A Comparative Study of the Shiite and Sunni Religious Leaders’ Views on Martyrdom Operations

Document Type : Research Paper


1 Assistant Professor, Department of Islamic Studies, Islamic Maaref University, Qom, Iran

2 Ph.D. in Islamic Studies, Islamic Maaref University, Qom, Iran


The Shiite and Sunni intellectual and religious leaders do not agree on a number of issues such as the Islamic concept of martyrdom. In this research, there is an attempt to explain the jurisprudential aspects of martyrdom from the viewpoint of Shiite and Sunni Islam as the two main branches of Islam. There is a vast difference between martyrdom operations and suicide operations in terms of their underlying causes and characteristics. In Islamic theology and law, suicide which is defined as a self-annihilatory act of violence, is a grave sin. Unlike the suicide acts, the martyrdom operations are defensive in nature, and are conducted in order to create fear to weaken the morale of the enemy, and even destroy the aggressor and the occupier without inflicting harm on innocent people. Shiite religious leaders are generally seminary-learned and many of them are among distinguished and authoritative interpreters of the religious law (mujtahids) and the source of emulation (marji' taqlid). A well-known example of marji' in the contemporary era is Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of the Islamic revolution in Iran. However, Sunni leaders mostly have earned academic degrees by completing any number of programs in various higher education institutions, and thus lack in-depth knowledge of Islamic theology and religious law which are taught at Islamic seminaries. Accordingly, they are influenced by the non-Islamic thoughts, and some of them have plunged into the abyss of extremism and radicalism with dangerous consequences due to the formation of Sunni militant and violent groups. The authors seek to answer the following questions: 1. Why are the Sunni and Shiite leaders' theological and jurisprudential approaches to at martyrdom different? 2. What factors have led to the intellectual and jurisprudential differences between Shiite and Sunni leaders’ views on extremism? Using a comparative approach, the authors have analyzed qualitative data and arguments presented in the interpretive and jurisprudential works and in the writings of the Shiite and Sunni jurists in Persian and Arabic, with particular attention paid to the relevant Quranic verses and hadiths dealing with the subject of martyrdom. The research hypothesis claims that differences in the level of thorough seminary Islamic education, the degree of independence from the government, the strength of cultural and family ties are among the most important factors which have led to the emergence of differences in the Shiite and Sunni religious leaders’ views on the Martyrdom. There are similarities between the Sunni and Shi’a approaches to Jihad on behalf of Islam, but their approaches to martyrdom in the fight against tyranny and injustice are implicitly different. Due to a host of factors including different educational, socio-economic characteristics, and nature of relations with the political authorities in the country of origin (or residence), it is clear that there is no consensus on the issue of martyrdom in the path of God among the Shia and Sunni scholars who have different conceptions of the Islamic tradition.


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Volume 51, Issue 2
September 2021
Pages 385-363
  • Receive Date: 31 May 2020
  • Revise Date: 25 August 2021
  • Accept Date: 12 September 2021
  • First Publish Date: 12 September 2021