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Islam and the Concept of Martyrdom


Suicide bombing in Islam? Just say "No" argues Amina from Lebanon.

There is a need for every believing Muslim to 'strive', or engage in spiritual Jihad, to understand the word and will of God and to live accordingly. Failure to engage in that Jihad makes our responses in times of crises mere reflexes based on what we are told (traditions) rather than the result of rational (yes, I believe one can be rational in his/her approach to understanding the written word of God) and independent thinking that is grounded in evidence from the Qur'an, the most authoritative religious book for Muslims.

Mixing politics and religion
I have the feeling that, in our pressing need to defend the Palestinian struggle and to counter Zionist or anti-Islamic propaganda in the Western media, we Muslims are 'reacting' rather than 'acting', repeating what we are told Islam is about, rather than carefully and directly examining what our religious beliefs are and should be about. As such, we are mostly providing the mirror image of what we believe is reprehensible on the part of our enemy, Zionists who are persecuting Palestinians, that is, applying the principle of an eye for an eye the way some readily suggest in order to deal with Zionists, or parroting 'official' positions that all too often know how to manipulate religion and manufacture consent among largely God-fearing populations. Those official positions, an alliance of political and religious 'legitimate' voices, have no qualms about interpreting religious texts to suit their own agendas, even if those agendas were legitimate on their own, such as defending the rights of Palestinians. Those "legitimate voices", more alarmingly, sometimes act with the certainty of someone who knows God better than God, even when the Qur'an damns such "unfaithful" practices. Sura 3, verse 7:

He [God] has sent down to you [Mohammad, pbuh] this Book which contains some verses
that are categorical and basic to the Book, [unequivocal or 'muhakkamat'] and others
equivocal. But those who are twisted of mind look for verses equivocal ['mutashabehat'
as opposed to 'muhakkamat'] seeking deviation and giving them interpretations of their own but none knows their meaning except God

In Sura 2, verse 79, the Qur'an reads:

But woe to them who fake Scriptures and say
"This is from God" so that they might
earn some profit thereby,
and woe to them for what they fake,
and woe to them for what they earn from it

I believe the Palestinian struggle is better served by enlightened positions (including religious ones) that appeal to what I think most beings can respond to: reason.
Emotional, unreflected responses are short sighted. They can backfire because all sides have their 'emotional' justifications. They do not need to be 'discussed' or 'debated'. They also mainly serve to annihilate the "Other", who ever that "Other" happens to be at a specific historical point.

...the Palestinian struggle has been enmeshed with the Islamic religion by both sides: the Zionists and their defenders and the Palestinians and their defenders, and consequently both Islam as religion and the Palestinian struggle emerged tainted and vilified. This is the price of making religion subservient to one's political interests.

To be specific, the Palestinian struggle has been enmeshed with the Islamic religion by both sides: the Zionists and their defenders and the Palestinians and their defenders, and consequently both Islam as religion and the Palestinian struggle emerged tainted and vilified. This is the price of making religion subservient to one's political interests. Muslims in general, and Arabs and Palestinians in specific, unfortunately share the responsibility, along with Zionists, in this vilification. I even dare to say that Muslims have provided the Zionists with ammunition to use against them and discredit the Palestinian struggle and Islam as a religion of the one true God in the propaganda war.

I will not discuss here the legitimacy of the methods used by Palestinians to defend their basic human rights. I will leave the issue of the legitimacy of Palestinian suicide bombing as a method of warfare to those who can argue for it or against it from the perspective of international law and basic human rights. What I am interested in here, however, is to disentangle some of the webs that have been woven around the issue of suicide bombing and Islam.

