Definition of a Shaheed

Published in the Dawn on 22 December, 2013.

THE word ‘shaheed’ has assumed a common place in the lingua franca of the subcontinent, particularly of Pakistan, often used as part of the name of the deceased who has been killed in pursuit of an honourable cause, or in an accident.

More recently, it has assumed greater significance and created even more confusion in the minds of many, as it is being used for Hakeemullah Mehsud, the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan commander who was recently killed in a US drone attack.

Some religious and political leaders have proclaimed him a shaheed. Muslims and non-Muslims, in Pakistan and abroad, are questioning the meaning of the term. It is indeed an appropriate time to reflect a little more deeply on what we say publicly and the connotations our words may have, particularly in the religious sense.

The Quran uses the word and its variations (shaheed, shahid, shuhada) several times in its discourse. In ‘Surah Fath’, it addresses the Holy Prophet (PBUH) thus: “We have sent you as witness (shahid) of the truth, and harbinger of good news and a warner” (48:8).

The same expression has been used by God for the entire first generation of the companions of the Prophet in ‘Surah Baqarah’: “We have made you a (middle) people that you act as witness (shuhada) over man, and the Prophet as witness (shaheed) over you” (2:143).

The word is used for the entire ummah in several places in the Quran. In ‘Surah Nisa’, it says “O you who believe, be custodians of justice, witnesses (shuhada) for God. …” (135:4).

The word is used for one who is witness, of God and His religion. The term as used in the Quran implies that the one who is referred to as shaheed understands and comprehends God’s religion in the manner in which it should be, practises it, and is so clear in his actions and conduct that the rest of mankind sees him as a witness of God.

He spends his entire life being a witness to God’s teachings, and would easily give his life in pursuit of the same aim. He is so devoted to the true path that he would not hesitate to lay down his life in order to bear witness to his convictions.

As human beings pursue the path of spiritual purification and development, they achieve various levels of excellence. God describes these as those of the anbia, siddequin, shuhada and sualeheen. The four groups have been seen as people who are blessed by God.

In one verse of ‘Surah Aal Imran’ God refers to the word in the sense of those who have been killed in the battlefield: “…We alternate days of glory between men so that God may know those who believe, taking some as witness (shuhada) of truth from your ranks, for God does not like those who are unjust” (3:140).

Shahadat, as a status after death, is one of the highest honours, comparable to and categorised with that of siddiqiat and sualehiat. One must live one’s entire life according to the highest principles propounded by Islam and be prepared to lay down one’s life in a manner that testifies to the same principles. In that case, God may decide to include the person in the group of shaheeds.

There is ample evidence, therefore, in the Quran that the status of a shaheed is one to be bestowed on a Muslim by God alone, and not by fellow human beings.

As a word that has come to be used in an emotional sense, the matter takes on a different hue. In Urdu (and Hindi and Bengali), it is used to honour a person who is dead, in a war or an accident. The purpose is to soothe and provide some comfort to the bereaved, and is probably meant as a prayer to God.

It has no relationship with the actual, religious meaning and with what the Quran says. When we attach the term to the name of any dead person, the most we can expect is that we are praying to God to have mercy on him and to grant him the status of a shaheed.

We must also note that the word has crept into contemporary times and did not exist during the time of the Prophet. The best of men, whose lives were exemplary and who were martyred as well, have not been mentioned as shaheed following their names as frequently in the scholarly texts of the first few generations of Muslims.

Once we understand the context of the usage of the term, does it apply to Hakeemullah Mehsud, an individual who was known and who took responsibility for attacks that killed several innocent Muslims and non-Muslims? Giving a known criminal and offender a status of excellence at par to that of siddequin and sualeheen is self-contradictory and unfortunate.

People, especially those who present themselves as religious personalities, need to be careful in what they say, since their statements are too often taken to be representative of their religion.

The situation is worsened by the declaration that this has been done in retaliation against the US.

Let us remind ourselves once again of God’s message, where he instructs us to be careful, lest either our desires or our hatred stand in the way of justice. He says in ‘Surah Maida’: “…And do not let the hatred of a people … lead you to aggression. …” (5:2) and “…Do not let the hatred of a people deviate you from justice” (5:8).

In summary, no one should be called a shaheed. This judgment shall be made by God, on the Day of Judgement.