By Jim Cain, 09/17/2001

The word "martyr" comes originally from the ancient Greek legal term for "witness", for someone who gives testimony or evidence in a court of law. In the face of Roman persecutions of early Christians in the first three centuries of the Common Era, when Christian believers were put on trial for refusing to participate in state religious activities which were regarded as a civic duty incumbent upon all Roman citizens, the word took on an entirely new meaning. Witnessing to one's faith, giving testimony to one's most deeply held personal convictions in court under threat of torture and even death, became for these people the strongest calling that Christians could respond to and a way for them to directly imitate Jesus's suffering and death on the cross. Consequently, the martyrs who died giving public proclamations of their faith like this were immediately recognized as belonging to the very highest order of Christian saints in heaven and were venerated by their fellow Christians for the special relationship they had with God. In the word "martyr" itself, therefore, there is a tension between two different meanings, between the political and legal sense of the word on the one hand (Christian martyrs were convicted criminals in the sight of the law) and the personal and religious sense on the other (Christian martyrs were heroic champions of their faith, who endured the severest penalties to defend the truth of what they believed). These contradictions in the meaning of the word, in fact, reflect the actual situation of early martyrs, who were torn between two conflicting impulses, between their public obligations to their country and fellow citizens and their private obligations to themselves to ensure their own salvation in the service of God. In the end, their commitment to what they regarded as the higher law, their private responsibility to God and to themselves, won out over their public obligations to the Roman state. "Martyr" implies a division, then, between two different perceived orders, the secular order of human beings and the divine order of God, and when the two are understood to be in opposition to each other, demands are made on individuals to declare which side they are on. Martyrs invariably chose the private over the public, the sacred over the secular, and their suffering was considered an act of personal defiance.

After Christianity was adopted as the state religion of the Roman Empire, the word "martyr" took on another shift in meaning. The policy of active persecution had officially ended, and though missionaries who travelled to other countries to convert people to their faith sometimes suffered death in the process, the main threat to Christians was largely over. Yet, the glory and distinction of becoming a martyr remained a strong attraction for devoted believers. As Rome declined and Christian countries began to emerge throughout Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia, they soon became involved in international conflicts with other non-Christian communities, and whenever wars developed between nations with different religious beliefs, the opportunity arose to produce a whole new generation of martyrs. But this time, martyrdom was conceived differently. It was no longer the passive suffering of a persecuted victim at the hands of an oppressive government; instead, it was now considered to be an active combat against unbelievers, often waged with national support, and those who gave their lives in defense of God and country or with the intention of converting others by the sword received for themselves the crowning distinction of martyrdom. When Muhammed's followers began spreading the message of Islam at the beginning of the seventh century, they also - like the Christians before them - faced persecutions for their beliefs, and the Arabic word for martyr, "Shahid," has the same connotation of "witness" as in the Greek. But by the time of the Crusades, which began at the end of the eleventh century, both Christians and Muslims had moved from thinking of martyrdom as a private and passive experience to be bravely endured in isolation to considering it a collective and public undertaking to be actively fought in putting one's life at stake. The different sets of implications for the word "martyr" - with all its inconsistencies, its various tensions and internal contradictions - are thus available in both Christian and Islamic traditions.

Jim is an Assistant Professor of Literature at MIT and teaches in Comparative Media Studies.

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