The Muslim world needs to hear this

Aymen Emaad
Aug 20 · 7 min read
(Photo by Kel Avelino on Unsplash)

In August 2015, a helicopter carrying twelve soldiers — three of them medical doctors — was sent on a rescue mission to one of Pakistan’s mountainous regions to evacuate a sick soldier. En route, the helicopter crashed, with all three doctors (among other staff) embracing martyrdom on the spot. As the news broke, social media was overflowing with posts of their bravery, sacrifice, and dedication. They were buried with full military protocols, and roads and college halls were named in their memory. Their families were congratulated on their sons having achieved the highest ranks in heaven.

Which all sounds great, BUT only if you overlook the fact that none of the doctors had any business being on that flight in the first place. In the events leading up to the crash, multiple people misused their authority and exercised terrible judgement to carry out the rescue. But none of this will ever be highlighted or spoken about in a nation obsessed with attributing everything that happens — good and bad — to God. A God who is probably not amused at them for putting their own stupidity on Him so often.

Ever since the ‘War on Terror’ began, heaps upon heaps on tragedies resulting in martyrdom have been reported in the media in Muslim nations, in the exact same way as the incident described above. This is exactly what is wrong with the vast majority of Muslim nations today. An over-reliance on religion to interpret events. A widespread attitude of rendering everything ‘God’s will.’ A tendency to appear and believe themselves helpless when it comes to issues they’re perfectly capable of fixing. Even more frustrating, a willful ignorance to not even examine incidents to conclude what went wrong and how. A dismissive attitude toward those who bring up how things should have been done better, and often belittling them for having lesser faith.

Until and unless religious interpretations are separated from worldly events, there is little hope for improvement.

Religion is a great convenience to the perpetrators and the victims. It allows the perpetrators to cover up their shortcomings, attributing end results to God’s will. It also allows the victims to pacify their hearts, accepting that nothing could have changed God’s will regardless of how hard those in position of influence tried. They believe the blood of their martyred loved one will contribute to a greater cause. That the martyr will never ‘die’ and can never be called dead. That their own ‘patience’ will be rewarded. Phrases like, “Allah tests those whom he loves the most,” will frequently be heard in times of misfortune. Crying relatives will be told these are tears of joy and not pain. That this is a reward from the Almighty only given to the most worthy of believers. Reminders given that their loved ones are rejoicing in the highest ranks of Jannah. What is there to grieve about, when such a glorified picture is presented of someone you lost? Alas, you should be proud to call yourself the parent/relative of a martyr.

If your bullshit detector went off the chart while reading the above paragraph, you probably have some sense of how I feel about this.

Glorifying death and making martyrdom an incident worth celebrating has two major ramifications. One, it alleviates the burden on the institution for an inquiry to be held and reforms to be implemented so this shall not happen again. Two, it makes it unimaginably difficult for the family to mourn, who sent their children into the military for a stable livelihood, but got medals and a casket in return. Yes there are inherent risks with all jobs, and much more so with the military at war, but a process of justice, inquiry and reforms should be central to all institutions, especially those dealing in the business of life and death. Having faith most certainly does not mean that those who died yearned for this. Any family would rather have their loved one alive and well with them, rather than have some unknown road named in their memory. Orphans would any day exchange the medals and awards for their fathers.

There is also a very diplomatic and tactful way of deciding who is and is not a martyr. After the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the only female prime minister of Pakistan, a debate ensued on whether she was a martyr. The 149 casualties (134 of them children) of the massacre that took place in a military-run school were declared martyrs. Handsome ‘martyr packages’ were announced as compensation for their families, which aptly included a sponsored pilgrimage to Mecca. May they go visit the God who took 134 children away at His will, and not question the gross security negligence that led to a military school within military grounds becoming the target of the fourth deadliest school massacre in history.

It seems we use the word ‘martyr’ at our own convenience, when whichever organisation or department is to be held responsible wants to give a glorified tinge to the incident and avoid public backlash. Our soldiers are martyrs. The opposite side, Taliban or whoever, says the same.

(Photo by Utsman Media on Unsplash)

We absurdly mix the power of prayer with the need to self-prepare, use divine intervention as an excuse for our own shortcomings, and blame fate when what we really need is an acknowledgment of our agency and accountability.

In the aftermath of having a martyr in the family, and the inherent culture of celebration and endurance surrounding it, too often I have seen relatives unable to mourn openly. They grapple with their need to mourn the loss of a loved one versus their need to believe their death was pre-ordained and hence served a higher purpose. For if it did not, then that only leaves the other conclusion, that someone somewhere is responsible and some justice needs to be delivered. But who do you ask for justice when the incident has been labelled as martyrdom and you are being handed ‘martyr packages’ as rewards? How do you go against an opinion that is stuffed down your throat and reinforced everywhere you look — especially in this hyper connected world where everything from news headlines to social media memes are feeding you that your loved one wanted this?

The popular narrative is that the solider is always praying for martyrdom. That this is the ultimate culmination of the life that your loved one wanted to live. In this era of fake news, letters handwritten by the martyr hours before passing on appear on social media. Screenshots of text messages showing how they yearned for this title. How, in that context, do you stand up and ask for a probe into the errors or circumstances that led up to your loved one’s death?

Religion is also a great fall-back because anyone trying to oppose the mainstream view and looking for a cause-and-effect on the situation is labelled as being weak in faith and questioning God’s will.

The scale of the problem is not just in the military and with martyrs. We tend to use religion where it has no business being. I recently got into a debate with hospital administrator who said that he had consoled the son of a deceased patient telling him it was God’s will, despite knowing that the consultant on the case had intentionally not followed medical protocols. I asked if any disciplinary action had been taken. His response, “We could never have ruled out that it was her (the patient’s) time of death anyway. Why bother fussing? When death is written, it will come surely.”

Yes, he just used a verse from the Quran to end the conversation. What a convenient use of religious scripture. What a mockery of the words, from those who consider the book so sacred that it is kept higher than all other objects in the room. A verse used to deliver the full package; letting you avoid responsibility, silence questions, and placate the victims — three in one.

The firmness and even stubbornness by which Muslims adhere to their faith as a blanket cover for all worldly actions is becoming single-handedly the reason they are unable to change. Until and unless religious interpretations are separated from worldly events, there is little hope for improvement. Muslims need to stop the urge to see a religious silver lining in any catastrophe, and deal with the situation heads on for what it is: a catastrophe, resulting from negligence, mistakes, inadequate precautions, or whatever. We must stop trying to alleviate the burden of blame, but find exactly the right spot to place it and correct what went wrong.

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Aymen Emaad

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Third culture kid. Parent. Using writing as therapy to heal. Reach me on

The Bigger Picture

Oddly specific. Universally applicable. Submit your writing to

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