Brian Wicker, The Tablet, 19 August 2006

DYING for one’s faith, previously associated with acts of courage, is now tainted in the public mind by the claims of suicide bombers to be martyrs for Islam. How did such perverted thinking emerge, and can martyrdom be reclaimed as an honourable act?

The arrest of terrorist suspects in Britain last week raised the prospect once more that British-born Muslims were prepared to die, as they saw it, in the name of Islam. Security services and the police said they had unearthed alleged plots for suicide bombers to blow up planes as they crossed the Atlantic. These conspiracies were being put together just a year after a group of Muslim men killed themselves and nearly 50 other people in London through bombs planted in underground trains and on a bus.

To the majority of people, these acts will be seen as barbarous, taking the lives of innocent people. To some, though, they will be seen as acts of martyrdom. Martyrdom has a long tradition in both Islam and Christianity, for the shedding of one’s blood for the sake of one’s beliefs has an emotive pull as well as a religious one. Within the early Christian Church, martyrs were perceived as heroic witnesses to the truth in which they believed, with shrines and churches built in their honour.

But surely no sane person wants to be a martyr, any more than he or she wants to be crucified. Of course, the best of us want to witness to the truth (which is what being a martyr really means) and a few are prepared to do this even at the cost of being killed. And the world being what it is, it is quite likely that anyone who is truly prepared to be such a witness will in fact be killed. But being a witness and being killed are different things.

Part of the problem is the greed for glory. While none of us wants to be killed for our beliefs, quite a lot of us in anticipation would relish the posthumous veneration which those who have died for the faith commonly attract. Perhaps we imagine that we will enjoy becoming part of the “cult” of martyrdom. I suppose it is even possible that some twisted individuals would invite death for the sake of being venerated for it afterwards. Nevertheless surely nobody can actually want to be killed in order to get this “glory”? Yet wanting it seems to be at the root of the “martyrdom operations”, such as suicide bombing, which has scarred New York, Israel and Britain, among others, in recent years.

It is at this point, I think, that Islamic “martyrdom operations” differ most radically from Christian examples. Indeed, the term “operations” gives the game away, for it suggests that being killed for the faith  - that is being martyred -  is something you choose to do, not something that happens to you, whereas Christian martyrdom is a gift from God - the gift of being able to witness come what may. Modern Islamic martyrdoms, on the contrary, seem to be based on actions that people choose to carry out, presumably to prove - to themselves and to their communities, perhaps to God - that they are prepared to die for what they believe in. At this point, the witness stops being a martyr and becomes a criminal.

It was not always so. Indeed the two traditions’ earliest theologies of martyrdom, or witnessing to the faith, are very similar. In both, even against persecution, “witnessing” was essentially a non-violent response.

In Arabic, the word commonly translated as “martyr” (shahid), in the sense of someone willing to be killed for the faith, does not occur in the Qur’an at all; it is used there only for a witness in the legal, or eyewitness sense. It was only in the post-Qur’anic period, following fierce persecution by the pagans of Medina, that the word became specialised to indicate someone who had been killed in fighting for the faith. The Qur’an itself is a much more complex work than it is commonly thought to be, especially by those who wish to justify modern “martyrdom operations”.

The development of the Islamic meaning of shahid is paralleled by the development of “martyrdom” in Christianity. In fact some scholars suspect that there was a Christian influence on the Islamic development of the term, through contacts between the Muslims and the Christians of the Levant. But a key difference in Islam is that pagan persecution of the small tightly knit faith community in Arabia became very violent within the Prophet’s own lifetime - almost as soon as he had moved his sphere of activity from Mecca to Medina. A result was that the pressure for the Muslims to defend themselves by force rapidly became overwhelming. Hence the association of witnessing to the faith and fighting in defence of it was established quickly, and soon became almost the norm, despite the early Qur’anic verses that discouraged it.

