Adapted from an article by Dr. Ahmad al-Raysūnī on the topic from his website.
Often times we refer to so-and-so as a “shahīd” or martyr when referring to Muslims who have died while standing up for truth and justice. We might say al-Shahīd (the martyr) Malcolm X or al-Shahīd Hasan al-Banna. When some people hear such statements they take offense saying that we should not describe people as such because only God knows who is and is not a martyr.
There are some scholars who hold this opinion and they have two major evidences for doing so.
- In Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī there is a chapter entitled, “One should not say that someone is a martyr.” In this chapter he relates a statement of the Prophet ﷺ (peace be upon him) wherein he said, “God knows best who fights in His way and who speaks in His way [meaning in His cause].”
- In Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim there is a a ḥadīth (record of the words, approval, or action of the Prophet) that says that after the battle of Khaybar the Muslims were passing by some of the Companions (may God be pleased with them) that were killed and saying: “So-and-so is a martyr (shahīd), and so-and-so is a martyr.” Then they passed by one person and said this, and the Prophet ﷺ said, “No he’s not. Verily, I saw him in Hell wearing a cloak that he took from the booty.”
Before responding to these evidences it is important to say that the actual status of someone in the Hereafter is the knowledge of God alone. He is the only one who knows who will be in Paradise, who will be in Hell, who will be forgiven, who will be punished, and so on. Upon this point there is no disagreement. However, that does not mean that we cannot call someone a martyr. Actually, such an action is in agreement with the Qur’an and the Sunna (tradition of the Prophet) because of the following evidences.
- In the above mentioned hadith from Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim, the Prophetﷺ remained silent when several of the Companions (ra) called others martyrs and only spoke up in relation to one of them. It is well-known in Uṣūl al-Fiqh that the silent approval of the Prophet ﷺ is valid evidence in Islamic law.
- There is another hadith in Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī where Jābir ibn ʿAbdullah (ra) comes to the Prophet ﷺ and mentions to him that his father was martyred in the battle of Uḥud. In this case the Prophet ﷺ was again silent which is evidence that it is not prohibited to call someone a martyr.
- It is widespread in the statements of the Companions and those who came after them that they would refer to those who died in battle as martyrs. There are several examples of this in Muṣannaf Ibn Abī Shaybah in reference to Sumayya (ra), the mother of ʿAmmār, who is commonly referred to as “the first martyr in Islam.” In regards to this Ibn Ḥajar said, “The Salaf would refer to those who died in Badr and Uḥud as martyrs.”1 This is not a general statement but refers to specific individuals since those who died in these battles are well-known and documented.
- It is well-known in the books of Islamic law that martyrs have specific laws in relation to their burial rites. This is because under certain conditions we assume that someone is a martyr based on outward evidences while acknowledging that the truth of their status is only known by God.
This is all in relation to the outward ruling of people in this life while absolute knowledge is the domain of God alone. Therefore, the evidences cited by those that prohibit calling anyone a martyr without divine revelation are related to believing with certainty that someone is a martyr. When Ibn Ḥajar commented on the chapter title of al-Bukhārī in his book he said, “[…] meaning they should not say that so-and-so is a martyr while thinking that that is certainly the case, unless it was revealed that they were.”2 At the same time having a good opinion about our brothers and sisters while leaving their internal secrets to God is a core principle in Islam. That is why the Prophet ﷺ advised the Muslims that they should bear witness that someone who regularly prays in the mosque is a true believer. Obviously, the knowledge of whether he is a true believer or not is only God’s domain, but we are still encouraged to appraise the situation according to what is apparent to us.
And God knows best.