Istishhad (Arabic: استشهاد‎) means the act of or the seeking of martyrdom in Islam.[1] In recent years the term has been said to "emphasize... heroism in the act of sacrifice" rather than "victimization," and has "developed... into a military and political strategy,"[2] often called "martyrdom operations". Istishhad attacks are often, but not necessarily, suicide bombings operations. One of the first forms of modern Istishhad was crossing through minefields to detonate buried landmines and clear a safe battlefield path for following soldiers.



The origins of modern Istishhadi attacks lie among the Shia in Iran during the Iran–Iraq War of 1980–1988. Mohammed Hossein Fahmideh, a 13-year-old boy who fought in the war, is said to be the first Muslim to have participated in such an attack in contemporary history. He strapped rocket-propelled grenades to his chest and blew himself up under an Iraqi tank in November 1980. Ayatollah Khomeini declared Fahmideh a national hero and inspiration for further volunteers for martyrdom.[3][4] Other Iranian basij volunteers ran through minefields to detonate buried landmines and clear a safe battlefield path for following soldiers.

Shia usually refer to the martyrdom of Hussain ibn Ali and his companions and family members in the battle of Karbala as role models and inspiration for martyrdom as a glorious and noble death.

When the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas first carried out suicide attacks - involved strapping the body of the mission carrier with explosives - in the Israeli-inhabited towns of Afula and Khidara in the spring of 1994, it "described these operations as `amaliyat istishhadiya (martyrdom operations)" rather than the more secular a'maliyat fida'iyah (self-sacrifice operations). The term 'amaliyat istishhadiya has caught on and "today, istishhad is the most frequently used term to refer to acts of sacrifice in the Palestinian resistance and is used by Islamic, secular, and Marxist groups alike."[2]

According to one non-Muslim scholar, Noah Feldman: "The vocabulary of martyrdom and sacrifice, the formal videotaped preconfession of faith, the technological tinkering to increase deadliness — all are now instantly recognizable to every Muslim." Feldman sees a worrying trend in the steady expansion of the targets of Istishhad since its debut in early 1982 when successful bombing of barracks and embassy buildings drove Americans from Lebanon.

First the targets were American soldiers, then mostly Israelis, including women and children. From Lebanon and Israel, the technique of suicide bombing moved to Iraq, where the targets have included mosques and shrines, and the intended victims have mostly been Shiite Iraqis. The newest testing ground is Afghanistan, where both the perpetrators and the targets are orthodox Sunni Muslims. Not long ago, a bombing in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand Province, killed Muslims, including women, who were applying to go on pilgrimage to Mecca. Overall, the trend is definitively in the direction of Muslim-on-Muslim violence. By a conservative accounting, more than three times as many Iraqis have been killed by suicide bombings in the last 3 years as have Israelis in the last 10. Suicide bombing has become the archetype of Muslim violence — not just to frightened Westerners but also to Muslims themselves.[5]

Martyrdom operation

Militant groups term attack on military or civilian targets in which the attacker is expected to die, most frequently by detonation of a bomb, as "martyrdom operations". The term is usually used by Muslim militants, although non-Muslim groups have engaged in suicide attacks, such as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Islamist militants prefer the term to "suicide attack", as suicide is forbidden under traditional Islamic law. While most combat involves a chance of death, a "martyrdom operation" implies a deliberate act leading to death as part of the attack.

Jihad, often called "holy war" by non-Muslims, is a religious obligation of all Muslims, when the Islamic community is endangered, or Muslims are subjected to oppression and subjugation. Militant groups that carry out "martyrdom operations" believe that such operations fulfill this obligation of jihad against the "oppressor". According to conservative Iranian cleric Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, "when protecting Islam and the Muslim community depends on martyrdom operations, it not only is allowed, but even is an obligation as many of the Shi'ah great scholars and Maraje', including Ayatullah Safi Golpayegani and Ayatullah Fazel Lankarani, have clearly announced in their fatwas."[6] Many Islamic clergy, such as Yusuf al-Qaradawi, consider martyrdom operations in Palestinian territories and other areas occupied by non-Muslims heroic and an act of resistance.[7]

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran showered martyrdom operations during the Iran–Iraq War and those against Israel with accolades. Indeed, Sayyed Abbas al-Musawi, the second Secretary General of Hezbollah and student of Khomeini, invented a supplication that became popular among the Hezbollah youths and fighters.[8]

Osama bin Laden called the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon a "martyrdom operation." Palestinians primarily speak of a "martyrdom operation" as opposed to "suicide bombing." The Iraqi administration referred to suicide attacks on invading troops during the 2003 Iraq war in these terms also, and, in particular, their promise to retake the Baghdad airport.

