Istishhad and Suicide Bombings in Contemporary Conflict: Sacred or Profane?

In arguing that religion functioned as a soteriological tool for the downtrodden, Weber contended that “in the case of the underprivileged, every feeling they have of their own worth is bound up with some ‘promise’ which has been made to them, and this promise is in turn bound up with a ‘function’, ‘mission’ or ‘calling’ which has been allotted to them.” (Weber 1978: 182-183) Insofar as it gave individual’s purpose, Weber argued that religion, by offering salvation, allowed the adherent to “make up for their lack of any claim to ‘be’ anything either by insisting on the worth of what they will one day be, of what they are ‘called’ to be, in future life either in this world or the next” (Weber 1978: 182-183). Religion, in Weber’s view, thus constitutes an escape from suffering and from an all-pervading ennui – a call to engage with the sacred – a means for the individual to transcend what Durkheim called the world of “the profane”.

In this regard, istishhad (an Arabic term meaning “martyrdom” used to describe war-time acts such as suicide bombings in Islamist discourse), insofar as it can be considered a soteriological concept, could be seen to demonstrate all that Weber saw as important in religion to the individual – belief and destiny, action and reward, ritual and release from suffering (that of the individual and the group). The question this raises then, is whether the acts of war-time violence known as “martyrdom operations” are best understood as performative religious acts or as acts which occur exclusively in the political domain. Indeed, being a common subject of debate following a “religiously-motivated terrorist attack” (the debate usually centres around whether such-and-such bombing was a “political” or a “religious” action) – the topic is perhaps worthy of further examination.

Because a strictly Weberian analysis would be sceptical as to whether these two domains (political and religious) can be viewed as separate in the first place, this paper will utilise a Durkheimian mode of attention, to determine whether acts of war-time violence such as suicide bombings, are best understood as ritual activities evoking the sacred (that is, they are primarily religious actions occuring as a means of engagement with “the other side”) or as actions of the profane – that is, political and otherwise secular phenomena with Earthly aims, ends and meanings.

To determine whether contemporary acts of istishhad such as suicide bombings might be understood as sacred rituals to the bomber, this paper will first discuss the argument for seeing istishhad as a form of religious sacrifice, carried out as an act of self-destruction in the name of a specific religious community. Following this, this paper will examine the alternate view which sees so-called “martyrdom operations” as political activities with secular motivations – where jihad, while having religious origins, is enacted and occurs only in a worldly setting with the sacred invocated simply for the sake of political expediency.

In seeking to understand what istishhad suicide bombing actually is and means, it is important to note that suicide bombing is, first and foremost, an act of violence committed in the context of a conflict. In accepting Weber’s argument that “the decisive means for politics is violence” and that violence fundamentally entails exerting power, it follows as a first assumption that suicide bombing is therefore a political action – it must be.

In this sense then, while we have already described suicide bombing as “an act of violence committed in the context of the conflict”, this paper will seek to refine this by determining whether the nature of this violence is best understood as a simple act of suicide made with a purely earthly group – say, the Palestinian people – in mind (cf also Japanese kamikaze pilots) or as a sacrificial ritual with soteriological connotations – a “gift” made in the name of God.

“Istishhad” as a Sacred Rite

According to Strenski, while it is obvious that the phenomenon of suicide bombing must be investigated as a collective action driven by the ideology of political jihad (meaning “struggle” in Arabic), it is important that we understand suicide bombings as meaningful practices committed in the religious domain – as “gifts” or “sacrifices” (Strenski 2004: 8). Thus, by Strenski’s reading, human bombers cannot simply be read as force multipliers on the battlefield whose purpose is tactical, and by extension, political, but also as sacrifiants carrying out a religious rite.

Similarly, Abufarha and Whitehead argue that while the act of martyrdom in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is conceived by the shahid as an earthly “sacrificial offering” where “the Palestinian people gain the benefits of [the] sacrifice” (Abufarha/Whitehead 2008: 10), istishhad “also serves as a religious ritual performance that fuses Palestinians’ Muslim lives with the divine life. The martyrs live in the divine world and also live in the cultural world of the Palestinians, thereby leading two lives and in the process fusing Palestinians’ lives with that of the divine” (Abufarha/Whitehead 2008: 404).

