Between Motherhood & Martyrdom: The ‘Martyr’s Paradise’ Myth

By Nahed Habiballah

The Al-Aqsa Intifada (popular uprising) erupted in September 2000. This uprising was the second of its kind in the recent history of Palestine; the first one took place in 1987. What characterizes both uprisings is that they started out as populous act of protest by the Palestinian people against the oppression of the Israeli occupation in the West Bank the Gaza Stip. “The current uprising seemed very much like the last one; spontaneous mass demonstrations resulting in clashes between armed Israeli soldiers and stone-throwing Palestinian Youths.”[2]

In the 1980s the situation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip dictated certain realities; the occupation together with the sense of frustration forced the children to become political at an early age. They witnessed the humiliation and the helplessness of their fathers and this led them to act against the occupation. Images of martyrs covered the streets of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which symbolized power and heroism against the Israeli occupation. Consequently, these children became drawn to the idea of standing up and defending their right of being.

The image of a child carrying a stone and facing the Israeli tanks and bullets fearlessly characterized the new phase of the Palestinian resistance. “‘The child of the stone’, often exemplified through portraits of the shahid (martyr) offering his life for the national cause by fighting against all odds.”[3] Thus, the Palestinian rhetoric changed and those children who died during these confrontations came to be called martyrs. They became a symbol of strength and bravery against the brutality of the occupation.

With the second Intifada which erupted as a protest against Ariel Sharon’s (Israeli former prime minister) inflammatory visit to the Al-Aqsa mosque – one of the holiest places for the Muslims – the fight against occupation took not only a national tone but a religious one as well. As a result, the Palestinian rhetoric reflected this change, and the concept of martyrdom took center stage in the national agenda.

For Muslims, a martyr has a special status in heaven, the prophet Muhammad elaborated on the rewards and high status that are given to the martyrs in his Hadith (words of the prophet Muhammad):

Muhammad described the “house of martyrs,” dar al-shuhada’, as the most beautiful abode of paradise; on the Day of Judgment any wounds the martyr received in battle will shine and smell like musk; his death as a martyr frees him of all sin such that he does not require the intercession of the Prophet; he is purified by his act and so he alone is not washed before burial. The martyr will be in the highest level of heaven enjoying a garden of cool breezes, beautiful companions, couches, fruit and drink, and nearness to God.[4]

This image I will call a ‘Martyr’s Paradise’ and I will show how this myth made it possible for the Palestinian mothers of martyrs to cope with their children’s loss.

Blumenberg asserts that what is important is to ask why certain myths persist and are passed by from one generation to the other while others fade away.

“Blumenberg proposes that instead of always interpreting myth in terms of what it (supposedly) came before – its terminus ad quem, science, the arrival of which appears to make it obsolete – we should try interpreting it in terms of its terminus a quo, its point of departure. That point of departure is the problem that myth seeks to solve, which is the source of its real (and lasting) importance…[5]

In the case of martyrdom, the myth was not only passed on, but also perfected with its incorporation in the monotheistic religions. In the Western Classical period, the concept of martyrdom was introduced for the first time by Socrates. Socrates died defending his own principles; he knew that he should sacrifice his life for the sake of his ideology. “‘The unexamined life,’ he announced, ‘is not to avoid death, but to avoid unrighteousness.”[6] This sentence embodies the whole notion of martyrdom; for martyrs, death becomes a journey, a fearless journey that they embrace in order to prove a point. Death becomes the platform for reaching others and for proving that their ‘cause’ is worth dying for. To Socrates, “death, far from being an evil, was in fact the ultimate good; the journey to the abode of the dead was an odyssey well worth whatever trifling pain might be involved in dying, for in the afterworld he would be able to continue his search into ‘true and false knowledge’ and find ultimate wisdom.”[7]

However, Socrates’ martyrdom missed an important ingredient that would eventually become the substantial and most effective component in shaping the concept of martyrdom and that is religion; specifically the monotheistic religion with its idea of pain and guilt. Indeed, for martyrdom to become effective, it had to merge with religion and with the concept of fighting for God and justice against the tyrannies of the world.  As a consequence, pain and torture would be rewarded by God in the world to come. This concept was introduced first by the ancient Hebraic God and it then evolved to include Christianity and Islam.

