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Qualities of a Martyr

My previous post reflected on the evolution of Islamic martyrs. Despite the powerful reinterpretations of martyrdom in Islamism today, I wonder if it is possible to identify any changeless qualities of a martyr.

Todorov infamously argues that ‘heroes’ (martyrs) have certain human qualities that are more highly prized than others. First, loyalty to an ideal and the willingness to sacrifice one’s life (not for other human being but for ideas); second, a code of honour that a hero never betrays their belief, whether demonstrated through restraint or silence, or the ability to withstand physical suffering; and finally, a level of courage to risk life in order to attain their goal, “whatever the cost”. Theories of sacrifice, as complex and contested as they are, are interwoven with representations of loss and courage in the face of death. Though differing in their display of sacrifice, other qualities of patience, fortitude, and steadfastness are components of a martyrs’ virtue, both in classical and postclassical terms. Not all martyrs display physical courage, but steadfastness is deemed essential – whether or not the commission of an act, resulting in martyrdom, is considered ‘good’ or ‘bad’ by outside observers. The quality of sabr (forbearance) underscores that the struggle of a martyr is always against those who oppose them and it is their duty, according to the Qur’an, to “pardon and forgive them until God gives His command” (2: 109). For both traditional, classical martyrs and contemporary, global martyrs, there remains the belief that “nothing can trump death when it comes to a question of sacrifice” (Gupta 2005, 227). In the end, martyrdom is revered and desired by many devout, and not necessarily extremist, Muslims. Although the station of the martyr has never be elevated to the station of a god – the Qur’an explicitly forbids praying to anyone other than God (10:105-6) – the veneration of them is deeply bound up with perceptions of true believers, steadfast followers, and examples of pure and selfless devotees.

As suicide bombings continue, inclinations to respond to the acts as appalling and unjustifiable must be moved towards an effort to understand and recognize the vision, suffering, and motivation behind the acts. By understanding, not justifying, these acts there is hope for a political solution. In order to understand these issues, I appeal for a more internationalized voice in sociology. Much of the Western discourse and study on Islam, martyrdom ideology, and religious motive are at odds with many Eastern epistemologies on these issues. Therefore, in an attempt to understand these social processes, social scientists need to draw on new lenses to view all social, religious, political, and economic processes. Indeed, martyrdom is neither pathological nor delusional. It is a reflexive state that aims to create order by making sense of a disordered context. Attempts to understand the shaping of ideological contours of the martyr must, therefore, be undertaken within whatever socio-political and religio-political milieu prevailing at the time.

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