Immediately following the death of Al-Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu 'Akleh in a firefight between Palestinian gunmen and the Israeli armed forces in Jenin refugee camp on May 11, 2022, a debate arose in the Arab and Muslim world as to whether Muslims may refer to Abu 'Akleh, who was a Christian, as a "martyr," and whether it is permissible for them to say 'may Allah have mercy upon her,' a phrase traditionally uttered in Arabic about the deceased, or to pray for Allah to grant her pardon. The issue was discussed on social media, especially on Twitter, as well as in the Arab press, and was also addressed by Islamic clerics and scholars around the Arab world.
Islamist and Salafi elements claimed that Islam forbids referring to an infidel as a martyr and praying for his soul, and that any non-Muslim is considered an infidel. The immense appreciation for Abu 'Akleh's work as a journalist and her contribution to the Palestinian cause does not change this, they said, nor does the fact that she was a victim of murder and injustice. They stressed that that there is no room for political considerations when it comes to the laws of the Islamic shari'a.
This Islamist discourse sparked furious reactions from Muslim Arab journalists, who called it reprehensible and at odds with the spirit of Islam, and stated that it is not up to human beings to decide who is or isn't worthy of Allah's mercy.
Muslim clerics and religious scholars also felt compelled to address this issue, which concerns the attitude towards non-Muslims in the Muslim world and is fraught with complex political implications. Sheikh 'Ali Al-Qaradhari, secretary-general of the International Union of Muslim Scholars (IUMS), which is funded by Qatar and based in Doha, issued a fatwa stating that a non-Muslim who died fighting for the homeland, or for the sake of a just cause, can be called a martyr and that it is allowed to wish Allah's mercy upon his soul. However, Al-Qaradhari stressed that such an individual is not "a martyr for the sake of Allah," and is not necessarily admitted into Paradise.
Criticism evoked by this fatwa prompted Al-Qaradhari to publish some clarifications about it and finally to propose holding a religious symposium to settle the question. Several clerics from Egypt, Morocco and Gaza likewise ruled that it is permissible to beseech Allah to have mercy upon Abu 'Akleh's soul.
The Arab press published numerous articles that harshly condemned the Islamists who had forbidden calling Abu 'Akleh a martyr and praying for her soul. These articles stated that the very existence of such discourse reflects "a diseased mentality" and "a serious flaw in the understanding of the religion," and that those who spread it are " hostage to benighted views that fill the mind with hostility, hate and aggression."
Other writers, most conspicuously Buthaina Sha'ban, an advisor to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, accused Israel of fanning this divisive discourse in an attempt to distract the world from what they called the murder of Shireen Abu 'Akleh.
This article reviews the debate about this issue.
Debate On Social Media On Whether It Is Permissible To Call Abu 'Akleh A Martyr
As stated, immediately following Abu 'Akleh's death, and after many referred to her as a martyr, a heated debate arose on social media, and especially on Twitter, about whether this term can be applied to a Christian and whether it is permissible to pray for a Christian's soul.
Islamist, Salafi Elements: Non-Muslims Who Die Remain Infidels, Even If They Were Murdered By The Forces Of Evil
Islamist and Salafi elements insisted pointedly that the Christian journalist could not be termed a martyr, because this titled is reserved for Muslims, and that it is forbidden to beseech Allah to have mercy upon her soul or to pardon her.
For example, Siraj Al-Din Zureiqat, spokesman for the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Abdallah 'Azzam Brigades, tweeted on May 11, 2022: "Shireen Abu' Akleh was murdered by the criminal Zionists… She was murdered out of evil and aggression, and was a journalist who sacrificed [her life] for the Palestinian cause. However, she is not a martyr. It is forbidden to beseech Allah to forgive her or to say 'May Allah have mercy upon her,' for she is not a Muslim, and the [Islamic] religion is not a matter of popular opinion. A non-Muslim dies an infidel, even if he was a victim of injustice or was murdered by evil creatures. This injustice does not make him a Muslim, because politics has no effect on the well-established rules of the shari'a."
Siraj al-Din Zureiqat's tweets
A similar position was expressed by 'Abd Al-Muhsin Zain Al-Mutairi, head of the Exegesis and Hadith Department at Kuwait University's Shari'a Faculty, who tweeted that, despite the deep sorrow over her death, Abu 'Akleh was not a Muslim, and the shari'a therefore forbids praying for her soul and wishing Allah's mercy upon her. "[Even] the gravest crime in the world should not cause us to forget the principles of the religion," he added.
