Fedayeen is a term that has been used to describe several Muslim groups at different times in history. The group that first called themselves fidayeen (from the Arabic fidā'ī, meaning "one who is ready to sacrifice his life for the cause") were a group operating variously on the Afghanistan silk road and then in Iran and Syria from the 8th to the 13th centuries. The exact foundation date of the sect is usually taken to be 1090 when Hasan-i Sabbah captured a mountain stronghold at Alamut, about one hundred miles from present-day Tehran. The origin of our word assassin is sometimes thought to come from the term ascribed to this group by their enemies, Hashīshiyya, which means "hashish-taker".

The reason for this appellation lay in legend surrounding the recruiting methods of the fidayeen. Faced with the task of convincing young Muslims to die for their cause (which we'll get to in a minute), the fidayeen reportedly resorted to a sneaky tactic. They would kidnap caravan guards and drug them, then take them back to Alamut, which was famed for its lovely gardens. Plied with hashish1, which is forbidden in Islam, the young men would be placed in the lovely gardens with plenty of food and compliant virgins. The young men were subsequently convinced they were in Paradise and told they could return there if they did the bidding of Sabbah.

His bidding was targeted assassination. The fidayeen were committed to the destruction of the Abbasid Caliphate following the move of the caliphate to Cairo. The new caliphate was widely considered to be effete and too liberal by its enemies, who accused it of betraying the way of the Prophet. The fidayeen spurned the use of any weapon but the dagger in their assassinations, seeking death shortly afterwards so they could go straight to Paradise. Unlike the modern suicide bomber, at no point did the fidayeen kill themselves.2 However, the ancient fidayeen were the start of the systemisation and the ideology of a certain type of killing.

Islamic theology pronounces variously on the duty of obedience to the Islamic ruler. Absolute obedience is usually called for, as befits the successor of the Prophet, but the ruler is not higher than the law of God. Should he order something contrary to God's law, then disobedience becomes paramount. The Asassins were acting against their own Muslim rulers for what they saw as apostasy, which is the rejection of what one has voluntarily consented to, in this case the Islamic faith. This is a capital offence under the law of Islam, although the classical jurists would have considered a trial a prerequisite: the fidayeen did not. Much of the anger of the Wahhabi sect and other reformist Islamic sects was directed against their own Muslim rulers, not the outside World: although today hatred of the West or "Westernising" rulers is part of the doctrine.

The first fidayeen were successful in assassinating several high-placed figures. They were not well-known by the Christians, although they also killed the King of Jerusalem Conrad of Montferrat in 1192. Eventually the sect was destroyed by Mongol warlord Hulagu Khan, but the ideology lived on.

The term fidayeen re-emerged briefly in the nineteenth century, used by a group who planned to assassinate the Sultan. The plot was discovered and the conspirators executed. It was next in use for a protracted period in Iran between 1943 and 1955 by a political-religious terrorist group which again carried out targetted assassinations against politicians, again avoiding collateral damage. The group was eventually suppressed in 1955 after trying to assassinate the Iranian Prime Minister. The term was next resurrected by the militant wing of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), and remains in use to this day.

The first use of the term fedayeen in the Palestinian context were groups that used to conduct cross-border raids into Israel in the 1940s and 1950s from bases in Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan. These groups were often based in refugee camps and many had fled Israel during the 1947 - 48 War of Independence that Israel fought against its neighbours. Israel has frequently accused neighbouring Arab governments of complicity, and active encouragement, of the actions of these groups. Although they massacred civilians from an early time, a significant 'innovation' was made in the 1980s with the appearance of the religiously-inspired suicide bomber.

Unlike the old fidayeen, the new suicide bomber dies by his own hand. This was not always the case, and this approach was pioneered by Hamas and Hezbollah in the 1980s and 1990s. The early PLO nationalists carried out their operations from a safe distance, and did not profess religious motives. The rise of the suicide bomber is a phenomenom without precedent in Islamic history, and can in no way be construed to represent a continuation of earlier trends beyond a symbolic similarity. The classification by Osama bin Laden of all Americans as "Crusaders" and therefore legitimate targets is similarly without precedent.

Saddam Hussein, who liked to portray himself as the spiritual legatee of Saladin, also created an organisation called the Fedayeen Saddam which are now tasked with driving the coalition from Iraq. The organisation was created in 1995 and was the regime's "enforcers" and responsible for some of its most brutal crimes. Although it was probably named to capitalise on the symbol of the Palestinian resistance, it represents the further adulteration of the word: especially in the post-war phase, where - as with the Palestinian terrorists and al-Qaeda - men calling themselves fedayeen have been responsible for the slaughter of innocents for its own sake in suicide attacks.

