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Martyrdom (Looking towards God)

Added Feb 24, 2004 (4th Muharram)

Martyrdom exists as an active and powerful force in the ideology of Islam and to understand why it has such powerful roots and such great symbolic weight it's necessary to examine the different levels at which the concept manifests itself. It exists initially at the Qur'anic level and then takes on an expanded and active life in the minds of the Muslim people through the unfolding of it's significance in tafsir (Qur'anic explanation) and in history. To view it as a rigid system of ideas or a very specific philosophy with clearly laid out rules is to fail to see it as it actually exists, for it is too fluid and flexible a concept to pigeonhole or dissect the way one would dissect a scientific or philosophical idea. In other words it is a 'living' idea, vibrantly alive in the hearts of Muslims. It is necessary to examine it at this level - a very ingrained and intuitive level.

The Arabic word 'shahid', meaning one who is present as a witness, is translated into English as martyr. Through its usage in the Qur'an and through the manner in which it has been employed in early Islamic history, shahid has come to mean one who bears witness to the truth. This definition sets the ground rules for deciding who qualifies as a martyr and who does not. To attain the status of a martyr it is necessary to die or be slain in the course of defending and upholding the principles of the Qur'an, so martyrdom became valid only under certain specific circumstances.

The modern media's perception of Islam, especially as it has emerged since the tumultuous events of the Islamic revolution in Iran, was of a religion and a people obsessed with martyrdom. Recent events have not changed this perception. 

This concept did not, however, originate in a vacuum but emerged from the ayats of the Qur'an and from a history and philosophy which had its roots and its sustenance in these ayats and in the words of the Prophet.

With the Qur'an and hadith furnishing a rich foundation, the tree of martyrdom grew like a powerful oak within the house of Islam. Early events of historic islamic importance added weight to the power of the Qur'anic tenets and the groundwork was laid for a perception of martyrdom, which while falling short of being a fully developed philosophy, nevertheless ran as a consistent and dynamic current throughout Islamic history.

The Qur'an says:

"And say not of those who are slain in the Way of God: 'They are dead.' Nay, they are living, Though you perceive it not." (Qur'an 2:154)


"Think not of those who are slain in God's way as dead. Nay they live, finding their sustenance in the Presence of their Lord...."

Other passages can be found in 3:157-171, 22:58 and integrated into numerous other verses of the Qur'an. Taken together, these passages convey the undeniable message that for martyrs there is a unique and immediate reward. This belief in the special qualities of a martyr found immediate expression in the practice of Muslims so that, among the dead, only the bodies of martyrs need not be washed before burial as they are rendered pure by the very act of martyrdom. The martyr has erased his past sins and purified himself by giving his life as a sacrifice in the service of God. The deaths of members of the Prophet's family (the ahl al-bayt) and his close companions reinforced the importance of the Qur'anic verses and imbued martyrdom with an emotional resonance that continues to impact the hearts of Muslims and thus their destinies. 

The khutbas (speeches) and the writings of Ali (a.s.), the as well as those by the grandson of the Prophet(s.a.) and those of other Islamic commentators served to highlight and strengthen the Muslim conviction about the importance of martyrdom. Throughout Ali's works runs a thread of warning about the proximity and the inevitability of death. The mortality of man is one of the consistent themes infusing his works. He portrays the world as a road, a passage down which men travel for a brief time and the one thing they can be certain of is their eventual demise so they should be cautious concerning what they spend their efforts on. Some in positions of wealth and power spend their time pursuing desires and self-interests and seeking to bend others to their will. Some spend their time distracted by petty grievances or pointless preoccupations. Those who actively seek to fulfill the noblest standards and aims brought by the Prophets face the opposition of these other groups and the undercutting of their standing and influence through all means available. All face the certainty of death, and all face the fact of shifting fortunes and changing conditions. In one Khutba, Ali says:

"This house is surrounded by trials, distresses, and ill-fortunes....No condition here is permanent....Here one has always to face adversities, disappointments, and failures, and in the end death finishes him."