In these readings, it seems, the martyr, in dying for Islam and Palestine has been granted eternal life, an idea which is not lost on Jayyusi, who points out the fact that the last testaments of martyrs are usually signed with the words “the living martyr” (Jayyusi 2004). Similarly, video manifestos filmed by suicide bombers almost always cite the Qur’anic verse which reads: “do not count those who have been killed in God’s cause as dead but alive with their lord” (Qur’an 3:169).

On a similar tangent, Abufarha and Whitehead see istishhad as akin to any act of religious sacrifice (pre-Islamic, animalistic or otherwise), a ritual sequence of exchange representing a “homologic relation” between body and environment. “The dismembered body parts of the bomber create a new universe within which Palestine is ‘alive’… the blood is ‘water’ that nourishes the fields where streams would flow… the human flesh is ‘soil’ where flowers bloom” (Abufarha/Whitehead 2008: 401)

This view it appears, seems to paint istishhad as a ritual which functions as a vehicle towards what Durkheim called a “veritable metamorphosis… a transformation totius substantiae of the whole being” (Durkheim 2008: 39) whereby the individual, in ceasing to exist in the world of the profane is re-born in the world of the sacred. The act itself, following this line of reasoning, is about transcendence – a ritual of exchange whose meaning is sacred and whose function is to “give” something to the world of the living and obtain a reward in the afterlife.

Istishhad as an Act of the Profane

In light of what has been discussed, the arguments made by Strenski and the others, seem convincing, lending credence to an interpretation which sees suicide bombing as a religious ritual carried out in the domain of the “sacred”. When examined further however, the claim that the act of suicide bombing constitutes a “ritual” seems to warrant more careful consideration.

Critical of Strenski’s view that suicide bombing should be seen as a sacrificial “gift” for the ummah, Talal Asad argues that sacrifices in Islam are made for three reasons – when given a divine command (eg: Ibrahim’s slaughter of the sheep), to give thanks (eg: for a safe pilgrimage), or to ask for forgiveness for a transgression (Asad 2007: 44) and never as “a gift”. Even putting aside the Islamic aversion to suicide, because suicide bombings do not cohere with Islamic practices of sacrifice, according to Asad, it is incorrect to conceive of these acts as as rituals of sacrifice.

Furthermore, in contending that the “gift” school has confused the meaning of “sacrifice” in Islam with the Christian concept of Christ’s supreme gift of sacrifice, Asad argues that while the moral status of the sacrifiant is altered by the act of sacrifice in Islam “that does not make him or her sacred” (Asad 2007: 44). Thus, he argues: “to take suicide bombing as sacrifice is to load it with a significance that is derived from a Christian and post-Christian tradition” (eg: Christ’s “gift” of his body to humanity) (Asad 2007: 44) – the use of a non-Islamic referent in an Islamic context thus rendering the argument invalid.

Even accepting for a moment the notion that the sacrificial act of suicide bombing can be understood as a “divine gift” to the ummah, this paper’s initial assumption – that “martyrdom operations” occur in the context of a conflict (a human phenomenon occurring in the domain of the profane) with a worldly objective achieved through the operation of a worldly instrument (a bomb rather than a god) – would seem to contradict the interpretation that suicide bombing constitutes a “sacred rite”. As Durkheim argues: “the sacred thing is par excellence that which the profane should not touch, and cannot touch with impunity” (Durkheim 1915: 40). In other words, while an istishhad operation and an animal sacrifice both function as an exchange which seeks to reap rewards in the profane world (a just world for Palestinians and a successful harvest or rejuvenating rains respectively), the two are different in that the suicide bombing occurs in the mundane world of the living (at the roadside checkpoint, the nightclub, the restaurant) and the secular domain of politics (war) whereas the ritual sacrifice occurs in the context of the altar and the shrine, typically in an unsullied or prepared space whose specific purpose is for the conduct of sacred rites.