In an audio address posted to YouTube on May 16, Mauritanian cleric Al-Hassan Ould Al-Dadou Al-Shanqiti, a member of the International Union of Muslims Scholars (IUMS), addressed the issue and stated that non-Muslims are not admitted into Paradise and that Muslims must not wish Allah's mercy or pardon upon them. Libyan Islamic scholar Sheikh Zain Khairallah made similar claims on his YouTube channel, as shown in the MEMRI-TV clip below.
Jordanian journalist Ihsan Al-Faqih, a columnist for the Qatari daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi who is close to the Muslim Brotherhood, made similar claims. Several hours after Abu 'Akleh's death became known, she tweeted: "It is forbidden to pray for Allah to have mercy on [the soul of] a non-Muslim. Even one who died for his homeland and was killed by a common enemy must not be called a martyr…" This tweet, which was among the first that sparked the debate around this issue, went viral and aroused intense criticism, so much so that Al-Faqih deleted it, although she did not withdraw her claims. In a later tweet she clarified: "I picked the wrong time to publish this well-established religious ruling, but it is not an invention of mine…"
Arab Journalists Express Anger Over The Calls To Refrain From Calling Abu 'Akleh A Martyr
The Islamist discourse against calling Abu 'Akleh a martyr or praying for her soul sparked angry responses from journalists in the Arab world, who tweeted against these calls.
Sana El Younoussi, the Middle East editor for Al-Jazeera English, wrote angrily, in response to the tweet by Ihsan Al-Faqih: "There is no ability or strength except in Allah! Allah have mercy upon the soul of Shireen Abu 'Akleh, the believing Christian Palestinian. Ms. Ihsan Al-Faqih, [your] tweet is unfortunate. Who are we to grant mercy or withhold mercy from God's creatures???"
Qatari journalist Ibtisam Aal Sa'd wrote: "Some so-called Muslims condemned [people] for applying the term 'martyr' to Shireen Abu 'Akleh or for praying for her soul. They forgot that mercy, and [the act of] praying for Allah to have mercy upon good people, are part of Islam. They ignored the spirit of Islam and kept only its name. May Allah have every mercy upon [Abu 'Akleh], who is a martyr of this world. [You should] have mercy upon the people of this world, so that Heaven has mercy upon you." In another tweet, Aal Sa'd asked: "If the Muslim [President of Syria] Bashar Al-Assad dies, am I supposed to pray for Allah to have mercy upon him?! And when [Shireen Abu 'Akleh] dies – a woman who carried the Palestinian cause in her heart and upon her shoulders and was more Palestinian and Muslim than the Muslims – praying for Allah to have mercy upon her becomes heresy[?]…"
Liberal Egyptian Journalist Khaled Montaser tweeted sarcastically: "A message to all our brothers, the Christians living in the disaster-struck Arab world: Do not die or expose yourselves to a plague, for your death is a deadly poison and a headache [for us]. You embarrass us [Muslims] and tire us out, [by giving rise to] Salafi discourse and palaver over whether or not to beseech Allah to have mercy [upon you], whether you are martyrs or [just] casualties, and whether or not you will be admitted into Paradise… In short, do not die."
Muslim Scholars Permit To Apply The Term 'Martyr' To, Wish Allah's Mercy Upon, A Non-Muslim
Religious scholars and clerics around the Arab and Muslim world felt called upon to address the issue.
For example, several hours after Abu 'Akleh's death, Sheikh 'Ali Al-Qaradhari, secretary-general of the International Union of Muslim Scholars (IUMS), which is sponsored and funded by Qatar, posted a tweet lamenting her death and effectively recognized her as a martyr by ending with the phrase "Yours is the blessed memory and the martyrdom, and may the occupation's lot be curses and disgrace."
On May 14, after this tweet evoked criticism on social media, Al-Qaradhari issued a fatwa explaining his position at length. He ruled that it is permissible to apply the title of "martyr" to a non-Muslim who died fighting for the homeland, for the truth, or for a just cause such as Jerusalem. He stressed, however, that this term does convey that the non-Muslim was a "martyr for the sake of Allah" or was necessarily admitted into Paradise, for that decision is made by Allah alone. Such a person is better referred to as "a martyr for the homeland" or "a martyr for the cause," he said. As for the question of whether it is permissible to wish Allah's mercy upon a non-Muslim, he noted that the religious scholars are divided on this issue, and that some ruled it permissible, if the intention is to beseech Allah to lighten the suffering of the deceased. However, there is a consensus that asking Allah to grant pardon to a non-Muslim is forbidden, he said.
However, this fatwa apparently failed to appease his critics, because on the following day, May 15, Qaradhari wrote that he welcomed controversy and debate and that people were entitled to criticize his fatwa and reject it, as long as they followed the rules of civilized debate. Several days later, on May 18, he addressed the matter again, saying that the attack on him had come to the point of humiliating him and even accusing him of heresy and of making forbidden innovations in Islam. He called on his fellow Islamic jurisprudents to read the fatwa attentively and see that it contains nothing that violates the basic tenets of the faith. He also called to convene a religious symposium on this issue in order to settle it.
