Martyrdom in Islam and Contemporary Jihadism. The example of Abū Muhammad al-Maqdisī and the problem of suicide operations

Elaboration, 2017
29 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1 Introduction

2 Martyrdom in religion
2.1 General aspects
2.2 Jewish martyrdom
2.3 Christian martyrdom
2.4 Martyrdom in Islam
2.4.1 Qur’an
2.4.2 Sunna

3 Martyrdom in contemporary Jihadism
3.1 Terminology
3.2 Contemporary phenomena
3.3 SayyidQutb
3.4 Abü Muhammad al-Maqdisî

4 Suicide operations ('amaľfyätfidä’tya)
4.1 General aspects
4.2 Yüsuf al-Qaradäwľs position
4.3 Al-Maqdisî on suicide operations

5 Conclusion

6 Bibliography

7 Internet Sources

8 Appendix

1 Introduction

The concept of martyrdom is relevant in Islamic history as well as for contemporary Jihadist propaganda and activities. While it is not an exclusive element of Islam given the history of martyrdom in religion in general, most prominently in Judaism and Christianity, martyrdom through jihad, that is through “striving in the path of God” (arab.jähadafi šabli alläh), as the Qur’an has it, has become the focus of attention in recent decades through countless suicide attacks carried out by Jihadist terrorist organizations. In order to create a clear picture of the phenomenon of martyrdom in general, this paper, in a first step, attempts to trace the concept through its history in Judaism and Christianity as well as in Islam. This will provide the reader with an overview of martyrdom notions in these three monotheistic traditions. In this chapter, the goal is not to compare the respective religions and draw parallels or present differences, but rather to provide the background knowledge for the second and third chapters which deal with specific contemporary issues.

Secondly, a preferred terminology and a general introduction to contemporary Jihadist ideology, especially with regards to the concepts of militanty/MJ and martyrdom, have to be established. Two chief ideologues of contemporary Jihadist thought, the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb (d. 1966) and the Palestinian-Jordanian Abü Muhammad al-Maqdisî (b. 1959), will be shed light on. The latter is of particular interest since he is the founder of the Jihadist website, which was shut down in May 2015 for security reasons but can still be accessed as an online archive. This archive serves as a pool of Jihadist texts and media on a range of topics such as the one relevant for this paper.

In a third step, the Jihadist means of suicide operations ('amaliyat fidâ'ïya or amallyät intihäríyd) and the correlating debate - condemning versus legitimizing such operations - among Muslim scholars and especially among Jihadists will be dealt with. Since suicide is forbidden in the Islamic tradition, the legitimacy of such attacks has to be questioned by religious scholars and jurists. However, this has not always been the case and within Jihadist circles death brought about by suicide operations is even propagated as a highly meritorious act. What is the ideology behind this reasoning? In what ways do Jihadists refer to normative Islamic sources and how do they interpret them? This will be analyzed in a text written by Abü Muhammad al-Maqdisî.

2 Martyrdom in religion

2.1 General aspects

Martyrdom has its rightful place in the history of religion. However, its historical definition and understanding is largely overshadowed today by the excessive (ab)use of the concept by militant Jihadist groups who claim their suicide attacks as “martyrdom operations”. Thus not only the Jewish and Christian notions of martyrdom are sinking into oblivion, also the traditional Islamic perspective - as laid out in Qur’an and sunna - is more or less forgotten and rendered increasingly militant with seemingly no contention. A concise overview of the respective religious traditions will contribute to a more nuanced picture of the subject. In this chapter, I will by and large follow David Cook’s analysis of the phenomenon.1

A first glance into the Encyclopedia of Islam makes it clear that the Arabic term shahid is correctly translated as “witness”, not as “martyr” as our modem understanding would suggest.2 This correlates with the generally accepted etymology of the term “martyrdom” as derived from the Greek martýrion. It is understood as a witness to faith.3 There can be no doubt that this translation is significant as it entails the basic essence of martyrdom. It constitutes a personal witness “as the most powerful form of advertisement”4 on behalf of a certain belief or a belief system. Throughout history, martyrdom has been developed as a meritorious act especially in the world’s missionary religions, most prominently Christianity and Islam, but also in the Baha’i faith, which must be seen as an independent religion although originating from within Islam.

