AskDefine | Define martyrdom

Dictionary Definition



1 death that is imposed because of the person's adherence of a religious faith or cause
2 any experience that causes intense suffering [syn: calvary]

User Contributed Dictionary





  1. The condition of a martyr; the death of a martyr; the suffering of death on account of adherence to the Christian faith, or to any cause.
  2. Affliction; torment; torture.


Extensive Definition

The term martyr (Greek μάρτυς martys "witness") initially signified a witness in the forensic sense, a person called to bear witness in legal proceedings. With this meaning it was used in the secular sphere as well as in both the Old Testament and the New Testament of the Bible. The process of bearing witness was not intended to lead to the death of the witness, although it is known from ancient writers (e.g. Josephus) that witnesses, especially of the lower classes, were tortured routinely before being interrogated as a means of forcing them to disclose the truth. During the early Christian centuries the term acquired the extended meaning of a believer who is called to witness for his or her religious belief and on account of this witness endures suffering and death. The term in the English language is a loanword and used only with the extended meaning of someone who has been killed for their religious belief. The death of a martyr or the value attributed to it is called martyrdom. In the context of church history, from the time of the persecution of early Christians in the Roman Empire, being a martyr indicates a person who is killed for maintaining his or her religious belief, knowing that this will almost certainly result in imminent death (though without intentionally seeking death). Christian martyrs sometimes declined to defend themselves at all, in what they see as a reflection of Jesus' willing sacrifice. However, the definition of martyrdom is not specifically restricted to the Christian faith.
Usage of "martyr" is also not uncommon among Arab Christians (i.e. anyone killed in relation to Christianity or a Christian community, e.g. Pierre Amine Gemayel), indicating that the English word "martyr" may not actually be a proper equivalent of its commonly ascribed Arabic translation.
Though often religious in nature, martyrdom can be applied to a secular context as well. The term is sometimes applied to those who use violence, such as those who die for a nation's glory during wartime. It may also apply to nonviolent individuals who are killed or hurt in the struggle for independence, civil rights etc (eg. Mahatma Gandhi).
The word "martyr" is also used satirically in casual conversation to refer to someone who seeks attention or sympathy by exaggerating the impact upon himself of some deprivation or work.

In Christianity

In non-Christian religion


Martyrdom in Judaism is referred to by the Hebrew phrase Kiddush Hashem, meaning sanctification of God's name.
1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees recount numerous martyrdoms suffered by Jews resisting the Hellenizing of their Seleucid overlords, being executed for such crimes as observing the Sabbath, circumcising their children or refusing to eat pork or meat sacrificed to idols. First and Second Maccabees arose from the Pharisaic tradition, from which Christianity later diverged. The accounts of martyrs in these books influenced early Christianity's understanding of from the laws of their fathers and of God:
And to defile the temple that was in Jerusalem, and to call it the temple of Jupiter Olympius: and that in Gazarim of Jupiter Hospitalis, according as they were that inhabited the place.
And very bad was this invasion of evils and grievous to all.
For the temple was full of the riot and revellings of the Gentiles: and of men lying with lewd women. And women thrust themselves of their accord into the holy places, and brought in things that were not lawful.
The altar also was filled with unlawful things, which were forbidden by the laws.
And neither were the sabbaths kept, nor the solemn days of the fathers observed, neither did any man plainly profess himself to be a Jew.
But they were led by bitter constraint on the king's birthday to the sacrifices: and when the feast of Bacchus was kept, they were compelled to go about crowned with ivy in honour of Bacchus.
And there went out a decree into the neighbouring cities of the Gentiles, by the suggestion of the Ptolemeans, that they also should act in like manner against the Jews, to oblige them to sacrifice:
And whosoever would not conform themselves to the ways of the Gentiles, should be put to death: then was misery to be seen.
For two women were accused to have circumcised their children: whom, when they had openly led about through the city with the infants hanging at their breasts, they threw down headlong from the walls.
And others that had met together in caves that were near, and were keeping the sabbath day privately, being discovered by Philip, were burnt with fire, because they made a conscience to help themselves with their hands, by reason of the religious observance of the day.
A historical account by Rabbi Ephraim ben Yaakov (1132 - AD. 1200) describes Crusaders' massacres of Jews, including the massacre at Blois, where approximately forty Jews were killed following an accusation of ritual murder:
"As they were led forth, they were told, 'You can save your lives if you will leave your religion and accept ours.' The Jews refused. They were beaten and tortured to make them accept the Christian religion, but still they refused. Rather, they encouraged each other to remain steadfast and die for the sanctification of God's Name."
During the Spanish Inquisition, many of those executed were Jews who refused to convert to Christianity. Specifically, they were cryptic Jews, who had pretended to adopt Christianity in an attempt to avoid persecution.