A rationale for why Istishhad of non-combatants is not against religious law is that the civilians caught in the crossfire "were destined to die". The Saudi exile Muhammad al-Massari explains that any civilian killed in an attack on the enemy "won't suffer [but instead]… becomes a martyr himself."[9] During the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, Hezbollah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah "apologized" for an attack on Nazareth that killed two Israeli Arab children—but said the two children should be considered "martyrs."[10][11]

Religious disagreement

In January 2006, one of Shia Islam's highest ranking marja clerics, Ayatollah al-Udhma Yousof al-Sanei also decreed a fatwa against suicide bombing however, declaring it as a "terrorist act":

"Even those who kill people with suicide bombing, these shall meet the flames of hell."[12]

Some Sunni scholars' opinion rejects suicide.[13] However, some top authorities do support suicide attacks on perceived enemies of Islam. Mohammed Ijaz ul-Haq, religious affairs minister of Pakistan, the world's second largest Muslim majority country, has made public statements in favor of it.

Other clerics have supported attacks mainly in connection with Palestine. Sunni Iraqi cleric Sheikh Ahmad Al-Qubeisi has proclaimed that "those who commit martyrdom [i.e. suicide] operations who are, by Allah, the greatest martyrs in Islamic history..."[14] Amongst others the Imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Abd Al-Rahman Al-Sudayyis,[15] the former President of Al-Azhar University, Ahmad Omar Hashem [16] and Cleric, Sheikh Ibrahim Mudeiris of Gaza[17] have all urged on suicide operations by Muslims. Sayed Mohammed Musawi, head of the World Islamic League in London, condemned the London bombings, but insisted

"there should be a clear distinction between the suicide bombing of those who are trying to defend themselves from occupiers, which is something different from those who kill civilians, which is a big crime."[18]

There have been conflicting reports about the stand of Sheikh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawy, the top Egyptian cleric of Al-Azhar University, and the mufti of Egypt, Sheikh Dr. Ahmad Al Tayyeb. Shortly after 9/11 Sheikh Tantawy issued a statement opposing suicide attacks.[19] However, a translation from Al Azhar website quotes him as supporting suicide attacks on Jews in Israel as part of the Palestinian struggle "to strike horror into the hearts of the enemies of Islam."[20] Then in mid-2003 he was quoted again as saying "groups which carried out suicide bombings were the enemies of Islam."[21]

A mural in Teheran, Iran. The top of the mural says in Arabic "luminaries of istishhad". The circled portrait on the top right is that of Muhammad Munif Ashmar, a suicide bomber of the group Hezbullah. Sitting next to his rifle, is Ali Munif Ashmar, brother of Muhammad Munif Ashmar, also a suicide bomber of Hezbollah. He leans on a portrait of Ali Khamenei. Under Khamenei's portrait is the date of Ali Munif Ashmar's suicide bombing: "martyred on March 21st 1996 in Adaisseh, Lebanon". The large yellow text on the bottom of the mural reads: "Imam Khomeini: Israel must be destroyed".

According to Professor Charles A. Kimball, chair of the Department of Religion at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, "There is only one verse in the Qur'an that contains a phrase related to suicide", Verse 4:29 of the Qur'an.[22] It reads

O you who believe! Do not consume your wealth in the wrong way-rather through trade mutually agreed to, and do not kill yourselves. Surely God is Merciful toward you.

Some commentators believe that the phrase "do not kill yourselves" is better translated "do not kill each other", and some translations (e.g. Shakir) reflect that view. (A note on the Qur'an's unique textual density is perhaps in order here: It is not uncommon for a single Qur'anic Arabic phrase to embrace two or more complementary meanings at the same time, and this may be the case with 4:29.)

Mainstream Islamic groups such as the European Council for Fatwa and Research use the Quran'ic verse Al-Anam 6:151

(And take not life, which Allah has made sacred, except by way of justice and law)

as further reason to prohibit suicide.[23] In addition, the hadith unambiguously forbid suicide.[24]

A contrary view is presented by Faisal Bodi who has written in The Guardian,

"in the Muslim world, then, we celebrate what we call the martyr-bombers. To us they are heroes defending the things we hold sacred. Polls in the Middle East show 75% of people in favour of martyr-bombings."[25]

Nevertheless, Islamist militant organisations (including Al-Qaeda, Hamas and Islamic Jihad) continue to argue that suicide operations are justified according to Islamic law, despite Islam's strict prohibition of suicide and murder.[26][27] Irshad Manji, in a conversation with one leader of Islamic Jihad noted their ideology.

