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Date: Wed, 10 Apr 2002 16:33:46 -0400
Thanks for your letter and two interesting articles. Here are some
Martyrdom: I have consulted Haleem about the Arabic, and it seems the
writer's thesis that the word shaheed / shahid in Arabic is passive is
based on a misunderstanding. The word is an intensive form, not a passive.
The passive would be mash-hud (witnessed). The intensive form has no
parallel in English and would have to be rendered by another modifier, e.g.
very, most. In this case shaheed means something like: 'someone who bears
the ultimate witness'.
In the Qur'an this is defined as someone who dies 'in the way of God' -
i.e. doing God's will, doing good. It is not confined to someone dying in
military jihad, though in the Hadith this is more evident. When my husband
was murdered in Nigeria, where he was working as a classics teacher, and a
practising Muslim, the Muslims who spoke at his funeral prayer said he was
a 'shaheed'. If you die fighting to protect your own property you are a
'shaheed' (Hadith: Bukhari)
Allah's Messenger (peace_be_upon_him) said, "Five (persons) are regarded as
martyrs: They are those who die because of plague, abdominal disease,
drowning or a falling building etc., and the martyrs in Allah's Cause."
A woman who dies giving birth is also regarded as a 'shaheed'
The Messenger of Allah (peace_be_upon_him) said: 'Anyone who sought
martyrdom with sincerity will be ranked by Allah among the martyrs even if
he died on his bed.' In his version of the tradition AbuTahir did not
mention the words: "with sincerity". (Hadith: Muslim)
So the actual dying is not as important as the intention, faith and
sincerity of the person. Here is what the Qur'an has to say:
If a wound hath touched you, be sure a similar wound hath touched the
others [your enemies in battle]. Such days (of varying fortunes) We give to
men and men by turns: that God may know those that believe, and that He may
take to Himself from your ranks Martyr-witnesses (to Truth). And God loveth
not those that do wrong. 3:14
Think not of those who are slain in God's way as dead. Nay, they live,
finding their sustenance in the Presence of their Lord;
They rejoice in the bounty provided by God: And with regard to those left
behind, who have not yet joined them (in their bliss), the (Martyrs) glory
in the fact that on them is no fear, nor have they (cause to) grieve.
And those who believe in God and His apostles- they are the Sincere (lovers
of Truth), and the witnesses (who testify), in the eyes of their Lord: They
shall have their Reward and their Light. But those who reject God and deny
Our Signs,- they are the Companions of Hell-Fire. (57:19)
The word 'shaheed', therefore, is much closer to the idea of Christian
'witness' than to the meaning now attributed in English to the word
'martyr', although in Greek this did originally mean 'witness'.
I agree in some respects that the battlefield for the Muslim mind is more
appropriately the theological one than the military one. As the Qur'an
says: 'There is no compulsion in religion. Truth stands out clear from
error. Whoever rejects evil and believes in God hath grasped the most
trustworthy hand-hold, that never breaks. And God heareth and knoweth all
things'. (2:256) Usama bin Ladin did more to win support with his TV
broadcasts than with any other action he has done or been credited with
doing. But when he did speak, he was heavily censored in the USA. The US
government seems to prefer 'war war' to 'jaw jaw, and propaganda to debate.
However, I gather Western governments in the past have recognised the
importance of theology and done much to pervert the teachings of Islam, as
well as to encourage home-grown perversions to flourish. Usama Bin Ladin's
theology may well be a result of such perversions, creating a form of
theology based on anger, hatred and militancy and intended to put people
off Islam and confirm Western propaganda versions of what Islam means.
Nonetheless, surprisingly, the World Trade Centre attacks have resulted in
an upsurge of interest in Islam, particularly in the USA and many
conversions to Islam. More people have listened to Usama bin Ladin than
would otherwise have done so, and also to other, more moderate Muslims
closer to home and on the internet.
George Bush has already appointed an American Muslim, Imam Hamza Yusuf
Hanson, to advise him on Islamic affairs. Imam Hamza Yusuf is a very
popular and eloquent young speaker, trained in the Sufi oriented schools of
Mali in West Africa. However his appointment must be a very difficult and
dangerous task for him to carry out without compromising his faith or
crossing the right-wingers and Zionists in the present regime. To speak
for all the Muslims is in itself an almost impossible task as there are so
many different opinions and factions among Muslims, let alone nationalities
and tribes. There is still no structure of Muslim representation, either
here or in the USA, apart from a few umbrella organisations that draw their
members from other Islamic organisations, and which are doing a valiant job
trying to put Muslim viewpoints over to their governments. There are one
or two Muslim MPs in UK, but I have not yet heard of a Muslim congressman
or senator in the USA.
