Many often wonder what drives one to become a martyr. There are actually many reasons. However, in light of a special type of “martyr,” we need to make a distinction between “martyr” and “Shaheed” (an Islamic term). When translators relay to us the word “Shaheed”, they usually translate it as “Martyr.” This is not quite accurate. In the English language, as well as other languages, there exists no special word to describe the exact meaning of “Shaheed.”
The Arabic word Shaheed came from the root word Shiin-ha-Dal which means to told/gave information, to witness/see, to be present, give evidence/testimony, bear witness. mushhad – time or place of being present or of giving or hearing evidence, meeting place. mashhuud – that which is witnessed.
The Quran uses the word and its variations (shaheed, shahid, shuhada) several times in its discourse.
In ‘Surah Fath’, it addresses the Prophet Muhammad thus:
“We have sent you as witness (shahid) of the truth, and harbinger of good news and a warner” (48:8).
The same expression has been used by Allah for the companions of the Prophet in ‘Surah Baqarah’:
“And thus have We made you a just community so that you may be a witness (shuhada) over the people, and the messenger may be witness (shaheedan) over you…” (2:143).
The word is used for the entire ummah in several places in the Quran.
In ‘Surah Nisa’, it says
“O you who believe, be custodians of justice, witnesses (shuhada) for Allah. …” (135:4).
The word is used for one who is witness, of Allah and His religion. The term as used in the Quran implies that the one who is referred to as shaheed understands and comprehends Allah’s religion in the manner in which it should be, practices it, and is so clear in his actions and conduct that the rest of mankind sees him as a witness of Allah.
He spends his entire life being a witness to Allah’s teachings, and would easily give his life in pursuit of the same aim. He is so devoted to the true path that he would not hesitate to lay down his life in order to bear witness to his convictions.
As human beings pursue the path of spiritual purification and development, they achieve various levels of excellence. Allah describes these as those of the anbia, siddequin, shuhada and sualeheen. The four groups have been seen as people who are blessed by Allah.
In one verse of ‘Surah Aal Imran’ Allah refers to the word in the sense of those who have been killed in the battlefield:
“…We alternate days of glory between men so that Allah may know those who believe, taking some as witness (shuhada) of truth from your ranks, for Allah does not like those who are unjust” (3:140).
There is ample evidence, therefore, in the Quran that the status of a shaheed is one to be bestowed on a Muslim by Allah alone, and not by fellow human beings. In summary, no one should be called a shaheed. This judgment shall be made by Allah, on the Day of Judgment.
A martyr is one who decides to give up his life for whatever cause he serves or to uphold his principles and honor. Maybe he wishes to go down in history as a hero. Maybe he feels very passionate about his country or his philosophy that he would risk his life for it. Some martyrs do die for their religion. Some risk their lives to uphold truth and justice. A martyr has many reasons for which he may risk his life.
However, the term “Shaheed” is only applied to those who sacrifice their lives for Allah’s cause. They have no fear; they only fear Allah and want to obey Him and to serve Him. They realize that their lives belong to Allah, the One who created them, so it is a gift and we should not be so selfish about it. To obey Allah and to implement what He has commanded (truth, justice and liberty) might mean the loss of their lives. Their love for Allah motivates them to sacrifice the precious gift of life. They are assured of a great reward in the end for their unselfish act. Their focus is on the next life and on pleasing Allah.
In some cases, people have translate, or named, “Shaheed” as “suicide” bomber”. This is such an ugly term. A Muslim knows that suicide is prohibited and that Allah will punish them for it; it is like murder, even though one would be killing one’s self. A Shaheed has no desire to die for the sake of escaping life. He loves life. A Muslim should want to continue living and never even wish he were dead because maybe his life could serve the purpose of Allah and he could continue doing good deeds. A Shaheed decides when he goes off to fight for Allah’s cause that he is not going to fear death. His attitude is to submit to whatever Allah has chosen for him, and he will accept the outcome. He would prefer not to die and leave his family, but at the same time he almost looks forward to the sacrifice because of the great reward he’ll receive form Allah. He knows he’ll be in Paradise forever.
However, in order to earn the title of Shaheed (Witness) one must have the correct Niat (intention). In Islam intention is important behind every action in the religion. The only One who really knows the true intention of a person is Allah, for He sees their heart and knows their mind. Thus, the reward will rest upon the intention of the person. The Shaheed (Witness) must have in his intention to risk his life only for Allah and not for anyone else. It can’t be for his own ego. It can’t be for the title of “hero”. It can’t be for revenge, for Allah will truly take care of the evildoers. It must be to serve the purpose of Allah and to uphold truth, justice, and liberty as well as to fight against all types of oppression.
Allah states in the Qur’an that:
Those who believe and emigrate (for the sake of Allah) and strive hard for the cause of Allâh with their possessions and their lives, have the highest rank with Allâh and it is these who are the triumphant. (9: 20)
To die as a Shaheed is an honor. Some people desire this title if they must die because of the great reward. Other people can achieve equal reward as a Shaheed: those who die from terminal illnesses like cancer, the woman who dies as a result of childbirth or those who are murdered.
We can understand why a Muslim is happy to sacrifice his life. He gains great reward in Paradise as well as honor. We see so many who’ve died under the hands of occupiers, tyrants and barbarians. They fought in defense, but they also fought to uphold truth, liberty, justice and their religion. Many are honored as a Shaheed, but only Allah knows their true intentions.
As a word that has come to be used in an emotional sense, the matter takes on a different hue. In Urdu (and Hindi and Bengali), it is used to honor a person who is dead, in a war or an accident. The purpose is to soothe and provide some comfort to the bereaved, and is probably meant as a prayer to Allah.
It has no relationship with the actual, religious meaning and with what the Quran says. When we attach the term to the name of any dead person, the most we can expect is that we are praying to Allah to have mercy on him and to grant him the status of a shaheed.
We must also note that the word has crept into contemporary times and did not exist during the time of the Prophet. The best of men, whose lives were exemplary and who were martyred as well, have not been mentioned as shaheed following their names as frequently in the scholarly texts of the first few generations of Muslims.
Once we understand the context of the usage of the term, does it apply to an individual who was known and who took responsibility for attacks that killed several innocent Muslims and non-Muslims? Giving a known criminal and offender a status of excellence at par to that of siddequin and sualeheen is self-contradictory and unfortunate.
People, especially those who present themselves as religious personalities, need to be careful in what they say, since their statements are too often taken to be representative of their religion.
Let us remind ourselves once again of Allah’s message, where he instructs us to be careful, lest either our desires or our hatred stand in the way of justice.
He says in ‘Surah Maida’:
“…And do not let the hatred of a people … lead you to aggression. …” (5:2) and
“…Do not let the hatred of a people deviate you from justice” (5:8).