The Martyr: On Jihad, Suicide, and Martyrdom


Ayatollah Murtaza Mutahhari (also spelled Morteza Motahhari or Motah-hary), a traditional Shi’ite mujtahid and scholar influential in the Islamic Revolution of Iran (1978–79), was born in a small town in the province of Khorasan, Iran, and studied at the Madrasah-e Fayziyah in Qom, later famous as a center of revolutionary students of theology. Mutahhari studied Islamic jurisprudence under Ayatollah Khomeini, whom he found impressive for his knowledge of philosophy and ethics, and was his devoted student for 12 years. At 23, Mutahhari began the formal study of philosophy; at 25, he discovered communist literature; and at 29, he began to study the works of the 10th-century Islamic thinker Ibn Sina (Avicenna). Mutahhari wrote works in philosophy, jurisprudence, and theology; he taught philosophy at the University of Tehran. Despite his comparatively scholastic and traditional scholarship, he voiced strong social concerns, and played both a philosophical and a political role in the leadership of the Iranian Revolution. In 1978, at Khomeini’s request, Mutahhari founded the Council of the Islamic Revolution, which continued to organize revolutionary forces even after the Shah was deposed. Mutahhari was assassinated in 1979 as he left a meeting and is now regarded as a martyr of the Islamic Revolution.

In the lecture presented here, Mutahhari examines the notions of jihad and shahadat. The Arabic term jihad, which means struggle, exertion, or expenditure of effort, and may include personal strivings for one’s own purity of motive and commitment, as well as armed struggle with the enemies of Islam, does not coincide precisely with the notion of holy war, though it is often used that way in the West; the Arabic shahadat may mean martyrdom or witnessing. In his lecture, Mutahhari argues that war intended to spread Islam by force among disbelievers is not allowed, but at the same time, one must fight to resist persecution and oppression, thus both helping the weak and simultaneously preparing the ground for the spread of Islam by peaceful means. Islam is to be defended by violent means if necessary—this is jihad, and the shahid (i.e., witness, martyr) who commits himself to this cause is one who “infuses new blood into an otherwise anaemic society.” Mutahhari distinguishes sharply between suicide or self-murder, “the worst kind of death,” and shahadat, the conscious, elective sacrifice of life for the sake of a sacred cause: This is “the only type of death which is higher, greater and holier than life itself.”

Morteza Motah-hary [Mutahhari], The Martyr (Houston, TX:  Free Islamic Literatures, Inc., 1980), pp.  3-28.  Quotations in introductory material from Mehdi Abedi and Gary Legenhaus, eds., Jihad and Shahadat: Struggle and Martyrdom in Islam (Houston, TX: Institute for Research and Islamic Studies, 1986), pp. v-vii, 2, 12, 35-38, 128.





There are certain words and expressions to which, in general use or particularly in Islamic terminology, a certain sense of dignity, and sometimes even, sanctity is attached.

Student, teacher, scholar, inventor, hero, reformer, philosopher, zakir (preacher), momin (faithful), zahid (pious), mujahid (soldier), siddique (truthful), wali (saint), mujahid, Imam, and Prophet are some of the words of this category.  A sense of dignity or even of sanctity is attached to them in general use and especially in Islamic terminology.

It is evident that a word, as such, has no sanctity. It becomes sacred because of the sense which it conveys. The sanctity of a sense depends on a particular mental outlook, and the values which are cherished generally or by a particular section of people.

In Islamic terminology, there is a word which has a special sanctity. When anyone familiar with the Islamic modes of expressions hears this word, he feels it to be invested with a special glory. This word is shaheed or martyr. A sense of grandeur and sanctity is associated with it, in its use by all the people.  Of course the standards and the criteria vary. At present we are only concerned with the Islamic usage of it.

From the Islamic point of view, only that person is regarded to have secured the status of a martyr whom Islam recognizes as having acted according to it’s own standard. Only he, who is killed in an effort to achieve the highest Islamic objectives and is really motivated by a desire of safeguarding true human values, attains this position, which is one of the highest a man can aspire for. From what the Holy Qur’an and the hadith say about the martyrs, it is possible to infer, why so much sanctity is attached to this word by the Muslims and what the logic behind it is.

The Martyr

Martyr’s Proximity to Allah
The Holy Qur’an in respect of the Martyr’s proximity to Allah says: “Think not of those who were slain in the way of Allah, as dead.  Nay, they are alive, finding their sustenance with their Lord.

In Islam, when a meritorious person or deed is to be exalted, it is said that particular person has the status of a martyr, or a particular act merits the reward of martyrdom. For example, with regards to a student, who seeks knowledge with the motive of finding out the truth and gaining the favour of Allah, it is said, that if he dies while learning, he dies the death of a martyr. This expression denotes the high status and sanctity of a student. Similarly, with regards to a person who takes pain and labours strenuously for the support of his family, it is said that he is like a fighter in the way of Allah. It may be noted that Islam is severely opposed to lethargy and parasitism, and regards hard work as a duty.

Martyr’s Prerogative
All those who have served humanity in one way or the other, whether as scholars, philosophers, inventors or as teachers, deserve the gratitude of mankind. But no one deserves it, to the extent the martyrs do, and that is why all sections of the people have a sentimental attachment to them. The reason is, that all other servants of humanity are indebted to the martyrs; whereas the martyrs are not indebted to them. A scholar, a philosopher, an inventor and a teacher require a congenial and conducive atmosphere to render their services, and it is the martyr, who with his supreme sacrifice provides that atmosphere.

He can be compared to a candle, whose job is to burn out and get extinguished, in order to shed light for the benefit of others. The martyrs are the candles of society. They burn themselves out and illuminate society. If they do not shed their light, no organization can shine.

A man who works in the light of the sun during the day, and in the light of a lamp or a candle at night, pays heed to everything, but his attention is not drawn to the source of light, while it goes without saying, that without that light he can accomplish nothing.  The martyrs are the illuminators of society.  Had they not shed their light, on the darkness of despotism and suppression, humanity would have made no progress.

