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Understanding the rising cult of the suicide bomber: Suicide bombings and martyrdom in Islam

This article is part of AOAV’s report, Understanding the rising cult of the suicide bomber, to read the whole report, please see here. To see the other sections of the report, please go here.

The Qur’an, the holy Muslim book, has over 120 verses on military jihad or armed struggle, and on those who die while fighting in such a struggle. It sets out the reasons for when Muslims are required to join military jihad, and regulates how it should be conducted. The Qur’an considers jihad as a religiously mandated struggle, that Muslims must undertake either collectively or individually, to defend Islam or Muslim communities at risk, or those under attack by non-Muslim adversaries.

It should be noted that jihad simply means ‘struggle’, and that the defence the Qur’an demands does not necessarily have a military meaning. Often, the inner struggle, aimed at spiritual improvement, is seen as more important than the ‘outer’ struggle, which may refer to action against other communities. The outer struggle is often the one referenced by jihadi groups, who frame their attacks on other faith communities as a defence, or a struggle, for Islam. The word jihad shall for the most part throughout this report for simplicity refer to its military sense.

However, the Qur’an does not necessarily call for military action to be taken. Two specific verses show that the Qur’an does not call on Muslims to fight non-believers (non-Muslims) merely on the basis of their beliefs. Fighting is only called upon if the non-believers have initiated aggression and actively persecuted Muslims.[i] Other verses call on believers (Muslims) to fight their adversary, but again only if the adversary has initiated the fighting against the believers. In other words, Muslims are encouraged to fight, but only in self-defence.[ii]

What many jihadi groups do with these calls is that they occasionally manipulate the meaning of ‘aggression’, giving it a rather wide definition. Nevertheless, when violence is being carried out against Muslims, although not necessarily motivated by sectarianism, Qur’anic verses like those mentioned above are often invoked by jihadis.

Furthermore, the Qur’an calls for fighting to stop as soon as the enemy asks for peace, as Muslims are then encouraged to also work towards peace.[iii] Believers are also asked to immediately cease fighting as soon as their enemies put down their arms.[iv]

As with many religious texts, however, there remains much debate and contradictory interpretation. Jurists have, for instance, argued[v] that the following verse appears to be contradicting at least 124 other verses that favours a less aggressive approach towards non-believers:

“…fight and slay the pagans wherever ye find them, seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem [of war]; But if they repent, and establish regular prayers and practise zakat, then open the way for them: For Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.”[vi] 

Some have disagreed on the interpretation of this verse. Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah has noted the inconsistency of the verse with many other verses relating to the conduct of war and therefore concluded that the verse in question was a consequent to a specific context.

The Qur’an promises special rewards for those who die while fighting in a military jihad: martyrdom (shahada). The Qur’an states that those who take part in military jihad and are killed in the process, and consequently die fighting God’s cause, will be granted a special status in paradise and thus become a martyr (shaheed).[vii]

Jihadi groups may thus, through some manipulation of texts and wilful disregard for the majority of the Qur’an, present their actions as religiously sanctioned.

However, a more significant theological problem arises on the issue of suicide. Almost all Islamic authorities consider the deliberate killing of one-self to be prohibited (ḥarām), a prohibition which has a well-established textual basis.[viii] Most religious authorities consider suicide bombing to be – self-evidently – a form of suicide: “As for the suicide bomber who launches an operation with explosives, ensuring his own death by placing explosives on himself or the like, then he comes under what the Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) said…: “He who kills himself with something in the worldly life, will be tortured with it on judgement day.””[ix] There does not seem to be a Qur’anic verse that explicitly sanctions ‘martyrdom’ operations.

The Qur’an is not the only authoritative source in Islam. In addition to relying on the Qur’an, Islamic clerics rely on the hadith, a term referring to various narratives either quoting Prophet Muhammad on a wide-range of life issues, or describing his actions and habits. Hadith is secondary to the Qur’an and is used by top clerics in developing fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence).

By United States Army Alaska  Fort Richardson. +1(907) 384-7303 , via Wikimedia Commons

While there are no doubts over the authenticity of the Qur’an, some clerics – even from the same sects and schools of thought – interpret certain verses differently. The hadith, however, is not as reliable: scholars agree that forgery of hadith took place on a massive scale, particularly following the deaths of those able to personally attest to the words and deeds of the Prophet.[x]

Corruption of the hadith literature was also a result of the procedure of transmitting according to the sense (meaning) rather than verbatim, as well as the result of political conflicts and sectarian prejudices.[xi] Such corruption explains, to some degree, why Islamic jurists disagree over aspects relating to military jihad – they disagree over the credibility of the sources and its interpretation.

