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‘Shaheed’ – Martyr: A Highly Politicized Word

January 17, 2011

The word ‘shaheed’ in Arabic means the one who bears witness to the truth and it can be found on several occasions in this context in Quran. The most common Quranic verses that majority quote while referring to ‘shaheed’ (martyr in the battle) are in the chapter, ‘The Cow’ (al-Baqara), verse 154:

‘And speak not of those who are slain in Allah’s way as dead. Nay, (they are) alive, but you perceive not’; and in ‘The Family of Imran’ (Al-Imran), verse 169 which says:

‘And think not of those who are killed in Allah’s way as dead. Nay, they are alive being provided sustenance from their Lord.’

The second verse is about the Battle of Uhud and those followers who despite being small in number fought the enemy in self defense. Interestingly, the Arabic text in both  these verses don’t have the word ‘shaheed’ but the meaning of martyrdom and the goodness that a martyr receives in the afterlife are implied.

Now coming to tradition, the most quoted Hadith about the categories of ‘shaheed’ is the one reported in Saheeh Bukhari and Saheeh Muslim where the Holy Prophet (s.a.w) said that the one who drowns, the one who dies of stomach disease, the one who is burnt to death, the one who dies of plague, a woman who dies giving birth and the one crushed by a collapsing building etc. are martyrs.  This class of martyrs, however, is said to be inferior to the one who die in the battle.

In Pakistan the suffix ‘shaheed’ is massively used for politicians, scholars, journalists, armed forces personnel and militants alike depending upon how people or the media for that matter conceive that person. The use of suffix ‘shaheed’ is indeed another gift of Zia’s era when the martyrdom was glorified during the Afghan war.

Our armed forces have been engaged in the conflict against militants since 2004 and these militants claim that the killing of innocent Muslims, mostly women and children don’t make the armed forces personnel martyr and in fact they are ‘wajib-ul-qatal’ for this offence. So a militant is a ‘shaheed’ among his circle and supporters while a fallen soldier is ‘shaheed’ for the people who oppose militancy.

The criminal like Aimal Kansi, responsible for the killing two CIA officials, is considered a ‘shaheed’ in his ancestral town and has a mosque named after him.

The suffix ‘shaheed’ has also been used widely for the politicians who got assassinated. From ‘shaheed-i-millat’ Liaquat Ali Khan to shaheed Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, General Zia ul Haq shaheed to Benazir Bhutto shaheed. Bhuttos are referred to as ‘shaheed’ on the state run television only when Pakistan People Party (PPP) is ruling. Otherwise, they are just the assassinated leaders. Quite recently, only Geo News used ‘shaheed’ for its slain reporter, Wali Khan Babar. The rest of the media outlets didn’t care if he was ‘shaheed’ or not; although his killing was widely condemned by all.

The ugliest controversy surrounding the use of suffix ‘shaheed’ was witnessed after the killing of the governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer. In the wake of public support for the killer the PPP leaders were hesitant to use the word ‘shaheed’ for they feared inviting the wrath of the fanatics. On the other hand, his killer was dubbed as ‘ghazi’ – the one who survives the battle. Salman Taseer’s supporters used the word ‘shaheed’ on posters which was emphatically denounced by the ‘Tahaffuz Namoos-i-Risalat Mahaz’ – because they believed Salman Taseer to be a sinner and blasphemer; hence justified his killing on these grounds.

Obviously ‘shaheed’ is a highly politicized word and every faction and group strives to steal it for their slain leader. Calling someone a ‘shaheed’ is not an honor it is more of an appeasement tactic in a society where justice remains elusive. It is important to realize that our society needs the prevalence of justice and our efforts should be directed towards the achievement of this aim. Who is ‘shaheed’ and who is not; let the God decide this matter.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. January 17, 2011 3:00 pm

    Hi… I really liked the concept of this article and I plan to write on the same concept for my blog… I just want to take your permission that if I can use some of the referances from this article…I will appreciate ur consideration… Thanks

  2. Uljalool permalink
    January 17, 2011 11:05 pm

    A timely and well written article that sweeps into historical perspectives to define the concept of Shahadat and Shaheed. For me or the way I understand is that any person who gives the ulimate sacrifice of his or her life in the Rah- e- Haq while performing of his/her duty is the true Shaheed.
    None of the four people whose photogaphs are shown above qualifies to be called a shaheed. We can, at the best call three of them victims of political vendetta and intrigues while two were in power and one was trying to make a come back and the fourth one ZAB the mephistopheles received the poetic justice he most deserved.

  3. January 18, 2011 1:49 am

    Thank you Ayesha… I really appreciate it…

  4. Monex permalink
    February 2, 2011 5:53 pm

    That is to say that the believer dies to preserve his faith…The Shaheed on the other hand is one who dies in a Jihad not to preserve his faith but in furthering the advance of Islam. While the Christian or Jew is killed for maintaining his or her religious belief knowing that this will almost certainly result in imminent death although without intentionally seeking death the Shaheed kills himself to keep someone else from maintaining their religious belief knowing that this will certainly result in imminent death and intentionally seeking death.


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