Furthermore, if a sacred ritual of exchange (how the “gift” school see suicide bombing) is seen as necessarily involving the invocation of a deity or engagement with the transcendental, then it is also in doubt as to whether the reward (“a more just Palestine”) has divine origins. Is the bomber calling upon the energy yield of the explosive device or Allah’s giving capacity to reap the rewards of his actions? This must be answered before the practice of suicide bombing can be considered “sacred”.

The key thing here is to determine what can be identified as the necessary conditions of “the sacred rite”. Is “place and time” crucial to the rite’s “sacredness” or is it the mere presence of the individual to perform the rite (the priest at the altar or the bomber in the truck) that is the necessary condition of the act being “sacred”? Indeed, one might argue (though proving this presents obvious difficulties) that the sacred space is in the mind of the bomber at the moment of detonation since, unlike in an animal sacrifice, the person carrying out the sacrifice and the body being sacrificed are the same being.

Entering the mind of the bomber it seems, is crucial to reaching a definitive conclusion. As far as the bomber is concerned, popular discourse tends to emphasise the religiosity of the individual as providing the best explanation (known as a “motive” in the psycho-legalistic discourse) for the action. In the media, the connection with the divine is often expressed not only at the moment of detonation but also in the events leading up to the shahid’s sacrifice. For example, the Palestinian film Al-Jenet Alan (Paradise Now) depicts two would-be bombers undergoing a ritual of washing and shaving of body hair (preparing the body for death) before embarking on a “martyrdom operation” into Israel, the atmosphere of the scene emphasising the relationship between the sacred act of washing and the connection with the divine. Similarly, Hollywood films such as The Siege often preface scenes of Islamist violence with scenes of the bombers undertaking ablutions or performing salat, images which some Muslim groups have criticised as unfair in that the film-makers depict Islamic rituals as a way of announcing to the viewer of “the presence of violence” (Heller 1998).

Indeed it seems that these media discourses along with other discourses which see the bomber’s motivation as driven by a desire for Paradise and the seventy-two houriyah (nymph-like “pure beings” or virgins) serve as what Asad describes as “expressions of an Islamic culture of death” (Asad 2007: 53). Indeed, while these discourses are prevalent as popular explanations for suicide bombing, they are not necessarily accurate. The truth, it seems, lies in the construction of an emic account – in asking the bombers themselves what the practice of suicide bombing means and is.

A joint study by Israeli researchers following a series of interviews with would-be Palestinian suicide bombers captured in the West Bank concluded that “the decision to undertake a suicide mission is a result of accumulation and/or interaction of several factors”. Of fourteen would-be bombers interviewed, the study recorded nine as having a “very high” nationalistic motivation (that is, a desire to see the end of an Israeli occupation of Palestine) while seven reported a “very high” motivation to enter Paradise (Merari et al 2009: 110)

One Hamas organiser interviewed in the study was reported as saying that the essential motivation for the shahid was nationalism: “there is no religious reason that in itself drives a man to carry out a suicide operation. Religion reinforces and helps the nationalist motivation. It is a political drive with religious backing” (Merari et al 2009: 110).

Another however, argued that “the shahid must be religious, willing to sacrifice himself” that “a firm belief in Paradise” was a chief requirement for the martyr (Merari et al 2009: 110), a statement which lends credence to the view that suicide is the ritualistic vehicle through which the bomber is transported from the bodily life of the profane to afterlife in Paradise.

Looking at the study’s findings it seems necessary to point out that all of these suicide bombings occurred in the context of the Israel-Palestine conflict and that if the struggle for the creation of a Palestinian state (framed as “jihad” by the organizations to which the bombers belonged) was one day won, the suicide attacks against Israel would likely cease, or if not, drastically decrease. It seems to follow, therefore, that Palestinian nationalism and perceptions of the political results which can be yielded from a suicide attack would be a primary motivation for the suicide bomber. Following this line of reasoning, the act of the suicide bombing seems principally an act occurring in the domain of the profane – a political action carried out in order to reap maximum political advantage from the publicizing of the attack.