Judaism takes martyrdom to another level through the reward in the next life and stressing toleration of pain and humiliation for the sake of God. Furthermore, Judaism introduces the concept of ‘suffering’ as a constituent of the Jewish belief and as a token of obedience and worship to Yahweh (God). “The Jews… were certainly the first to use it [martyrdom] as a means of national inspiration and to endow its hideous suffering with eschatological purpose.”[8]

Christianity brought a sympathetic face to martyrdom; it gave it a human look when martyrdom became to symbolize the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus Christ.  The crucifixion became the embodiment of western martyrdom; Jesus Christ was willing to sacrifice his life for the sins of humanity and for the sake of God. In the words of Christ, “‘whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross, and follow me.’ Jesus the martyr, the man was who elected to suffer and die, not the risen Christ, became the inspirational source for the philosophy of martyrdom that emerged during the next three generations.’”[9]

Finally, the Qur’an mentions the martyrs as (the faithful Muslims who die defending the name of God) on a number of occasions. In the Qur’an, Surah 2, of Albaqarah (verse 154), God assures the Muslims that those who die ‘in the way of God’ are not dead but alive in heaven.

Think not of those who are killed in the Way of Allah as dead. Nay, they are alive, with their Lord, and they have provision. They rejoice in what Allah has bestowed upon then of His Bounty, rejoicing for the sake of those who have not yet joined them, but are left behind (not yet martyred) that on them no fear shall come, nor shall they grieve.

(Qur’an, Surah 3.Al’Imran, 169-170)

It is worth nothing that the Hadith shed more clarity on martyrdom and those who are considered as martyrs. Almost all that we know about martyrdom in Islam comes from the prophet Mohammad. He gives specific details about what a martyr is and what are his rewards and his responsibilities as a devout Muslim. Apparently, martyrdom is a broad concept:

Abu Huraiara reported God’s messenger as saying, “Whom do you reckon to be the martyr amongst you?” His hearers replied, “The one who is killed in God’s path is a martyr, messenger of God.” He said, “The martyrs among my people would be few. He who is killed in God’s path is a martyr, he who dies in God’s path is a martyr…” Muslim transmitted it.[10]

As is clear from the cases mentioned above, there is a certain degree of variation in the ‘martyrdom myth’ however the essence remains the same (die for a cause and be rewarded):

Myths are stories that are distinguished by a high degree of constancy in their narrative core and by an equally pronounced capacity for marginal variation. These two characteristics make myths transmissible by tradition: Their constancy produces the attraction of recognizing them in artistic or ritual representation as well [as in recital], and their variability produces the attraction of trying out new and personal means of presenting them. It is the relationship of ‘theme and variation,’ whose attractiveness for both composers and listeners is familiar from music. So myths are not like ‘holy texts,’ which cannot be altered by one iota. [11]

According to Salwa Al-Amad[12], in the Arabic and Muslim; literature martyrs are given a high status and a certain degree of sacredness in folklore and this reflects a mental need to find role models who do extraordinary deeds, which require extraordinary power in order to benefit the destiny of the whole group of people. These literary works talk about heroes and martyrs in Islam as a symbol of steadfastness of the group and as a sign of religious and national respect. There is often this overlapping between nationalism and religion.

In the Palestinian context, Islamic organizations were gaining power in the West Bank and Gaza Strip during the 80s. As a result, certain Muslim phrases and ideologies started to seep out into the Palestinian mainstream.  In the hope of gaining support from other Muslim countries; the Palestinian struggle against the Israeli occupation was depicted as a Muslim struggle against the Jewish state, which is erasing the Muslim identity of Palestine.  Although martyrdom has religious and teleological overtones, it is important to stress the fact that it is also a political and social phenomenon. “Surely, the distinction has as much to do with politics and history as with morality and justice; one man’s martyr, it would appear, is often another man’s traitor.” [13]

After giving a brief summary on the evolution of the concept of martyrdom in different traditions, in the following pages I want to show how the myth ‘Martyrs’ Paradise’ made it possible for the Palestinian mothers of martyrs to deal with their children’s loss.

