Saturday, July 21, 2012

Shahadat Meaning in Islam Essay

Shahadat in Islam Essay

Martyrdom in Islam forms an intrinsic component of the concept of jihad; hence, it does not lend itself to western definitions of suicide. According to Islamic teachings, intihar (suicide) designates despair and violent withdrawal from society, whereas shahadat (martyrdom) represents the ultimate form of giving for the well being of the community. Suicide is essentially a characteristic of individualist societies, mainly resulting ‘from lack of integration of the individual into society’ (Stern, 2003).

Contemporary Islamic thought tends to offer divergent interpretations on the meaning of jihad and its relevance to Muslims. The body of Islamic literature suggests that the theory of jihad has experienced deep alterations over more than 1400 years of history. The Qur’an contains seemingly contradictory teachings on military jihad which made it possible for the introduction of a variety of interpretations of jihad that transcend the classical notion.

Small philological observations can sometimes introduce one to larger historical problems. No one familiar with Christian martyrdom will be surprised to learn that the Arabic words which Muslims use for “martyr” and “witness” are identical. (Abedi, 1986) The terminology is unmistakably Christian. By the fourth century, the Greek martys (witness) had acquired a technical sense and had come to denote one whose suffering and death bore witness to the truth of Jesus’ passion and resurrection. Witnessing, suffering, death, and heavenly reward have since been intimately connected in Christian life and thought.

Given the parallel terminology, one might expect to find a similar understanding of martyrdom in Islam. At the level of reward, Muslim martyrs are not far from their Christian counterparts. Both are promised remission of sin and immediate life in Paradise; the souls of both reside at the highest level of Paradise, near the Throne of God; both are given the privilege of interceding with God on behalf of their coreligionists. Overall, the benefits accorded Muslim martyrs closely resemble those in Syriac Christianity. (Hatina, 2001)

Whatever the similarities, there is one major difference in conception between Muslim and Christian martyrdom: for Muslims, one earns the title of martyr (shahid) without any apparent act of witnessing. The martyr’s sacrifice does not generally attest to anything specific, nor does it symbolize much beyond the obvious sense of death in the service of God’s plan. (Stern, 2003) The Qur’an, the earliest Muslim testimony, does not know the term shahid in its technical sense, although the later exegetical tradition has sought to read “martyr” into a few passages where the word appears. (Palazzi, 2001)

This awkward fit between witnessing and martyrdom is further suggested by the strained attempts of some Muslim authorities to make sense of the word. People are told in one tradition, for example, that the martyr is called “witness” because his soul is alive and able to behold directly the Abode of Peace, while the souls of others see Paradise only on the Day of Resurrection. Elsewhere, it is learned that the martyr is a “witness” because his death is “witnessed” by the angels; or because God and the angels bear witness to his place in Paradise; or because he undertook to testify to the truth until his death; or because he will serve as a witness against the ancient communities who rejected God’s prophets; or because the Prophet will be a witness on the Day of Judgment for those of his followers slain in the way of God. (Abedi, 1986)

With respect to their burial, there are suggestions that one reason for not washing the bodies of martyrs is so that their wounds might continue to testify to their status in the afterlife. In short, the Muslim tradition had to invent for itself a connection between witnessing and martyrdom, since none was immediately apparent. All this is more than an isolated philological problem. It points up the distinctive attitude toward sacrifice and struggle among Muslims, an attitude forged by a political experience quite different from that of the early Christians. Martyrdom achieved its religious significance for Christians in the period before the faith had enjoyed any political success.

