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The Meaning of Martyrdom for Christians and Muslims


The meaning of martyrdom is radically different for Christians and Muslims. This difference is based on how, according to their religious beliefs, they look upon each other.


The word "martyr," in both the Christian and Islamic traditions, means "witness." In this regard, "martyr" refers to a witness for the faith. The Greek word (martus) signifies a witness who testifies to a fact of which he has knowledge from personal observation.

In early Christianity, the apostles were "witnesses" of what they observed in the life of Christ, as well as of what they had learned from His teaching. Yet, these disciples of Christ were not ordinary witnesses such as those who gave testimony in a court of justice. As Christian witnesses, they were exposed to grave dangers, including suffering the ultimate penalty for their convictions. They were often asked to deny what they had witnessed or face execution. From this stage, "martyr" came to refer to a person who would willingly if not gladly be put to death rather than deny the faith he had come to accept with such firm conviction.

Eventually, the term "martyr" was applied exclusively to those who died for their faith. Martyrdom, nonetheless, was always clearly distinguished from suicide or anything suggestive of suicide. According to St. Gregory of Nazianzus, it is mere rashness to seek death, but it is cowardly to refuse it. In the modern age, G.K. Chesterton has remarked that the Christian "must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine."

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that " [m]artyrdom is the supreme witness given to the truth of the faith: it means bearing witness even unto death" (no. 2473).

Islam also distinguishes martyrdom from suicide. Its tradition clearly and forcefully condemns suicide. Accordingly, the Koran says: "Do not kill yourselves, Allah is merciful to you, but he that does that through wickedness and injustice shall be burnt in fire." Similarly, the prophet Abu Huraira states: "The one who throws himself from a mountain and kills himself will be eternally in hell."

At the same time, according to Islamic tradition, anyone who kills himself for the sake of Allah is doing something not suicidal but sacrificial, and therefore is considered a martyr. Here Islam and Christianity part company. In an article in Nida'ul Islam magazine (Dec./Jan. 1996-97) entitled, "The Islamic Legitimacy of the 'Martyrdom Operations,'" Br. Abu Ruqaiyah makes the following comment: "Therefore, the one who blows up the enemies of Allah by blowing up himself as well cannot be considered a suicide, and he is, Allah willing, a martyr." The author cites a number of Islamic authorities, including the Koran, and comes to a conclusion that is not only non-Christian in its essence, but one that should be shocking to Christians:

Through the above evidence from the [Koran] and the Sunnah, it is clearly demonstrated that the "Islamic-bombing-assault' or the 'martyrdom operation' is Islamically legitimate as far as it is within the framework of Islam.

The concept of martyrdom (shahada) in Islam is to be understood in light of the Islamic concept of the Holy Struggle (jihad). The latter concept, in turn, is to be understood only if right and wrong (al-amr bi'l-maruf) are properly understood. The concept of martyrdom in Islam, therefore, is linked with the entire breadth of its religious teaching. But the crucial point here is that Islam does provide a justification for a martyr (shahid) to taking his life in a violent manner that claims the lives of others in the same process (see A. Ezzati, "The Concept of Martyrdom in Islam," Tehran University, Al-Serat, Vol. XII, 1986).

The Koran reads: "And the Lord said to the angels: 'I am with you; go and strengthen the faithful. I shall fill the hearts of infidels with terror. So smite them on their necks and every joint, (and incapacitate them)" (Sura 8, 10). "Prepare against them whatever arms and cavalry you can muster, that you may strike terror in the hearts of the enemies of God and your own . . . " (Sura 8, 60).

The repeated use of the word "terror" is most unsettling. The Koran shows little patience with or sympathy for the "infidels." The concept of neighbor, so central to Christian thinking, seems absent in the Koran. "Say to the desert Arabs who had stayed behind: 'You will be called against a formidable people. You will fight them till they surrender'" (Sura 48,16). Elsewhere, we read: "Muhammad is the prophet of God; and those who are with him are severe with infidels but compassionate among themselves" (Sura 48, 29).

