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Dying for God:
Martyrdom in the Shii and Babi Religions

by Jonah Winters

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Chapter 1


      Though most conspicuous in Persian Shii Islam, much of the significance of suffering and martyrdom is not limited to this local form but extends across the spectrum of Islamic history, practice, and belief. For the divisions of Islam other than the Shii, the import of martyrdom must be traced to influences other than the death of Husayn.

      Besides the arena of Shiism, the themes of suffering, pain, asceticism, sacrifice, and martyrdom find two other primary loci in Islam: martyrdom in war and the spiritual martyrdom of asceticism. First is the most obvious meaning of martyrdom: someone who dies for his religion. In Islamic history this aspect of martyrdom has played out the most in conjunction with jihad, usually translated as "holy war." During the first centuries following the ministry of Muhammad the Muslim community actively sought territorial expansion for the new Islamic empire. In these years the martial aspect of jihad was strongly emphasized, for, as it lent a spiritual justification and even exhortation to war, it proved to be an effective motivator of conquest. Gradually the spiritual aspects of jihad came to outweigh the military, and martyrdom, concomitant with an increasing emphasis on asceticism by certain subgroups of the community, grew into a more abstracted ethical concept.


      The Quran declares that "those who are slain in Allah's way" are not dead, but alive (3:169),[11] and this has often been interpreted to mean that any fighter who is killed in a jihad attains automatic salvation. Though most Muslims came to renounce holy war as an honorable pursuit, a characteristic of the early community and among extremists today is a zeal for fighting "in Allah's way" and attaining martyrdom.[12]

      While much of the Islamic theology of jihad predates Islam--Islam was born in a harsh, demanding environment where fighting was common--the theology of martyrdom and suffering as encapsulated in the Quran was a wholly new concept for the Arabs. Three distinct Quranic and hadith themes proved a powerful and volatile combination: the call to war, the call to martyrdom, and the martyr's reward. Some branches of Islam, such as the Khariji, declared participation in jihad to be one of the key requirements for all able-bodied male Muslims. Passages in the Quran explain that martyrdom in the cause of God is a means to enter paradise:

"Think not of those who are slain in Allah's way as dead. Nay, they live, finding their sustenance from their Lord. They rejoice in the Bounty provided by Allah...the (Martyrs) glory in the fact that on them is no fear, nor have they (cause to) grieve. They rejoice in the Grace and the Bounty from Allah, and in the fact that Allah suffereth not the reward of the Faithful to be lost (in the least)." (3:169-71)[13]

Such passages as these provide much of the rationale for a further theological position: not only does a martyr in the cause of God enter paradise, but he does so automatically--his admission is guaranteed.[14] Many hadith elaborate on this theme, such as this from Sahih Bukhari:

Allah's Apostle said, "Someone came to me from my Lord and gave me the news that if any of my followers dies worshipping none along with Allah, he will enter Paradise." I asked, "Even if he committed adultery and theft?" He replied, "Even if he committed adultery and theft." (Volume 2, Book 23, Number 329)[15]

Further rewards, as reported by hadith, are that the fighter in God's cause will, if killed in the struggle, receive privileges otherwise unattainable: he escapes the examination in the grave by the "interrogating angels"; he does not need to pass through barzakh, the purgatory limbo; he receives the highest of ranks in paradise, sitting near the throne of God--Muhammad described the "house of martyrs," dar al-shuhada', as the most beautiful abode of paradise; on the Day of Judgment any wounds the martyr received in battle will shine and smell like musk; his death as a martyr frees him of all sin such that he does not require the intercession of the Prophet; he is purified by his act and so he alone is not washed before burial.[16] The popular understanding of the Quranic descriptions of this paradise for the believer (martyr or not) could not but be of the greatest appeal to the desert-dwelling nomad: awaiting him is a garden of cool breezes, beautiful companions, couches, fruit and drink, and nearness to God. Particularly deserving martyrs are even eligible for double the standard reward, some hadith report.[17] This is an incentive so great that the Prophet is reported to have said that no one who dies and enters paradise "would wish to come back to this world," even if he were to be given ownership of "the whole world and whatever is in it," except the martyr who, "on seeing the superiority of martyrdom, would like to come back to the world and get killed again."[18] Finally, the martyr enacts the greatest act of worship possible for a human, for only he, the shahid, witnesses to, shahida, God Himself.