A martyr has to be a witness. This is a definition that all martyrdom concepts agree upon.5 Of course, the question remains as to how this can be achieved. Here the various understandings do differ. However, as far as the definition and certain elements of martyrdom are concerned, there is an often recurring pattern that evolves. Cook enumerates certain narratives that appear in many martyrdom stories. First, there has to be a martyr who is ready to endure pain and, as a final consequence, death. Crucial for the true martyr is his belief vis- à-vis another competing belief:

“The martyr must have belief in one belief system and possess a willingness to defy another belief system. He or she will stand at the defining point where belief and unbelief meet [...] and define the relationship between the two.”6

Additionally, the competing belief system ought to be the dominant one, whereas the martyr finds himself in the minority or as part of a - at least in the martyr’s perception - discriminated belief system.7 The martyr’s role is that of drawing a boundary between these two conflicting systems by his willingness to suffer for the marginalized one. In so doing, he or she ideally exposes the evil of the other party and emphasizes the legitimacy of the martyr’s cause.8

Often times, there is also an audience involved in the martyrdom scenario. This is clear since the ultimate significance of martyrdom as a witness to others needs a party witnessing the events. It is the “historical memory”9 of the audience that makes for the martyr narrative being transmitted to the next generations. This accounts for the large body of hagiographie martyr literature especially in Christianity and Islam. In this respect, much depends on the transmitter, or the “communicative agent”, who is enabling others to access the information about the martyr. As one can imagine, the actual events were thus often shaped and built up by the narrator along the lines of certain criteria. In order for the martyr narrative to have as great an impact as possible (and lead others to conversion), the story was accordingly adjusted.10

Conversion of the recipients can be seen as desired by the narrators of the martyr story but is not necessarily the goal of the martyr himself. It can be said that martyrs throughout history often died in the course of religious and political conflicts where conversion - or forced conversion - loomed in the background.11

2.2 Jewish martyrdom

Jewish martyrdom narratives often fit into this scenario. Especially in the time of the Maccabees we find occasions on which Jews were forced to break the (Jewish) law, thus give up on their religion or be killed. After the conquest of the Middle East by Alexander the Great, it was primarily during the Seleucid period (305-63 BCE) that Jews were challenged to compromise on their beliefs.12 This culminated in the time of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175— 163 BCE), who initiated a religious unification process, which from the Jewish perspective of the time was not acceptable. Biblical references to this can be found in the book of Daniel 11:31-35 as well as in II Maccabees chapters 6-7. It is in this context that the concept of Qiddush haShem (hebr. for “Hallowing the Divine Name”) developed as a euphemism for dying a martyr’s death.13

Most famous was the martyrdom of Eleazar who is reported in II Maccabees 6 to have been forced to eat pork on numerous occasions. Eleazar refused and was whipped to death.14 It is in Eleazar’s refusal to compromise on the divine law that we find

“[...] one of the earliest examples of martyrdom as it came to be understood in the monotheistic traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. [...] But for Eleazar it was more important to set a complete example of his faith for others that it was to prolong his life or to give up any part of the Law.”15

In the rabbinical tradition of Judaism there is talk about the situations in which to favor death over life: if forced to commit murder, idolatry or fornication, and only in public. However, here we find no distinct martyrology; important narratives such as the Ten Martyrs are blended with various older traditions. Medieval Jewish traditions follow the same pattern in taking up older narratives and affirming their relevance for the present time. In fact, there was reason enough to dwell on the subject: the pogroms in Christian territories as well as in Spain and North Africa under the Muslim Almoravids.16