Sheikh Hassan Al-Lahham, Chief Mufti of Gaza, also posted an announcement stating that "Abu 'Akleh is a martyr of words who was assassinated [and fell as] a martyr of the journalistic mission who supported her homeland and its cause." He stated that it is permitted to wish Allah's mercy upon her because she was "loyal to the homeland and its just cause and sacrificed her life to expose the crimes of the occupation."
Two clerics belonging to the religious establishment in Egypt also ruled it permissible to wish Allah's mercy upon a non-Muslim. Sheikh Ahmad Mamdouh, a senior member of Egypt's fatwa-issuing body Dar Al-Ifta, drew a distinction between asking Allah to pardon a non-Muslim, which is forbidden, and praying for Allah to have mercy upon a non-Muslim, which is permissible. "If a Muslim wishes to pray for Allah to have mercy, in the general sense of this term, on someone who is known as a good and decent person and who is not hostile to Islam and does not fight it, then that is permissible," he wrote.
Muhammad Ibrahim Al-'Ashmawi, a lecturer at Al-Azhar, wrote on Facebook: "Regardless of a person's religious affiliation, any effort that this person makes for the benefit of humanity is rewarded, according to the Islamic shari'a… The shari'a aims to reward anyone who does [good], regardless of his religion. Speculating about people's fate after they die is a deviation from tradition, invented by the [extremist] religious groups… We live in a very complex world, in which there is no room for superficial and naïve individuals. We are very proud of our religion that Allah gave us to deliver us from the darkness of paganism and ignorance. Allah commanded us to coexist with others, appreciate everyone's efforts and leave the fate of [other] people to Him, for He knows better than any of us. May Allah have mercy upon Shireen Abu 'Akleh and reward her in the best possible manner for [promoting] the Palestinian cause."
Morocco's religious establishment addressed the issue as well. Lahcen bin Ibrahim Eskanfal, chair of the fatwa council of Skhirate-Temara prefecture, said in his Friday sermon, whose content is determined by the ministry of religious endowments and is aired on television, that "a non-Muslim who dies defending his country, his wealth or his people is a martyr and we recognize him as such, but he is not like a martyr who dies the battlefield, whose body does not need to be washed or buried in a shroud."
Arab Journalists: The Whole Debate Over Abu 'Akleh's Status As A Martyr Reflects A Diseased Mentality And A Mistaken Understanding Of Islam
Articles in the Arab press likewise attacked the Islamists, stating that the entire debate about this issue reflects a religious extremism, a mistaken understanding of Islam and an "obsolete" or even "diseased" mentality that judges people by their religious affiliation instead of their actions and values.
Egyptian Columnist: The Discourse Following Abu 'Akleh's Death Reveals A Diseased Mentality
Journalist Mahmoud Khalil wrote in his May 13, 2022 column in the daily Al-Watan: "Some people started a distasteful and pointless debate about whether the title of 'martyr' can be applied to Shireen Abu 'Akleh, the martyr of the Palestinian cause and the Arab media, who was murdered in cold blood by the bullets of the occupation… Shireen Abu 'Akleh is an Arab citizen, like all the millions [of other citizens] that this [Arab] nation embraces without knowing whether they are Muslims of Christians, for the noble people of this nation are distinguished by their positions and actions, [not by their religious affiliation]. It is pointless to ask about people's religious affiliation, because this does not reflect their morality, actions or contribution [to society], and [only] Allah will judge people justly on the Day of Judgement…
"The death of Shireen Abu 'Akleh… exposed not only the barbarity of the Zionist occupation but also the secret behind the Arabs' inability to deal with this occupier. This disability stems from the Arab mentality, which perceives things in this manner, and from the culture that addresses [the Palestinian cause], an important issue that has been greatly troubling the Arabs and Muslims for decades. [This culture] shallowly examines the religious affiliation of the resistance fighter and his intensions, and then presumes to decide whether to grant him a certificate of martyrdom. This mentality… is the greatest secret behind the loss of Palestine and the Palestinian cause. This diseased mentality is the reason we retreat before an enemy who does not rely on his means of power and oppression as much as he counts on the 'stagnant Arab brain' and its superficiality. Anyone who allows this obsolete and diseased mentality to spread… is complicit, in some way or other, in the spilling of Palestinian blood and in letting the Zionist entity swallow more and more [Palestinian] land… Always remember that Allah has mercy on the merciful."
Egyptian Columnist: Does The Islamists' Piety Cause Them To Lose Their Humanity?
