Shaheed [شهيد]

Kerstin Schankweiler und Verena Straub

The Arabic term shaheed refers to a person who is said to have died for a religious or a political cause. In its literal translation it means “witness” and is thus comparable to the term “martyr” (from Greek martys, witness). The concept of istishhad (martyrdom) is rooted in an Islamic tradition, but is commonly used as an umbrella term for resistance in the name of political and religious convictions. In recent political conflicts martyrdom has gained new relevance and currency, producing a visual economy with the figure of the shaheed as its key image. The second Palestinian intifada (2000-2005) marked a proliferation of so-called martyr posters, which were presented on public walls (fig. 1) and in private homes to commemorate the dead and give loss and death a purpose and meaning. The image of the shaheed also takes center stage in videos, photographs and digital collages, published by global terror networks such as Al Qaeda and IS, glorifying suicide bombers or deceased group members. Recent civil protests such as the so called Arab Uprisings 2010-2013 or the “Gezi” movement in Turkey showed yet another facet of the term, when political activists who died during the conflicts became posthumously popularized as icons of protest and shaheed /şehit.

These heterogeneous contexts point to the complexity and multifaceted uses of the concept of martyrdom and its images. Innocent bystanders who died as a result of armed conflicts, political activists participating in demonstrations or militant actors who are involved and died in suicide attacks are – viewed from different perspectives – all subsumed under the term shaheed. Martyrdom is used to honor the dead, as a strategy of empowerment and as a model of resistance triggering imitation in religious as well as secular contexts.

One of the most prominent examples of a martyr figure in Palestine is Wafa Idris, the first woman who committed a suicide attack in the course of the second intifada. Soon after her attack on January 27th 2002, the Al-Aqsa Martyr Brigades published a poster with her portrait that prescribed her status as shaheeda (female martyr) (fig. 2). The poster montage combines national symbols like the kufya (Palestinian scarf) with religious references, including the Dome of the Rock and verses from the Quran and therefore idealizes her as both national heroine and saintly defender of Jerusalem (Pannewick 2007). Posters like these play a decisive role in the establishment of the concept of istishhad in Palestine. They become appropriated and co-opted by various actors in order to bolster support for their own political aims. Wafa Idris’ case set the stage for other women who followed her example and committed suicide attacks against Israel in the subsequent months and years. Her poster was directly referenced in the video testimony of an anonymous woman who used the poster to visually frame her planned suicide attack as an act of istishhad (fig. 3).

Martyr images in Palestine have multiple functions ranging from their usage as political tools to private practices of dealing with the loss of a loved one. The images’ emotional value is the subject of an art project by Palestinian photographer Noel Jabbour. Jabbour’s “Vacant Seats” (2000-01) portrays families who pose with paintings or photographs of their martyred family members (cfr. Noel Jabbour’s series Vacant Seats). Here the depictions of the shaheed appear to serve as a substitute for the person who was killed during militant conflicts and is used as a means of commemoration and an expression of grief.

In recent years the figure of the shaheed also played a central role in civil protests against oppressive regimes in North African and Middle Eastern countries leading to a global circulation of martyr images. The case of the Egyptian blogger Khaled Said is an example of a victim who was declared a shaheed after he was beaten to death by the police in Alexandria in June 2010. Said is probably the best known martyr of the uprisings in Egypt. The shocking image of his tortured dead body was posted in the internet by his family in combination with his passport photo that shows him smiling (fig. 4), evoking the course of his tragic story. The images went viral in Social Media and mobilized the masses to protest against the violence of the military regime. Demonstrators directly referenced Said by making use of his politicized image on banners, posters and flags.
Activist and graffiti artist Ammar Abo Bakr created a mural in Mohamed Mahmoud Street in Cairo depicting martyrs who were tortured and killed by security forces (fig. 5). He shows them with wings but deliberately broke with the prevalent iconography of martyrs by representing the maltreated bodies. Amongst them is also Khaled Said’s disfigured face painted from the gruesome photograph that was published in the internet. The martyr images’ shift back into the urban space is an integral part of their iconization.

