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Martyrdom is Not a Military Strategy

By Dr. Abdullah bin Hamid Ali

Martyrdom is not a military strategy: This one is going to sting a little: Too many Muslims have, unfortunately, become accustomed to interpreting failure as success and success as failure. For example, some showcase Imam Hussein’s—Allah be pleased with him—challenge of Yazid’s authority and King Faisal b. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz’s—upon him Allah’s mercy—oil embargo against the West as decisive victories for Muslims and Islam. And in one sense they are stories of success inasmuch that martyrdom for a righteous cause results in the finest reward with God. On the other hand, both cases are examples of political failure inasmuch that neither achieved their worldly goals. So, an appeal to them as ideal models of the proper way to overcome a political impasse may be no better than celebrating the Queen of Sheba’s offer of tribute to Solomon—upon him Allah’s peace—as an example of wise female leadership. One forgets that the offer did not appease Solomon. She was compelled to surrender authority to him on his terms.

Imam Hasan—Allah be pleased with him, on the other hand, did have a successful political career and united the Ummah after abdicating his authority in order to spare the lives of Muslims. But compromise on that level seems cowardly and treacherous to many today.

Before Badr, the Prophet—upon him Allah’s blessing and peace—anxiously begged Allah not to allow his small group of followers to die that day. The reason he gave was that, “If this party of the people of Islam perish, You will never be worshipped on Earth ever again.” No statement could be truer at that moment considering that Muhammad—upon him Allah’s blessing and peace—was God’s final messenger. And if his followers were annihilated—and him along with them—the final phase of God’s direct communication with humanity would have expired with no hope for spiritual revival and preservation of the divine commandments.

Suffering total annihilation at the hands of one’s enemies—or taking one’s own life to achieve victory—is not something to celebrate especially when the believer’s mandate is to worship God and spread his word. It is only when we become confused about the purpose of our existence and choose worldly pursuits over the enjoyment of God’s pleasure that such acts could be glorified.

Self mastery, forbearance, endurance, and the suppression of rage are not signs of weakness. Nor are they signs of failure. If someone could present me with a statement from Allah or His messenger to the contrary, I promise to retract this claim. Success is found in self control which helps us think clearly and strategize wisely, not in desperate acts that push us further away from our worldly goals. It’s difficult to act contrary to one’s nature. It’s why history’s greatest heroes are celebrated due to the feat of overcoming their natural impulses. Speaking truth in the presence of a tyrant is the greatest jihad precisely because one’s fate is uncertain.

There’s nothing greater than a martyr’s death. But martyrdom is not a legitimate goal of military engagement. The goal is to win. This was understood by all great Muslim jurists in Islamic history. It’s why they allowed for one to flee the battlefield when the enemy outnumbers us by more than twice our size. It’s why scholars like Al-‘Izz Ibn ‘Abd al-Salam—upon him Allah’s mercy—stated that accepting defeat is required when it proves impossible to score a major blow against the enemy. It is also why when asked if a religious man placed over the army who lacks knowledge of military strategy is better than one who does know strategy but is impious, Imam Ahmad—upon him Allah’s mercy—responded that the latter is better. Why? Because the goal in war is to win. His lack of piety is not an obstacle to that, while the other’s lack of expertise exposes the army and Ummah to great loss.