The concept of martyrdom in Islam is associated with an all-round effort to make the word of Allah supreme on the surface of the earth. Martyrdom is regarded as the highest form of shahadah, [i.e. witness which a Muslim can make to the religion of Islam.[7] In the words of Kelly: ‘A martyr does not seek to avoid death, but instead take control of his fate, and give his life for a cause worth dying for.’[8] Martyrdom identifies the exemplary ethical model of moral action in a show of struggle (jihad) for the sacred, manifested in the ultimate act of self-sacrifice. The (male) martyr or shahid encounters the sacred by fighting against the enemies of the true religion; and in the process giving up his life in exchange for a higher, celestial existence. In this regard, it is not merely the event of death that identified martyrdom, but the very fulfillment of the duty of obedience to the will of God that brought one to the level of sacred. Martyrdom can also signify the honourable defence of faith, the code of honour which reflects a defensive drive to protect the pietistic themes of virtue.”[9] True, martyrdom is one of the most genuine and sincere ways through which a person can physically give expression to his conviction of, and witness to, the truthfulness of the faith or cause or ideology which he professes or advocates.

It is, therefore, for the above reason that, in the Islamic theology, martyrdom is placed among the four highest spiritual classes that mankind can ever attain, namely: the prophets, the truthful, the martyrs and the righteous. Allah says: “And whoso obeys Allah and this Messenger of His shall be among those on whom Allah has bestowed His blessings, namely the Prophets, the Truthful, the Martyrs, the Righteous. And excellent companions are these.” [10]

Eschatologically, according to Mirza Bashirud-din M. Ahmad, because martyrs lay down their lives for the sake of Allah, therefore they are granted in the next world a special kind of life which is different from, and superior to, that of ordinary believers.” [11] More so, they are given special promise of abundant eternal rewards. This fact is explicitly expressed in the Quranic verse: “Think not of those, who have been slain in the cause of Allah, as dead. Nay, they are living, in the presence of their Lord, and are granted gifts from Him. Jubilant because of that which Allah has given them of His bounty; and rejoicing for those who have not yet joined them from behind them, because on them shall come no fear, nor shall they grieve.” [12] This clearly indicates that the souls of the martyrs are specially bestowed with higher consciousness in the presence of Allah – a consciousness the reality of which transcends ordinary human perception.[13] Other numerous rewards promised to the martyrs are reported in the Prophetic Traditions. Indeed, as noted by Ataul Mujeeb Rashid, “to surrender one’s life in the name of faith for seeking the pleasure of Allah and to remain steadfast under the most trying conditions is indeed a very commendable act.” [14] True, “the reward of goodness,” declares the Quran, “is nothing but goodness.[15]

Islamic Martyrdom – Principle and Condition

Let us now make an attempt to define the principle and condition that determine which martyrdom merits to be termed as Islamic.

It is pertinent to state that, theologically, Islamic creed establishes the monotheistic belief about God and maintains that the kingdom of heavens and earth belongs to Allah.[16] This premise therefore establishes for Islam its idealistic agenda of ensuring that, just as it is in heaven, the Word of Allah must as well rule supreme in the world through the agency of mankind, whom the Divine Will appointed as the vicegerent of Allah on earth. Thus any struggle [jihad] engaged in towards the realization of this supreme agenda is therefore termed in the Islamic theology as ‘Jihad fee sabeel Allah’ i.e. struggle in the way of establishing the supremacy of the Word of Allah in human life and world.

Since martyrdom is closely associated with Jihad, the above premise therefore provides the principle for determining the true and ideal Islamic shahadah or martyrdom as that whose fundamental principle stipulates that one must be martyred strictly because of one’s faith or belief in Allah,[17] and not for the profession of, or advocacy for, any other worldly ideas; whose basic condition strictly is struggle [jihad] in the cause of Allah [fee sabeel Allah],[18]] not in the cause of any political struggle or nationalistic ideology etc; and ultimately, whose fundamental objective is because one seeks to establish the supremacy of the Word of Allah in the world [litakoona kalimatullah hiyal ‘ulyaa],[19] not for gaining political power or control of territory etc.

