A photograph of a muslim man covering his face with his hands. A small part of his eye is still visible. Taken after he chose not to blow himself up in a vehicle but turned himself into police instead.

Before you can understand ISIS, you need to understand the evolution of martyrdom over 13 centuries of Middle Eastern history and culture. Plus: Take a look at some of the key historical moments that shaped Afghan history and the changing definition of martyrdom

“The central question that has arisen out of my preoccupation with the war in Afghanistan … is how it happened that men (and sometimes even women and children) would come to consider it a good thing to strap bombs onto their bodies, walk into crowded places and trigger the bombs, knowing not only that they will lose their own lives but also that they will take with them a large number of strangers.” So writes David Edwards, the James N. Lambert ’39 Professor of Anthropology, in his book Caravan of Martyrs: Sacrifice and Suicide Bombing in Afghanistan. Published in May by University of California Press, the book explores that question. The answer, Edwards says, lies not in psychology or pathology but in understanding Afghan history and the changing definition of martyrdom. In the spring, Edwards and Professor of History Magnus Bernhardsson taught a new course, The Challenge of ISIS. The two spoke with political science professor Ngonidzashe Munemo about how ritual sacrifice in Afghanistan has evolved from a form of peacemaking to a deadly public spectacle.

NGONIDZASHE MUNEMO: We should start by talking about the role of sacrifice in Afghan culture.

DAVID EDWARDS: Sacrifice has an important and long-established place in Afghan culture. Each year Afghans celebrate the Eid-i Qurban—the Feast of the Sacrifice—which commemorates the Prophet Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his son to God. And as long as anyone can remember, animals have been slaughtered as a ritual to please God or to bring about peace. In Afghanistan, if there were two feuding tribes, and one side wanted to stop the feud, they would take a sheep to their enemy and sacrifice the sheep. It was a way of switching registers from physical violence to talking.

MUNEMO: You tell the story of how you and an Afghan friend were traveling with a former jihad commander in 1995. You spent the night in the friend’s village, and your guards, mistakenly thinking they were under attack, almost massacred your whole group. What happened next?

EDWARDS: My friend’s father led the sheep to where we had been sleeping. He matter-of-factly recited some prayers and calmly cut its throat, letting the blood spill on the ground. I was struck by the power of that ritual. We could have been killed the night before, and the sheep was our qurbani, our sacrifice, for having stayed alive another day. It was a substitute for us.

MUNEMO: At what point do you think the use of surrogates or substitutes like sheep or goats in the larger, societal sacrifice became inadequate or insufficient?

EDWARDS: What we’re seeing now—the Taliban, 9/11, ISIS—began in Peshawar in the early 1980s. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, a lot of Afghans, particularly in the tribal areas along the border where I’ve done my research, went into the war thinking it would be something like what they’d known before, like a feud, but this time with the state. The Afghans would show their bravery, demonstrate their prowess and gain the reputation of great warriors. But they encountered a different kind of war—a mechanical, industrial war—where they were bombed and civilians were as likely to die as warriors. They had to find some way of grappling with the fact that lots of people were dying. At that point, martyrdom became a central motif in Afghan culture.

MUNEMO: How did that happen?

EDWARDS: One faction within the mujahidin resistance—the young Islamists, the precursors to al-Qaeda, the Taliban and ISIS—recognized the potency of martyrdom as a resource to increase their own power and legitimacy, because they didn’t have traditional sources of power such as being respected clerics or Sufi leaders. The faction essentially created a cult of martyrdom, publishing magazines and propaganda material around it and generally promoting martyrdom. An important second stage was introduced by Abdullah ‘Azzam, the Jordanian founder of al-Qaeda, and Osama bin Laden. Between them, the two turned martyrdom from a retrospective conferral of status upon the dead into a desired state to be pursued actively and single-mindedly. They did this by recounting stories and writing books about the fabulous miracles associated with the Arab martyrs who died in Afghanistan. As a result, young men started coming to Afghanistan specifically to emulate these martyrs and be killed in battle. 9/11 would be impossible without the changing conception of martyrdom in which people saw death as their desired fate.

MUNEMO: Arabs play a critical role in this transformation in the meaning of martyrdom. Yet these transformations are happening, initially, outside of Afghanistan. How do the two currents come together and seep into this territory and grab hold?