Along with this emphasis on the nearness of death is an awareness of entropy - of the gradual breakdown of order and the eventual destruction of material things. Adjacent to this awareness is an admonition to look to the hereafter and to Allah for fulfillment and not be ensnared by this world but to bypass the useless things among its myriad distractions. A warning is placed on the attachment of human beings to things of ephemeral and fleeting value. The real problem is in the human attachment and uncontrolled desire for the world and not the world itself. He says:

"This life and the hereafter are like two mothers and human beings are like children. Take the life to come as your mother and do not let the world adopt you as her son, because on the day of Judgment every child will be attached to its mother."

Finally there is the declaration, repeatedly made, that if one has lived according to the Qur'an and the sunnah seeking nearness to God by transforming oneself inwardly, then death should be welcomed whenever it comes for it is the only remaining barrier between man and God. He says:

"There is no barrier between you and Heaven or Hell but that of death, which everyone will have to cross.... Death, which approaches everybody with certain and steady steps...."

Concurrent with these themes is the refusal to subjugate or compromise Qur'anic principles no matter what the personal cost of refusal. (This is predicated on a correct and deep understanding of the principles.) If the refusal results in death then this should be accepted, as the person would die a martyr and be a recipient of the special rewards attendant to martyrdom. As Ali says:

"...nothing in this world can compensate the loss of self-respect, nobleness of mind, and honor."

It is necessary to be able to look beyond the enticements of the material world for martyrdom to become acceptable since anyone deeply rooted in the world would find himself unable to sacrifice life (a most valuable possession) for an intangible idea - a connection to unseen realities. (Passionate hatred or an all consuming desire for revenge are also strong motivators for giving up ones life in order to retaliate against an enemy - but these factors are in oppsition to the view of martyrdom that emerges from Qur'an and hadith - they are indicative of desperation and an overthrowing of the balance of intellect and faith (iman). Although one can sympathize with the plight of a person pushed to such extreme behavior, this is a different category than that of the martyr who bases his scarifice on an attachment to the unseen world, and detaches himself from the extreme compulsions and passions of this world).

With the death of Al-Husayn ibn Ali (the grandson of the Prophet) the Qur'anic concept of martyrdom became emotionally embedded in the consciousness of Muslims, thus gaining added force from the emotional link joining Muslims to the household of the Prophet (s.a.). Husayn's death takes on the aspect of a divine command which he carried out, with the purpose of convicting, before the entire Islamic world, those who were corrupting Islam and by doing this he re-vitalizes it. His martyrdom is seen as a choice to stand for truth against destroyers and distorters of truth, a choice made with awareness of its difficulty, and a standard and ideal inspiring future generations. About this choice Husayn (a.s.) says:

"...there is no shame in the death of a youth if he intends truthfulness and engages in the struggle as a Muslim (with nobility and the highest standards of behaviour)... For then if I live I shall have no remorse and if I die I shall incur no blame. It is sufficient humiliation for you to live and be coerced."

This is an echo of the words of Ali (a.s.) but because of the emotional intensity of the events at Kerbala and the fact that these events formed such a crucial juncture in Islamic history, the ideas became ingrained on a deeper level. They became as if written on the hearts of the people.

The example of Husayn's martyrdom and of martyrdom in general as an act receiving special grace from Allah was incorporated into the minds of the Muslims on a deeply penetrating level. It became part of the personality of the people because of the many levels at which it is instilled in them - intellectual, emotional, esoteric and elemental. At the emotional and elemental level of shared grief, the power of Husayn's story and the purity of his example is palpably evident to anyone who visits or participates in one of the ceremonies of Ashura. A western visitor to a mourning procession in the early 1900s describes the commemoration of Husayn's martyrdom as follows:

"...we heard the fierce, grief stricken background of this sound - the sound of men groaning, crying, and shouting.... There came into view....rank after rank of men naked to the waist.... They were like a regiment of...soldiers marching as captive to their doom....their eyes gazed fixedly ahead from faces pale and terrible in the torchlight, like the faces of martyrs on their way to the stake.... These breast beaters were like men transfigured in some sorrowful dream, and in their...eyes was something of the anguish of Husayn parched and wounded on the plain of Kerbala.... I felt that never in my life should I forget the (La illah ha illallah (No god but God)) of their wailing chant, which had sung itself into my brain."