Thus, in the Muslim Jurisprudence, the term shahid is technically defined in the light of the above principle and condition. For instance, according to the Shafi’i jurists, the term refers to “one who is killed in fighting unbelievers, facing and not running away, for the raising of Allah’s word….and not for any worldly motive.” [20] Similarly, the Hanbali jurists also reason along the same line of the Shafi’is and elaborate that the term refers to “one who dies in a battle with the unbelievers, whether male or female, adult or not, whether killed by the unbelievers, or by his own weapon in error, or by having fallen off his mount, or having been found dead with no mark, provided he was sincere.” [21] However, it is important to note that, while these technical definitions beautifully enunciate some fundamental principles and conditions that define and determine what an Islamic martyrdom is, they, however, narrow the scope of the term to apply only to battlefield martyrdom, precluding other categories of martyrdom.

The Scope of Islamic Martyrdom

In the Quranic martyrology, martyrs are broadly classified into two: (1) those who are slain in the battlefield in the course of defensive war for raising the word of Allah and not for worldly objective; (2) those who are subjected to persecution and victimization due to profession of their faith and are either killed ultimately or die naturally. The former is referred to in many places in the Holy Quran. For example, a Quranic verse states: “Surely, Allah has purchased of the believers their persons and their property in return for the Heavenly Garden they shall have; they fight in the cause of Allah, and they slay and are slain – an unfailing promise that He has made incumbent on Himself in the Torah, and the Gospel, and the Quran. And who is more faithful to his promise than Allah? Rejoice, then, in your bargain which you have made with Him; and that it is which is the supreme triumph.”  [22]

In the case of the latter type, we have: “And those who leave their homes for the cause of Allah, and are then slain or die, Allah will surely provide for them a goodly provision. And surely, Allah is the Best of providers.” [23] Commenting on this verse, Mirza Bashirud-din Mahmud Ahmad notes thus: “In fact there are two categories of martyrs – “the dead martyrs” and “the living martyrs”. The “dead” martyrs are actually slain in the cause of God while the “living” martyrs live then die a natural death. The verse under comment places both these classes of ‘martyrs” in the same category.”  [24]

These are the only two categories of martyrdom explicitly mentioned in the Holy Quran. However, we do come across expanded definitions of martyrs given in some Hadiths and classical Muslim literature. For example, a Hadith reports the Holy Prophet (saw) as saying that: “Whoever fights in defense of his person and killed, he is a martyr; whoever is killed in defense of his property, is a martyr; whoever fights in defence of his family and is killed, is a martyr; and whoever is killed for the cause of God is a martyr.” [25]

It is thus in the light of such reports that many among both classical and modern Muslim jurists and theologians and even non-Muslim scholars have given a long list of such secondary categories of martyrdom. In his Dictionary of Islam, Hughes writes that “in addition to those two classes of persons namely those who are slain in religious war and those who have been killed unjustly, the rank of shahid is given, in a figurative sense, to any who are in such a manner as to excite the sympathy and pity of mankind.” [26] Mahmud M. Ayoub treads the same line and rationalizes that, “at least in early Islam, the application of the term martyr was not limited to the person who is killed in the way of God on the battlefield. Martyrdom is an act of jihad (striving) in the way of God. Jihad, however, contrary to the common view held in the West, is not simply militance, more basic is the jihad against the evil in one’s own soul and in society. It is this inner purity resulting from the jihad of the soul that creates the right intention of serving the cause of truth in whatever way possible. In addition to dying in defense of one’s faith, property, or life, therefore, the act of falling off one’s mount, dying of snakebite, or drowning is also regarded as martyrdom. Likewise, he who dies from a stray arrow or bullet, or from his house collapsing down upon him, is considered a martyr. Even those who die of the plague or a stomach ailment, or a woman who dies in childbirth, are considered martyrs. The famous traditionist, Ibn  Abbas, is said to have declared: “A man dies in his bed in the way of God, yet he is a martyr.” [27]

Similarly, it may not be out of place to also note that, in the Sufi conception, the term “living martyrs”, is also defined as to ‘include those who, having joined the “greater d-jihad”, successfully fight their nafs (self). The Sufi author Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Sulami (d. 412/1021) declares that the battlefield martyr is a shahid only externally (fiz zhahir); the true martyr (fi ‘l-haqiqa) is he whose nafs has been slain while he continues to live in accordance with the Sufi rules.[28]

