Martyrdom is defined as voluntary death for a cause, often for a religious purpose or as the result of persecution. The terminology of martyrdom varies from region to region. The term martyr comes from the Greek martur, which means “witness,” as does the Arabic shahīd (pl. shudadā ). Martyrs thus bear witness to their cause by sacrificing their lives as proof of its validity. Eastern cultures tend to use words closer to “sacrifice,” focusing on the valor of the agent; e.g., sati, “immolation” after the eponymous Hindu widow who sacrificed herself on her husband’s pyre.
Although martyrdom is historically conditioned, these voluntary deaths have structural similarities, being rooted in traditions of the warrior-hero and religious sacrifice. The noble deaths of kamikaze pilots, Christian martyrs, Indian widows in sati, the Jews who committed mass suicide at Masada in 72 CE, or Moslems on jihad are all sacrifices that transform and sanctify (or divinize) the martyr. Martyrs put their lives on the line, choosing to sacrifice their lives for a cause rather than submit to an opponent and betray their principles. In dying on their own terms, martyrs die heroically, like archaic warriors in battle, sacrificing their lives for the tribe. To their communities, martyrs are god-like in their honor, nobility, and glory. Like King Oedipus or Christ, martyrs are scapegoats and saviors, dying that others may live. Martyrdom is the ultimate and apocalyptic vindication of the martyr’s cause and proof of his or her righteousness. After death martyrs become saints in Christian tradition, divine in Japanese traditions, and hallowed in all traditions.
Martyrdom joins politics and metaphysics. The martyrs’ moral authority becomes a means of confronting an enemy’s superior political and military power, as it did when Antiochus IV persecuted the Maccabees, when Romans persecuted early Christians, when Japanese pilots faced the Allies in World War II, or presently, when Palestinians confront Israel and the United States. Martyrs are marginal agents—crossing the numinous boundary of death, they seek to harness a spiritual power to their own advantage. Being unnatural, voluntary or self-inflicted death is shocking, awesome in the fear and wonder it inspires. Why did the martyr die? If the martyr chose to die, what is worth dying for? At what point is life so unbearable that one is better off dead? What gave the martyr the strength to face death so bravely?
The power of martyrdom lies in its potential to change society: It forces an audience to think about ultimate questions (if only momentarily) and make moral judgments. These decisions can redress injustices and eventually change the world. Because the death of the martyr invests a cause with meaning, with numen or “weight,” the cause is no longer ordinary. It has been sanctified with the offering of one life; perhaps it is worth the cost of many more. Martyrs draw public attention to the cause for which they died. Not only do they educate the audience, they strive to make their own views normative, converting (if not convincing) their critics. The propaganda value of martyrdom is so great that shrewd opponents avoid martyring their enemies, who are more dangerous dead than alive. In the Middle Ages, the cult of saints and the development of pilgrimage sites was of such political and economic importance that relics were stolen, traded, and even manufactured. Today, pilgrims still visit Karbala, Iraq, famous for its Shiite martyrs, and Rome for its early Christian martyrs. Historically, martyrs have meant economic prosperity, political authority, and social eminence.
The dynamics of martyrdom are unusually histrionic, as if the martyr’s ordeal takes place in a transcendent, metaphysical arena or a universal courtroom of conscience that hears the martyr’s case. As J. Huizinga’s theory of play and his game theory suggest, opponents adopt strategies to win, but events unfold unpredictably and are subject to multiple interpretation. Martyrs feel deprived of what they deserve; they challenge existing authorities and offer their case to God and the world at large for judgment. Entrusted to Higher Powers, martyrs and their cause have moved into the realm of the sacred. But the ordeal is also public, a political spectacle in the here-and-now; at any one time, much is “in play,” fluid, indeterminate, and ambiguous.
The martyr’s power comes from holding the moral high ground of innocence and purity. Guilt and unworthiness must be pinned on the opponent. The spectacle of martyrdom is inherently biased in the martyr’s favor insofar as endurance of suffering and death is taken as prima facie evidence that the martyr is in the right—that God is on the martyr’s side. (Otherwise, how could the martyr face such terrible ordeals?) Even if death is clearly self-inflicted, the enemy is held responsible. He has forced the martyr to choose between life on the enemy’s terms and death on the martyr’s terms; he is the guilty persecutor. All martyrdom redounds ultimately to this choice between self-determination and submission to the will of another. Here, the warrior spirit affirms that death is preferable to subjection, dishonor, suffering, and the betrayal of beliefs; whether in Imperial Japan, Christian antiquity, or contemporary Islamic circles, an honorable death is preferable to a life of degradation and misery.
Martyrs seek vindication and retribution for their innocent suffering, some definitive judgment denied them by existing society. Viewed strategically, martyrdom obliges the audience to avenge the innocent or share the guilt of the wrongdoers. If martyrs can turn public opinion against their opponents, they can undermine their enemies’ power. The assassinations of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Stephen Biko not only stunned the world at large, they were of such great political consequence that they broke the resistance of the enemy camp. Shifting public opinion often takes the form of boycotts. During the civil rights era boycotts such as the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 added momentum to the movement for racial equality. In the 1980s, divestment in South Africa hastened the end of apartheid. Individual protests can take the form of hunger strikes (a kind of slow martyrdom), such as that undertaken by suffragettes in their struggle for the franchise, or that of Gandhi, who undertook over a dozen long fasts against the British, or the seventy-five prisoners protesting their illegal detention in Guantánamo in 2005–2006. Such lesser martyrdoms can tweak the conscience of the world audience.
Although the ordeal or spectacle of martyrdom is biased in the martyr’s favor, part of the audience may reject the martyr’s voluntary death, viewing it as “a waste,” “irrational,” and “tragic,” the “pathetic suicide” of a “brainwashed fanatic” or a “selfish act” that disregards family and community. The dead are called “victims,” as if they had not acted willfully, but instead succumbed to circumstances beyond their control. The deaths of such fanatics do not lend credibility to the cause, but discredit it even further, even as the deaths of prominent leaders (or the moral support of living celebrities) lend credibility to a cause.
The intrinsic worthiness of a cause is critical, but not determinative in distinguishing martyrs from fools or criminals. The worthiness of a cause, the social status and deeds of the martyr, the martyr’s behavior under stress, the strength of the enemy, the resources of both sides, and the sequence of actions are all variables “in play.” While dying for freedom is clearly different from dying for the sake of a lost shoe, a range of causes exists whose importance might change in the public eye were a sufficient number of martyrs to bear witness: global warming, animal rights, or the malfeasance of corporations (e.g., Enron). The deaths of martyrs invest a cause with meaning, and this is cumulative. When a cause builds up sufficient “weight,” it earns a public hearing and triggers change. In 1963, the self-immolation of the Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc in Vietnam opened a flood of media coverage, facilitated by the letters of protest he left behind. Six other monks followed. The event is credited as the final turning point, the death knell of the Diem regime, which collapsed a few months later.
Martyrs lose their power when they lose their innocence, when the greater public rejects their cause and/or refuses to sanction their actions. Then martyrs become enemies (or persecutors themselves) engaged in open warfare with the rest of humanity. The cause must be worth the cost. Martyrs may gain attention and sympathy for their cause by offering their own lives, but they cross a line when others die. Martyrs have no right to deprive others of free choice, not to mention life itself. Belligerent nations in World War II (1939–1945) offer a clear example. Kamikaze pilots accepted that killing Americans was the price of vindicating the purity and divine purpose of their emperor and nation. Validating the cause, they also accepted the cost. But Americans and the Allies rejected the cause of Japan and called it “war.” In the Middle East, the sides are of unequal power, but each has moral claims. To Israelis and their allies, Palestinian suicide bombers are terrorists who murder innocent bystanders, but Palestinians see themselves as victims of an occupation sanctioned by all Israelis and feel justified in fighting against that occupation. To them, Israeli bystanders are casualties in a war that has already cost the lives of many more innocent Palestinians.
Martyrdom operates within that indeterminate field where opinions change and variables are “in play.” Affirmation and rejection are extremes of a continuum; advancement of the martyr’s status depends on numerous contingencies. Sooner or later, the martyr’s case gains public attention, but rational understanding of the martyr’s grievances may not convert an audience driven by equally compelling drives. The audience’s capacity for empathy is unpredictable. While historical conditions such as economic security or social similarity increase chances that the audience will identify with victims and feel compassion, studies of authoritarianism demonstrate that personality structure can diminish or even preclude empathy with others. No act of valor, no leader, no matter how august, can convert those who are deeply prejudiced.
