Jump to Content Jump to Main Navigation

Islamic Studies Martyrdom (Shahada)
David Cook


The word shahid (plural shahada) has the meaning of “martyr” and is closely related in its development to the Greek martyrios in that it means both a witness and a martyr (i.e., a person who suffers or dies deliberately for the sake of affirming the truth of a belief system). Although shahid in the first sense occurs frequently in the Qurʾan, in the latter sense only once is it attested (3:141). In the Hadith literature, and most especially in the subset of the jihad literature that was parallel to it, the term is frequently used, and it gradually makes an appearance in the historical and literary texts as well. Martyrdom in Sunni Islam, other than the very earliest period of persecution by the polytheists of Mecca, has been closely associated with death in battle. Other forms of death or suffering, such as enduring plagues, suffering persecution for theological issues (the mihna, 833–861 CE, for example), and a wide range of other less-accepted circumstances have also been considered to generate martyrdom. In general, the attitude of the Sunni Muslim toward martyrdom has been a positive one, and inside the literature on martyrdom there are rewards that are specific to the martyr as opposed to other Muslims. However, the balance of martyrdom literature and narratives has not been created by Sunnis, but by Shiʿites who hark back to the violent and tragic deaths of many of the descendants of the Prophet Muhammad during the first three centuries of Islam and most especially to the martyrdoms of the fourth caliph ʿAli ibn Abi Talib (reigned 656–661) and his younger son al-Husayn (d. 680). The martyrdom of al-Husayn near the Iraqi town of Karbala at the hands of Umayyad governmental forces sent to kill him is the single most dramatic martyrdom in Islam. For Shiʿites it is the epitome of the cruelty of the opponents of Muhammad’s blood descendants, and it is a stain that can never be fully removed from the collective consciousness. Every year this guilt is expiated to some degree on the anniversary of al-Husayn’s martyrdom during the tenth of the Islamic month Muharram—an event that is frequently dramatized by Shiʿite communities worldwide. Although Sunnis do not fixate upon the martyrdom of al-Husayn, many consider him to have been unjustly slain, and they have also preserved a rich literature concerning his death. After the classical period, most martyrdom material focuses upon the role of Sufis, who were occasionally martyred for their beliefs (achieving their goal of mystical union with God, their beloved). Additionally, Sufis frequently proclaimed Islam in the regions bordering upon the world of Islam, and they were sometimes slain by those they sought to convert. If the region in which they were killed eventually converted to Islam, then those early Sufi missionaries would be remembered by the new Muslim community as martyrs, as frequently happened in India, central Asia, and Africa. Sufis oftentimes referred to themselves as “martyrs of love,” as they were willing to be martyred for the sake of their beloved (God), but there was a whole category of love martyrs that were of a literary nature, based upon the tradition “whoever loves truly, keeps chaste, and dies for it, is a martyr.” Literary martyrdoms of this type, the most famous of which was that of Majnun and his beloved Layla (historically during the 8th century), often through repeated retellings became associated with Sufism. Contemporary martyrdom is closely associated with nationalistic resistance movements in the Muslim world and most especially with that of the Palestinians (1948–present). However, there exist martyrologies associated with specific groups on the Internet in great quantities (only a few will be surveyed here). Most contemporary discussions of martyrdom cover its most problematic manifestation, which is the suicide attack. The legal literature discussing this phenomenon—either its pros or cons—is extensive, and it has attracted more outside analysis and polemic than any other subject within the overall genre of Islamic martyrdom.

General Overviews

There has been very little work done on general overviews of the subject of martyrdom. Cook 2007 provides the principal general survey. The best concise overviews are articles in encyclopedias, such as Kohlberg 1997, while Raven 2003, in the Encyclopedia of the Qurʾān, focuses more upon the Qurʾanic references to martyrdom. Madelung, et al. 2004 focuses exclusively upon the figure of al-Husayn. Musabbihi 2008 gives a traditional overview of the Hadith literature.

Classical Works on Martyrdom (Jihad)

For Muslims, martyrdom was largely a subset of the overall genre of jihad, or warfare with divine sanction. Most classical works on Hadith (tradition) contain some materials on the subject of martyrdom under the rubric of jihad; however, these citations are extremely abbreviated.

Jihad Collections

These collections, especially that of Ibn al-Mubarak 1971, are fundamental in the creation of the martyrdom mythology in classical Islam, which is vastly expanded by Ibn al-Nahhas al-Dumyati 2002. Al-Biqaʾi 2002 is very traditional and merely gives the citations with minimal commentary.

  • al-Biqaʾi, Ibrahim. Al-Istishhād bi āyāt al-jihād. Cairo: Dar al-risala, 2002.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A collection of the Qurʾanic verses on jihad and martyrdom.