It should however be noted that there is no direct reference for this secondary category of martyrs mentioned in the Quran. It is perhaps on this note that Goldziher rationalizes that: “the addition of these categories was designed to temper the fanatical rush to martyrdom that was common in the early days of Islam. By installing other categories, the Prophet and his wiser contemporaries perhaps sought to teach the new Muslims that faith and perseverance in everyday life could also lead to the same reward as battlefield heroics.”[29]Nevertheless’, concludes Mahmud M. Ayoub, ‘in spite of all this, the true martyr is he who is slain in the way of God.[30]

In view of the foregoing, a categorization of martyrdom with few examples from various historical manifestations may be necessary for the purpose of ensuring proper clarification and understanding. Three categories of martyrs have been distinguished by Muslim theologians and jurists: (1) martyr of this world and the Hereafter (2) martyr of the world to come (3) martyr of this world.

  • Martyr of this world and the Hereafter

Martyrs of this type include:

[a] One who is slain in the battlefield while engaging in defensive war for no other reason but that “the word of God be uppermost.” i.e. a martyrdom that is purely achieved fee sabeel Allah – in the cause of faith or in the way of Allah. Such a martyr is to be buried in his clothes, without washing or shrouding – ordinarily, necessary rites for the dead.

Muslim tradition has recorded the names of numerous battlefield martyrs who died during the Prophet’s lifetime; they include members of his immediate family, such as his paternal uncle Hamza b. ‘Abd al-Muttalib (known as sayyid al-shuhada) and his cousin Ja’far b. Abi Talib.

Here, a note on the justification of this category of martyrdom as sanctioned by Islam is necessary. Some non-Muslim writers on Islamic martyrdom have maintained that, historically, the killing of persons for their beliefs has not been the norm in Islam. Rather, what has always been the case in the Muslim history were the battlefield martyrs resulting from the various Muslims wars which they engaged in not just for the reason of defending their religion against attacks from opponents, but for enforcing it upon people and/or for expanding their territories. Clearly, this misconception is due to certain misunderstanding that has been woven around the rationale behind the early wars engaged by the Holy Prophet and his companions during the formative stage of Islam.

For instance, in a paper on comparative study of martyrdom in Christianity and Islam, published by the Westminster University, Harrow, the author identified two basic categories of martyrdom as: (1) passive martyrdom which means to die for truth, refusing to give up your faith, for resisting compromise peacefully, without resorting to violence or physical retaliation; (2) active martyrdom which is to die while fighting for truth, to die in battle, to die while inflicting violence on those  who refuse to accept your version of the truth.(31) [p. 4] But while passively conceding to the fact that Islamic martyrology embraces the former, he however goes further to state that: “In the early part of his career as a prophet in Mecca, Muhammad seems to have been a figure of courage who was willing to die for the message he was preaching. Later, the opportunity to go to Medina presented itself and while there, a new view of martyrdom emerged. While in Medina, Islam took on the nature of both a religious and political movement. Muhammad turned to using force of arms to extend the political power of this movement. During this period, the view clearly emerged that those who died in battle for Islam should be considered martyrs, not just those who were killed for refusing to give up their faith in Islam.[32]

It may be noted that the first commandment that sanctions Muslims’ engagement in defensive war against their persecutors and opponents is contained in the Quranic verse:

“Permission to fight is given to those against whom war is made, because they have been wronged – and Allah indeed has power to help them – Those who have been driven out from their homes unjustly only because they said, ‘Our Lord is Allah’ – And if Allah did not repel some men by means of others, there would surely have been pulled down cloisters and churches and synagogues and mosques, wherein the name of Allah is oft commemorated….”  [33] Commenting on this verse, Freamon opines: “This verse is the genesis of the concept of the military jihad. It clearly offers normative justification to Muslims for waging war in the exercise of the collective right to self-defense and it brings the Islamic conception of defensive war into close alignment with traditional Western “Just War” doctrine.” [34]