Asking Western converts to develop their own, more acceptable, version of
Islam is also fraught with problems, as our ignorance is of a similar level
to that of the uneducated Muslims from Muslim countries, even if it is of a
different order. What is needed is a wide-ranging and open debate among
Muslims of all nationalities and between Muslims and non-Muslims. This is
particularly difficult in the present climate of fear when Muslims are
being attacked and insulted in schools daily, and on the streets, and in
various countries being raped and massacred from time to time. It is
hardly surprising if they develop hostile attitudes to non-Muslims that may
go beyond the objective reality of the situation. There is theology, and
then there is reality on the ground, and the latter is a far more powerful
I hope what I have said is helpful, and look forward to hearing from you
Date: Fri, 12 Apr 2002 12:39:35 +0100
Many thanks indeed for your reply to my query. First of all, let me mention that I asked a publisher in Leuven who has done various things that seemed interesting, about a paperback edition of our book. The answer is not very helpful: they would be interested in what would, in effect, be a new book, but not in a reprint. So they don't look like being much help.
Let me also say that I had no knowledge of the dreadful event that happened in Nigeria. I don't think I can say any more about it than to express my gratitude and appreciation for your having shared it with me.
Now, as to the concept of martyrdom. Naturally I accept your point about the 'intensive' form of the word in Arabic. But I wonder in that case about the examples Bowerstock refers to in his footnote 52, which apparently indicate that a martyr is someone whose death is 'witnessed' by God. Unless he has completely misunderstood these examples (which I have not seen), it looks as though there must be something in what he says. I wonder whether you have any further light to shed on them?
But in any case, perhaps there is not much difference between what you and Abdel say, about a person 'who bears the ultimate witness', and what Bowerstock says. For I take it that we all accept that God does indeed 'witness' what the genuine martyr suffers. So it must be true both that the martyr is a witness to faith in God and that God witnesses to what he or she suffers. Each witnesses 'ultimately' to the other.
The key issue then concerns the motives and actions which distinguish the genuine martyr. I wonder if we can agree on this point as well? The classic treatment of Christian martyrdom is that of Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologiae, IIa IIae Q. 124). Here the key points seem to me to be these:
1. You can't become a martyr simply by your own efforts. God calls a person to suffer martyrdom, and the genuine martyr is one who responds to this call. Martyrdom is a vocation.
2. It follows that the genuine martyr does not seek to suffer or die. That would be presumptuous. (Bowerstock refers to the tendency in the early Christian era for some people to seek martyrdom, and to the Church's rightful attempts to discourage this). In so far as Christ's crucifixion is the model of Christian martyrdom, the garden of Gethsemane experience shows that He certainly did not seek suffering and death: it was forced upon him by the unjust actions of others.
3. The genuine martyr is motivated by love, including love of enemies as well as of friends. As St. Paul says, actions which are not done out of love are worth nothing (1 Corinthians 13). True, courage is the virtue which immediately elicits the martyr's actions; but love has to be the underlying virtue motivating martyrdom if it is to be of any merit in the eyes of God.
4. Martyrdom does not have to consist in an explicit confession of faith in face of persecution or injustice. Any human good can become a reason for martyrdom inasmuch as it is directed to God.
5. Genuine martyrdom shows that the person 'holds cheap all the things of this world': and this normally involves losing one's life, as only this shows a complete victory over worldly things. Nevertheless God sees into people's hearts, and sometimes counts sufferings short of death as true martyrdom.
It seems to me that these criteria sufficiently distinguish the genuine from the would-be martyr. They also distinguish the martyr from the suicidal terrorist; in so far as, while the terrorist must have enormous courage, and be completely indifferent to worldy things, he or she is not truly motivated by love. Even self-defence in a just war is not good if it is not motivated by love.
It seems to me that this primacy of love as the fundamental requirement for genuine martyrdom is not visible in the Qur'anic texts about martyrdom. Am I wrong?
Incidentally, I have been shown a report (in a newspaper I do not much like, i.e. the Daily Telegraph, 9th April 02) that the Grand Mufti of Egypt, Ahmed al-Tayyeb regards Palestinian suicide bombers as 'martyrs of the highest order', who are using 'a last means of defence for a defenceless people'. But he apparently justifies this position by arguing that all Israelis, including women and children, are parts of an occupying force. This is surely false: there are many innocents on both sides, and it can't surely do any good to try to justify killing the innocent in this way. Does this not prove that suicide bombers are not motivated by love, and are therefore not genuinely martyrs, however 'heroic' their deeds may be?
Date: Sun, 22 Sep 02 16:06:34 -0400
Thanks for your letter (never got the email) and the paper on martyrdom.
(There is a sticker on it referring to Plato and your draft version, which
I could not understand, not having seen the note it referred to.)
