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Dying a Martyr’s Death:  
The Political Culture of Self-Sacrifice in Contemporary Islamists 

A paper was presented at the annual meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion, San Francisco, California, August 14, 2004.

Babak Rahimi

Department of political and Social Sciences
European University Institute
Via dei Roccettini 9, 1-50016 San Domenico di Fiesole
Florence, Italy


Few things have been a greater taboo in Islam than suicide. As noble it is to die in battle—that is, to die at the enemy’s hands in a just cause—so has it been considered shameful to willfully take one’s own life. Although there is no clear ban on suicide in the Qur’an, much of the controversy in Islamic discourses stems from the meaning of martyrdom and its ethical and theological implications.

   This dilemma is mostly apparent in the recent rise of suicide bombing and the so-called “human detonators”, in which have further complicated the notion of martyrdom in the Islamic tradition. Whether considering the young war volunteers in Iran of the mid-1980s, who willingly threw themselves into Iraqi machine-gun fire and minefields, or a young Palestinian blowing himself in front of a Sbarro Pizzeria in Jerusalem, the recent developments signal a major transformation in the Islamic notion of martyrdom, with an added combination of modern warfare technology and radical militancy....

For the most part, the wave of Islamist ideologies that has engulfed the Middle East since the late 70s has dramatically shifted the classical Islamic conception of martyrdom or shahadat for a new description. In the classical view, martyrdom identified the exemplary ethical model of moral action in a show of struggle (jihad) for the sacred, manifested in the ultimate act of self-sacrifice. The (male) martyr or shahid encountered the sacred by fighting against the enemies of the true religion; and in the process giving up his life in exchange for a higher, celestial existence. In this regard, it was not merely the event of death that identified martyrdom, but the very fulfillment of the duty of obedience to the will of God that brought one to the level of sacred.

But the modern treatment of martyrdom emphasizes less the ethical and more the ideological, that is, the mobilizing, motivating and boundary marking potential of self-sacrifice. The central shift in the contemporary Islamist notion of martyrdom lies in the ideological value of self-sacrifice, defined in the medium of symbolic violence, in which martyrdom is ritually enacted by the actors to confirm identity through the death of the other as a symbolic affirmation of group solidarity.

The main thrust of my argument in this paper is that the new discourse of martyrdom in contemporary Islamist movements is an attempt to essentialize sacrifice in an ideologically totalistic ways. In an attempt to appropriate different themes and sociopolitical patterns in modernity, the new Islamist discourses have engaged in the reinterpretation and reformulation of the classical ethical notion of martyrdom; and, as a result, they have produced diverse discursive conceptions of martyrdom within the contemporary Islamist movements. For the purpose of this presentation, I would like to identify three distinct yet (partly) overlapping discourses of martyrdom, that is: honorific, revivalist, and mystical-millenarianism.

 Let us begin by making clear how I shall be using these terms. 

  1. Revivalism: The advocates of revivalist Islamic ideology conceptualize martyrdom as a sacred act for the renewal (or tajdid) of the faith through the act of self-sacrifice.  In the revivalist tradition, best represented by thinkers like Mawdudi and Hasan al-Bana, martyrdom is conceptualized within a circular historical process that diametrically opposes the Western notion of progress. According to these thinkers (like Mawdudi), for instance, the necessity to regenerate Islam throughout history is due to the reappearance of pre-Islamic age of ignorance or jaheliat. The need to have the periodic renewal for the attainment of the ideal society, which the Prophet and the righteous four Caliphs established in the seventeenth century, requires the ultimate act of self-sacrifice. To become a martyr in an attempt to fight against the reappearance of the age of ignorance is indeed the affirmation of the Prophet’s holy message....

 In this view, waging jihad and dying in the process is central to the cause of Islam. To use Al-Bana’s famous words here, “God gives the umma (or the Muslim community) that is skilled in the practice of death and that knows how to die a noble death an exalted life in this world and eternal felicity in the next.” To become a martyr, then, is the affirmation of the elect and the chosen, those that sacrifice themselves for God and those that will profit in this world and attain blessing in the next. Central to this view is the notion that martyrdom involves the ability to revive Islam and bring back the “Golden Age” in the highest, most sacred possible ways.

  1. Honorific.

There is a sense in which the revivalist notion of martyrdom could also entail an honorific conception of self-sacrifice. This is so since, along with the affirmation of the Prophet’s message, martyrdom can also signify the honorable defense of the faith. The code of honor, which reflects a defensive derive to protect the pietistic themes of virtue and purity, plays an important role in the revivalist discourse.

In the second treatment of martyrdom, honorific conception of martyrdom becomes most apparent in a more radically puritanical form of Islamist movements, best represented by the Al-Qaida organization. For groups like Al-Qaida, to die a martyr’s death is to protect and honor the faith and the integrity of Islam, which has been threatened or polluted by the impure unbelievers. The so-called “martyrs” of the 9/11 Twin-Towers and Washington in a sense were elected by God, since they honorably defended Islam from the unbelievers by attacking the enemies at their home, and in the process surrendering their lives as an honorific act of submission to the all-mighty.