      These three distinct themes, one emphasizing the importance of jihad in its variety of meanings and the other two shedding glory on martyrdom, proved to be a powerful combination for both early and contemporary Islam. The battles the community fought became greater and greater--first against opposing tribes within Mecca, then against another city, and finally against almost all countries in the area. Concomitant with this, the host of rewards awaiting the martyr became more extensive. While it is not provable that Muhammad intentionally created the dialectic between jihad and the martyr's reward in paradise for the sake of encouraging his followers to battle on his behalf, there is no doubt that the dialectic was employed to that end in the early community. The rewards awaiting the martyr were so wondrous, it was widely related, that he alone among men would wish to return to this world and be killed again and again.[19] When, in the early years A.H., the world was officially divided between the "House of Islam" and the "House of War," the theology of martyrdom was strong enough to provide a highly motivated and zealous fighting force. This religiously motivated zeal proved sufficient to allow a full century of Muslim conquests--conquests which, history shows, mere political enthusiasm tends not inspire.[20]

      This proclamatory aspect of martyrdom is usually expressed as the core meaning of the martyrdom event. In an etymological coincidence, the words for "witness" and "martyr" are almost identical in Greek and Arabic. In Greek, a "witness" is martus, and "to witness" as well as "to be or became a martyr" is marturein. In Arabic, the root SH-H-D, provides the meanings of both shahid, "witness" or "testimony" as well as shahid, "martyr," and, by the definition given in Hans Wehr's Arabic-English Dictionary, "one killed in battle with the infidels."[21] While shahid can have a passive sense, i.e. "witnessed,"[22] it is usually taken to mean that the martyr is one who witnesses to the sincerity of his faith or political conviction through the ultimate proof--his own life. This ultimate testimony has been seen as the most powerful tool for winning converts to one's side, be it religious or political. A young village merchant speaking to a European sociologist defined well this most common justification for religious martyrdom in saying "the blood shed by the Iranian martyrs is like the water of an irrigation canal which gives life to the crops. From it the religion will grow."[23] Similarly, refrains chanted, published, and scrawled in graffiti in war-stricken regions of the Middle East express this sentiment as a political justification. A graffito written on a home in Lebanon reads "Victory or Death...Kill us, then our nation will realize the truth more and more!"[24]

      In the political sphere the application of the sense of martyr as "witness," i.e. one who demonstrates the truth of one's conviction, adds another dimension to the modern phenomenon of jihad: as well as the martyr being a most effective fighter in prosecuting God's cause, she also testifies to its legitimacy by her willingness to die. History affords many examples of the use of martyrdom as a propaganda and inspirational tool, a use seen in all periods of Islam.[25] This phenomenon can be seen as the converse of the above: for the individual believer, martyrdom becomes her private, religiously internalized goal, and then, through her sacrificial act, she makes public and advertises the goal to her fellow believers. The public aspect of martyrdom both serves to intimidate the enemy by demonstrating the fervor and commitment of the martyr, and to inspire and vitalize his follow fighters by serving as a role model. Whether the martyr is demonstrating zeal and commitment, as by being willing to fight to the death, or endurance and steadfastness in his faith, as by submitting to torture rather than recant his political or religious allegiance, his act of dying for his beliefs elevates them to the capstone of his life, the crowning event of his participation in the group's struggle. Such a radicalizing of his belief serves, he would believe, to further unite those still living and consolidate their group identity and purpose. When used as proclamatory media, suffering and martyrdom must necessarily be conspicuous, and thus the more extreme they are, the greater the efficacy of the proclamation. In explaining the need for bloody self-flagellation, a Shii worshipper explained to anthropologist David Pinault that "only" through public mortifications "can one cause such huge crowds of people to gather voluntarily."[26]

      It is this aspect of martyrdom which best helps interpret an apparent contradiction. The modern extremist form of jihad often features, and is notorious for, a new willingness to embrace suicide in the prosecution of the struggle and a new fervor in seeking martyrdom. Indeed, while these suicide operations can be called "freelance," they are not rogue--many of the political extremist groups operating in the Middle East officially sanction these actions and provide both logistical planning and materials[27] and as well aid and provide for the martyr's bereaved family and descendants.[28] Yet, the Quran expressly forbids suicide. The Quran's statement "make not your own hands contribute to (your) destruction" (2:195) and the hadith teaching that anyone who dies by suicide will eternally reenact in hell the means by which he died (Sahih Bukhari, Volume 2, Book 23, Number 446) have been interpreted as clear prohibitions of suicide.

