This Article is concerned with one key aspect of the law of the military jihad: the Islamic concept of martyrdom [shahada or istishhad]. This Article will demonstrate that the current Islamist financing and systematic organization and direction of self-annihilatory acts of violence is only weakly supported, if at all, by the classical sources on martyrdom in Islamic law and jurisprudence. The Article will show that current justifications for self-annihilatory violence are instead the result of a major reinterpretation of the theology and religious law on martyrdom and the military jihad advanced by Shi'ite theologians and jurists in Iraq and Iran between the mid-1960s and the late-1970s. The Article is divided into seven parts. Part I defines key terminology and introduces the reader to the issue of martyrdom, contrasting Islamic with Christian and Jewish views. Part II reviews the essentials of the Islamic law of war. Part III identifies the Sunni and Shi'a theological and jurisprudential sources on martyrdom and argues that, while there are great similarities between the Sunni and Shi'a approaches to the regulation of behavior in war, the Shi'a approach to martyrdom is significantly different from that of the Sunnis. Part III spends some time describing Husayn's example, with its emphasis on extreme self-sacrifice and militancy as a weapon against tyranny and injustice, and shows that his example has always been among the most important paradigms in Shi'a theology, although the “Twelvers,” the majority Shi'a sect, did not emphasize its militant aspects for over a thousand years. Part IV will show that, beginning with the advent of European colonialism in the eighteenth century, the paradigm of Husayn's martyrdom began to take an increased importance as a normative reference point for anti-colonial activities among the Shi'a. Although the paradigm of the normative example of Husayn ebbed and flowed as a political rallying point for over two hundred years, it ultimately reached a zenith when an important group of Shi'a ulama came together in the Iraqi city of Najaf in the 1960s. This group began to robustly revive and reinterpret the paradigm in a way that eventually led to self-annihilatory violent behavior by Shi'a military jihadists, fundamentally altering the Shi'a conception of the religious law of martyrdom. Part IV will also show that this new Shi'a discourse on jihad and martyrdom emerging from Najaf--led by Imam Ruhollah Khomeini and a brilliant Iraqi jurist named Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, and later by Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah, spiritual mentor of Hizbu'llah in Lebanon--rapidly proliferated throughout the Muslim world. It became an important factor in the achievement of several practical successes, particularly the Iranian Islamic Revolution and, some time later, the ejection of Israeli, French, and American forces from Lebanon. The author will argue that while Sunni Islamists also worked a similar reinterpretive revival of the Sunni sources on the military jihad during this same time in Egypt and elsewhere, they never advocated self-annihilation and they did not achieve the kinds of spectacular successes accomplished by the Shi'a jihadists. The Shi'a reinterpretation of the theology and law on jihad and martyrdom, first articulated by Khomeini and the ulama in Najaf, and later elaborated by Fadlallah in Lebanon, went much further than the Sunni reinterpretation and has profoundly influenced the behavior of all subsequent military jihadists throughout the Islamic world. Part V of the Article will demonstrate that this revived Shi'a approach to martyrdom now dominates all Muslim conceptions of the military jihad, whether Sunni or Shi'a. The author will argue that this transformation of religious doctrine, championed by the Shi'a ulama and emulated first by Hizbu'llah, then by the Palestinians and later by Al Qaeda, resulted in the appearance of a new norm of jihadist battlefield behavior--self-annihilation--a norm that is now accepted as a valid discharge of religious obligation under the law of the military jihad by a great many Muslim jurists, Sunni and Shi'a. This conclusion effectively debunks the conventional wisdom, popular in many quarters, that self-annihilatory violence by the Palestinians and by operatives of Al Qaeda flows from either a nihilistic sense of despair growing out of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza or from adherence to Wahhabism. The author will argue that Wahhabism actually has very little do with the current jihadist use of self-annihilatory violence, and that Arab and Muslim despair, while an important factor, cannot provide a satisfactory explanation for such violence. Rather, it is the Shi'a theology that provides the linchpin for such behavior. Part VI offers some tentative observations on the normative implications of the development of this new jihadist view of martyrdom for Islamic law generally. The Article concludes in Part VII that the development of this new norm is a profoundly significant development with major implications for Islamic jurisprudence generally and for the nature of juridical relations between Sunni and Shi'ite Islam.
Bernard K. Freamon,
Martyrdom, Suicide, and the Islamic Law of War: A Short Legal History,
27 Fordham Int'l L.J. 299
Available at: https://ir.lawnet.fordham.edu/ilj/vol27/iss1/11