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Violence and Terrorism >
Do Muslims have a martyrdom complex?

In Islam as in Christianity, martyrdom—a willingness to die for one's faith or in order to protect the religious community—has a long and special history. Martyrs who sacrifice their lives to establish Islamic ideals or to defend those ideals hold an important place in Islam.

To die for one's faith is the highest form of witness to God. The Arabic/Quranic word for martyr, shahid, means “witness,” from the same root as the word for the Muslim profession of faith (shahada), which bears witness that “there is no God but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God.”

The Quran has many passages that support the notion of martyrdom and that comfort those left behind. For example:

If you are killed in the cause of God or you die, the forgiveness and mercy of God are better than all that you amass. And if you die or are killed, even so it is to God that you will return. (3:157–58)

Never think that those who are killed in the way of God are dead. They are alive with their Lord, well provided for. (3:169)

Hadith literature, stories about what Muhammad said and did, also provides many affirmations of the rewards for those who die for Islam. Muslim tradition teaches that in the life after death martyrs are distinguished from others in several ways. Their self-sacrifice renders them free of sin and therefore they are not subject to the postmortem interrogation of the angels Nakir and Munkar. They bypass “purgatory” and proceed to one of the highest locations in heaven near the Throne of God. As a token of their purity, they are buried in the clothes in which they died and do not need to be washed before burial.

Both Sunni and Shii traditions value and esteem martyrdom. Sunni Islam has historically valorized martyrdom through veneration of the struggles (jihads) of the early Medinan community against the Meccan Arabs. Throughout Islamic history the call to jihad in the path of God served as a rallying cry. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, leaders of Islamic revivalist movements from Africa and Arabia to Southeast Asia cast their struggles as jihads. Thus those who died were guaranteed paradise as martyrs.

Shii Islam has a particularly powerful martyrdom tradition and legacy, starting with the martyrdom of the Prophet's grandson Hussein, who with his small “righteous” band of followers was slaughtered by the army of the Sunni caliph Yazid. This sacred tragedy became the paradigm for Shii theology and spirituality and is ritually reenacted annually in Shii communities. It has expressed itself in the practice of visiting graves of the martyrs and mourning and emulating the suffering of Hussein and his companions with prayer, weeping, and self-flagellation—a ritual analogous to the commemoration of the passion and death of Jesus Christ.

Since the dawn of European colonialism, a new, broader understanding of martyrdom has developed. Soldiers killed in wars of independence against European colonial powers were often called martyrs. Since the late twentieth century, Muslims have used the term jihad for all struggles in defense of Muslim territory; thus those who die in such battles are martyrs. Martyrdom was a powerful theme in the Iran-Iraq war. Both Sunni Iraqis and Shii Iranians relied on the promise of martyrdom to motivate their soldiers. In postrevolutionary Iran, the tradition was reflected in the creation of martyr cemeteries for those who died in the Iran-Iraq war and for the revolution's clergy and supporters who were murdered or assassinated by opposition forces.

Martyrdom, like jihad, has become a global phenomenon, a common term of praise for those who have died in struggles (jihads) in Palestine (whether members of secular or Islamic Palestinian groups), Iran, Egypt, and Lebanon as well as Azerbaijan, Bosnia, Chechnya, Kashmir, and the southern Philippines.

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