Even though the concept of istishhad is referred to in different ways and contexts, the examples unanimously demonstrate that images play a decisive role in the making of a shaheed. If, in martyrdom, the physical death of a person turns into a form of testimony (be it of faith, of freedom from occupation or political resistance), images are ways to generate and circulate visual evidence of this testimony.

fig. 1: Martyr posters in Nablus, Palestine. Source:

fig. 2: Martyr poster of Wafa Idris, photograph by Johannes Gerloff.

fig. 3: Video testimony of an unknown shaheeda, with Wafa Idris’ martyr poster in the background. Source: Simon, Joshua. Shahids 2003-2008. DVD, 2008.

fig. 4: Photo of Khaled Said before and after the attack. Source:

fig. 5: Ammar Abo Bakr, wall painting in Mohamed Mahmoud Street, Cairo, depicting the faces of martyrs who were killed by security forces (Khaled Said, Essam Atta, Atef Abu Al-Hassan), November 2012, photo by Ali Khaled. Source: Hamdy, Basma and Don Karl (eds.): Walls of Freedom. Street Art of the Egyptian Revolution, Berlin 2014, 190-191.


  • Abu Hashhash, Mahmoud, “On the Visual Representation of Martyrdom in Palestine”, in: Third Text 20, no. 3–4 (May 2006): 391-403.
  • Khalili, Laleh, Heroes and Martyrs of Palestine: The Politics of National Commemoration, Cambridge Middle East Studies, Cambridge [u.a.] 2007.
  • Pannewick, Friederike, “Wafa Idris. Eine Selbstmordattentäterin Zwischen Nationalheldin und Heiliger”, in: Märtyrerporträts. Von Opfertod, Blutzeugen und Heiligen Kriegern, edited by Sigrid Weigel, München 2007, 110–16.
  • Weigel, Sigrid (ed.), Märtyrerporträts. Von Opfertod, Blutzeugen und Heiligen Kriegern, München 2007.
  • Wüschner, Philipp, „Widerstand als Ereignis? Der Märtyrer als Beispiel für einen nicht-intentionalen, nicht-subjektiven Widerstandsbegriff“, in: Macht und Widerstand in der globalen Politik, edited by Julian Junk and Christian Volk, Baden-Baden 2013, 31-48.


About the authors:
Kerstin Schankweiler is a post-doctoral researcher in the Collaborative Research Centre Affective Societies. Dynamics of social coexistence in mobile worlds at Free University Berlin (funded by DFG), working on a project entitled Affective Dynamics of Images in the Era of Social Media: Photographic Testimonies and Images of Martyrs in North and West Africa. She previously worked as an academic staff member for the Arts of Africa at the Department of Art History at Free University Berlin (2010-2015) and for Modern and Contemporary Art at the Department of Art History at University of Cologne (2008-2010). She received her Ph.D. from the Department of Art History at University of Trier where she was part of the research program Identity and Difference – Gender Constructions and Interculturality (18th -21st century). Her thesis on Benin artist Georges Adéagbo was published under the title Die Mobilisierung der Dinge (Bielefeld, Transcript, 2012). She co-edited Ästhetik der Gewalt – Gewalt der Ästhetik (Weimar, VDG, 2013) and Im Maschenwerk der Kunstgeschichte. Eine Revision von George Kublers ‚The Shape of Time‘ (Berlin, Kadmos, 2014). Main research: Image Practices in Social Media, Contemporary Art from Africa, Art History and Postcolonial Theory, Art History in a global context.
Contact: kerstin.schankweiler[at]

Verena Straub is an art historian, working in the collaborative research centre Affective Societies at Free University Berlin on a project entitled Affective Dynamics of Images in the Era of Social Media. She is currently completing her PhD thesis on video testimonies of suicide bombers and their adaptation in contemporary art. Previously, she was a research associate at the Cluster of Excellence Image Knowledge Gestaltung at Humboldt University Berlin (2013-2016). She studied in Toronto and Berlin where she received her master’s degree in Art and Visual History.
Contact: verena.straub[at]

Reference / Quellennachweis:
Kerstin Schankweiler / Verena Straub: Shaheed [شهيد], in: Aesthetics of Resistance, Pictorial Glossary, The Nomos of Images, ISSN: 2366-9926, 28 September 2016, URL:

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