Suicide, Martyrdom, and the Rules of War in the Koran

For twenty years, students in Temple University's Intellectual Heritage Program have acquired some knowledge of Islam and its key text, the Koran, spending 1-2 weeks on this text.

This is only a beginning. Some effort is made to discuss the connections between Islam and the other Abrahamic religions, Christianity and Judaism. The main emphasis is on coming to grips with the text. Later in their education students may deal with this work in greater detail, but for many, formal exposure to the Koran will end with this course.

The current crisis requires IH faculty to deal with the Koran and the Islamic tradition with particular care.   In our effort in this collection of original and linked web pages, we will attempt not to dictate a single pedagogy or a way of understanding but will try to provide a sense of the rich and often heated discussions of these issues.

The Rules of War

On the question of rules of war, the Koran is quite clear: war itself is wholly understandable and acceptable (the first Moslems had to fight to maintain their faith), but must be conducted according to strict rules. It could be worthwhile to discuss how the other religious texts deal with the question of warfare. (Exodus 32 is a key text in the Christian theory of just wars.)

Many of these rules are contained in the Hadith, sayings attributed to Mohammed that post-date the Koran itself, but the Koran carries the seed. Islamic authorities emphasize the defensive nature of warfare, citing Koran 22:39-40. Surah 2:190-192 prohibit killing of noncombatants;  47:4 seems to set a limit on killing;  60:8 allows or advocates kindness to non-hostile unbelievers.

Historians of Islam note that the faith was often spread peacefully, by colonization, but that conquest was also important. Lapidus 42-45 summarizes the two "principles" implemented by the second Caliph, Umar:

The Arab conquerors were transformed into an "elite military caste who carried on further conquests…"

"[T]he conquered populations should be as little disturbed as possible. This meant that the Arab-Muslims did not, contrary to reputation, attempt to convert people … Muhammad had set the precedent of permitting Jews and Christians … to keep their religions, if they paid tribute. The Caliphate extended the same privilege [to newly conquered peoples]…. The Arabs had little missionary zeal."

As in other cultures, there is frequent debate in the contemporary Moslem world about whether all sides in a conflict are obeying the Koranic restrictions.


This core concept has a range of meanings all based in the notion of struggle or striving. There can be interior jihad, of the struggle within one's soul. A frequently repeated report has Mohammed saying, after a battle, that the "greater jihad" is 'the jihad of someone against his desires." But jihad can include warfare, but it includes all other forms of struggle as well. There is an interesting discussion (one among several) of recent uses of "jihad" at:


Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr, who advised the Intellectual Heritage Program on the teaching of Islam while a member of Temple's Department of Religion, discusses jihad at:


Suicide and Martyrdom

The Koran makes it very clear that suicide is forbidden: 4:29. But it states several times that the martyr can expect an afterlife in paradise: they are "alive" (3:169), and have a blessed afterlife: 3:170-174,22:58. One man's "suicide bombers," then, are another's "martyrs."  This makes it worthwhile to review the story of the founding figure of Islamic martyrdom, and one source of martyrdom's continuing appeal:  the third Imam, Husayn, the grandson of Mohammed who was killed with a band of followers by the forces of the Caliph Yazid in 680.

The Model of Husayn

 "[O]ver time, Husayn's death took on the significance of martyrdom. Today, Husayn's shrine at Karbala [Iraq] is one of the great pilgrimage sites of the Muslim world. [His] death at the hands of the Umayyads divides Muslims more than any dispute over law or theology or any antipathy between tribes, races and linguistic groups. Ali [father of Husayn] is the Ancestor of Shi'ism; Husayn is its martyr." [Lapidus 59]

What is important for us is the way that martyrdom has served as a model for action. Some Moslem thinkers viewed his fate as passive, the sacrifice of a "suffering servant" that purified and saved a suffering minority community oppressed by Sunni Moslems. "[H]is predominant image as a saint with an almost masochistic wish for martyrdom defeats any attempt at using the drama [of his death] as a means of inculcating political activitism." (Enayat, 184) In Iran, where Shi'ism was the dominant form of Islam, Husayn's readiness to die led some western authorities to conclude that Iranians would never rebel against the Shah. Recitations and popular stories emphasized his suffering and invited widespread weeping.

Western (and other) authorities erred because they ignored the reinterpretation that this story was undergoing. Shi'is in Iran during the 1970s were revising the Husayn story to emphasize not his passivity but his active and political role.

At the same time, Sunni Moslems--the majority in the Islamic world--were taking up the story of this Shi'a martyr and challenging the tradition of his passivity. Enayat (185) cites three exemplary figures in this Sunni reworking:

Ibn al-Arabi, a 12th century judge, accused Husayn of insubordination and incompetence against an honest ruler.

Ibn Khaldun, the great 14th century historian, said Husayn's rebellion was justified but that he erred in overestimating his strength. Contemporary Sunnis sometimes repeat this criticism.

