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The selling of Islamic martyrdom and why some buy it

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"Nothing is easier than to denounce the evil-doer; nothing is more difficult than to understand him."
– Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The selling of Islamic martyrdom and why some buy itAn Islamic martyr (shahid) is a Muslim who died fi sabil Allah (in the cause of Allah). Martyrs are imbued with special status and reverence among Muslims. Islamic elites have (re)constructed martyrdom in response to their political ambitions and prevailing situational factors.

Broadly speaking, there are three types of Islamic martyrdom: battlefield martyrdom, non-violent (spiritual) martyrdom and contemporary martyrdom operations. Contemporary martyrdom operations are the most contentious form.

Radical Islamists believe that Islam sanctions the use of martyrdom operations under certain circumstances. While these claims can be rebutted, the question of why these radical messages resonate with some Muslim communities, such as the Palestinians, must be examined.

The Qur'an sanctions the use of violence against enemy combatants, and under conditions of oppression and injustice. It is beyond the scope of this piece to examine the Islamic doctrine of war and peace, suffice to say that the conditions under which violence can be used are strictly sanctioned by Islamic jurisprudence.

Martyrs are revered and rewarded in the physical world and in the afterlife. The veracity of the benefits bestowed upon a martyr of course cannot be proven. Nonetheless, these benefits are promoted by Islamic elites (scholars and activists) through a constructed culture of martyrdom, whereby the martyr gains presence and reverence in the community.

The martyr’s deeds are ritualised in performances and processions that recall and re-enact the struggle for the cause of Allah. Islamic martyrdom has been bestowed for diverse acts and, importantly, constructed by Islamic elites to legitimise their advocacy of diverse political and religious "causes of Allah".

In the Qur'an, the term shahid means to "witness" and not "martyr". Some early Islamic scholars had likely broadened the meaning of shahid to martyrdom, not because of Islamic jurisprudence or belief, rather the Christian connection of witnessing and martyrdom reflected in antique Christian linguistic usage.

The Qur'an places less emphasis on what constitutes a martyr, and more on the rewards for martyrs in Paradise: “Do not say of those slain in Allah’s way that they are dead; they are living, only you do not perceive” (Q. 2:154). Thus, what constitutes a "martyr" is constructed and contested by Islamic elites.

Despite the expansion of the types of martyrdom, only those who fought with the proper intention may qualify for the reward of "martyr". Only Muslims who died fi sabil Allah are considered martyrs. Those who fought for physical rewards or with ostentatious bravery did not die fi sabil Allah.

The selling of Islamic martyrdom and why some buy itThe influence and interference of Western nations led to the (re)construction of martyrdom by Islamic elites. They promoted as "martyrs" those who died defending the state, rather than those who died spreading and defending the Islamic civilisation.

In this way, 19th- and 20th-century anti-colonial struggles were viewed by modern Islamic organisations (e.g. the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt) as defending Islam and Muslims against colonialism.

Some moderates such as Sir Sayyid Khan have sought to counter the Western orientalist view that Islam was a religion of violence spread by battlefield martyrs. He argued that Islam is the legitimate state religion of Islamic or Muslim states and is not used to promote violence.

Martyrdom operations re-emerged from the post-colonial struggles of the 20th-century (for example, in the Palestinian Occupied Territories). Radical Islamists criticise the quietism of Islamic moderates, such as Khan, which they believe led to the subjugation of Muslims by a coalition of Western and apostate governments in the Muslim world.

Radical Islamic ideologues, such as Sayyid Qutb, have sought to return Islam to the "straight path" by reinterpreting and revitalising Islamic doctrines. In Qutb’s seminal book Milestones, he argued that the path to freedom must be hewn by the sword (jihad bil saif). Those who supported Qutb’s claims cited the Qur’anic verse, “oppression is worse than killing” (2:217).

Moderate Muslims believe that Islamic doctrine prohibits martyrdom operations on three accounts. Islam clearly prohibits suicide. The Qur'an states "do not kill yourself, for God is indeed merciful to you" and "do not throw yourself into destruction with your own hands". Second, Islam prohibits the killing of innocent civilians. Finally, Islam affords protection to people of the book—Jews and Christians.

The selling of Islamic martyrdom and why some buy itRadical Islamists believe that these three prohibitions are not applicable to Muslims who live under oppressed conditions (e.g. Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories). They argue that martyrdom is based on the Islamic doctrines of Istishad (martyrdom) meaning self-sacrifice in the name of Allah. The radical Islamist perspective is exemplified by the late Sheikh Yassin, the former spiritual leader of Hamas, and Sheikh al-Qaradawi, a scholar of Islamic jurisprudence, both of whom sanctioned "martyrdom operations" as a legitimate form of resistance.

Sheikh al-Qaradawi argued that Israel is a military society, because men and women serve and are conscripted into the military. According to this view, the casualties caused by martyr operatives are not innocent Israeli citizens because they live in a militarised society.

Some assert that radical Islamists believe Jews and Christians are protected under Islam only when they live under Muslim rule. Moreover, radical Islamists believe that because Jews have usurped Muslim land, such as Palestine before the state of Israel, they have forfeited any protection afforded in the Qur'an.

The above arguments by radical Islamists lack legitimacy because martyrdom operations explicitly target and kill innocent civilians. Furthermore, martyr operatives do not die for or in the service of Allah. Rather, they die for their political cause—for example, the liberation of Palestine. Radical Islamists’ claims that they have the right to explicitly target innocent civilians in the service of their cause is erroneous.

The martyrdom construct is not created in a vacuum. Radical Islamists’ legitimisation of contemporary martyrdom operations is based on their radical interpretations of the Qur'an and their empathy with the plight of oppressed Muslim communities, such as the Palestinians.

The selling of Islamic martyrdom and why some buy itI would argue that the Qur'an does not sanction the use of martyrdom operations, and it is unethical for radical Islamists to espouse an Islamic justification. Nonetheless, the question must be asked—why do these radical interpretations of the Qur'an resonate with some Muslim communities?

The answer to this question is the topic for another essay. It is clear, however, that the conditions experienced by some Muslim communities may offer a starting point. Religious leaders who appeal to a monotheistic God, Allah or Yahweh for legitimacy should understand that all their followers believe in the same higher being, and are members of the same humanity. Thus, religious believers are united by their devotion to this higher being, which is surely a compelling and uniting force towards mutual respect, benevolence and peace.

To read the full version of this essay, click here.



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Existing comments

For me, one of the saddest things is that most of the so called martyrs kill people of their own religion and race.

Greg Jones | 29 July 2010  

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