April 05, 2007

Martyrdom in Islam

David Cook, Assistant Professor in Religious Studies at Rice University, has just produced an interesting survey of beliefs about martyrdom within Islam down the centuries. Beggining with the Qu'ran and taking in everything up and including the second intifada and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Cook attempts to provide a survey of all Islamic martyrdom literature. His geographical range is no less impressive, looking at martyrdom in Islam from Nigeria and Morrocco to Uzbekistan and Indonesia. The essential features of the way that martyrdom has been described within Islamic texts are interesting- no less interesting is the way that he argues the radical Islamic account of present martyrdoms has reduced the meaning of martyrdom in Islam from what classical authors beleived it included.

Cook's survey is organised both chronologically and thematically. Perhaps to a non-specialist the most interesting sections concern the Qu'ranic understanding of martyrdom. Cook points out that the Prophet's life, taken as a template for all other Muslims to live by, did not end in martyrdom and consequently that as a contrast to Christianity for instance martyrdom lies at the periphery of the Islamic faith and not its centre. Bearing that in mind, he points out that there are only three verses in the Qu'ran that unambiguously refer to martyrdom, including a very contentious and highly ambiguous passage about the companions of the Pit (this is made a difficult judgement because the word for martyr- Shahid- is the same as the word for witness- there are quite a few times in the Qu'ran when the word is definitely used to mean witness and others, for instance a list of those that are to be save which includes Shahid where either meaning is possible). Early Muslims understood martyrdom but turned often from the Qu'ran to Arab folk literature and to Christian and Jewish accounts of martyrdom to supplement their own rather meagre martyrologies.

One of the interesting features that Cook brings out is that for many classical Muslims martyrdom could mean just about anything. It included those who were slain on the field of battle- many of the early martyrs and the later Sufi martyrs were warriors killed in terrible feats of arms. It also included other categories of people, and some classical guides to what made a martyr argued that it included every Muslim that died! Particularly significant within the literature are the so-called martyrs to love. Cook brings out a series of stories from within the classical decades of Islam which refer to those who died because of overwhelming heterosexual or indeed homosexual love for another human being. Often these martyrs were unable for social reasons to consumate their passion, some even told their beloved that their union was too spiritually exalted for the profanity of physical passion to become involved, but many of them then became martyrs and were described as such by the classical literature.

Cook is also intent on recovering the differences within the genres of martyrdom between the different strands of Islam. Martyrs for love he argues were related in their type to the martyrs of the Sufi strand of Islam- who would die often in extasy at their mystical union with God. Focusing on the different strands of Islam enables Cook to bring out another feature of Islamic martyrdom. Unlike the Christian tradition which focuses on missionaries or martyrs killed by mostly pagan governments, Islam thanks to its swift military success, has little of that kind of martyr. Rather martyrs are often individuals slain by the government of the day- martyrdom therefore becomes part of an identity which often divides Muslims as much as unites them. In a Christian context, one might think of many Muslim martyrs as being the equivalent of the Catholic or Protestant martyrs murdered in the 16th Century and remembered in order to contradict the other faiths. Supreme amongst these sectarian martyrs is probably Al-Husayn, the son of Ali, who was martyred and became a hero of Shia Islam to this day. But there are other more obscure examples- from as far afield as Indonesia where Siti Jenar was martyred having refused to follow the Sharia because he followed a mystical sense of God instead.

That brings us on to another facet of Islamic martyrdom which is the way that the martyrs created the Islamic communities- often providing a fusion of Islamic belief and local polytheistic ideas and sanctifying that intoxicating mixture with their blood. In India its interesting to find the martyr Kabir who argued that Islam and Hinduism had more in common than either of their adherents would think. The local ruler was encouraged both by the Islamic Ulema (who hated Kabir because he had disdained the Sharia) and the Hindu priests (who hated him for meeting untouchables) to kill Kabir: consequently after many adventures and his death he became a martyr to both faiths! Martyrs might serve as bridges from one faith to another- but they also like many of the martyrs in West Africa served as inspiration for other Muslims in order to convert peoples of other faiths.

Cook also provides us with a template for looking at Islamic martyrs- they are described in conventional terms often using the same kinds of language. Martyrs are frequently described as smelling sweet, often with the scent of musk. They often spill their blood onto rocks symbolising the end of the body- the body itself is described as holy and parts of the body can acquire the sanctity of the sacrifice- a particularly good example being the head of Al-Husayn. Furthermore their deaths can expiate other sins. One of the most frequent ideas is that sexual rewards will follow martyrdom- with houris that smell of musk (as well) waiting for the martyr to arrive in heaven to satisfy his every need. These common features show a common tradition in formation.

He argues that the radical Islamic approach to martyrdom has been to eliminate all discussion of all other martyrdoms save for those in battle and to interpret those as suicidal martyrdoms. Classic Islamic law prohibited suicide and there was a key division between the actions of a martyr and the actions of a suicide. Despite that radical Islamic approaches to martyrdom have attempted to reinterpret the classic texts to support their interpretation. It is interesting to see as well that a movement which traditionally is hostile both to tradition and to the hadith, faces problems in discussing martyrdom. There is so little Qu'ranic reference to martyrdom itself that the intellectual gymnastics required to reconcile martyrdom and a minimalistic reliance on the Qu'ran alone generate problems for the radical Islamic scholars.

Despite that the flaw of Cook's book is also its great strength- much of it feels like he skims the surface of particular traditions- I would like personally to have seen discussions of the ways that say African or Indian martyrdoms influenced and were influenced by the surrounding culture. One gets the impression often that he has little space and not enough time to develop the points he wants to make- more could be done in all the areas surveyed in this book. What say is the relationship between the martyrs for love and the knights of medieval romance? That is but one of the many obvious questions floating around- and sometimes one entertains a suspicion that there must be more evidence out there about martyrdom in all these various and very literate cultures. There is also the difficulty about whether Islam is an appropriate unit of study- especially in India I was left wondering whether Indian martyrs might be a more appropriate field than Islamic martyrs- there must be elements of Hindu tradition in India that he doesn't see because of his focus on Islam.

Despite that, Cook's book is an interesting introduction to a fascinating subject. Its well written, its short and provides a wealth of fascinating detail. My own thinking is that it provides a good starting point- there is a focus on Islam as an entity that I am unhappy with- but in general this is a good book to read, to attempt to get into especially Qu'ranic understandings of the word, martyr.


james higham said...

...as a contrast to Christianity for instance martyrdom lies at the periphery of the Islamic faith and not its centre. Bearing that in mind, he points out that there are only three verses in the Qu'ran that unambiguously refer to martyrdom...

Quite right, which then makes one look more closely at the suicide bombings et al. It's quite clear that something non'Quranic is operating in societies embracing Islam to keep generating this behaviour.