What is the life of this world but amusement and play? but verily the Home in the Hereafter,- that is life indeed, if they but knew. -Quran 29:64
The promise of Paradise has long been a powerful provocation for many people to die for their politics and philosophy. Plato, in between his own visions of the divine world of the Forms, told of a man named Er who, after apparently dying in battle, came back to life to tell of his visions of an afterlife where the good are rewarded and the evil are punished.
Since then, Heaven has remained the reward of martyrs.
In Islamic terms, Er was a shaheed, an istishhadi. And after dying the death of a martyr, he was granted a vision of Jannah. But this myth of Er is not meant to recount an actual, historical event. The myth is a tool, an instrument used to make warriors fight fearlessly in battle and to make citizens act virtuously. The lesson taught is that this earthly life is only a means to proving oneself worthy of the next life, the eternal life, the true life.
But the historical veracity of the myth matters little. What is important is that people believe it to be true.
Today, Islamists still use the promise of Paradise in order to seduce fellow Muslims into risking their lives and joining them in their jihad. But instead of Plato, they cite two of the six major hadith collections (collections of the supposed sayings of the Prophet Muhammad), Sunan ibn Majah and Jami` at-Tirmidhi, that tell of six things promised to the martyr. One of these divine rewards for the martyr is a vision of his place in Paradise at the point of death.
The hadith from Jami` at-Tirmidhi is the longer of the two and comes from the collection considered more “authentic” by Muslim scholars.
The Sunan ibn Majah hadith gives the exact same six promises to the martyr but comes from least “authentic” of the six major hadith collections.
Nonetheless, both hadiths list a vision of Heaven as the second promised reward. Most Muslim scholars also add “(at the time of death)” to make it clear when this vision happens. And despite the dubious veracity of these alleged sayings of the Prophet, within the Islamist milieu, these promises are taken very seriously. It is even said amongst Islamists that martyrs smile as they die due to this vision of Jannah.
According to the FBI, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of the Boston Marathon bombers, spoke to his friends about these beliefs. FBI Special Agent Timothy Quinn testified in court that Azamat Tazhayakov, one of Tsarnaev’s friends, recounted a conversation he had with Tsarnaev before spring break in 2013.
“Dzhokhar had explained that people who die in an act of martyrdom die with a smile on their face and go straight to heaven,” Quinn testified. In the same conversation, Tsarnaev went on to brag about his bomb-making abilities. It’s these abilities he would later use to kill three people and injure more than 200 others in his quest for martyrdom and a taste of Heaven.
The Islamic State aka ISIS also cite these hadiths in order to entice their members to disregard this world, known as “dunya” in Arabic, in favor of the next. Pictures of dead ISIS fighters with smiles on their faces pervade the Twitter feeds of ISIS supporters. With these pictures and the promise of Jannah, ISIS has persuaded scores of young, devout Sunni Muslim men around the world to come fight for them.
What all these exaltations of death and exhortations to martyrdom illustrate is a striking hatred of life. For the Islamist, dunya is nothing but a transitory test, a temporary distraction. What really counts for the shaheed is the afterlife! The so-called Caliph of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, explained this very clearly to his followers during his Ramadan message.
“Beware of becoming deluded and losing strength,” exclaimed the self-proclaimed Caliph. “Beware, for the dunya has come to you reluctantly, so kick it down, trample it, and leave it behind you. Indeed, what is with Allah is better and more lasting.”
And now, untold numbers of young Sunni Muslim men have made hijra to Al Baghdadi’s caliphate with hopes of dying for their particular brand of Salafist Islam. With heads full of nonsensical nihilism, they fight and kill without fear of losing their lives and ending the lives of others.
And they do all of this with smiles on their faces!
Al Baghdadi and ISIS have collected various forms of weaponry in their conquest of Syria and Iraq. They’ve taken guns, canons, tanks, and explosives as war booty. But even with all that firepower, their most dangerous weapon remains an insidious version of the myth of Er, the promise of a vision of Heaven. And meanwhile, they’ve turned this world, the only world we’re sure exists, into a living Hell. Allah-u-Akbar indeed!