What triggers empathy varies. The calculus of martyrdom favors elites, so that the death of one important leader outweighs the deaths of the innumerable nameless. Assassinated in 1980, only Archbishop Oscar Romero is honored as a martyr in the civil war in El Salvador, even though 30,000 others were exterminated by right-wing death squads between 1979 and 1981. The prestige of martyrs sacrificed lends authority to the cause, but the lack of martyrial “quality” can be addressed by an increase in “quantity” (the number of martyrs, the length and intensity of their suffering). All lives are not equal. Certain markers are more valuable than others. In 2003, a young American was killed by a bulldozer as she tried to prevent the Israeli army’s destruction of homes in the Gaza Strip. A play based on her letters, “My Name Is Rachel Corrie,” commemorates her life, as does a memorial Web site; she is the subject of various articles, media spots, etc. Corrie is not the first to die resisting the demolition of houses, but she is the first Westerner. Europeans and Americans can identify with such a young, attractive, and highly literate “peace activist,” while Palestinians remain invisible. The less kinship the audience shares with martyrs, the more onerous the martyrs’ suffering.
Examples of martyrdom or noble death are nearly universal. These include:
- Judaism. Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of the name) is found in Abraham’s binding of Isaac; Rabbi Akiba, who was killed by the Romans in 135 CE; Hannah and her sons; and the killing of Jews in the Rhineland during the First Crusade. A dispute exists about the terminology used for those dying in the Holocaust. Traditionalists argue that Jews did not choose to die and therefore the term “martyr” is inappropriate. They are instead victims, murdered in war. But Yad Vashem (sponsor of the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem and the leader in Shoah research and education) calls itself “The Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Authority.” What matters to most people is that Jews were killed for no other reason than being Jewish.
- Islam. A spiritualized definition of martyrdom goes back to the Middle Ages and the distinction between the lesser jihad, the struggle against unbelievers, and the greater jihad, the struggle against evil. Martyrdom lies in intention; death on the battlefield is no guarantee of salvation. In present usage, any observant Muslim who dies gratuitously is a martyr. But martyrdom also has a militant side that goes back to Muhammad’s grandson, Husayn ibn ʿAli, who was killed at Karbala in 680 in a battle against supporters of the caliphate for leadership of the community. Husayn’s followers are Shiite and martyrdom is an honored goal; those of the caliphs, are Sunni. Also in this militant tradition are the Assassins (from hashish ), a secret society of Nizari Ismaʾilis (schismatic Muslims) who fought against European Crusaders in the Middle Ages. They called themselves fedayeen, meaning those “willing to sacrifice their lives,” a term that survives in the second intifada (September 28, 2000, to the present).
- Christianity. Persecuted by Romans, early Christians, like Jews, saw themselves as “dying for God.” Acts or passions record the martyrs’ ordeals, many of which contain purported court records or eyewitness accounts. Protestants memorialized in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs date from the sixteenth century, when Catholics persecuted Protestants in the Counter-Reformation. In Nagasaki, twenty-six Jesuit missionaries were martyred in 1597, and persecution continued under the Tokugawa shogunate costing several hundred lives. In 1981, members of the Irish Republican Army incarcerated at Maze prison went on a hunger strike in protest of the British government’s refusal to grant them status as political prisoners (instead of ordinary criminals). Bobby Sands and nine others died and are widely commemorated in Ireland. In 1998, statues of ten twentieth-century Christian martyrs were unveiled at Westminster Abbey in London, among them, Martin Luther King Jr.
- Hinduism. The Hindu practice of sati was most frequent in western India from the tenth to nineteenth centuries. Outlawed by the British in 1829, it has survived sporadically up to the present. A new tradition borrowed from Christianity arose with the growth of nationalism in the nineteenth century and the struggle for an independent state in the twentieth century. While Gandhi is the most famous martyr, about a dozen others are deemed martyrs for the cause of Indian independence. While satis have altars and are treated as divine, of modern martyrs only Gandhi is occasionally commemorated at an altar.
- Sikhism. The Sikh theology of martyrdom (śahīdī ) is first found in the Siri Guru Granth Sahib, scriptures compiled by the fifth master and first martyr, Guru Arjan Dev Ji (d. 1606), who called martyrdom “the game of love.” Sikhs have suffered bitterly from persecutions by both Muslims and Hindus. Martyrdom is strongly associated with political resistance and the desire for political as well as religious autonomy, the Punjab being the possible Sikh homeland.
- Buddhism. The idea of dying for Buddha does not exist in Buddhism (which is atheistic); the notion of dying for something in the material world is similarly foreign, and Buddhism lacks a history of persecution. Nevertheless, the seven Buddhist monks who immolated themselves in Vietnam protesting the Diem regime’s policies are deemed martyrs in both the East and the West. As with Hinduism, Sikhism, and Islam in modern times, in Buddhism the struggle for freedom and national identity can occasion martyrdom.
Abeii, Mehdi, and Gary Legenhausen, ed. 1986. Jihād and Shahādat: Struggle and Martyrdom in Islam. Houston, TX: Institute for Research and Islamic Studies.
Cormack, Margaret, ed. 2002. Sacrificing the Self: Perspectives on Martyrdom and Religion. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.
Fields, Rona, ed. 2004. Martyrdom: The Psychology, Theology, and Politics of Self-Sacrifice. Westport, CT: Praeger.
Pettigrew, Joyce, ed. 1997. Martyrdom and Political Resistance Movements: Essays on Asia and Europe. Amsterdam: VU University Press.
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The suffering body plays an important role in the martyrdom accounts of the early Church. In that act of suffering torture and enduring death, the martyr defeated the enemy (identified with the devil) and imitated the suffering and endurance of Christ on the Cross. The idea of patience (‘patientia’) was important, for, in the practice of patience, a person became the master of their body and could battle their persecutors. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, martyred in 258, preached on this in his sermon ‘On the Good of Endurance’, three years before his own martyrdom. Thus developed the notion of active resistance through the ‘patience’ of the body, and martyrdom narratives stressed both the physicality of the Christian's suffering, and the dignity of the Christian's bodily gestures. In the account of Polycarp's death, his age and stamina, his composure despite a scraped shin, his upright stance in the flames (with no need of being tied to the stake) are all emphasized by the narrator.
Martyrs were portrayed as overcoming worldly concerns in their endurance, as seen, for example, in female martyrs who were represented as being as strong as men in their endurance, to the extent that they could overcome worldly notions of gender. Blandina, one of the third-century martyrs of Lyons, was both a woman and a slave and yet bore her tortures like a ‘noble athlete’. Perpetua, who wrote part of her martyrdom account herself before she died at Carthage in 203, wrote of a vision she had just before her death in which she had to fight an Egyptian: when she stripped for combat she discovered she had become a man; she defeated the Egyptian easily and trampled on the head of a serpent. Both she and Felicitas, who died with her, were mothers: Perpetua weaned her baby while in prison, and Felicitas gave birth almost on the eve of her death. Their martyrdom account speaks frankly of the physical aspects of their being mothers and martyrs, Perpetua commenting on the absence of pain in her breasts when she stopped nursing her child, and a comparison being made between the blood of Felicitas giving birth and the blood of martyrdom.
The bodies of martyrs quickly became sacred, and their relics were sought. As early as the mid second century, Christians were trying to reclaim the martyr's body after death — as in the case of Polycarp (who died in 155 or 156 ad), but in that case they were frustrated by the Nicetes and the Jews and had to be content with the ashes of the cremated Polycarp. A martyr's relics were collected and kept at the tomb, and, from the end of the second century, the anniversary of a martyr's death was kept as a feast, often with a liturgical celebration at the tomb. Later, in the post-Constantinian era, churches and cathedrals were often built on the sites of these tombs and the martyr's relics — which were thought to have great holy power — were kept under the altar. This practice continued in the Roman Catholic church up until 1969, for until then relics of martyrs had to be contained in every consecrated altar. Martyrs' days are still kept in the Roman Catholic and Anglican liturgical calendars, when the priests' stoles and chasubles are red to signify the martyrs' blood shed for the faith.
In the Reformation period, The Bloody Theatre, or The Martyrs' Mirror (a set of documents about Anabaptist martyrs collected in the seventeenth century by the Dutchman, Thieleman Van Braght), and the Protestant John Fox's Book of Martyrs, stressed, like early Christian martyrdom accounts, the endurance and heroism of those who were persecuted and died for their faith. Amongst twentieth-century Christian martyrs might be included Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Oscar Romero, and Martin Luther King.
In Judaism martyrdom is seen as obligatory — the path to be taken rather than breaking the laws of idolatry, unchastity, or murder. The history of Jewish martyrs goes back to the Hellenistic period (as evidenced in the Books of Maccabees). It has included those such as the scholar Akiva, who died in revolts against the Romans in the second century ce; those who died in periods of persecution and in pogroms in Europe in the medieval and modern periods — such as the Jewish scholar and physician, Ibn Daud, who died in Toledo in the late twelfth century; and continued into the twentieth century with the millions who died in the Holocaust, from 1933 to 1945.
The Arabic term for witness is ‘Shahid’, and has come to mean ‘martyr’. In Islamic tradition, one who dies in battle against the infidels is promised great rewards in paradise. Being already pure, these martyrs' bodies are not washed before burial and may be buried in their blood-stained battle clothes. Shi‘a Islam places a particular emphasis on martyrdom. The death of the prophet al-Husain in the Karbala tragedy in the seventh century, an event which became a founding event for Shi‘a Islam, made al-Husain the chief of martyrs. Followers who engage ritually in an imitation of his sufferings perform severe self-flagellation and, sometimes, the re-enactment of his life and death.