From this perspective then, all events leading up to the attack, including the religious aspects of the pre-attack ritual (such as the shaving, washing and praying) primarily serve political purposes – that is to say, their function is effectively illusory in nature. The Israeli study gives one example of this in what it describes as the “ritual” of the suicide candidate being videotaped reading a last statement. This ritual, according to the study, is an effective means of propaganda intended for three audiences: “for the Palestinian audience ([providing] an example to follow), for the Israeli audience (to spread fear), and the world at large (a show of Palestinian desperation and determination)” (Merari et al 2009: 113).

The frequent use of religious language in these videotapes (including citations from the Qur’an, from hadith and from other politico-religious numeraries) and the idea that the martyr will not die but “live on” all seem to illustrate the obvious that war-time suicide bombing is a classic example where the use of religious concepts (such as jihad, shahid and qurban) is used to serve political ends – to embolden the bomber to carry out the attack and to encourage others to follow in his path. Or, as Euban argues: “the pursuit of immortality is inextricably linked to a profoundly this-worldly endeavour – the founding or recreating of a just community on earth” (Euben 2002: 9).

Herein, it seems lies the ultimate problem in trying to separate the religious from the political, an impossibility according to Weber. Since all sacred rites are practiced by humans in the physical world can a distinction truly be made between what occurs in the real world and the spiritual world?

Suicide Bombings as “Anti-Sacred” Profanities

Another solution to the dilemma of the rite’s “sacredness” may also present itself by using a morals approach which appreciates the dual meaning of “profane acts” as not only acts which are “not concerned with religion” (that is, acts of the secular and the mundane) but also as acts which serve “to debase or defile what is holy” (that is, obscene or irreverent acts of sacrilege) (Merriam-Webster 2008) – what Durkheim calls “profanations” (Durkheim 2008: 85).

In this sense, the “profane” category may be taken to mean more than simply “not sacred” (that is, a worldly act occurring in the secular domain), but also “anti-sacred” or blasphemous (that is, an act against Islam falsely committed in the name of Islam).

In employing this morals approach then, the question of whether violent activities can be condoned within Islam is topical when considering the manifest “profanation” of suicide bombings and the absolute “sacredness” of istishhad. This of course, requires an examination of the Islamic concept of jihad (meaning “struggle” in Arabic) to determine what is and what is not acceptable behaviour in jihad bil-saif (“jihad by the sword”; sometimes referred to as jihad al-sagir, “the lesser jihad”).

Any discussion of religious just war theory requires an involved exegesis which cannot be outlined in detail here. At the same time however, even a cursory glance at Islamic teachings on suicide would seem to indicate that rather than being a legitimate form of waging jihad against the kuffar, the act of suicide bombing by necessarily involving the killing of one’s self (as well as civilians) is a practice that is contrary to Islam. As Burki points out: “for an individual Muslim to assert what is essentially Allah’s prerogative, by taking his/her own life for whatever reason (a life which is preordained by Allah), is considered sacrilegious and can be viewed as heretical behaviour… even the specific use of suicide as a weapon against the enemies of Islam has historically been condemned as haram” (Burki 2011: 583).

If we are to take Burki’s statement asbroadly-accepted fact and assume that suicide and the destruction of civilian life is haram, the “forbiddenness” of the act of suicide bombing would also seem to illustrate the “profanity” of the act (that is, it is sacrilegious), proving perhaps that the act must occur in the domain of the profane rather than the sacred. This it seems, is why many religious scholars who are critical of Islamist violence contend that martyrdom operations are not condoned by Islam and are “political” rather than “religious acts” – there is an active attempt to refute the “sacredness” of what is seen as an earthly act.

Herein, however, lies another problem – the problem of “what is Islam?” That is, what can be said to be an “Islamic practice” when, as Geertz points out the “supposedly single creed” (Geertz 1968: 5) of Islam has multifarious permutations. What is haram? What is halal? And who says what is and is not halal and haram?

Scripturally speaking, it seems very difficult to argue against Burki but the obvious is of course, that suicide bombers themselves, in justifying their practices through the language of religion are likely wont to envision the act of istishhad, as sacred, condoned by religion, while critics of the practice will emphasise the point that the act is against Islam and therefore divorced from the holy – it is irreligious. Thus, the truth becomes subjective, the nature of the act itself interpretive – that is, depending on who is asked, the practice of suicide bombing can be either sacred or profane.

