MARTYR. An individual who is murdered, or sacrifices themselves, because of their beliefs. The Arabic word for “martyr” in the Qur’an, and in Muslim theology, is shahid شاهد, pl. shuhud, or shahid شهيد pl. shuhada’, the literal meaning of which is “present as a witness.” It implies all that is understood by the Greek, and the English martyr; but it is also a much more comprehensive term, for, according to Muslim law, not only those who die in witness of, or in defence of the faith, are martyrs, but all those who die such deaths as are calculated to excite the compassion and pity of their fellow men.
In Sunni Islam, martyrdom is when an individual dies while in battle, and sacrifices their own life to promote Islam and convert non-believers. According to Shi’ites, martyrdom occurs when there is a spiritual victory amidst a worldly defeat. The Shi’ite differs, in that they look to the example of Husayn, grandson of Muhammad, who died in doomed battle. Shi’ite Muslims also focus on the intercession exhibited by Husayn before the battle commenced.
The Qur’ran mentions martyrdom in different ways throughout, and specifically favoritism towards those who give their life. In Surah 4, Verse 69: it says, “Those who obey God and the messenger will be with those whom God has favored, prophets, just men, martyrs and the righteous…”. As well as in Surah 3, Verses 157-8, which says, “And were you to be killed or to die in the way of God, forgiveness and mercy from God are better than what they amass. And were you to die or to be killed, it is to God that you will be gathered”
The favoritism given to the martyrs is interpreted by many to be a place in Paradise and being spared from the last judgement, indeed it says in Surah 47 Verses 4-6, “Those who die in the way of God, he will not let their works be lost. He shall guide them and set their minds aright; and shall admit them into paradise, that he has made known to them.” Though ideology differs, common prophetic tradition states martyrs receive certain benefits upon reaching Paradise. Some include: All sins being forgiven, protection from the torment of the grave, marriage to the houris, and safety from the great terror. It is important to note though that some Islamic scholars believe that rather than being in actual Paradise they will be outside the Gates, with food from Paradise, yet still waiting for the resurrection.
The idea of martyrdom would rise again in popularity at certain times throughout history, including during conquests of the Ottoman Empire as well as rebellion against European colonial powers. During the twentieth century the idea of martyrdom would become especially potent as became intertwined with the idea of Jihad. One of the first modern Muslims who voiced support for martyrdom was Ḥasan al-Banna, who was the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 1928. The idea of modern martyrdom continued to spread throughout the latter half of the 20th century, being embraced in Lebanon and Palestine by members of Hezbollah, who organized suicide attacks against the United States and Israel. Furthermore, it was utilized by the Islamic Republic of Iran in the 1980’s with its war in Iraq, where the government encouraged soldiers to tread minefields, and act as cannon fodder.