Generally speaking, it is the Jewish martyrdom narratives that present “the earliest defining moments”17 of the concept, and one cannot see the martyrs in Christianity and Islam independently of their (Jewish) predecessors. The lines between Jewish and Christian martyrdom are blurred as one can rightfully describe Jesus Christ himself as the “most famous Jewish martyr”.18

2.3 Christian martyrdom

It is the Jesus martyrdom narrative that has laid out the pattern for Christian martyrdom:

“[...] the obviously unjust scene, the patently evil persecutors, the indifferent governor, the drawn-out vignettes of suffering and the affirmations from various unlikely sources (Pilate, the second criminal, the centurion) of Jesus’ innocence and even superiority.”19

It is no coincidence that this example is followed by many of the apostles and martyrs in church history. The New Testament has 151 references to the root word marty. Especially the book of Acts but also a large body of later church traditions recount the stories of martyrs from early Christianity. Cook exemplifies this by referring to Stephen and Polycarp who both, in the first and second century CE respectively, died the martyr’s death. The story of the former can be found in Acts 6:8-15 and 7:1-60 and shows some striking similarities to the Jesus martyrdom story, especially the wish for the forgiveness of the tormenter’s sins uttered by Stephen prior to his own death.20

The second example given by Cook, Polycarp, who was Bishop of Smyrna in Asia Minor around 155 CE, stresses the faithfulness and constancy of the martyr in the face of certain death. Polycarp was tried to be persuaded into bringing sacrifices to Caesar but he resisted to the point of being put to death by a dagger (after his body proved incorruptible in the burning flames). This narrative also resembles some older Jewish traditions such as the Eleazar martyrdom and the Biblical story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-Nego in Daniel 3. While there existed, in Medieval times, an understanding of martyrdom in the form of asceticism and monasticism, the idea of witnessing to one’s faith even to the point of death did not disappear from the scene, even to this day.21

The earlier martyrs, however, have shaped the general Christian understanding of true martyrdom. They have, as documented in numerous martyrologies,

“[...] laid down the essential characteristics of the Christian martyrdom: the passivity towards the process, the role of the exhortation, the demonization and ultimately the irrelevance of the persecutors, the fact that the martyrs usually forgive their tormenters prior to their own deaths, and the long-drawn-out sequence of death with blood and gore described in excruciating detail.”22

2.4 Martyrdom in Islam

2.4.1 Qur’an

Martyrdom in Islam is of course connected with the Jewish and Christian traditions and yet adds its own fluid character to the concept. Suffice it to say that martyrdom narratives of earlier traditions passed into Islam and can be found in various passages of the Qur’an, the sunna and other (ascetic) literature.23 As already mentioned, the Arabic term shahid (pi. shuhadä ) appears on many occasions in the Qur’an (e. g. 2:143; 2:282; 22:78; 24:4) and also constitutes one of the 99 divine names (al-asma al-husna)24 It seems as though a correct understanding of this term lies at the bottom of Islamic martyrdom. However, as one delves into the development of this dogma in the formative period of Islam, one struggles to come to a clear understanding of its meaning. Obviously, as Cook explains, “Muslim martyrdom defies easy categorization”.25

The first question that arises pertains to the correct translation of shahid., which is primarily understood as “a legal or eye witness”.26 The link to martyrdom notions is seen as having been established later on in the Islamic tradition, especially in the ahädith (sg. hadith). Various scholars have pointed to the Syriac term sahda as the root of the Arabic shahid., which would support a possible influence by the Christian concept of martyrdom in the Syriac Bible. In most of the Qur’anic verses, Cook argues, the term denotes a “witness” of either Muhammad or Muslims in general towards humanity, and sometimes even God himself is a shahid, as in Qur’an 48:28: “ [...] wa-kafa bi-llähi shahidaď (Allah suffices as witness).27 It is in these verses (and in the ones cited above) that shahid takes on the meaning of “witness” in a legal or a somewhat spiritual setting.

