Shahadah and Halakah

Reflections & Thoughts 

After a number of unforeseen circumstances brought life in the seminary for myself and a number of other brothers to an abrupt end, transitioning back into the Western world and adjusting to the drastically different life has not been easy, to say the least. It also had certain repercussions for Iqra Online as a large number of papers, transcriptions, and translations that were being worked on will not be finished as life begins to take its toll and time becomes more and more scarce. Over the decade, Iqra Online has been a source for a small group of Shi’a and some Sunnis to get only a glimpse of the type of contemporary research, discussions, and ideas that are being brought up and engaged within the Shi’a seminaries. I am grateful for all the support, comments, feedback, and suggestions I have received over all these years. I am also aware of the negative remarks, accusations, and comments about myself, or other contributors have received due to the nature of the content shared or published through Iqra Online, and I have learned a lot from those as well, about myself and as well as about the community at large. Ultimately, the content on Iqra Online isn’t for the entire community; there is a very small segment of people in the community who are interested in it and it is this audience that we always wished to address.

In any case, given the lack of time, as far as my own contributions are concerned, you will be seeing more content in the form of reflections. This will allow me to overlook the formalities of translating, transcribing, writing my own papers, heavy editing and referencing, and simply write out thoughts, reflections or pointers that I have or will come across over the course of my studies and readings as that is definitely a never-ending journey. Do not expect these writings to be very organized, as most of them may be very scattered thoughts.

With that being said, in this post, I wanted to touch upon the concepts of martyrdom (shahadah) and destruction (halakah).

The Qur’an does not use the word shaheed (lit. witness) for those who are killed in the way of Allah, or those who are killed while defending themselves. Rather the Qur’an refers to a group of people “who are killed in the way of Allah” – in (2:154) and (3:169).

وَلَا تَقُولُوا۟ لِمَن يُقْتَلُ فِى سَبِيلِ ٱللَّهِ أَمْوَٰتٌۢ ۚ بَلْ أَحْيَآءٌ وَلَـٰكِن لَّا تَشْعُرُونَ

وَلَا تَحْسَبَنَّ ٱلَّذِينَ قُتِلُوا۟ فِى سَبِيلِ ٱللَّهِ أَمْوَٰتًۢا ۚ بَلْ أَحْيَآءٌ عِندَ رَبِّهِمْ يُرْزَقُونَ

The word shaheed or shuhada’ became a legally veritative term to refer to this group of people who came to be known as martyrs. There are extensive discussions in jurisprudence as to who these groups of people are. According to most Shi’a jurists, the martyrs, for whom laws of martyrdom also apply (such as not having to give them the ghusl), are only those who die on the battlefield while engaging in an offensive war, with the goal of establishing the religion of Islam, under the authority of an infallible or a direct representative of an infallible. In the occultation, those who die while defending their lands, homes, families and homes, are not considered martyrs – in the legal sense – as per a vast majority of Shi’a jurists, unless their defense was of a nature where the presence of Islam is at stake.1 This does not mean they cannot receive rewards that martyrs receive, as there are a large group of people mentioned in narrations who will receive the reward of those who are martyred. This second use of the term martyr is commonly found in the hadith literature and that is when individuals die in certain circumstances, they are likened to the first definition of shaheed and are spoken highly of. For example, someone who dies defending their family, their wealth, or a woman who dies in labour, or someone who drowns etc. are all considered in the ranks of martyrs, which is a reference to them being given a similar reward as someone who is killed in battle.

In contemporary times, some jurists have tried to question this restricted legal definition of a martyr and have tried to expand the concept of those “who die in the way of Allah” from just an offensive war, to including more instances as well. A pertinent question though, is the boundary that differentiates martyrdom from destruction. In other words, how do we know that if someone is killed, or they die, that they are a “martyr”, as opposed to someone who has just died? Why do we not call someone who dies in a car accident or a plane crash a martyr, but someone who dies trying to establish the religion a martyr? One criterion we can possibly give is that, whenever a person goes into danger and there is a risk of death, but taking this risk is legitimized by Islam, then if this person dies, they have achieved shahadah – they have died in the “way of Allah”. Otherwise, it is simply death and destruction.