1 Marco Polo was the first Westerner to travel down the silk road all the way to China and claimed to have visited the fortress of Alamut in 1273. This claim is problematic because the stronghold was supposed to have been destroyed by the Mongols in 1256. Polo's rendition of the recruitment techniques should rather be taken as a statement of the legend surrounding the Assassins rather than their actual actions. Anyway, the drug he describes sounds more like alcohol than hashish: although this too was forbidden by Islam. It is hence most likely our word for assassin means "follower of Hassan".

2Suicide bombers are in fact taking quite a gamble on a theological discussion. The Judeo-Christian term martyr usually refers to one who dies rather than renounce his faith, but the Arabic word (shahīd) has a different meaning. It means one who has died in jihad, and the reward is eternal bliss in Paradise. However, the reward for suicide is eternal damnation which takes the form of endless repetition of the act which killed onself, according to the classical jurists. Recent "fundamentalist" jurists may claim differently, but they are by no means considered to be unanimously correct.

The term "fedayeen" (Arabic فِدائيّين‎, singular "fedayi") means "self-sacrificers". The term is not to be confused with Mujahidin (مجاهدين) who are "those who (perform) Jihad". Some mujahidin are fedayeen, but not all. The label "fedayeen" is closely linked to the concept of resistance fighters, particularly those who wish to present themselves as, or actually are, more hard-line in their views and methods than other competing factions. fedayeen have been found everywhere from Armenia in the 1800s to Iraq in the early 2000s, and are a constant nuisance in Afghanistan. For a better take on historical groups using the moniker "fedayeen", see Noung's writeup above. This writeup focuses on the individuals, and not the movements that they are a part of.

Topics of emphasis are the religious and social motivations that drive the concept of fedayeen, and the relationship of the concepts of fedayeen and suicide bombing in the same context. The writeup will address the motivations both from the perspective of the fedayi himself, and later, the forces driving those who seek to cultivate fedayeen. This writeup will tend to be Afghanistan-centric for the purposes of historical and cultural analysis, as that is where the bulk of my experience lies.

In the broadest sense, fedayeen are suicide soldiers. Not suicide bombers, but they might as well be for all the good it does them in practice. Their intent is to go out in a blaze of glory, and specifically to be martyred in the process. More on that later.

Firstly, the religious forces motivating fedayeen are probably the most important, and is the seed of all other justification. Most people are familiar, at least vaguely, with the concept of "72 virgins in Paradise"; though somewhat controversial in discussion of the Quran and the Hadith, this crude summary has roots in mention of Houri. Specifics of the actual reward aside, the Quran itself is explicitly clear on the topic of martyrdom; Quran 3:169-174 and 22:58 deal specifically with the subject. Essentially, martyrom is to be a topic of rejoice, not lament, for the martyr's survivors. The martyr shall receive for his repayment of Allah's grace eternal life, "a great reward" (unspecified in this passage), and Allah's pleasure. There is also precedent for martyrdom enshrined in various places in the history of Islam; the most important is probably Hussain, the third Imam and Mohammad's grandson, who was martyred by the caliph Yazid around 680 CE. Over time, his martyrdom has been interpreted by various scholars and sects to have been not a passive action, but an activist, motivated martyrdom staged in the spirit of resistance and protest against unjust rule.

These religious motivations have lead to a very complex social construct surrounding the choice to declare oneself fedayi. The typical fedayi recruit is assured of family honor, personal glory, and social stature among peers on top of the established religious rewards, which may be overstated or emphasized even more than the actual texts suggest, depending on the dogmatic beliefs of both the follower and the sponsor. It is the norm, not the exception, for a sponsor (typically a warlord or power broker dealing with a corrupt madrassa - a religious school) to make large payments of cash to the fedayi's survivors, whether spouse, children, or parents; and promise a sort of pension plan for any fedayi who by the grace of Allah isn't killed in his attempt to become a martyr. In fact, it is possible to interpret justification for this type of earthly reward for miraculously unscathed fedayi with certain readings of Bukhari 1:35, continuing the now obvious trend of manipulation and extension of textual foundations for fedayi. It is also superbly difficult for a recruit to change his mind, having committed. It is typical for a fedayi to make a "martrdom tape", a video recording of his last words and prayers, adorned with various blessed garments and carrying a rifle. The closest sense that a typical Westerner can get to the shame involved with backing out after making a martyrdom tape is a man declaring himself a pacifist in boot camp after getting a hero's send-off and hometown parade for enlisting in the armed services. The shame of a wasted martyrdom announcement is only the beginning of the social stigma that one can expect for changing one's mind. It is not atypical for fedayi to be coerced, cajoled, and borderline brainwashed at a very young age, and kept "on ice" by their handlers for a few years until they are called into action by their sponsors.