A statement from the Qiadat al-jihad reports, “The brothers who offered themselves for the destruction of the strongholds of the enemy did not offer themselves in order to gain earthly possessions…Rather, they offered their souls as a sacrifice for the religion of Allah, defending Muslims whom American hands had mistreated by various types of torture of domination and subjugation in every place.”...

Let us recall here that the main objective of Al-Qaida and its role in the events of 9/11 was not merely to revive Islam (which is a recent development in the ideology of the movement), and make Muslims aware of an imagined confrontation between the “West and Islam”; but mainly to take vengeance for the honor that was lost to Muslims while the US military was stationed in the Arabian peninsula, coupled with the starvation of the Iraqi children during the oil-for-food embargo of the 90s. The attempt to restore the honor of Muslims and the purity of Islam played the central role in this second type of martyrdom.

[Here, btw, I would also classify the ideologies of Hammas and al-Jihad Islami movements (along with the Palestinian secular political movements) as the honorific type of martyrdom, since they also stress the loss of honor as a result of the Israeli presence in the occupied territories, and the impurity caused by the death of Muslim members of the community by the enemy forces. We should bear in mind here that Hamas’ suicide-bombing campaign began really after the Goldstein massacre of Ibrahim Mosque in Hebran in early 1994, which resulted in the death of twenty-nine Muslim worshippers. The massacre triggered new demands for an honorific type of martyrdom as an expression of vengeance for the impurity caused by the death of Muslims at a holy site. ]

  1. Mystical-millenarian

The third type, that is millenarian-mysticism, implies a type of martyrdom in terms of an extraordinary experience of the divine through the act of self-sacrifice. In its eschatological expectation of the end of the world, the act of martyrdom involves an altered state of consciousness (trance, vision or suppression of cognitive contact with the ordinary world), which ultimately involves the loss of self as a result. In this regard, the central theme in Millenarian-mystical discourse is not to revive the past, but to break from it, to discontinue from the past, the ordinary, the common, and unleash a new unimaginable reality with the return of the Mahdi. The centrality of the messianic persona-figure in this discourse is the role of mysticism, and the self-denunciatory demand that is equally congenial to the ideological promotion of a revolutionary disposition.

Consider Ali Shariati, the late Shi’i intellectual and chief ideologue of the 1979 Iranian revolution. According to Shariati, martyrdom is the expression of the value, the ideal in which the martyr sacrifices himself for something greater and more lasting, leaving behind a permanent and valuable legacy....

In his usually idiosyncratic way, Shariati describes two kinds of idealized notion of martyrdom. The first kind, namely a mujahid or a fighter’s martyrdom, signifies a “hero who goes into battle to achieve victory and defeat the enemy. Instead he is defeated, is killed, and thus becomes a shahid. His name is registered at the top of the list of those who died for the cause of their belief. The second kind, namely the Husayni martyrdom (named after the death of the Prophet’s beloved grandson at the battle of Karbala in 680 C.E.), represents the sort of shahadit that involves a form of martyr’s death in such the actor knows his fate and consciously seeks (or chooses) to attain it, despite victory or defeat on the battlefield. A shahid of the Husayini type, Shariati explains, is a “person who, from the beginning of his decision, chooses his own shahadat, even though, between his decision-making and his death, months or even years may pass.”

In other words, in the second case, “The shahid chooses his own shahadat,” and he accepts his fate as a way to realize and arise “for his own death.” The act of self-sacrifice in this second type is an act of self-realization, the actualization of destiny. And, moreover, the performance of shahat, in its Husayini manifestation, is more like an act of self-cultivation; a way to open oneself up to a primary “essential” self that chooses his own loss for a higher state of being, which reflects the inner vision of the Holy in the creative act of self-sacrifice. A Shahid attains a new soul and, as Shariati puts it, becomes “knowledge himself”.

In short, what is common about all these three different, though at times overlapping, discourses of martyrdom is the emphasis on the ideological value of self-sacrifice. They all aim to interpret martyrdom in terms of its substantial importance to affirm the ideals of Islam through the act of self-sacrifice.

However, they also share a basic ideological objective, that is, the way in which through the act of sacred suicide the experience of reproduction of a more lasting life, an immortal life becomes the basis for an essential subjective transformation, which creates an idiom and a legitimation for aggression. Whether considering the flying martyr missions of 9/11 or the 1984 Hizbollah’s truck-bombing of the US Marine barracks in Lebanon, the symbolism in dying a martyr’s death maintains the essential vitality of legitimation of outwardly directed militant aggression towards a real or an imagined enemy.

On the level of practice, all these three discourses of martyrdom entail a ritualistic attempt to dramatically bring about a new form of totalistic identity, which would confirm group and communal solidarity through the death of the other. Martyrdom, in other words, centrally involves the killing of an enemy, which enables the community of believers (regardless of sex), those that accept and glorify the fate of the male martyr warrior, to regain a total vitality and life by maintaining strict boundaries between “us” and “them”.

Martyrdom as a symbol of group identity, allows the male martyr and his community to participate in the immortality of a transcendent entity, an entity, which can essentially be achieved through the loss of self, the sacrifice of one’s life, and the conquest of an external enemy. And it is in the very act of sacrifice that the ordinary sense of existence is defied in a demand for a transient state of existence beyond this world, beyond oneself in the world.





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