The power of martyrdom

The killing of the Hamas spiritual leader gives militant Islam another potent image. But violent dea

Five times a day, the men and boys kneel and touch their foreheads to the floor of the makeshift mosque in west London. The congregation numbers a dozen or so, but Friday prayers attract so many that the faithful spill out of the house to fill the garage. As the men rock back and forth, a tinny speaker amplifies the imam's prayers inside: "May Allah elect me to the ranks of the prophets and the martyrs, whom He will favour with rewards." The rite, repeated by men and women from west London to the West Bank, reminds Muslims that martyrdom is blessed, a sacred sacrifice that can fuel and regenerate the moral life of both the individual and the community.

Martyrdom is the believer's uncompromising response to the compromised secular world of oppressive authorities, mercenary politicians and blasphemous practices. Where others bend to the unbelievers' influence, the martyr defends the faith against all attacks - even at the cost of his life. And the lives of others.

Martyrdom comes from the Greek word for "bearing witness". In Islam, shahada has its roots in the Koran, which, according to the Brighton-based imam Abdul Jalil Sajid, "singles out for special tribute those who die in the defence of their faith". Islam honours its martyrs. Imam Hussein, revered by Shias as the rightful heir to the Prophet Muhammad, was killed in 680 during the Battle of Karbala, where he and 72 members of his family tried to defend themselves against 1,000 attackers. A golden shrine has been erected in the Iraqi city in his memory, and it has become a site of pilgrimage for Muslims the world over.

In Iran, every 25 September, believers visit the tombs of those who died for their faith during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), the "Sacred Defence" war waged to protect the Iranians' devout Islamic faith from the secular forces of Saddam Hussein. Visitors spray the tombs with perfume and sweep them clean.

Martyrs to the Palestinian cause are remembered in posters, stickers and cards held aloft by mourners. Swathed in keffiyehs, they adorn Arab homes in the West Bank. And they are swapped among schoolchildren in the same way British children swap football stickers.

Now Sheikh Ahmed Yassin joins the martyrs' ranks. Assassinated by the Israelis in Gaza City last Monday, the spiritual leader of Hamas has already had his status - vic-tim in the holy war - confirmed by Yasser Arafat. The funeral procession of 200,000 mourners was led by militants who used loudspeakers to call out: "What is your aim? To be killed. Who is your leader? Sheikh Yassin. Who is your prophet? Muhammad."

The procession, with its shrieks and incantations, weeping men and veiled women, looked suitably exotic on western television screens. It confirmed the depiction of suicide bombers as the executors of an alien and impenetrable will. We think of martyrdom as an exclusively Muslim concept, the extremist theology of fundamentalist sects. This suggests hypocrisy - or at least ignorance. Martyrdom has long played a role in Christian and Jewish traditions. Consider St Edmund, King of the East Angles from 855AD. He was shot with arrows in a battle that pitched the Christian soldier king and his subjects against heathen Danish invaders. Similarly, there are St Theodore Tyro and St Theodore Stratelates, the martyrs of Melitene, St Ignatius of Antioch and St Gordius of Cappadocia, to name but a few. Although the Christian Church honours legions of martyrs who passively awaited their fate (being torn limb from limb by wild beasts, or having their virginal breasts lopped off by a spurned suitor, or being stoned to death), the Church militant has been a much-cherished image in Christianity since the Middle Ages, when its iconography, as the art historian Frank Dabell points out, "was everywhere to be found: in woodcuts found in churches, and in tabernacles at every street corner".

For Jews, Masada has been a pilgrimage site since the first Zionists settled in Palestine. This was the fort where, after the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD, a group of Jewish men, women and children resisted 15,000 Roman soldiers before committing mass suicide.