The Holy Qur’an has used a delightful expression about the Holy Prophet. It has compared him to an illuminating lamp.  This expression combines the sense of burning and enlightening.  The Holy Qur’an says: “O Prophet! Surely We have sent you as a witness, a bearer of good news and a warner; and as a guide to Allah, by His permission and as an illuminating lamp.”

There is no doubt that according to the Islamic terminology, the martyr is a sacred word and for those who use an Islamic vocabulary, it conveys a sense, higher than that of any other word.

Islam is a juridical religion. Every Islamic law is based on a social consideration. According to an Islamic law, the dead body of every Muslim has to be washed ceremoniously, and shrouded in neat and clean sheets. Thereafter prayers have to be performed and only then it is buried. There are good reasons for doing all this, but we need not discuss them in the present context.

Anyhow, there is an exception to this general rule. The body of a martyr is neither to be washed, nor is it to be shrouded in fresh sheets. He is to be buried in those very clothes, which he had on his body, at the time of his death.

This exception has a deep significance. It shows that the spirit and the personality of a martyr are so thoroughly purified that his body, his blood and his garments are also affected by this purification. The body of martyr is spiritualized, in the sense that certain rules applicable to his spirit, are applied to them. The body and the garments of a martyr, acquire respectability because of his spirit, virtue and sacrifice. One who falls martyr on a battle-field is buried with his blood-stained body and blood-soaked clothes without being washed.

These rules of the Islamic law are a sign of the sanctity of a martyr.

Reasons of Sanctity
What is the basis of the sanctity of martyrdom? It is evident that merely being killed can have no sanctity. It is not always a matter of pride. Many a death may even be a matter of disgrace.

Let us elucidate this point a bit further. We know that there are several kinds of death:

1) Natural Death: If a man dies a natural death, after completing his normal span of life, his death is considered to be an ordinary event. It is neither a matter of pride nor of shame. It is not even a matter of much sorrow.

2) Accidental Death: Death as the result of accidents or an epidemic disease like small-pox, plague, or due to such natural disasters, as an earthquake or a flood, is considered to be premature, and hence is regarded as regrettable.

3) Criminal Death: In this case, a person kills another in cold blood simply to satisfy his own passion or because he considered the victim to be his opponent or rival. There are many instances of such murders. We often read in the daily newspapers that a particular woman killed the small child of her husband because the father loved the child while the woman wanted to monopolize his attention, or that a particular man murdered the woman who refused to accept his love. Similarly, we read in history, that a particular ruler massacred all the children of another ruler, to foil the chances of any future rivalry.

In such cases, the action of the murderer is considered to be atrociously criminal and heinous, and the person killed is regarded as a victim of aggression and tyranny, whose life has been taken in vain. The reaction which such a murder creates, is one of horror and pity. It is evident that such a death is shocking and pitiable, but it is neither praise-worthy nor a matter of pride. The victim loses his life unnecessarily, because of malice, enmity and hatred.

4) Self-murder: In this case, the death itself constitutes a crime, and hence, it is the worst kind of death. Suicidal deaths and the deaths of those who are killed in motor accidents because of their own fault, come under this category. The same is the case of the death, of those who are killed while committing a crime.

5) Martyrdom: Martyrdom is the death of a person who, in spite of being fully conscious of the risks involved, willingly faces them for the sake of a sacred cause, or, as the Holy Qur’an says, in the way of Allah.

It has two basic elements: a) The life is sacrificed for a cause; and b) the sacrifice is made consciously. Usually in the case of martyrdom, an element of crime is involved.  As far as the victim is concerned, his death is sacred, but as far as his killers are concerned, their action is a heinous crime.

Martyrdom is heroic and admirable, because it results from a voluntary, conscious and selfless action. It is the only type of death which is higher, greater and holier than life itself.

It is regrettable that most of the zakirs who narrate the story of Karbala, call Imam Husain, the Doyen of the Martyrs, although they have little analytical insight into the question of martyrdom. They describe the events in such a way, as though he lost his life in vain.

Many of our people mourn Imam Husain for his innocence. They regret that he was a victim of the selfishness of a power-hungry man, who shed his blood, through no fault of his. Had the fact been really so simple, Imam Husain would have been regarded, only as an innocent person whom great injustice was done, but he could not have been called a martyr, let alone his being the Doyen of the Martyrs.

It is not the whole story, that Imam Husain was a victim of selfish designs. No doubt the perpetrators of the tragedy, committed the crime out of their selfishness, but the Imam consciously made the supreme sacrifice. His opponents wanted him to pledge his allegiance, but he, knowing fully well the consequences, chose to resist their demand. He regarded it as a great sin to remain quiet at the juncture. The history of his martyrdom, and especially his statements, bear witness to this fact.

Jihad or Martyr’s Responsibility
The sacred cause that leads to martyrdom or the giving of one’s life, has become a law in Islam. It is called Jihad. This is not the occasion to discuss its nature in detail, nor to say whether it is always defensive or offensive, and, if it is only defensive, whether it is confined to the defence of the individual or at the most, of national rights, or that its scope is so wide as to include the defence of all human rights such as freedom and justice. There are other relevant questions also, such as whether the faith in the Divine Unity is or is not a part of human rights, and whether jihad is or is not basically repugnant to the right of freedom.  The discussion of these questions can be both interesting and instructive, but in its proper place.

For the present, suffice it to say, that Islam is not a religion directing that should some one slap your right cheek, offer the left one to him, nor does it say: pay unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and unto God what belongs to God. Similarly, it is not a religion which may have no sacred social ideal, or may not consider it necessary to defend it.

The Holy Qur’an in many of its passages, has mentioned three sacred concepts, side by side. They are faith, hijrat and jihad. The man of the Qur’an is a being attached to faith and detached from everything else. To save his own faith, he migrates, and to save society he carries out jihad.  It will take much of the space, if we reproduce all the verses and the hadiths on this subject. Hence we will content ourselves by quoting a few sentences from the Nahj al Balagha: “No doubt jihad is an entrance to Paradise, which Allah has opened for His chosen friends. It is the garment of piety, Allah’s impenetrable armour and trust-worthy shield. He who refrains from it because he dislikes it, Allah will clothe him in a garment of humiliation and a cloak of disaster.”