Sikhs who have been martyred for their faith — ‘sahid’ in Hindi — have included, recently, those who died at the hands of the British in the twentieth century, and earlier, those who chose torture rather than accept Islam — some of whom suffered particularly gruesome deaths, including being sawn in half, being boiled to death, being roasted alive in an oil-soaked cloth, death on a wheel, and scalping.
Shaw, B. D. (1996). Body/power/identity: passions of the martyrs. Journal of Early Christian Studies, 4(3), 269–312.
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432. Martyrdom (See also Sacrifice.)
- Agatha, St. tortured for resisting advances of Quintianus. [Christian Hagiog.: Daniel, 21]
- Alban, St. traditionally, first British martyr. [Christian Hagiog: NCE, 49]
- Andrew, St. apostle and missionary; condemned to be scourged and crucified. [Christian Hagiog.: Brewster, 4]
- arrow and cross symbol of martyrdom of St. Sebastian. [Christian Iconog.: Attwater, 304]
- Brown, John (1800–1859) abolitionist leader; died for antislavery cause. [Am. Hist.: Hart, 111]
- Callista beautiful Greek convert; executed and later canonized. [Br. Lit.: Callista ]
- Campion, Edmund harassed and tortured by Anglicans, hanged on a false charge of treason. [Br. Lit.: Edmund Campion in Magill I, 237]
- carnelian symbol of St. Sebastian. [Christian Hagiog.: Brewer Handbook, I, 411]
- Elmo, St. patron saint of sailors; intestines wound on windlass. [Christian Hagiog.: Attwater, 117]
- Golgotha place of martyrdom or of torment; after site of Christ’s crucifixion. [Western Folklore: Espy, 79]
- Holy Innocents male infants slaughtered by Herod. [Christian Hagiog.: Attwater, 179; N.T.: Matthew 2:16–18]
- James Intercisus, St. cut to pieces for belief in Christianity. [Christian Hagiog.: Brewster, 2]
- Jesus Christ crucified at demand of Jewish authorities. [N.T.: Matthew 27:24–61; Mark 15:15–47; Luke 23:13–56; John 19:13–42]
- Joan of Arc, St. (1412–1431) burned at stake for witchcraft (1431). [Fr. Hist.: NCE, 1417; Br. Lit.: I Henry VI ]
- John the Baptist, St. Jewish prophet; beheaded at instigation of Salome. [N.T.: Matthew 11:1–19; 17:11–13]
- More, Sir Thomas (1478–1535) statesman and humanist; be-headed for opposition to Henry VIII’s Act of Supremacy [Br. Hist.: NCE, 1830]
- Nero’s Torches oil- and tar-smeared Christians implanted and set aflame. [Christian Hist.: Brewer Note-Book, 614]
- palm appeared on martyrs’ graves. [Christian Symbolism: Appleton, 73]
- Perpetua, St., and St. Felicity gored by wild beasts; slain with swords. [Christian Hagiog.: Attwater, 273]
- Peter, St. apostle crucified upside down in Rome. [Christian Hagiog.: Brewster, 310]
- Sacco and Vanzetti (Nicola, 1891–1927) (Bartolomeo, 1888–1927) perhaps executed more for radicalism than murder (August 22, 1927). [Am. Hist.: Flexner, 311]
- Sebastian, St. Roman soldier; shot with arrows and struck with clubs. [Christian Hagiog.: Brewster, 75]
- Stephen, St. first martyr; stoned as blasphemer. [Christian Hagiog.: Attwater, 313]
- sword instrument of decapitation of early saints. [Christian Symbolism: Appleton, 14]
- Thecla, St. first woman martyr. [Christian Hagiog.: Brewer Dictionary, 1072]
- Thomas à Becket, St. (1118–1170) brutally slain in Canterbury cathedral by king’s knights. [Br. Hist.: NCE, 2735–2736]
"Martyrdom." Allusions--Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 19, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/martyrdom
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mar·tyr·dom / ˈmärtərdəm/ • n. the death or suffering of a martyr. ∎ a display of feigned or exaggerated suffering to obtain sympathy or admiration.
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MARTYRDOM . [This entry deals with religious witness that involves loss of life. For discussion of ritual death in a cross-cultural context, see Suicide. For death suffered because of religious identity, see Persecution.]
The badge of martyrdom is awarded by the leadership of a community to men and women who offer their lives voluntarily in solidarity with their group in conflict with another, ideologically contrasting, group. The martyr and his or her slayer are delegates, champions, or defenders of their societies. A few martyrs are suicides, but most are slain by judicial, military, police, religious, or other functionaries. These functionaries execute the martyr as a terrorist, a criminal, or a heretic who threatens fundamental social values or the physical safety of members of the society. The societies of the slayer and the slain struggle to control the meaning of the slaying: is it to be understood by the world as martyrdom or as judicial retribution?
Martyrs may be "witnesses," the literal meaning of the Greek term, of politically disestablished groups claiming self-determination or heroes of the expansionist wars of established groups. Contemporary images race before our eyes—a self-immolating Buddhist monk in Vietnam, an Irish Republican Army soldier dying of starvation in a British jail, a Japanese kamikaze diving his bomb-plane into an American warship. Martyrdom is an attempt to break through the ideological and social boundaries between the conflicting groups with hierocratic, religiously based power. A minority's religious power invokes a higher, purifying vengeance (Jacoby, 1983) upon a dominant adversary, who in turn vengefully slays the martyr.
The confrontation may unite the martyr's people, strengthening their opposition as they, under charismatic leadership, inch toward their own organizational power. The exemplary act of a martyr strengthens people's courage to bear their daily tribulations and directs their anger to the cruel, murderous adversary, the source of these tribulations. The martyrdom may also strengthen the adversary's will to repress the martyr's society. Martyrdom politicizes the relationship between the groups.
Martyrdom seems not to have appeared until rather late in history, perhaps the fourth century bce. The identification of ideology as an independent cultural reality has been a prerequisite for martyrdom. The ideologies at issue serve as symbols of mobilization, principles around which the societies rally, reinforcing, even radicalizing, more mundane economic or political conflicts.
The religions of Egypt and Mesopotamia and Greek philosophy treat ideologies as distinct cultural realities already hosting the seeds of the ideas of active good and evil and heroism. Zoroastrian dualism proposed an independent evil force, and Judaism of the Maccabean age adapted this view of a struggle with evil for monotheism. Hellenism brought a personalistic element to the ideologies in the image of the ascetic philosopher. Oriental Christianity synthesized the dualistic idea with that of the individual hero and so previewed Islamic ideas of martyrdom, including the pledge of eternal life to martyrs, forgiveness of sins, exemption from the Last Judgment, and the intercessory ability of the souls of martyrs.
Martyrdom imbues economic and political conflict with sacred meaning, subjecting it to what Max Weber called "the ethic of absolute ends," the pursuit of goals with little attention to the cost. In fact, action guided by an "ethic of responsibility," the value of the goal weighed against the cost of the means, discourages martyrdom.
Martyrdom is a free voluntary act. It is also an altruistic act. The martyr may avoid death by conceding to the adversary, but nevertheless accepts, affirms or even seeks death. A soldier, even a gladiator, strives to defeat the adversary without being hurt or killed. If death occurs, it is an accident of the situation. Only when that situation is sacralized, as in the case of the Muslim jihād, is the slain soldier a martyr.
This article develops some elements of a social theory of martyrdom. The basic queries are: under what conditions does a society generate martyrs; what are the types of martyrs; and what special social circumstances give rise to each type?
How Martyrdom Fits into Social Life
Martyrdom infuses a mundane event with divine grace. The symbolism parallels that of a sacrificial animal attaining a sacred quality. The animal victim disappears, either eaten by the worshipers, delivering its sanctity to their fellowship, or, as a burnt offering, rising as a sweet savor to the Lord. The martyr, a human sacrifice, attains an indelible sanctity. The sanctity may take the form of a redemptory promise, softening the pain or enabling the martyr to persist despite pain. Early Christians imprisoned and awaiting martyrdom were believed to have the power to forgive sins. Those released might retain this power, perhaps becoming presbyters of the church.
The martyr dies convinced of his or her legitimate authority, an authority challenging that of the executioners. A religious martyr may believe himself or herself to be an incarnation of the Holy Ghost, as did Montanus (Frend, 1972); the Spirit of God, al-Ḥaqq, as did al-Ḥallāj (Massignon, 1982); or a receiver of the Torah, as did ʿAqivaʾ ben Yosef.
The martyr, deceased, is a sacred symbol of an authority around which the society rallies. The authority created is charismatic, untethered by tradition. Such charismatic authority discards an older order in a breakthrough to a new social and cultural order, often conceived as a spiritual order.
Martyrdom is exemplary
A martyr is often a model for lesser forms of martyrdom. In Islam the idea of a martyr's death "in the way of Allāh" is applied metaphorically to the giving of ṣadaqah, or alms.