It became common occurrence in the Palestinian context that a child would leave his home and be brought back a ‘martyr.’ Mothers of martyrs become the ultimate victims of the tragic situation that they find themselves in. They are unable to mourn their martyred sons in a culture, which believes that martyrs are to be prized and not mourned. Those mothers turn to God for assurance and consolation. They are consoled by the myth of the ‘Martyr’s Paradise’ which assures them that their martyred children are in the presence of God and that they are enjoying a better kind of life[14].

This myth becomes the tranquilizer, the assurance that their children are in a better place. Mothers of martyrs gave their martyred son the image of a groom who is on his wedding day and God is waiting to welcome him to heaven. This stems from the Hadith which says “that the martyr has six advantages: first that God will forgive all his sins and place the crown of wisdom upon him, each Jewel in the crown is worth the treasures of the world and spared the torture of the grave, be spared from the horror of the Apocalypse, grants forgiveness for seventy of his relatives and lastly is wedded to seventy two black eyed beautiful virgins.”[15] This myth gives these mothers comfort.

In addition, the myth serves another purpose as seen from the above Hadith, it gives the mother consolation that her martyred son will secure a place for her and family in heaven. In that way the family will be reunited in the afterlife.

Although myths are very powerful for those who believe in it; it is hard to accept for many. The world went through a transformation from a transcendental age to an age that is dominated by science and reason.

It was a pride of the modern age as it got under way that it had made a clean sweep… of myths as well as of dogmas, of conceptual systems as well as authorities, under the comprehensive rubric of prejudices. Backwardness in this regard appeared as an indefensible atavism, a wish formation, a stubborn product of the application of flattery to anthropocentric vanity. What was supposed to be rational was what was left over when reason, as the organ adapted to uncovering illusions and contradictions had cleared away the sediments that had accumulated from schools and poets, from magicians and priests – in other words, from seducers of all kinds.[16]

It is understandable that the western media put the blame on the Palestinian mothers for not protecting their children from harm’s way. This is similar to the story of the mother figure in the play “Mother Courage and her Children” which takes place during the Second World War.

The play depicts Mother Courage as she follows the armies across Europe for the purpose of selling different commodities from her wagon, with her three children tagging along. As she embarks on the several journeys for the purpose of profit she loses her children one by one.  In the closing scene she leaves her dumb daughter Kattrin in the care of a peasant family in a dangerous area and era to go to town to buy goods for her canteen. The army came that night and the peasant family tried to protect themselves and their stock and Kattrin was killed. Mother Courage came back and learned of her daughter’s death; she sings her daughter a farewell song, hands the peasant money for burial and pushes her cart away saying “Hope I can pull the cart all right by meself. Be all right, nowt much inside it. Got to get back in business again.”[17]

One could easily criticize Mother Courage for neglecting her children for the sake of profit; but in a time of violence and meagerness this was the only way she knows how to provide for herself and her family. She is the one who suffers the most and must find a way to cope with this suffering. For Mother Courage, it would seem that her neglect of her children was for materialist gains.  This is different from the monotheistic religion where God grants the gain in the afterlife.

History records the Jewish revolt around 167 BC wherein many Jews became martyrs as a result of their refusal to renounce their religion. They accepted torture and death over rejecting their faith. One of the recorded stories that gave martyrdom a new dimension in Jewish theology is a story about a mother and her eight boys who were killed for their faith.    The story came to be known as the story of the Maccabean martyrs and what is remarkable about it is the strength that the mother and her children had exerted.  The mother encouraged her children and soothed through stating the reward that they will get once they are in the arms of God.  “As the odor of frying began to spread widely, the brothers and their mother exhorted one another to die nobly, saying ‘the Lord God is watching and in very truth will have compassion on us,’ and they called on Moses as their witness that God ‘will have compassion upon his servants.”[18] The mother watched all of her children being tortured and killed; she tells one of her children “have pity on me who carried you in my womb for nine months and nursed you for three years and reared you and brought you to your present age… do not fear the executioner, but be worthy of your brothers and accept death, so that in His mercy I may recover you along with your brothers.”[19]

