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The word شَهيد "shahid" in Arabic is derived from the tri-lateral Arabic root ش-ه-د sh-h-d, and the most basic verb which can be derived from this root is شهد "shahada" with a meaning "to witness" (other verbal derivations of the same root include the meaning of seeing or watching). The Muslim declaration of faith is the شهادة "shahaada" "witness, testimony (also degree or certification)" and goes أشهد ان لا إله إلا الله ومحمد رسول الله "I (bear) witness(ashhadu) that there is no god but God(Allah) and that Muhammad is the apostle of God." A "shahid" is thus literally a "witness." The meaning, though, is someone who dies for their faith (in Islam, although in contemporary Arabic media any Arab or Muslim who dies an innocent or for any cause deemed worthy, is often referred to as a "shahid", and the word is also used by Christian Arabs for their own martyrs). The use of "witness" to mean someone who dies for their faith goes back to Greek Christian idiom from the days of the persecutions of Christians by the Roman Empire. Under numerous Roman Emperors such as Decius the mere act of being a Christian and refusing to sacrifice to Roman gods and/or the cult of the emperor was viewed as sedition and perversion, and Christians were on these grounds persecuted with imprisonment and execution by the Roman state. Under the Roman system citizens and many subjects even when accused of such a crime viewed as vile were entitled to a procedural trial. Those Christians who were called to trial for the crime of following their faith would be made to give witness (testimony) on their own behalf as to whether or not they were a Christian, and the strongest of conviction amongst them would openly declare their faith at the trial, thus sealing their fate to be executed by the state. So in this manner the Greek word μάρτυς "martys", a witness at a trial, came to mean a believer who is willing to die for their faith, and it is from this Greek word that English and other European languages get the word "martyr." In calling those who die for the faith "witnesses" the nascent proto-Islamic and later Islamic movement was borrowing a Greek Christian idiom which was by the time of prophet hundreds of years old.
When they heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. "Look," he said, "I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God."
At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul.While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." Then he fell on his knees and cried out, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." When he had said this, he fell asleep.
Although the accepted definition of the martyr is also applied to Muslims as in the case of Sumayah, the mother of ‘Ammaar ibn Yaasir, Muslims soldiers who die while engaging in jihad are also considered martyrs in Islam.
According to the Hanafis:
"One who is killed by the pagans, or is found killed in the battle bearing a mark of any wound, whether external or internal - such as blood emerging from an eye or the like." [Al-`Inayah published on the margins of Fath al-Qadeer (2/142) and Hashiyat Ibn `Abideen (2/268)]
"Anyone who is killed while fighting pagans, or rebels, or brigands, by a means attributed to the enemy - whether directly or by consequence - is a shaheed, anyone who is killed by a means not specifically attributed to [an action of] the enemy is not considered a shaheed." [Zayla`i's Tabyeen al-Haqa'iq, (1/247). See also Al-Bahr al-Ra'iq (2/211)]
According to the Malikis:
"One who is killed while fighting warring unbelievers only, even if killed on Islamic land such as if the enemy attacked the Muslims, [even if he] did not fight on account of being unaware or asleep, [and even if] killed by a Muslim who mistook him for an unbeliever, or trampled by a horse, or mistakenly smitten by his own sword or arrow, or by having fallen into a well or from a cliff during the fighting." [Dardeer's Al-Sharh al-Kabeer, (1/425)]
According to the Shafi`is:
"One who is killed in fighting unbelievers, facing and not running away, for the raising of Allah's word…and not for any worldly motive." [Mughni al-Muhtaj (1/350) and see Fath al-Bari (6/129)]
According to the Hanbalis:"One who dies in a battle with the unbelievers, whether male or female, adult or not, whether killed by the unbelievers, or by his own weapon in error, or by having fallen off his mount, or having been found dead with no mark, provided he was sincere." [Kash-shaf al-Qina`, 2/113. See also Al-Mughni (2/206)]
From this we can see that those who die fighting in a way war considered to be a jihad are considered martyrs just as are those who are killed by a persecuter for their beliefs.
