What does the word martyr or Shaheed (شَهيد) mean in the Quran? How does the Quran describe martyrs? Do they necessarily have to be killed in battle? Do they go straight to heaven? How can one achieve martyrdom? These questions will be answered in this article which is about martyrs in the Quran.
Who Are Shaheeds or Martyrs in the Quran?
Before we begin talking about how the Quran describes martyrs and who it considers as martyrs, it is necessary to define the word, Shaheed. In Arabic, Shaheed literally means someone who bears testimony to something. In other words, a Shaheed is a witness. It is synonymous with the word Shāhid (شَاهِد). For example, in the following verse, Allah uses the word Shaheed to mean a witness:
قُلْ يَـٰٓأَهْلَ ٱلْكِتَـٰبِ لِمَ تَكْفُرُونَ بِـَٔايَـٰتِ ٱللَّـهِ وَٱللَّـهُ شَهِيدٌ عَلَىٰ مَا تَعْمَلُونَ ﴿98﴾
Say, “O People of the Book, why do you disbelieve in God’s signs; [do you not know that] God is witness over what you perform?” 1
The Quran uses the word Shaheed in this sense in all its verses save one:
وَمَن يُطِعِ ٱللَّـهَ وَٱلرَّسُولَ فَأُو۟لَـٰٓئِكَ مَعَ ٱلَّذِينَ أَنْعَمَ ٱللَّـهُ عَلَيْهِم مِّنَ ٱلنَّبِيِّـۧنَ وَٱلصِّدِّيقِينَ وَٱلشُّهَدَآءِ وَٱلصَّـٰلِحِينَ ۚ وَحَسُنَ أُو۟لَـٰٓئِكَ رَفِيقًا ﴿69﴾
And whoever obeys God and the messenger, they are with the Prophets, the truthful, the martyrs and the righteous upon whom God has bestowed favors. Indeed, they are good companions.
Most, if not all translators and exegetes of the Quran have said that the word Shuhadā’ (شُهَداء) in the above verse means martyrs, not witnesses, unlike the other verses.
So, who are martyrs, and who does Allah count as a martyr? What does one have to do to become a martyr? Are there people who are better than martyrs? Well, according to the above verse, their spiritual status and rank are mentioned from the highest to the lowest. Of course, even those with a lower rank compared to the higher ones are much more virtuous than ordinary and common Muslims. The Quran mentions this hierarchy of righteous people in the following way:
- The Prophets (نَبِيِّين)
- The [Incredibly] Truthful (صِدِيقِين)
- The Martyrs (شُهَداء)
- The Righteous (صَالِحين)
Of course, one can be all or a few of them at the same time. For example, Prophet John who was martyred, was a prophet, an extremely truthful individual, and a righteous servant of Allah. Our own Prophet Muhammad was also according to some narrations a martyr as well. However, perhaps the most prominent martyr in Islam is Hussain ibn Ali who was martyred in Karbala on the day of Ashura. Read the article Who is Hussain to know more about him.
Who Are Martyrs in the Quran?
In the Quran and narrations, a person who dies in a holy struggle such as a battle is a martyr in the truest sense of the word. Such a person is so respectful and reverent that he does not even need to be enshrouded with kafan (کَفَن)—the special pieces of cloth that are wrapped around the dead body—for burial, unlike others who die outside battle. The Quran says the following about those who are killed in the way of Allah. They are alive, even though we cannot sense them:
وَلَا تَقُولُوا۟ لِمَن يُقْتَلُ فِى سَبِيلِ ٱللَّـهِ أَمْوَٰتٌۢ ۚ بَلْ أَحْيَآءٌ وَلَـٰكِن لَّا تَشْعُرُونَ ﴿154﴾
Do not say [to the people] who are killed on the path of God, “They are dead”. No! They are alive, but you are unaware. 2
According to some exegetes, when martyrs die, they go to the afterlife (barzakh) but they have much more control over their actions than other people who are in the afterlife and can even affect what happens in this world. Their sins are forgiven and Allah provides them with all kinds of provisions:
وَلَا تَحْسَبَنَّ ٱلَّذِينَ قُتِلُوا۟ فِى سَبِيلِ ٱللَّـهِ أَمْوَٰتًۢا ۚ بَلْ أَحْيَآءٌ عِندَ رَبِّهِمْ يُرْزَقُونَ ﴿169﴾
And do not imagine that those who were killed in God’s path are dead. No! They are living and they are provided near their Lord. 3
Of course, martyrs have different ranks and stations before Allah. For example, the martyrs of the Battles of Badr and Uhud have higher ranks than other martyrs. Moreover, the Master of Martyrs (سيد الشهداء), Hussain ibn Ali, has the highest rank among all martyrs and his status of being alive and having the capability to affect what happens in this world is much more than other martyrs.
