Historically, a martyr is a person who dies for his or her religious faith. Or sometimes, it is for a 'noble cause' - like patriotically dying for a nation's glory in a war.
During the early Roman Empire, the independent cities of Asia Minor made efforts to reward benefactors for their services, and to incite further civic generosity by means of public acclamations, eulogistic honorific decrees addressed to the Roman authorities and read out in the public places before an audience. Such commendations are usually referred to in epigraphic sources as martyriai. Christians adopted the phrase for the "testimonies" of the acts and sufferings of the persecuted, who became "martyrs."
Christian martyrs in the first three centuries A.D. were crucified in the same manner as Roman political prisoners or eaten by lions as a circus spectacle. They are recognized as martyrs because they have preferred to die rather than renounce their Christian faith, usually by making a sacrifice to a pagan deity.
With the Constantinian shift and the identification of Christianity with the Roman Empire, the tables were turned and pagans sometimes became martyrs if they refused conversion to Christianity. It didn't take long before Augustine of Hippo authorized the use of force against heretics or fellow Christians who refused to fall in line with orthodoxy. Intra-Christian persecution and the martyrdom that sometimes went with it became institutionalised in the office of the inquisition of the Roman Catholic Church.
Some Christian sects such as Anabaptists and Mormons trace their origins to widespread persecution and martyrdom at the hands of mainstream Christians trying to suppress their break away sects. The Anabaptists have embraced this part of their heritage to such an extent that the book Martyrs Mirror, which describes the deaths of Anabaptist Martyrs in the 16th and 17th century is still widely owned and read in Mennonite and Amish households (see Anabaptist persecution for more).
In Arabic, a martyr is termed "shahid" (literally, "witness"). The concept of the shahid is discussed in the Hadith, the sayings of Muhammad; the term recurs frequently in the Qur'an, but usually with its literal meaning of "witness". The first martyr in Islam was the old woman Sumaya bint Khabbat (http://www.islam-qa.com/QA/6%7CIslamic_history_and_biography(Tareekh_wa_al-Seerah)/Mutafarraqaat_(Miscellaneous)/The_first_female_martyr_in_Islam.10061998.2223.shtml) , 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 caliph Yazid I at Karbala.
See Persecution of Muslims for more detail.
The term has since been used metaphorically for people killed in a historical struggle for some cause, such as Yonatan "Yonni" Netanyahu - the hero of Entebbe, or those whose deaths served to galvanize a particular movement.
In the 20th century, many Muslims called suicide bombers belonging to Islamist and Palestinian nationalist groups claim to be "martyrs". Such usage is very controversial and generally has not occurred in the English media. On the other hand, the Arab word "shaheed" has been sometimes used since in English it carries no obvious emotional baggage.
A person who was expelled from school for his or her religious beliefs may be called a school martyr, no matter whether the cause for expulsion is the student's religious beliefs or those of his or her parents.
Hero or villain?
The term "martyr" is in some ways semantically interchangeable with "hero" — both are almost always controversial. The phrase 'one man's hero is another's criminal' is a simple way of expressing this disparity. Warriors throughout history returning from battle are typically revered for "heroism" and "bravery". In recent history, those that commit criminal acts during war run the risk of military courts martial. In all cultures, war dead are considered to be in some sense "martyrs." This is true of U.S. soldiers killed in foreign military operations — the U.S. President commonly refers to "their sacrifice" as being "for the cause of freedom." The actual word "martyr" is not used, however.
Suicide bombers in Palestine are typically hailed as "martyrs" by many Palestinans (the actual percentage is also disputed) due to Islam's prohibition against suicide.
- Justin Martyr
- 1. Rowland Taylor
- 2. William Tyndale
- 3. John Huss
- 4. John Wycliffe
- 5. Polycarp