Furthermore, it was in the light of such rationales as mentioned in the forgoing verses that Mirza Ghulam Ahmad  succinctly concludes that wars in Islam fall under three categories: i) Defensive war – war by way of self-protection; ii) Punitive war – blood for blood; iii) War to establish freedom – to break the hold of those who kill converts to Islam.[35] Similarly, in his Muslim Conduct of State, Professor Muhammad Hamidullah, traces both the backgrounds and the rationale behind each of the wars the Holy Prophet engaged in. He succinctly elaborates: This refers to the Prophet and other Muslims who had taken refuge in Madinah and were still being harassed by the Meccans in many ways. They addressed, for instance, an ultimatum to a Madinite magnate ‘Abdullah ibn Ubaiy, either to fight and kill or expel the Prophet, or they would attack Madinah. Many Traditions bears witness to the fact that in the early days after the migration of the Prophet, the Muslim community of Madinah lived such a precarious life that they used to sleep in full war-kit. Another instance is provided by the expedition against Dumatl-Jandal in the year 5H., where the local chieftain, Ukaidir, was molesting the caravans going from the north to Madinah. The attack on Kaibar is an instance of nipping war in the bud. The battles of Uhud and Khandaq were defensive. Hunain was preventive even as that of Banul-Mustaliq. The attack on Ta’if was the continuation of the battle of Hunain. Badr was for reprisal.” [36]

Thus, it is understandable from the above that the Qur’anic legislation on defensive war which resulted in the move from the passive martyrdom to active martyrdom only reflects the dynamism of a divine religion such as Islam.

[b] Those killed for their beliefs or are victim of persecution, torture and death

Although, preponderance of Muslim theologians and jurists has classified this type of martyrs under the category of martyrs of the world to come only, I see no justification for this classification. This is, firstly, because, as shown before, this class of martyrs is directly mentioned in the Quran, and, secondly, because it is justifiable enough for one’s death to qualify as a veritable witness to the truthfulness of a belief both in this world and the Hereafter, if, one is persecuted to death while, though, maintaining the policy of quietism or non-resistance and thus refuses to fight back the persecutor. Thus, it is in this light that Mahmud Ayoub maintains that: the true martyr…. is he who is free from any other motive but that witness. While the ideal martyr in Islam is the one who falls on the battlefield, actual fighting is not an absolute requirement for martyrdom. Islam, moreover, has its martyrs who silently and bravely endure torture and death.” [37]

As Cook observes, it is important to note that this class of Muslim martyrdom is almost as old as Islam itself.   The first Muslim martyrs appear shortly after the preaching of Islam in Mecca during the early seventh century. These seventh century martyrs were by and large Muslims in weak positions, usually under the authority or influence of polytheists. Under pressure from these authorities, the martyrs, when given the choice of giving up their faith or submitting to torture and sometimes death, choose the latter.” [38]

Thus, as Islamic history tells us, during the early years of Muhammad’s mission, Sumayya, the mother of ‘Ammar b. Yasir (who himself fell at Siffin), is said in some reports to have been stabbed to death by Abu Jahl after she had openly embraced Islam; some say that she was the very first martyr in Islam. Again, an example from the time of the mihna [a great ordeal that occurred during the medieval period of the history of Muslim theology] is that of Ahmad b. Nasr al-Khuza’i, who refused to acknowledge that the Quran was created and was beheaded in 231/846 by order of the caliph al-Wathiq. Among Sufis, the most renowned martyr is al-Hallaj [39]

In our modern times,  good examples of true and ideal Islamic martyrs of this world and the world to come can be seen in the members of the Ahmadiyyah Muslim community who are been persecuted and victimized and martyred nearly on daily basis in different parts of the world ranging from Pakistan [majorly] to Indonesia and Bangladesh etc. As a matter of fact, right from 1901 and 1903 when the first Ahmadi Muslim martyrs, the two Afghan divines, Mian Abdur-Rahman strangled to death by the order of King Abdur-Rahman Khan, and Sahibzada Sayyid Abdul-Lateef stoned to death by the order of King Habibullah Khan,[40] up to the present time, hundreds of Ahmadi Muslims have been martyred by various anti-Ahmadiyya Muslim individuals, groups and states. The worst of these fatalities recorded so far, evidently, was the Friday, May 28, 2010’s coordinated simultaneous attacks on two Ahmadi Muslim mosques in Lahore, Pakistan which saw a total of 86 members of this peaceful Muslim Community martyred while 116 others were left injured.[41]

It draws humanity’s sympathy watching how this Muslim Community steadily adopts the policy of non-resistance by which its members only resist compromise peacefully without giving up their faith, and silently endure torture and death without resorting to violence or physical retaliation. It is however to be noted that while, although, a number of reports on this persecution have been commissioned by various International Communities [e.g. the 2014 Report jointly commissioned by the Asian Human Rights Commission and International Human Rights Committee, and the twain Reports 2007 and 2010 commissioned by the UK Missions led by Lord Eric Avebury, the Vice-Chair, Parliamentary Human Rights Group, UK], the situation has persisted unabated even as members of the Community continue to be victims of a staunch persecution that has been widely described as systematic and extensive and, the Jamaat Ahmadiyya itself, as a beleaguered community.[42]

(2) The martyr of the world to come

This refers to persons who die violently. Martyrs of this type include:

[a] Those murdered while in the service of God.