The Jewish mother watched her eight children burn because she was armed by a myth that was carved in her holy book that promised those who do not relinquish God the prizes of the afterlife.  This myth is not much different from the ‘Martyr’s Paradise’ myth which the mother of Palestinian martyrs cling on to. In both cases the horror of the reality that they witness is made tolerable by the belief that they will be joined by their loved ones in heaven.

So let those fight in the cause of Allah who sell the life of this world for the Hereafter. And he who fights in the cause of Allah and is killed or achieves victory – We will bestow upon him a great reward.

(Qur’an, Surat An-Nisā’, 4:74)

To conclude, losing a child could be the most painful experience a mother could have, but having a myth, which transforms loss into a temporary absence, and a life that is filled with agony, misery and humiliation into a life of abundance, peace and tranquility in the presence of God comfort the mothers and give value to the sacrifice. Myths in general and the ‘Martyr’s Paradise’ myth in particular draw a picture in which the human compensates the unknown with the imagination. “What remains is the setting up of images against the abomination – the maintenance of the subject, by means of its imagination, against the object that has not been made accessible.”[20]

The ‘Martyr’s Paradise’ myth serves two purposes; for the child, he faces death with no fear and for the mother, she accepts her child’s loss with serenity. The myth becomes part of the Palestinian mothers’ lives and to them it is more real than any scientific or rational claims.

Myth contains an implied concept of reality. What intimates, in its stories and figures as a valid reality is the unmistakably of gods, to the extent that they intend to appear: the incontestability of their presence for the person to whom they mean to appear – something that what goes before and what comes after can neither contribute anything to nor render doubtful.[21]


[1] I use myth in this context as a historical event in which it enables a construction of meaning to a particular ‘human action’(be it an individual or a group).

[2] Mouin Rabbani, “A Smorgasbord of Failure: Oslo and the Al-Aqsa Intifada.” The New Intifada: Resisting Israel’s Apartheid, ed. Roane Carey (New York: Verso, 2001),78.

[3] Baruch Kimmerling, 243.

[4] Hadith, Sahih Bukhari Volume 4, Book 52, Number 53.

[5] Hans Blumenberg, Work on Myth, (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1985), ix

[6] Baldwin L. Smith, Fools, Martyrs, Traitors: The Story of Martyrdom in the Western World (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997),23.

[7] Ibid, 32.

[8] Ibid, 45

[9] Baldwin L. Smith, 87.

[10] Sheikh Ashraf Muhammad, Mishkat Al-Masabih, trans. James D. Robson (Lahore, Pakistan: Kashmiri Bazar, 1965), 810.

[11] Blumenberg, 34.

[12] Salwa Al-Amad, Al-Imam Al Shahid Fi Altar’rich Wa Al-Ideologia: Shahid Al-Shi’a Muqabel Batal Al-Sunnah. Trans (the Arabic Institution for Research and Publications, Beirut), 2000, p.68.

[13] Meir Litvak, Data and Analysis, The Islamization of Palestinian Identity: The Case of Hamas. (Tel Aviv: The Moshe Dayan Center, August, 1996),6

[14] Habiballah, Nahed. “Interviews with Mothers of Martyrs of the al-Aqsa Intifada.” ASQ 26, no. 1 (Win. 04): pp.15-30.

[15] Hadith Sahih, al-Miqdam Ka’bi bin Karb.

[16] Blumenberg. 46

[17] Bertlot Brecht, Mother Courage and Her Children, (NY: Penguin Groups, 1980), 82

[18] Solomon Zeitlin, ed. The Second Book of Maccabbees (New York: Harper, 1954), 161.

[19] Jonathan A. Goldstein, ed. II Maccebees (New York: Garden City, 1983), 7:27-29

[20] Ibid, 10

[21] Blumenberg, 234.