Martyrdom in Islam

David Cook

Cambridge University Press 2007
A book review by Danny Yee © 2009
In Martyrdom in Islam David Cook presents a scholarly but accessible survey of the fourteen hundred years from Muhammad and the origins of Islam through to the debates surrounding contemporary suicide attacks.

The Jewish and Christian traditions provide some context, but martyrdom played a relatively minor role in the genesis of Islam. The Qur'an has a few figures — "a believer from the family of Pharaoh" and the "Companions of the Pit" — who can be read as martyrs. There were few cases of death at the hands of non-Muslim states and:

"perhaps because of the very success of the faith, Islam had to seek other conceptions of martyrdom. These have been most obviously filled by those martyrs killed in battle and to some extent those killed in plagues."
Here the story of Khubayb b. Adi, killed after surrendering, and the battles of Badr (a victory) and Uhud (a defeat) are prominent.

Among other complications, the word shahid means "witness" as well as "martyr".

"In the transition from the Qur'an to the hadith literature, the situation changes completely. Inside the hadith literature, the figure of the martyr is delineated and described in great detail as a unique person set apart from all other Muslims."
There was no consensus about a definition, however, and some commentators included women who died in childbirth among a range of other categories. Martyrdom also had a sexual aspect, as with the infamous houris.

The classical period saw the development of distinct proto-Sunni, proto-Shiite traditions. "After the martyrdom of Uthman, Sunnis as a group have only very rarely been oppressed enough to create large groups of martyrs." In contrast the martyrdoms of Ali and Husayn were and remain central to Shi'ites and they "have contributed more than any other single group in Islam towards martyrology". Other groups included the radical Kharijites and early Sufi martyrs such as al-Hallaj and 'Ayn al-Qudat, mystics killed for their heterodoxy but also as a result of their involvement in politics.

Martyrdom played a role among later warriors and missionaries, in India, Ottoman Anatolia, Spain, West Africa, East Africa, and Southeast Asia.

"In general, the number of Sufis and Muslim missionaries over the centuries who have died for their message is rather small. Compared to Christians, Muslims have tended to missionize using syncretistic tactics that did not emphasize the testimonial value of martyrdom to win over a given population."

Literary martyrs include martyrs of love, going back to Bedouin stories such as that of Majnun and Layla, and epic heroes in the Arabic, Persian, and Turkish traditions.

Common themes of Islamic martyrdom included symbols such as blood, uncorruption and sweet smells, prognostication and encounters in posthumous dreams, apocalyptic scenarios, expiation, and a final exhortation. These took on particular forms in poetry and passion plays.

In contemporary radical Islam, martyrdom is connected with anti-government jihad and resistance against occupation: key ideas have come from Qutb in Egypt, Mawdudi in Pakistan, al-Khumayni in Iran, and Hamas in Palestine.

"For the radical Muslims, those who fall in battle against non- or anti-Islamic regimes are martyrs, but for most of the rest of the Muslim world, these are either misguided people or on the level of common criminals or even murderers."
What are called "martyrdom operations" sit poorly with the Qur'anic ban on suicide, despite the arguments of apologists such as al-Takruri. Nationalist and secular movements have adopted many of the forms and ideas of Islamic martyrdom. And radical Islamists such as Azzam have adopted themes from Sufi martyrologies, even though they otherwise vehemently oppose Sufism and Sufi ideas about veneration of the dead.

Cook doesn't discuss sources as such, but gives something of a feel for broader historiographical issues. In addition to those discussed in the text, an appendix provides some examples of short martyrologies: one from Al Tabari and modern Palestinian, Chechen, Afghan etc. martyrdom narratives.

Martyrdom in Islam is an academic text, but an accessible one. The focus is on the core areas of the Islamic world, but it reaches to its African and Malay edges. It gives a feel for the historical development of Islam and the ways in which its concepts of martyrdom have been and continue to be contested and constructed.

September 2009

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%T Martyrdom in Islam
%A Cook, David
%I Cambridge University Press
%D 2007
%O paperback, bibliography, index
%G ISBN-13 9780521615518
%P 206pp