While suicide, being self-inflicted, is rarely accepted as martyrdom, asceticism, also self-inflicted, is a minor martyrdom. The adversary of the ascetic is bodily desire. The conquest of desire is a propaedeutic for the conquest of the social adversary.
The martyr demonstrates the human possibility of the act. That a person of flesh and blood succeeds in dying, sometimes painfully, facilitates the recruitment of future martyrs. Such a death is also a message deterring future deviance. That a member of a despised minority can show such commitment challenges the courage of members of the dominant group. The adversary may attempt to obscure the event. To be exemplary, martyrdom must be public and publicized. A private act, meaningful only to the martyr and the executioner, fails in this exemplary function. The martyr's group may be denied the benefits of its champion as witness. Undoubtedly, unrecorded martyrs died in dungeons with their ashes cast into the sea. However, martyrologies reveal no martyrs who sought social concealment.
In Jewish tradition, death for qiddush ha-shem, sanctifying of the name—or better, the reputation—of God, is intended to impress the Gentiles. This norm derives from a reading of the phrase in Ezekiel, "in the sight of the nations." Publicity for the Islamic shahīd ("martyr") is implicit in the idea of the jihād as a collective, rather than a personal obligation. Ibn Rushd (Averroës) wrote in his twelfth-century work on the jihād, Bidāyat al-mujtahid, that for shahīds to cancel the obligation for others, these others must know and recognize the volunteer's martyrdom. (Averroës, in Peters, 1977).
Martyrdom is political
Martyrdom is a political act affecting the allocation of power between two societies, or between a subgroup and the larger society. The Maccabean Revolt, which offered early and paradigmatic martyrs, was the action of a small community seeking a measure of local cultural independence. The Christian communities of Asia Minor, in the first and second centuries, offered martyrs to the Roman authorities in their struggle to limit the power of Rome to coerce particular expressions of loyalty. Certain religious martyrs may refuse to inflict physical violence on an adversary, but, as a political act, martyrdom is never a passive submission. The nonviolent martyr strikes the enemy psychologically.
The martyr's cry for vengeance mobilizes action against the adversary. The martyrdom of Mary Stuart followed a religious struggle over the crown of England. Elizabeth Tudor feared a bitter religious war were Mary to come to the throne. Mattingly (1959) writes of Catholic kings beyond the seas more eager to avenge the Queen of Scots dead than to keep her alive. Her shed blood cried out for vengeance on her enemies more unmistakably than her living voice could ever have done.
Where hierocratic power appears, political power may not be far behind. Sometimes one is transformed into the other. In this sense, the pope commands battalions. The Irish Republican Army tapped the church's hierocratic power to support its struggle for Irish independence from Great Britain.
Martyrdom aims to reduce political authority to ineffectiveness by challenging the sacred basis of the legitimacy of the adversary's authority. The potential martyr is a rival claimant to authority and this political claim may be religiously legitimated.
The political struggle may be internal: an established society and a schismatic minority may share a faith and a political system. The Maccabees, Arnold of Brescia, Jan Hus, and Savonarola, for example, accused the leaders of their established groups of treason. The minority attack was treated as heretical, endangering the faith.
The eleventh-century Persian-born Ṣūfī ʿAyn al-Qudāt al-Hamadhānī challenged Islamic authorities. The authorities' claim to power rested on Qurʾanic revelation and the sunnah, the traditions deriving from it. He claimed that divine grace poured down on him with all manner of esoteric knowledge and precious revelations, and he was thus an independent source of law.
Jan Hus (1373–1415) was directly political. Hus challenged the legitimacy of the papacy, the see of Peter, by preaching that Peter is not the head of the church, that ultimate appeal must be made directly to Christ. Condemned at the Council of Constance in 1414 and imprisoned, he wrote a characteristic martyr's message to a friend in Prague: "In prison and in chains expecting tomorrow to receive sentence of death, full of hope in God that I shall not swerve from the truth nor abjure errors imputed to me by false witnesses." He was urged to recant after being tied to the stake but replied, as is the custom of martyrs, "God is my witness that I have never taught nor preached that which false witnesses have testified against me.… I now joyfully die."
The fire was kindled and Hus repeated the Kyrie Eleison until stifled by the smoke. His ashes were scattered in the river, a final device to control the meaning of the event, discouraging a sepulchral shrine. After his death, Hussites fought in Prague and established the ecclesiastical organization of Tábor, recognizing only two sacraments, baptism and communion, and rejecting most of the ceremonial of the Roman Catholic church.
The minority may organize as a secret society, a sect practicing an uncommon cult. The twelfth-century Tanchelm in the Low Countries and Edus de l'Étoile in Brittany both declared themselves sons of God. Their sectarian followers were repressed, and they were imprisoned and martyred (Cohn, 1961). Ecstatics and ascetics, critical of the established church, gather around such claimants and perpetuate the movements.
Martyr Types: Political Independence and Action Orientation
The relative political power of the conflicting communities determines the task of martyrdom and the characteristics of the martyrs selected to carry out that task. Crescive, self-determining, and decaying societies all generate a peculiar form of martyrdom.
Christian communities within the Roman Empire were a politically crescive minority. The martyrs of this minority suffered passively, inviting violence but inflicting only moral or psychological pressure on the adversary. An expansive Islam in its early centuries exemplifies the self-determining society. Its martyrs were active and belligerent. The post-Enlightenment Jewish community of western Europe was a politically decaying society. Jews who died at the hand of their adversaries were not, by and large, martyrs but mere victims of pogroms and, lately, of the Holocaust.
The attitude of the society toward worldly action is a second influence on the type of martyrdom. Orientation to action may be primarily "otherworldly" or primarily "innerworldly," to borrow Max Weber's terms. These two orientations are related dialectically. The active political innerworldly understanding of life is a minor motif for crescive and decaying societies, but a major motif for a self-determining society. Segments of the society animated by innerworldly orientations tend not to be at peace with otherworldly segments. Heterodoxy is the case in which internal schismatics, themselves in a crescive stage, offer a religious otherworldly counterpoint to the political orientation of a ruling self-determining society.
The discussion will be organized in terms of the degrees of political independence of the societies. References to inner- or otherworldly attitudes are subsumed within the social type.
Martyrdom in crescive societies
A crescive society is one that is politically powerless but beginning to stir, perhaps renascent. The resistance of Jews to Hellenization under the Seleucid ruler Antiochus Epiphanes in the second century bce is an early model. The elderly Eleazar, according to the apocryphal 2 Maccabees, is the martyr type, choosing to give his life rather than eat pork in an already desecrated Temple in Jerusalem. That image is reconstituted in the second-century Judean rebellion against Hadrianic Rome in which the scholar and political leader ʿAqivaʾ ben Yosef joined with Bar Kokhba, the leader of the revolt. Tradition has it that ʿAqivaʾ was burned, wrapped in a Torah scroll, in a Roman arena.
The exemplar of Christian martyrdom is the trial and the crucifixion on Golgotha as that event is related in the Gospels. Later martyrs strive to imitate Christ. The sacrificed Lamb of God survives, not in this world, but in the world beyond. Anomalously the divinely designated executioners were pagans. Ordinarily, only a priest could perform a valid sacrifice. This point was not lost on the eleventh-century Jews of Mainz, who, facing impending slaughter by Crusaders, slew their children and then themselves. They sanctified the sacrifice by their "priestly" hands, symbolically reviving the temple rite in Mainz. (Gentile slaughterers would have polluted the offering.) The adversary is made impotent by delivering to him dead bodies, the ultimate in noncooperation, and the spiritual strength and authority of the martyr's society is affirmed.
Martyrdom in crescive societies creates authority, escalates the struggle, unifies the minority, and legitimates the new culture by demonstrating its priority over nature. Furthermore, martyrs propel a politically crescive society toward self-determination, toward social and cultural freedom. The establishment of new authority is a step in this process, the martyr's group, for instance, becoming infused with the Holy Spirit (Klawitzer, 1980). The death of the martyr makes the ideological choice a matter of life and death. This escalates the struggle, perhaps expediting the resolution in favor of the minority. As the society moves toward increased responsibility, the culture itself changes. Ironically, the values for which the early martyrs surrendered their lives may not be significant to members of a succeeding and successful self-determining society.
Radicalizing and escalating the conflict unifies the two parties internally. The grievous injustice of the slaying of the defenseless martyr and the gruesome inhuman circumstances under which the slaying occurs leave few individuals on the sidelines. Martyrdom further unifies and strengthens the group in its struggle. If social solidarity is a prerequisite for martyrdom, how does the precrescive, perhaps fractured, group find its initial martyrs? Part of the answer to this question is that the martyrs constitute a small group within the minority. Intense primary relations in this group enable it to stand against the powerful larger group.
The unity of the minority community may be thwarted by a defection of some of its members to the majority. During the Christian conquest of Spain, from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century, for example, a number of Muslims and Jews manifestly accepted Christianity, while surreptitiously continuing to practice their previous faiths. Both Muslim and Jewish societies were decaying. The Inquisition struck at these New Christians and, at the same time, urged the state to expel those who had remained Jews and Muslims. Some unification was achieved by the Jewish émigrés in their Diaspora.