Foremost among them are the caliphs Umar, Uthman (who is sometimes regarded as a battlefield martyr) and ‘A1i. Among the Shias, the most prominent of martyrs are the Imams, with Husayn in particular occupying a unique position. He has traditionally been regarded as having sacrificed himself in order to revive the Prophet’s religion and save it from destruction; yet he has also been seen (particularly in recent years) as a battlefield martyr to be emulated for his willingness to fight for justice against all odds. Also described as martyrs of the world to come are those executed by a ruler for enjoining him to do what is proper and forbidding him from what is reprehensible (al-amr bil-ma’ruf wa’l-nahy ‘an al-munkar) [43]

[b] Those who die through disease or accident

Early collections of Hadith specifically mention victims of the plague (ta‘un), of pleurisy or of an abdominal disease (diarrhoea or colic), those who drown, die in a fire or are struck by a falling house or wall, and women who die in childbirth; other forms of death were added at a later date. According to al-Baji, the elevation of these persons to the rank of martyrs is divine compensation for the painful deaths which they suffer.[44]

(3) Martyr of this world

This refers to one who dies or is killed for a worldly cause other than that of faith i.e. for political reasons etc. Strictly speaking, such martyrs of this kind are not within the boundary of the true and ideal Islamic martyrdom which stipulates strict condition of being killed because of one’s profession of belief in God and struggle for the supremacy of His Word on earth.

Islamic Martyrdom and the Falling Muslim Soldiers/Rebels and Insurgents

Here, another issue that should be addressed too concerns the question of the qualification of the deaths of such Muslim soldiers, rebels and insurgents to be regarded as Islamic martyrdom.

In this respect, it should be noted that according to the Shia jurisprudence, as the Zaydis and Imamis maintain that the bughat (rebels) are unbelievers, since they rose against a legitimate ruler; hence those who fall while fighting them (such as All’s supporters in the battles of the Camel, Sifffn and al-Nahrawan) are considered to be battlefield martyrs. Sunni scholars generally regard the bughat as erring Muslims and treat those who fall while fighting them as the victims of injustice. For some Hanbalis, Hanafis and Shafi’is, this is sufficient grounds for according them the status of battlefield martyrs; while those who hold that such a martyr must have died in a war against unbelievers maintain that victims of the bughat are shuhada^ al-akhirac i.e. martyrs of the world to come.[45]

Here, this writer begs to maintain a rather contrary stance against the above verdicts and submits that, in the light of the fundamental principle and condition laid down by the Quran for determining the true Islamic martyrdom as previously discussed, one can confidently state that any death occurring from such civil wars, rebellions and insurgences within Muslim countries or inter-Muslim state wars which are not strictly based on the normative principle of self-defense war in the face of religious persecution in the cause of Allah but are rather driven by political or other worldly objectives, cannot be said to qualify as Islamic martyrdom. At best, one can only refer to such falling soldiers or rebels or insurgents [depending on whichever of these groups is the actual victim of injustice and, therefore, fighting on the just cause] as martyrs of this world only. Clearly, to raise the status or value of such martyrdom to that of the ideal Islamic martyrdom would be contradictory to the Quranic principle which strictly stipulates that true and ideal Islamic martyrdom can only be achieved when one is persecuted and killed strictly due to one’s profession of belief in Allah or is slain while fighting to defend the cause of Allah against external offensive attacks from the disbelievers.

The present day application of Islamic martyrs on those falling soldiers by their respective governments or on those Muslim rebels/insurgents by their respective groups has gradually emerged largely against the backdrop of the medieval Muslim rulers and jurists’ theological and legal views which often gave Islamic colouration to most of the wars that took place during such epochs. It is due to this fact that Kohlberg aptly concluded that, “the increasing importance attached to the defense of the border areas led to the elevation of fallen murabitun (Muslim soldiers) to the rank of martyrs.” [46]

However, it is germane to note that with the establishment of the Muslim empire in the centuries which followed the era of the Holy Prophet and the Rightly Guided Khulafa and ‘especially,’ says Cook, “after the great Muslim conquests of the seventh and eighth centuries, Islam became closely associated with power, and for the most part, Muslims were not martyred solely for their faith.” [47] This is because, with the exception of the intervening crusades and the Mongol’s invasion of the Muslim empire, most of the battles that took place during these periods were not primarily inspired by defense of the faith in the face of religious persecution on the part of the neighboring states.