Asserting an ultimate, heavenly victory was at least in part a way for Christians to face down political failure, represented in the first instance by the career of Jesus himself. (Stern, 2003) Islam, by contrast, had more success from the beginning; it emerged not as a persecuted sect, but in the course of military conquest and political victory. While there had been persecutions in Mecca during Muhammad’s early career, and no shortage of martyrs created in the battles against the Meccan Quraysh and the conquests of the Near East, early Muslim martyrs, such as Sumayya and Hamza, did not enjoy any special cultic visibility in the later tradition. (Palazzi, 2001)

The religious value of suffering and death was never the obvious lesson to draw from the career of the Prophet or from the experience of the early Muslim community. What struck Muslims more naturally was the Prophet’s call for active struggle against injustice and idolatry. Even the dramatic accounts of Husayn’s martyrdom at Karbalā’, an event that would become central to Shiite sectarian identity, tend to emphasize righteous struggle against worldly injustice more than patient endurance of suffering and death. (Stern, 2003)

Where the early Christians mourned, the Muslims strove. As one historian put it almost forty years ago, Muslims sought not so much consolation as guidance from their faith. (Stern, 2003) The ideal was less to die for the faith than to struggle actively for it, and to enjoy the fruits of victory here on earth. However ambiguous its use of the term “witness,” the Qur’an is absolutely clear on the Muslim’s duty to struggle in the service of God, and on the rewards enjoyed by those slain in the course of that struggle (Jihad): “And those slain in the way of God, He will not send their works astray. He will guide them, and dispose their minds aright, and He will admit them to Paradise, that He has made known to them” (Stern, 2003). While the element of active struggle (or at least endurance) is certainly not absent on the Christian side, it is the martyr’s death rather than his fighting that carries ultimate religious significance. The opposite is true for Muslims. (Palazzi, 2001)

The Muslim ideal of active struggle was just that: an ideal, and one tempered for many by a pragmatic quietism which evolved throughout the ninth and tenth centuries. The end of the conquests, the disbanding of the Arab tribal armies, the rise of post-conquest urban societies, and the establishment of stable political authority all contributed to a decline in the attractiveness of battlefield martyrdom.

Dissenters could still look to the early activist ideal, but mainstream communities (both Sunni and sectarian) would necessarily develop a quietist orientation. It is this emergence of a quietist outlook that would shape the understanding of martyrdom by most Muslims.

The earliest Muslims knew who was destined for Heaven. Members of the community were by definition ahl al-janna, people of Paradise; all others were ahl al-nar, people of the Fire. While individual piety was not irrelevant, for most Muslims it was membership rather than piety that marked one out for Paradise. (Abedi, 1986) Those who fought “in the way of God” had a special status beyond the promise of Paradise: they are “mightier in rank with God”; their sins will be forgiven; whether slain or victorious they will receive a vast reward (Abedi, 1986). The Qur’an generally offers such rewards to all warriors, not simply to martyrs. The one reward unambiguously associated with martyrdom is immediate life in Paradise: “Do not say of those slain in God’s way that they are dead; they are living, only you do not perceive” (Stern, 2003). Beyond this, the Qur’an is not terribly concerned with battlefield martyrs as a group apart from other Muslims.

It is in the Hadith material that martyrs are clearly distinguished from ordinary Muslims. (Palazzi, 2001) They not only enter Paradise immediately, skipping both the punishment of the tomb and the final judgment, but they also ascend to the highest level, their souls alive and inhabiting the white (or green) birds in the lanterns hanging just beneath the Throne of God. They occupy, according to one report, a special place in Paradise reserved otherwise for prophets, righteous men, just Imams, and those who choose death over unbelief by refusing to renounce their faith under torture. (Hatina, 2001)

In another Hadith, the Prophet is made to reassure a grieving mother that her son is in the highest garden, the jannat al- firdaws. (Stern, 2003) Martyrs are also spared the pain of death, which to them is comparable to the pinch of a gnat. 16 God is even said to have spoken face-to-face with one of the martyrs of Uhud, the Prophet’s first major military defeat. () The Prophet in one report offers a useful list of the nine benefits enjoyed by the martyr. These include remission of sin at the moment his blood his shed; the privilege of immediately beholding his place in Paradise (i.e., there is no waiting until the Day of Judgment); avoidance of the punishment of the tomb; marriage to seventy houris; protection from the Great Terror; the wearing of the Crown of Dignity, each of whose jewels is better than the world and all it contains; and the right to intercede with God for seventy of his relatives. All this is doubtless why martyrs are so pleased with their situation that they want nothing more than to return to earth to be martyred a second time. (Stern, 2003)