A point which has been consistently raised, and disputed, is the exact role religion plays in suicide bombing. In popular culture, suicide bombing is by now inextricably associated with radical forms of Islamism. Much academic work has attempted to demonstrate – usually through dubious applications of probability – that there is no ideological angle to what is fundamentally a strategic choice. This inability of many political scientists to see that a phenomenon can have both strategic and ideological elements at the same time has proven something of a barrier to an effective analysis of suicide bombing.

Of course, a number of non-Islamist groups – including ones with aggressively secularist ideologies – have made use of suicide bombing. At the same time, most Islamist political movements – even those engaged in armed struggle – have made little or no use of suicide bombing.

Nonetheless, a majority of the groups currently using suicide bombing base their attacks in a violent interpretation of Islam. Suicide attacks are therefore a new concept of ‘martyrdom’ that challenges Islam’s prohibition of the intentional killing of oneself.

The Sunni perspective on ‘martyrdom operations’

Although there are Shia groups that carry out suicide bombings, with Shia clerics arguably creating the modern concept of martyrdom and groups like Hezbollah pioneering the practice, the groups examined in this report exclusively Sunni Muslim. In fact, Salafi-Jihadism is an inherently Sunni strand of Islam, and all of the major jihadi organisations, including IS, Boko Haram, the Taliban, Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Shabaab, and al-Qaeda are despite distinct ideological differences Sunni organisations. Therefore, the report shall only discuss the Sunni perspective on suicide bombings.

In fact, the foundations of the Sunni concept of martyrdom lie within Shia Islam. Fathi al-Shaqaqi, a former Muslim Brotherhood member, wrote in his book about Ayatollah Khomeini[xii] on the significance of the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979 as a model for changing a corrupt order and establishing an Islamic order in its place[xiii] and explored Shia theology, said to be a vital inspirational factor behind the revolution, for rulings that encouraged rebellion against tyranny since he could not find such injunctions in Sunni theology.[xiv] Two years later, in 1981, he founded Harakat al-Jihad al-Islami fi Falasteen, known internationally as the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which carried out its first suicide bombing in 1993.[xv]

The attack in the West Bank was followed by a wave of suicide bombings in the occupied Palestinian territories and Israel carried out by the Islamic Jihad and Harakat al-Moqawama al-Islamiya, better known as Hamas. While suicide attacks in Lebanon were targeting the Israeli military, those in the occupied Palestinian territories and Israel chose both military and civilian targets.

Fathi al-Shaqaqi justified suicide and the killing of Israeli civilians by describing the suicide bomber as being “doomed to death” by the powers of colonialism and imperialism, so instead he chooses “the most beautiful death” by committing an attack in defence of his homeland.[xvi]

Qatar-based cleric Yousef al-Qaradawi, who is considered the guide on religious matters for the Muslim Brotherhood, sanctioned suicide attacks in the occupied Palestinian territories and Israel. In a well-known fatwa in March 2002, al-Qardawi said women too could carry out suicide bombings without having to take permission from her husband to achieve the interest of the nation:[xvii]


Following the US-led invasion of Iraq, the overwhelming majority of suicide attacks have been blamed on Salafi-Jihadi groups. Most of the groups currently making broad use of suicide bombing belong to this very specific, yet very diverse, ideological trend of Islamism. No new nationalist group has adopted suicide bombing in more than a decade; but suicide bombings carried out by newly formed Salafi-Jihadi groups has happened rather often in recent years.

Salafi-Jihadism has become the established term in English language analysis for a broad church of particularly radical Islamist ideologies associated in particular with groups stemming from al-Qaeda. Different Salafi-Jihadi thinkers and organisations differ considerably on many issues, both theologically and practically. However, they are united by a strong focus on the importance of military struggle (jihād), combined with an often uncompromising and literalist reading of scripture and religious law (the sharī‘a). Salafi-Jihadism is most prominent in areas where Islamist groups are engaged in armed struggle against a government.

The terminological confusion surrounding groups meeting these characteristics – and other Islamist political movements – is often impenetrable and a detailed exploration of the history and ideological stances of different individuals is beyond the scope of this report.

In short, ‘Salafist’ (salafī in Arabic) refers to religiously strict reform movements characterised by imitation of the salaf, the first, pious generation of Muslims contemporary with the Prophet. Salafists are both engaged in political activity and politically unengaged. Those unengaged are so in part because of the prominence of the ultraconservative but often politically quietist Wahhabist strand of Salafism sponsored by Saudi Arabia, which in its institutional form has generally avoided engagement with – or challenge to – the Saudi political order.

However, Salafist and Wahhabist legal positions are regularly adopted by militant groups of various kinds who adopt a more revolutionary outlook, seeking to establish ‘Islamic’ political orders, either locally or globally. The Islamic State (IS), for example, regularly disseminates books on jurisprudence by Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab (1703-1792) – whose ideas form the basis of official Saudi state ideology.