Contemporary Radicalists’ Martyrdom Operations or Suicide Terrorism: Any Islamic Justification?

In answering the above poser, it is pertinent to begin with the note that in the medieval period of Muslim history, a pseudo-Muslim group known as the Assassins that flourished between eleventh and thirteenth centuries were reputed to have practiced suicide terrorism. The name was given to the group from the drug harshish that the group used ritually in carrying out their murderous expeditions on state officials. The group members were noted not to fear death but welcomed it. The Hezbollah of Lebanon has been noted to have re-invented martyr/suicide terrorism in 1983 in its attack on US embassy, US marine barracks and French paratroop barracks in Lebanon killing more than 300 civilians and military personnel. Other groups that have adopted it include: Tamil Tiger in Sri Lanka, the Japanese Kamikazes, and in more recent times are Isreal/Palestine groups, Chechnya rebel, the Taliban of Pakistan and Afghanistan, Al-Shabab of Somalia, Boko Haram of Nigeria, Al-Qaeda in Arabia Peninsula and al-Qaeda in the Maghrib. [48]

While there seems to be a universal consensus among Muslim scholars with respect to the Quranic and Prophetic prohibition of suicide, unfortunately, the debate over where the line is between committing suicide and achieving martyrdom by intentionally dying for your cause has never been adequately delineated. Sufi scholar al-Ghazali (d.1111) seems to have extended the boundaries when he wrote that it is acceptable for one to intentionally take action that leads to his own certain death, as long as he has the intention of creating terror in the hearts of the enemy. Other scholars took a similar position, requiring only that such actions be beneficial to Muslims in general.[49]

Frankly speaking, however, as against the above position, one can confidently maintain that there can never be any point of convergence between the true Quranic concept of ideal Islamic martyrdom as previously expounded and the radicalists’ concept and practice of suicide terrorism or martyrdom operation which, as defined by Freamon, who termed it as “self-annihilatory violence,” is meant to describe violent behavior by a jihadist actor who intends to take his own life in the furtherance of a jihadist objective and equips himself, in advance, with the technological means to accomplish the dual result of inflicting severe injury, including loss of life, on his adversary and destroying himself in the process.[50] Furthermore, the term, according to Cook, ‘is often referred to as the weapon of the weak and poor against stronger opponents. The process is deceptively simple: choosing a vulnerable target; preparing a martyr, who has usually volunteered for the job; indoctrinating him or her; providing that person with the explosives needed and the means to arrive at the target; and then making certain that it is difficult for investigation to find the true perpetrators.’[51]

It is important to note, as Freamon has aptly declared, that “current justifications for self-annihilatory violence are instead the result of a major reinterpretation of the theology and religious law on martyrdom and the military jihad advanced by Shi’ite theologians and jurists in Iraq and Iran between the mid-1960s and the late 1970s.” [52] Prominent among such Shia scholars were Ayatollah Taleqani, Dr. Ali Shariati, Nimatollah Salihi Najaf-abadi, Ayatollah Khomeini. Particularly, having invented a typology of Imam Husain’s martyrdom, which they re-interpreted as a self-imposed kind of martyrdom, they therefore went ahead to propound a new concept of martyrdom which sanctions self-annihilation, a suicide martyrdom which does not see martyrdom as shahadah i.e. a death unjustly and violently inflicted upon Muslim faithful by their opponents, but, as istishhadah i.e. one which the former personally desire for themselves. For instance, in his Martyrdom: Arise and Bear Witness, Dr. Ali Shariati, discusses Imam Husain’s martyrdom in anthropological, theological and juridical terms thus:“But in our culture, martyrdom is not death which is imposed by an enemy upon our warriors. It is a death which is desired by our warrior, selected with all of the awareness, logic, reasoning, intelligence, understanding, consciousness and alertness that a human being has. Look at [Husain]….He is an unarmed, powerless, and lonely man. But he is still responsible for the jihad. He has no other means except to die, having himself selected a ‘red death.” [53]