In the hadith
Ways to become a martyr
In addition to being killed while actively engaging in violence and warfare, here Muhammad adds another way for someone to become a martyr:
In other words, if someone tries to steal from a Muslim and that Muslim dies while trying to protect his property, then he is a martyr.
And here Muhammad declares a soldier engaged in offensive warfare who accidently killed himself with his own sword to be a martyr:
Benefits of martyrdom
1) He is forgiven at the first drop of his blood.
2) He sees his status in Jannah.
3) He is dressed in the clothes of Iman.
4) He is safe from the punishment of the grave.
5) He will be safe from the Great fear of the Day of Judgment.
6) A crown of honor will be placed on his head.
7) He will intercede on behalf of 70 members of his family.”
Praise of martyrdom
Grade: Sahih (Darussalam)
In modern times, many Martyrdom Operations involve the Mujahid detonating an explosive device (attached to themselves or in a vehicle they are driving) when close to, or among, the enemy.
Not surprisingly, such attacks are feared by the enemies of Islam, and especially by those infidels who are waging war against Islam, those who are oppressing Muslims, and those who are invading Muslim lands.Such attacks are often incorrectly called "suicide attacks" in the hope of discrediting them.
Abdul Aziz Ibn Myatt, Muslim Creed, August 18, 2004
Below is a fatwa issued by Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, discussing the reasons why even women are permitted to participate in "Martyr Operations".
. . .
The martyr operations is the greatest of all sorts of Jihad in the Cause of Allah. A martyr operation is carried out by a person who sacrifices himself, deeming his life less value than striving in the Cause of Allah, in the cause of restoring the land and preserving the dignity. To such a valorous attitude applies the following Qur’anic verse: “And of mankind is he who would sell himself, seeking the pleasure of Allah; and Allah hath compassion on (His) bondmen.” (Al-Baqarah: 207)
But a clear distinction has to be made here between martyrdom and suicide. Suicide is an act or instance of killing oneself intentionally out of despair, and finding no outlet except putting an end to one’s life. On the other hand, martyrdom is a heroic act of choosing to suffer death in the Cause of Allah, and that’s why it’s considered by most Muslim scholars as one of the greatest forms of Jihad.
. . .
Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, Islam Online, November 6, 2006
Here is another excerpt taken from a longer fatwa by Muslim scholar Sheikh al-Uyayri, explaining in depth why suicide bombings and killing of civilians (including Muslims) via the use of them as "human shields" is permissible in Islam.
1. One's intention is sincere and pure - to raise the Word of Allah.
2. One is reasonably sure that the desired effect cannot be achieved by any other means which would guarantee preservation of his life.
3. One is reasonably sure that loss will be inflicted on the enemy, or they will be frightened, or the Muslims will be emboldened.
4. One should consult with war strategy experts, and especially with the amber of war, for otherwise he may upset plan and alert the enemy to their presence.
If the first condition is absent, the deed is worthless, but if it is satisfied while some others are lacking, then it is not the best thing, but this does not necessarily mean the Mujahid is not shaheed.We also explained how causing a death carries the same verdict as actual killing. Hence one who plunges without armour into the enemy ranks, being certain of death, just like one who engages in a martyrdom operation, is effectively causing his own death, but they are praiseworthy because of the circumstances and intention, and hence are not considered to have committed suicide. We also clarified that [according to the majority] the identity of the killer does not have an effect on whether the Mujahid will be considered shaheed. This dispels the wavering arising from the fact that the Mujahid is taking his own life. Thus, such operations could take on any of the five Shar`i verdicts depending on intention and circumstances. Finally, we clarified that taking one's own life is not always blameworthy; rather it is contingent on the motives behind it. So, we conclude that one who kills himself because of his strong faith and out of love for Allah and the Prophet, and in the interests of the religion, is praiseworthy.
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- James M. Arlandson - Islamic Martyrdom: The Economy of Death in the Quran
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- Ammar Ibn Yaser - Ummah.net, accessed April 23, 2011