Leadership, Authority, and Religious Roles

Who are the most important martyrs in Islamic history?

The Arabic word shahid(shaHEED) means “one who testifies or witnesses,” and is thus more or less equivalent to the word martyr. Since earliest times Muslim sources have referred to those who gave their lives for the cause of Islam as martyrs. Shi’a tradition has held martyrs in especially high regard. Beginning with Muhammad’s grandson Husayn, killed with his small band of fighters resisting the tyranny of the Umayyads in 680 C.E., the Imams have been the focus of a central belief in redemptive suffering. In this case the blood of the martyr not only assures the martyr’s place in Heaven but becomes a source of grace for all believers. When the Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran from his exile in France in 1979, he made his first major address in a cemetery called the Paradise of Martyrs, associating the revolutionary struggle of twentieth century Shi’a Iranians with that of the proto-martyr Husayn. Placing such value on martyrdom does not imply that Shi’ites or other Muslims are eager to die. It means that some Muslims, like believers in several other traditions, value their faith and are willing to give their lives for it.


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