Muslim "indulgences"
Apologists of suicide bombing see it as a religiously sanctioned method of fighting the Israelis/Jews (those two categories are used by them interchangeably). They encourage Palestinians to engage in this form of violent struggle by telling them they will be "martyrs" or 'shuhada', a position highly valued by God according to the Qur'an. They also promise them multiple rewards in heaven (72 virgins per 'martyr' - a heterosexual male I assume!) in addition to securing heaven for the entire family of the martyr. Such religious justifications are deeply problematic from a religious point of view. To start with, the 72 virgins and the tickets to heaven for the entire family are attributed to the Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) and are not mentioned in the Qur'an. Worse yet, telling a family member he/she can take all loved ones along to heaven strongly contradicts the Qur'an, as I shall explain later on. This contradiction indeed brings up the issue of the veracity of many sayings attributed to the Prophet. Scholars of 'Hadith' (traditions and sayings of the Prophet) have to deal constantly with the problem of weeding out 'true Hadith' from false ones. As for the Prophet himself (pbuh), he probably already knew the possibilities for abusing his authority and the danger of attributing to him things he never said. In the most famous and multiply attested Hadith, he says (translation mine):

"Don't take anything from me to write down except the Qur'an. Whoever takes anything from me other than to write down the Qur'an should erase it. And deal with me (or criticise me) without hesitation, and whoever lies on my behalf may he have his seat in the fire of hell" (Sahih Muslim, Vol. 18, p. 229).

On martyrdom
Even if we establish that that the Prophet himself did not promise virgins and family tickets to martyrs or shuhada, one still has to contend with the issue of shahada (traditionally understood to mean martyrdom) which does exist in the Qur'an. Indeed, shuhada' are highly rewarded by God in several verses from the Qur'an. But who are the shuhada and what should they do in order to obtain such rewards?

Common religious knowledge tells us that Palestinian suicide bombers are 'shuhada' or 'martyrs'. By killing those whom they consider to be enemies of God, Jews or Israelis, and sacrificing themselves in the process, they obtain the status of 'martyrs' or 'shuhada' and go to heaven to accept their reward. When this 'common knowledge' is cross-referenced with the Koran, the concept of 'martyrdom' becomes less clear-cut, if not flimsy. To start with, Muslims are asked to fight those who fight them (2:19) but are also asked somewhere else to go beyond the principle of an eye for an eye and to forgive their oppressors (Qur'an 5:45). This may seem quite contradictory as a command from God, except that those people that the early Muslim believers were fighting against in self defence were specifically the polytheists of the Arab peninsula. Jews, by contrast, were to be dealt with differently according to the Qur'an.

On Jews
As a Sunni Muslim Lebanese, I grew up "knowing" that Jews were bad and that they were constantly punished and rejected by God for their lack of faith and defiance (praying to the calf, etc.). Seeing them being killed by the very people they oppressed was not questionable in that sense, especially if it was sanctioned by the Qur'an , as I was "told". Only later on, upon reading and working on comprehending the Qur'an by myself did I understand that most of what I thought Islam was about was not found in the Qur'an, at least not in any unequivocal way. I was indeed very surprised to find out that the Qur'an often states clearly that some Jews are going to heaven and are blessed by God! "Those who believe, the Jews, the Christians, and the Sabeans, any who believe in God and the Last Day, and work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord: on them shall be no fear, no shall they grieve" (2: 62). Of course the Qur'an is full of verses damning of the Jews and their disbelief (3:72, 3:75, 3:78, 5:14), but, having read the Old Testament too, I found the Old Testament much more damning of the very people who use it as their sacred book! The Qur'an indeed constantly warns believers not to repeat the mistakes of those who came before them, reiterating what David, (pbuh) and then Jesus himself, (pbuh) thought of their own people when they transgressed the bounds of God:

"Curses were pronounced on those among the children of Israel
who rejected faith, by the tongue of David and Jesus the son of
Mary: because they disobeyed and persisted in excesses" (5:78).

Of course the key words here are: "those among the children of Israel". If one were to collect all the Qur'anic verses critical or hostile to the Jews, one notices that most of them refer to "some of" the Jews and not all of them. In other words, the Qur'an is never damning of ALL Jews: "Not all of them are alike: of the People of the Book (Jews or Christians) are a portion that stand for the right: They rehearse the signs of God all night long, and they prostrate themselves in adoration" (3:113). If not all Jews are alike, how can Muslims fight "the Jews"? Of course this is only possible if Muslims "think" for God, which is itself a lack of faith in God and his ability to judge his own people! Finally, the Prophet himself (pbuh) is ordered in one of the verses to "forgive them (the Jews)" (5:13).

