The Arabic word for martyr is Shaheed, which means "one who bears witness". The Islamic concept of martyrdom includes the idea that martyrs willingly go to death for their cause using all their normal logical and sensible abilities.
Classically associated with religion, a martyr is someone who dies striving for Allah's cause (Sirat al-Mustaqeem). The Qur'an mentions how Allah will honor individuals who make that ultimate sacrifice. In Chapter 3, Verse 169, the Qur'an reads: "And reckon not those who are killed in Allah's way as dead; nay, they are alive (and) are provided sustenance from their Lord." Allah also states in Chapter 46, Verse 14 of the Qur'an about Shuhada, "These are the dwellers of the garden abiding therein: a reward for what they did."
The Islamic concept of martyrdom is unique, and involves knowledge of history.
The Prophet's (peace be upon him and his progeny) jihad was against a people who were openly anti-Islamic, while during Imam Ali's (peace be upon him) time the struggle was against people within the Ummah who feigned piety while secretly trying to undermine Islam. Imam Ali was known to say how "all of life is the major and minor jihad."
Imam Ali and his contemporaries faced an extremely dangerous foe, the reason being that they were intellectual enemies, not openly sword-bearing enemies, of Islam. It is easier to see enemies and engage them when they openly claim to be your enemies, and are not insisting they are your friends and companions in faith. This is the challenge of the Imams. They fight on the front of the mind more so than on the front of the battlefield.
Dr. Ali Shariati writes that each Imam chooses the form his struggle will take. The form of the struggle of each Imam is not based upon his own personal tastes, but it has to take shape to fit the circumstances and the nature of the enemy's strength. This is why the concept of Imam Hussain's (peace be upon him) struggle ending in martyrdom is not a simple story, and must be told in conjunction with historical and socio-political circumstances.
The Umayyads occupied every base of society. For years the Quraish, in their ignorance, dominated the values and twisted the meanings of the previous Islamic movement. Many of the companions and followers of the Prophet had died, been killed off, or silenced. This regime knew well that the danger of revolution would not be stopped by destroying the Ahlul-Bayt (peace be upon them).
The Umayyad establishment sought to destroy the source of the revolution that could not be diminished no matter how many wars were fought, and no matter how many people were killed. True Islam was in the hearts and minds of those people who still genuinely believed. So, the Umayyads sought to destroy those of the people, too. The physical world was not enough for them. They sought to eliminate true Islam.
Imam Hussain knew he had to act. The Prophet's grandson had no resources, no army with which to fight, and was facing either complete oppression or…death. Scholars say that there are seven doors to Paradise. Imam Hussain chose the best door for his time and place in the cosmic struggle: that of martyrdom.
The Arabic word for martyr is Shaheed, which means "one who bears witness". The Islamic concept of martyrdom includes the idea that martyrs willingly go to death for their cause using all their normal logical and sensible abilities. In this way, they become models for society because they die representing that which is true and just.
According to Dr. Shariati, it was in this dangerous period in Islamic history that "'dying' for a human being, guaranteed the 'life' of a nation." Martyrdom bore witness to that which the oppressors desired to remain hidden in history. It became the only reason for existence. It was the only sign of being present, the only means of attack and defense, and the only manner of resistance so that truth, right, and justice could remain alive in a time and under a regime in which falsity, fatalism, and oppression ruled.
Martyrdom also implies a throwing-off of the weaker part of human nature. Allah has said that humans are created from spirit and clay, inherently combined of stronger and weaker elements. During the night of Ashura, Imam Hussain washed himself keenly and dressed in his finest clothes, because he knew that through death he was returning to Allah.
If the essence of martyrdom is dying for a holy cause, one doesn't necessarily need to die by the sword or in the battlefield. An example is Lady Zainab (peace be upon her), who was willing to die on more than one documented case for Imam Zayn al Abideen (peace be upon him) during their trials with the Umayyad forces. Other women of the Imam's family suffered for Islam as well.
Women of faith knowingly traveled with Imam Hussain to Karbala, knowing that in the desert lay doom. They watched their male relatives being slaughtered, including uncles, cousins, husbands, brothers, and sons. Their precious few belongings were destroyed, their tents burned, and their dignity stripped away. Small babies were dropped from completely exhausted, thirsty, and hungry arms in a scalding desert, and they were forbidden or unable to dismount from their camels to retrieve them to save their lives. They were utterly humiliated, scorned, cursed by crowds during their journey, not allowed to weep for their loved ones, and then imprisoned. When finally released from prison, they were changed: sad, mourning, yet still conveying the message of Islam, telling and re-telling the story of how their male relatives were martyred in Karbala.
In their way, these women were also martyrs for Islam, for they endured all this and still clung steadfastly to their faith, for it was the only thing they had left in the world. These are the female martyrs of the tragedy of Karbala, for it is their cries that we echo in remembrance. It is their majalis, in black, and in tears, which they began long ago and we continue to this today. This is the grand history of the Islamic movement, beginning with prophets and ending with martyrs, commemorated during Muharram.