There are various points I would like to make about the paper:
1. It seems that you would like the Catholic Church to consider recognising
non-Catholic, even non-Christian martyrs. I applaud any opening of minds
that accepts that non-Christians can have strong faith in God, or do good
Nevertheless I don't personally see any need for Muslim 'martyrs' to be
recognised by the Church, since, as you pointed out in one part of your
paper, it is God who calls people to be martyrs, and ultimately it is He
who will judge who is and who is not a martyr. People's true inner
motivation can only be known by God, and there is a hadith to the effect
that it is by this inner motivation or intention (niyah) that actions will
be judged. It is not for the Church to decide, or to call people to
'venerate' martyrs, especially if this implies worshipping them or praying
to them or any such attempt to put them on a level with God. Muslims do
respect the graves of martyrs, and have built mosques around some of their
tombs, but any attempt to treat them as intermediaries between humans and
God would be against the teachings of the Qur'an.
2. I see you have incorporated Haleem's negation of the 'passive' sense of
the word 'shaheed', but unfortunately the rest of your argument still goes
on to base itself on the passive sense of the deed being 'witnessed by
Haleem now says that it is possible there is a passive sense implied as the
Fa'eel form sometimes also implies the maf'ul! Also in Lane's Lexicon
various theories are mentioned about the angels or God witnessing the
deaths of martyrs, or that they will be called upon to bear witness on the
Day of Judgement and so forth. These are theories I was not aware of.
Lane's Lexicon also mentions that the Prophet (pbuh) is also reported to
have used the word for someone who dies from plague, (or some other
diseases), or in pregnancy, or when a house collapses on him or various
other such seemingly accidental deaths. The Qur'an mentions plenty of
peoples who were killed by what we would call 'natural disasters', and says
these were punishments from God for their evil ways, but there is no
question of these peoples being martyrs, since they were disbelievers.
However, the Prophet (pbuh) said that everything that happens to a believer
brings rewards, especially if they are patient and steadfast. So it is not
the method of death that is important but whether or not the person was a
believer until and at the time of death.
What I said in my previous email on this subject is that a shaheed is
someone who is BEARing ultimate witness - not someone (or God) BEING the
ultimate witness (see your page 14). He is someone who not only 'lays down
his life for his friends' but who lays down his life for God, in witness to
the truth of God's words. That means his whole life, not just his (or her)
In the the Qur'an, God instructs the Prophet (pbuh) to say: 'My prayer and
worship, my life and my death are for Allah, Lord of the worlds, and I am
the first of those who submit (to Him).'
He also instructs Muslims to 'Stand up for justice, as witnesses to Allah'
- Aquinas's statement that 'Any human good can become a reason for
martyrdom, inasmuch as it is directed to God' is equally true for the
Muslim martyr, who can achieve martyrdom in defence of self, family,
property, fellow Muslims, by dying in childbirth, or just while living as a
3. The word Shaheed does not appear in the singular in the Qur'an, and the
plural 'shuhada'a' only once, possibly, referring to people killed for
their faith / willing to die for their faith, but even there it could
equally well mean 'witnesses'. The rest of the instances refer to
'witnesses' in the normal sense of those who see something ('shahida' -
means 'he saw' in Classical Arabic) or 'bear witness' to something. c.f.
Clement (p.8 of your paper).
4. The Qur'an also refers to 'those who are killed IN THE WAY OF GOD',
saying 'they are not dead, but living, though you do not perceive them'.
This is not the same as dying in the struggle of LIFE, as your article says
on p.14. The struggle of life is common to all creatures, i.e. the
struggle to survive. The jihad is the struggle to bring about God's will,
to follow the teachings of the Qur'an, to conquer the forces of oppression
and fear and live and worship freely according to God's law and guidance.
5. 'Courage' is not a word that appears in the Qur'an either; the nearest
equivalent is 'sabr', a word I explained in my presentation at Ammerdown.
This means 'steadfastness', 'patience' and so on, and is one of the
qualities of true believers. It is also, as I believe, the main virtue and
power behind non-violent action. Courage is a quality of the heart
(coeur), and can be nearer to foolhardiness in some cases, but 'sabr' means
sticking to one's principles through thick and thin, on the basis of 'iman'
- 'assurance, faith' - in God, and in Goodness, in 'al-husna' or 'what is
6. Let the unbelievers 'find ruthlessness in you' is not a good translation
- who is J. Firestone anyway ??? The word 'ghildhah' means 'firmness'
(Yusuf Ali) or 'hardness'. Haleem's translation reads 'Let them find you
standing firm'. 'Ruthlessness' implies mercilessness even when victorious,
whereas the implication in the Arabic word seems to be that the Muslims
should not give way under the attacks of the unbelievers who surround them.
7. You also say that the Muslim concept of martyrdom probably dates from
contact with Christianity, and some of the hadiths may well date from that
period. However, the concept of martyrdom as 'witness to God' is straight
out of the Qur'an and those who were 'killed in the Way of God' are highly
regarded in the Qur'an.