Every religious injunction and practice is conditioned to the fact that it must not result in harm. For example, if it is harmful to a person to fast, then there is no obligation of fasting. If a person decides to fast anyways and they die, this is not martyrdom, there is nothing praiseworthy about their death. This is just destruction as they have caused death for themselves. Allah (swt) does not want such a fast. Likewise, one of the societal responsibilities is enjoining the good and forbidding the evil. Even laws regardings these two responsibilities are conditioned to the principle of harm, and if someone tries to fulfill this obligation by risking death, and in this process, they end up getting killed, then that is not shahadah, it is halakah. There was no obligation on them, to begin with. All jurists agree there should be no danger for a person when engaging in these two responsibilities. Yes, the murderer will be arrested and taken to court, but the person who was killed is simply considered murdered and dead, not a martyr.

Only in a very few rare exceptional circumstances does enjoining the good and forbidding the evil become so necessary that one must give away their life for it. These instances are very rare and uncommon in the lives of the vast majority of Muslims. One of the most important verses that dictates the concept of not throwing yourself into destruction is [2:195]:

وَلَا تُلْقُوا بِأَيْدِيكُمْ إِلَى التَّهْلُكَةِ

…do not let your own hands throw you into destruction…

When Ma’mun invites Imam al-Rida (a) to become the vizier, the Imam (a) initially refuses. When Ma’mun begins to pressure the Imam and tells him (a) that he will strike his (a) neck if he does not accept the proposal, the Imam (a) accepts and tells his companions:

 قال الرضا (عليه السلام): قد نهاني الله عزوجل أن ألقي بيدي إلى التهلكة

Allah (azwj) has prohibited me from throwing myself into destruction with my own hands (a reference to 2:195).

This verse is so important that it became the basis of interpreting the actions of all of the infallibles in the works of Shi’a scholars. In fact, it was such a well-established principle that many Shi’a scholars had to explain how this verse can be reconciled with what Imam al-Husayn (a) did in Karbala. What is astonishing is that even in the case of Maytham al-Tammar, Shi’i jurists did not easily justify his decision to not disassociate from Imam Ali (a) which led to his death, but instead reflected on whether his death was truly shahadah or simply halakah. Many, in their attempts to keep Maytham free from fault, justify his decision by saying that perhaps Maytham knew no matter what happens the Umayyads would have killed him, or they say that it is because Maytham was such an influential person that if he also remained silent then it would cause a negative impression on the Shi’as – meaning at least one person, especially the most influential people have to take a stand. Maytham was put in a situation where he had no other choice. In fact, scholars say this is not something the average Shi’a has to take inspiration from. Consider what Imam Khumayni says about this in his treatise on dissimulation:

وامّا قضیّة میثم وإن کانت معروفة ، ولا یبعد ثبوتها إجمالاً ، ولکنّها قضیّة فی واقعة ، ولعلّه کان عالماً بأنّ الدعیّ عبیداللّه بن زیاد یقتله برِئَ من علیّ علیه السلام أو لا ، وکانت براءته منه غیر مفیدة بحاله ، بل مضرّة وموجبة لفضاحته مضافاً إلیٰ قتله

As for the story of Maytham, even though it is famous, and it is not far-fetched that it is generally established, but it is a specific and circumstantial case (i.e. it is not something one should imitate nor derive a universal practice from). Perhaps he was aware that ‘Ubaydullah b. Ziyad’s proponent would kill him, whether Maytham disassociated himself from ‘Ali (a) or not, and hence Maytham’s disassociation would have not had any benefit, rather it would be harmful and a cause of his embarrassment on top of his murder.

Ayatullah Khu’i says the same: the story of Maytham is not a general practice that can be imitated. Instead of teaching people that the Islamic principle is to not throw yourself into destruction, we often seem to be encouraging the complete opposite, usually highlighting these same personalities as role models, whereas scholars seem to be understanding something completely different in their advanced and more nuanced discussions. Sayyid Khu’i says:

بقي هنا شيء: و هو أن الذي يظهر من هذه الروايات، و من غيرها، أن جماعة من أصحاب أمير المؤمنين(ع)و أصحاب الحسين(ع)كانوا مجاهرين في حب أهل البيت(ع)، و بيان فضائلهم، و البراءة من أعدائهم، و سبب ذلك انتهاء أمرهم إلى الحبس و القتل، و لا شك في أن ما ارتكبوه من ترك التقية كان وظيفة خاصة لهم

What is apparent from these narrations, and others, is that a group of companions of Imam Ali (a), and Imam al-Husayn (a) were very vocal about their love of the Ahl al-Bayt (a), mentioning their merits, and disassociating from their enemies, which led to their imprisonment and death. There is no doubt that what they engaged in, by abandoning dissimulation, was a specific responsibility for them.