Jihad is a door to Paradise, but it is not open to all and sundry. Everyone is not worthy of it; Everyone is not elected to become a mujahid. Allah has opened this door for his chosen friends only. A mujahid’s position is so high that we cannot call him simply Allah’s friend.  He is Allah’s chosen friend.  The Holy Qur’an says that paradise has eight doors. Evidently, it does not have so many doors to avoid over-crowding, for there is no question of it in the next world. As Allah can check the accounts of all people instantly. (The Holy Qur’an says: “He is quick at reckoning.”) He can also arrange their entry into Paradise through one door. There is no question of entering in turn or forming a queue there. Similarly, these doors cannot be for different classes of people for there is no class distinction in the next world. There, the people will not be classified according to their social status or profession.

There, the people will be graded and grouped together on the basis of the degree of their faith, good deeds and piety only, and a door analogous to its spiritual development in this world, will be opened to each group, for the next world is only a heavenly embodiment of this world. The door through which the mujahids and the martyrs will enter, and the portion of Paradise set aside for them, is the one which is reserved for Allah’s chosen friends, who will be graced with His special favour.

Jihad is the garment of piety. The expression, garment of piety has been used by the Holy Qur’an in the Sura al A’raf. Imam Ali says that Jihad is the garment of piety. Piety consists of true purity, that is, freedom from spiritual and moral pollutions which are rooted in selfishness, vanity and aliveness, merely for personal profit and pleasure. On this basis, a real mujahid is the most pious. He is pure because he is free from jealously, free from vanity, free from avarice and free from stinginess. A mujahid is the purest of all the pure. He exercises complete self-negation and self-sacrifice. The door which is opened to him, is different from the doors opened to others morally undefiled. That piety has various grades, can be deduced from the Holy Qur’an itself, which says: “On those who believe and do good deeds there is no blame for what they eat, as long as they keep their duty and believe, and do good deeds then again they keep their duty and believe, and keep their duty and do good to others. And Allah loves the good.”

This verse implies two valuable points of the Qur’anic knowledge.  The first point is that, there are various degrees on faith and piety.  This is the point under discussion at present.  The other point concerns the philosophy of life and human rights.  The Holy Qur’an wants to say that all good things have been created for the people of faith, piety and good deeds.  Man is entitled to utilize the bounties of Allah only when he marches forward on the path of evolution prescribed for him by nature.  That is the path of faith, piety and worthy deeds.

Muslim scholars inspired by this verse, and by what has been explicitly or implicitly stated in other Islamic texts, have classified piety into three degrees:
(a)    average piety;
(b)   above average piety; and
(c)    outstanding piety.

The piety of the mujahids, is one of supreme self-sacrifice. They sincerely renounce all they possess, and surrender themselves to Allah. Thus, they put on a garment of piety.

Jihad is an impenetrable armour of Allah. A Muslim community equipped with the spirit of Jihad, cannot be vulnerable to the enemy’s assaults. Jihad is a reliable shield of Allah. The armour is the defensive covering worn during fighting, but the shield is a tool taken in hand, to foil the enemy’s strokes and thrusts. A shield is meant to prevent a blow, and an armour is meant to neutralize its effect.  Apparently, Imam Ali has compared jihad to both an armour and a shield, because some forms of it have a preventive nature and prevent the onslaught of the enemy, and other forms of it have a resistive nature and render his attacks ineffective.

Allah will clothe with a garment of humiliation, a person who refrains from Jihad because he dislikes it. The people who lose the spirit of fighting and resisting the forces of evil, are doomed to humiliation, disgrace, bad-luck and helplessness. The Holy Prophet has said: “All good lies in the sword and under the shadow of the sword.” He has also said: “Allah has honoured my followers, because of the hoofs of their horses, and the position of their arrows. This means that the Muslim community is the community of power and force. Islam is the religion of power. It produces mujahids. Will Durant in his book, “History of Civilization,” says that no religion has called its followers to power to the extent that Islam has.

According to another hadith, the Holy Prophet has been quoted as having said: “He who did not fight and did not even think of fighting, will die the death of a sort of hypocrite.” Jihad, or at least a desire to take part in it, is an integral part of the doctrine of Islam. One’s fidelity to Islam is judged by it. Another hadith reports the Holy Prophet as having said, that a martyr would not be interrogated in his grave.  The Holy Prophet said that the flash of the sword over his head, was enough of a test. A martyr’s fidelity, having once been proved, has no need of any further interrogation.

Longing for Martyrdom
In the early days of Islam, many Muslims had a special spirit, which may be called the spirit of longing for martyrdom. Imam Ali was the most prominent of such people. He, himself says: “When the verse ‘Do men feel that they will be let off, because they say we believe and will not be tried by an ordeal’, was revealed, I asked the Holy Prophet about it. I knew that so long as he was alive, the Muslims would not be subject to an ordeal. The Holy Prophet said that after him, a civil strife would break out among the Muslims. Then I reminded him, that on the occasion of the Battle of Ohad, when I was dejected because a number of Muslims had been killed, and I had been deprived of martyrdom, he consoled me, saying that I would attain martyrdom, he consoled me, saying that I would attain martyrdom in future. The Holy Prophet affirmed it, and asked me whether I would observe patience, at that time. I said that, that would be an occasion of being thankful to Allah, and not that of merely being patient. Then the Holy Prophet gave me some details of the events to come.” This is what we mean by the longing for martyrdom.  Had Imam Ali lost the hope of attaining martyrdom, life would have become meaningless for him.

We always have Imam Ali’s name on our lips, and claim to be devoted to him. If, mere verbal professions could do, no one would be better Shia than we are. But, true Shia’ism requires us to follow in his footsteps, too. We have given just one example of his conduct above.

Apart from Imam Ali, we know of many other people who longed for martyrdom. In the early days of Islam, every Muslim prayed to Allah for it, as is evident from the supplications which have come down to us from the Imams.

In the supplication, which is offered during the nights of the holy month of Ramazan, we say: “O Allah! Let us be killed in your way, in the company of your friend (Imam) and attain martyrdom.”