      Scholarly apologia, leaders of resistance movements, and the testaments of their believing followers respond with a single refrain: dying in the course of fighting for God, even if it is a willed and voluntary death, is not suicide. When the fighter uses suicide as a military tactic, it is not a simple throwing away of life but rather a purposeful sacrifice. If a terrorist bombing kills an enemy, even if the terrorist is himself killed in the process, a valid military objective has been attained and hence the terrorist's death is not suicide. Br. Abu Ruqaiyah, in his article "The Islamic Legitimacy of The 'Martyrdom Operations,'" quotes a hadith in support of this position: "It is said that, Abu Isaac once asked al-Bara'a Bin Azeb 'A man fights a thousand of enemies, then he is killed. Is he one of those whom Allah says about: "and do not cast yourselves into destruction?"' al-Bara'a said: 'No, let him fight to death.'"[29] Finally, twenty-seven year old Hizbollah fighter Abou Mahdi explained the place of suicide in this jihad from the standpoint of the fighter himself. "In the middle of the battlefield we don't think about death, but just to hurt and damage the enemy," he said, and "if it is our destiny to get killed, we accept the fact with pleasure, because we're looking for it."[30]

      A psychological component further helps explain the justification for martyrdom in light of the prohibitions of suicide. One who is martyred is guaranteed victory. Since the jihad is a religious as well as a political struggle, two levels of success can be recognized. On the political level only the complete conquest of one's side over the enemy's, e.g. the final downfall of the state of Israel, can be considered a victory--partial victory, such as capture of one region, might strengthen one's position but can not be considered a fulfillment of the objectives. On the religious level, however, victories are personal. One's judgment in the afterlife will not take into account such things as which state owns which cities, but rather will weigh one's individual actions in the cause of God. Therefore, the mujahid (one who practices jihad) who dies in the struggle against God's enemies has achieved his personal victory and will receive his reward in the afterlife regardless of the logistical state of the battle. All manner of participants in the struggle agree that martyrdom is not to be regarded as the goal of the struggle, but merely a possible and at times unavoidable side-effect of the fight. The fighter who is killed both achieves a personal victory as well as furthers the group's political position. Martyrdom is therefore justified as an Islamically legitimate sacrifice, not an illegitimate suicide.

      The above discussion allows us to clarify now the reasons why martyrdom, even more than aspects such as spiritual striving (jahada), is the most uniquely religious aspect of jihad. First, Muhammad limited the proper sphere of war solely to fighting in the path of God: purely political conflicts, especially if internecine, did not constitute a just war--a bellum justum--in the Prophet's philosophy.[31] Any war sanctioned by Muhammad thus had to have more than purely political dimensions. These wars had a spiritual justification, and thus anyone killed while fighting in one of them was not merely a dead soldier but was a witness to God. Another dimension which makes death in jihad wholly unlike death in a secular conflict is that the soldier in a political war would seek to defeat his adversary while preserving his own life. A death thereby incurred would be no more than an unfortunate accident. The soldier who dies in the path of God, however, accepts and embraces his death, for the religious backdrop to the jihad sacralizes his fate.[32] Third, the martyr in Islam is guaranteed a unique reward--automatic admittance to heaven. Of the host of specific honors promised the martyr (see above), not one is other than religious, which implies that religion, not secular factors like political gain or strategic advantage, was at least nominally the chief justification for participating in a jihad.

      In presenting the meanings and practice of jihad in the foundational period and in modern Islam, we have seen that martyrdom has a few functions. Of these, two stand out as central: martyrdom is in many ways an unstated goal of the mujahid, especially as practiced in the early period, and the martyrdom is heroically exemplary, especially as practiced in the contemporary period.

      Philosophers from Aristotle to Hobbes have declared that the tendency to make war is inherent to the human species, and the famed medieval historian Ibn Khaldun went so far as to trace its impetus back to creation itself.[33] The Bedouins of Muhammad's time were no less warfaring than other early cultures, and likely were even more so. Muhammad both canalized and fortified this militant spirit, the first by channeling the practice of war to that conducive to God's cause only and the second by emphasizing and encouraging this practice as a duty of every male Muslim. Since he and the Quran declared such a bellum justum to be a religious obligation, and since the enemy was defined as the "Abode of War" antithetical to Islam and hence implicitly satanic, it followed that death in the prosecution of this sacred conflict was a religious honor and that the one dead deserved a unique station. The dead thus is a martyr and his martyrdom grants him a station higher than that otherwise achievable, as indicated by the abundance of rewards he alone is entitled to. As the pious Muslim would of course wish to attain the highest possible station, martyrdom inevitably became seen as an ultimate achievement. Thus, whether intended by the Prophet and acknowledged by the community or not, death in the prosecution of jihad was a supreme and enviable achievement. The haste with which Muslim apologists deny that martyrdom is suicide and quote official prohibitions of suicide further betrays a not-uncommon and perhaps even prevalent belief that martyrdom was indeed seen by some as a noble and commendable expression of one's religious faith.


