What is a martyr?


This article was originally published on September 11, 2015.

I have often been struck with disgust whenever I hear Muslims refer, or are reported as referring, to suicide bombers or jihadis who commit suicide attacks as a “martyr.” My understanding of the origin of the word martyr is that it means someone who endures great suffering for their faith, or in particular, chooses death over the renunciation of one’s faith or religious principles. Although not the first, the Apostle Peter is the archetypal Christian martyr, crucified upside down at his own request, because he felt himself unworthy to receive the same form of execution as his saviour.

The Arabic word for martyr is “Shahid,” which like the ancient Greek word “marturos,” means “witness.” Although I think they both share then, the same initial meaning, it became in Islam the honorific for those who die in the cause of Jihad, and the military expansion of Islam. And certainly in the modern context, this is exactly how we understand the word martyr when referring to Islamic suicide bombers, and it is exactly this context in which they mean it. When an ISIS operative goes on a ‘martyrdom operation’ they are doing so in order to kill as many of the enemy as possible, in furtherance of their cause, with the promise of 72 virgins to take care of them in paradise.

imageWhich brings us to 9/11.

When the 19 hijackers rammed their aeroplanes into the World Trade Centre, the Pentagon, and an open field in Pennsylvania, they intended to kill as many people as they could, in the hope that their actions would bring about a worldwide caliphate, and that they would be rewarded with 72 virgins in paradise.

But when the passengers on United Airlines Flight 93 realised what was happening through communication with their loved ones by mobile telephone, and decided that they would have to battle the hijackers, with the very real possibility that they would all be killed, they did it for one reason, and one reason only: They were prepared to sacrifice their lives in order to save the lives of others.

I am an atheist, but I still find a line or two from the Bible quite stirring, including this one from John 15:13:

“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

The passengers on Flight 93 were martyrs. The hijackers were not.

  • Pi-man

    The topic of ‘suicide bombers’ and ‘suicide attackers’ is deadly serious, and no laughing matter.

    Merciless Mohamed (*) Atta and his murderous crew, the ineptitude of the CIA and FBI fighting a ‘turf war’, and the terrifying, horrific deaths of so many innocent people, and so many others scarred and traumatized.

    * Where have I heard that name before?

    But, as is their wont, people make jokes about these things, perhaps to help process the shock of such appalling events, or to imagine some sort of revenge.

    It’s crazy having 72 wives – if you want to give one wife a goat, you need to give the other 71 wives a goat!

    They expect to arrive in Paradise and see 72 virgins – and what they find are 72 ‘nuns’ with machine guns.

    And on the subject of Paradise.

    What is the Muslim definition of Paradise?

    Everything that the Arabian Peninsula is not.

  • Steve B

    I really do hope that suicide bombers get their 72 virgins, albeit in the form of poultry and livestock and one really horny male gorilla…

  • Trog

    There is nothing more dangerous than an idea people are prepared to die for. To every person with a barest modicum of intellect their beliefs are ignorantly absurd and yet, sadly, they are so fearfully held they will die for them.

    I understand the Koran to this day, is rote learnt in the madrasses in original Arabic by students unable to speak a word? This blind and dumb submission to doctrine is reminiscent of the training given to acolytes by the “old man of the mountain” and his Assassins sect in the middle ages. Hashish and sex were training rewards back then.

    The dichotomy between a western society sadly degenerating under the onslaught of the socialist left in trashing tradition and morality at every turn and the pervasive Islamic success in indoctrinating its youth in mediaeval brutality and beliefs that were regressive in the 8th century is astounding. I wish we had an answer but at least we are talking about it now and the horrific effect it has, and will continue to have, on our “civilised” West.

    Halt any further Islamic immigration until we can guarantee our own safety. No more rhetoric, slogans, excuses or apologises. We’ve had a gutfull of them!

    • Karen Dwyer

      An idea that people are prepared to die for: that Jesus is the son of God and that believing this is the difference between life and death.

      As I’ve mentioned before, 20 Egyptian Copts knew this fine well and were prepared to die on a distant beach in Libya at the hands of their ISIS (Daesh) captors rather than renounce their first love. A man from Chad, who was not at that time a Christian, was also given the chance to convert to Islam or die. Seeing the manner of his companions’ deaths, he basically said “I’ll have what they’re having”. He chose Jesus and with his fellows is remembered as a fellow-martyr.

      See Hebrews 11 (indeed Hebrews, chapters 10 to 12) to see why someone would choose to die rather than renounce Christ. Hebrews 11:36 describes those who chose to die, not because they were masochists or suicidal, but because ” the world was not worthy of them.”

      Personally, I’m not falling over myself to suffer. But if I, or my family members, are going to suffer for putting my (our) trust in Jesus then I am prepared to suffer up to and including death.

      It’s so well known that it can be a cliche (phone won’t let me accent the ‘e’, Grammar Nazi if you’re out there):
      “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose”

      • Trog

        Point well made and taken Karen. Perhaps I should have said “hateful” idea or used “powerful” instead of dangerous.

        I do wonder though if my wording wasn’t at least favourably looked upon by the various polytheistic and monotheistic religions in the supremacy at the dawn of Christianity.

        Your blogs are always greatly appreciated and a “good read”.

        I loved the way David (admitted atheist) found comfort as he said in the wisdom of the text.

        I too find it inspirational. For me there is a Book of Love and a Book of Hate. No guesses to which I refer and prefer.

        The Victor Hugo quote “nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come”, is a little scary as its tailor made for the Imams preaching the Caliphate!

        Cheers Trog

        • Karen Dwyer

          I think “dangerous” was a good word to use. It made me think of the fact that Jesus was a dangerous man. He upset the legalistic religious leaders. He changed (& changes) people’s lives beyond recognition.

          I knew what you meant, and I would agree with where you were leading: an ideology that blinds people to sense, love, and compassion is dangerous.

          I appreciate how you let me “riff” off you thoughts and word choice. It’s very gracious of you to take my ramblings at face value and encourage me. 🙂

  • Karen Dwyer

    There is indeed a distinct difference between Jihadist “martyrs” and biblical, or Christian martyrs.

    See http://www.cffreedom.org/News.htm to see the plight of Christian martyrs who pray (good things/blessings) for the very ones who intend and cause painful suffering (kidnap, arson, murder, imprisonment, rape, torture, etc).

    see also religious liberty prayer bulletin:

    Also, for a sample of a Christian who has a very deep understanding of Islam combined with a very deep love for Muslims, see:

    This is at such odds with the callous and vicious treatment from individuals who aim for a bestial (wham, bam, not even a thank you) orgy for eternity.

  • skuld

    9/11 was a false flag event. There have been many since, like Sandy Hook.
    It doesn’t take much research to conclude 9/11 was an inside job.
    Jet fuel does not melt steel beams. It was a controlled demolition of the twin towers,using micro thermite charges.
    As for the hijackers , those dirty little goat loving Muslims involved were simply mass murderers. May they burn in Hell for all eternity.

  • Carlos A Santiago

    The objective of Islam and the continuation of the earthly pleasures sought by men through the offer of 72 female servants has no conclusive desire for dedication to God. Therefore, Islam is hopeless.

    As far as 9/11 being an Inside job? I doubt that such detailed meticulously orchestrated setup of explosive charges in tune with plane crashes is a possible conceivable act.

    Load bearing, explosion, high temperature and stress factors brought down the towers.