This process was later helped by the use of the concept of “abrogation” (naskh) in the scholarly interpretation of the Qur’an itself. In this, verses held to have been revealed to the Prophet in later life were said to have “abrogated” the earlier (predominantly non-violent) messages of the Meccan period. Modern scholars have challenged the misuse of naskh, which lends itself to the justification of a “military” concept of the role of the faithful Muslim, or “martyr”, against that of the Muslim who is a non-violent witness. But they have an uphill struggle against the now widespread, albeit mistaken, notion that Islam was rooted in violence from the start.

For Christians the story was different. Very early on they were scattered in many parts of the Roman Empire, as preaching the Gospel quickly spread from Jerusalem. Furthermore, the Christians were virtually debarred from serving in the Roman army because of its dedication to polytheism (whereas the Roman army had virtually no relevance to the seventh-century Muslims of Arabia). Hence there were very few Christian soldiers before the beginning of the third century AD. This explains why the association of martyrdom with military operations, even in “self-defence” of the faith, failed to develop as it has in Islam. This helped establish a strong tradition that maintains that martyrdom, or witnessing to the faith, is incompatible with service in the military, even in a “just war”. True, Pope John VIII (872-882) seems to have thought that a person dying in a just war could be regarded as a martyr, but his view failed to take hold.

Aquinas, in his treatment of martyrdom, takes it for granted that martyrdom is incompatible with participation in warfare, with only one exception: members of the chivalric military orders in the Crusades could become martyrs, because they were fighting in God’s service, rather than that of a mere king. This concession could have become a loophole through which much damaging ideology might have been driven. Perhaps the demise of crusading prevented such a disaster.

The early teachings of both traditions on suicide are very close: suicide is clearly forbidden. But on both sides, theological difficulties soon arose, and very often the answers given seem weak. Thus, the Christian virgin St Pelagia of Antioch (died c. 311) clearly killed herself to avoid being raped, and is yet accounted a virgin martyr. Both Augustine and Aquinas can only offer the lame excuse that the Church “by manifestations worthy of credence” decided to honour her. They have even more trouble in justifying the suicide of Samson, and can only say that his self-killing was sanctioned by the Holy Spirit.

Parallel problems arise for some Islamic theorists, such as Ayman al-Zawahiri, in justifying suicidal operations today. Provided these are done for the greater good, he has argued, the Qur’anic prohibitions can be set aside. Or it is sometimes maintained that suicides are not really suicidal because they are such heroic deeds. They are not done out of hopelessness or despair but out of a desire to “cast terror and fear into the hearts of the oppressors” (Al-Qaradawi). Both sets of answers seem to be notably weak, even irrational. They tend to muddle the actions which the “martyrs” do with their motives for doing them. Either way, the prohibition on suicide is weakened. Thus the suicidal operations of today are provided with a sort of theological justification.

More interesting, perhaps, is the thought that in the future we may need to acknowledge a new kind of martyr: one that both traditions could accept. I am thinking of martyrs “for justice and peace”. I borrow this phrase from Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor’s public praise of Margaret Hassan, who was murdered for helping the ordinary citizens of Iraq during a lifetime spent as a Western Catholic married to a Muslim, and who held Iraqi nationality and consistently opposed the Western invasion of her country. She is perhaps only the latest candidate following examples like those of Edith Stein, Franz Jägerstätter, Maximilian Kolbe, Dorothy Stang. For all of these died as witnesses not to Christianity as such but to justice and peace within the global community.

One way in which the West could help to rebalance the distorted notions of martyrdom that have become prevalent today would be to acknowledge publicly that these witnesses (and doubtless many others, of both faiths) are martyrs for everybody: that is witnesses who can be venerated by Muslims as well as Christians because what they died for was something recognisably good for all.

* Brian Wicker, as chairman of the Council on Christian Approaches to Defence and Disarmament (CCADD), is the editor of Witnesses to Faith? martyrdom in Christianity and Islam, recently published by Ashgate. CCADD may be contacted on

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