Martyrdom, Suicide, and the Islamic Law of War: A Short Legal History

71 Pages Posted: 2 Nov 2004


The Palestinian struggle against the Israeli government and the war in Iraq have shown us that a new norm of battlefield behavior governing acts by jihadists and others seeking to advance Islamist military or political objectives is now firmly in place. This new norm posits that self-annihilatory violence - "suicide bombings" or "martyrdom operations" - depending on the rhetoric you adopt - is an acceptable method of conducting warfare against an adversary. Using an ideology ostensibly drawn from Islamic theology and jurisprudence, the organizers of these military and political acts of self-annihilatory violence assure the actor that he or she will be rewarded with an everlasting and blissful life in heaven and that the act is jurisprudentially meritorious, qualifying the actor as a martyr. This declaration of martyrdom then requires the Muslim community to care for the actor's family, property, and financial affairs.

This article critically examines the history of martyrdom conceptions in Islamic theology and jurisprudence. The article demonstrates that, contrary to the teaching of the Islamists, self-annihilatory violence is only weakly supported, if at all, by the classical sources on martyrdom in Islamic law and jurisprudence. The article shows that current justifications for self-annihilatory violence are instead the result of a major reinterpretation of the theology and religious law on martyrdom and the military jihad advanced by Shi'ite theologians and jurists in Iraq and Iran between the mid-1960's and the late 1970's. The article establishes that there is a direct historical relationship between this Shi'a reinterpretation of the sources on martyrdom and the self-annihilatory violence engaged in by military jihadists today. This is cruelly ironic because the Shi'a in Iraq are now frequent victims of such violence. The article argues that this new conception of martyrdom challenges traditionally strong and universalist Islamic prohibitions against suicide. The new interpretation further represents a profound and disturbing shift in the practice of Islamic theology and law, particularly the theology and law of the military jihad. Understanding the history of the Islamic theology of martyrdom, particularly the Shi'a theology, is therefore key to understanding contemporary jihadist behavior in war. The article seeks to enhance such understandings. The article clarifies the error in recent suggestions that self-annihilatory jihadist violence is the result of either resurgent Wahhabism or deep despair and nihilism. It demonstrates that it is this revived Shi'a approach to martyrdom that now dominates all Muslim conceptions of the military jihad. The article shows that many Muslim jurists, Sunni and Shi'a, now accept this new norm of jihadist battlefield behavior - self-annihilation - as a valid discharge of religious obligation under the law of the military jihad. The article concludes that the development of this new norm is a profoundly significant development with major implications for Islamic jurisprudence generally and for the nature of juridical relations between Sunni and Shi'ite Islam.

Keywords: Islam, Islamic Jursiprudence, jihad, martyrdom, Sunni, Shi'a, War, Suicide Bombing

Suggested Citation

Freamon, Bernard Kenneth, Martyrdom, Suicide, and the Islamic Law of War: A Short Legal History. Fordham International Law Journal, Vol. 27, pp. 299-369, December 2003. Available at SSRN:

Bernard Kenneth Freamon (Contact Author)

Seton Hall University - School of Law ( email )

One Newark Center
Newark, NJ 07102-5210
United States

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