That the truth of the matter is ultimately subjective (that is, the practice of istishhad can be described as both political and religious depending on who is asked) is perhaps symptomatic of any discussion pertaining to Islamism (also known as ‘political Islam’), since the very concept of Islamism necessarily entails the fusion of the religious and the political – the sacred and the profane. That Al-Qaeda and other violent Islamist groups utilise religious rhetoric to achieve political ends, does indeed prove that the practices of these groups necessarily occur in the realm of the “profane” (since their objectives are worldly, eg: the establishment of a global caliphate and the destruction of Israel) but it is perhaps because religiosity is engaged in these militant discourses that at some level the practices must, in the eyes of the participants, transcend the here, the now and the mundane. Their “sacredness” therefore, is self-evident.


This paper has examined the extent to which istishhad and suicide bombings can be considered a sacred ritual or a profane action committed in the secular domain. Based on the findings, it seems that the delicate blend of religious concepts and political ideology that is involved in the construction of “martyrdom operations” leads us to a conclusion which sees suicide bombings as interpretive acts with different meanings in different contexts.

What the interviews conducted by the Israeli team demonstrates is the case-by-case variation intrinsic to all collective human behaviour – the differing motives of the bombers, the differing views of what istishhad means, and the differing “sacredness” or “profaneness” of the act depending on the individual. Indeed, this study demonstrates the utility of psychological as well as sociological modes of attention since individuating behaviour (eg: personal cosmologies and opinions) are just as important here as collective behaviour (eg: religious action).

It is reasonable, given our initial assumption that suicide bombings are always acts of political violence, that politics is the essential ingredient in producing istishhad as a collective practice. That is to say, if there was no political struggle in the first place, the bomber’s function would be negated. Given also that these acts of political violence are often enacted within the context of the sacred and performed as a ritual would be performed, it seems difficult to refute the view that so-called “martyrdom operations” often resonate with and take on strongly religious dimensions.

The difficulty for the ethnographer is of course that emic sources are exceptionally difficult to find (since they are, of course, often dead), so it is difficult to say whether at the individual level the primary motivation for partaking in a “martyrdom operation” is derived from religious beliefs (a desire to enter Paradise) or political beliefs (a desire to resist perceived oppression).

Ultimately, however, the meaning of istishhad, like most concepts in religion, remains subjective, and the practice of suicide bombing itself interpretive, an extreme action committed by individuals as a collective political action for what is, probably, a host of different reasons.



  • Asad, T. 2007. On Suicide Bombing. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Burki, S. 2011. ‘Haram or Halal? Islamists’ Use of Suicide Attacks as “Jihad”’. Terrorism and Political Violence. 23(4). pp. 582-601.
  • Durkheim, E. 2008. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. New York: Dover Publications Inc.
  • Euben, R. 2002. ‘Killing for Politics: Jihad, Martyrdom, Political Action’. Political Theory. 30(1). pp. 9-
  • Heller, K. 1998. ‘Muslims Feel Under Siege from Hollywood Arab Groups Decrying a Sinister Depiction in The Siege’. The Inquirer.
  • Jayyusi, M. ‘Subjectivity and Public Witness: An Analysis of Islamic Militance in Palestinee’. SSRC Beirut Conference on the Public Sphere in the Middle East. October 2004.
  • Merari, A et al. 2009. ‘Making Palestinian ‘Martyrdom Operations’/‘Suicide Attacks’: Interviews with Would-be Perpetrators and Organizers’. Terrorism and Political Violence. 22(1): pp. 102-119.
  • Strenski, I. 2003. ‘Sacrifice, gift and the social logic of Muslim ‘human bombers’’. Terrorism and Political Violence. 15(1): pp. 1-34.
  • Weber, M. 1978. Weber: Selections in Translation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

One thought on “Istishhad and Suicide Bombings in Contemporary Conflict: Sacred or Profane?

  1. Pingback: Hajj Al-Sahara – The Hand of Fatima | Dispatches from the Periphery

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