Interestingly, there is also a narration in al-Kafi where Imam Sadiq (a) seems to be upset as to why Maytham did not conceal his faith, even though perhaps Maytham had a choice.

عَلِيٌّ عَنْ أَبِيهِ عَنِ ابْنِ أَبِي عُمَيْرٍ عَنْ جَمِيلٍ عَنْ مُحَمَّدِ بْنِ مَرْوَانَ قَالَ قَالَ لِي أَبُو عَبْدِ اللَّهِ ع‏ مَا مُنِعَ مِيثَمٌ رَحِمَهُ اللَّهُ مِنَ التَّقِيَّةِ فَوَ اللَّهِ لَقَدْ عَلِمَ أَنَّ هَذِهِ الْآيَةَ نَزَلَتْ فِي عَمَّارٍ وَ أَصْحَابِهِ- إِلَّا مَنْ أُكْرِهَ وَ قَلْبُهُ مُطْمَئِنٌّ بِالْإِيمان‏

Once Abu ‘Abdillah (a) said to me, ‘What prevented Maytham – may Allah grant him blessings – from dissimulation? He by Allah knew that this verse of the Holy Quran was revealed about ‘Ammar and his people, ‘. . . unless he is forced, but his heart is confident with belief. . . .’” [16:106]

Regardless, whether it be Maytham or any other prominent companion of the Imams (a), these were people whose life and death entailed the protection of the religion or a certain belief within the religion. Yet, it is clear that scholars were not easily able to explain away their decisions, as they understood it does not fit within the Quranic principle laid out in [2:195]. Imam Sajjad (a), who spent more than three decades under the Umayyad government as an Imam, makes a reference to this verse in his Treatise of Rights, under the section of “The Right of the Possessor of Authority (Sultan)”:

حق السلطان
فأَمَّا حَقُّ السُّلْطَانِ فَأَنْ تَعْلَمَ أنّكَ جُعِلْتَ لَهُ فِتنَةً وأنَّهُ مُبْتَلىً فِيكَ بمَا جَعَلَهُ اللهُ لَهُ عَلَيْكَ مِنَ السُّلْطَانِ وأن عليك أن لا تتعرض لسخطه، فتلقي بيديك إلى التهلكة، وتكون شريكا له فيما يأتي إليك من سوء.

The right of the possessor of authority is that you know that God has made you a trial for him. God is testing him through the authority He has given him over you. You should not expose yourself to his displeasure, for thereby you cast yourself by your own hands into destruction and become his partner in his sin when he brings evil down upon you.

Even when it comes to Imam al-Husayn (a), many scholars had to reconcile his actions with this verse, in order to be able to say that Imam al-Husayn’s (a) killing was not just a mere death, rather it was martyrdom and he was “killed in the way of Allah”. Most scholars are not willing to question the meaning of the verse, but they do try and give an explanation for why Imam al-Husayn (a) went to Karbala, given that he knew – as per most Shi’a scholars – that he (a) would be killed. Great scholars like ‘Allamah Tabrisi, Muhaqqiq Karaki, Shahid Thani, Sahib al-Jawahir etc. have discussed this matter. Just like in the case of Maytham, a vast majority of Shi’a jurists believe what Imam al-Husayn (a) did was only his specific responsibility, and that perhaps we do not even know why he (a) did what he did. According to them, his actions are not something that can be used to derive rulings regarding our responsibility, and it is for this reason why we generally see a complete absence of Karbala and Ashura from the books of deductive jurisprudence, even in chapters of enjoining the good and forbidding the evil. Consider what the great jurist Sahib al-Jawahir says:

وما وقع من الحسين عليه‌السلام مع أنه من الأسرار الربانية والعلم المخزون يمكن أن يكون لانحصار الطريق في ذلك ، علما منه عليه‌السلام أنهم عازمون على قتله على كل حال كما هو الظاهر من أفعالهم وأحوالهم وكفرهم وعنادهم

What occurred with Ḥusayn (a), besides that it was from the divine secrets and the concealed knowledge (of Allah), it is possible that this was the only way to that, as he (a) knew that they had decided to kill him under all circumstances, as it is apparent from their actions, their conditions, their disbelief and enmity.

