Justification for Violence in Islam: Part VII, Martyrdom, the Peak of Activism in Islam

Previous: Justification for Violence in Islam, Part VI: Pacifist Activism in Islamic Legal System

[56] In the legal heritage of Islam, as discussed above, it emerges that majority of the Muslim community maintains pacifist activism, ‘striving’ (literal sense of jih_d) for peace by upholding the religious-moral law of Islam that promises lasting peace by redressing violated justice. That being the case, our focus in the Islamic tradition and its views on quietism or pacifist activism, should be on its view of the nature and requirements of a summons to struggle for justice in general. In this connection it is pertinent to raise questions about violence that erupts in the form of willingness to end one’s life in the name of God. How different it is from suicide which would seem to be rooted in a tendency to lose the ability to ascribe meaning to life in light of the amount of suffering in it? Inasmuch as decision to terminate one’s life indicates certain condition of human will, there is a tension in Islam’s approach to the prohibition of suicide and the affirmation of martyrdom.1

[57] Affirmation of Islamic faith requires obedience to God. True piety is expressed in one’s adherence to Islamic precepts. One should be ready to die for one’s faith. That is the meaning of martyrdom in Islam. Shah_da, literally meaning “witness,” implies willingness of those who exalt the divine command to give their lives for the divine purposes. It involved a kind of confrontation which necessitated resistance with courage and faithfulness even at the risk of their lives. But should one court death when those in power are insensitive to the common expectations cultivated in the tradition? Should one risk one’s life when the procurement of justice is in doubt?

[58] To begin with, Islamic denial of personal autonomy in the matter of suicide is based on the conviction that one’s life is a trust from God which demands an ongoing relationship between the Creator and the caretaker. The primacy of the God-human relationship necessitates its maintenance through human submission to the divine will. Human being is entitled to utilize the bounties of God only when he marches forward on the path of evolution prescribed for him by nature, that is path of faith, piety and good deeds. Moreover, nature also requires him to seek the perfection of the self as a responsible member of the community of the believers. There is no difference between actions towards the self and actions toward the other on this path of evolution. Suicide, as self-murder, is judged accordingly as an affront to God, the individual, and the community. Martyrdom, as self-sacrifice, is seen as virtuous because it bears witness to God’s existence and strengthens the community. Moreover, martyrdom is regarded heroic and admirable because it results out of a voluntary, conscious, and selfless action.

[59] Besides the language of voluntariness of self-sacrifice there is, however, the language of duty and responsibility found in connection with martyrdom in Islam. It is here that one can sense the tension between a voluntary and an obligatory act of giving one’s life. The zealous seeking of martyrdom when engaged in jih_d appears to be in tension with the definition of it as a voluntary act of piety. Since participation in jih_d is required by the Shari’a could it give rise in the community of a situation of desperation to find opportunity to be a martyr? The process of self-justification towards use of jih_d as a means to attain martyrdom has historically led to the adoption of extreme violent posture in the name of God. Those engaged in suicidal acts of terrorism continue to regard their violent acts as a struggle for the cause of God, in which death is seen as martyrdom. There is no doubt that the value of human life is totally connected with how one serves God. If by giving one’s life one can serve God, then human life has no greater value than the purpose for which such a struggle is undertaken. On the other hand, the fundamental question of proportionality serves as an important criterion in determining whether such a self-sacrifice or sacrifice of other innocent human lives is worth the cause. The tactics of achieving the divine goal could not justify indiscriminate destruction of human life, however irregular the warfare might be. Ultimately, the readiness to use violent means and even wage war to meet and overcome the oppression used by those already in power, carries with it the burden of establishing the validity of one’s own position with the ever present temptation of excluding others as having a share in that truth. Violence in the name of religion necessarily involves the claim to exclusive validity for one’s own position. Every perception of truth is accompanied by its own characteristic defects. A unique test of Islam as a religion that was led by the vision of ethical order through the use of force lies in explaining the supreme virtue of dedication to a goal beyond oneself to the point of readiness to give up one’s life, that is, martyrdom in jih_d, without falling prey to a spirit of exclusivity that led to the vision of the ideal community and that found expression in violent death.

Next: Justification for Violence in Islam, Part VIII: Quietism rather than Pacifism in Islam

End Notes

1 For Islamic views on `suicide see: Franz Rosenthal, “On Suicide in Islam,” in Journal of the American Oriental Society, Volume 66 (1946), pp. 239-259; For views on `martyrdom’ see: Todd B. Lawson, “Martyrdom,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), Vol. 3/54-59.