The motivations for cultivating and becoming a fedayi are very different, though subtly related. In this section I will first address the practical and social advantages of commanding a contingent of fedayeen. Essentially, it is an extreme badge of prestige. Even from a Western perspective, it is easy to understand the perception of power extended by commanding a force of soldiers so motivated that they are willing to die gladly, or at least without too much hesitation, to accomplish their goal. In Afghanistan, prestige items are very important among various warlords and power brokers. In terms of both fighting ability and social clout, they are at once resource and token. Since fedayi are generally kept by handlers, and indirectly controlled, they change hands easily without ever realizing it. Their handler, typically a mullah or other quasi-religious leader, is told by warlord A that warlord B now owns the fedayi, and if warlord B decides to give orders to the fedayi, they pass through the handler. It is important for those cultivating and keeping fedayeen to both keep a tight hold on them, but also to some extent coddle them, feed their expectations, and continue the discipline and conditioning that led them to accept the mantle in the first place.

The last major section to be addressed are both the practical and motivational differences between a fedayi, and a suicide bomber. This writeup deals specifically with minority willing suicide bombers, and not the typically coerced, drugged, or mentally disabled victims of forced suicide bombing that are much more common in Afghanistan, where suicide is traditionally strictly taboo!

As for the practical differences, they're deceptively simple to state: A fedayi walks into a situation knowing he'll be killed fighting the enemy, and a suicide bomber walks into a situation knowing he'll kill himself in order to fight the enemy. They do not seem too far removed. After all, dead is dead, but while one is a more passive acceptance of death, the other is blatantly suicide - an active ending one's own life. A common Western example springs to mind - the oft-flogged in the news media idea of "suicide by cop", where a suicidal person forces police officers to shoot them. The actions of a fedayi are similar to suicide by cop - both are attempts to make an end-run around ones' own religious rules prohibiting suicide in order to die by one's own choice, without killing oneself.

As for motivational differences, some background is in order regarding the Quran and the Hadiths' take on suicide. It is blatantly prohibited by: Quran 4:29, Bukhari 2:445, 3:438, 7:567, 7:670, 8:361, and Muslim 6480 and 6485, among others. These are simply the most straightforward and accessible exhortations against suicide. There is very little debate among Islamic scholars as to subtlety or inferred exception with these verses. Furthermore, the killing of innocents, particularly women and children, is explicitly forbidden in several places, most clearly Al-Muwatta 21.8-21.11. So, how can a willing suicide bomber be convinced to go directly against so much clear-cut scripture? The answer very often lies in how one interprets the ideas of "defensive warfare" and martyrdom as they are presented, and interact, in a specific verse - Bukhari 1:35, and a few others. Very often a young man who cannot be convinced to become a suicide bomber will take up the mantle of fedayi, instead - and some suicide bombers do not understand or have never approached the distinction between the two, and will happily blow themselves up as fedayi.

It's a messy, ugly topic, but without a writeup approximately twenty times this length, this is as far as I can take you. There is a huge apparatus lurking underneath the fedayi/suicide bomber cultivation system, consisting of a twisty maze of foreign backers, insane mullahs, brainwashing, willful and deliberate scriptural ignorance, and corruption - the type of thing that, with a few decent actors, a vignette script, and a 5 million dollar budget, might win some Sundance awards.

Enayat, Hamid. Modern Islamic Political Thought. Austin: University of Texas. 1982.
Lapidus, Ira M. A History of Islamic Societies. Cambridge University Press. 1988.
The Holy Qur'an, translated by M.H. Shakir. Tahrike Tarsile Qur'an, Inc. 1983.
Translation of Malik's Muwatta, `A'isha `Abdarahman at-Tarjumana and Ya`qub Johnson.
Translation of Sahih Muslim, Abdul Hamid Siddiqui.
Translation of Sahih al-Bukhari, M. Muhsin Khan.

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