    Find this resource:

  • Ibn al-Mubarak, ʿAbdallah. Kitāb al-jihād. Edited by Nazih Hammad. Beirut: Muʾassasat al-Risalah, 1971.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The earliest collection of jihad materials and fundamental to the study of martyrdom, albeit without any organization of the material.

    Find this resource:

  • Ibn al-Nahhas al-Dumyati, Ahmad b. Ibrahim. Mashariʿ al-ashwaq ila masariʿ al- ʿushshaq fi al-jihad wa-fadaʾilihi. Edited by Durish Muhammad ʿAli and Muhammad Khalid Istambuli. Beirut: Dar al-Basha ʾir al-Islamiyya, 2002.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The largest collection of classical jihad traditions with extensive sections on martyrdom and discussions of the legal ramifications and rewards for martyrdom.

    Find this resource:

Specific Works on Martyrdom

Works specifically on martyrdom from either the classical or the contemporary period are comparatively rare. Al-Suyuti 1987 is the best classical collection of Hadith on the subject. ʿAbd al-Rahim 1985 is a classicizing collection along the traditional lines of “forty traditions” on a given subject.

Classical Martyrologies

Martyrologies, or works devoted to the enumeration and hagiography of martyrs, are comparatively rare in Islam outside of the works devoted specifically to the figure of al-Husayn. In general, the conception of martyrdom that is revealed by these books is much broader in Sunnism, where one finds material concerning those who were persecuted for their beliefs but did not actually die (such as Ahmad b. Hanbal), while in Shiʿism the focus is almost exclusively upon the family of Muhammad. There exists no general list of all of the martyrs of Islam, and because of the sectarian divide, there is no consensus as to who exactly is a martyr.

Sunni Martyrologies

Sunni martyrologies are usually closely related to the historical material (e.g., al-Azdi 2000, al-Azdi 2010), or they are praise literature designed to highlight the virtues of the martyr under discussion, such as Ibn al-Jawzi 1931. Al-Maliqi al-Ashaʾri 1985 gives the story of the murder of the caliph ʿUthman (from a Sunni perspective). Al-Tamimi 1988 is by far the largest Sunni martyrology, although not all of the people listed in it were actually killed. Ibn Abi al-Dunya 2001 follows the pattern of Lut ibn Yahya ibn Mikhnaf al-Azdi and tells the story of the assassination of ʿAli ibn Abi Talib (661), while al-Tabari 1997 gives the account of the murder of al-Husayn (from a Sunni perspective), and Ibn Hanbal 1997 tells the story of the trials of his father, Ahmad b. Hanbal. Lahham 1978 is a modern and unique account of the first female martyr in Islam.

Shiʿite Martyrologies

Shiʿite martyrologies are designed with more ritualistic and hagiographic needs in mind, such as that of al-Kashifi 2000–2001, and they often serve as the basis for the taʿziya (passion play) commemoration ceremonies. Al-Isfahani 1987 is the basic martyrology for the descendants of Muhammad, and al-Isfaraʾini 1960 focuses on the killing of al-Husayn at Karbala, which is vastly expanded in al-Kashifi 2000–2001 (probably the most important medieval source for contemporary Shiʿite piety regarding al-Husayn) and al-Darbandi 2009. Al-Tarsusi 2001 gives a popular account of the martyrdom of Abu Muslim from the Safavid period, which although not strictly speaking important in Shiʿism was influential during the 16th and 17th centuries. Günther 1994 is a scholarly discussion of this type of literature.

  • al-Darbandi, Agha b. ʿAbdin. Iksīr al-ʿibādāt fī Asrār al-shahādāt. 3 vols. Edited by Muhammad Jumaʾ. Beirut: Dar al-Safwa, 2009.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A late collection of popular tales concerning the martyrdom of al-Husayn.

    Find this resource:

  • Günther, Sebastian. “Maqâtil Literature in Medieval Islam.” Journal of Arabic Literature 25.3 (1994): 192–212.

    DOI: 10.1163/157006494X00103Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A summary and discussion of the genre of martyrdom literature and its problems from a literary point of view.

    Find this resource:

  • al-Isfahani, Abu al-Faraj. Maqātil al-Ṭālibiyyīn. Beirut: Muʾassasat al-Aʾlami li-l-Matbuʾat, 1987.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Probably the most comprehensive account of the martyrdoms of Muhammad’s family and descendants. Although not written by a Shiʿite, the viewpoint is extremely sympathetic to Shiʿism.

    Find this resource:

  • al-Isfaraʾini, Abu Ishaq Ibrahim b. Muhammad. Nur al-ʾayn fi mashhad al-Husayn wa-yalihi Qurrat al-ʾayn fi akhdh tha’r al-Husayn. Tunis: Matba’at al-Manar, 1960.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A fundamental account of the martyrdom of al-Husayn.