In another speech, delivered in the Grand Mosque in Tehran the day after Ashura, 1970, Dr. Shariati explained why Husayn’s martyrdom was conceptually different from other Islamic martyrdoms: “At any rate, in the history of Islam, for the first time, Hamza [the  Prophet’s uncle killed in battle at Uhud] was given  the title Sayyid al-Shuhada [the Master of Shuhada]. The same title was later primarily applied to Husayn. Both are Sayyid al-Shuhada but there is a fundamental difference between their shahadat. They are of two kinds which can hardly be compared. Hamza is a mujahid [jihad warrior] who is killed in the midst  of jihad, but Husayn is a shahid who attains shahadat before he is killed…..A shahid is a person who, from the beginning of his decision, chooses his own shahadat, even though months or even years may pass. If we want to explain the fundamental difference between the two kinds of shahadat, we must say that, in Hamzah’s case, it is the death which chooses him. In orther words, it is a kind of shahadat that chooses the shahid. In Husayn’s case, it is quite the contrary. The shahid chooses his own shahadat. Husayn has chosen shahadat, but Hamza has been chosen by shahadat.” [54] In the same vein, in 1968, Ni’matollah Salihi Najaf-abadi, a student of Khomeini, published a pamphlet, in Persian, entitled Shahid-e Javid [The Eternal Martyr], interpreting Husayn’s martyrdom at Karbala as a political uprising to be emulated by all Shia.” [55]

However, it must also be noted that, like the Shias, a number of radical Sunni Muslim scholars and Jihadists have also, through a number of fatwas (religious edicts), followed suit in the same trend of re-interpreting the doctrine of martyrdom. In general, these fatwas speak of the attacks against Islam and the need for Muslims to use any efforts to repel them. For Quranic support they usually cite 2:205, “And some people sell themselves for the sake of Allah,” a verse that is rarely found in the classical jihad literature, with the interpretation that allows for the possibility of dying for the sake of God. (One should note, however that the use of this verse is weak and really does not support much more than martyrdom in battle). The more detailed fatwas usually cite examples of fighters from the time of the Prophet Muhammad. These fighters are cited for their willingness to attack an enemy in an extraordinarily brave or suicidal fashion. None of the fatwas seem to consider the differences between these stories and an actual suicide attack as is known during contemporary times. As mentioned above, the legal category cited in support of suicide attacks is that of the single fighter charging a larger number of enemies.[56]

In actual fact, this new conception of martyrdom challenges traditionally strong and universal Islamic prohibitions against suicide and represents a profound shift in the practice of Islamic theology and law, particularly the theology and law of the military jihad.[57] This is because, jihad, despite the way it is commonly portrayed in the media (and in the colloquial usage), is not an unrestricted form of warfare. The basic goal of jihad is to raise the Word of God to the highest, and in order to accomplish this, jihad must be qualitatively different from other forms of warfare. Goals such as fame and wealth are enough to disqualify the Muslim from waging true jihad, and the fighter is encouraged to examine his own intentions in order to make certain that when he fights he is fighting with the purest intentions. Muslim religious literature is full of descriptions of jihad and includes a number of boundaries that must be observed in order for the warfare to be jihad and for the martyr to be granted the title of shahid. These boundaries include the process of declaring war, as well as making certain that the enemy knows what the war is about and under what terms it can be concluded. Other boundaries include fighting only combatants, making certain that specific implements of mass slaughter are avoided in battle and ensuring that the captives taken during the campaign are treated humanely. [58]

In fact, while conceding to the definition that, “Suicide bombing or martyr terrorism is someone giving his life in attempt to destroy or kill their targets or opponent,” Kilani aptly concludes that, “it is apparently clear from Islamic sources that no act could be done for egoistic purpose and still be considered Islamic or acceptable.”[59] Similarly, after critically examining the underpinning objectives of those radical suicide bombers, the renowned Nigerian Ahmadi Muslim scholar, Dr. Saheed O. Timehin succinctly laments thus, “it is however glaring that personal drives for vengeance or political ends have often been clothed in the garb of religion to motivate volunteers who are mostly unmarried, in their teens, and in their 20s.” [60]