Ideologues of this kind generally stress the concept of both defensive and offensive war as a religious obligation and a key part of being a good Muslim. Traditionally, jihad was typically treated as a duty of the whole community (farḍ kifāya) which it is sufficient for some members of the community to engage in as much as is necessary, usually for defensive purposes. Many jihadist thinkers, however, consider it to be an individual religious duty (farḍ ‘ayn) – elevating it to an importance similar to praying or going on pilgrimage.

For many Salafi-Jihadis, international jihad mirrors the experience of the Prophet Muhammad. The Prophet Muhammad was forced from his native Mecca by his pagan countrymen into exile (or hijra, ‘migration’) in Medina. There, he and his fellow migrants (muhājirūn), having abandoned their families and property for the cause of Islam, built an ideal Islamic community with the help of the native Medinan Anṣār (‘supporters’). Finally, after building themselves into a strong religious community in exile, the early Muslims returned to Mecca and defeated the pagans.

The replication of this process – exile, spiritual purification and a return to military victory – is a key element in Salafi-Jihadist imagery. IS makes use of traditional Arab poetry, very classical and literary language and even medieval geographical terms, as well as referring to their local supporters as Anṣār and foreign fighters as Muhājirūn.

Martyrdom and suicide bombings in Salafi-Jihadism

Unsurprisingly, Salafi-Jihadi thought places bravery in warfare in a very central ideological position. The willingness to fight and die in the service of God (fī sabīlillāh) is valorised. Death in battle is considered as martyrdom, and those who die in this manner as martyrs.

Although this may seem like the perfect ideological grounding for the use of suicide bombings, Salafi-Jihadists still face a significant barrier in the generalised Islamic prohibition on suicide. Some non-Muslim analysts have attempted to challenge the existence of this prohibition,[xviii] but in doing so they generally miss the point, ignoring both the views of real Muslims and the huge body of legal opinions on this subject.

As has been demonstrated above, there is virtually no Islamic authority or text that sanctions suicide bombings. However, ideological constraints can often be rationalised away, as Kalyvas and Sanchez-Cuenza point out in their discussion of factors discouraging the adoption of suicide bombing.[xix] For Salafi-Jihadist thinkers, the suicide bomber is the equivalent of the medieval knight who throws himself valiantly into the enemy’s lines, knowing he is very unlikely to survive (known as al-inghimās fī ‘ṣ-ṣaff, ‘plunging into the line’); an example of martial valour, not of killing yourself. The term ‘suicide bombing’ is replaced with the euphemism ‘martyrdom operation’ (Arabic ‘amaliyya istishhādiyya), and a suicide bomber is known as an istishhādi (martyr).

This rationalisation is certainly not uncontroversial. The prolific writer Abdurrahman Mahdi – a leading conservative figure – has laid out a long list of decisive and arguably Salafist arguments for the impermissibility of suicide bombing.[xx] And even if they do not criticise it explicitly, many groups that might be described as Salafi-Jihadist have not (yet) made use of it.

Regardless of the debate within the Salafi-Jihadist movement, the two major umbrella organisations within the jihadi world – IS and al-Qaeda – not only embrace suicide bombing but have made it increasingly characteristic of their tactics and an integral part of their language. They not only rationalise overlooking the religious prohibition on suicide (and other related religious prohibitions to do with killing innocents), but they also transform suicide bombing into a religious act – providing an ideological basis for a cult of martyrdom.

Creating the cult of martyrdom

An important part of encouraging people to both fight for and – more pertinently – blow themselves up for an organisation’s political goals, is to convince people that this is a noble action to participate in. This has, quite understandably, been a central concern of the propaganda departments of organisations seeking to recruit bombers since the Hezbollah era.

The techniques used to create the ‘cult of the martyr’ show considerable similarities between groups, particularly those with Islamist tendencies which mobilise Islamic imagery and language. This category includes not only Salafi-Jihadists groups but also more traditional groups belonging to the older ‘nationalist’ grouping, like Hezbollah and Palestinian resistance organisations.[xxi]

The spiritual benefits of martyrdom – rewards in heaven and the remission of sins, among others – are constantly stressed in propaganda materials. These rewards are often erroneously associated by Western commentators with suicide bombing alone. These are, in fact, in the typical reading the rewards of anyone who dies whilst fighting for God. There is no reason to think, of course, that this narrower understanding is not shared (and even cynically encouraged) by recruiters to inspire the suicide bomber.

In nationalist groups, who depended largely on a base of local support, families were often richly compensated in the event that their child volunteered for a suicide bombing. Organisations like Hezbollah put significant amounts of resources into the glorification of suicide bombers, making their names and martyrdom videos public alongside eulogies lauding the selfless sacrifices of the bomber. In these cases personal glory and material gain – if not for the individual but for their family – were obvious additional incentives.