False witnesses?
Apologists of suicide bombers might justifiably argue that the enemy is not 'the Jews' but Israelis or Zionists, and martyrdom or 'shahada' applies to the fight against them as oppressors of Muslims. In other words, they argue that suicide bombers who 'sacrifice' themselves in order to kill as many of their enemies as possible are highly regarded by God. A close examination of the Qur'an, however, does not lend unequivocal support for this 'justification'.

To start with, most of the Qur'anic verses (cited by apologists of suicide bombing as 'evidence') refer to "those killed" (kutila) and not "who kill" (katala) in the cause of God (Qur'an 2:154, 3:157, 3:169, ) . So, a suicide bomber in that respect may actually not qualify for a reward in the afterlife (at least not unequivocally), because such a person would be killing, rather than just be killed for his faith in God!

...the struggle is not a religious one, but purely a political/nationalist one. Since Palestinians are not oppressed because of their religion, but because of their land, which has nothing to do with God or belief in God as no piece of land should, their "fighting" against Israelis cannot be "rewarded" by God in that sense.

This still does not mean that Muslims are not ordered in the Qur'an to "fight" and "kill" (kital) in the cause of God (3: 195, 4:74). Quite to the contrary! However, it is this condition ("in the cause of God") which is the most problematic part when justifying suicide bombing on religious grounds. Muslim believers who fight (their oppressors) and strive with their person and belongings in order to be "witnesses" of God and live their faith openly are indeed shuhada (plural of shaheed) according to the Qur'an. This cannot be said of Palestinian suicide bombers unless they are fighting and being killed by Israelis because of their faith in God. I truly do not believe that this is the case. Palestinians are not attacked, oppressed, thrown out of Palestine, etc. because of their faith. Christian Palestinians were treated in the same way, and all Palestinians could be Buddhists or atheists for that matter and they would still have been persecuted by the Israelis. In other words, the struggle is not a religious one, but purely a political/nationalist one. Since Palestinians are not oppressed because of their religion, but because of their land, which has nothing to do with God or belief in God as no piece of land should, their "fighting" against Israelis cannot be "rewarded" by God in that sense. Actually, a verse from the Qur'an is clear in its categorical forbidding of suicide. Speaking to believers, the Qur'an says:

Do not kill yourselves. God is merciful to you.
If someone does so through oppression or injustice,
we shall cast him into Hell (4:29, 30).

Witnessing for the faith
Finally, the most important issue when it comes to suicide bombing is who actually is a "shaheed", as mentioned in the Qur'an. Anybody who reads the Koran regularly and critically, I must say, would notice that first, a "shaheed" is someone who lives out his/her faith in front of others (e.g. Qur'an 3:140), attests openly to belief in God, or someone, as Christ, (pbuh), said, who does not put their light under a bushel. No where in the Qur'an, as far as I know, is there a direct equation between being a "witness" and the act of killing an enemy of the faith. Of course a Muslim who witnesses for God might face persecution, just as early Christians were persecuted because of their faith. This is also dealt with in the Qur'an, where anyone who dies in the cause of God is rewarded by God. The point I am making so far is that to unequivocally equate a "witness" or "shaheed" as used in the Qur'an with individuals who 'sacrifice themselves' or "are martyred" is the result of interpretation and is not obvious or unequivocal in the Qur'an, as we are made to believe. Indeed, any such equation or parallelism between the two concepts, witnessing and martyrdom, I would argue (until someone argues successfully the opposite) is purely political, the result of (forced?) interpretation, and is meant to legitimise, on religious grounds, the Palestinian form of armed struggle, and suicide bombing in particular.

In further defence of the Qur'anic sanctioning of suicide bombing, some have argued that the concept of 'witness' , the way I understand it from the Qur'an , that is. as living openly one's faith in God),has a different word for it in Arabic: 'shahed' and not 'shaheed'. In other words, they claim that 'witness' means 'shahed' and 'martyr' means 'shaheed'. I looked up verses in the Qur'an that contain the word 'shahed'. If their argument is correct, I should not find the word 'shaheed' in those verses that speak about 'witnessing', since 'shaheed' according to them means 'martyr' . I stopped at this verse (4:41):

How shall it be when We call
witnesses from each and every people
and call you [Muhammad, pbuh] as witness over them?