A crystallizing around a self-assertive core of a divided minority is necessary before serious manifest resistance is thinkable. The tragedy of unification amidst disunity is dramatized in the apocalypse in the Gospel of Mark (13:9–13), where it is written that brother shall betray brother, and father his child, and the children shall rise up against their parents and have them put to death.
With martyrdom, the culture of the minority, its ideology and law, is sanctified, a covenant established, stamped with blood. It is written in Mekhiltaʾ, a Jewish interpretative work, that every commandment that the Israelites have not died for is not really established, and every commandment that they have died for will be established among them (Herr, 1967).
Martyrdom, by placing ideology ahead of physical survival, affirms the priority of culture over nature and the group's life, law, and civilization over biological self-interest. A crescive society that values individual life above group survival and above its cultural survival is not ready to become self-determining.
The self-determining society: heroic martyrs
The self-determining society has achieved political control of its life. Examples are fourth-century Christians in Asia Minor following the victory of Constantine, Islam of the Umayyad caliphate in eighth-century Damascus, and the Yishuv, the Jewish community of Palestine during the 1920s led by the Vaʿad Leʾumi, the National Council. Martyrs in such a society are active, aiding the society in its expansion, openly propagandizing, sending missionaries to the unconverted, and warring against adversaries. In Islam the jihād is a religious obligation and the martyr, the shahīd, one who dies in this sacred battle. The European Christian society that sent an armed pilgrimage to Jerusalem under Pope Gregory VII, in the words of Cohn (1961), raced toward a mass sacrifice, a mass apotheosis in Jerusalem. Defending against external enemies is the major problem; the achievement of internal unity is a minor social problem. Nevertheless, the self-determining society suffers its internal schisms. Islamic historians say little about Muslim martyrs executed by Arab pagans, the early opposition group, beyond the early oppression in Yathrib. The record is clear on Islamic martyrs of internecine conflict, Muslim martyrs killed by Muslims during the crescive and during the self-determining periods are remembered by their sects. The historic example is Muḥammad's grandson, Ḥusayn, the son of ʿAlī, slain by the soldiers of Yazid, the son of the caliph Muʿāwiyah, to prevent Ḥusayn's accession to the caliphate. This martyrdom is commemorated yearly with flagellation, imitative suffering, in Shīʿī circles. The ideological conflict was between Shīʿī insistence on blood succession from the Prophet and an elective basis of caliphal legitimacy.
The politically decaying society: victims and anti-martyrs
The politically decaying society is losing its ability to be self-determining. Roman provincial societies were decaying as they were co-opted by a victorious Christianity. Zoroastrian society became a weak minority in Persia, with a diaspora in India, shortly after the Islamic conquest. The world's smaller societies, such as those of the North American Indian civilization and of the Polynesian islands, were submerged by modern imperial powers.
The cause and the characteristic of this decay is loss of political autonomy. The society's symbols fail to command the loyalty of its members. Western European Jewish society, by the late eighteenth century, fits this mold. Local Jewish community control, supported by charters, was weakened as new concepts of statehood and citizenship took hold in Europe. Christian or secular frames of reference and values began to control the interpretations of Jewish tradition itself. The Jewish Haskalah, or Enlightenment, was built on the back of such intellectual symbols. Major civilizational contributions of Jews were made, not to Jewish society, as such, but to the environing societies. Heine, Mahler, Freud, and Einstein contributed to their German and Austrian cultures.
Martyrdom is latent in a decaying society. The adversary claims mere victims who affirm no ideology by their deaths. Jewish leaders tend to remember the victims of the Holocaust as martyrs for the sanctification of God's name. Breslauer (1981), in a dissent, writes that they were on the whole not sacred witnesses but passive victims, not proud martyrs for a cause but political pawns.
Leaders of a decaying society may dismiss resistance and martyrdom in favor of negotiation with the adversary. Rubenstein (1975) charges the Hungarian Jewish community leaders during World War II with near complicity in their own destruction. Though they knew about Auschwitz, one meeting with Eichmann convinced them that they had nothing to fear if they cooperated with the Schutzstaffel (SS) in enforced ghettoization, confiscation of real and personal property, and deportation for "labor service" in Poland.
Jewish resistance, independent and in cooperation with local partisans, produced genuine martyrs but was rarely supported by the officials of the Judenrat, the Jewish councils of the ghetto. The Warsaw ghetto uprising, authorized by ghetto leaders, was a final suicidal thrust, Samson at the temple of Dagon. Self-immolation requires a residue of moral strength, a will to protect the group's honor. Slaves may commit suicide, like concentration camp inmates throwing their bodies against the electrified wire, in order to relieve their suffering.
The negotiating victims may become collaborators or even converts. They may even become anti-martyrs. An anti-martyr may be a convert to the dominant ideology, remaining a leader of the minority and seeking to manage the conflict by collaborating with the dominant group. This effort may cost them their own lives. Anti-martyrs may strive to suppress martyrs whom they consider wrong-headed. They are not opportunistic turncoats, moved by personal avarice, but quislings, deeply committed to an enemy ideology, believing it best for their group. If they lose, they die unrelenting. The anti-martyr may meet his death at the hands of his new associates after they lose faith in him. Some new Christians, accused by the Spanish Inquisition of reverting to Judaism, went to the stake holding a cross. Leaders who suppress martyrdom out of a survivalist instinct without accepting the adversary are not anti-martyrs in the sense used here.
A martyr is delegated by the community and apotheosized by it. Anti-martyrs act individually or as members of a small separatist cadre. The minority condemns them as traitors and their apotheosis as evil.
How a Group Produces Martyrs
Martyr candidates may not always be found when needed. How does a community recruit and prepare individuals to sacrifice themselves? Ignatius of Antioch, seeking martyrdom, pleaded with his co-religionists in Rome not to try to rescue him but to allow him to die. At the same time, some bishops of the church denied their faith and fled to avoid court proceedings (Riddle, 1931). Not all sectors of the minority society are equally productive of martyrs. The level of devotion of most members of the community is insufficient to sustain martyrs. Zealots form cells within the wider community of devotees. These cells become a foundry for martyrs, supporting them throughout their ordeal.
The martyrs of politically crescive minorities, being leaders, tend to be recruited from its nobility. By and large these martyrs are males, not because females resist martyrdom, but because martyrs are drawn from the religio-political leadership. Female martyrs die affirming family principles. Barbara, one of a group of Catholic virgin martyrs, said to have been a follower of Origen in the third century, was immured in a tower, and ultimately beheaded by her father when he learned of her conversion to Christianity. Cecilia reportedly died as a martyr during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, along with her husband and friends whom she had converted.
What are the psychological characteristics, the motives of those who seek suffering and are willing to die? Although some writers tend to cite self-enhancing motives, such as a promise of redemption, or, as in Augustine's view, a way of avoiding a sin, one can safely say that altruism is the central motive. The basic commitment to moral action transcends the martyr's immediate interest in his personal fate. Sustaining such commitment requires ego integrity and the ability to overcome instinctive drives to escape.
Doubtless, some individuals throw themselves into martyrdom out of a mental derangement. But psychotics must be rare among martyrs, since they cannot usually establish and maintain the human bonds required in martyr cells. Many a stable mind, however, must become deranged during the tortures that can precede execution.
A martyr is prepared through life in a cell, that is, by social support. There he or she finds succor. The act is clothed ideologically and the potential martyr rehearsed. A martyr's ideology centers on the meaning of life in relation to death. It does not aim simply to attenuate the pain of martyrdom through a fantasy of a future life but provides a meaning for dying continuous with the meaning of the martyr's life. The martyr goes forward despite the pain.
Martyrologies, narrative or cultic, praise martyrs and expose evil. They prepare martyrs by example and encourage popular minor martyrdoms. A Christian cult of the martyr, in place by the end of the second century, exhibited relics—a bone, a lock of hair or some drops of blood—upon the anniversary of a martyrdom (Riddle, 1931). The more contemporary training of the kamikaze included worship at a special shrine for those who had died in training or in combat. There the trainees sought spiritual "intoxication" (Warner and Warner, 1982).
Exemplary martyrs need not be from one's own group. Invidiousness and pride can be as important as anger in strengthening the resolve to endure physical pain and degradation. The early Christians, not yet distinctively non-Jewish, identified with Maccabean martyrs. Gandhi, while struggling against the Boers in the Transvaal, praised the stalwart Boer women who survived an abominable incarceration by the English during the Boer War.
Ideology for preparing the martyr argues for the sanctity of the mission and the satanic quality of the adversary. It evokes earlier exemplary martyrs, including some from other groups. The lifelong preparation for the confrontation is materialized in a rehearsal for martyrdom. The rehearsal begins with the study of martyrologies, a vicarious experience, and follows with exercise of the minor martyrdoms—giving charity, fasting, and receiving the sacraments.