As far as we know, IS does not provide particular financial incentives for bombers. Nor, curiously, does it dedicate much time or resources to promulgating eulogies or martyrdom videos. This is not to say that martyrdom videos have not been produced – some have been published by IS, and many more may have been filmed but not yet broadcast.

But generally speaking the most an IS bomber can hope for is a brief news bulletin about the attack and perhaps a picture. When this information is published, real names are almost never given – instead, a nom de guerre is used consisting of a kunya (taking the form abū ‘father of’ and a typically meaningless name) and a nisba (referring to a country or sometimes a region). In the absence of further information, all that we can usually work out from this is a nationality.

Over a month of monitoring IS’ own reports of suicide bombings and inghimāsī operations – in which as many as 82 different suicide bombings were reported – only 51 were named (not by real name, of course). Only 42 had photographs of them published, and only one biography was disseminated.

Judging from this, and contrary to previous opinion, it appears that renown is not important for many bombers.

Nonetheless, IS does dedicate a lot of effort towards glorifying the idea of the suicide bombing – if not individual bombers. In August 2015, for example, IS’ propaganda department released a short pamphlet entitled “Happiness in Achieving Martyrdom”. The pamphlet collects together various religious evidence for the benefits of becoming a martyr to, according to the pamphlet, motivate “true believers to choose for themselves the best end and the best death.”[xxii]

Likewise, the department responsible for producing nashīds (propaganda songs) regularly puts out songs glorifying martyrdom. One representative nashīd goes as follows:

O Bou Bakr, o Baghdadi
Terror of the enemy
Heaven’s houris are calling me
Sign me up as an istishhādī


This research was undertaken with assistance from the NATO Counter-IED Centre of Excellence.

[i] Verse 8, Surah al-Momtahana (chapter 60) of the Qur’an, Verse 9, Surah al-Momtahana (chapter 60) of the Qur’an

[ii] Verse 190, Surah al-Baqara (chapter 2) of the Qur’an

[iii] Verse 90, Surah al-Nisa’ (chapter 4) of the Qur’an

[iv] Verse 193, Surah al-Baqara (chapter 2) of the Qur’an

[v] Freamon, Bernard K “Martyrdom, Suicide, and the Islamic Law of War: A Short Legal History” p 315, note 48; Fordham International Law Journal, Volume 27, Issue 1; 2003

[vi] Verse 5, Surah al-Tawba (chapter 9) of the Qur’an

[vii] Verse 169, Surah Al ‘Imran (chapter 3) of the Qur’an

[viii] For example: “Judgement on suicide and judgement on washing, burying and praying for the suicide (ukm al-intiār wa-ukm taghsīl al-muntair wa-takfīnu-hu wa-alāh ʿalayhi),” Dār al-Iftā’ al-Miṣriyyah, (accessed 09/03/2016).

[ix] “Explosive operations against civilians (al-ʿamaliyyāt at-tafjīriyyah idd al-madaniyyīn),” Dār al-Iftā’ al-Miṣriyyah, April 2010, accessed 09/03/2016).

[x] Brown, Daniel W. “Rethinking Tradition in Modern Islamic Thought”, 1999. p. 93. You can download the book here:

[xi] Brown, Daniel “Rethinking Tradition in Modern Islamic Thought”, 1999. p. 93 and 113. You can download the book here:

[xii] The book, al-Khomeini: al-Hall al-Islami wa al-Badeel [Khomein: An Islamic Solution and Alternative], was first published in 1979.

[xiii] Abu-Amr, Ziad “Islamic Fundamentalism in the West Bank and Gaza”; published in 1994 by Indiana University Press

[xiv] Freamon, Bernard K “Martyrdom, Suicide, and the Islamic Law of War: A Short Legal History” p 358; Fordham International Law Journal, Volume 27, Issue 1; 2003

[xv] Fathi al-Shaqaqi was assassinated on 21 October 1995 in Malta. It is widely believed that the Israeli Mossad carried out the killing.

[xvi] Ugly End For Man Who Laughed at Death; by Robert Fist; published on 30 October 1995


[xviii] AJ Caschetta, “Does Islam have a role in suicide bombings?” Middle East Quarterly, Summer 2015, (accessed 06/06/2016).

[xix] Stathis N. Kalyvas and Ignacio Sánchez-Cuenca, “Killing Without Dying: The Absence of Suicide Missions,” in Making Sense of Suicide Missions (Gambetta), OUP Oxford, September 2006.

[xx] AbdurRahman Mahdi, “Martyrdom in Jihad versus Suicide Bombing,” Islamic Knowledge, 2012.

[xxi] Ami Pedahzur, “Suicide Terrorism,” Wiley, December 2005.

[xxii] Maktabat al-Himma, “Happiness in Achieving Martyrdom (as-Sa‘āda fī Nayl ash-Shahāda),” Jihadology August 2016, (accessed 13/06/2016).