"What's the difference between suicide, which the Koran condemns, and martyrdom?" I asked. "Suicide," he replied, "is done out of despair. But remember: most of our martyrs today were very successful in their earthly lives." In short, there was a future to live for--and they detonated it anyway.

Since the four suicide bombings in London, there have been many scholastic refutations of suicide bombings from Sunni Muslims. Ihsanic Intelligence, a London-based Islamic think-tank, published their two-year study into suicide bombings in the name of Islam, titled The Hijacked Caravan,[28] which concluded that,

"The technique of suicide bombing is anathema, antithetical and abhorrent to Sunni Islam. It is considered legally forbidden, constituting a reprehensible innovation in the Islamic tradition, morally an enormity of sin combining suicide and murder and theologically an act which has consequences of eternal damnation."[29]

The Oxford-based Malaysian jurist, Shaykh Muhammad Afifi al-Akiti, issued his landmark fatwa on suicide bombing and targeting innocent civilians, titled 'Defending the Transgressed, by Censuring the Reckless against the Killing of Civilians', where he states suicide bombing in its most widespread form, is forbidden:

'If the attack involves a bomb placed on the body or placed so close to the bomber that when the bomber detonates it the bomber is certain [yaqin] to die, then the More Correct Position according to us is that it does constitute suicide. This is because the bomber, being also the Maqtul [the one killed], is unquestionably the same Qatil [the immediate/active agent that kills] = Qatil Nafsahu [suicide]."[30]

See also


  1. ^ Islamic
  2. ^ a b Suicide, violence, and cultural conceptions of martyrdom in Palestine, Social Research, Summer, 2008 by Neil L. Whitehead, Nasser Abufarha
  3. ^ Our leader: Mohammed Hossein Fahmideh
  4. ^ "The making of a suicide bomber". The Times (London). September 3, 2006. Retrieved May 5, 2010. 
  5. ^ Noah Feldman, Islam, Terror and the Second Nuclear Age, New York Times, October 29, 2006
  6. ^ Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi (Unknown). "Martyrdom Operations". Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi.عمليات%20شهادت%20طلبانه. 
  7. ^ From Muhammad to Bin Laden By David Bukay
  8. ^ The Islamic Counterterrorism Center (2008). "The Supplication of the Second Secretary General of 'Hezbollah'". Arcs Network.'Hezbollah'. 
  9. ^ The New York Times, June 10, 2007
  10. ^ Al-Manar (Beirut), July 20, 2006
  11. ^ Irwin J. Mansdorf and Mordechai Kedar, The Psychological Asymmetry of Islamist Warfare, Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2008, pp. 37-44
  12. ^ Interview with Christiane Amanpour of CNN, Feb 2007
  13. ^ Terrorism and Suicide bombings
  14. ^ Dubai TV, May 5, 2004
  15. ^ On Saudi TV Channel 1, April 2, 2004,
  16. ^ On Channel 1 of Egyptian TV, April 23, 2004
  17. ^ Palestinian Authority TV, May 21, 2004
  18. ^ After London, Tough Questions for Muslims
  19. ^ Grand Sheikh condemns suicide bombings, BBC
  20. ^, April 4, 2002.
  21. ^ Cleric condemns suicide attacks, BBC
  22. ^ AN-NISA (WOMEN)
  23. ^ Euthanasia: Types and Rulings
  24. ^ Committing Suicide Is Strictly Forbidden in Islam
  25. ^ Bodi, Faisal (August 28, 2001). "Bombing for God". Special report: Israel and the Middle East (London: Guardian Newspapers Limited).,,543164,00.html. Retrieved 2006-07-19.  - "In the Muslim world, then, we celebrate what we call the martyr-bombers. To us they are heroes defending the things we hold sacred. Polls in the Middle East show 75% of people in favour of martyr-bombings."
  26. ^ The Islamic Ruling on the Permissibility of Martyrdom Operations
  27. ^ Fatwa of Sheikh Yousef Al-Qaradhawi
  28. ^ The Hijacked Caravan
  29. ^ The Hijacked Caravan: Refuting Suicide Bombings as Martyrdom Operations in Contemporary Jihad Strategy
  30. ^ Defending The Transgressed By Censuring The Reckless Against The Killing Of Civilians

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