The concept of martyrdom is one that is shared by all three Abrahamic faiths and one which, by the time of the advent of Islam, was understood firmly by Christians and Jews of the era. Yet what sets Islam apart from the others, argues Adel Hashemi in The Making of Martyrdom in Modern Twelver Shi’ism… is that the notion of martyrdom emerged during the lifetime of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and “was first articulated by him as part of the process of state-building”.
Complementing the pre-existing body of literature on martyrdom in Islam, this work narrows down the subject to “sectarian martyrdom” as it has evolved in Shia Islam over time. This development led to a paradigm shift, differentiating martyrdom from the classic understanding in addition to undergoing internal transformations in Shi’ism; shifting from centuries of quietism to the stark political activism of contemporary times, undoubtedly a legacy of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution which had a profound and long-lasting impact on the modern understanding of martyrdom among Shia Muslims.
Through exploring the idea of sectarian martyrdom, Hashemi explains that following the rapid military expansionism in the formative years, it increasingly became less likely that Muslims would attain martyrdom at the hands of non-Muslim adversaries on the battlefield. Instead it was more likely at the hands of other Muslims, particularly as sectarian lines became more apparent, especially in the case of Shia Muslims in the form of persecution by Sunni authorities. As a result, “Each sect had its own revered martyrs and did not recognise the other party’s martyrs.”
However, it was the emotionally-charged tragedy of Karbala and the martyrdom of the Prophet’s grandson, Imam Hussain, which dramatically changed how Shia Muslims perceived and still perceive martyrdom, namely dying for the cause of the Prophet’s family, the Ahlulbayt. The event of Ashura “was the single most important event in early Islam that defined the Shia type of martyrdom forever,” writes the author, with Hussain’s martyrdom serving as a “symbol of resistance and a marker of identity for the minority Shi’a.”
One cannot discuss sectarian martyrdom among the Shia without delving into how it is understood by the dominant Sunni sect, which is touched on in the book. For the majority Sunnis, martyrdom gradually lost its relevance as the Muslim conquests came to an end. Yet with both the demise of the Abbasid caliphate and the Occultation of the Twelfth Imam, both sects were left in a difficult political predicament. In the modern period, though, “The twentieth century and the postcolonial period particularly became fertile soil for theorising a modern take on jihad and martyrdom” for both Sunni and Shia.
In fact, Hashemi points out that the revival of martyrdom was an earlier phenomenon among Sunnis, which the author argues could be down to the fact that colonialism affected Sunni-populated regions earlier and more directly, and as a reaction to the collapse of the Ottoman caliphate.
Crucial to this, though, is the role of the clergy and the two sects’ approaches to martyrdom. Whereas the Grand Mufti gradually lost influence over the Sunni masses, the Shia religious seminaries, the hawzahs, have “remained more or less at the centre of religious and political movements in the last couple of centuries.” This was cemented further following the Islamic Revolution in Iran, where martyrdom “became a part of the state’s agenda and serves as a legitimising factor” for the state.
It was after the revolution, throughout the devastating Iran-Iraq War, when modern sectarian martyrdom was cultivated as a powerful mobilising tool. In the Islamic Republic, the term martyrdom, we read, has evolved from a “purely religious phenomenon to a largely political concept”, and has been applied not just to those slain on the battlefield, but also to targets of assassination such as nuclear scientists or the late Quds Force General, Qasem Soleimani, and even the healthcare workers who lost their lives during the coronavirus pandemic.
The most fascinating part of The Making of Martyrdom in Modern Twelver Shi’ism, and arguably the most relevant to the current geopolitical climate in the Middle East, is the section on the “Shrine Defenders”, a term coined by Soleimani himself in reference to the volunteer forces of various Iran-backed Shia factions from different countries, eager to protect the sacred Shia shrines from takfiri elements. This was a development that largely occurred during the Syrian civil war as the conflict became more sectarian in character, as well as a consequence of the 2006 bomb attack on Al-Askari shrine in Iraq.
The case for the Shrine Defenders is interesting in that Syria, which played a significant role in the history of Shia Islam as the base of the Umayyad dynasty, also became a “Karbala-like conflict zone for the Shi’a”. We also read about the potent symbolism revolving around the Sayyida Zaynab shrine in Damascus, the resting place of the heroine of Karbala and “the embodiment of the suffering of the Ahlulbayt”.
The Shrine Defenders took it upon themselves to protect the harem of the Ahlulbayt, so to speak, inspired by the role of Zaynab and Hussain’s half-brother Abbas. “Zaynab will not be captive twice” was a popular slogan on social media at the time in reference to her plight in the aftermath of the massacre of Karbala.
Participation in Syria also served as an opportunity for martyrdom for a new generation of Shia, especially Iranians who had grown up in an environment which institutionalised a culture of martyrdom, glorifying the martyrs of the “Imposed War” with Iraq.
There is, of course, a political dimension to this, as the religious factor not only helped to justify Iran’s intervention and interference in regional conflicts domestically, but also served Iranian interests by confronting takfiris on the battlegrounds of other countries so as not to so do on the streets of Tehran.
Hashemi’s contribution to the literature is essential reading for those interested in understanding the religious psyche behind contemporary martyrdom in Shia Islam and its politicisation, which the author contends has been only a relatively recent development, and a departure from the apolitical Shia status quo.
The appendix on martyrdom in classical Islam at the end is both helpful and informative, yet it veers towards academic bias by citing exclusive Sunni sources as the default tradition. While the chapter acknowledges that these are from the Sunni tradition, it would have been relevant to examine the classical Shia sources on the same subject in similar depth, especially given the primary theme of the book, even if these are less accessible to Western researchers. Nevertheless, The Making of Martyrdom in Modern Twelver Shi’ism helps the reader to understand the contemporary Middle East’s sectarian conflicts, beyond mere politics, through the lens of sectarian martyrdom.
BOOK REVIEW: Sunnis and Shi’a: A Political History