Amid Grief for Shireen Abu Akleh, a Reckless Religious Argument Surfaces

As millions mourned the killing of the Palestinian journalist, a curious online discussion gathered steam: Could the victim, a Christian, be called a ‘martyr’?

Amid Grief for Shireen Abu Akleh, a Reckless Religious Argument Surfaces
Muslims and Christians say prayers for journalist Shireen Abu Akleh / Mostafa Alkharouf / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

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Few issues are as polarizing as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For decades much of what is debated or reported on the conflict has led to controversies and heightened tensions. This past week, following the killing of American-Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, was no different. A new controversy was born and, of the recent many from the region, I’d number it among the most ridiculous — at a time when people should recall her courageous work. Still, the debate brought to light deeper issues.

While much of the coverage of the killing centered on who killed her as well as the sheer disregard for the press, debates took a different direction when a few in the Muslim world discovered that Shireen, who had for decades given a voice to the Palestinian people, was in fact not a Muslim but a Christian. After many had called her a martyr and thousands joined prayers outside the hospital she was treated in, there was some awkward backpedaling as her coffin was carried toward the church.

Some couldn’t believe it. “Is she a kafirah??” @Ibn_Ibrahim1440 asked sheik Abu Muslim Kamran, who studied at the Islamic University of Madeenah, using the Arabic term for a non-Muslim. After he tweeted “Just a reminder there is no difference of opinion among the scholars that one cannot pray for forgiveness & mercy for non Muslims after their death,” another tweeter, @dztrader2, asked: “You know 100% she died not a Muslim ?” The quotations about her faith continued to flow. Others turned to Google. Was Shireen a martyr or was she not? Can one ask God for her to go to heaven, to have mercy on her soul, or not? Suddenly, years of relentless reporting and her killing were overshadowed by these silly, but dangerous, attitudes. One of the top 10 Google searches revealed that one of the pressing questions people had about Shireen was not about her work but her religion and how to react to her death. People asked sheikhs online what would be the correct terminology to show their respect. Even on this matter people could not decide.

We are not talking about the wider divide about the Palestinian issue. This controversy emerged from within demographics supportive of the Palestinians and most critical of Israel.

In international media, the story was limited to the killing of a Palestinian journalist and the suffering of Palestinians. In the region, the martyrdom question was so widespread that it triggered headlines and discussions in Arabic media for the past week.

The debate unearthed even some fatwas. In a YouTube video, a Libyan Islamic scholar said that, because she was not a Muslim, it was not permissible to pray for her or ask for “rahma” (God’s mercy). Countless people chimed in on social media to share similar sentiments, and more Islamic scholars on Youtube and Twitter offered their opinions. You can watch hours of video discussions, sermons or online commentary about whether it was appropriate to ask mercy for her, basically to say “rest in peace,” let alone to call her a martyr.

Fortunately, this question led to a serious discussion about deeper religious issues related to whether Christians in a majority-Muslim country can be honored in the same way their compatriots are when they act patriotically or ethically.

Ali al Qaradaghi, the secretary general of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, issued a lengthy fatwa in support of Akleh pushing back against these voices. In the fatwa, he demonstrated that the word martyr is monopolized by Muslims today for all the wrong reasons. He said that in Islam, the word for martyr, “shaheed,” simply means “witness” and that the term is more linguistic than religious. Of the 159 references in the Quran to the various derivatives of the word “shaheed,” not a single one involves fighting or wars. All references involve witnessing in legal, economic and court disputes as well as about regulations. Any adherent of any belief system can be described as a “martyr.” It’s just that the description does not qualify that person, if non-Muslim, to be rewarded religiously with what Islam promises for martyrs (depending on which Islamic traditions you consult, this includes forgivess of one’s sins and of other family members). A person, Muslim or otherwise, can be labeled a nation’s martyr.

The Quran, adds Qaradaghi, refers to Muslims dying in battle as “killed” rather than as “becoming martyrs.” In this sense, television channels and newspapers in the Arab world are more editorially rigid than the Quran itself. If a media outlet drops the ball and refers to a Palestinian as being “killed,” instead of “became a martyr,” it is likely to face a public backlash.

One video that circulated shows a similar positive view in Egypt, by former presidential candidate Hazim Salah Abu Ismail, who was disqualified before the vote. Abu Ismail is a known Salafist figure, widely seen as diplomatic but radical in his worldviews. He was asked in 2012 whether Christians killed defending Egypt could be treated as martyrs if he was elected president. He responded that they would be treated the same way his son would if he died in battle and would be called national heroes and martyrs. Coming from someone who languishes in Egyptian jails because of his views, his affirmative answer was used online to support Qaradaghi’s view,

In a way, one cannot help but see the irony in this. Martyr, as the cleric above explained, means witness, and Shireen was exactly that. She bore witness to the suffering of Palestinians and conveyed it to the world, a cause widely held as “sacred” in the region.

The despicable comments from the can’t-be-a-martyr camp then triggered a healthy debate. The details provided by the likes of Sheikh Qaradaghi did not seem to be widely known and served as a corrective for beliefs rife in the Islamic community that non-Muslims living in Muslim lands and even sharing their grievances are not worthy of the same treatment when it comes to honoring, in life or death. Ultimately, the voices that opposed calling her a martyr were drowned by others who called out the ludicrousness of the whole debate.

Still, the debate was ominous. It’s terrible from a moral standpoint that instead of celebrating the life of an incredible woman and her contributions to society that so many people dishonor her because of her faith, underlining a perception that nationhood and belonging is exclusive to adherents of Islam, while others are foreign in some way even when they’ve predated Muslims in those parts. It is corrosive to national unity, the thriving of minorities, and the message of tolerance and coexistence, ideals all of which should have quashed this debate.

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