Martyrdom in Islam and Judaism Essay

Martyrdom in Islam and Judaism

The definition of martyrdom has been questioned for centuries, even Maimonides, Aquinas and Augustine found it difficult to classify and define it. Many theologians and researchers have found it difficult to distinguish the difference between martyrdom and suicide. While this paper does not attempt to define martyrdom, it does investigate key definitions and practices of martyrdom found in Islam and Judaism.

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The root of Islamic martyrdom stems from the beginning of Muslim religious history. In this history many Muslims struggled and died to in order to establish and then expand the Islamic state. The memories of these Muslims have been carried on in remembrance and celebration (Mir-Hosseini).

The meaning of Islamic martyrdom has been skewed over the past several decades. Some researchers have attempted to explain and defend Islamic martyrdom. In general, martyrdom is defined as “death that is imposed because of the person’s adherence of a religious faith or cause” (Wordnet 1). According to Ezzati, martyrdom (shahada) in “Islam is linked with the entire religion of Islam” (1).

In order to understand Islamic martyrdom, one must understand the roots of Islam; the basis of the religion. The Islamic practice is a peaceful submission to Allah’s will. The Islamic doctrine of tawhid speaks of a unity with Allah and submission to both his will and command. Some Islamic scholars believe that there are many Muslims and non-Muslims that falsely define Islamic martyrdom (Ezzati). Many scholars have attempted to explain Martyrdom as a result of the holy struggle (jihad). Ezzati explains that this does not provide a complete or accurate understanding of Martyrdom.  Ezzati also explains that the “early martyrs of Islam volunteered for death to be able to intercede and mediate for sinners on the Day of Judgement” (1).

Intercession and mediation should not be seen simply a spiritual mediation but as a “principle of causality” – unlike Christian beliefs – Muslims must hold themselves accountable for their salvation (1).

Martyrdom, or shahada, by definition means to witness and to “become a model” (Ezzati 1); therefore a shahid is a martyr, or one who witnesses the truth and is prepared to defend the truth, even if it means to die for the truth. The martyr is then a model for other believers. An Islamic martyr and prophet are equal in their responsibilities as models for

A study on martyrdom mythologies in Iraq investigated jihadist literature dated from the start of the Iraqi insurgency (Hafez). The researcher believed that martyrdom, in the form of suicide bombers, have multiple motives behind their actions; such as communication goals. Hafez writes;

By elevating the suicide bombers to the status of extraordinary moral beings who make the ultimate sacrifice for God and the Muslim nation, jihadists deflect attention away from their atrocities and the victims they harm (96).

Martyrdom in Islamic nations is a controversial subject. Some researchers believe that acts of martyrdom, such as suicide bombings are a politically-based reaction to the ongoing war. Other researchers, such as Hafez, have found that many leaders jihadist leaders believe they are acting on Gods will. An audio recording of jihadist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi demonstrated the links of martyrdom to suicide bombings in Iraq. According to Hafez, Musab al-Zarqawi stated that;

When the holy warriors noticed this huge disparity in numbers and armaments between them and the enemy, they looked for alternatives to amend this deficiency and fill this gap so that the light and the fire of jihad will not be extinguished. Brigades of martyrs, whose sole goals are to please God and rush to the heavens, have set out and attacked the sanctuaries of infidelity and broke its armies (98).

According to Islamic juridical-religious doctrine, Islamic and Muslim communities are threatened because of Islamic identity, they are “entitled to go to war to defend their religion, the community and the Dar al-Islam” (Freamon 300).

In order to understand Islam and martyrdom, it is important to look at Islam as more than a religion. There are numerous systems in place within Islam; it is a system of theological thought as well as a system of laws. This system of law is formulated using religious texts as its primary source. The religious texts are used to create “legal norms, obligations, prescriptions, and prohibitions for its adherents to live and govern themselves by” (Freamon 328).[i] Islamic martyrdom has become a military tool used by jihadists, and has therefore been the subject of study for many researchers.

Modern war has redefined martyrdom and has caused much confusion among Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Jihadists have made a distinction however between suicide and martyrdom; a true martyr is one that will act and die in the name of Allah and a suicidal person is one that takes his own life for selfish reasons (Freamon). Suicide is a sin in the Islamic religion.

Martyrdom in the Jewish religion is not as controversial as that of the Islamic religion. Jewish history is rich with examples of martyrdom; of men and women dying for their faith and refusing to deny their faith, or be forced to commit a sin (Kaplan). According to Rabbi Kaplan “it is considered a desecration of God’s name for any power to usurp His absolute authority over us, and we are thus required to choose martyrdom rather than compromise our religious freedom”.