We find that during the early days of Islam everyone, whether young or old, high or low had this longing. Sometimes the people came to the Holy Prophet and expressed this desire. Islam does not allow suicide. They wanted to take part in jihad, and to be killed while doing their duty. They requested the Holy Prophet, to pray to Allah to grant them martyrdom.

In the book, Safinat al Bihar there is a story of a man named Khaythumah (or Khathimah). At the time of the Battle of Badr, he and his son were both keen to take part in the fighting and to get killed. They argued with each other. In the end they drew lots. The son won, and accordingly went to the battle-field where he laid down his life. Some time later, the father had a dream in which he saw his son living a very happy life, and who told him that Allah’s promise had come true. The old father came to the Holy Prophet and narrated the dream. He told the Holy Prophet, that though he was too old and too weak to fight, he was desirous of taking part in the fighting and falling a martyr. He requested the Holy Prophet, to pray to Allah to grant him, his desire. The Holy Prophet prayed accordingly. Within less than a year the old man had, not only the good fortune of taking part in the Battle of Ohad, but also of achieving martyrdom.

There was another man, whose name was Amr ibn Jamuh. He had several sons. He was lame in one leg and so according to the Islamic law, exempt from taking part in the fighting.  The Holy Qur’an says: “The lame are not under constraint.” On the occasion of the Battle of Ohad all his sons equipped themselves with arms. He said, that he must also go into battle and lay down his life. His sons objected to his decision and asked him to stay behind, as he was not under any obligation to go to battle. But, still he insisted. His sons brought the senior member of their family, to exert pressure on him, but the old man would not change his mind. He went, instead to the Holy Prophet, and said: “Prophet to Allah, who do not the children let me become a martyr? If martyrdom is good for others, it is good for me too.” The Holy Prophet, then, asked his sons, not to restrain him. He said: “This man longs for martyrdom. If he is under no obligation to fight, neither is he forbidden from it. You should have no objection.” The old man was pleased. He immediately armed himself. On the battle-field, one of his sons was watching him. He saw his father, in spite of being aged and weak, fought recklessly and zealously. At last he was killed. One of his sons was also killed.

Ohad is situated near Medina. There, the Muslims suffered heavy losses and their position became critical. In the meantime, a report reached Medina that the Muslims had been defeated. The men and women of Medina hurried to Ohad. One of the women was the wife of this Amr ibn Jamuh. She went to Ohad, found out the dead bodies of her husband, son and brother. She loaded them onto a strong camel, and set out for Medina with the intention of burying them in the cemetery of Baqi. On the way, she noticed that her camel moved very haltingly and slowly towards Medina and turned constantly towards Ohad. Meanwhile, other women including some of the wives of the Holy Prophet, were coming towards Ohad.

One of the wives of the Holy Prophet asked her where she was coming from. She replied that she was coming from Ohad.

“What are you carrying on your camel?”
“Nothing.  Only the dead bodies of my husband, son and brother.  I want to take them to Medina.”
“How is the Prophet?”
“Thank Allah!  Everything is all right.  The Prophet is safe.  The designs of the infidels have been frustrated by Allah.  So long as the Holy Prophet is safe, everything else is immaterial.”

Then, the woman said that there was something queer about her camel. It appeared that it did not want to go to Medina. It should have been going towards his manger eagerly, but it wanted to go back to Ohad. The Prophet’s wife proposed that they should go together to the Holy Prophet and tell him about that. When they met the Holy Prophet, the woman said: “I have a strange story. This animal goes on to Medina with difficulty, but comes to Ohad easily.” The Holy Prophet said: “Did your husband say anything when he came out of his house?” “Yes, when he came out of the house, he raised his hands in prayer and said: ‘O Allah, grant me, that I don’t come back to this house,” said the woman. “That’s it. Your husband’s prayer has been granted. Now let him be buried at Ohad along with the other martyrs,” advised the Holy Prophet.

The Commander of Faithful Imam Ali used to say: “I prefer a thousand strokes of the sword to dying in bed.” Imam Husain on his way to Karbala, used to recite certain lines of poetry. His father is also reported to have recited these verses occasionally.  We give a translation of them below:

Though worldly things are fine and charming,
The recompense of the Hereafter is far better,
If all the possessions and wealth are to be left behind,
Why should one be stingy about them?
If our bodies are meant to die and decay,
Is it not better that they are cut to pieces in the way of Allah?

Martyr’s Motivation
A martyr’s motivation is different from that of ordinary people. His logic is the blind logic of a reformer, and the logic of a Gnostic lover. If the two logics, namely the logic of an earnest reformer, and the logic of a zealous and Gnostic lover are put together, the result will be the motivation of a martyr. Let us elucidate this point further.

When Imam Husain decided to leave for Kufa, some prudent members of his family tried to dissuade him. Their argument was that his action was not logical. They were right in their own way. It was not in conformity with their logic, which was the logic of worldly wise man. But Imam Husain had a higher logic. His logic was that of a martyr, which is beyond the comprehension of ordinary people.

Abd Allah ibn Abbas was no small a person. Muhammad ibn Hanafiyyah was not an ordinary man. But their logic was based on the consideration of personal interests and political gains. From their point of view, Imam Husain’s action was not discreet at all. Ibn Abbas made a proposal, which was politically very sound. It is the usual practice of clever people to use others as their tools. They push others forward and remain behind themselves. If others succeed, they take full advantages of their success. Otherwise, they lose nothing. Ibn Abbas said to Imam Hussain, “The people of Kufa have written to tell you, that they were ready to fight for your cause. You should write back asking them to expell Yazid’s officials from there. They would either do what you suggest or they won’t. If they do, you can go there safely. If they are unable to do so, your position is not affected.”

The Imam did not listen to this advice. He made it plain that he was determined to proceed. Ibn Abbas said:

“You will be killed.”
“So what?” said the Imam.
“A man who goes knowing he may be killed, does not take his wife and children along with him.”
“But I must.”

A martyr’s logic is unique. It is beyond the comprehension of ordinary people. That is why the word martyr is encircled with a halo of sanctity. It occupies a remarkable position in the vocabulary of sacred and highly glorious words. It connotes something higher, than the sense of a hero and a reformer. It cannot be replaced by any other word.

