The Meaning Of Martyrdom
Source: MAHJUBA Vol. 14 No.4(131), Apr.1995 | Excerpted from The Martyr by the martyr Murtaza Motahhari.

There are certain words and expressions to which, in general use or, particularly, in Islamic terminology, a certain sense of dignity and sometimes even sanctity is attached. There is one word which has a special sanctity. When anyone familiar with the Islamic modes of expressions hears this word, he feels it to be invested with a special glory. This word is, shaheed, or martyr. A sense of grandeur and sanctity is associated with it in its use by all Muslims.

From what the Holy Qur'an and the hadith (traditions) say about the martyrs, it is possible to infer why so much sanctity is attached to this word by Muslims and what the logic behind it is.

All those who have served humanity in one way or another deserve the gratitude of mankind. But no one deserves it to the extent that martyrs do. The reason is that all other servants of humanity are indebted to the martyrs; whereas the martyrs are not indebted to them. A scholar, a philosopher, an inventor and a teacher require a congenial and conducive atmosphere to render their services, and it is the martyr who, with his supreme sacrifice, provides that atmosphere. He can be compared to a candle, whose job is to get extinguished in order to shed light for the benefit of others. A man who works in the light of the sun during the day and in the light of a candle at nights pays heed to everything, but his attention is not drawn to the source of light, while it goes without saying that, without that light, he can accomplish nothing. The martyrs are the illuminators of society. Had they not shed their light on the darkness of despotism and suppression, humanity would have made no progress.

What is the basis of the sanctity of martyrdom? It is evident that merely being killed can have no sanctity. It is not always a matter of pride. Many a death may even be a matter of disgrace. But Martyrdom, apart from all other types of death, is the death of a person who, in spite of being fully conscious of the risks involved, willingly faces them for the sake of a sacred cause, or, as the Holy Qur'an puts it, in the way of Allah. It has two basic elements: one, that the life is sacrificed for a cause and two, that the sacrifice is made consciously. Martyrdom, then is heroic and admirable, because it results from a voluntary, conscious and selfless action. It is the only type of death which is higher, greater and holier than life itself.

What does a martyr do? His function is not confined to resisting the enemy, and in the process, either killing or be killed himself. Had that been the case, we could say that when blood is shed, it goes to waste. But at no time is a martyr's blood wasted. It does not flow onto the ground. Every drop of it is turned into hundreds and thousands of drops and is transfused into the body of his society. That is why the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) has said: "Allah does not like any drop more than the drop of blood shed in His way." Martyrdom means a transfusion of blood into a society, especially a society suffering from anemia. A martyr charges the atmosphere with courage and zeal. He revives the spirit of valor and fortitude among a people who have lost it. The revival of courage and zeal is essential for the revival of a nation. And only by being willing to die, can hostile forces be overcome.

From the social point of view, martyrdom is a phenomenon which takes place in specific circumstances and is preceded and followed by events which have to be duly assessed. Similarly, it creates a reaction in society, not depending merely on the success or the defeat of the martyr, but mainly based on the opinion held by the people of the respective positions of the martyr and his opponents.

One more aspect of martyrdom is important It is the martyr's two-fold relationship with the society -- his relationship with those who have been deprived of his presence among them and his relationship with those who, by their depravity, created an atmosphere in which he had to stand against them and lay down his life, It is evident that, from the viewpoint of his followers, a martyr's death is a great loss. When they express their emotions, they really cry over their own bad luck. The moral which the people should draw from martyrdom is that they should not allow similar situations to develop in the future. The idea of mourning is to project the tragedy as an event which should not have happened. Emotions are expressed to condemn the villains of oppression and the killers of the martyr with a view to restrain the members of society from following the example of such criminals.

From the Islamic point of view, only that person is regarded to have secured the status of a martyr whom Islam recognizes as having acted according to its own standard. Only he who is killed in an effort to achieve the highest Islamic objectives and is really motivated by a desire of safeguarding true human values, attains this position, which is one of the highest to which man can aspire.

To sacrifice life means that the martyr must willingly give up everything which life gives or makes possible. A Muslim who realizes that life belongs not to himself, but to Allah becomes eager to sacrifice that life. Death comes to everyone at the hour appointed, but the difference between a life laid down willingly for the sake of Allah and a life lost in some worthless pursuit is the difference between heaven and hell. Indeed, the martyr himself attains a life which itself transcends death. The Holy Qur'an says; "And say not of those slain in Allah's way, 'They are dead.' Nay! They are alive, but you perceive it not." (2:154)