Osama Gharib, a columnist for the Egyptian daily Al-Masri Al-Yawm, wrote on May 14: "Some loud voices shouted: 'Why do you say "may Allah have mercy upon her soul" when talking about Shireen Abu 'Akleh, who is a Christian? Have you forgotten your religion? It is permissible to speak well of her, and even to collect money for her family, but it is forbidden to say "may Allah have mercy upon his soul" about someone who is not a Muslim!'
"These claims were like a shower of shockingly cold water for people, who could not understand how anyone could become this way. Does religious piety deprive one of one's humanity and make one hostage to benighted views that fill the mind with hostility, hate and aggression? Or is religion a message of mercy, grace and love? This is no doubt a new edition of the religion we have acquired, which, in some people, erases not only their minds but also their nobility and honor and reshapes their morality, so that bad manners, callousness and insensitivity become the path to Paradise [in their eyes]!
"What drives me to despair is that reasoning with these people is pointless, because their minds have been filled with superstition that they mistake for religion. True, defending the faith requires coming out against these ignorant people, so that their ignorance does not continue to spread. But who has energy to waste on them and is willing to be exposed to [their] invective and their insults to honor and religion?...
"The deterioration of education no doubt has a hand in [creating] some of these phenomena. I believe that the ignorance of school and university graduates is what created the phenomenon of barbaric religiosity, whose followers are bereft of all compassion and advocate various controversial rituals at the expense of reason, morality and honor…"
Cartoon in online daily showing Abu 'Akleh against backdrop of Al-Aqsa and Church of the Holy Sepulcher and captioned: "Shireen Abu 'Akleh was with you in Palestine, all of Palestine" (Source: Arabi21.com, May 12, 2022)
Sudanese Journalist: The Debate About Abu 'Akleh's Status As A Martyr Reflects A Grave Misunderstanding Of Islam
Sudanese journalist 'Osman Mirghani wrote on May 13 in his column on the Emirati news website Eremnews.com: "Allah did not authorize human beings to [plumb] the unknown, and therefore nobody has the right to determine who goes to Paradise and who to Hell, who deserves Allah's grace and who deserves punishment, and who has pleased Allah or angered Him. Allah reserves this [authority] for Himself: 'And We place the scales of justice for the Day of Resurrection, so no soul will be treated unjustly at all. And if there is [even] the weight of a mustard seed, We will bring it forth. And sufficient are We as accountant' [Quran 21:47].
"Sadly, a mistaken understanding of Islam has caused many to harm the religion, deliberately or inadvertently, by presuming to monopolize it and narrowing its broad [interpretation]. This turns the religion into a 'crisis', a source of division rather than unity and of hate rather than love between people… Religion judges behavior according to the values it preaches, namely truth, honesty, decency, morality and helping the other. The test is whether one improves one's behavior [in an effort] to conform to these values.
"Wishing Allah's mercy [on someone's soul] has nothing to do with religious affiliation, for Allah's grace is all-encompassing. The real danger does not lie in the fuss made over [the question of] whether the journalist Shireen Abu 'Akleh is a martyr or not, and whether it is permissible to wish Allah's mercy upon her. It lies in the fact that this [debate] reflects a grave flaw in the understanding of religion: the same flaw that gave rise to extremist groups and thinking."
Advisor To Syrian President Assad: Israel Is The One Spreading The Divisive Discourse About Abu 'Akleh
In her May 16 column in the pro-regime daily Al-Watan, Bouthaina Sha'ban, an advisor to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, claimed that Israel was behind the social media debate about Abu 'Akleh in an attempt to distract the world from the crime of the journalist's "assassination." She wrote: "After perpetrating the deliberate and calculated crime of assassinating this Arab journalist in cold blood… the enemies used fake [social media] accounts to shoot the last arrow in their quiver, namely [the arrow of sparking] civil and sectarian strife by [claiming] that it is forbidden to say 'may Allah have mercy upon her' about Shireen because she is a Christian. This is obviously a claim [invented by] the Zionist Mossad, which has nothing to do with our Islam or our Christianity…
"These foolish calls by mercenary writers affiliated with the Zionist enemy and with [the Zionist] lies are assassinating the martyr all over again… The racist Nazi Zionist mentality cannot comprehend coexistence [between Muslims and Christians]… Those [behind] these pro-Zionist [accounts] – which purport to hold the keys to Heaven and to be able to exclude the Christians, or any other sect, from the promised Paradise – are [clearly] affiliated with the Zionist enemy and there is no reason to waste time arguing with them or answering them, for the only aim of these [accounts] and these claims is to cover up the enemy's crimes, draw attention away from these ugly deeds and limit their global impact…"
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