Martyr’s Blood
What does a martyr do? His function is not confined to resisting the enemy, and in the process, either giving him a blow or receiving a blow from him. Had that been the case, we could say, that when his blood is shed, it goes waste. But at no time is a martyr’s blood wasted.  It does not flow on the ground. Every drip of it is turned into hundreds and thousands of drops, nay into tons of blood, and is transfused into the body of his society. That is why the Holy Prophet has said: “Allah does not like any drop, more than the drop of blood shed, in His way.” Martyrdom means transfusion of blood into a society, especially a society suffering from anemia.  t is the martyr who infuses fresh blood into the veins of the society.

Martyr’s Courage and Zeal
The distinctive characteristic of a martyr, is that he charges the atmosphere with courage and zeal. He revives the spirit of valour and fortitude, courage and zeal, especially divine zeal, among the people who have lost it. That is why Islam is always in need of martyrs. The revival of courage and zeal is essential for the revival of a nation.

Martyr’s Immortality
A scholar serves the society through his knowledge. It is on account of his knowledge that his personality is amalgamated with the society, just as a drop of water is amalgamated with the sea. As the result of this amalgamation a part of personality, namely his thoughts and ideas, become immortal. An inventor is amalgamated with the society through his inventions. He serves the society, by making himself immortal, by virtue of his skill and inventions. A poet makes himself immortal through his poetic art, and a moral teacher through his wise sayings.

Similarly, a martyr immortalizes himself in his own way. He gives invaluable fresh blood to the society. In other words, a scholar immortalizes his thoughts, an artist his art, an inventor his inventions, and a moral teacher his teachings. But a martyr, through his blood, immortalizes his entire being. His blood for ever flows in the veins of the society. Every other group of people can make only a part of its faculties immortal, but a martyr immortalizes all his faculties. That is why, the Holy Prophet said: “Above every virtue, there is another virtue, but there is no virtue higher than being killed in the way of Allah.”

Martyr’s Intercession
There is a hadith which says, that there are three classes of people who will be allowed to intercede with Allah on the Day of Judgement. They are the prophets, ulema and martyrs. In this hadith, the Imams have not been mentioned expressly, but as the report comes down from our Imams, it is obvious that the term, ‘Ulema” stands for the true divines, who par excellence include the Imams themselves.

The intercession of the prophets is quite apparent. It is the intercession of the martyr’s, which we have to comprehend. The martyrs secure this privilege of intercession because they lead the people onto the right path. Their intercession will be portrayal of the events which took place in this world.

The Commander of the Faithful, Imam Ali says: “Allah will bring forward the martyrs, on the Day of Judgement, with such pomp and splendour, that even the prophets if mounted, will dismount to show their respect for them.” With such grandeur, will a martyr appear on the Day of Judgement.”

Lamenting Over the Martyr
Among the martyrs of the early days of Islam, the name of the most brilliant martyr was, Hamzah ibn Abd al Muttalib. He was given the epithet of the Doyen of the Martyrs. He was an uncle of the Holy Prophet, and was present at the Battle of Ohad. Those who have had the good luck of visitingMedina, must have paid a visit to his grave.

When Hamzah migrated from Mecca, he was alone, for nobody lived with him in his house. When the Holy Prophet returned from Ohad, he found women weeping in the houses of all the martyrs, except that of Hamzah. He uttered just one sentence “Hamzah has no one to weep for him.” The companions of the Holy Prophet went to their houses and told their womenfolk that the Holy Prophet had said that Hamzah had no body to weep for him. All the women who were weeping for their sons, husbands and brothers immediately, set out for the house of Hamzah and wept there, out of respect for the wish of the Holy Prophet. Thereafter, it became a tradition, that whenever anybody wanted to weep for any martyr, he or she first went to the house of Hamzah and wept there. This incident shows, that though Islam does not encourage lamenting the death of an ordinary man, it tends to want the people to weep for a martyr. A martyr creates the spirit of valour, and weeping for him, means participation in his valour and in conformity with his longing for martyrdom.

The title of the Doyen of the Martyrs was first applied to Hamzah. After the tragedy of the 10th Muharram and the martyrdom of Imam Husain which overshadowed all other cases of martyrdom, it was transferred to him. No doubt this epithet is still applied to Hamzah but he was the Doyen of the Martyrs of his own time, whereas Imam Husain in the Doyen of the martyrs of all times, just as the Virgin Mary was the Doyen of the Virgins in her time, and the lady of light Fatima is the Doyen of wives of all times.

Prior to the martyrdom of Imam Husain it was Hamzah who was regarded as the symbol of lamentation over the martyrs. Weeping for him, meant participation in a martyr’s valour, in conformity with his spirit, and in harmony with his longing.  Since his martyrdom, Imam Husain occupies this position.

We deem it necessary at this juncture to refer briefly to the philosophy of lamentation over a martyr. Nowadays, many people object to the weeping for Imam Husain. Some of them assert that this custom, is the result of incorrect thinking and a wrong conception of martyrdom. Moreover, it has had bad repercussions, and is responsible for the backwardness and decline of the people who have adopted it.

The present writer remembers, that when a student at Qum, he read a book by Muhammad Masud, a well-known writer of those days. In it he drew comparison between the Shia custom of weeping for Imam Husain and the Christian practice of celebrating the crucifixion (according to their own belief) of Jesus Christ with festivities.

The author wrote: “It is to be noticed that one nation weeps for its martyr because it regards martyrdom as something undesirable and regrettable, whereas another nation rejoices at the death of its martyr, because it regards his martyrdom as a great achievement and a matter of pride. A nation which weeps and mourns for a thousand years, naturally loses its vitality and becomes weak and cowardly, whereas the nation which celebrates the martyrdom of its hero becomes powerful, courageous and self-sacrificing. For one nation martyrdom means failure. Its reaction is weeping and lamenting which lead to weakness, helplessness and submissiveness. But for the other nation, martyrdom means triumph, and hence, its reaction is joy and rejoicing which bolsters up its morale.”

