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Istishhad (Arabic: استشهاد) is the Arabic word for "martyrdom", "death of a martyr", or "heroic death". 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", often called "martyrdom operations".
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. Other Iranian basij volunteers ran through minefields to detonate buried landmines and clear a safe battlefield path for following soldiers.
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".
According to one 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 1983 when successful bombing of barracks and embassy buildings drove the U.S. military out of 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.
Militant groups term attacks 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, such as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, have also engaged in suicide attacks. Islamist militants prefer the term "martyrdom operation" to "suicide attack", as suicide is forbidden under classical Islamic law. While combat inherently involves a risk of death, a "martyrdom operation" implies a deliberate act leading to death as part of the attack.
Acts of istishhad are governed by Islamic legal rules associated with armed warfare or military jihad. The rules governing jihad, literally meaning struggle but often called "holy war" by non-Muslims, are covered in exquisite detail in the classical texts of Islamic jurisprudence. In orthodox Islamic law, jihad is a collective religious obligation on the Muslim community, when the community is endangered or Muslims are subjected to oppression and subjugation. The rules governing such conflicts include not killing women, children or non-combatants, and leaving cultivated or residential areas undamaged.
For more than a millennium, these tenets were accepted by Sunnis and Shiites; however, since the 1980s militant Islamists have challenged the traditional Islamic rules of warfare in an attempt to justify suicide attacks despite clear contradictions to established Islamic laws.
Some Western and Muslim scholars of Islam find suicide attacks to be a clear violation of classical Islamic law. Nevertheless, the militant groups that carry out "martyrdom operations" believe that their actions fulfill the obligation of jihad, and some clerics support this view.
Against suicide attacks
Suicide bombings as acts of terrorism have spurred some Muslims to provide scholastic refutations of suicide bombings and to condemn them. For example, Ihsanic Intelligence, a London-based Islamic think tank, published a study on suicide bombings that concluded, "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".
Oxford-based Malaysian jurist Shaykh Afifi al-Akiti, issued his fatwa forbidding suicide bombing and targeting innocent civilians: "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 [killing oneself, i.e., suicide]."
In January 2006, a Shiite marja cleric, Ayatollah al-Udhma Yousof al-Sanei decreed a fatwa against suicide bombing declaring it as a "terrorist act" and the Saudi grand mufti as well as other Sunni scholars similarly denounced suicide attacks regardless of their offensive or defensive characterization.
Scholar Bernard Lewis states, "At no time did the classical jurists offer any approval or legitimacy to what we nowadays call terrorism. Nor indeed is there any evidence of the use of terrorism as it is practiced nowadays". Similarly, Noah Feldman writes that the Islamic reasoning of suicide attackers is not convincing as martyrdom in Islam typically refers to another person killing a Muslim warrior, not the warrior pushing "the button himself". In addition, "The killing of women and children has proved harder to explain away as a permissible exercise of jihad." This "illustrates the nature of the difficulty of reconciling suicide bombing with Islamic law".
As Charles Kimball, the University of Oklahoma's Director of Religious Studies, pointed out that Islam "clearly prohibits suicide" by citing "the hadith materials, which are the authoritative sayings and actions of the prophet, Muhammad, includes many unambiguous statements about suicide: one who 'throws himself off a mountain' or 'drinks poison' or 'kills himself with a sharp instrument' will be in the fire of Hell. Suicide is not allowed even to those in extreme conditions such as painful illness or a serious wound". Other Islamic groups such as the European Council for Fatwa and Research cite the Quran'ic verse Al-An'am 6:151 as a prohibition against suicide: "And take not life, which Allah has made sacred, except by way of justice and law". Dr. Hassan Ali El-Najjar says that the hadith unambiguously forbid suicide.
Proponents of suicide operations
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. 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.
Another rationale provided for why istishhad is not against Islamic 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". 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".
Further justifications have been given by 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". Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran showered those who performed martyrdom operations during the Iran–Iraq War and against Israel with accolades. Indeed, Sayyed Abbas al-Musawi, the second Secretary General of Hezbollah and student of Khomeini, created a supplication that became popular among the Hezbollah youths and fighters.
Other clerics have supported suicide attacks largely in connection with the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Sunni cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi has supported such attacks by Palestinians in perceived defense of their homeland as heroic and an act of resistance. Shiite Lebanese cleric Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah, the spiritual authority recognized by Hezbollah, is reported to have similar views.
After the 7 July 2005 London bombings, journalist Mona Eltahawy published an op-ed in the Washington Post noting the fact that there were "22 imams and scholars who met at London's largest mosque to condemn the bombings but who would not criticize all suicide attacks", such as Sayed Mohammed Musawi, the head of the World Islamic League, who said "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". After the knighting of Salman Rushdie in June 2007, Pakistan's acting Minister of Religious Affairs Muhammad Ijaz-ul-Haq publicly justified and called for a suicide attack against him.
There have been conflicting reports about the stances of Sheikh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawy (who was then the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar- he is now deceased) and Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb (who was then the Grand Mufti of Egypt and is now the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar). Shortly after the September 11 attacks Sheikh Tantawy issued a statement opposing suicide attacks. 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". Yet, in 2003 he was quoted again as saying "groups which carried out suicide bombings were the enemies of Islam", and that all suicide attacks were sinful including those against Israelis. His comments condemning all suicide attacks were echoed by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and Lebanese cleric Husam Qaraqirah.
In addition to the views of Muslim clerics, conflicting viewpoints are apparent among the public in Muslim-majority countries. As a reporter for The Guardian notes in an article written during the second intifada in August 2001, the Muslim world celebrates "martyr-bombers" as heroes defending the things held sacred. Polls in the Middle East at that time show that 75% of people were in favor of martyr-bombings.
However, the Pew Research Center has found decreases in Muslim support for suicide attacks. In 2011 surveys, less than 15% of Pakistanis, Jordanians, Turks, and Indonesians thought that suicide bombings were sometimes/often justified. Approximately 28% of Egyptians and 35% of Lebanese felt that suicide bombings were sometimes/often justified. However, 68% of Palestinians reported that suicide attacks were sometimes/often justified. In 2013, Pew found that "clear majorities of Muslims oppose violence in the name of Islam"; 89% in Pakistan, 81% in Indonesia, 78% in Nigeria, and 77% in Tunisia said that "suicide bombings or other acts of violence that target civilians are never justified".
- Child suicide bombers in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
- Female suicide bomber
- Animal-borne bomb attacks
- List of Hamas suicide attacks
- List of Palestinian Islamic Jihad suicide attacks
- List of Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades suicide attacks
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- "The Culture of Martyrdom" How suicide bombing became not just a means but an end, by David Brooks in The Atlantic, June 2002
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- "The Logic of Suicide Terrorism" by Bruce Hoffman published in The Atlantic, June 2003
- "Suicide Bombers": Why do they do it, and what does Islam say about their actions?
- "The Hijacked Caravan" Study refuting suicide bombing in Islam by Ihsanic Intelligence
- ‘The Seekers of Martyrdom Command’: Another State-Inspired Organization of Suicide Attackers in Iran (Official Website Based in U.S. and Germany)
- "The Supplication of the Second Secretary General of 'Hezbollah'"