In Arabic, a martyr is termed "shaheed" (literally, "witness"). The concept of the shaheed is discussed in the Hadith, the sayings of Muhammad; the term does not appear in the Qur'an in the technical sense, but the later exegetical tradition has read it to mean martyr in the few passages that it does appear in. The first martyr in Islam was the old woman Sumayyah bint Khabbab, the first Muslim to die at the hands of the polytheists of Mecca (specifically, Abu Jahl). A famous person widely regarded as a martyr - indeed, an archetypal martyr for the Shia - is Husayn bin Ali, who died at the hands of the forces of the second Umayyad caliph Yazid I at Karbala. The Shia commemorate this event each year at Aashurah.
Muslims who die in a legitimate jihad bis saif (struggle with the sword, or Islamic holy war) are considered shaheed. This usage became controversial due to the Islamic strictures against suicide in the late 20th century when it was sometimes applied to suicide bombers by various groups. There is much controversy about the meaning of jihad in Islam, since Muhammad never claimed that suicide is equal to jihad; Jihad is an act of fighting for the Dar al Islam , either to defend it against an aggressor or to bring about its expansion. Muhammad explained, in hadith (sayings or reports about or by Muhammad), that those who commit suicide are forbidden to even smell heaven . Many contend that suicidal murders are contrary to the spirit of Islam, and are not justifiable because as the Qu'ran forbids such acts. One hadith narrated by Abu Bakr "To fight against the infidels is Jihad; but to fight against your evil self is greater Jihad" is explicit evidence, of the Western worlds misunderstanding of the concept of jihad .

Bahá'í Faith

In the Bahá'í Faith, a martyr is one who sacrifices his or her life in the service of humanity in the name of God. However, Bahá'u'lláh, the founder of the Bahá'í Faith, discouraged the literal meaning of sacrificing one's life, and instead explained that martyrdom is devoting oneself to service to humanity.
During the history of the Bahá'í Faith there are many who are considered martyrs. The Bahá'í Faith grew out of a separate religion, Bábism, which Bahá'ís see as part of their own history. In Bábism, martyrdom had the literal meaning of sacrificing one's life and was seen as a public declaration of sincerity. During the 1840s and 1850s the Báb claimed that he was the return of the Mahdi and gained a strong following. The Persian clergy tried to stop the spread of the Bábí movement by denouncing the Bábís as apostates; these denouncements led to public executions of the Bábís, troop engagements against the Bábís, and an extensive pogrom where thousands of Bábís were killed. Also among the Bábí executions was the poetess Táhirih, who Bahá'ís consider the first woman suffrage martyr.
After Bahá'u'lláh abstracted the meaning of martyrdom, gave it a new meaning, and abolished holy war, the Bábís who became Bahá'ís stopped seeking martyrdom as a public declaration of sincerity. Among these executions include two sets of nine people who were part of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of Iran, the national governing body of the Bahá'ís, who were arrested and killed only for their religious beliefs. The people who are killed only because they are Bahá'ís are also considered martyrs.