      By the third century A.H. the wars of conquest were mostly over, and the concepts of both jihad and martyrdom began undergoing a subtle shift. Since the opportunity to die in the prosecution of God's cause was all but gone, alternate forms of martyrdom were sought, as shown by a hadith which depicts a girl seeking advice from the Prophet. She laments that her father, dying of an illness, will not be able to be a martyr in a war of conquest. Muhammad said to her "Allah Most High gave him a reward according to his intentions. What do you consider martyrdom?" "Being killed in the cause of Allah," she replied. Muhammad explained that there are other types of martyrdom "in addition to being killed in Allah's cause." He listed various forms of death by illness and accident as constituting martyrdom, as well as death while on pilgrimage, during pregnancy, or even the death of anyone who expires while in the process of fighting against his own temptations.[34]

      Jihad came to be seen as more an internal, spiritual struggle than a political one, and other types of sacrificial moral duties such as fasting and alms-giving came to be a preferred substitute for martyrdom.[35] Ramadan, the month of fasting, was sometimes portrayed as a period of voluntary suffering enjoined upon the community as a sort of communal sacrifice.[36] The most evident of these new meanings of martyrdom was the new Sufi redefinition of jihad as comprising a greater and a lesser struggle. Sufism is not entirely peaceful and not-militant--one of its founding hero-figures, Hasan al-Basri, lived an active life largely devoted to participating in the early jihads of political conquest, and many later Sufi leaders were also militant, teaching that a true messiah must lead jihad against unbelievers.[37] Notwithstanding, the generality of Sufis accept a modified doctrine of jihad. An oft-quoted (but weak) hadith reports that Muhammad, on returning from a military struggle, exclaimed "we have come back from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad." When asked what he meant by the "greater jihad," he answered "the jihad against oneself."[38] This and similar sentiments led the Sufis to more clearly formulate a distinction between the jihad al-nafs, the struggle against one's lower natures, the nafs (what the Bible would call "the flesh"), and the jihad bi al-sayf, "struggle by means of the sword," which is restricted to actual fighting.[39] One early Sufi, Sufyan ibn Uyayna, expressed how much greater the jihad al-nafs is than the jihad bi al-sayf by declaring jihad to have a total of ten aspects, nine of which are varieties of struggle against one's self and only one of which is a struggle against an enemy.[40]

      Thus many Sufis, like their mystically-leaning counterparts in all religions, elevated voluntary suffering to a spiritual practice. The demographics of what we could term "mystical martyrdom" are minimal, in that the number of mystics who have actually died through their practices, either by being executed as heretics or through harmful ascetic practices, is small. However, the cultural impact of mystical martyrdom is immense. It will be seen Shiism, while occasionally and especially since the beginning of the twentieth century manifesting a revolutionary spirit, clearly leans toward this interiorized, non-literal practice of martyrdom. Since this spiritualized form of martyrdom informs Shiism and the Bahai religions more than do martyrdom's literal practice in jihad, these aspects will be presented in further depth in the relevant chapters, below.

Notes to this chapter

[11] Unless otherwise noted, all quotations from the Quran will taken from the revised translation of Yusuf Ali.

[12] A fuller presentation of these themes can be found in Jonah Winters, "Martyrdom in Jihad" (unpublished paper; University of Toronto, 1997). Accessed from the internet: Linkname "Martyrdom in Jihad"; URL

[13] Also "And if ye die or are slain in the way of Allah, forgiveness and mercy from Allah are far better than all they could amass: and if ye die, or are slain, Lo! it is unto Allah that ye are brought together," (3:157-8 [Cf. 2:153]) and "Those who leave their homes in the cause of Allah, and are then slain or die;--on them will Allah bestow verily a goodly Provision. Verily He will admit them to a place with which they shall be well pleased." (22:58-9).

[14] To minimize gender exclusivity, both genders of impersonal pronouns will be alternated. While in early Islam it was almost exclusively men who fought and submitted to martyrdom, women played a significant part and often were martyred in Babism and even more clearly in the later Bahai religion.