It may not be out of place to again refer to Kilani who quoted Pape as opining that “taproot of suicide terrorism is nationalism” not religion and that it is “an extreme strategy for national liberation.” It is this perspective that the local communities are persuaded to re-define acts of suicide and murder as acts of martyrdom or self sacrifice on behalf of the community. In choosing target of attack, suicide terrorism is calculated to target states viewed as especially vulnerable to coercive punishment. They attack consistently the capital city of state or important towns to send message to the people that the government cannot protect them. If the government cannot protect the capital cities, it is clearly incapable of protecting other cities and town. This explains why most of the attacks were against military and political targets such government buildings, police convoys, police stations, recruiting stations and Western combat troops. The attacks against mosques and churches are meant to undermine the people’s confidence in the states and Federal government especially on their ability to maintain order. The attacks also assist the insurgents to exacerbate inter-religious strife and tension which conforms to the strategic logic of suicide terrorism of undermining the government in order to establish their rule over the people. Suicide operation was considered by many African people as alien to them. However, the strength of Boko Haram in its adoption of martyr terrorism as a campaign strategy indicates that terrorists learn from each other; the spread of the method is therefore neither irrational nor surprising.” [61]


In view of the foregoing exposition, it is obvious that the fundamentally true and ideal Islamic martyrdom as sanctioned by the Holy Quran and the Holy Prophet is the one which is attained principally as a result of peaceful profession of, adherence to and advocacy for one’s faith in Allah; conditionally, because one is engaging in struggle [jihad] to defend the cause of Allah; and objectively, because one desires to establish the supremacy of the Word of Allah on earth.

Thus, we can safely conclude with full conviction that there is no valid Quranic and Prophetic evidence which provide sanction and justification for conceiving or depicting as fundamentally Islamic martyrdom (1) the deaths of Muslim soldiers, rebels and insurgents who fall in the course of political wars waged for gaining political power or other worldly objectives; (2)  the martyrdom operations or suicide terrorism being perpetrated by various so-called Muslim Jihadist/Islamist groups of Al-Qaida or the ISIS or the Al-Shabbaab and Boko Haram etc. For, really, a Jihadist might have reasons for embarking on a suicide bombing mission to kill unsuspecting, non-combatant and innocent civilians, but there can be no Islamic moral justification for such an act; and it would be grossly wrong to confuse the two: reason and justification.


By: Al-Hafiz Yunus Omotayo, Lokoja, Kogi State, Nigeria



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  • Kafeyan, F. Kelly, Sunni and Shia Martyrdom, A Comparative Analysis of Historical and Contemporary Expressions, 2010, p.1
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  • Kilani, Abdlrazaq, Martyrs or Terrorists: Suicide Bombing in Islamic Hermeneutics, 2015, International Journal of Sociology and Anthropology, p. 100
  • wikipeadia/martyrdom date accessed: 11/10/2016
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  • The Holy Quran, ch. 55: 61
  • The Holy Quran ch. 2:256
  • The Holy Quran, ch. 22:45; 85:9
  • The Holy Quran, ch. 4:77
  • The Holy Quran, ch. 9:40; Sahih Bukhari and Muslim
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  • Mahmud M. Ayoub, et al, p. 69
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  • See Ahmad, Mirza Ghulam , Tadhkiratush- Shahadatain, Narrative of Two Martyrdom, 1984, The London Mosque, UK
  • See the Report titled: A Beleaguered Community – On the Rising Persecution of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, jointly commissioned by Asian Human Rights Commission and International Human Rights Committee
  • ibid, cover page
  • Kohlberg E. in: Encyclopedia of Islam, 1997, Leiden Brill, Netherland, vol. 9, p. 205, under the entry: ‘Shahid’
  • Ibid, vol. 9, p. 205
  • Ibid, vol. p. 205
  • ibid, p. 205
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  • Kilani, et al, p.101
  • David Brian Cook, quoted by Kafeyan, et al p. 18
  • Freamon, et al p. 309
  • Cook, et al, p. 8
  • Bernard K. Freamon, Martyrdom, Suicide, and the Islamic Law of War, p.303-304
  • Freamon, et al, p342
  • Freamon, et al, p.343
  • Freamon, et al, p.338
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  • Freamon, et al, p.303-304
  • Cook, et al, 2-3
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  • Timehin, O. Saheed, In Search of Peace, 2010, p. 20
  • Kilani, et al, p.105