Photo Credit: Asher Schwartz

*Editor’s Note: This is the seventh installment in ‘Setting The Record Straight,’ the most recent series of articles from Jewish Press Online contributor, Alex Grobman, PhD 

One of the defining elements of radical Islam today is its extensive use of or support for suicide attacks (or “martyrdom operations”)as a weapon in fighting jihad against its alleged enemies asserts religious professor David Cook. Martyrdom operations are a military strategy that explains much about state of Sunni Islam, especially since suicide is prohibited by the Qur’an (2:195, 4:29) and traditionally Muslim countries have had the lowest suicide rates in the world. [1]  


Cook notes that In his justification for suicide bombings, Saudi radical Hamoud al-Aqla al-Shu’aybi, concludes “the martyrdom operations are legitimate actions, part of waging jihad in the path of God- if the intent of the perpetrator is pure- because they are among the most successful of the means of jihad and effectiveness against the enemies of this faith [Islam]. This is because of the terror and the casualties- whether in killed or wounded- they cause, and the spread of fear, anxiety and impermanence because of them, and because of the reward they give to the Muslims, the strengthening of their hearts and the breaking of the hearts of their enemies . . . and other benefits of jihad.” al-Shu’aybi 1  [2]  

Human Shields 

When the Mongols used Muslims as human shields, the Muslim army asked medieval scholar Ibn Taymiyya (died 1328) how should they respond. Ibn Taymiyya said they had no alternative but to attack and not be deterred by human shields. Cook said “there is a duality to the action; if the point of the action as a whole is to kill the enemy, and the only way to do that is by also killing the Muslim shield’ then the action is approved. It is the responsibility of the Muslims to gain the victory and not to worry about killing their innocent co-religionists. In the contemporary literature on martyrdom operations, the analogy goes more or less that since civilians surround what radical Muslims consider to be legitimate targets one cannot always take their lives into consideration if the victory is to be obtained.”  [3] 

Defining Martyrdom or Self-Sacrifice Operations 

Contemporary radical Muslim authorities define martyrdom as “Martyrdom or self-sacrifice operations are those performed by one or more people, against enemies far outstripping them in numbers and equipment, with prior knowledge that the operations will almost inevitably lead to death.  

The form this usually takes nowadays is to wire up one’s body, or a vehicle or suitcase with explosives, and then to enter among a conglomeration of the enemy, or their vital facilities, and to detonate in an appropriate place there in order to cause the maximum losses in the enemy ranks, taking advantage of the element of surprise and penetration. Naturally, the enactor of the operation will usually be the first to die.” [4]  

Distinguishing between martyrdom from any similarity to suicide is essential according to  “Islamic Ruling on the Permissibility of Martyrdom Operations.” The name ‘suicide-operations’ used by some is inaccurate, and in fact this name was chosen by the Jews to discourage people from such endeavours. How great is the difference between one who commits suicide – because of his unhappiness, lack of patience and weakness or absence of iman [faith] and- the self-sacrificer who embarks on the operation out of strength of faith and conviction, and to bring victory to Islam, by sacrificing his life for the uplifting of Allah’s word!” [5]  

Opposition to a Women Becoming a Shaheeda 

With regard to allowing women to become suicide bombers, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, a founder and leader of Hamas, told Anat Berko, a leading Israeli counter-terrorism expert, in a prison interview in that “There is no need for them, there are many men to do the work.” He believed a woman’s primary role  was to bear children, “otherwise Allah would not have created her with the ‘special potential.’” He would later reassess his position. 

Sheikh Muhammad Abu Tir, deputy head of the Hamas administration, concurred with Yassin: “I am against women going out and blowing themselves up, it’s a line that shouldn’t be crossed.” He suggested a number of reasons why there was some initial opposition to encouraging women to become homicide bombers. He said they have a saying “that a girl is like a diamond. You don’t put a diamond out in the street, you hide it from your neighbors. Someone wants to destroy my honor, to steal my diamond. It’s disgusting to send girls [to suicide bombing attacks]” [6]  

 If the woman is married, who will raise the children, he asked. He ignored the fate of the woman or the question of using children in these attacks. Other sheikh’s claimed the practice ineffective and a misuse of the “resource.” No compassion was expressed for the child as an individual or as a victim. [7]  

When pressed, Sheikh Ziyad Asaliya of Umm-el-Fahm, a town located 12 miles northwest of the city of Jenin, offered another reason to oppose this behavior—“nakedness, lewdness.” A woman homicide bomber’s intimate parts become exposed, which is a form of exhibitionism. The most esteemed shaheed is viewed by some as if she conducted a striptease in the center of the city. Even wearing western clothing while on the way to complete her mission, so not to arouse suspicion, is problematic. No cleric would sanction clothing that would enable a soldier to see this shaheeda as an average female. An individual committed to become a shaheeda does not want to make the slightest error or mistake in any area of the duties of a devout Muslim. [8]  

The Significance of “Martyrdom Operations” for Today’s Muslim World 

What does the veneration of “martyrdom operations” achieve for contemporary Muslim world? Cook suggests they “erase shame and humiliation, and restore perceived lost honor, at least in the eyes of those Muslim intellectuals and religious leaders who tend to speak out.” In other words, “Martyrdom operations” demonstrate “that there is something worth dying for.” This is clear from the notes and comments left by the “martyrs,” which are broadcast after their operations are completed. Frequently these messages “are very accusatory, referring to their self-sacrifices as being necessary to compensate for the lack of courage and heroism in the present-day Muslim world.” [9]  

The violent and explosive attacks present the Muslim world with the spectacle of cheap, easy victories that are supposed to even out the score with the enemy- even though they do not really touch the core of the enemy’s power. And they invite the revulsion and hatred of precisely those sectors of world opinion that radical Islam most despises and wants other Muslims to despise as well.”  


[1] David Cook, “The Implications of ‘Martyrdom Operations,’” Journal of Religious Ethics Volume 32. Issue 11 (2004): 130. 

[2] Ibid.134. 

[3] Ibid.137. 

[4] David Cook, Understanding Jihad (Berkely, California: University of California Press, 2005),142. 

[5] Ibid, 143. 

[6] Anat Berko, The Smarter Bomb: Women and Children as Suicide Bombers (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2012), 40. 

[7] Ibid. 39. 

[8] Ibid. 56-57; for the normative restrictions on women and their traditional role; for an analysis of Arab culture, please see Philip Carl Salzman, Culture and Conflict in the Middle East (Amherst: New York, Humanity Books, 2008). 

[9] “The Implications of ‘Martyrdom Operations,’” op.cit.142. 

[10]  Ibid. 147. 



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Dr. Alex Grobman is the senior resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society and a member of the Council of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. He has an MA and PhD in contemporary Jewish history from The Hebrew university of Jerusalem. He lives in Jerusalem.