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See also: Shahid

Istishhad (Arabic: استشهاد‎) is the Arabic word for "martyrdom", "death of a martyr", or "heroic death".[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[edit]

See also: martyrdom video

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.[6] 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.[6][7][8]

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.[6][7]

Opinion of scholars[edit]

Militant groups that carry out "martyrdom operations" believe their actions fulfill the obligation of jihad against the "oppressor" and have found support with some clerics. However, other Western and Muslim scholars of Islam have pointed out the clear violation of classical Islamic law.

For example, 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," and "it is a pity" that people engaging in terrorist activities are not more knowledgeable of their own religion.[7] 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."[6]

In the setting of these contradictions with orthodox Islamic law and especially since recent suicide bombings against Western European countries and the United States, many Sunni and Shia Muslims have condemned suicide attacks and provided scholastic refutations of suicide bombings. 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,[9] 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."[10]

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 [killing oneself, i.e., suicide]."[11]

In January 2006, one of Shia Islam's highest ranking marja clerics, 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.[6][12][13] 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.[14][15] 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."[16] 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."[17][18] Further justifications have been given by 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."[19] 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.[20]

Other clerics have supported suicide attacks largely in connection with the Palestinian issue. Prominent Sunni cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi has supported such attacks by Palestinians in perceived defense of their homeland as heroic and an act of resistance.[21] Shiite Lebanese cleric Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah, the spiritual authority recognized by Hezbollah is reported to have similar views.[6]

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."[22]

In addition, a Pakistani government official has made statements supporting a suicide attack on a perceived enemy of Islam (i.e., Salman Rushdie). Following the knighting of Salman Rushdie, Muhammad Ijaz-ul-Haq, the acting religious affairs minister of Pakistan, made public statements justifying a suicide attack against the author.[23]

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.[24] 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."[25] 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 Dr Mahathir Mohammed and Lebanese cleric Husam Qaraqirah[26]

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 Hezbollah. 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".

Textual basis[edit]

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.[27] 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. 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.[28] In addition, the hadith unambiguously forbid suicide.[29]

Public opinion[edit]

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 about Palestinian suicide attacks, 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.[30] However, more recent polling by the Pew Research Center has shown 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.[31]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Hans Wehr, Arabic-English dictionary: The Hans Wehr Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic, 4th edition, ed. J. Milton Cowan, Urbana, IL: Spoken Language Services, Inc., 1994, p. 572
  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. ^ a b c d e f Noah Feldman, "Islam, Terror, and the Second Nuclear Age",
  7. ^ a b c Bernard Lewis and Buntzie Ellis Churchill, Islam: The Religion and the People, Wharton School Publishing, 2008, pp. 145-153
  8. ^ Muhammad Hamidullah, The Muslim Conduct of State (Ashraf Printing Press 1987, pp. 205-208
  9. ^ The Hijacked Caravan
  10. ^ The Hijacked Caravan: Refuting Suicide Bombings as Martyrdom Operations in Contemporary Jihad Strategy
  11. ^ Defending The Transgressed By Censuring The Reckless Against The Killing Of Civilians
  12. ^ Interview with Christiane Amanpour of CNN, Feb 2007
  13. ^ Terrorism and Suicide bombings
  14. ^ The Islamic Ruling on the Permissibility of Martyrdom Operations
  15. ^ Fatwa of Sheikh Yousef Al-Qaradhawi
  16. ^ The New York Times, June 10, 2007
  17. ^ Al-Manar (Beirut), July 20, 2006
  18. ^ Irwin J. Mansdorf and Mordechai Kedar, The Psychological Asymmetry of Islamist Warfare, Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2008, pp. 37-44
  19. ^ Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi. "Martyrdom Operations". Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi. 
  20. ^ The Islamic Counterterrorism Center (2008). "The Supplication of the Second Secretary General of 'Hezbollah'". Arcs Network. 
  21. ^ From Muhammad to Bin Laden By David Bukay
  22. ^ After London, Tough Questions for Muslims
  23. ^ "Rushdie knighthood 'justifies suicide attacks'"
  24. ^ Grand Sheikh condemns suicide bombings, BBC
  25. ^, April 4, 2002.
  26. ^ Cleric condemns suicide attacks, BBC
  27. ^ AN-NISA (WOMEN)
  28. ^ Euthanasia: Types and Rulings
  29. ^ Committing Suicide Is Strictly Forbidden in Islam
  30. ^ Bodi, Faisal (August 28, 2001). "Bombing for God". Special report: Israel and the Middle East (London: Guardian Newspapers Limited). Retrieved 2006-07-19.  -
  31. ^ [1]

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