So there seems to be agreement among scholars that the term shahid in its primary meaning does not necessarily reflect the later understanding of a martyr slain in armed combat.28 However, and this is where Cook slightly differs from Afsaruddin, the concept of martyrdom through fighting in the way of God (fi sabil allah) actually can be glanced from some of the Qur’anic verses, most comprehensively in Q 3:140:

“If you have been afflicted by a wound {qarh), a similar wound has afflicted the others. Such are the times; We alternate them among the people, so that Allah may know who are the believers (alladma amanu) and choose martyrs (shuhada’) from among you. Allah does not like the evildoers!”

This is placed in the context of the battle ofUhud (625 CE) where Muhammad’s uncle Hamza b. 'Abd al-Muttalib,29 among others, was killed. Not only the (supposed) historical context but also major Muslim exegetes suggest the shuhada of 3:140 are martyrs.30 In the context of the entire passage (Q 3:138-142) it seems as though the meaning of the term here is definitely connected to martyrs in combat. One might argue about the specific ramifications of this terminology at that time of early Islam, but this is not the scope of this paper. David Cook sees here the “beginnings of a Qur’anic martyrology”31 which culminates in Q 3:169-70:

“And do not think those who have been killed in the way of Allah (alladma qutilüfì sabïl alläh) as dead; they are rather living with their Lord (ahya’ Inda rabbihim), well-provided for. Rejoicing in what their Lord has given them of His bounty, and they rejoice for those who stayed behind and did not join them, knowing that they have nothing to fear and that they shall not grieve.”

This is to be seen in the very same context of the battle ofUhud. It is clear that this Qur’anic verse refers to the reward for the ones slain “in the way of God”, as is the case with 2:154, 3:157, 4:74, 9:111 and 47:4-6. Thus the Qur’an leaves the reader with those disorganized sequences, which must all be seen within their respective historical context, meaning the so- called “occasions of revelation” (asbäb al-nuzûï)32

2.4.2 Sunna

The canonical compilations of ahadith, of course, contain many traditions which connect the notions of jihad and martyrdom and give legal prescriptions for these issues. In the Sahlh- collection of al-Bukharl (d. 870) one can find these details in the so-called kitab al-jihad wa- s-siyar33 The chapter starts with Sura 9:111, which serves as an introduction to the topic of jihad. The first few subchapters (abwab, sg. bab) are dedicated to the merits of jihad (fadajl al-jihäd) as emphasized by the Prophet himself:

“A man came to Allah’s Apostle (s) and said, “Instruct me (duHani) as to such a deed as equals ('ala 'amai ya'dilu) Jihad (in reward).” He replied, “I do not find such a deed.” (la ajiduhu)”34

Traditions like this one show that jihad has a special place in Islamic theology as a decidedly positive concept, regardless of its respective interpretation. Emphasis is laid on the meritorious character of jihad in the path of God. The prospect of divine reward has been described as a huge incentive for jihad and martyrdom, which is part of the Muslim historiography since the Battle of Badr (624).35 Some of the rewards for the martyr are the following:

“All his sins will be forgiven; he will be protected from the torments of the grave; a crown of glory will be placed on his head; he will be married to seventy-two houris and his intercession will be accepted for up to seventy ofhis relations.”36

This tremendous reward awaiting a martyr has led some to wish and actively seek for martyrdom (talab al-shahäda). In another haddh narrated by Anas b. Malik, Muhammad is quoted as saying:

“Nobody who dies and finds good from Allah (in the Here-after) would wish to come back to this world (yasurruhu an yarji'a Ha l-dunya) even if he were given the whole world and whatever is in it, except the martyr (Hlâ l-shahïd) who, on seeing the superiority of martyrdom (yam min fadl al-shahadd), would like to come back to the world (fa-innahu yasurruhu an yarji'a Ha l-dunya) and get killed again (fa-yuqtalu marra ukhra)...”37


1 See Cook, David: Martyrdom in Islam. Cambridge 2007, pp. 1-11.

2 Kohlberg, Etan: Shahid. In: Encyclopedia of Islam2.

3 For a detailed overview see Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart (RGG), 4th edition, Art. “Märtyrer”, pp. 861-878.