The early Christians offered organized rehearsals for the ordeal. The Roman process, being judicial, was predictable. Its stages included arrest, examination, threatening and persuasion, acquittal for recantation, and, as a test of loyalty, the performance by the recanter of pagan rites. Persons likely to be examined were trained in prepared responses for each stage.
How Society Controls Its Own Martyrs
A practical danger to a politically crescive minority is that some members will initiate open political action, perhaps open rebellion, before the community is ready to support such an act and, therefore, to succeed. Martyrdom, a harbinger of an uprising, is also a temporary alternative to it. A community must control its martyrs as it does its military zealots.
The community sets rules governing the occasions for martyrdom. Which principles are worth dying for? Who should die? When should one not die? The loss of such control among the Judean provincials during the latter part of the first century bce was fatal for Jewish autonomy and nearly fatal for Jewry as a whole.
The thoroughness of the Jewish defeat in the Judean rebellion of 70 ce, which led to the destruction of the Temple, was symbolized in the redesignation of the Temple mount as Aeolia Capitolina. The subsequent Bar Kokhba Revolt (c. 132–135) was severely suppressed. The community, not prepared for these acts of desperation, had not widely supported Bar Kokhba. These catastrophes shifted the center of Jewish life to the Diaspora. The evidence is that the edicts of Hadrian, such as the edict forbidding circumcision, which were cited as giving the Jews no choice but to rebel, actually followed the rebellion as martial law.
Control is also a matter of ruling when martyrdom is not expected. A Muslim is forbidden to wish for death or for an encounter with the enemy. The ṭalab al-shahādah, the seeking of martyrdom, even on the battlefield, is too close to suicide for Islamic jurists. Mahmud Shaltiut, a recent Shaykh al-Azhar, allows the community but three reasons for declaring jihād: to repel aggression, to protect the mission of Islam, and to defend religious freedom, that is, the freedom of Muslims to practice their faith in non-Muslim lands (Shaltiut, in Peters, 1977).
The Talmudic laws of martyrdom were formulated at the Council of Lydda in the second century. These laws governed a minority in a province of pagan Rome. By the Middle Ages, Jews were a minority in powerful Islamic states from Arabia to Spain and in equally powerful European Christian states. From time to time the pressure on the Jews to convert increased to the point where martyrdom became an issue. Group, not simply individual, survival was also a sacred obligation. Moses Maimonides (Mosheh ben Maimon), writing his Epistle on Apostasy in 1162–1163, warned that the death of the martyr condemns all of his potential descendants to nonbeing (Maimonides, 1979). For this and other reasons, Maimonides sought to restrict the occasions for obligatory martyrdom.
The rabbis of the Talmud had restricted martyrdom to avoiding public worship of strange gods, incest or adultery, and murder. Under pressure it is permissible, writes Maimonides, to utter the Shahādah, the Muslim declaration of the unity of God and the prophetic mission of Muḥammad. The coerced Jew could think whatever he wished. If a Jew is coerced to violate publicly commands of the Torah other than the three specificed above, Maimonides advises submission, a position not repeated in his Epistle to Yemen, nor in his Mishneh Torah, his major work. It is not unlike Muslim dissimulation—acting when under pressure as if one has abandoned Islam. The person is culpable, however, if the violations are of his own free will. Maimonides recommends migration to more friendly shores, rather than awaiting the Messiah in the land of oppression.
Rules control the candidacy for martyrdom. Candidates who might not stand up to the adversary, who cannot assure that their action is voluntary, are to be discouraged. The rules given by Ibn Rushd (Averroës) for recruiting for a jihād recall the biblical rules limiting military service according to age, marital status, and attitude to danger. The shahīd should not recoil from fighting if the number of enemies is but twice the number of his own troops, an estimate based on a Qurʾanic verse (surah 8:66), but should flee before a greater disproportion (Shaltiut, 1977).
The Suppression of Martyrdom by the Dominant Group
A dominant group may strive to prevent martyrdom when it cannot exploit the public meaning of the event. Potential martyrs may be co-opted or suppressed.
The adversary group may, for instance, assimilate a sympathetic sector of the minority. The new "converts," given positions in the dominant society, may become a showcase for attenuating minority resistance. (This approach misfires when it polarizes the minority, inciting the resisters to attack the assimilationists, as in the case of the Maccabean assault on the Hellenizing Jews.) Since martyrdom depends on charismatic authority, any move toward rationalizing the social order gives the minority a sense of justice and order and undermines martyrdom.
Repressive measures may parallel co-optive measures in a kind of carrot-and-stick process. The martyr-producing cells may be attacked, for instance, by an infiltrating agent provocateur. Resistance cells may be made illegal and their members executed as part of a "witchhunt." Government-sponsored terror against the primary community may deprive the resisting cells of support.
Other ways of raising the penalty for martyrdom include inflicting more painful deaths or executing more martyrs, thus overtaxing the minority's supply of martyrs. Such increased viciousness may be an act of desperation. Its very horror may further radicalize the minority in its thrust against the dominant society.
Persecutions involve centrally sponsored repressions of the minority, not unique or local actions against potential martyrs. Christian tradition speaks of ten persecutions, including those under the emperors Decius, Valerian, and Diocletian. Under Valerian, for instance, an edict was issued in 257 ce compelling acts of submission in conformity with the Roman religion. Christians refusing them were condemned to the mines, beaten with whips and rods, branded on their foreheads, and shaven on one side so that if they escaped they could be recognized as runaway slaves or criminals. This extreme persecution occurred but two generations before Constantine's victory.
If martyrs must be taken, the impact of the martyrdom on the adversary's society may be limited by isolating the killing from view. Assigning the killing to specialists is one way to accomplish this. As there is preparation of martyrs, so there is preparation of their specialized slayers. The SS in Nazi Germany conceived of itself as a sacred order, an elite trusted to guard the messianic Führer. The concentration camps were a training ground toughening them for the task. Prisoners were thought of as belonging to inferior races, shiftless and asocial; subjected to starvation and unsanitary conditions, they came to resemble the walking dead. Any SS officer who showed compassion could be eliminated from the group. Those who made common cause with the prisoners were stripped of their rank, given twenty-five lashes, and consigned to the company of the "subhuman" (Kogon, 1973).
Precisely the opposite approach is to encourage wide public participation in the repression of the minority community as a whole. The goal is to eliminate or demoralize it to the extent that it cannot function as a hinterland for martyrs. Elements putatively out of the control of the authorities may carry out the establishment's justice, and so mask its intent. Operating with two faces, the dominant community may pretend to provide legal and police protection, diverting the minority from a planned defense. The same objective situation may occur, without duplicity, when more than one authority exists in society. In medieval Germany and in Poland, for instance, Jews resided under charter from the local bishop or nobility. This guarantee of safety was ineffective when Jews were attacked by soldiers and mobs during the Crusades and in the early Polish pogroms. The lynching of blacks in the post–Civil War American South has the same character of mob action, sometimes disapproved of, sometimes condoned by the authorities.
A society may deprive martyrs of an exemplary function by declaring them criminals. Justice is done by removing them from the society. By the second century the Romans had developed a literature justifying the suppression of the Christians and defining their martyrdom as insane. The works of Marcus Cornelius Fronto and Lucian, for instance, attacked Christians as public enemies, atheists, a fanatical species enamored of death, who ran to the cruelest tortures as to a feast. To discredit the ideology, these works ridiculed Christians who claimed that Jesus was born of a virgin into a poor family in a small town in Judaea, when, in reality, his mother had been cast off by her husband for committing adultery with a soldier named Panthera.
The meaning of the event is controlled in subsequent time by myths about the meanings of the event. The martyr views the battle as a prelude to the subjugation of his executioner and then as taking vengeance on the executioner and his society. The dominant society, seeing the event as punishment or vengeance, hopes that it will have no sequel, that the cycle is complete, the criminal punished, justice achieved.
Destruction of records is aimed to control later historical reconstruction. Allard (1971) reports that during the Diocletian persecutions (285–323 ce), churches were burned along with their manuscripts, which included passions of the ancient martyrs. Books were burned at public book burnings. The persecutors, having failed to stop the apostasies, attempted to abolish their memories.
Perhaps the greatest weapon of the state, particularly the modern state, is its ability to make martyrdom appear obsolete and meaningless. Bureaucratizing the killing accomplishes this end. Rubenstein (1975) says that the Holocaust could only have been carried out by an advanced political community with a highly trained, tightly disciplined police and civil service bureaucracy. The moral barrier to the riddance of a surplus population was overcome by taking the project out of the hands of bullies and hoodlums and delegating it to the bureaucrats.
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"Martyrdom." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 19, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/martyrdom
"Martyrdom." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Retrieved February 19, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/martyrdom
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Martyrdom is the culmination of a sequence of events in which a person is made to suffer and usually (although not always) die in a manner that is highly symbolic and emotive. Although there may be a historical core to martyrdom narratives, in general the story is crafted with the goal of highlighting the differences between the martyr and the person or forces that drove the martyrdom forward, and to increase a sense of audience remorse, guilt, and eventual repentance. In general the martyr is presented as a heroic, albeit pathos-inducing, figure, who symbolizes a particular cause. This may be religious, but can also be based on star-crossed love or ethnic struggle; sometimes the martyr is noteworthy only for suffering an extraordinarily tragic (and undeserved) death.
