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Martyrdom and Religion in North America  

Adrian Chastain Weimer

In American history, venerating a death as martyrdom has been a way of claiming its significance within a narrative of ultimate victory. The words for martyr in both Greek and Arabic literally mean “witness”: martyrs’ willingness to die is a form of witness to the truth of a tradition. Figures claimed as martyrs in American history from the Mormon leader Joseph Smith to Baptist civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. have often prophesied their own deaths, embracing the hope that their sacrifice will inspire zeal in others. Religious communities in North America have commemorated martyrs through stories, paintings, shrines, maps, monuments, poetry, liturgy, and theological reflections. The category of martyrdom tends to become more diffuse over time. Moving beyond a strict definition of death for the faith, Americans have used the language of martyrdom to find spiritual significance in a range of physical and interior sufferings. For example, both French Canadian nuns and New England puritans claimed their daily colonial sufferings as a form of martyrdom. Narratives of martyrdom have also played an important role in political movements such as the anti-lynching crusade of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Martyr language can even push the boundaries of what constitutes religion itself. In the 20th century, the suffering of American jazz musicians, denied civil rights, has been described as martyrdom. Following the September 11, 2001, attacks by radical jihadists seeking martyrdom, the term has often been associated with terrorism. Debates about justifications for violence in the Qur’an and the true meaning of jihad have taken place among politicians, religious leaders, and academic scholars. This intense focus on Islamic theology of martyrdom has led both to widespread suspicion of Muslims (and those of South Asian and Middle Eastern descent generally) as well as to new ecumenical commitments to a shared ethic of loving God and neighbor.

Article

Jihad and Martyrdom in Islamic Thought and History  

Asma Afsaruddin

In both popular and scholarly literature, jihad is primarily assumed to be a monovalent concept referring to “military/armed combat,” and martyrdom (shahada) is inevitably understood to be of the military kind. This assumption facilitates the discussion of jihad and martyrdom as terms with fixed, universal meanings divorced from the varying sociopolitical contexts in which they have been deployed through time. Such a monovalent understanding of these two concepts emerges primarily through consultation of the juridical literature and official histories that were produced after the 2nd century ce (8th century ah) and that are unduly privileged in academic discussions of this subject. In contradistinction to this approach, a more holistic and historical approach to the term jihad can be undertaken by focusing on the changing significations of jihad from the earliest formative period of Islam to the contemporary period, against the backdrop of specific social and political circumstances which have mediated the meanings of this critical term. This larger objective entails canvassing a more varied genre of texts to recreate a more multifaceted understanding of jihad and martyrdom as dynamic discursive terms through time. Such sources include Qurʾan exegetical works (tafsir), early and late works of hadith which purport to contain the sayings of the prophet Muhammad, the excellences of jihad (fadaʾil al-jihad) and the excellences of patience (fadaʾil al-sabr) literatures, which are often not consulted on this topic. Furthermore, the comparison of early and late sources and texts from these genres allows one to chart both the constancies and changes in the spectrum of meanings and repertoire of activities included under the terms jihad and shahada. This recovery of a broader semantic landscape undermines exclusively martial conceptualizations of both these terms and has important implications for the contemporary period.

Article

Cosmic War  

Mark Juergensmeyer

A “cosmic war” is an imagined battle between metaphysical forces—good and evil, right and wrong, order and chaos—that lies behind many cases of religion-related violence in the contemporary world. These transcendent spiritual images have been implanted onto the social and political scene, magnifying ordinary worldly conflict into sacred encounter. There is nothing specific to Christianity, Islam, or any other religion about this idea of cosmic war. Every religious tradition contains images of grand battles that have a divine valence to them. Hence every religion has some kind of mythic or legendary scenario of warfare that can be transported into contemporary conflict and elevate a social or political confrontation into cosmic war.

Article

The Uganda Martyrs Guild  

Heike Behrend

The Uganda Martyrs Guild (UMG) was founded in 1897, after the killing of a number of young Catholics, Protestants, and Muslims, who had worked as pages at the court of the king of Buganda. The Catholic Church made the Catholic victims the center of a cult of martyrs. They were beatified in 1920 and canonized in 1964. Since its founding, the UMG has served as a point of mediation between Uganda and the transnational network of the Catholic Church. In the early 1990s, the UMG emerged as a witch-finding movement in western Uganda, which continued until the organization changed its procedures and began to refrain from naming witches in 2005. Since that time, members have increasingly shifted their focus instead to the healing and security of UMG members and those willing to join the UMG.