In this verse, the word for 'witness' in Arabic is not 'shahed' as these apologists argue it should be, but shaheed', that is: 'martyr', according to their 'dictionary'. Since God is speaking about all the prophets that God sent to spread his message, including Mohammad (pbuh) who was sent to the Arabs of the peninsula, Mohammad (pbuh) was definitely a 'witness' in spreading the word of God, but could not have been a 'martyr', that is,. sacrificed through death, especially that he died of natural causes! Again, the distinction between 'shahed' and 'shaheed' becomes almost impossible to accept when, in Sura 2 verse 282, in the context of writing contracts, two men are needed to 'act as witnesses' (the word used is the plural of 'shaheed', and not 'shahed'). Since I believe those men have to be alive for their testimony to be valid in a court of law, 'shaheed' in reference to them cannot mean 'martyr' but 'witness'!

If still in doubt, Sura 48, verse 28 refers to God as 'shaheed'! obviously that word does not mean 'martyr', not according to the Qur'an in any case. Indeed, in the eyes of God, we are all potential 'shuhada' (witnesses and not martyrs), simply by believing in God and his apostles, and we shall have our reward and our light (57:19).

The supposedly two different terms, one being 'shahed' and meaning 'witness' and one being 'shaheed' and meaning 'martyr' are, unless I am proven incorrect, actually two words meaning the same thing, 'the one who sees, pledges, or attests, or witnesses', though with variable intensity. One of the most authoritative Arab dictionaries, Muheet al Muheet by Boutros al Bustani, explains that 'shahed' is the one who sees and 'shaheed' is one whose testimony is trustworthy. Muslims thus can readily argue, based on the Qur'an, that being killed for ones faith is an extreme case of 'witnessing'. However, when some Muslim theologians 'stretch' that concept of 'witness' to include those who simultaneously kill their enemy, instead of forgiving them, and commit suicide, a crime in the eyes of God, they should, out of fear of God, make it also known that this is their own interpretation of the word of God, that they could be wrong about this interpretation, and that they should pray to God day and night to forgive them in case they were wrong. God is all merciful, all compassionate!

Concluding thoughts
In conclusion, I hope my criticism is not misunderstood as a negation of the legitimacy of the Palestinian struggle. But I do reserve the right, based on my religion, to think about how God would like me to deal with injustice and adversity. As a submitter to God, that is, 'muslim' in Arabic, notably with a lower case "m", I should not merely repeat 'folk stories' and traditions about Islam, nor uncritically accept self-serving interpretations of God's word. To do so would be to forfeit my basic duty and responsibility as a believer in God, that is, to engage in Ijtihad, or the struggle to understand the word and will of God. Repeating uncritically what some people in authority claim to be from God, however 'authoritative' they may be, will not save me from the responsibility of my acts should they be wrong (35:18)

Nor can a bearer of burdens bear another's burden.
If one heavily laden should call another to bear his load,
not the least portion of it can be carried by the other
even though he be nearly related

As a final note, I don't advance these views about suicide bombing and Islam in order to be "politically correct," as some might think. Being a Lebanese Muslim Sunni woman, I know too well the meaning of challenging religious orthodoxy in an environment that often literally 'eliminates' dissent. I and others like me may be politically correct in the USA or Western Europe, but are indeed politically very incorrect in the Middle East. In any case, I don't care for being politically correct as much as I want and strive to be 'religiously' correct in the eyes of God. If some 'traditions' and interpretations, including Hadith, tell me things that contradict what is unequivocal in the Qur'an, I know as a Muslim that the Qur'an is the highest authority for Muslims. A case in point is the hadith oft quoted by religious clerics to encourage suicide bombers. According to that hadith, Palestinian 'Shuhada' or 'martyrs,' accepting the interpretation of the apologists, not only get 72 virgins but also get to guarantee heaven for their entire family. The above-mentioned verse (35:18) clearly states the opposite, saying that each individual is strictly responsible for his/her own acts on earth (see also 53:38 and 60:3).