Narratives employing the tragic death of a heroine, such as Antigone and Iphigenia, appear in classical Greek literature; however, these narratives are usually not given the morality tale context of the later Judeo-Christian and Muslim martyrologies. They do, however, provide an ancestor to the subgenre of romantic martyrdom so common in both Christian and Muslim literature.
The classical religious martyrdom narrative took shape during late antiquity (first–fifth centuries ce) in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Because of the religious divide between Jewish and Christian monotheism and polytheism, the martyrdom narrative was used to extol the sufferings of those who were unwilling to change their religion under duress. For women there was the added possibility of sexual abuse. In order to avoid either some type of ritual impurity (in Judaism) or sexual defilement (in Christianity), it was not unusual for women to kill themselves or to provoke their captors into a killing rage.
Christian martyrdom narratives of women are quite common, Jewish martyrologies somewhat less so. Some of the best-known Christian martyrs are St. Cecilia of Rome (second or third centuries); St. Catherine of Alexandria (d. c. 307); St. Margaret of Antioch (d. c. 304), who is venerated by the Orthodox Church; and St. Ursula, who was canonized along with 11,000 virgins who were martyred with her (fourth or fifth century). St. Cecilia was persecuted as a result of preaching Christian teaching; however, some others were killed for refusing to sacrifice their virginity by marrying men who were forced upon them.
The first Muslim martyr was a woman, Sumayya bint Khayyat, who was killed by Abu Jahl, one of the most ferocious enemies of early Islam. She, unlike similar figures in Judaism and Christianity, never became associated with any cult, nor is she venerated in the religion. However, most female martyrs in Islam were not sacrificed for religious reasons but were romantic literary figures. Majnun and Layla, for example, were a tragic couple whose circumstances did not permit their union. In despair Majnun killed himself and Layla died of a broken heart. Their narrative forms the basis for numerous popular and mystical stories of denied love and death for the sake of the beloved (such as William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet [c.1595]), and are strongly in the tradition of Greek tragedy. The cycle of Majnun and Layla exists in popular versions in Arabic, Persian (versions by Nizami Ganjavi [d. 1202] and Jami [1414–1492]), and Turkish (Fuzuli [d. 1556]) and is commemorated widely in popular Iranian and Indo-Muslim art.
Christian martyrs with popular status in the secular community, such as Joan of Arc (1412–1431), are comparatively rare in the martyrologies. Joan galvanized the largely defeated French populace against the occupying English and was captured and killed as a result. As Jews more frequently became the victims of pogroms during the Middle Ages, heroines such as Rachel (b. 1753), the wife of Rabbi Judah of Cologne, who killed her children and then herself to save them from the Crusaders, became the subject of popular narrative. This topos also occurs extensively in Muslim literature, where the figure of the female warrior can be found in both classical Arabian epics and popular tales such as the Arabian Nights (tales compiled over thousands of years with no certain original date). The Turkish warrior epic Battalname (fifteenth century), focused on the exploits of the border hero Sayyid Battal who fought against the Byzantines, is such a tale. The daughter of the Byzantine emperor sees Battal and immediately converts to Islam. She throws a stone with a message written on it that she will betray her father for Battal's sake. Unfortunately the stone accidentally kills Battal and the emperor's daughter commits suicide to join him in paradise.
Later Christian writing emphasizes martyrs who either died on religious missions or at the hands of tormentors unlike the virginal, romantic, or heroic martyrs of late antiquity or the Middle Ages. Women are remarkable for their absence in early Protestant martyrologies, such as that of John Foxe (d. 1587). But there are a number of female martyrs among African and Asian converts to Christianity. Probably the best-known female African Protestant martyr is Dona Beatrix Kimpa Vita (d. 1706), who was burned at the stake for her heresy by Catholic missionaries in the Congo. From Korea there is the figure of Kollumba Kang Wansuk, who was a prominent Protestant activist and martyr killed in 1801 by the Chinese authorities. Like the early Christian martyrs and Joan of Arc, she was a virgin. The best-known contemporary Roman Catholic female martyr is probably Edith Stein (1890–1942). Stein converted from Judaism to Christianity and was murdered in the concentration camp at Auschwitz by the Nazis in 1942. Female Hindu and Buddhist martyrs are virtually absent until modern times.
Many political causes have had prominent women members or actually have been led by women, and have produced many female martyrs. From the women of Tibet, to the female suicide attackers among the Palestinians and Chechens, to the anti-apartheid campaigners of South Africa, to the Tamils of northern Sri Lanka, disproportionate numbers of women (relative to men associated with the same causes) have become martyrs based on their ideology. Some female martyrs, suicide attackers for example, are responsible for the deaths of many others. The phenomenon of female suicide attackers, so unusual in the context of many societies, is the subject of much scholarly research and popular journalistic writing in the early twenty-first century.
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"Martyrdom." Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender: Culture Society History. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 19, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/martyrdom
"Martyrdom." Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender: Culture Society History. . Retrieved February 19, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/martyrdom
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The idea of martyrdom in Islam is rooted in the fact that from the beginning of the religion, Muslims died in the struggle to establish and expand the Islamic state, and their deaths in the course of this struggle were remembered and celebrated. The Qur˒an encourages martyrdom by assuring believers that death is illusory: "And say not of those slain in God's way, 'They are dead'; rather they are living, but you are not aware" (2:154).
God also promises ample rewards to those who die fi sabil Allah, "in the way of God":
Count not those who were slain in God's way as dead, but rather living with their Lord, by Him provided, rejoicing in the bounty God has given them, because no fear shall be on them, neither shall they sorrow, joyful in blessing and bounty from God, and that God leaves not to waste the wage of the believers. (3:169–171)
Other passages elevate death in the course of struggle for Islam (e.g. 3:157–158, 4:74; 9:20–22; 47:4–6; and 61:11).
Martyrdom in Early Islam
While the idea of martyrdom is clearly rooted in the Qur˒an, the technical terms for martyr, shahid, and for martyrdom, shahada, arise from a different context. When the term shahid appears in the Qur˒an, as it does frequently, it never means martyr, but only "witness," in the legal sense or in the ordinary sense of "eyewitness." The extension of the meaning of shahid to martyrdom was likely a borrowing from Syrian Christians for whom the connection of martyrdom with an act of witnessing was deep rooted and reflected in linguistic usage. The terms martys in Greek and sahda in Syriac both carried the dual meaning of witness and martyr, and A. J. Wensinck and Ignaz Goldziher plausibly argued that the Arabic shahid is borrowed from the Syriac.
This connection between martyrdom and witness made sense to Christians, for the Christian martyrs were those who witnessed by their manner of death to the reality of heaven and the inevitable victory of God. But for Muslims the connection was a stretch for the simple reason that the Qur˒anic idea of death in the way of God required no act of witnessing. Muslims were thus left with the uncomfortable problem of discovering a link between the two ideas, and they came up with a variety of creative suggestions: Martyrs are called "witnesses" because their souls witness Paradise, their deaths are witnessed by angels, they will serve as witnesses against those who rejected God's prophets, Muhammad will be a witness on their behalf at the Day of Judgment, or their wounds will testify to their exalted status in the afterlife. The awkwardness of these suggestions, as Keith Lewinstein points out, suggests that later Muslims had no idea why the two ideas came together and that the connection had to be invented to explain linguistic usage.
Early Islamic martyrdom, then, was an inevitable corollary not of witnessing to the truth but of struggling on its behalf. Thus jihad, or struggle, provides the chief context for the earliest ideas of martyrdom in Islam. Accounts of the earliest Muslim martyrs reflect this context. The martyrs most celebrated in biographies of the Prophet are those who threw themselves into battle with courage and abandon. Ibn Ishaq's account of the Muslim victory at Badr (623/624 c.e.), for example, is peppered with accounts of martyrdom. In one account, ˓Umayr was eating some dates when he heard the Prophet promise Paradise to any who died in battle. At this he immediately flung the dates aside and threw himself into the battle exclaiming, "Is there nothing between me and entering Paradise save to be killed by these men?" Another Muslim, ˓Asim, asked Muhammad, "What makes the Lord laugh with joy at His servant?" Muhammad answered, "When he plunges into the midst of the enemy without mail." At this ˓Asim threw off his mail coat, plunged into the battle and was killed.
Incentives for this kind of battlefield martyrdom are colorfully elaborated in the tradition literature. Martyrs are first of all spared from the normal pain of death. They then proceed directly to the highest station in Paradise, without waiting for the Day of Judgment, and without enduring interrogation in the grave by the angels Munkar and Nakir. Once in Paradise they share the place closest to the throne of God with the prophets, wear jeweled crowns, and are each given seventy houris (virgins of paradise). Martyrs are purified of sin and do not require the Prophet's intercession—indeed, according to some traditions, martyrs are themselves second only to the prophets as intercessors.