EDWARDS: ‘Azzam was a Palestinian Jordanian and wanted to do battle with Israel back in the 1970s. But he was discouraged that the Palestinian parties were very secular. This was the age of Arafat and the PLO, the Palestine Liberation Organization. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, the liberation movement presented an opportunity. ‘Azzam visited for the first time in 1984 and saw it as a place where his vision of global jihad could be initiated. He popularized the idea that jihad was not an option but rather an obligation—not just for Afghan Muslims but for all Muslims. In addition to the fact that the Afghans were battling the Soviet superpower, Afghanistan has a larger, symbolic significance in the history of Islam. Afghanistan is also known as Khorasan, and many ancient legends, some associated perhaps apocryphally with the Prophet Muhammad, say that the Mahdi will arise out of Khorasan and lead his troops into the final battle that will signal the end of history as we know it and the beginning of the reign of God. These were resources that ‘Azzam and bin Laden both drew on to recruit Muslims from all over the place, mostly Arabs from Saudi Arabia, Yemen and other Middle Eastern countries but also Chechens, Indonesians and Filipinos. This was the first generation of the global jihad that began in Afghanistan. One of the people who came in 1989 was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, founder of al-Qaeda in Iraq, the organization that later morphed into ISIS. He was inspired by an Afghan political leader who spoke fluent Arabic, and he was motivated, like a lot of other people, to go to Afghanistan to fight in this jihad. That’s where ISIS begins its fateful story.

MAGNUS BERNHARDSSON: Keep in mind that, while all of this was going on in Afghanistan in the 1980s, there was also a protracted, bloody civil war in Lebanon. Really it was an international war. And there was the long and bloody Iran-Iraq War, where notions of martyrdom also emerged and were institutionalized by the Iranian government, in particular. What was going on in Afghanistan wasn’t happening in complete isolation. There were various fires, and people were experimenting with using sacrifice both passively and actively as an instrument of violence.

EDWARDS: Suicide bombing as a technique began not in Afghanistan but in Sri Lanka and among the Palestinians.

BERNHARDSSON: And also in the Iran-Iraq War. The Islamic Republic of Iran manipulated traditional notions of martyrdom to justify specific war strategies and tactics. They introduced human wave attacks to strike fear in the Iraqis—the people they were fighting against—and to involve their own population in fighting a final battle against the godless Iraqi.

EDWARDS: For Iranians, though, martyrdom was embedded in the DNA of the religion. The central origin story of Shia Islam is around the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, descendant of the Prophet Muhammad.

BERNHARDSSON: But in the military sense, it had never been mobilized like that before. The Iranian government framed the Iran-Iraq War as the enactment of what happened in Karbala in the 7th century. Thus they nationalized the 7th-century martyrdom of Imam Hussain, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, for modern purposes.

EDWARDS: Afghanistan didn’t have that tradition. Martyrdom wasn’t encoded in the culture the way it was in Iran. Afghans were far more concerned with showing bravery in battle than in dying for their faith.

BERNHARDSSON: Yes. And the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan provided a lesson for the Afghans about the power of the fear of death. The Soviets felt they couldn’t sacrifice their people anymore. It wasn’t really worth it for them. And so, when the war against the Soviet Union was over and the Americans began to play a bigger role in Middle Eastern affairs, bin Laden had the idea that the U.S. would not have the stomach for a long battle. He believed that the U.S. had a very low tolerance for death, post-Vietnam, and would prove to be a relatively easy enemy to defeat, particularly given the eagerness of his adherents to die in battle.

A photograph of a Muslim man covering his face with his hands. A small part of his eye is still visible. Taken after he chose not to blow himself up in a vehicle but turned himself into police instead.
Habad was 22 years old and living in Waziristan when he was sent to Afghanistan in 2009 on a suicide bombing mission. He planned to blow himself up in a vehicle after encountering American troops, but when he saw the many Afghan officers there, too, he decided he couldn’t risk killing his “Muslim brothers.” He turned himself in to local police and expects to be in prison for 20 years.

EDWARDS: Bin Laden was especially influenced by the Black Hawk Down incident in 1993, where the U.S. immediately left Mogadishu right after the failed rescue operation in which a number of soldiers were killed. Many say the legacy of the Battle of Mogadishu in Somalia was a continuing reluctance on the part of the U.S. to be drawn into other trouble spots.

BERNHARDSSON: Bin Laden was also influenced by the 1983 bombing of a U.S. Marine compound in Lebanon. The bombing was a simple operation traced to Hezbollah, a Shia Islamist militant group and political party based there. And the superpower—the U.S.—left.

MUNEMO: So now sacrificial violence has evolved from being on the fringes to something much more central.

EDWARDS: In the late 1990s, the Taliban were mounting public executions in Kabul stadium, the soccer stadium. At the time, it seemed so outrageous, so out of bounds. ISIS has exceeded that in terms of horror, in terms of clearly intending to create public spectacles that trample on every norm of human decency and civility. ISIS seems to be trying to imitate the worst kind of genre horror pictures. Students come into our class with this image of ISIS, and one of the things Magnus and I try to do—and I do this in the book as well—is bring the conversation back to the idea of sacrifice itself, why sacrifice matters, why every society I’ve ever encountered has within it rituals involving sacrifice or at least some notion of giving something up. It may be the simple idea of killing a sheep to please God. Or it might be evident in a turn of phrase—a sacrifice fly ball to left center field to score a base runner from third base. It’s important for students to have a theoretical framework within which to understand the power of sacrifice and its universality.

