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The Islamic Martyrs' Evolution

In the early days of Islam, martyrs died through spiritual performances, demonstrating levels of steadfastness and courage that generations after them could only seek to replicate. As Islam’s influence spread through the East and West, the political and social landscape it was born into changed drastically. Scholars and leaders of this new movement began to survey
 the conditions around them and questioned the influence and standard of their shar’iah (Divine Law) in all lands. In an age of modernity characterized by social, political, economic, and technological changes, concerns for the declining power of their message led some to a new determined position to (re)assert a pure Islam in the world, through any means necessary. Achieving such a quintessential existence needed warriors and workers, servants and martyrs. In order to entice the necessary religious motifs to fulfill this goal, the classical and sacred constructions of martyrdom were reinterpreted, reasserted, and revived. Through the influence and role of a number of charismatic and authoritative leaders and scholars of Islam, this change was achieved. Today, we witness a world struggling with continual manifestations of this very motif – from the attacks of September 11 to the ongoing crisis in Syria. Attempts to understand the motivations of these events have been many but all too often the ideology of the people perpetrating the events have been overlooked.

Martyrdom, in all its complexity and diversity, is a performance and a symbol, in addition to a material act. I refer to martyrdom as a performance because in social and cultural contexts, it is more than a bodily action. Martyrdom as a “site of rupture and implosion” (Calhoun 2004, 327) reflects mood, behaviour and states of mind. For many Muslims, it is sacred and political, personal and noble. Above all, it is an act for the individual and the collective, the believer and the cause of Islam. In Islamic ideology, a martyr is an active and powerful force and, in light of events in recent days, it is a power that is continually manifesting itself. An examination of the origins of this force is timely or, more accurately, it is overdue. This is, of course, a complex task, for no one can know what the martyr whispers at the end (Pitcher 1998). Throughout the Islamic era, martyrdom has been, and will continue to be, intimately connected with spiritual and religious connotations and motives. In the final analysis, how these motivations are manifested in action differ according to the social and political condition of any given time and according to the interpretations of tafsir (Qur’anic explanation) by religious clergy and leaders.

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