Martyrdom is an integral part of the narrative of all three monotheistic religions. The martyr regards torture, interrogation or a spell in prison as merely a temporary, insignificant setback before the overwhelming and eternal happiness that awaits the defender of the faith. This distinction between temporal existence and eternity is articulated in Muslim (especially Shia) and Christian writings and reiterated in contemporary sermons. Whether it is Jesus saying "Blessed are they who are persecuted for righteousness's sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven", or the Koran describing the wondrous garden (Jannah) that is paradise, followers of both Christ and Muhammad are reminded that the consolation of faith lies in the recognition that this disappointing existence is the preface to a glorious one. The message, deriding the status quo and despising earthly power, is inevitably subversive. And it becomes positively explosive when delivered in the context of an oppressed and degraded people.

So it was in the 12th and 13th centuries, when the recruiting grounds for those mass-martyrdom operations, the Christian crusades, were among the poor and defenceless serfs, including their children. They knew, as they marched off to the Promised Land to kill and be killed by the Muslim infidels there, that they would leave behind a life of little value and little hope; equally, as Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza sew secret pockets for hand grenades into their vests in order to dupe the Israelis at the checkpoints, they believe that martyrdom offers a tantalising promise of life beyond a world of refugee camps, scarce drinking water, no electricity and perpetual curfew.

The dramatic contrast between the here and now and the hereafter offers plenty of scope for unscrupulous interpretation by leaders with a political agenda. Imam Abdul Jalil Sajid says: "Young people are being told by their political leaders, 'You live hopelessly in this world, so you must hurry to enter the next, where all kinds of wonderful prizes will come your way, and every wish will be fulfilled.'" Although the imam emphasises that Muslim teaching does not sanction murder, and "to kill someone else . . . is not martyrdom", he acknowledges that the distinction between martyr and terrorist has become blurred.

Ziauddin Sardar, author of several studies of Islam, agrees: "The religious notion of martyrdom is connected to the jihad, or struggle against oppression. Nowadays, when the jihad is the name given to the political struggle of the Palestinians, martyrdom is no longer only a religious concept but a political one as well." Thus the martyrs of the jihad, ever since the first suicide bombers attacked the US base in Lebanon in 1983, straddle the worlds of Allah and Arafat. "They accuse us of being terrorists," said Sheikh Ibrahim Mudeiris in his Friday sermon at the Sheikh 'Ijlin Mosque in Gaza, broadcast by Palestinian Authority Television. "Terrorists, because when the Palestinian mother welcomes her martyred son, she wishes to receive him as a corpse. She does not want him to be alive."

Within hours of the assassination of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, Yasser Arafat hailed the killing as "a unifying death". He was echoing the Christian tradition of canonisation - elevating ordinary humans to the status of saint or martyr - which has gained new impetus under Pope John Paul II, who has canonised more saints during his reign than all the previous popes together. What the leaders of the Catholic Church and the PLO are determined to tap into is the emotional energy that drives the ordinary to become extraordinary. Show a people that any one among them may be selected for a special challenge, and awarded a special status, and they will be galvanised into heroism. And united in the recognition that their collective has glorious potential.

In her book on fundamentalism, The Battle for God, Karen Armstrong suggests that in premodern times, people "evolved two ways of thinking, speaking and acquiring knowledge, which scholars have called mythos and logos. Both were essential; they were regarded as complementary ways of arriving at the truth." Instead of maintaining the twin tracks to knowledge, she argues, modern ideologues have synthesised mythos and logos, turning into marching orders ideas that premoderns had understood to belong, at least in part, to the realm of myth. Thus, in the renewed cult of martyrdom among Muslims, the political leaders assimilate a complex web of theological imperatives (defend your faith, shun the unbelievers' ways, protect your family) into a single, aggressive command: kill the infidel!

The cult of martyrdom may have faded in intensity among Christians and Jews since the Reformation, when Foxe's Book of Martyrs could be found in every literate home. Yet today, fundamentalist ideologues proliferate in Christianity and Judaism almost as much as in Islam.

Determined to preserve their beliefs and way of life, convinced of the justice of their battle against the infidels, these men and women often manipulate the disaffected to bring about their objectives - whether these be the end of abortion or the spread of the Israeli settlements. Given western traditions, we should not be shocked if the means to these ends are violent, and martyrs are made each day.

This article first appeared in the 29 March 2004 issue of the New Statesman, The power of martyrdom