For the Christian, ethnic labels tend to conceal the more basic and important reality of neighbor. Christianity is a religion that commands all its subjects to love their neighbor, whatever secondary labels may also identify him. The Samaritan in Luke 10:33 is "good" precisely because he comes to the aid of his neighbor, disregarding whatever political correctness happens to be in vogue whereby the notions of "priest" or "Levite" or anything else might take precedence over neighbor. The message of Christianity is universal and goes to the "four corners of the world." The word "Catholic" means "universal." All people are children of God and neighbors to each other. The message of the Koran is more regional, ethnic, and political. It divides the human population into the "faithful" and the "infidels." It establishes a dichotomy that is troublesome insofar as it invites intolerance.

The question naturally arises, then, if Christians think of Muslims as their neighbors, how do Muslims think of Christians? Islamic scholar Al-Hashimi, who states that he is writing in a spirit of peace and affection toward Christians, nonetheless finds them guilty of infidelity (kufr), error (dalal), wickedness (shaqawa), and calamity (bala) merely because they persist in identifying God in the triune fashion of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and venerate the Cross. He expresses his amazement that Christians can believe in something "so vile (khasasa) as to affirm the divinity of Christ." Al-Hashimi also claims that Christian Scriptures have undergone alteration and corruption (tahrif). By this accusation of tahrif, he and many other Muslims have discredited any attempt by Christians to appeal to the New Testament as proof for the Incarnation and the divinity of Christ. For Muslims, the Koran is a more reliable source about the truth of Jesus' identity than the New Testament (see R.L. Fastiggi, The Thomist, "The Incarnation: Muslim Objections and the Christian Response," July 1993).

The meaning of martyrdom is radically different for Christians and Muslims. This difference is based on how, according to their religious beliefs, they look upon each other. The Christian sees the Muslim, as well as anyone else, as his neighbor whom he is commanded to love. The Muslim quite easily, and consistent with the Koran, sees his fellow Christian as an infidel. In this purview, it is at least theoretically possible, given the Islamic tradition, for a Muslim to involve himself in a "martyrdom operation" in which he, together with Christians and other "infidels," are killed (in the name of Allah, to be sure). This is certainly an important concern and can be a serious obstacle in the path of peaceful relations between Muslims and Christians. Inter-religious dialogue is most desirable, but its basis must be in truth and not mere wishful thinking.

Christians do not seek martyrdom. They seek love, friendship, peace, and the God who has instituted these values and has commanded their adoption. They also hope that their Muslim neighbors will reciprocate in kind. They do not desire martyrdom either for themselves or for their Muslim neighbors. But they will accept martyrdom rather than renounce their faith. In this way, the Christian is a witness, as the word "martyr" suggests. But he is primarily a witness to love, and, like His Holiness John Paul II, a witness to hope.



Donald DeMarco. "Of Neighbors and Infidels The Meaning of Martyrdom for Christians and Muslims." Lay Witness (July/August 2002).

Lay Witness is the flagship publication of Catholics United for the Faith. Featuring articles written by leaders in the Catholic Church, each issue of Lay Witness keeps you informed on current events in the Church, the Holy Father's intentions for the month, and provides formation through biblical and catechetical articles with real-life applications for everyday Catholics.

The Author

Heart-of-VirtueMany Faces of VirtueDonald DeMarco Donald DeMarco, Ph.D., is a Senior Fellow of Human Life International. He is professor emeritus at St. Jerome's University in Waterloo, Ontario, an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College in Cromwell, Connecticut, and a regular columnist for St. Austin Review. His latest works, How to Remain Sane in a World That is Going MadPoetry That Enters the Mind and Warms the Heart, and How to Flourish in a Fallen World are available through Some of his recent writings may be found at Human Life International’s Truth and Charity Forum. He is the 2015 Catholic Civil Rights League recipient of the prestigious Exner Award.

Copyright © 2002 LayWitness
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