[15] Quotations from Sahih Bukhari taken from the internet: Linkname "Hadith Bukhari (English Translation)"; URL Hadith, reports about the Prophet's statements and actions which have been preserved from original oral transmissions, exist in a variety of degrees of reliability. While most doubtless reflect the statements of Muhammad accurately, even if perhaps not verbatim, some may have been fabricated, whether due to sincere misunderstandings or by devious intent. Since this project examines the religious thought of believers and not historical events, the veracity of hadith will not be an issue: a hadith reflects belief whether transmitted by a careful historian or consciously manufactured to promote an agenda.

[16] H. A. R. Gibb and J. H. Kramers, eds. Shorter Encyclopedia of Islam (Ithaca: Cornell University Press; 1965); s.v. Shahid, 516. Cf. the hadith:

The Apostle of Allah...said: If anyone fights in Allah's path...Paradise will be assured for him. If anyone sincerely asks Allah for being killed and then dies or is killed, there will be a reward of a martyr for him....If anyone is wounded in Allah's path, or suffers a misfortune, it will come on the Day of resurrection as copious as possible, its colour saffron, and its odour musk; and if anyone suffers from ulcers while in Allah's path, he will have on him the stamp of the martyrs. Sunan Abu Dawud, Book 14, Number 2535
(Taken from the internet: Linkname "Sunan Abu Dawud"; URL

[17] Michael Bonner, "Ja'a'il and Holy War in Early Islam," in Der Islam (68, 1991), 56.

[18] Sahih Bukhari Volume 4, Book 52, Number 53.

[19] S. Abdullah Schleifer, "Jihad and Traditional Islamic Consciousness," The Islamic Quarterly XXVII:3-4 (1983), 124.

[20] Cf. Fred M. Donner, "Sources of Islamic Conceptions of War," in John Kelsey and James Turner Johnson, eds., Just War and Jihad: Historical and Theoretical Perspectives on War and Peace in Western and Islamic Traditions (New York: Greenwood Press, 1991), 49.

[21] Hans Wehr, J. M. Cowan, ed., Arabic-English Dictionary (New York: Spoken Language Services, 1976), s.v. [non-ascii script].

[22] G. W. Bowersock, Martyrdom and Rome (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 19.

[23] Quoted in Reinhold Loeffler, Islam in Practice: Religious Beliefs in a Persian Village (New York: State University of New York Press, 1988), 230.

[24] Rima Termos, "Lebanon: Martyrs Line Up for Honor of Dying for God" (Beirut: Inter Press Service [IPS], Dec. 13, 1995). Accessed from the internet: Linkname "[none given]"; URL

[25] Examples of this public, motivational aspect of martyrdom are so numerous in Islam that selecting only a few to cite would be misleading.

[26] Quoted in David Pinault, The Shiites: Ritual and Popular Piety in a Muslim Community (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992), 108.

[27] See Jean-François Legrain, "Palestinian Islamisms: Patriotism as a Condition of their Expansion,"in Marty and Appleby, eds., The Fundamentalism Project, volume IV: Accounting for Fundamentalisms (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994). 413-27.

[28] Termos, "Lebanon: Martyrs Line Up," and E.F. Porter, "History soaked in blood; hatred, savage fighting have marked Moscow's involvement in Chechnya for close to 400 years," in St. Louis Post-Dispatch (January 29, 1995). Accessed from the internet: Linkname "Current Chechyna Qital News"; URL /jihad/chechen_news.html.

[29] Br. Abu Ruqaiyah, trans. Hussein El-Chamy, "The Islamic Legitimacy of The 'Martyrdom Operations,'" Nida'ul Islam magazine vol. 16 (Dec.-Jan. 1996-97). Accessed from the internet: Linkname none; URL

[30] Quoted in Termos, "Lebanon: Martyrs Line Up."

[31] Majid Khadduri, War and Peace in the Law of Islam (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1955) 62.

[32] Encyclopedia of Religion, s.v. "martyrdom."

[33] Khadduri, War and Peace, 70.

[34] Sunan Abu Dawud, Book 20, Number 3105, and Shorter Encyclopedia of Islam, s.v. Shahid, 516.

[35] Shorter Encyclopedia of Islam, s.v. Shahid, 516.

[36] Harun Saddiqi, "The Meaning of Suffering in Islam," in a lecture delivered at the University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, on Tuesday, February 11, 1997.

[37] Ira M. Lapidus, A History of Islamic Societies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 110, 284-5.

[38] Rudolph Peters, Islam and Colonialism: The Doctrine of Jihad in Modern History. (The Hague: Mouton Publishers, 1979), 118.

[39] Peters, Islam and Colonialism, 120.

[40] W. Montgomery Watt, "Islamic Conceptions of the Holy War," in Thomas Patrick Murphy, ed., The Holy War (Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University, 1976), 155.

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