    Find this resource:

  • al-Kashifi, Mullah Husayn Va’iz. Rawz̤at al-shuhadāʾ. Edited by Hajj Shaykh Abu al-Hasan Sh’irani. Qom, Iran: Daftar-i Nashr-i Navid-i Islam, 2000–2001.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    One of the most influential books on martyrdom in the Shiʿite tradition, it forms the basis for many taʿziya (passion play) narratives. Contains a wealth of material on the martyrdom of al-Husayn in Farsi.

    Find this resource:

  • al-Tarsusi, Abu Tahir. Abū Muslimnāma. 4 vols. Edited by Hossein Esmaili. Tehran: Institut Français de Recherche en Iran, 2001.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A popular hagiographic account of the martyrdom of Abu Muslim (d. 754), the great Abbasid general, who is turned into a Shiʿite and made into the hero of Iran. Important during the Safavid period for the conversion of Iran to Shiʿism.

    Find this resource:

Legal Discussions of Martyrdom

The classical and contemporary material on the legal issues of martyrdom is sparse, and it is never the subject of an entire book. Abedi and Legenhausen 1986 provides selections from the relevant literature. Comparatively speaking, legal discussions of martyrdom are much more plentiful.

  • Abedi, Mehdi, and Gary Legenhausen, eds. and trans. Jihad and Shahadat: Struggle and Martyrdom in Islam. Houston, TX: Institute for Research and Islamic Studies, 1986.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A collection of translated articles by major Shiʿite religious figures (Ayatullah Mahmud Taleqani, Ayatullah Murtada Mutahhari, ʿAli Shariʾati) on the subject of martyrdom.

    Find this resource:

Scholarship on Martyrdom

Most scholarly work on martyrdom has focused upon Shiʿism, such as Kohlberg 1976, or has analyzed the classical pedigree for contemporary suicide attacks, such as Freamon 2003. Ayoub 1978 and Wensinck 1921 are the most comprehensive and groundbreaking discussions of martyrdom. Kohlberg 1976 gives the Shiʿite legal background, while Kohlberg 1997 provides general discussions and Kohlberg 2005 thematic discussions concerning the development of interesting lines of martyrdom legends concerning Muhammad. Morabia 1993 and Denaro 2006 are general discussions that focus upon jihad and martyrdom, respectively. Rosenthal 1946 is the only serious work on suicide in Islam.

Classical Works on Martyrdom (Non-jihad)

Nonviolent martyrdom has a good many classical sources, but it has not attracted very much scholarly attention. The martyrdom envisioned here is either of a personal nature (those who have perished on account of love) or a passive nature (those who have died in plagues). In the early 21st century individuals in these categories are not often considered to have been true martyrs, and with the exception of literary figures such as Layla and Majnun they are mostly forgotten.

Martyrs of Love

The classical collections on martyrdom are mostly of an anecdotal nature, the most popular being al-Antaki 2002, which includes a vast collection of anecdotes, and al-Kharaʾiti 2001 and al-Sarraj al-Qari 1998, which are smaller and older. All of these have the basic theme that love is attained through struggle and suffering. Mughaltay 1997 is focused upon literary anecdotes. Al-Ghumari 1996 reflects the contemporary skepticism concerning the martyrs of love from a religious point of view.

Martyrs of Plague

Plague martyrs are those who were willing to stay in an area afflicted by the plague and die as a result. Plague studies, such as Van Ess 2001, are in their infancy, although Conrad 1996 gives a thorough survey. Al-Suyuti 1997 is a major classical source.

Sufi Martyrs

Sufi martyrs such as al-Hallaj (see Massignon 1982) are the primary foci of the broader Muslim world’s martyrologies. Discussions such as Çelebi 1984 and Jones 1985 provide hagiographical accounts, while Bianquis 1974 and Tortel 1997 provide scholarly discussions of the significance of these martyrdoms. Lewisohn 1999 is more theoretical and discursive concerning martyrdom, while Pathan 1985 and Damant 1874 give historical background to South Asian martyrologies.

Literary Martyrdom

The story of Layla and Majnun in its original form (Ibn al-Mibrad 1994) forms the basis for this Romeo and Juliet–like popular tale that has been translated into Persian (Nizami Ganjavi 2001) and Turkish (Fuzuli 1987). Gelpke 1997 analyzes the story in Nizami.

Anticolonial Martyrdom

Suicide attacks against European colonialists have been little explored, but Dale 1988 provides one of the few analyses of the subject. Al-Tibi 1994 combs Sayyid Qutb’s vast Fi Zilal al-Qurʾan to find the materials on martyrdom.