The afterlife benefits accorded martyrs are thus straightforward. Less so is the issue of just who qualifies for them. Not all casualties of war will receive a martyr’s reward from God: most jurists require first of all that the war be fought against unbelievers (although for some, rebel Muslims suffice), and second, that the warrior himself be properly motivated. (Stern, 2003) Intention is central to the performance of all acts of piety in Islam; prayer or pilgrimage done without proper intention may be sufficient to qualify one as a Muslim in the social sense (they entitle one to marry and inherit from other Muslims and to be buried in a Muslim cemetery), but they do not fulfill the ritual requirement in God’s eyes and will not earn one afterlife benefits.

Martyrdom in Jihad works precisely the same way. As several Hadith remind us, those who fight hypocritically, or chiefly in search of earthly reward, or out of zeal for fighting itself, or simply to display their bravery, are not in the final scheme of things martyrs. Only those who fight “desiring the face of God,” or seeking to make the Word of God supreme, are martyrs in any ultimate sense. (Palazzi, 2001) And yet even the hypocritical warrior, should he die at the hands of the enemy, is to be buried as a martyr (i.e., his corpse remains unwashed, wrapped in its blood-stained clothing, and, according to some jurists, is not prayed over).

If death in battle is the only way to gain a martyr’s funeral, the heavenly rewards themselves are more widely distributed. The Hadith and jurisprudential literatures stretch the category of shahīd to encompass far more than battlefield martyrdom. According to one frequently cited report, the Prophet granted the title of shahīd to victims of drowning, pleurisy, and plague, as well as to the innocent victims of accidental building collapse. 23 We also read of other ways to acquire direct access to Paradise: death in defense of one’s property; death in childbirth; death by accident while engaged in Jihad. Drowning is often mentioned, as is falling off the top of a mountain or being eaten by lions. (Stern, 2003)

In some of these cases, particularly those involving violent, sudden, or exceptionally painful death, the special rewards accorded the victims might reflect the continuing survival of ancient folk beliefs and their power to shape the lettered tradition. These forms of death had long been felt to deserve recompense; now, God shows Muslims His special favor by considering such deaths atonement for sin and thus as entitling these people to special treatment in the afterlife. () The inclusion of plague in the Prophet’s list of martyrdoms is perhaps in part theologically inspired: God has sent plague as a mercy and martyrdom to the believers; those who die while remaining steadfast in their belief in God’s decree are classed with the battlefield martyrs. In at least one report, the plague victim’s boils are directly equated with the fallen warrior’s wounds. (Stern, 2003)

It might be understood as an attempt to make martyrdom available to more and more people in the post-conquest world. The Prophet himself would apparently agree: in reply to a companion’s claim that only those killed in war are properly considered martyrs, the Prophet is reported to have said “in that case the martyrs of my community would be few,” before going on to enumerate the other types of death that likewise earn one martyr status. (Hatina, 2001) What this represents is an expansion of the category of “martyr” without any fundamental change in its nature. It is still through death that one earns a martyr’s reward, even if battling unbelievers is no longer a central feature of the process. (Abedi, 1986)

But the religious scholars also go further and positively equate particular religious activities with martyrdom. Such a tendency is clear, for example, in the assurance that the soul of the pilgrim who dies on Hajj goes immediately to Paradise. The great scholar Shafi’i tells the story of the bedouin pilgrim kicked to death by his camel: the Prophet orders that he be buried as a battlefield martyr, as he died “while occupied with worship, and the traces of that worship should be left on him just as with the wounds of the warrior who is martyred in battle.” (Stern, 2003) Worship itself becomes a form of martyrdom, and the identity of ritual obligations and warfare “in the way of God” is elsewhere made absolutely explicit: “He who fasts and uses God’s verses in performing the ritual prayer obediently, until the warriors have returned, is equal to the zealous in God’s way,” as one Hadith has it. (Nusse, 1998)