Husayn became a symbol for a world view of the unceasing battle between good and evil. Large scale conflicts (such as the Iranian revolution) took on this symbolic significance in which the dissenters aligned themselves with the symbol of Husayn. He typified the concept of revolt against a corrupt, established order and losses suffered by the revolutionaries were perceived in terms of wronged martyrs. In this way a struggle can take on an immense mythical quality which has the capability of stirring masses of people who would otherwise remain on the sidelines never stirring outside their own sphere of personal interests. With each loss and death on the side of the oppresssed there is an increase in their fervor and thus their strength grows. The people embrace the spirit of martyrdom, their fear of personal harm and death is overcome. They see themselves as part of a righteous movement which is a response to Husayn's cry against an oppression that targets both the physical and the spiritual - seeking to cut the heart out of people's faith as well as rule the shape and pattern of their lives. These martyrs are the ones who show endurance, patience, and persistance in the face of overwhelming brute force. They persist in correct action even when faced with death at the hands of an uncaring, brutal, or indifferent enemy with the assurance that their reward is the presence of God.

"Remember me not through the shedding of the blood of others but remember me when you seek to save the truth from the claws of falsehood.... Remember me in your tears when the meek and lowly are oppressed...and when the corrupt among you are set up in government over the destiny of men of faith.... when the poor complain and the pockets of the rich bulge, remember me.... Remember me when all these things take place and rise lift high the emblem of justice and truth.... But if you hold your peace amidst deception and accept humiliation, then I would be slain anew." (from an Egyptian taziyah on Imam Husayn)

The Qur'anic verses which indicate that the martyrs are not dead but live on unperceived by us takes on a two-fold meaning in Islam. They live on in the presence of God and also the ideal which they died for gains power and renews strength in the people who are witnesses to their sacrifice. Death, instead of having a disheartening influence, only adds fuel to the determination and righteous feeling of the people. Martyrdom creates a powerful emotional synthesis within the believers. A western observer of Islam (Robin Carlsen) describes the charged atmosphere which pervaded his visit to a martyr's cemetary. A deeply felt, intuitive current with its own special logic comes to the forefront.

"This was a holy cemetery; the others I had visited had something ordinary and pale about their presence; this place contained the psychology, the consciousness of those martyrs at the point of their death; it was alive to the purpose and form for which the people had come to pray....somewhere the circumstances of one's death made some registration in the great memory of the universe. These creatures died in some noble and exalting moment of purity; that purity was now singing its wounding message to all of us still inside our fleshy bodies.... Here something was proclaiming the miracle of Husayn's sacrifice, the physical power of martyrdom.... it seemed but the collective character of their death - its memory and purpose in the context of something holy and just - that now had to force its impact upon the living.... (In a sense) the collective souls of the martyrs watch over the people."

There is a strong quality of gnosis or jadhbah (divine attraction) running through Islam. Ali and the other Imams are considered a repository of gnostic knowledge because they are believed to have understood the Qur'an in both its outward and inner meanings. They traversed the "Tawil" of the Qur'an. Tawil means to "...cause to return, to lead back to the origin,and thus to return to the true and original meaning of a written text. It is to cause something to arrive at its origin. He who practises tawil, therefore, makes something revert to its truth, to its haqiqah." ("History of Islamic Philosophy", H. Corbin)

This was the practise of the Prophet and Imams - to reveal the tawil of the Qur'an and the tawil of the events of their time. The verses of the Qur'an are referred to as ayat. Since the Qur'an is a revelation from God (God's speech to man) each of its verses is a signpost, an indication of its origin. The interpretation, the hermeneutics (tawil) of the ayat lead one back towards God, back towards the point of Origin. The Qur'an, when approached properly (with a purity of intention and intellect) becomes a catalyst capable of transforming the internal world of the devotee so that he percieves, with the eye of his heart, the spiritual realities which encompass this mundane material world. Through correctly traversing the tawil of the qur'an he learns to look towards God. Then when he looks back towards the things of this material world he sees God before them, and after them, within them, and encompassing them.

