What is martyrdom in Islam?
The word for ‘martyr’ in Islamic literature is shaheed. This word in fact means ‘witness’ and is used commonly in the Holy Quran as meaning a witness to something. God is repeatedly called a shaheed, as in “Allah is witness of what you do” (3:98) and “Allah is sufficient as a witness between us and you” (10:29). The Holy Prophet Muhammad is called a “witness” upon his followers, and Muslims are called “witnesses” or bearers of witness to all mankind (2:143), i.e. bearers of truth. Every prophet, including Jesus, is referred to as a witness over his followers (4:41, 5:117). The same word is used for witnesses in contracts and civil matters (2:282, 4:135).
Similarly, the word for martyrdom is shahada, but it is used in the Quran only as meaning testimony of any kind or something that is obvious and seen, as in “do not conceal testimony” (2:283), “our testimony is truer than the testimony of these two” (5:107), and the statement which occurs several times about God that “He is the knower of the unseen and the seen (shahada)” (6:73). This word as meaning testimony is also famously applied to the act of testifying to become a Muslim, and even in English one hears the expression “making the shahada” when referring to this act.
These words are applied to martyrs and martyrdom because the life and death of a martyr is a testimony to the truth of Islam. But who is a martyr? Just as jihad is not synonymous with war, a Muslim can be a shaheed without being killed in any connection with a battle. It is reported in Hadith:
Anyone dying in any manner while working sincerely in the service of Islam is thus a martyr or shaheed. On the other hand, a Muslim just by being killed in a battle is not necessarily a martyr. According to the Holy Prophet, on the Day of Judgment a man considered to be a shaheed could be judged by Allah as follows:
It is clear from this that while a Muslim may consider that a certain act would earn him martyrdom yet he may find himself condemned by God in the Hereafter for making a false claim and punished for it.
Similarly, a man asked the Holy Prophet: “If I am killed in the way of Allah, do you think my sins will be forgiven?”. The Holy Prophet replied, at first, that his sins would be forgiven provided that he was patient and sincere, and fought facing the enemy without turning back, but then the Holy Prophet added: “except (the sin of) leaving a debt”.  It looks as if he owed a debt, and the Holy Prophet reminded him that if he went to fight, without discharging the obligation of repaying his debt, and is killed, his neglect of this duty will not be forgiven by Allah.
The fact is that martyrdom in Islam is a spiritual rank in the life after death and no one can be sure that if he died while engaged in a certain work God would bestow this rank upon him. What we can be sure of, however, is that this rank cannot be attained by acting against the teachings of Islam, even though the deceased may have believed he was engaged in a struggle in support of Islam. What must be further emphasised is that a martyr is one who dies as a result of someone else’s action against him which he resists as far as possible, or due to circumstances entirely beyond his control. It has been mentioned in the Hadith report quoted above that a Muslim who dies of cholera or the plague is a martyr. But, quite obviously, it is completely against the very basic teachings of Islam for a Muslim deliberately to seek to catch these diseases in order to die as a martyr! Indeed, a Muslim should take all measures to avoid falling a victim to them. But if he should happen to fall ill unintentionally and die while serving Islam he will earn a high place in the hereafter.
Similarly, a Muslim killed in battle must be killed by the action of his enemy, while he is repelling that opponent, or due to some other external cause beyond the scope of his control and planning, as one of the conditions to be a martyr.
Suicide is a sin in Islam, and self-preservation is a duty
The committing of suicide is a very serious sin according to the clear teachings of Islam. The Holy Quran instructs:
In Hadith reports, committing suicide is strongly condemned by the Prophet Muhammad who said:
In Sahih Muslim, there is a chapter entitled Abandoning of funeral prayer for him who committed suicide in which it is reported that the Holy Prophet Muhammad personally refused to say the funeral prayer for a deceased who had killed himself.  In Muslim countries, attempted suicide has always been a criminal offence and a person guilty of it would face legal penalties.
Self-preservation and saving of one’s life is the most basic human instinct. Actions to save one’s life are regarded in the Quran as matters of such high priority that it allows a Muslim to set aside certain obligatory duties and prohibitions, if necessary, to save his life. We give some details of this below.
1. Where the Quran prohibits the eating of certain things, in- cluding the meat of the pig, it allows their consumption if it be- comes unavoidably necessary in order to save one’s life. In two verses, after mentioning the prohibited foods it is stated:
Nowhere does the Quran say that if a Muslim invites certain death upon himself rather than make use of a prohibited food to save his life then he is some kind of a martyr.
2. A Muslim who denies his faith under duress and coercion in order to save his life, while believing in Islam in his heart, is excluded from condemnation in the Quran:
Thus if a Muslim is threatened by an enemy of Islam that he will be killed unless he renounces Islam, or face some other dire consequences, the Quran allows him to save his life by making merely an outward renunciation, even though it would constitute a grave sin to make the same denial voluntarily.
3. If fasting during the month of Ramadan would endanger the life of a Muslim man or woman, young or old, this obligation is suspended. Again, to knowingly cause injury to oneself, in order to carry out the duty of fasting, is not any kind of a good or meritorious deed in Islam.
4. It is well known that the obligation of going to perform the Pilgrimage to Makkah (hajj) does not apply to anyone whose life would be in danger for any reason by undertaking the visit.
Finally, as explained earlier in this book, even the taking up of arms to fight, by risking one’s life, is only allowed by Islam in order to save and preserve life as the alternative would be to face certain death and destruction. For instance, verses 22:39–40 have been quoted in Section 4 of this book (see page 31) which allow Muslims to fight if war has been made upon them, and they are required to repel their enemies in order to save all places of worship from destruction. By repelling their enemy the Muslims saved their own lives, not committed suicide.