Martyrdom, in Sikhism, is a fundamental concept and represents an important institution of the faith. The first landmark in this field is the sacrifice by the Fifth Guru, Guru Arjan Dev. Guru Arjan was the first prophet in the religious history of India to be a martyr of faith. Guru Tegh Bahadur and the Tenth Master, Guru Gobind Singh sacrificed their all for the cause of truth or religion. the Gurus kept an army and struggled with the oppressive Empire involving the loss of life of thousands of Sikhs who are considered, as in the case of Islam, another whole-life religion, martyrs. Secondly, the Sikh Gurus have demonstrated that not only is martyrdom a religious and essential institution, but it is also the most potent method of education and training a people for making sacrifices for the cause of righteousness, love and truth. This is amply proved by the capacity of the Sikhs to make maximum sacrifices for the cause of religion and man. In Sikhism, Guru Nanak in the very beginning of his famous hymn ‘Japu Ji’, while rejecting the paths of ascetic one point meditation or withdrawal, emphatically prescribes carrying out or living according to the Will of God as the goal of man. “How to become the abode of Truth and how to demolish the wall of illusion or falsehood?”, he asks, and then proceeds to answer. “Through following His will”. He then defines the Will to be the ‘Ocean of Virtues’ (gunigahira) or Altruistic. The Gurus’ basic perception of this Will is that it is Loving or Love.
It is in this context that Guru Nanak proclaims that life is ‘a game of love’, and gives a call to humanity to follow this path. He says: “Shouldst thou seek to engage in the game of Love, step into my street with thy head placed on thy palm: While stepping on to this street, ungrudgingly sacrifice your head” (GGS p 1412). Repeated emphasis is laid on this goal of following the Will of God, Who is directing the universe, in Guru Granth Sahib: “Through perception of His will is the Supreme State attained”. (p. 292) “With the perception of his Will alone is the Essence realized”. (p. 1289) “By perceiving the Lord’s Will is Truth attained”. (p. 1244)” “By His Will was the world created as a place for righteous living”. (p. 785) “Profoundly wondrous is the Divine Will. Whoever has its perception, has awareness of the true praxis of life”. (p. 940)
It should be clear that in Sikhism the goal is not to attain personal salvation or Moksha or ‘eternal bliss’. It is instead the perception or recognition of His Will and working in line with its direction. This state is in fact synonymous with God-realization.
The concept of martyrdom was laid down by Guru Nanak. In fact, his was an open challenge and a call. His hymn calling life ‘a game of love’ is of profoundest significance in Sikh thought and theology. It has five clear facets. It expresses in clear words the Guru’s spiritual experience of God. While he repeatedly calls Him unknowable, his own experience, he states, is that He is All Love. Second, He is Benevolent and Gracious towards man and the world. Third, since He expresses His Love in the world, the same, by implication, becomes real and meaningful. Further, the Guru by giving this call clearly proclaims both the goal and the methodology of religious life in Sikhism. The goal is to live a life of love which is in line with His expression of Love and Grace in the world. Simultaneously, the methodology of whole-life activity and commitment for the goal is emphasized. The significant fact is that in the entire Guru Granth Sahib it is these principles of the Sikh way of life that are repeatedly emphasized. There are innumerable hymns endorsing one or the other of the above principles of Sikh theology. It is this couplet of Guru Nanak that forms the base of martyrdom in Sikhism. For, the commitment desired is total, and once on that Path the seeker has to have no wavering in laying down his life for the cause. In his hymn Guru Nanak has defined and stressed that the institution of martyrdom is an essential ingredient of the Path he was laying down for man.



  • Catholic Encyclopedia "Martyrs"
  • Foster, Claude R. jr.: Paul Schneider, the Buchenwald apostle : a Christian martyr in Nazi Germany ; a sourcebook on the German Church struggle; Westchester, Pennsylvania: SSI Bookstore, West Chester University, 1995; ISBN 1-887732-01-2

See also

External links

martyrdom in Catalan: Màrtir
martyrdom in Czech: Mučedník
martyrdom in Danish: Martyr
martyrdom in German: Märtyrer
martyrdom in Estonian: Märter
martyrdom in Spanish: Mártir
martyrdom in Esperanto: Martiro
martyrdom in French: Martyr
martyrdom in Korean: 순교
martyrdom in Indonesian: Syahid
martyrdom in Icelandic: Píslarvottur
martyrdom in Italian: Martire
martyrdom in Hebrew: מרטיר
martyrdom in Latin: Martyr
martyrdom in Hungarian: Vértanú
martyrdom in Dutch: Martelaar
martyrdom in Japanese: 殉教
martyrdom in Norwegian: Martyr
martyrdom in Low German: Merteler
martyrdom in Polish: Martyrologia
martyrdom in Portuguese: Mártir
martyrdom in Romanian: Martir
martyrdom in Russian: Мученик
martyrdom in Simple English: Martyr
martyrdom in Slovak: Mučeník
martyrdom in Finnish: Marttyyri
martyrdom in Swedish: Martyr
martyrdom in Turkish: Şehit
martyrdom in Ukrainian: Мученик
martyrdom in Chinese: 殉道

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

agony, anguish, atrocious pain, bane, blood, bloodletting, bloodshed, braining, clawing, confinement, cruciation, crucifixion, dealing death, destruction, destruction of life, dismemberment, dispatch, estrapade, euthanasia, excruciation, execution, extermination, flow of blood, galleys, gore, hard labor, hell, hell upon earth, holocaust, horror, immolation, impalement, imprisonment, incarceration, jailing, keelhauling, kill, killing, laceration, lancination, lapidation, martyrization, mercy killing, nightmare, passion, penal servitude, persecution, picketing, poisoning, purgatory, rack, railriding, ritual killing, ritual murder, rock pile, sacrifice, shooting, slaughter, slaying, stoning, strappado, taking of life, tar-and-feathering, the gantlet, torment, torture
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