Unknown soldiers and the double paradox of the new Afghan šuhadā

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?


4 thoughts on “Unknown soldiers and the double paradox of the new Afghan šuhadā

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  1. I think that you are right about the social value and the symbolism of the unknown soldiers. Yet in some countries, like Italy before 1999, you had to be a soldier even when you considered the war unlawful (see the case of fascism). I know that some British soldiers serving in Iraq have the same impression.

    thanks for your comment and for reading the blog


  2. I am a Westerner and I don’t mind the idea of shrines like the unknown soldier. I have wondered about the life of the person in the grave. You are right. There is no way to tell what their life was like or their contribution to an effort. But I like to think that if they were willing to become a soldier they probably would not mind being an anonymous symbol of the courage of their fellow soldiers. That is the purpose of a shrine. To cause people to esteem the significant contributions of a diety, a group or an individual.

    No matter what shrine or what culture it is, people seem to need these memorials to help them make sense of life and death. These things seem to fulfill a place in society much the same way that religeon gives some people a reference point for how to live their lives.

  3. Dear Tia,

    thank you for your comment and point. I agree with with you.

    By the way, and interesting book on the topic of visiting shrines has been edited by Prof Pnina Werbner, Pilgrims of Love: The Anthropology of a Global Sufi Cult, which surely I recommend.

    I am starting a new research exactly on the new understanding of the concept of Shaheed in the aftermath of the war on terror and the new innovative ideas concerning a ‘global jihad’.

    Best wishes

  4. Hi Gabriele

    I would like to make one additional point, which is that most of the shrines which exist across the Muslim world particularly the Indian Sub-continent are not of the Shuhadah, they are of the pious people or the friends of Allah (Awliyaah). They are usually people who in their life perfected the Sufi doctrine reaching a spiritually high status. They were also the people who once went to the then India as preachers of Islam. The visiting of these shrines and the belief that there is some sort of spiritual aspect attached to these dead people is quiet central to the Sufi doctrine, which is often rejected by those who take a more rational/intellectual approach to creedal matters. According to my understanding the opposition to visiting shrines and seeking some sort of guidance or connection (tawasul) has nothing to do with their status as shuhadah but rather rejection of sufism. For example, there are no such shrines in Saudi Arabia where rest the earliest undisputed Shuhadah.

    However, the point of who exactly is Shaheed when the two fighting factions consist of Muslims is rather interesting. The idea of martyrdom is often used to recruit as well as motivation factor for Muslim armies, and since Muslim rulers have joined the war on Terror what we see is something never seen before.

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