This strong gnostic vein is tempered by a strict adherence to the outward, apparent meanings of the Qur'an (since, according to the Qur'an all things have been set in balance with an outward and inward aspect) and with adherence to the path of the Prophet (s.a.). The martyr follows this balanced path, not neglecting the outward aspect. But when faced with overwhelming opposition that may lead to his death he looks with the eye of his heart towards Allah, and thus the  forces of this world lose their power and authority over him and he embraces death and enters the presence of God.

The mystical poetess Rabia al-Adawi wrote about her desire to achieve gnosis, to achieve a state of nearness to God. This was to be accomplished by a very gradual process of spiritual ascendancy away from worldly concerns and towards divine truth (like climbing a spiritual step-ladder).

"I do naught
But think on Thee, excluding all beside;
But that purest love, which is Thy due,
Is that the veils which hide Thee fall, and I gaze on Thee...."

There is a desire to penetrate the veils which separate man from God and by purification of the soul to gain the ability to experience something of the Divine presence. The goal of the martyr is a similar one, only instead of a gradual spiritual journey through the veils, they are torn aside in one brief moment of sacrifice.

The veils which separate man from God are said to coalesce in the veil which is man himself - that is his nature and rootedness in this world. Thus life itself is a veil which conceals the eternal from man. By giving away this veil (life) for God alone, he has torn aside all veils. By committing this act of absolute submission to God (and suppressing his own ego), he embodies the true essence of pure Islam. It achieves the same goal as the mystic but in a more complete manner, as the mystic does not remove the final veil (in which all others are embodied) and thus remains connected to the temporal/material world of limited existence and is unable to achieve true gnosis. The martyr, however, is seen to achieve true gnosis by fulfilling the very definition of the word Islam. 

"...a martyr looks in the direction of God. This is said both of all the Prophets and of all martyrs. It might be thus explained...that all veils which separate man from the direction of God...end in the veil existing within man himself.... All veils originating from darkness or light convene in the veil which embodies man himself.... Once a person should give away this veil in the cause of God...he has broken down the origins of all veils.... He has destroyed his egoism and his selfishness and he has offered himself.... The martyrs who...solely for the Blessed and Supreme Lord...have offered everything within their possession...will see God's epiphany, as did the Prophets before them.... They were free from individuality and from "self". And so did they unveil the shroud which separated them from God." (from "Lectures on the Supreme Struggle (Jihad)" in "Islam and Revolution")

At Karbala, Hilal ibn Nafi' was accompanying 'Umar ibn Sa'd (who was in charge of the forces responsible for the slaughter of Husayn and his small group) as Umar Sa'd's chronicler. He says: “al Husayn ibn Ali was astonishing to me. As the time of his death drew nearer and his ordeals became more severe, his countenance appeared to be more refreshed and ruddier, like someone about to meet his beloved."

The Qur'an, the tafsirs of Ali (a.s.), the stand for truth made by Husayn (a.s.), the concept of gnosis as derived from the teachings of the Prophet and Imams - all these influences blend together to create a fluid philosophy deeply rooted in the rich traditions and truths of Islam. Transmitted through revelation, hadith, historical truth, and shared memories of past suffering and sacrifice, this swirl of mixed and varied concepts is assimilated on emotional, intuitive, intellectual and spiritual levels and thus becomes ingrained within the Muslim character with the solid and potent imprint of permanency - of a faith that looks towards God before looking at the world.

- Irshaad Hussain

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Related articles:

New Year's Day - Mourning the Imam

Commemorating Martyrdom

Remembering the Martyrs

Battle of Badr

Mourning Husayn (On Matam)

On Martyrdom

Tawil of Karbala

Matam (mourning for Husayn)
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