It is thus not merely death while fulfilling religious duties that earns one martyrdom; the very fulfillment of such duties might in some circumstances bring one to that level. Interpreting one of his companion’s dreams, the Prophet explains why the believer who died in bed after two colleagues had died on Jihad was in fact given priority at the gates of Paradise: “No one is more virtuous in God’s eyes than the believer who lives long in Islam, and is able to go on praising and glorifying God, and making the profession of faith.” (Stern, 2003) A similar logic lies behind those Traditions in which, for example, the Qur’an reciter is promised a martyr’s reward, or the prayer caller is said to receive the reward of 40,000 martyrs. (Stern, 2003) More than simply an expansion of the category, this amounts to a change in the very conception of martyrdom.

In their revaluation of martyrdom, the legal scholars were driven chiefly by a quietist impulse. While there was often no love lost between the scholars and the rulers of the day, the former were no rebels. Despite the activist model of the Prophet, the scholars were as a whole distinctly uncomfortable with sedition and political upheaval, lest the moral life of the community be endangered. As the collective bearers of religious authority in the Muslim world, they were generally willing to tolerate far from ideal political arrangements, as long as these arrangements did not jeopardize the private, scholarly elaboration of religious law. Even dissenting movements, at least those which managed to survive beyond the first three centuries of Islam, came eventually to reconcile activist ideals with quietist necessity. (Palazzi, 2001) It was generally the idealistic dissenters, those who insisted on actively resisting the ruler’s armies at the cost of their lives, that Sunni and sectarian religious scholars had in mind when seeking to demilitarize martyrdom.

Battlefield martyrdom was a powerful tool for cementing loyalty within dissenting groups. Perhaps the single most important martyrdom in this sense was that of Husayn ibn ‘Ali, whose death at Karbal’’ in 680 helped create a deep emotional loyalty to the ‘Alid house, and to this day has helped Shi’ites sustain what is the chief sectarian divide within Islam. Other dissenters also made much of their martyrs. (Hatina, 2001) Those rebels known as Kharijites (“seceders”) also called themselves Shurat (“vendors”); that is, those who sell their lives in exchange for Paradise, with apparent reference to Qur’an 4:74 and 9:112. (Hatina, 2001) It is easy to see a notion of martyrdom behind this designation.

It is in Kharijite circles that people see most clearly the cluster of practices against which the religious scholars would aim their fire: activism, asceticism, and the deliberate seeking of martyrdom in battle. The first is represented by the Kharijite practice of hijra, exodus from the society of unbelievers to one of the group’s own camps. (Abedi, 1986) It was, in the first Islamic century, through hijra to the garrison towns that one generally acquired a place in Muslim society; Kharijite encampments would similarly serve as hijra sites, from which active resistance to state power could be launched. For Khārijites, as for other Muslims, it was through hijra that one became a member of the community, that one joined the People of Paradise. Hijra and jihād are closely linked in the Qur’an, in Khārijite teaching, and in anti-Khārijite polemic. It is the Khārijites, in fact, who are most commonly associated in our sources with talab alshāhada, the deliberate seeking of martyrdom on the battlefield. (Stern, 2003)

The connection between hijra and Jihad was only deepened by the prevailing ascetic culture of the camps. The early Kharijites are described as pious ascetics both by their opponents and by authors of a moderate Kharijite persuasion; in an Ibaḍī work of the twelfth century, for example, a group of early Kharijite martyrs are said to have had “foreheads and knees as thick as camels from the intensity of their devotions.” () Some Kharijites in the seventh and eighth centuries were called “Yellows” (Sufriyya), a comment not on the depth of their bravery but on their ascetic piety: the color yellow is sometimes associated with renunciatory practices in early Islam. (Stern, 2003) The late seventh-century Sufrite rebel and martyr in Mesopotamia, Salih ibn Musarrih, is said to have gone yellow in the face as a consequence of his extreme devotion. (Palazzi, 2001) The practice of asceticism is relevant here not only because it helped cement the collective identity of these groups but also because of its connection to hijra, Jihad, and the deliberate seeking of martyrdom.
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