I truly urge well meaning Muslims involved in the Palestinian struggle not to sacrifice God's truth in the cause of Palestine. This would be an unacceptable price to pay for believers in God. True, putting religion in the service of politics might entail some 'earthly rewards' and political gains, but most probably will end up depriving us of the greater, more enduring reward in heaven (8:28):

And know that your possessions and your progeny
are but a trial
and that it is God
with whom lies your greatest reward

Amina, Lebanon
February, 2004

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by Amina @ 10:51 AM CST [Link]


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Replies: 5 comments

Excellent and Well Argued Piece.

I would however add that the Qur'an in my humble understanding does empower muslims (lower case, those who strive to live in submission to God) to defend themselves against those who fight them for their faith in God but also to protect their homes against those who wish to drive them out without just cause (see Qur'an Sura al-Mumtahina 60, 8-9)

Thank you, Amina.
May God bless you.

Posted by A. Rashied Omar @ 02/18/2004 12:53 PM CST

I only wish Thank you Amina.

Israel Bonan

Posted by Israel Bonan @ 02/18/2004 03:00 PM CST

Greetings Amina,

You article offers clear, Qur'anic based argument. I am elated to see this type of Qur'anic logic being shared with both Muslim and non-Muslim thinkers.

Qasim Abdul-Tawwab
Boston, Massachusetts

Posted by Qasim Abdul-Tawwab @ 02/18/2004 08:04 PM CST

Although other scholars are writing their own "readings" of the Qur'an, and although I actually like your "reading" very much indeed, I think there are two big problems with your argument, and that others might criticize it from one or the other angle. Both arise because there is a cumulative weight of scholarship and commentary on this question and you do not refer to any of this scholarship or popular commentary on a) the Jews b) the question of jihad and shahada and their linkage. A) is a different than B)

The point you make in A) is 1) that Jews do not HAVE to be fought so far as the Qur'an is concerned and then 2) the conflict in Palestine is not religious, it is territorial-nationalism that produces two people fighting over the same land. Both are true, yet, the historical information on fighting with the Jews (going back to Medina) and quite a lot of negative hadith, have been used by some, including Islamists to attack the Jews (not just Zionists) in a really very racist discourse. Even in the Qur'an, there is the assertion that the Jews and the Christians have distorted, or failed to follow the Prophetic messages given to them by God - see 5:20. Then add to this the modern conflict, and Muslim responses to 2) - that Palestine is the waqf of Muslims (or simply Jerusalem) that Muslims have a duty to fight Jews, and the Israeli response and effort to say that Muslims and Islamic culture causes people to hate them.

I think you have to acknowledge the way these other ideas have "covered over" the "pure" source of the Qur'an - and w/o denying that there was fighting between the Jewish tribes of Yathrib and the Prophet who regarded them as perfidious (though not ALL Jews).

The second problem or set of problems has to do with the literature on jiihad and shahada. Here, it doesn't make too much sense, in my opinion, to argue that those who die through jihad, shouldn't be called shuhada (shahid or shahida) because they ARE. Arabic is like that, there are so many words with more than one meaning, and with these historical influences that shape meaning. See R. Peters, Jihad for some of the reasons that the word "shahid" is used -- sources from Abu Hureira to Malik ibn Anas and so on. The double meaning comes from sentences about those who will "witness" the death of martyrs, that they bear testimony to the message of the Prophet. Anyway, I don't really see the point in telling people that they should NOT use the term shahid, since this is the term that they DO use, a mujahid being a living fighter and a shahid, a dead one -- and there is this history and literature about the topic and connection of martyrdom to belief, especially for the Shi`a

A more convincing point would be the fact that suicide bombers murder innocent people (Qaradawi says they aren't innocent, all Jews will grow up and serve in the armed forces)
Or that suicide and murder are not permitted and should not be sanctioned and that there ISN'T any glorification of suicide in the Qur'an.

Also relevant - see


Best wishes to you

Posted by Sherifa @ 02/19/2004 10:54 PM CST

Masha'Allah, You have written a very interesting article.
I hope people focus on your very valid points: Murder is prohibited, suicide is prohibited, and twisting scripture to serve destructive ends is prohibited.
Bless you!

Posted by Omar H.Altalib @ 02/19/2004 11:37 PM CST

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