But the Egyptian Mazini, a participant in the Sunni "modernist" movement that began around 1900, wrote in 1936 that Husayn calculated the odds against him and decided to act, provoking his killers to become repressive, commit atrocities and alienate the masses. "Every drop of his blood, every letter of his name, and every invocation of his memory became a mine in the very foundation of the Umayyad state," leading to its collapse within sixty years..

Other Egyptian writers in the 1950s developed this interpretation: Husayn's peaceful activity, "always preferring persuasion to violence," led to political change. Recently, Husayn has become a model for Egyptian leftist and religious writers as well. The Sunni writers" reject both Ibn al-Arabi's defense of Husayn's opponent Yazid, and Ibn Khaldun's criticism of his judgment. All are influenced by this Shi'a model, and all rely on their own speculation, rather than historical sources, to draw their conclusions.

In Shi'a Islam, Husayn's status as a religious saint made it more difficult to change interpretations. But this happened in Iran, in a book (The Immortal Martyr) that "went largely unnoticed by the secular intelligentsia" (Enayat 191) but under the sponsorship of the Ayatollah Khomeini's religious adherents. The author calls for a total reappraisal of all received religious dogmas: he portrays the hero not as a victim or vague visionary but as launching a "wholly rational and fairly well-planned attempt" at political revolution. (Enayat 194)

In this way, the "suffering servant" of a millennium of Islamic thought became a conscious revolutionary seeking to overthrow the ruling class in his country: an inspiring model for a new generation of Iranians, engaged not in weeping but in action, overthrowing the Shah and seizing power of this huge country in 1978: many westerners, unaware of this revision of religious history, were taken wholly by surprise.

This event is worth recounting here for several reasons. One is that it is essential to recognize that "Islamic fundamentalism" fails as an analytic category because it fails to ask, what does "fundamentalism" mean at this historical moment. A second is that the rewriting of this central Islamic story shows that, far from being frozen or "fundamental," Islamic political-religious positions can adapt to new circumstances.   Looking around among Islamic authorities, readers will find substantial concern that the faith is being so radically adapted and changed, but that is just what seems to be happening. A third, of course, is to provide at least one small contribution in understanding why so many men were ready to lay down their lives for a cause. The Husayn story has been with us since 680 AD, but has now become part of a larger movement that requires close attention.


A note on websites. The world wide web has a wide range of resources on these topics. Many of the web-pages are written from particular points of view, and readers will have to make up their own minds how to use them. In this report, I have tried to back up any information from a website with a printed source.

Cantarino, Vicente. The Spanish Reconquest: A Cluniac Holy War Against Islam? In Semaan, pp. 82-109.

Cooley, John K.  Unholy Wars.  Stylus.  2000.

Duran, Khalid. Preparing For Jewish-Christian-Muslim Dialogue. Homework For Muslims. Typescript, 2000.

Enayat, Hamid. Modern Islamic Political Thought. Austin: University of Texas. 1982

Lapidus, Ira M. A History of Islamic Societies. Cambridge University Press. 1988.

Lawrence, Bruce B. Shattering the Myth: Islam beyond Violence. Princeton University Press. 1998. See:

Reviews by Bruce B. Lawrence available through JStor:
Christian W. Troll.  Sayyid Ahmad Khan:  A Reinterpretation of Muslim Theology.  Vikas. 1978.  In Journal of Asian Studies 39 (1980) 394-396.

Khurshid Ahmad and Zafar Ishaq Ansari, edd.  Islamic Perspectives: Studies in Honor of mawlana Sayyid Abuil Ala Mawdudi.  In Journal of Asian Studies 39 (1980) 620-621.

Saiyid Athar Abbas Rizvi.  Shah Abd al-Aziz: Puritanism, Sectarian Polemics, and Jihad.  Munshiram Manoharlal. 1982.  In Journal of Asian Studies 43 (1984) 586-587.

Raphael Israeli, Ed.   The Crescent in the East: Islam in Asia Minor.  Pacific Affairs 63 (1990) 241-242.

Matza, Michael.  Suicide Attacks Hinge on Revenge, Martyrdom.  Philadelphia Inquirer September 16, 2002.

Peters, F.E. Children of Abraham. Judaism. Christianity. Islam. Princeton University Press. 1982

Rapaport, David C.  "Fear and Trembling: Terrorism in Three Religious Traditions." [Thug, Assassin, Zealot]  APSR 78 (1984) 658-677.  [JStor]

Sachedina, Abdulaziz Abdulhussein. Islamic Messianism. The Idea of the Mahdi in Twelver Shi'ism. State University of New York Press. 1981.

Semaan, Khalil I., editor. Islam and the Medieval West. Aspects of Intercultural Relations. State University of New York Press. 1980.

Smith, Jane Idleman and Haddad, Yvonne Yazbeck. The Islamic Understanding of Death and Resurrection. State University of New York Press. 1981.