Hadith About Martyrs
There is no doubt that martyrs have a very high status before Allah. Let us take a look at a few hadiths from the Noble Prophet:
أَشرفُ القَتلِ قَتلُ الشُّهداءِ
One of the best ways for a person to die is martyrdom.
Only those who know the worth and status of martyrs wish to die as martyrs. Why you may ask? Martyrs are alive, they are immortal, they dwell in heaven, and Allah provides them with all kinds of blessings and bounties.
Another beautiful hadith from the Noble Prophet about martyrdom reads:
فَوقُ كُلِّ ذِی بِرٍّ بِرٌّ حتّی یُقتلَ الرّجُلُ شهیداً فی سبیلِ الله
There is a better deed for every good deed except martyrdom in the way of Allah.
Now, why is martyrdom the best deed? It is because a person gives everything he has and endears the most, that is, his life for the cause of Allah and his religion. If you are ready to be killed for defending your religion, the reward you receive must be equivalent to your endeavor. Therefore, Allah raises the status of martyrs so high that no one can even imagine. It is important to realize that only those who are righteous and deserve martyrdom become martyrs. In other words, you must have the privilege to become a martyr. Many people fought many battles but did not die on the battlefield. They ultimately died naturally.
Acts of Martyrs in the Quran
As was said, martyrs are alive in the realm of barzakh, a mysterious world that exists in between life and the Day of Judgment. Every time we go to sleep, our spirit leaves our bodies and enters the realm of barzakh. That is why we can see people who have died including martyrs who are actually alive but we think they are dead in our dreams. The Quran has several verses about the way martyrs feel and what they do. For example, the following verse reads:
مِّنَ ٱلْمُؤْمِنِينَ رِجَالٌ صَدَقُوا۟ مَا عَـٰهَدُوا۟ ٱللَّـهَ عَلَيْهِ ۖ فَمِنْهُم مَّن قَضَىٰ نَحْبَهُۥ وَمِنْهُم مَّن يَنتَظِرُ ۖ وَمَا بَدَّلُوا۟ تَبْدِيلًا ﴿23﴾
There are men among the believers who were true to their covenant with God. Some of them fulfilled [and passed away] and some of them still wait, and they have not changed in the least. 4
Most if not all Quranic exegetes say that this verse is about martyrs. They were true to their covenant with God and fulfilled it by dying in His path. Some are still waiting to be martyred and they do not change at all, meaning they are always on the straight path.
Two other verses read:
فَرِحِينَ بِمَآ ءَاتَىٰهُمُ ٱللَّـهُ مِن فَضْلِهِۦ وَيَسْتَبْشِرُونَ بِٱلَّذِينَ لَمْ يَلْحَقُوا۟ بِهِم مِّنْ خَلْفِهِمْ أَلَّا خَوْفٌ عَلَيْهِمْ وَلَا هُمْ يَحْزَنُونَ ﴿170﴾
يَسْتَبْشِرُونَ بِنِعْمَةٍ مِّنَ ٱللَّـهِ وَفَضْلٍ وَأَنَّ ٱللَّـهَ لَا يُضِيعُ أَجْرَ ٱلْمُؤْمِنِينَ ﴿171﴾
They [martyrs] are happy with [the blessings] which God has given them out of His bounty, and they are joyful [about those] who have not joined them yet and remained behind [but they will join them soon in Heaven]. And they will neither fear nor grieve. They are happy with God’s bounty and grace, and that God does not waste the rewards of the believers. 5
The fact that martyrs feel happy shows that they have control over their emotions and are alive. They wait for those believers who have not been martyred yet to join them soon. They are content with what Allah has given them of His rewards. Martyrs have nothing to fear about as all their sins are forgiven and they will enter paradise on Qiyamah.
Do Martyrs Go Straight to Heaven?
This is a question that many people ask. What if someone has sinned his entire life but suddenly wants to become a martyr by fighting in a holy struggle? Is such a person a martyr and will he go straight to heaven? First, as we said, not everyone has the privilege to become a martyr. It is Allah who chooses who is to become a martyr based on how a person uses his free will to be a righteous and pious servant of Allah. Second, even if a sinful person becomes a martyr, he has given his life for the sake of Allah; his sins will be forgiven or compensated for by Allah. Of course, a person who has lived a life of sinfulness and wants to become a martyr must first repent of all of his sins. That is when his martyrdom will be accepted.
Martyrs are individuals who give whatever they have, meaning their life for the sake of Allah and His cause. Based on the Quran, martyrs are not dead, but rather alive and have the capability to make changes to and affect things that happen in the world. However, we cannot sense them and are not aware of their liveliness. Many people wish to become martyrs as it is the best way of dying according to the Prophet (s). Finally, martyrs are given great rewards by Allah and are joyful of their conditions.
- Quran 3:98 (Foroutan).
- Quran 2:154 (Foroutan).
- Quran 3:169 (Foroutan).
- Quran 33:23 (Foroutan).
- Quran 3:170-171 (Foroutan).