            Much like the Islamic religion, when faced with government opposition to, or forbidding of, Jewish beliefs, martyrdom is in order. There are strict rules however, as to when one must choose martyrdom in the Jewish religion. Martyrdom is only to be used when a “decree is aimed specifically at the Jewish people, and religious persecution is intended” (Kaplan 1).

            The Jewish religion does not encourage martyrdom; it encourages hope and great faith in God; even in the face of religious persecution. As with the Islamic faith, suicide is a cardinal sin. If an individual gives his life as a martyr when it is not required, or takes his life in private, this is considered sinful (Kaplan). In contrast, if an opportunity arises when one must martyr himself, and this is not done, he has desecrated God’s name and has “lost the opportunity to sanctify God, which is the greatest merit a person can acquire” (Kaplan 1).

            There are several rules involved in Judaist martyrdom. One such rule is that if one is required to be martyred, the individual must suffer torture and mutilation as well; this person can however, take his own life in order to avoid suffering and torture (Kaplan 1). A man (or woman)  can commit sins throughout his life, but he sanctifies God by martyring himself and is thus forgiven for his evils and “attains the highest eminence before God” (Kaplan 1).

                Unlike the Islamic religion, the Jewish religion considered martyrdom to not always be a choice of the martyr.  In instances where an individual is killed because he is Jewish, this person is considered a martyr (Kaplan). A person in the Jewish religion does not necessarily have to die to be a martyr. If a Jew suffers public humiliation and shame due to his religion, he is considered a martyr (Kaplan).

            Martyrdom is less relevant in Jewish culture today than in the Islamic religion. There is an emotional need for Muslim unity and solidarity due the suffering caused by the war in Iraq. There is a need for finding and establishing Muslim identity. The jihadists arm themselves, and motivate others, with the suffering, issues such as female dishonor and abuse at the hands of foreigners to justify the use of martyring.

            Freamon believes that Islamic martyrdom is “in sharp contrast to the extensive attention devoted to martyrdom in the Christian and Jewish sources, especially the medieval sources, and the scholarship spawned by them” (310). As Islam is the younger and less stable of the two religions, the religious turmoil surrounding Islamic nations are brining the subject and occurrence of martyrdom to the forefront – the media.

            Jewish martyrdom is very rarely discussed publicly, unlike Islamic martyrdom; which is also, in many non-Muslims eyes, considered suicide. This lack of understanding is causing confusion and fear among the public. Many people don’t understand the religious background and beliefs behind such violent acts, such as suicide bombings. Both the Qur’an and Sunnah define the actions of the military jihad; they state what must be done when faced with religious intolerance (Freamon).

            The Judaism martyrdom is rarely discussed or viewed publically. While there is a history, stated in the Torah of such events, it is not publically displayed; such as with Islamic martyrdom. In Jewish practice, martyrdom is not encouraged, and there are strict laws that define the use of martyrdom. Islamic martyrdom today focuses primarily on the military jihad, and the rules that govern such an action are often skewed.

            Both Islamic and Judaist beliefs have numerous definitions, or classifications, of martyrs. Whereas Islam has military martyrs, religious martyrs and martyrs who are defined by the type of death they suffer; Jewish martyrs can be ones who suffer death, or public humiliation. The Jewish definition and use of martyrdom has been left relatively unchanged over several decades; whereas Islamic martyrdom has changed vastly. The wars occurring in Afghanistan, Iraq, etc. has caused confusion over whether recent acts of martyrdom are really suicide. The primary difference however, between the two religions is how a martyr is defined, and when martyrdom is appropriate.


[1] The military jihad is authorized by the Qur’an to fight in the name of Allah. The Qur’an states; “  To those against whom war is made, permission is given [to fight], because they are wronged — and verily, Allah is Most Powerful for their aid — [They are] those who have been expelled from their homes in defiance of right — [for no cause] except that they say, ‘Our Lord is Allah.’

Works Cited

Ezzati, A. The Concept Of Martyrdom In Islam. Tehran University, Al-Serat, Vol.12. 1986. 22 October 2008 <>

Freamon, Bernard, K. “Martyrdom, Suicide, and the Islamic Law of War: A Short Legal History”. Fordham International Law Journal. Vol. 27:299. 2003. 20 October 2008. <>

Hafez, Mohammed, M. “Martyrdom Mythology in Iraq: How Jihadists Frame Suicide Terrorism in Videos and Biographies”. Terrorism and Political Violence, 19:95–115, 2007 <>

Kaplan, Aryeh (Author) “An excerpt from Rabbi Kaplan’s Handbook of Jewish Thought”. 2004. 21 October 2008. ;;

“Martyrdom”. WordNet Search. 22 October 2008. ;;

Mir-Hosseini, Ziba.  “Martyrdom”. Ziba I slam and the Muslim World. 431. 20 October 2008. ;;


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