Virgins in heaven as reward for martyrs
The misconceived notion that a Muslim male who dies as a martyr is rewarded in the hereafter with seventy-two virgins has brought Islam into disrepute and ridicule, and proved a source of much amusement and mockery for those unaware of the teachings of Islam regarding the hereafter. In this booklet we cannot enter into a detailed discussion of the Islamic concept of paradise or the garden of the next life but the following key points are necessary to know.
Firstly, the rewards of the hereafter are not the material things that we enjoy in this physical world. The life after death is in a world that cannot even be conceived by the human mind in this life, and human beings there will have an entirely different existence that cannot be known here. The Holy Quran says:
Other English translations phrase the second part of this quotation as “changing the nature of your existence and bringing you into being anew in a manner as yet unknown to you” (Muhammad Asad), “producing you again in a form which ye know not” (Rodwell), and “that We may transfigure you and make you what you know not” (Pickthall).
The enjoyments in the gardens of the hereafter are of an unknown nature in this world, as the Quran says:
This is why the description of the garden of the hereafter is called a parable, as in: “A parable of the garden which is promised to those who keep their duty” (13:35 and 47:15).
Secondly, the Quran has made it abundantly clear no less than eight times that men and women are equally entitled to the rewards of the heavenly life. It says:
Thus the women among the believers will have the same rewards and enjoyments as the men of the believers.
Thirdly, all these rewards are manifestations of the good qualities shown and good deeds done by a person in this life, which are unfolded before him or her. For example, the “light gleaming before them and on their right hand” (57:12) is not a physical lamp of this world, but a representation of their light of faith. In one place in the Quran we read:
After mentioning the gardens of the next life, a good word is compared to a good tree, ever bearing fruit. Therefore, the trees of the gardens of the hereafter are a person’s good deeds done in this life which appear as trees that bear fruit, just as his good deeds bore fruit.
Likewise, the “beautiful maidens” of the next life are not as women of this world with whom men will have sexual relations. They are the good qualities shown in this life, such as honesty, purity of character, charity, integrity and faith that are manifested in this form. These maidens are called “pure companions” (2:25, 3:15, 4:57) because they are the appearance of the pure qualities that were one’s companions in this life.
In fact, in verse 3:15 the desirability of the “pure companions” is clearly differentiated from the sexual desire for women in this life. Verse 3:14 refers to the attractiveness of the material desires of this world as follows:
The next verse then says:
It is clearly obvious from these passages that while sexual desire for women is a craving and a necessity for this material world, better and superior than this is to strive to acquire the qualities that become our “pure companions” in the next world. This repudiates the very idea that we should wish for our physical desires of this world to be satisfied, as a reward, in the next world.
In many recent articles, published on websites and elsewhere, a saying of the Prophet Muhammad from Tirmidhi is quoted, often by way of ridicule and mockery, according to which a man in paradise will have 72 “wives” (what these articles refer to as the 72 virgins).  But in the same collection of Tirmidhi we find, only a little later, the following report:
“Faith has seventy and something gates, the least of which is to remove from the road a harmful thing and the highest is to say ‘There is no god but Allah’.” 
It is the “seventy and something” constituents of faith, two of which are specified here (the highest and the least, while another one often mentioned in such reports is modesty), which, for those who possess them in this life, become represented in the next life as “maidens”.
There is also another explanation of the concept of “virgins” in the next world, based on the following verses of the Quran which refer to some of the rewards to be found there:
“Surely We have created them (as) a (new) creation, so We have made them virgins, loving, equals in age…” — 56:35–37.
The pronoun “them”, occurring twice here, is in the feminine. A commonly-accepted meaning is that this refers to the believing women. They will be raised in the next life in a new form of creation corresponding to their purity of character in this world, and thus it is said: We have made them virgins. This interpretation is also supported by an explanation of these verses reported from the Holy Prophet Muhammad, in a collection by Tirmidhi known as Shama’il:
Their resurrection as “virgins” is only a spiritual representation of the purity with which they led their lives in this world. There is no question of sexual relations in the next life as that life is not physical life which requires such relations. The word for “equals in age” in the above passage can also signify that they are similar in their good qualities to the believing men.
It may be noted that the term “virgin” has been used in the Bible as a symbolism. The nation of Israel is called a “virgin” in many places (for example, Jeremiah, ch. 31, Amos, ch. 5). The Gospel of Matthew contains the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, which Jesus begins to relate as follows: “Then the kingdom of heaven shall be likened to ten virgins” (ch. 25, v. 1). Obviously, virgin girls for men’s pleasure are not meant here.
Notes on Section 6
1 Muslim, book: ‘Government’, h. 1915a (AHS: b. 20, n. 4706).
2 Muslim, book: ‘Government’, h. 1905a (AHS: b. 20, n. 4688).
3 Muslim, book: ‘Government’, h. 1885a (AHS: b. 20, n. 4646).
4 Bukhari, book: ‘Oaths and vows’, h. 6652 (MK: b. 78, n. 647).
5 Muslim, book: ‘Prayer — Funerals’, h. 978 (AHS: b. 4, ch. 205, n. 2133).
6 Tirmidhi, chapters: ‘Description of Paradise’, h. 2760 (MDR: h. 2562).
7 Tirmidhi, chapters: ‘Faith’, h. 2614.
8 Shama’il Tirmidhi, chapter: ‘Joking of the Messenger of Allah’, report 230 (edition of Maulana Muhammad Zakariyya).