4 Cook 2007, p.l.

5 See also Wicker, Brian (ed.): Witnesses to Faith? Martyrdom in Christianity and Islam. Aldershot 2006, p. 33ff.

6 Cook 2007, p. 1-2.

7 See RGG4, „Märtyrer“, p. 862.

8 Cook quotes the concept of “martyrological confrontation” as defined by Weiner, Eugene: The Martyr’s Conviction. Atlanta 1990.

9 Cook 2007, p. 3.

10 Ibid.

11 Compare RGG4, “Märtyrer”, p. 861. Here martyrdom is seen as an integral part of early Christian history and as an element of the “conflict of religions”.

12 See also the PhD thesis of Beez, Mareike: Der zwölferschiitische Martyriumsdiskurs im Iran des 19. und 20. Jahrhunderts. Berlin 2013, p. 14-15.

13 See RGG4, „Märtyrer”, p. 869f.

14 See Cook 2007, p. 7.

15 Ibid.

16 See RGG4, „Märtyrer ’, p. 869f.

17 Cook 2007, p. 5.

18 Ibid., p. 8.

19 iy Ibid., p. 9.

20 See Luke 23:34 and Acts 7:60.

21 See RGG4, „Märtyrer”, p. 865.

22 Cook 2007, p. 10-11.

23 Ibid., p. 11.

24 See Kohlberg, Etan: Shahid. In: Encyclopedia of Islam2.

25 Cook 2007, p.l2.

26 Asma Afsaruddin: Competing Perspectives on Jihad and ‘Martyrdom ’ in Early Islamic Sources. In: Wicker 2006, pp. 15-31, here 25. Afsaruddin argues that in the Qur’an there is no evidence of the term shahid with the meaning “martyr”.

27 All Qur’anic translations follow Fakhry, Majid (trans.): The Qur’an. A Modern English Version. Reading 1997.

28 See for example Wicker 2006, p. 2 and Kohlberg, Etan: Shahid. In: Encyclopedia of Islam2.

29 Hamza is sometimes referred to as sayyid al-shuhada ’ (“leader of the martyrs”), see RGG4, ,,Märtyrer”, p. 872.

30 For an overview of major tafsirs on this verse see Cook 2007, p. 17, footnote 7. Most prominent here al- Tabarï’s Jämi' al-bayän, 1373/1954, II, p. 106. Tabari also places Q 3:140 in the context of the battle of Ühud.

31 Cook 2007, p.l 8.

32 See Afsaruddin, in: Wicker 2006, p. 17.

33 Sahïh al-Bukharï, II (3-4), kitäb al-jihäd wa-s-siyar, Dar al-Fikr: Beirut, pp. 199-72.

34 Sahïh al-Bukharï, kitäb al-jihäd, Bab 1. The English translation here follows Khan, Muhammad: Sahïh al- Bukhârï. Arabic-English, IV, Beirut 1985, p. 36.

35 See RGG4, „Märtyrer”, p. 871.

36 Kohlberg, Etan: Shahid. In: Encyclopedia of Islam2.

37 Sahïh al-Bukharï, kitäb al-jihäd, Bab 6 (in: Khan 1985, p. 42).

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Martyrdom in Islam and Contemporary Jihadism. The example of Abū Muhammad al-Maqdisī and the problem of suicide operations
University of Tubingen  (Abteilung für Orient- und Islamwissenschaft)
Jihad and Jihadism in Historical Context
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Martyrdom, Judaism Christianity Islam, Suicide Operations, Jihad
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Matthias Messerle (Author), 2017, Martyrdom in Islam and Contemporary Jihadism. The example of Abū Muhammad al-Maqdisī and the problem of suicide operations, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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