This is the gist of the criticism made by this author. The same arguments are advanced by other critics also. We would like to analyse this question and prove that the festive celebration of martyrdom by the Christians stems from their individualistic approach, and the weeping for the martyrs by the Muslims, from their social approach.

Of course, we cannot justify the attitude of those of our masses who look at Imam Husain only as a person to whom great injustice was done, and who was killed just for nothing. They express profound regret at his death, but pay little attention to his heroic and praise-worthy performance. We have already denounced this attitude. We intend to explain why the Imams have exhorted weeping for a martyr, and what the real philosophy of this exhortation is.

We do not know since when and by whom the festive celebration of the martyrdom of Jesus Christ was initiated. But we know, that weeping for the martyrs has been recommended by Islam, and it is an indisputable doctrine of the Shiite School of Islam. Now to analyse the main point, let us first discuss the individual aspect of death and martyrdom.

  • Is death an achievement on the part of the individual or something undesirable?
  • Should others regard it as a heroic deed on the part of the individual concerned?

We know that in this world there have been schools of thought, and they may still be existing, which believed that the relationship between man and the world, or in other words, between the soul and the body, was similar to the relationship between a prisoner and a prison, between a man who falls into a well and the well or between a bird and it’s cage. Naturally, according to these schools, death is equivalent to liberation and emancipation. Therefore, they allow suicide. It is said that the famous false prophet, Manikhaios held the same view. According to this theory, death has a positive value and is desirable for everyone. No one’s death is regrettable. A release from prison, getting out of a well, and the breaking of a cage, is a matter of joy and not of sorrow.

Another theory holds that death means nonexistence, complete annihilation and utter destruction, whereas life means to be and to persevere. Obviously, existence is better than nonexistence. It is a matter of instinct that life, whatever its form may be, is preferable to death.

The famous mystic poet, Mawlavi, quotes the Greek physician Galen, as having said, that in all circumstances he preferred to live rather than to die, no matter what form life took. He preferred life, even if it meant living in the belly of a mule, with only the head protruding out for breathing. According to this theory, death has only a negative value.

There is another theory, according to which death does not mean annihilation. It means only shifting from one world to another. The relationship between man and the world, and between the soul and the body, is not similar to that between a prisoner and the prison, between a fellow in a well and the well, and between a bird and the cage. It is similar to the relationship between a student and his school, and between a farmer and his farm.

It is true, that occasionally a student has to live away from his home and roost, where he misses the company of his friends, and has to pursue his studies within the limited atmosphere of his school, but the only way to lead a happy life in a society is to complete his course of studies successfully. It is also true that a farmer has to leave his house and family life, to work on his farm, but that provides him a good means of livelihood, and enables him to pass a happy family life, throughout the year.

The relationship between this world and the next, and between the soul and the body, is of this very nature. To those who have this outlook on the world, but who fail in practical life because of their lethargy and malpractices, the idea of death naturally appears to be dreadful and terrible. In fact, they are afraid of death because they fear the consequences of their own deeds.

But the attitude of those who are successful in their practical life, is naturally that of the student who has paid his whole-hearted attention to his studies, and of the farmer who has worked hard. Such a student, and such a farmer, yearn for their return home, but do not think of leaving their task incomplete.

The holy men are like the successful students. They long for death, which means going into the next world. Every moment, they impatiently wait for it. Imam Ali has said about them: “If Allah had not fixed the time of death, their soul would not have remained in their body for a moment, because of their desire for recompense and fear of retribution.”

At the same time, they do not run after death, for they know that it is only this life which gives them an opportunity to work and attain spiritual development. They know that the longer they live, the greater is the perfection they achieve.  Hence they resist death, and always ask Allah to grant them a long life. Thus, we know that it not contradictory that the holy men on the one hand consider death to be desirable and on the other, resist it and pray for a long life.

Addressing the Jews who claimed to be the friends of Allah, the Holy Qur’an says, “If you are friends of Allah (as you claim to be) then wish for death.” It further says that they will never wish for death, because they know what deeds they have committed, and what retribution they are to receive in the Hereafter. These people belong to the third category mentioned above.

There are two conditions, in which the holy men refrain from praying for a long life. First, when they are not attaining continuous success in doing virtuous deeds, and they fear that instead of progressing, they may retrogress. Imam Ali ibn al Husain used to say: “O Allah, prolong my life only so long as it is spent in obeying You, but if it becomes the grazing field of the Devil, carry me to Yourself.”

Secondly, the holy men pray for martyrdom unconditionally, for it constitutes a virtuous deed as well as spiritual progress. We have already quoted a prophetic saying to the effect that martyrdom is the highest virtue. Further, martyrdom means going into the next world, which the holy men so much yearn for. That is why we find, that Imam Ali’s, joy knew no bounds when he felt that he was going to die as a martyr.

Many sentences uttered by Imam Ali during the interval between his being wounded and his demise, are recorded in books including the Nahj al Blagha. One sentence has a bearing on the point under discussion. He said: “By Allah, nothing unexpected and undesirable has occurred. What has occurred, is what I had wanted.

I have achieved martyrdom, which I had desired. I am like a man, who was in search of water and suddenly struck upon a well or a spring. I am like the man, who was strenuously looking for something, and got it.”

In the early morning of the 19th Ramazan when his assassin struck him on the head, the first or the second sentence which was heard from him was: “By the Lord of the Ka’ba, I have succeeded.” So, from the Islamic point of view, martyrdom is a great, nay the greatest achievement as far as the martyr himself is concerned.

Imam Husain said: “My grandfather told me that I was destined to attain a very high spiritual position, but that could not be attained except through martyrdom.”

So far, we have analysed the individual aspect of death and martyrdom, and have arrived at the conclusion, that death in the form of martyrdom, is really an achievement as far as the martyr himself is concerned. From this angle, no doubt death is a happy event, and that is why, a great scholar, Ibn Tawus has said: “Had we not been given instructions about mourning, I would have preferred to celebrate the days of the martyrdom of the Imams, with festivity.”