BERNHARDSSON: We want students to understand the concepts that led to the rise of a movement of this nature at this particular time.

EDWARDS: And to give them enough background in Islamic history so that, when they watch ISIS propaganda videos and hear, for example, a word like “tawhid” that signifies the oneness of God, which ISIS uses over and over again, students will know where that concept came from and what it means.

BERNHARDSSON: Same with “takfir,” the pronouncement that someone is an unbeliever and no longer Muslim.

EDWARDS: ISIS is a particularly good topic for collaboration between an anthropologist and a historian, because it has a deep, historical dimension. It hearkens back to this ancient time in wanting to recreate the political system that existed in 7th-century Arabia. At the same time, ISIS is using social media and recruiting followers from all over the world. And so it’s very much a modern political movement, and the subject matter lends itself to this kind of collaboration.

MUNEMO: Is there a way back from sacrificial violence?

EDWARDS: The analogy I use for sacrifice is that it’s a simple machine, like a lever or pulley, in that it harnesses and amplifies energy. Like other kinds of machines, it can wear out. It can be overused. And it’s responsive to circumstance. The machinery of sacrifice can be used opportunistically, but I don’t think it’s something that’s entirely ever controllable. It exists beyond ourselves.

Timeline of Events

  •  - 7th century, C.E.

    The Umayyad dynasty seizes the caliphate in the Battle of Karbala in modern-day Iraq. Prophecies begin to circulate about a Muslim savior, the Mahdi, who will rise up in Khorasan, now Afghanistan, to lead the final battles against the infidels during the End of Days.

  •  - 1975

    A 15-year civil war in Lebanon begins, giving rise to the Hezbollah movement.

  •  - 1978

    The assassination of Afghan President Muhammad Daud by Marxist army officers sparks local insurrections. Fundamentalist Islamic parties based in Pakistan gradually gain control of scattered local fronts in Afghanistan.

  •  - 1979

    The Soviet Union sends 10,000 troops to Afghanistan to prop up the failing Marxist regime, beginning a 10-year occupation.

  •  - 1980

    Foreign support pours in to rebel mujahidin forces. Meanwhile, more than 4 million Afghan refugees flee to Pakistan, Iran and other countries to escape brutal fighting in their homeland.

  •  - 1983

    Suicide bombers attack the U.S. Embassy and U.S. Marine compound in Beirut, Lebanon, killing hundreds. The bombings are traced to Hezbollah, a Shia Islamist militant group and political party operating under the direction of Iranian officials. U.S. troops withdraw from Lebanon.

  •  - 1984

    Abdullah ‘Azzam and Osama bin Laden establish the Maktab al-Khedamat service bureau in Afghanistan to provide financial and logistical support to the mujahidin. Arabs flock to Afghanistan in support of global jihad.

  •  - 1989

    The last Soviet troops withdraw from Afghanistan. Abdullah ‘Azzam is assassinated in Peshawar, Pakistan. The jihad movement splinters, and civil war breaks out. Many “Afghan Arabs” return to their home countries to pursue jihad.

  •  - 1990

    The U.S. initiates the Gulf War to bring down the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

  •  - 1993

    The Battle of Mogadishu in Somalia and the Black Hawk Down incident provide bin Laden with a narrative that the U.S. will retreat in the face of hardship and tragedy. Meanwhile, Pakistani Ramzi Yousef, who has ties to a Philippine terrorist group, explodes a truck bomb in the parking garage of the World Trade Center.

  •  - 1995

    The Taliban emerge as a powerful political force in southern Afghanistan, expanding to other regions and gaining support for their opposition to mujahidin commanders. In Kabul, they introduce shari’a-based social reforms and initiate public punishments.

  •  - 1996

    Bin Laden publishes A Declaration of War against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places.

  •  - 1998

    Al-Qaeda operatives bomb U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The U.S. increases efforts to capture bin Laden and launches missile strikes at a suspected al-Qaeda base at Zhawar in eastern Afghanistan.

  •  - 1999

    A video released by the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan that shows the Taliban execution of an Afghan woman leads to a global awareness of the Taliban and its practices.

  •  - 2000

    The U.S.S. Cole is bombed while anchored off the coast of Yemen.

  •  - 2001

    Ahmad Shah Massoud, leader of the Northern Alliance opposition to the Taliban, is assassinated in a suicide attack in Afghanistan. Two days later, on Sept. 11, al-Qaeda launches attacks against New York City and Washington, D.C. The U.S. retaliates against Afghanistan in hopes of dislodging the Taliban and capturing bin Laden.

  •  - 2011

    Bin Laden is killed by U.S. Special Forces in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

  •  - 2017

    A massive truck bomb explosion kills more than 150 Afghans in a crowded embassy district of Kabul. The Afghan intelligence agency accuses the Taliban-allied Haqqani Network of carrying out the attack.