In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Martyrdom (Shahada)

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Legal Discussions of Martyrdom
  • Scholarship on Martyrdom
  • Scholarship
  • Contemporary Martyrdom Operations
  • Debates Concerning Martyrdom Operations
  • Martyrdom and Theater Production

Islamic Studies Martyrdom (Shahada)
David Cook
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 October 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0124


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.

  • Cook, David. Martyrdom in Islam. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511810688

    A general survey of the topic of martyrdom in Islam until the early 21st century.

  • Kohlberg, Etan. “Shahid.” In Encyclopedia of Islam. Vol. 9. 2d ed. Edited by P. Bearman, T. Bianquis, C. E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel, and W. P. Heinrichs, 203–207. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1997.

    A very competent introduction primarily aimed at the specialized audience knowing Arabic.

  • Madelung, Wilferd, Jean Calmard, and Peter Chelkowski. “Ḥosayn B. ʿAli.” In Encyclopaedia Iranica. Vol. 12. Edited by Ehsan Yarshater, 493–506. London: Routledge, 2004.

    A series of articles on al-Husayn, his martyrdom in the classical period, how the cult associated with him developed, and how he is remembered in the early 21st century.

  • Musabbihi, ʿAdil Jasim. Al-Shahīd fī al-sunna al-Nabawīyah min wāqiʿ al-kutub al-sitta. Kuwait: Maktabat al-Imam al-Dhahabi, 2008.

    A good overview of the martyr through the Hadith literature.

  • Raven, Wim. “Martyrs.” In Encyclopedia of the Qurʾān. Vol. 3. Edited by Jane Dammen McAuliffe, 281–287. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2003.

    A very well-written introduction to the concept of martyrdom as it relates to the Qurʾan.

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