On this ground, it may be said that Christianity is right in celebrating the martyrdom of Christ as a festive event. Islam also fully recognizes the martyrdom, to be an achievement of the martyr. But, from the Islamic point of view, the other side of the picture is also to be seen. From the social point of view, martyrdom is a phenomenon which takes place in specific circumstances, and is preceded and followed by events which have to be duly assessed. Similarly, it creates a reaction in society, not depending merely on the success or the defeat of the martyr, but is mainly based on the opinion held by the people, on the respective positions of the martyr and his opponents.

One more aspect of martyrdom is important. It is the martyr’s two-fold relationship with the society: (a) his relationship with those who have been deprived of his presence among them; and (b) his relationship with those, who by their depravity, created an atmosphere in which he had to stand against them and lay down his life. It is evident that from the view point of his followers, a martyr’s death is a great loss. When they express their emotions, they really cry over their own bad luck.

Martyrdom is desirable, if we consider the situation in which it takes place. It is necessitated by an undesirable and ugly situation. In this respect, it is comparable to a surgical operation which becomes necessary, as in the case of appendicitis, duodenal or gastric ulcer and the like.  In the absence of such as situation, the operation will obviously be a mistake.

The moral which the people should draw from martyrdom, is that they should not allow similar situations to develop, in the future. The idea of mourning, is to project the tragedy as an event which should not have happened.  Emotions are expressed, to condemn the villains of oppression and the killers of the martyr, with a view to restrain the members of society from following the example of such criminals. Accordingly, we find that none of those trained in the school of the mourning of Imam Husain would like to have the least resemblance of Yazid, Ibn Ziyad and the like.

Another moral which the society should draw, is that whenever a situation demanding sacrifice arises, the people should have the feelings of a martyr and willingly follow his heroic example. Weeping for the martyr means association with his fervour, harmony with his spirit and conformity with his longing. Now let us see whether festivity, rejoicing, dance and sometimes even mockery, drinking and revelry as witnessed during the religious feasts of the Christians, are more in keeping with the spirit of martyrdom or weeping and mourning are.

Usually a misconception prevails about weeping and it is thought that weeping is caused by pain and distress, and hence it is a bad thing. Weeping and laughter are two peculiar characteristics of human beings. Other animals feel pleasure and pain and get happy and sad, but they neither laugh nor weep. Laughter and weeping are the manifestations of intense emotions, peculiar only to human beings.

Laughter has many varieties, which we do not intend to discuss at present. Weeping also has varieties, but it is always concinnity with a sort of sensitivity and excitement.  We are all aware of tears of love and longing. When one weeps because of the excitement of love, he feels closer to his beloved.  Joy and laughter rather have an introvertive aspect. On the other hand, weeping has an extrovertive aspect, and means self-negation and unification with the object of love.

Because of his noble personality and heroic death Imam Husain evokes the deepest emotions of hundreds of millions of people. The whole world could be reformed, if our preachers could utilize this enormous fund of emotions to bring the spirit of the common man into harmony with the spirit of Imam Husain.

The secret of Imam Husain’s immortality, lies in the fact that on one hand, his movement was logical and rational, and on the other hand it evoked deep emotions. The Imams gave the most judicious direction, when they resorted to weeping for him, for it is weeping that has firmly rooted his movement in the hearts of the people. We again wish that our preachers knew how to utilize this emotional treasure.

When her father gave Fatima Zahra the well-known liturgical formula, which we, also, usually repeat after prayers, or at the time of going to bed (Allahu Akbar 34 times, Al hamdo lillah 33 times and Subhan Allah 33 times), she went to the grave of her grand uncle, Hamzah ibin Abd al-Muttalib, and collected earth from there to make a rosary. What is the significance of her action? The grave of a martyr is sacred. The earth of its vicinity is sacred. She required a rosary for counting the liturgical formula. Actually, it made no difference whether a rosary was made of stone, wood or clay. The earth could be taken from anywhere. But she preferred to take it from the vicinity of the martyr’s grave. Her action meant paying respect to him. After the martyrdom of Imam Husain the epithet of the Doyen of the Martyrs, was taken away from Hamzah and given to the grandson of his brother. Now, if anybody wants to seek the blessing of a martyr’s grave, he should make a rosary of the earth of Imam Husain’s mausoleum.

We have to offer our prayers. At the same time, we do not regard it, permissible to perform sajdah (prostration) on rugs, carpet or anything which is eatable or wearable. Hence, we keep with us a piece of stone or clay. But the Imams have said, that it is better to perform sajdah on the earth of martyr’s grave. If possible the earth of Karbala should be obtained, for it emits the smell of the martyrs. While offering your prayers, you can put your head on any earth, but if for this purpose you use the earth which has had some sort of contact with the martyrs, your reward will be enhanced a hundred times.

And Imam has said: “Perform sajdah on the grave of my grandfather, Husain ibin Ali. When a person offering prayers, performs sajdah on that sacred earth, he pierces seven veils.” The idea is to urge the people to realize the importance of the martyr, and to caress the earth of his grave.

Martyr’s Night
It is the usual practice in the modern world, to dedicate a day every year to a certain group or class of people, to pay homage to them. Mother’s Day, Teacher’s Day, are the examples of such days. But we do not find any day, being dedicated to the martyrs by any people, except the Muslims. It is the day of Ashura (10th Muharram). Its night may be regarded as the Martyrs’ Night.

We have already said, that a martyr’s logic is a combination of the logic of a lover and that of a reformer. If the personalities of a reformer and a Gnostic lover are combined a martyr comes into existence. A Muslim ibn Awsajah, a Hibib ibn Muzahir and a Zuhayr ibn Qayn comes into being. Anyhow, it must be remembered that all martyrs do not hold the same status.

Evidence of the Doyen of the Martyrs
Imam Husain has offered a testimony concerning the martyrs of Ashura which indicates their high status. It is known that the martyrs occupy a prominent position among the pious and the virtuous, and the companions of Imam Husain occupy a prominent position among the martyrs. Do you know what Imam Husain’s testimony was? Though his companions had been screened previously and those found unfit had been asked to leave, on the night of Ashura, he tested them finally. This time, not a single person was rejected.

There are two versions of the report. According to the first version, Imam Husain had a tent where the water was placed. He is reported to have assembled all his companions in the evening. Why he chose that tent, we do not know exactly. Probably he did so because that night there were no water-skins there. The only water which might have been available was that which was brought by Imam Husain’s son, Ali Akbar from the watering place of theEuphrates.

