In Islam, martyrdom is one of the great ambitions of a true believer. This is because dying as a martyr entails abundant rewards designated for such persons in the Hereafter. `Abdullah Ibn `Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) quoted the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) as saying, “Martyrs are forgiven their sins, except debts”. The phrase “except debts” also relates implicitly to usurpation of people’s rights, unjustified killing, and so on.

It suffices here to quote the Divine Promise for martyrs as stated in the following Qur’anic verses: (Think not of those, who are slain in the way of Allah, as dead. Nay, they are living. With their Lord they have provision. Jubilant (are they) because of that which Allah hath bestowed upon them of His bounty, rejoicing for the sake of those who have not joined them but are left behind: that there shall no fear come upon them neither shall they grieve. They rejoice because of favor from Allah and kindness, and that Allah wasteth not the wage of the believers.) (Aal-`Imran 3: 169-71)

Sheikh Ahmad Kutty, a senior lecturer and Islamic scholar at the Islamic Institute of Toronto, Ontario, Canada, states: There are basically two broad categories of martyrs (shuhada’) in Islam, firstly, those who have died fighting for the cause of Allah (i.e., in jihad), and secondly, those who have died being succumbed to certain types of ailments or calamities, not of their own making. The second group, although not recognized and treated as martyrs in this world, will receive rewards of martyrs in the Hereafter. As for a list of people of this category, we find a number of traditions—although not contradictory—such as the following:

1) In a report jointly reported by Imam al-Bukhari and Muslim, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) mentioned five types of martyrs: “One who dies in a plague, one who dies of intestinal ailments, one who dies of drowning, one who dies under a collapsed building, and one who dies as a martyr in jihad.”

2) Imam Ahmad, Abu Dawud, an-Nasa’i, and others stated that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “There are seven martyrs”. Having said this, he added the following to the list mentioned above: “…one who dies in a fire” and “…a woman who dies during child-birth.”

3) A third report states that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “Whoever dies while defending his own possessions is a martyr; whoever dies defending his own person is a martyr; whoever dies guarding his own faith is a martyr; whoever dies fighting in order to defend his own family is also a martyr.”

4) Finally, in a report by an-Nasa’i, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “Whoever fights to protect his rights and dies in the process is a martyr.”

Imam Ibn Hajar states, “we can conclude from these traditions that martyrs are of two types: Those who are recognized as martyrs in this world, and those who are recognized as martyrs only in the Hereafter. A martyr recognized in this world is one who has died fighting in the cause of Allah without having retreated from the battle. But those who are recognized only in the Hereafter are those upon whom the laws of martyrdom are not applicable in this world, although they merit rewards of martyrdom.”

According to Imam an-Nawawi, “The second category of martyrs will receive rewards of martyrdom, and yet unlike the martyrs of jihad, they will be bathed (before burial) and prayed over.”

From the above discussion, however, one is advised not to jump to the conclusion that everyone who dies in similar circumstances as mentioned above will automatically merit rewards of martyrdom. Such an inference is not valid, since Allah’s acceptance of a person ultimately depends on his or her state of faith or iman as well as upon the way he or she has responded to the will of Allah at the time of death. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “A person is raised up in the Hereafter in the state he has passed away.”