After World War I western nations have their own Unknown Soldier to commemorate those soldiers who lost their life serving their countries and whose identity was lost forever together with their lives. Some nations, like the UK, used their main churches to host the grave of the Unknown Soldier, others, like Italy, built monumental shrines. Yet the intention in any case is the same: to glorify self-sacrifice in the name of the nation. Although marked by an aura of religiosity, the monument is very much secular paraphernalia. Painted as a symbol of civil piety, the Unknown Soldier is a self-glorifying institution of Durkheimian mimesis.
Indeed, we assume that the Unknown Soldier is a hero who willingly sacrificed his life for the sake of the nation. Yet exactly because unknown, the real story of this soldier, reduced to dust by war and remade symbol by will of the state, may be different from the heroic outline the grandiose stones wish to narrate. Our unknown soldiers may have fought the state war because the state, otherwise, would have provided him with a very different grave, the lonely and shameful one of the executed platoon traitor.
Some of us visit the Unknown Soldier’s grave; we stop there and contemplate. We may think lots of things: from the less conceptual ‘who may be this unknown soldier; what is his story?’ to more philosophical ones, ‘why do we still kill each other?’, to more nationalistic ‘these are the people who saved my motherland’. Nonetheless, none of the visitors to the Unknown Soldier would expect to leave the place being cured from his physical, or mental, illness. The Unknown Soldier remains a symbol while his bones are reduced to dust. There are no expectations of him other than to be him, a faceless piece of destroyed humanity in the name of human war-games, of which the players, the politicians, rarely end in playing themselves.
Other cultures have very different approaches to their variant of ‘unknown soldiers’. Muslims are no exception, and many are the shrines of more or less famous šuhadā (martyrs) which people visit. The most famous of these shrines is linked to the Shi’a tradition and the most relevant Shi’a šahīd, Ḥusayn ibn ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib (i.e. Imam Ḥusayn). Yet, although less visible and less discussed, Sunni Muslims have their shaheeds’ shrine. Often rejected as folkloric Islam by the mainstream Islamic scholars and pernicious superstition by Sunni states, the pilgrimages to shaheeds’ graves or even graveyards remain an understudied reality. Some Sunni Muslims embark on such pilgrimages because of the widespread beliefs that praying on a martyr’s grave can grant miracles, particularly miraculous healings.
If one can decide to be a mujahid, s/he cannot decide to become a šahīd; one can only hope for it. šuhadā, not so different from our western tradition of the Unknown Soldier, are recognised as such by the consensus of the people. Indeed, despite the scholarly debates of how to identify a šahīd, ordinary people have the last word. You cannot stop people from claming others to be šuhadā, since popular beliefs are stronger than any theology. In some strict Islamic doctrines, such as Wahhabism, although šuhadā are respected and seen as examples, they are only people who have received the highest reward from Allah. Yet Islam is never homogeneous, and many Muslims believe that šuhadā have still something to offer more than their lives. Many Muslims, particularly in South Asia, strongly believe that šuhadā have baraka, a special divine property. In the case of šuhadā’s graves, the main belief is that they can cure illness.
During the 2001 war in Afghanistan, some ferocious battles between the US led forces and the Taliban supported by bin-Laden’s Arab militia took place in Khowst, Kandahar and Tora Bora and other small villages. The conflicts have left scattered on the ground the bodies of the mujahidin or parts of them. After the battles, the Afghan Villagers collected the corpses and buried them in improvised graveyards. Year after year following 2001, villagers started to report the miraculous healing of those whom had visited the graveyard. The mutilated, dismembered bodies of the mujahidin, now šuhadā, became the only hope for some poor people to survive diseases and illness.
Yet the interesting fact of this story is that those people who today pray on those graves were, in many cases, the people of yesterday who hated the arrogance and oppression of bin-Laden’s mujahidin and the Taliban. But there is a paradox within the paradox. The Taliban and bin-Laden’s Arab mujahidin, now transformed into healers by the US bombs and the local traditions, rejected the Afghan popular piety towards graves. They used to remove the banners and to punish the visitors. They, indeed, classified the rituals at the graves as idolatry and superstition.
Today the dead mujahidin cannot stop those same people they had once tormented, from using their ‘heroic’ death and šuhadā status for taking back, in the name of Islam, some of the hope bin-Laden’s mujahidin had shattered with their oppressive and violent view of Islam. Is this perhaps part of their torment of the grave?