على أنه له تكليف خاص قد قدم عليه وبادر إلى إجابته ، ومعصوم من الخطأ لا يعترض على فعله ولا قوله ، فلا يقاس عليه من كان تكليفه ظاهر الأدلة والأخذ بعمومها وإطلاقها …. وحب لقاء الله تعالى وإن كان مستحسنا ولكن حيث يكون مشروعا 

Further, this was a special responsibility for him which he hastened towards fulfilling, and someone who is protected from mistakes cannot be questioned regarding his actions and words, as they cannot be compared to those (i.e. us) whose responsibility has to be in accordance with the apparent evidence, or recourse to generic and absolute principles…and while the desire of meeting Allah is good, it should be done through a religiously legitimate way…

‘Allamah Tabrisi in his Majma’ al-Bayan says when one is weakened and they know that they will die if they continue fighting, then the only option is to do a sulh – a truce. According to ‘Allamah Tabrisi, Imam al-Husayn (a) didn’t do a truce because he had no choice or an escape route:

وفي هذه الآية دلالة على تحريم الإقدام على ما يخاف منه على النفس، وعلى جواز ترك الأمر بالمعروف عند الخوف، لأن في ذلك إلقاء النفس إلى التهلكة. وفيها دلالة على جواز الصلح مع الكفار والبغاة، إذا خاف الإمام على نفسه، أو على المسلمين كما فعله رسول الله ” صلى الله عليه وآله وسلم ” عام الحديبية، وفعله أمير المؤمنين ” عليه السلام ” بصفين، وفعله ” عليه السلام ” مع معاوية من المصالحة لما تشتت أمره، وخاف على نفسه وشيعته. فإن عورضنا بأن الحسين ” عليه السلام ” قاتل وحده؟ فالجواب: إن فعله يحتمل وجهين أحدهما: إنه ظن أنهم لا يقتلونه لمكانه من رسول الله ” صلى الله عليه وآله وسلم ” والآخر: إنه غلب على ظنه أنه لو ترك قتالهم قتله الملعون ابن زياد صبرا، كما فعل بابن عمه مسلم، فكان القتل مع عز النفس والجهاد، أهون عليه.

In this verse there is an indication of the prohibition of engaging in that which one fears will harm them, and that it is permissible to abandon amr bi al-ma’ruf when there is fear, because that is a destruction of the self. In it is an indication of the permissibility of doing a truce with the disbelievers and transgressors, when the Imam fears for his life, or for the life of the Muslims, just as the Prophet (p) did in the year of Hudaybiyyah or how Imam ‘Ali (a) did in Siffin, and what Imam Hasan (a) did with Mu’awiyah when things became chaotic, which made him fear for his life and his followers. If we are questioned regarding why is Husayn (a) the only one who fought, then the response is: His decision has two possibilities, firstly that he (a) thought they would not kill him due to his relationship with the Messenger of Allah, or secondly he thought that if he does not fight them, Ibn Ziyad the accursed would kill him regardless, just as he did with his (a) cousin Muslim (b. ‘Aqeel). In this case, fighting while safeguarding his honour was easier for him.

The Quranic principle laid out in [2:195] is so important that ‘Allamah Tabrisi is not even willing to exclude Imam al-Husayn (a) from it and has to find a way to reconcile between Imam al-Husayn’s (a) decision on ‘Ashura while still ensuring no one says he was in violation of this verse or that he was given an exception. Most Shi’a scholars shared similar sentiments throughout the centuries. If you put yourself in a situation where you know you would die in vain, this is not martyrdom, nor is it praiseworthy, it is simply destruction and death. This is essentially the general principle Muslims have to adopt, and then exceptional circumstances need to be determined.


  1. See al-‘Urwah regarding where ghusl al-mayyit is not required: