On the burial of martyrs

Michael Lecker, Jerusalem



The present outline deals with some concepts developed by Muslim scholars during the first century of Islam. They tried to provide answers to grave theological questions, in particular with regard to the internal warfare which took place during the first decades of Islam. For this end, topics of the Israユiliyyat were found to be effective.

In addition, these scholars, who unanimously supported the expansion policy of the caliphs (while some of them opposed other policies of these caliphs), helped the military command in pushing the troops to the extreme of their physical ability and in strengthening their willingness to sacrifice their lives. To achieve this, stories were woven around famous martyrs whose alleged last wish was meant to educate and encourage the troops.



Nothing in their recent past prepared the Muslims to the large rate of tribal participation in warfare and the magnitude of casualties during the early Islamic period. With several famous exceptions, pre-Islamic intertribal warfare (or the ayyam) was conducted by a relatively small number of men from each tribe, and the casualties were often small. Most difficult to account for were the sanguineous events which accompanied the power struggles within the realm of Islam. The scholarsユ answer came in the form of Hadiths which were to provide justification and consolation.


Israユiliyyat: the Siffin disaster was unavoidable

There was frequent resort to themes of Israユiliyyat or stories originating in a Biblical environment which were probably popular and immediately comprehensible to the troops of the early Islamic army. For example, Ka`b al-Ahbar, a Yemenite Jewish convert, allegedly foretold the battle of Siffin; the Banu Israユil (or the Children of Israel), he said, fought nine times at that very place until they destroyed one another. The Arabs, Ka`b added, would conduct the tenth battle at the same place, until they slaughtered one another and hurled at each other the same stones hurled by the Banu Israユil. The scale of the slaughter at Siffin was unimaginable in terms of pre-Islamic Arab warfare. One account which puts the total number of dead at Siffin on both sides at 70,000, also has its origin in an eschatological tradition of Ka`b al-Ahbar. Eschatology was supposed to teach the Muslims that Siffin was part of a scheme of world history the understanding of which was beyond human grasp. Ka`b used his prestige as a representative of ancient Jewish lore to provide answers to difficult theological questions.

Still in the context of the internal strife, Ka`b answered in the affirmative the question of whether or not those killed in internal fighting were martyrs. One killed by the Khawarij, he said , has ten メlightsモ, eight メlightsモ more than メthe light of the martyrsモ (nur al-shuhada). This claim seeks to establish not only that they were martyrs, but also that their rank in martyrdom was much higher than that of the martyrs who died fighting against non-Muslims.


Promoting Jihad: The privilege of death on the way to the battlefield or in enemy territory

The death of the same Ka`b al-Ahbar in the early thirties of the first Islamic century was employed for educational purposes. Ka`b enlisted in the summer expedition and joined it although he had fallen ill. He said: メI would rather die in Harasta than in Damascus, and die in Duma

rather than in Harasta, and thus forward in the Path of Godモ (ha-kadha quduman fi sabili llah). At the メwide road between two mountainsモ (fajj) of Ma`lula the informant asked the ailing scholar to inform him of what was to happen. After some hesitation the latter reported that a man is about to be killed (Ka`b must have been foretelling his own demise), whose blood would be a source of illumination for the people of heaven (yudiユu damuhu li-ahli l-samaユ). Ka`b finally died in Hims. The above place-names are all in great proximity to Damascus, a geographical fact

crucial for the correct understanding of the following point made by Ka`b: it is meritorious to die when on a military expedition, and the further one advances in the expedition, the better. In this context even several kilometres made a difference.


The ascetic `Abdallah b. Muhayriz al-Jumahi al-Filastini who lived in Jerusalem (and probably

died between 88-99/706/17) became seriously ill during the Byzantine summer expedition (saユifa; this still happened on Muslim soil). Hence he asked his son, `Abd al-Rahman, to carry him to Byzantine soil and spurred him to go fast. When his son reminded him that he was ill, he said: メSon, I wish to expire on Byzantine soilモ. The son continued on his way until his father finally died in the Hims area. This famous ascetic ミ he was one of the only two Syrians who dared speak in public of the vices of the dreaded al-Hajjaj - wished to establish that it did matter where one died and was buried, and that with regard to afterlife, death and burial on enemy soil (i.e., during a military expedition) were more praiseworthy than death on Muslim soil.


The martyr's grave as a landmark

Moreover, the martyr's grave was conceived of as a landmark delineating the furthest point reached by the armies of Islam, and hence the border of the land reclaimed by the Muslims (who were in any case its lawful owners, according to the Islamic concept). The poet Abu Dhuユayb al-Hudhali (Khuwaylid b. Khalid) participated in a raid against Byzantium at the time of `Umar b. al-Khattab and was fatally wounded on the way back. He gave his nephew (who stayed with him on enemy territory) precise instructions regarding his burial. メAnd it was said: `The people of Islam infiltrated deep into the land of the Byzantines, hence beyond Abu Dhuユayb's grave there was no known grave of the Muslimsユモ. There was no unanimity over the place of his death, but the association in the account just quoted between the martyr's grave and the territory of Islam is evident.


A variant of this concept is associated with the famous Companion of Muhammad, Abu

Ayyub al-Ansari (Khalid b. Zayd), who was killed during the second decade of Mu`awiya's reign in a raid led by Mu`awiya's son, Yazid, and was reportedly interred near the walls of Constantinople. A report going back to a transmitter from Kufa purports to include the utterances with which Abu Ayyub bid farewell to the world:


Abu Ayyub raided the Byzantines and fell ill. At the point of dying he said: メWhen I die,

carry me, and when you draw yourselves out in a rank against the enemy, bury me under your

feetモ (idha ana muttu a-ユhmiluni fa-idha safaftumu l-`aduwwa fa-ユdfinuni tahta aqdamikum).


Abu Ayyub added:

I shall relate to you an utterance I heard from the Messenger of God which I would not have related to you had I not been in the present state. I heard the Messenger of God say: メHe

who dies without attributing associates to God (la yushriku bi-llahi shayユan), enters Paradiseモ.


The transmitter (and possible creator) of this report is Abu Zabyan Husayn b. Jundab

al-Kufi al-Janbi al-Madhhiji who died in the last decade of the first century of the Muslim era.


Abu Ayyub's death is supposed to have given the warriors renewed vigour to reach a place of burial for him further inside enemy territory. In other words, Abu Ayyub's interment Islamized this specific area over which the Muslims were fighting. (It may not be farfetched to associate the grave in this context with trenches (sing. hufra) dug in the battlefield which the warriors vowed not to abandon. Such tactics are ascribed to the Persian banner-carriers in the battle of Qadisiyya and are said to have been applied in the Arabian Fijar wars on the eve of Islam.)


Another variant story of Abu Ayyub's burial similarly goes back to Abu Zabyan. When Abu Ayyub was dying within sight of the enemy, he summoned the Prophet's Companions who participated in the expedition and ordered that upon his death, they should march with their cavalry and infantry and advance until they make contact with the enemy. The enemy will push them back and they will be unable to advance any further. At that point they should dig for him a grave and bury him, make the grave level with the ground around it (thumma sawwuhu) and let the cavalry and infantry trample on it until it is even and its place is unknown. Finally, upon their return they should tell the people that the Prophet informed Abu Ayyub that one who says la ilaha illa llahu will not enter hellfire.


Another report, again going back to Abu Zabyan, has that the dying Abu Ayyub enjoined that he be buried near Constantinople (i.e., near its wall). We struggled against the town, the report goes on, until we approached it, then we buried him under our feet. In other words, his burial place was obtained through fighting. It was a Muslim foothold at the wall anticipating a later conquest of the city.


Along the same lines there is yet another report on an encounter between the dying Abu Ayyub and the commander of the expedition, Yazid b. Mu`awiya. The former's last request was that the latter carry his body and enter into the land of the enemy, if he finds a place where entrance was possible (fa-ユrkab bi thumma sugh bi fi ardi l-`aduww ma wajadta masaghan). If Yazid does not find such place, he should bury him and then return. For the dying Abu Ayyub, proper burial was one carried out beyond enemy lines.


The same idea is also expressed slightly differently: Abu Ayyub's message to his comrades conveyed through Yazid was that they should carry his body to the furthest possible place. When Yazid reported this to the troops, they yielded (fa-ユstaslama l-nas) and carried out Abu Ayyub's last wish. The troops' alleged submission suggests that they were reluctant to carry out the dangerous operation, but were stimulated to do it by Abu Ayyub's last wish.

The propagandistic and didactic intent of these reports is not linked to their historical value or lack of it. Indeed, there is no certainty regarding Abu Ayyub's burial and the shape of his grave, since other reports speak of a grave which was for the Byzantines a source of blessing. According to some, the Byzantines paid frequent visits to his grave and put it in good repair; at times of drought they used it to pray for rain. Or the Muslims threatened that if Abu Ayyub be exhumed, every church on Muslim territory would be destroyed (literally: メno naqus [a kind of rattle used by Eastern Christians to summon for prayer] will be struck in the lands of the Arabsモ). According to the testimony of Abu Sa`id al-Mu`ayti and others, Yazid told the Byzantines that Abu Ayyub decreed this in his will (i.e., that he be interred near the walls of their city), so that none of the warriors and those killed in the Path of God would be nearer to them (i.e., to the Byzantines) than him. The Byzantines built over the grave a white dome and lit a lamp inside it. Abu Sa`id entered the dome in 100/718-19 and upon sighting the lamp he realized that it was lit ever since Abu Ayyubユs death.

The eschatological element is again linked to the territorial one in a report on the ascetic and Qurユan reader, Abu Muslim al-Khawlani who died at the time of Mu`awiya in an expedition against the Byzantines. His last requests presented to his commander were as follows:

Put me in charge of the Muslims who died fighting with you, and tie for me a banner of military command (liwaユ) over them, and make my grave the furthest of all graves [and the nearest] to the enemy, since I wish to arrive on Resurrection Day carrying their banner.

A similar idea is found with regard to the province of Khurasan. `Abdallah b. Burayda b. al-Husayb al-Aslami was the son of a Companion of the Prophet. His father settled in Basra and then moved to Marw, where he died in 63/682-83. `Abdallah reported that his father had died in Marw and that his grave was (more specifically) at J(a/i)ssin. `Abdallah followed this report with a statement of an eschatological import:

My father said: I heard the Messenger of God say, メHe of my Companions who dies in a certain land will become their commander (i.e., he will be in command of the Companions killed in that land) and their light on the Day of Resurrectionモ.

The context suggests that Burayda was in fact a martyr. The association of Burayda's burial and the general principle attributed to the Prophet suggests that according to his son's claim, the great eschatological honour belonged to Burayda.

The Prophetヤs Companion al-Hakam b. `Amr al-Ghifari was also buried in Marw. He too settled in Basra and later officiated as the governor of Khurasan. The distance between his grave and Burayda's was only one cubit. Al-Hakam had the characteristics of a martyr. At the time of Maユmun he was still found unchanged in his grave. Having been tortured by a special investigator sent by Mu`awiya because of a dispute over the division of spoils, al-Hakam willed that he be buried in his shackles in order to contend with (yukhasimu) Mu`awiya on Resurrection Day over the reasons for his fettering (i.e., his torture). Both the preservation of the body and the burial without the ritual washing indicate a status of martyr.

No wonder that several reports associate the two martyrs, Burayda and al-Hakam, with each other. According to Burayda, the Prophet addressed both him and al-Hakam, saying: メYou are the two springs (or sources of water, `aynani) of the people of the East (mashriq), and through you the people of the East will be resurrectedモ. So they came to Marw and died there. Burayda's martyr status is also conveyed by the Prophet's alleged words to him that after his death he will be メlight upon the people of the Eastモ.

A lush meadow on enemy soil as a coveted burial ground


A lush meadow on enemy soil was a coveted burial place. A statement to this effect is attributed to the ascetic `Amr b. `Utba b. Farqad al-Sulami killed in battle at the time of Mu`awiya. A report by `Amr's cousin is of particular interest for us here. He tells of `Amr's fantasy upon alighting in a lush meadow (marj):


There is nothing better now than the call of the summoner: メO God's cavalry, ride!モ; and a man will come out and will be the first to tackle the enemy; he will be killed, and then his comrades will bring him and bury him in this meadow.


The fantasy was naturally fulfilled to the letter. `Amr's father, `Utba, who was in command of

the troops, sent men to seek him but they arrived too late. The cousin believed that `Amr was buried where he stuck his spear into the ground (markaz rumhihi, i.e., he did not budge an inch). The prompt outbreak of hostilities exactly as described in `Amr's fantasy is an indication that he was one of those whose prayers were answered. It would seem that the lush meadow brought to `Amr's mind images of death. No objective of war is mentioned; yet `Amr's figure as reflected in Islamic literature probably provided the troops with an example worthy of being imitated.


Resurrection from the bellies of birds and beasts of prey


Muslim troops who died on enemy territory had no known graves. The Muslim warrior and former munafiq, Makhshi b. Humayyir, reportedly gave an answer to this predicament: he prayed to God

that he die a martyr's death in a place unknown to anyone. Indeed he was killed on the Day of Yamama (during the Ridda wars) leaving no known trace.


As a rule, attempts were made to give troops proper burial even when great inconvenience was involved. Abu Talha Zayd b. Sahl al-Ansari died at sea during a naval expedition. Seven days later his comrades found an island and buried him in it, and his corpse did not decay meanwhile. The report seeks above all to establish the supernatural preservation of the martyr's body, but at the same time it indicates that his fellow warriors did not dispose of his body at sea.


However, many warriors could not be given proper burial. It was the task of Muslim scholars to teach the troops that this was a privilege rather than a disadvantage. On seeing the body of his uncle, Hamza, with his abdomen ripped open and his nose and ears cut off, Muhammad reportedly said: メHad it not been for the women's grief and the fear that this will become a sunna after my time, I would have left him until God would resurrect him from the bellies of the beasts of prey and the birds; I shall retaliate for him by mutilating seventy menモ. The revelation of a Qurユan verse prevented him from carrying out this plan of vengeance.


This theme is further developed in a story on a warrior in Massisa who did receive proper burial, yet his body was time and again rejected by the earth and cast out forcefully. After this had happened three times, a voice from an invisible source declared that the martyr's wish to be resurrected from the bellies of the beasts of prey and the craws of the birds was granted, and he should consequently be left unburied.



The concepts regarding martyrs go back to the first century of Islam. They were embedded in edifying stories which made use of Israユiliyyat themes and were woven around famous warriors. The scholars who created these stories wished to confront the terrible bloodshed caused by internal strifes. They also prepared the troops for the probabilities of death and injury in the battlefield, or even the possible lack of proper burial.