Analysis of the tropes of martyrdom and its symbolic meaning, involving speculation as to the cultural significance of martyrdom, is probably best exemplified by Giffen 1971. Not all of the theories expounded by the scholars listed below have found general acceptance, however. Arberry 1969 is a classic discussion of Ayn al-Qudat, a major Sufi martyr, while Khairullah 1980 provides a revolutionary discussion of Layla and Majnun, and Seyed-Ghorab 2003 similarly analyzes the Persian version of the story. Jarrar 1999 gives an interesting and controversial reading of martyrs of love as warriors.

Contemporary Martyrdom Operations

As stated previously, the issue of contemporary suicide attacks has attracted more scholarly and popular interest than any other aspect of martyrdom in Islam. The selection of sources cited here cannot be said to be exhaustive, as there are many articles in the field that have not been included, especially from important journals such as Studies in Conflict and Terrorism and Terrorism and Political Violence. Abu Diya 1986 is a fundamental work analyzing suicide attacks as they were being carried out, while Pape 2005 is the most popular work on the subject and is critiqued in Moghadam 2008. Bloom 2005 and Berko 2004 present interviews with would-be suicide attackers and their handlers, and Brunner 2005 proposes theories as to the prevalence of female suicide attackers. Hafez 2006, Shay 2004, and Pedahzur 2005 all analyze suicide attacks from a political science point of view and focus upon the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while Hafez 2007 continues on this path with regard to Iraq.

Debates Concerning Martyrdom Operations

Suicide attacks or martyrdom operations are very controversial in Sunni Islam, as they are associated with indiscriminant killing of noncombatants. Al-ʿAmaliyyat al-fidaʾiyya: Shahada am intihar? and al-ʿAyyiri 2001 are the two earliest basic fatwa (religious opinion) discussions on the legitimacy of suicide attacks, while al-Takruri 2003 and Tuʾmat al-Qudat 2001 provide a large selection of fatwas taken from all over the Muslim world. Samudra 2005 applies that material to the Indonesian context. Qaradawi 2002 and Çapan 2004 give Muslim critiques of suicide attacks, which are discussed in Cook 2002. Imam 2000 gives a discussion concerning the distinction of martyrs and martyrdom.

Contemporary Martyrology

There is surprisingly little contemporary martyrological literature. Most of the available materials fall into four distinct categories: Palestinian martyrologies, Iranian martyrologies (from the Iran–Iraq War, 1980–1988), Pakistani martyrologies, and radical Muslim martyrologies that are available on the Internet.

Sunni Published Works

Intifadat al-Aqsa 2003–2004 focuses on the Palestinian conflict from a nationalistic point of view, while both ʿAli 2001 and al-Waʾi 2005 are more religious (al-Waʾi 2005 focuses upon Muslim Brotherhood martyrs in general). Barzuq 2001 covers the assassination of an individual, Yahya ʿAyyash, in the Palestinian conflict. Avan 1994 and Janjuʾah 2000 present Pakistani martyrology, while Jawabirah 1993 is more wide ranging (but fairly heavy on Palestinians). Azzam 2009 focuses completely on the Afghan and Arab fighters against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan (1979–1989), while Speckhard and Akhmedova 2006 discusses the Chechen martyrs during the period following 2001.

Shiʿite Published Works

Most of the Iranian materials, such as Husayniyya 2003 and Vilawi 2000, are war stories from the Iran–Iraq War (1980–1988); Schmucker 1987 and Khosrokhavar 2005 discuss these martyrs and their motivations. Nasiri 2005 presents the theories behind suicide attacks and martyrdom among Shiʿites, and al-Jihad wa-khisal al-muhajidin fi al-Islam gives this material from the perspective of Hezbollah during the period when it was fighting Israel in southern Lebanon.

Martyrdom and Theater Production

Although books on the issue of martyrdom are read, the manner through which many Shiʿites understand their heritage of martyrdom is the taʿziya, the theatrical production often compared to a Christian passion play that is enacted during the Ashura period of mourning. This production is characteristic of major Shiʿite concentrations of population in Iran, Pakistan, India, and parts of Lebanon and is also well represented on the Internet. Chelkowski 1979 is one of the fundamental books on the subject, while Chelkowski and Dabashi 1999 relates the use of the taʿziya to the Iranian Revolution, as does Malekpour 2004. Aghaie 2004 and Aghaie 2005 are both important works on the role of drama in contemporary Iran, while Toufic 2005 gives the graphic bloody history of the ritual. Pinault 2001 and Hyder 2006 present the taʿziya ritual as it is performed in South Asia, especially Hyderabad, by Shiʿites. Husted 1993 discusses the meaning of the martyrdom for Shiʿites.

LAST MODIFIED: 10/25/2012

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780195390155-0124

back to top