A nice treatise on the concept of Jihadi martyrdom in Islam...
The Quran declares that "those who are slain in Allah's way" are not dead, but alive (3:169), and this has often been interpreted to mean that any fighter/warrior, 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 Pagan Arab turned Muslim community and amongst Islamic extremists today is a zeal for fighting "in Allah's way" and attaining martyrdom.
To understand suicide bombers, we have to understand the idea of martyrdom. Martyrs traditionally forsake their lives for principles of faith and religious deeds. By valuing an idea more than their own existence, they elevate their cause.
A martyr's demise serves as a rallying point for his/her living compatriots and as an affront to its tormentors. Tyrants tend to wield torture and death as the ultimate punishment for disobedience, but how can they cow a people, who would sooner die than submit? How can they strike down opposing leaders without transforming them into even more powerful martyrs?
In this essay, we will get to delve into the trickiness of suicide bombers' belief of ‘Martyrdom’.
History books are ripe with examples of martyrdom: individuals broken by blade and fire, subjected to unspeakable torments of death and elevated to the status of legend.
In martyrdom, we find two other primary loci in Islam: martyrdom in war and the spiritual martyrdom of asceticism.
The first is the most obvious meaning of martyrdom: someone who dies for his/her religion. In Islamic history, this aspect of martyrdom has played out the most in conjunction with the Islamic Jihad, usually translated as "holy war". During the first centuries of Islam, following Muhammad's ministry, the Muslim community actively sought territorial expansions 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, and it proved to be an effective motivator of conquest for Islam gradually the spiritual aspects of jihad came to outweigh the military campaigns, and martyrdom, concomitant with an increasing emphasis on asceticism by certain subgroups of the community, grew into a more abstracted ethical concepts.
While much of the Islamic theology of jihad predates Islam, Islam was born in a harsh, demanding environment where fighting was common. So, the Islamic theology of martyrdom and suffering as encapsulated in the Quran was a wholly new concept for the Pagan Arabs. Three distinct Quranic and ahadith themes proved a powerful and volatile combination: ‘the call to war’, ‘the call to martyrdom’, and ‘the martyr's heavenly rewards’.
Some branches of Islam, such as the Khariji, declared participation in jihad to be one of the key requirements for all able-bodied male/female Muslims. Passages in the Quran explain that martyrdom in the cause of Allah 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).
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 eternally guaranteed by the Quran. Many ahadith 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).
Further rewards, as reported by ahadith, are that the fighter in God's cause will, if killed in the struggle, receive privileges otherwise unattainable: he escapes the judgments examination in the grave by the "interrogating angels"; he does not need to pass through barzakh [purgatory limbo]; he/she receives the highest of ranks in paradise, sitting near the throne of Allah. Muhammad described the "house of martyrs" (dar al-shuhada), as the most beautiful abode in paradise. On the Day of Judgment, any wounds that 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.
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 nomads: awaiting him is a garden of cool breezes, beautiful houris as companions, couches, fruits and drinks, and the nearness to Allah. Particularly deserving martyrs are even eligible for double the standard rewards, as some ahadith reports. 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". Finally, the martyr enacts the greatest act of worship possible for any human, for only he, the shahid, witnesses to, shauda, Allah 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 Muslims fought became greater and greater, firstly against the opposing tribes within Mecca, and then against another cities, and finally against almost all countries in or around 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 Arab 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. 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.
This proclamatory aspect of Islamic martyrdom is usually expressed as the core meanings 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 shaheed, "witness" or "testimony" as well as shaheed, "martyr," and, by the definition given in Hans Wehr's Arabic-English Dictionary, "one killed in battle with the infidels." While shaheed can have a passive sense, i.e. "witnessed," 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." Similarly, refrains chanted, published, and scrawled in graffiti in war-stricken regions of the Middle East express this sentiment as political justifications. A graffito written on a home in Lebanon reads "Victory or Death...Kill us, then our nation will realize the truth more and more!"
In political spheres, the application of the sense of martyr as "witness", i.e. one who demonstrates the truth of one's convictions, adds another dimension to the modern phenomenon of Islamic jihad: as well as the martyr being a most effective fighter/warrior in prosecuting Allah's cause, he also testifies to its legitimacy by his willingness to die. History affords many examples of the use of martyrdom as propaganda and inspirational tools, a use seen in all periods of Islam. This phenomenon can be seen as the converse of the above: for the individual believer, martyrdom becomes his private, religiously internalized goal, and then, through his sacrificial act, he makes public and advertises the goal to his fellow momins [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 fellow fighters by serving as a role model to them. Whether the martyr is demonstrating zeal and commitment, as by being willing to fight to the death, or endurance and steadfastness in his faith and belief, 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 him best, he would believe, to further unite those still living and consolidate their group identity and purposes.
When used as proclamatory media, 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 Shiite worshipper explained to anthropologist David Pinault that "only" through public mortifications "can one cause such huge crowds of people to gather voluntarily."
It is this aspect of martyrdom, which best helps interpret an apparent contradiction. The modern extremist form of Islamic 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 Islamic extremist groups operating in the Middle East officially sanction these actions and provide both logistical planning and material aids, and provide for the martyr's bereaved family and descendants. Yet, the Quran expressly forbids suicide! The Quran's statement "make not your own hands contribute to (your) destruction" (2:195) and the ahadith 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 Islamic testaments [Mullahs] of their believing followers respond with a single refrain: ‘dying in the course of fighting for Allah, 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 for Islam’. If a terrorist bombing kills an enemy, even if the terrorist himself is killed in the process, a valid military objective has been attained and hence the terrorist's death is not suicide. Abu Ruqaiyah, in his article "The Islamic Legitimacy of the 'Martyrdom Operations,'" quotes a ahadith 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.'" Finally, 27-year-old Hezbollah fighter Abou Mahdi explained the place of suicide in this jihad from the standpoint of the fighter himself as thus: "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."
A psychological component further helps explain the justification for martyrdom in light of the prohibitions of suicide in Islam. One, who is martyred is guaranteed victory by Allah. 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 ( such as the complete 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 Allah'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 possible and at times unavoidable side-effects of the fight. The fighter, who is killed, 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 (sahada), is the most uniquely religious aspect of Islamic jihad. First, Muhammad limited the proper sphere of war solely to fighting in the path of Allah: purely political conflicts, especially if internecine, did not constitute a just war, a bellum justum, in the Prophet's philosophy. 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 Allah. 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 Allah, however, accepts and embraces his death, for the religious backdrop to the jihad sacrileges his fate. Thirdly, the martyr is guaranteed a unique reward—automatic admittance to heaven. Of the host of specific honors promised the martyr, not one is other than religious, which implies that religion, not secular factors like political gain or strategic advantage, was the chief justification for participating in a jihad.
In presenting the meanings and practice of jihad in the foundational and modern periods 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 that 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. 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 Allah'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.
While there is no shortage of secular martyrs, religion adds an additional dimension to sacrifice of life. Through martyrdom, which is otherwise a forbidden act of taking ones’ life, but suicide in Islam attains a holy status of a ‘shaheed’. Both the glamorization of martyrdom and its establishment as a gateway to eternal rewards in the afterlife are central factors of every Muslim suicide bomber’s equations. They create a mantle of Islamic power and glories, and everyone is willing to wear it.
Continued in Part-2