Article

Religious Violence, Martyrdom, and Martin Luther  

David M. Whitford

Violence was first experienced in the church as martyrdom. Under the Roman Empire, Christians were subjected to state-sponsored penalties ranging from fines to corporal punishment to execution. A number of prominent early theologians and apologists fell victim, including Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Origen, Cyprian, Perpetua, and Felicity. With the end of persecution under Constantine and then its eventual designation as the empire’s official religion, Christianity’s relationship to violence changed significantly. While some theologians had attempted to grapple with the question of whether Christians could join the Roman armies, the new relationship between church and state required new theological consideration. Accordingly, new questions arose: For example, could or should the state enforce right belief? Over time, three general approaches to violence emerged. The first is a coercive model. In this model, the state (and then later, the church in places) used its punitive powers to enforce Christian orthodoxy and fight against its enemies, both within its own borders and externally. St. Augustine provided part of the justification for coercion in his “Letter 93: To Valentius,” in which he argued that not all persecution is evil. If persecution is aimed at bringing one to right belief and practice, it has a positive goal. Many heresy trials and later executions were supported by “Letter 93.” Later thinkers expanded the model of internal persecution against heretics to external attacks on those deemed threatening to Christianity from outside the church or outside the empire. The Crusades were largely justified on such bases. The second is a pacifist model. Though perhaps the dominant model in the first two centuries of the church, it was quickly eclipsed by the other two perspectives. Early theologians such as Tertullian and Cyprian argued that because Christ forbade Peter to use the sword in the Garden of Gethsemane, Christians were forbidden from using violence to achieve any ends, “but how will a Christian man war, nay, how will he serve even in peace, without a sword, which the Lord has taken away” (Tertullian, On Idolatry, Chapter 19, “On Military Service.”) In the medieval period, the pacifist model was adopted by some monastic traditions (e.g., the Spiritualist Franciscans), but more commonly by what were then considered heretical movements, including the Cathars, Albigensians, Waldensians, and Czech Brethren. The final model is often called the “Just War” perspective. The origin for this theory can be found in St. Ambrose’s response to a massacre of innocent people. He argued that while a Christian should never use violence for his or her own benefit, there were times when a Christian, out of love for neighbor, had to use violence to protect the weak or innocent. To stand by and watch the powerful attack or kill the innocent when one can do something to prevent it is nearly as great a sin as being one of the attackers. As with the coercive model, Augustine provided much of the framework for this view of violence. Augustine allowed that there were some righteous wars, fought at the command of God as punishment for iniquity. That view remained less influential and is more closely connected to the coercive model. Far more influential was his view that there were wars that were necessary for the protection of the homeland and the innocent. In this sense, he outlined two major principles that guided later thinking. First, a war must have a right (or just) cause (ius ad bellum), and one must fight the war itself justly (ius in bello). Just causes included defending the homeland, coming to the aid of an ally, punishing wicked rulers, or retaking that which was unlawfully stolen. Beyond the simple cause, it also had to be rightly intentioned—it could not be fought for vainglory’s sake, nor to take new lands. It had to have some method of state control, since states go to war, not individual people. When conducting the war, one also had responsibilities. One had to be proportional, have achievable ends, and fight discriminately (that is, between combatants, not combatants against civilian populations). Finally, and most importantly, war had to be a last resort after all other measures failed, and it had to be aimed at producing a benefit for those one sought to defend. In the medieval era, Thomas Aquinas added significant precision to Augustine’s framework. All three models continued into the Reformation era. The advent of formally competing visions of Christianity following Luther’s excommunication by the pope and his ban by the emperor in 1521 at the Diet of Worms added new dimensions to these models. Martin Luther had occasion to comment upon all three.

Article

Religious Foundations of the Last Instructions of 9/11  

Hans G. Kippenberg

An instruction manual consisting of four sheets in Arabic was found with three of the four teams that performed the terror attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001. The writing conceived of the action as a raid (ghazwa), as we know it from early Islamic history. It instructed the teams how to perform the ghazwa correctly. Purifying their intentions by recitals, rituals, and bodily cleaning, they turn their attack into an act of worship. A part called the “second stage” anticipates the issue of assuring divine protection at the airport. Finally “a third stage” urges the teams to act in the plane according the practice of the Prophet and to achieve martyrdom. To understand the manual and its framing of the violence, six dimensions will be analyzed: (1) Arguments for and against the authenticity of the document are discussed. (2) The attack happened in the wake of a declaration of war by the “World Islamic Front for the Jihad against Jews and Crusaders” in 1998, signed by Osama bin Laden and leaders of other jihadist groups. (3) The message spread across the Internet and was accepted by various groups that regarded the situation of Islam as threatened, among them a group of young Muslim men in Hamburg. A network called al-Qaeda emerged. (4) The present world is dominated by the power of ignorance and hubris (jahiliyya). The manual prescribed an attack in terms of the raids (ghazwa) of the Prophet in Medina. (5) The manual presumes a particular communal form of organizing militant Muslims. (6) It celebrated militancy of Muslims and presupposed a fighter’s ethos in the diaspora. An argument is made that the American concept of terrorism as a manifestation of evil and immorality destined to be eradicated militarily by the United States and their allies ignores the secular character of conflict and accelerates the cycle of violence.