It is reported by the authentic chroniclers, of the Battle of Karbala that on the night of 10th Muharram, Imam Husain, sent his son with a small contingent to fetch water. The mission was successfully accomplished. All drank from the water he brought. Later Imam Husain asked them to take a bath and wash themselves. He told them, that it was the last supply of the water of this world, that they were getting. Whatever be the case, he assembled together all his companions and permitted everyone to leave, should they wish to do so. He delivered and eloquent and forceful sermon to them, in which he referred to the development of that afternoon.

You must have heard that the enemy had delivered his last ultimatum, on the evening of 9th Muharram, according to which the Imam had make his final decision by the morning of the 10th Muharram. Imam Zayn al-Abidin, who was present on that occasion, related that Imam Husain assembled his companions in a tent, adjacent to the tent in which he (Imam Zayn al Abidin) was confined to bed, and delivered a sermon. He began saying: “I praise Allah with the best praise. I am thankful to Him in all circumstances, whether pleasant or otherwise.”

For a person who takes a step, in the pursuit of truth and righteousness, all that happens is good. A righteous man, consciously performs his duty in all circumstances, irrespective of the consequences. In this connection, Imam Husain gave a very interesting reply to the celebrated poet Farazdaq, who met him while he was on his way to Karbala. Farazdaq explained the dangerous situation of Iraq. In reply the Imam said: “If things develop as we want, we will praise Allah and seek His help for being thankful to Him, but if anything untoward happens, we won’t be the losers, because our intentions are good and our conscience is clear.  Hence whatever comes about is good, not bad.”

“I am thankful to Him in all circumstances, whether pleasant or otherwise.” What he meant to say, was that he had seen good days and bad days in his life. The good days were when, in childhood, he sat on the lap of the Holy Prophet and when he rode on his shoulder. There was a time when he was the most favourite child in the Muslim world. He was grateful to Allah for those days. He was grateful to Him for the present hardships also, for all that came about, was good to him. He was thankful to Allah, who chose his family for Prophethood and who enabled his family to understand the Holy Qur’an fully and to have a true insight into the religion.

After stating that the Imam produced his historic testimony in respect of his companions and the members of his family, he said: “I do not know of any companions better or more faithful than my own companions, nor do I know of any kinsmen more virtuous and more dutiful than my own.”

Thus, he accorded to his own companions, a status higher than that of those companions of the Holy Prophet who were killed fighting in his company, and of those companions of his own father, Imam Ali, who were killed in the battles of Jamal, Siffin and Nahrawan. He said that he was not aware of any kinsmen more virtuous and more dutiful than his own. Thus, he accorded recognition to their high position and expressed his gratitude to them.  Then he went on to say: “Gentlemen! I would like to tell you all, my companions and my kinsmen both, that these people are not concerned with anybody except me.  They regard me to be their sole adversary. They want me to take the oath of allegiance. If they could eliminate me, they would have nothing to do with you.  The enemy is not concerned with you. You have pledged your allegiance to me.  Now I release you from your commitment.  You are under no obligation to stay here.  You are compelled by no friend or foe.  You are absolutely free.  Whosoever wants to go, may go.” Then addressing his companions, he said: “Let each one of you take hold of the hand of one of my kinsmen, and leave.”

The members of Imam Husain’s family included both adults and minors. Moreover, they were all strangers there. The Imam did not want them all to leave together.  So he asked each of his companions to hold the hand of one of them and leave the battlefield.

This incident throws light on the high character of Imam Husain’s companions. They were under no compulsion from any side. The enemy was not concerned with them.  The Imam had set them free from their obligation. In these circumstances, the heart warming reply, that each of the companions and relatives of the Imam gave, was remarkable.

Events that Satisified the Imam
On the 10th of Muharram, and during the night preceding it, it was a matter of great satisfaction for the Imam to see that all his relatives from the smallest child to the most aged person, were following in his footsteps.

Another matter of satisfaction for him was that none of his companions showed the slightest sign of weakness. None of them joined the enemy. On the other hand, they brought a number of hostile personnel over to their side. Such people joined them, both on the day of Ashura and the night preceding it. Hur ibn Yazid was one of them.

In all, 30 people joined him during the night of Ashura. These were the gratifying events for the Imam. One by one, Imam Husain’s companions said to him: “Sir! Do you permit us to go away and leave you alone? That can not be. Life has no value, in comparison with you.” One said: “I wish that process were repeated 70 times. To be killed only once, means nothing.” Another said: “I wish I were killed a thousand times consecutively. I wish I had a thousand lives, all to be sacrificed for you.”

Each One of Them Talked in the Same Vein
The first one to speak, was his conscientious brother, Abu al Fazl al Abbas. Others repeated what he said.

This was their last test. After they had all pronounced their decision, Imam Husain disclosed what was going to happen the next day. He said: “I tell you, that you will all be killed tomorrow.”  hey all thanked Allah for being given an opportunity to sacrifice their lives for the sake of their Holy Prophet’s descendant.

Here, there is good food for thought. Had it not been a question of a martyr’s logic, it could have been argued that the stay of those people, was useless. If Imam Husain was to be killed in any case, what should they sacrifice their lives for?  But still they stayed.

Imam Husain did not compell them to depart. He did not tell anyone that their stay was useless; they would only lose their lives in vain; and hence their stay was forbidden.

Imam Husain did not say any of this. On the other hand, he hailed their willingness to make the supreme sacrifice. This shows that a martyr’s logic is different form that of other people. A martyr often sacrifices his life, to create fervour, to enlighten the society, to revive it and to infuse fresh blood into its body. This was one such occasion.

To defeat the enemy, is not the only object of martyrdom. It aims at creating fervour also. If Imam Husain’s companions had not laid down their lives that day, how could so much fervour have been created? Though Imam Husain was the central figure in this event of martyrdom, his companions added to its lustre, grandeur and dignity. Without their contribution, Imam Husain martyrdom might not have assumed such a significance as to move, educate and encourage people for hundreds, nay thousands of years.

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