Sunni and Shiite Martyrdom: A Comparative Analysis of Historical and Contemporary Expressions   [open pdf - 281KB]

"While Shia organizations, such as Hezbollah, pioneered the use of suicide bombings as 'self-sacrifice operations' in the early 1980s, Shia groups have abandoned the practice since the 1990s, while Sunni organizations like Hamas and Al Qaeda in Iraq have not only exponentially increased the use of 'martyrdom operations,' they have expanded the target set to include civilians, and now primarily target other Muslims. By first analyzing the historical tradition of martyrdom within Shia and Sunni Islam and then conducting case studies on Shia Hezbollah, Sunni Hamas and Sunni Al Qaeda in Iraq, this thesis seeks to discover whether there are historical factors that can help explain the differences in the contemporary expression of martyrdom between the two main sects of Islam. The main findings of this thesis are that the less prominent role martyrs play in the Sunni tradition, contrasted against the consistent 1,400-year history of venerating prominent Shia martyrs, allowed Sunni extremists to essentially rewrite their history and reinvent 'martyrdom' to suit their own contemporary political goals. Additionally, the thesis reveals that in the vacuum of restraint from the Sunni theologians, Sunni Salafi-Jihadist organizations like Al Qaeda have pushed the boundaries of the religious justification that supports martyrdom operations so far that they are now primarily killing Muslims and non-combatants -- a practice that is not only forbidden, but one of the greatest sins in Islam."

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