Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Martyrdom in the Abrahamic Religions

The word "martyr" is often bandied around in common parlance. In the more casual sense, it means someone who makes a sacrifice or is seen as a victim. So if a person is arrested, it may be feared that he will become a "martyr for the cause". Traditionally though, martyrdom means someone who dies for their beliefs.

Over the past few decades, we've heard the term applied to suicide bombers. These people often consider themselves martyrs. These people would not however be considered as such in Christianity. SO how do the three Abrahamic religions differ?

Jews have a similar understanding to martyrdom as Christians do. To Jews, it's a form of Kiddush Hashem or "sanctification of God's name". One of the most well known examples of Jewish martyrdom is found in the books of first and second Maccabees, which is found only in Catholic and Orthodox Bibles. In it, Jews were killed for traditional practices such as not eating pork or circumcising their young males.

Martyrdom took a place of even greater importance within Christianity. Martyrdom was so common in the early days of the Church that Tertullian famously noted that "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church". The first individual martyr is said to be St. Stephen who was killed on the orders of St. Paul. Over the centuries there have been hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of martyrs in Christianity.

It is important to note the definition of a martyr. In the Christian tradition it is very restricted. A martyr is one who is killed for his Christian belief after he refused to renounce it, even upon threat of death. Therefore, it automatically excludes:

- those killed during conquest or battle
- those who are killed while performing an evil action
- those who are trying to escape or conceal their identity
- those who renounce their faith
- those who kill others and are then killed
- those who commit suicide
- those killed by accident

There are probably more, but that's all I can think of right now.

In Islam, the meaning of martyrdom (or shahid) has a much broader definition, although not all Muslims agree on it. Muslims can do the following and still be considered martyrs:

- be killed in battle
- be killed in the process of killing others (i.e. infidels)
- be in an accident, such as fire or drowning
- die by disease
- die during childbirth
- die defending property
- die while in a building that collapses
- dies after being attacked by a beast
- dies while being a stranger in a new land

Obviously, the range of possibility for martyrdom in Islam is much greater than it is in Christianity.

Let's take some time today to remember the sacrifice of these great Christian people over the centuries and which continues to this day.

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