8. There is a debate in progress among Muslim scholars, largely visible on
the Internet in English, as to the validity of the concept of 'martyrdom
operations' as applied to suicide attacks.
The vast majority condemn suicide and killing innocent victims, but a few
justify killing innocents by way of:
'collateral damage' - see the catapult argument in Cres & Cross.
or retaliation, considering the number of innocent civilians killed by the
Americans and Israelis both in war and by economic means of various kinds,
or considering all Israelis as off-duty soldiers - a self-confessed state
in arms, and all Americans has having voted for war (a big fallacy)
or as self-defence by Muslims whose lands have been invaded by unbelievers
and who are living under occupation and oppression.
In this view, suicide bombing is not 'superseded by smart missiles' as you
say on page 1: these people have no smart missiles, F16s, tanks or giant
bulldozers, only stones and their own bodies, with which to defend
themselves. Those who use their own bodies are seen as martyrs.
However this view omits to recognise that these martyrs are commissioned,
trained and armed by others, who use suicide bombing (as you say) as a
military tactic (since it has proved effective - e.g. in Lebanon - against
the US and Israel.
It is also difficult to prove who is actually responsible for such attacks,
since the perpetrators are already dead. This leaves the victims with
little recourse but to attack the families of the bombers, who by the
accounts that I have read, rarely seem to have known what was going on in
the bomber's minds, and who would probably have tried to dissuade them had
Also, as I read on some Western strategy Internet page, it is easy, because
no escape strategy is required.
The example of the suicide bombing of the US army barracks in Beirut is
sometimes quoted to prove the effectiveness of the strategy, but this was a
valid military target, and Hizbollah, who were, I seem to remember,
responsible for this, have been careful to distinguish between military and
The self-defence argument also omits the fact that most suicide bombings do
not defend anyone, but are used by their enemies as propaganda against
their people and as an excuse to oppress, invade, kill, and maim them still
further. Hence Yasser Arafat's call to stop this form of attack and
concentrate on military targets only.
However, the cult of martyrdom is now so deeply entrenched and committed in
blood that those who espouse these tactics do not seem to listen to such
arguments. No one wants to declare the death of their dear one a waste, or
a mistake, or a delusion, or an expression of despair and defeat, though
that may well form part of their motivation in view of the conditions
imposed upon them. No, such actions are seen as brave acts of defiance and
revenge against impossible odds.
Alternative forms of defiance and grass-roots action are beginning to
surface worldwide - trade boycotts, counter-propaganda campaigns, etc. and
the focus has started to shift on the ground in Palestine towards attacking
military and settler targets only, but when civilians are being attacked
and killed on a daily basis, self-restraint and discipline is difficult and
retaliation takes over.
There is much more to be discussed, and perhaps we can form a discussion
group somewhere. Meanwhile I will leave you with two hadiths I found. The
first does form part of the internet debate, but is dismissed by radicals
as being irrelevant to martyr operations as the suicide here is clearly a
personal attempt to escape pain and hasten death.
1.The Prophet (peace_be_upon_him) looked at a man fighting against the
pagans and he was one of the most competent persons fighting on behalf of
The Prophet (peace_be_upon_him) said, "Let him who wants to look at a man
from the dwellers of the (Hell) Fire look at this one." Another man
followed him and continued to follow him till he (the fighter) was injured
and, seeking to die quickly, he placed the bare tip of his sword against
his chest and leaned on it till it passed through his shoulders (i.e.
The Prophet (peace_be_upon_him) added, "A person may do deeds that seem to
the people as the deeds of the people of Paradise, while in fact he is from
the dwellers of the (Hell) Fire; and similarly a person may do deeds that
seem to the people as the deeds of the people of the (Hell) Fire, while in
fact he is from the dwellers of Paradise. Verily, the (results of) deeds
done depend upon the last actions." (Al-Bukhari)
No-one seems to mention the second one, though it seems relevant to me:
2. The Prophet (peace_be_upon_him) sent a Sariyyah under the command of a
man from the Ansar and ordered the soldiers to obey him.
One day the commander became angry and said, "Didn't the Prophet
(peace_be_upon_him) order you to obey me?" They replied, "Yes." He said,
"Collect fire-wood for me." So they collected it. He said, "Make a fire."
When they made it, he said, "Enter it (i.e. the fire)."
So they intended to do that. But then they started holding one another, and
saying, "We have run towards the Prophet (i.e. taken refuge with him, peace
be upon him) from the fire." They kept on saying that till the fire was
extinguished and the anger of the commander abated.
When that news reached the Prophet (peace_be_upon_him) he said, "If they
had entered it (i.e. the fire), they would not have come out of it till the
Day of Resurrection. Obedience (to somebody) is required when he enjoins
what is good." (Al-Bukhari)
With all good wishes,