While fighting unbelievers on the battlefield has remained a basic and consistent emphasis in Muslim understandings of martyrdom, conflicts within the Muslim community took the idea in new directions. Martyrdom was an especially potent ideal among some Kharijite Muslims who called themselves shurat, or vendors, in reference to Qur˒anic praise for those who sell their earthly lives in exchange for Paradise (4:74; 9:112). The idea of deliberately seeking martyrdom (talab al-shahadat) by "selling" one's life came to be especially associated with Kharijites. One Kharijite ideologue, for instance, exhorts his followers to strive against "the unjust leaders of error, and to go out (khuruj) from the Abode of Transience to the Abode of Eternity and join our believing, convinced brothers who have sold (ba˒u) this world for the next, and spent their wealth in quest of God's good pleasure in the final reckoning" (Lewinstein, 2002, p. 85). As this exhortation makes clear, the conflicts that provided the Kharijites with opportunities for martyrdom were not struggles against unbelievers, but struggles for justice and purity in the Muslim community. More importantly, martyrdom was not merely an inconvenient by-product of struggle for which the martyr needs to be compensated, but a goal worth pursuing in its own right.
The Shi˓a and Martyrdom
Internal struggles within the umma also shaped the construction of martyrdom among Shi ite Muslims, for whom the death of the Prophet's grandson Husayn became the defining event of their history as a community. Husayn was martyred in 680 at Karbala in Iraq when his small band, accompanied by women and children, was attacked and massacred by the army of the Umayyad ruler, Yazid. Shi˓ite interpretations of Karbala took Muslim ideas of martyrdom in completely new directions. Husayn's suffering and death came to be seen not just as an individual contribution to the struggle against injustice, meriting individual reward, but as a deliberate redemptive act of cosmic significance. By choosing martyrdom Husayn ensured the ultimate victory of his community and earned the place of mediator for his people. Martyrdom became such a central value for the Shi˓a that all the Shi˓ite imams were held to have been martyrs, and the major ritual and devotional expressions of Shi˓ism are celebrations of martyrdom.
Types of Martyrdom
To celebrate martyrdom is not the same as to seek it, however. Shi˓ite scholars were happy to revere Husayn but they resisted the impulse to emulate him. In this they were part of a broader scholarly tendency to dilute the value of martyrdom. In the hands of mainstream scholars, both Sunni and Shi˓ite, the category of martyr was enlarged to include many kinds of death, including drowning, pleurisy, plague, or diarrhea. According to other traditions martyrs also include those who die in childbirth, those who die defending their property, those who are eaten by lions, and those who die of seasickness. A special category of martyr is made up of those who suffer the pangs of unexpressed and unrequited love, patiently keeping their passions concealed to death. The trend culminated in the transference of the value of martyrdom to other pious acts, so that death was no longer the most important prerequisite. The band of martyrs came to include anyone who conscientiously fulfills his or her religious obligations, those who engage in the "greater jihad" against their own evil tendencies, and, significantly, scholars who engage in the "jihad of the pen." According to one well-known hadith, the ink of the scholars will outweigh the blood of the martyrs.
The incongruity of equating battlefield martyrs with victims of unrequited love or those who died quietly in bed did not go unnoticed by legal scholars. Thus battlefield martyrs are put in a special category as "martyrs in this world and the next" and are honored with special burial rites. The martyr's body, in most circumstances, is not washed; he is to be buried in the clothes in which he was killed. Some hold that no prayers over the martyr are necessary since he is automatically purified from sin. The lesser categories of martyrs are "martyrs of the next world" meaning, chiefly, that they are not eligible for special burial rites but must be satisfied with divine approbation and the rewards of Paradise.
Even if battlefield martyrs retained a special status, however, the trend in medieval Muslim treatments of the subject was to render the major benefits of martyrdom common currency, readily available to any pious believer. Several characteristics of medieval Islam contributed to the trend: the pervasive influence of Sufism with its characteristic focus on the spiritual value of an act rather than its externals, scholarly quietism in reaction to the militancy of the Kharijites and other Islamic rebels, and the simple fact that opportunities for martyrdom in the struggle against unbelievers were severely diminished after the initial century of conquest.
Outside the definitions of martyrdom discussed in the legal literature, an independent tradition of martyrdom was kept alive among Sufis. The paradigmatic Sufi martyr was Ibn Mansur al-Hallaj (d. 922), who was crucified by Muslim authorities in Baghdad on the charge of blasphemy. Al-Hallaj, along with other Sufi martyr heroes like Suhrawardi (d. 1168), ˓Ayn al-Qudat (d. 1131), and Ibn Sab˓in (d. 1269), died the victim of his own inordinate love for the Divine, thus exemplifying the Sufi ideal of extinction in the Divine and acting out the tragedy of the mystic lover, caught between the conflicting demands of love and law. This style of martyrdom belonged to the spiritual virtuosi, however. For the ordinary Muslim, the benefits of martyrdom are only experienced secondhand, by visiting a martyr's shrine, or mashhad, or for Shi˓a, by reenacting the passion of Husayn in ta˓ziya celebrations during the month of Muharram.
Militancy and Martyrdom
The sublimation of the martyr ideal in pious devotion has continued in Muslim societies, but the modern experience has also given some Muslims abundant reason to revive more militant ideas of martyrdom. Modern Muslim treatments of martyrdom have been intertwined with changing attitudes toward jihad, and are shaped by reaction against the quietism of the medieval tradition. Whereas for medieval jurists both jihad and martyrdom were spiritualized and internalized, the colonial experience suddenly gave the idea of militant struggle new relevance. Thus a common early response to colonialism was the emergence of anticolonial jihad movements like that of Sayyid Ahmad in India. Nineteenth-century Muslim apologists and modernists like Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1817–1898), Chiragh ˓Ali (1844–1895), and Muhammad ˓Abduh (1849–1905) departed from the medieval tradition in a different way by reinterpreting jihad to accord with Western preconceptions. Jihad, the modernists argued, amounts to no more than the right of a state to defend itself against attack. The effect was to encourage a secularization of martyrdom whereby any soldier who died for his country could be counted a martyr.
Against both the quietism of medieval scholars and the apologetics of modernists, revivalists have called for a return to militant jihad and a revival of the ideals of physical martyrdom. Hasan al-Banna (1906–1949), founder of the Muslim Brotherhood and a celebrated martyr in his own right, offers a stirring invitation to martyrdom:
Brothers! God gives the umma that is skilled in the practice of death and that knows how to die a noble death an exalted life in this world and eternal felicity in the next. What is the fantasy that has reduced us to loving this world and hating death? If you gird yourselves for a lofty deed and yearn for death, life shall be given to you . . . . Know, then, that death is inevitable, and that it can only happen once. If you suffer in the way of God, it will profit you in this world and bring you reward in the next. (Hasan al-Banna, 1978, p.156).
For al-Banna and other revivalists, waging jihad is held to be an individual duty (fard ˓ayn) of all Muslims. It is thus incumbent on every Muslim to prepare him- or herself for martyrdom, and it is on the basis of this duty that al-Banna calls on Muslims to become skilled at dying and to master "the art of death" (fann al-mawt). Since all must die, the wise will learn how to get the most benefit out of the exchange (Q. 4:74). Such advocacy of martyrdom echoes the ideology of the Kharijites and comes close to encouraging the seeking out of martyrdom, talab al-shahada, a practice condemned in classical scholarship. The recent pattern of suicide bombings sponsored by militant Islamic movements, many of them offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood, fits comfortably into the framework of the call of Hasan al-Banna to be "skilled in the practice of death."
Modern Shi˓ite treatments of martyrdom have tended to run along parallel lines, emphasizing the ideological value of martyrdom. When an individual gives his or her life for a cause, according to ˓Ali Shari˓ati (1933–1977), this life becomes valuable in proportion to the value of the cause for which it is spent. A martyr expends his or her whole existence for an ideal, and that ideal is given life through martyrdom. Martyrs thus exchange their lives for something greater and more lasting, leaving behind a permanent and valuable legacy. Similarly, Ayatollah Taliqani (1910–1979) invokes the Sufi poet Jalaluddin Rumi (1207–1273) to argue that martyrdom is part of a chain of sacrifice whereby the imperfect is perfected. Just as vegetation is eaten by a lamb and becomes flesh and blood, so a martyr loses his existence to partake in a higher cause.
These justifications for martyrdom are clearly modern in their emphasis on the ideological value of martyrdom. Such ideas have more than theoretical relevance. Modern conflicts in Palestine, Afghanistan, Kashmir, Chechnya, Iraq, and Iran have produced a large crop of martyrs, along with a huge volume of popular literature celebrating their deeds. Consequently, activist and militant forms of martyrdom tend to be the most visible and dramatic expressions of the idea in the modern Islamic world. The prominence of such militant forms should not, however, be allowed to obscure the continued importance of other enduring expressions of martyrdom in popular devotion and especially in Shi˓ite ritual.
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"Martyrdom." Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 19, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/martyrdom
"Martyrdom." Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World. . Retrieved February 19, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/martyrdom