The term martyr (Greek μάρτυς martys "witness") is most commonly used today to describe an individual who sacrifices his or her life (or their personal freedom) in order to further a cause or belief for many. In the past, it 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. In the English language, the term is a loanword, and often used with the extended meaning of someone who has been killed for his 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 common among Arab Christians (i.e. anyone killed in relation to Christianity or a Christian community) indicating that the English word "martyr" may not actually be a proper equivalent of its commonly ascribed Arabic translation.
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 the laws of their fathers and their 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 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.
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In Arabic, a martyr is termed "shaheed" (literally, "witness," as in the Greek root of the English word). The word shaheed appears in the Quran in a variety of contexts, including witnessing to righteousness (Quran 2:143), witnessing a financial transaction (Quran 2:282) and dying in a religiously sanctioned battle (Quran 3:140). The word also appears with these various meanings in the Hadith, the sayings of Muhammad.
The first martyr in Islam was the 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. Some Muslims use this term to describe those who die in suicide attacks, such as the attack on the United States Marines barracks in Lebanon in 1983, despite Islamic strictures against suicide. Further, there is the fatwā that a person should not expose himself or herself to excessive, unnecessary risk. In this case, the risk is considered unnecessary and excessive if death occurs in a situation that the individual knows to be "not safe." More controversial among Muslims is the use of that description for those who die in attacks which target noncombatants, such as those against Israelis in the Second Intifada and the September 11 attacks.
A Muslim who is killed defending his or her property (Sahih Al-Bukhari, Book 43, Number 660) is considered a martyr.
Muslims also believe that God grants the reward of martyrdom to those who die in a variety of ways, including death during childbirth, accidents such as fires and drownings, and epidemic diseases such as the plague.
Regardless of how death occurred, Muslims believe that the reward of martyrdom is contingent upon proper belief, sincerity, perseverance and thankfulness to God.
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. `Abdu'l-Bahá, Bahá'u'lláh's son and appointed interpreter, explained that the truest form of martyrdom is a lifelong sacrifice to serve humanity in the name of God. While the Bahá'í Faith exalts the station of its martyrs, martyrdom is not something that Bahá'ís are encouraged to pursue; instead one is urged to protect one's life.
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. In addition, the Báb himself was publicly executed in 1850. The Bábís that were killed during these times are seen as martyrs by Bahá'ís, and the date of execution of the Báb, who Bahá'ís see as a Manifestation of God equal to that of Bahá'u'lláh, is considered a holy day in the Bahá'í calendar, as the Martyrdom of the Báb. 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. However, Bahá'ís continue to be persecuted in predominantly Muslim countries, especially in Iran where over 200 Bahá'ís were executed between 1978 and 1998. 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. Mona Mahmudnizhad, one of the martyrs, is the subject of the Mark Perry play A Dress for Mona and Doug Cameron's song "Mona With the Children". Those 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, the Ninth Guru, and Guru Gobind Singh, the Tenth Guru, both sacrificed themselves 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.
- See e.g. Alison A. Trites, The New Testament Concept of Witness, ISBN 0-521-60934-8 and ISBN 9780521609340.
- Verse 29 in the 4th chapter of the Quran, An-Nisaa (The Women) instructs; "And do not kill yourselves, surely Allah is most Merciful to you." (4:29)
- Ibn Taymiyah, "Can a person be considered as a shaheed if he dies whilst on a business trip by sea?".
- John Esposito, "Legitimate and Illegitimate Acts of Violence", July 24, 2007.
- Mufti Taqi Usman, "The Meaning of Shaheed".
- Muqbil bin Haadee, "Calling someone a Shaheed (Martyr)
- Winters, Jonah (1997-09-19). "Conclusion". Dying for God: Martyrdom in the Shii and Babi Religions. M.A. Thesis. http://bahai-library.com/theses/dying/dying8.conclusion.html. Retrieved 2007-01-23.
- Taherzadeh, Adib (1987). The Revelation of Bahá'u'lláh, Volume 4: Mazra'ih & Bahji 877-92. Oxford, UK: George Ronald. pp. 57. ISBN 0853982708. http://www.peyman.info/cl/Baha'i/Others/ROB/V4/p050-072Ch04.html.
- Winters, Jonah (1997-09-19). "Meanings of Martyrdom in Babi Thought". Dying for God: Martyrdom in the Shii and Babi Religions. M.A. Thesis. http://bahai-library.com/theses/dying/dying7.babi.mrtyrdm.html. Retrieved 2007-01-23.
- Affolter, Friedrich W. (2005). "The Specter of Ideological Genocide: The Bahá'ís of Iran" ([dead link] – Scholar search). War Crimes, Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity 1 (1): 59– 89. doi:10.1016/0048-721X(89)90077-8. http://www.aa.psu.edu/journals/war-crimes/v1n1a3.pdf.
- National Spiritual Assembly of the United States (2006-03-05). "The Badi Calendar". bahai.us. http://www.bahai.us/system/files/BahaiCalendarOptimized.pdf. Retrieved 2007-01-23.
- Effendi, Shoghi (1944). God Passes By. Wilmette, Illinois, USA: Bahá'í Publishing Trust. pp. 75. ISBN 0877430209. http://reference.bahai.org/en/t/se/GPB/gpb-6.html#pg75.
- International Federation for Human Rights (2003-08-01). "Discrimination against religious minorities in Iran". fdih.org. http://www.fidh.org/IMG/pdf/ir0108a.pdf. Retrieved 2007-01-23.
- Iran Human Rights Documentation Center (2006-12). A Faith Denied: The Persecution of the Bahá'ís of Iran. Iran Human Rights Documentation Center. http://www.iranhrdc.org/english/pdfs/Reports/bahai_report.pdf. Retrieved 2007-01-23.
- Rivera, Ray (2006-01-30). "Bahais Mourn Iranian Jailed for His Faith". Washington Post. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/01/29/AR2006012900962.html7. Retrieved 2007-01-23.
- "A Dress for Mona". http://www.adressformona.org/martyrdom3.htm. Retrieved 2007-01-23.
- 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
- Foxe's Book of Martyrs - 1563 book of Christian martyrdom stories, also spelled "Fox".
- History of Christianity - Andrew & Peter (brothers & Disciples), Stephen, Paul, et al.
- Martyr (shahid) - Islam (with controversy, also recently used to describe suicide attacks on others)
- Martyrology - Christian
- Martyrology (Judaism)
- Martyrs of Moody Bible Institute
- Oxford martyrs
- Christian pacifism
- Religious persecution
- Silence (novel)
- Voice of the martyrs - international organization re current Christian persecution and martyrdom
- Martyr complex
- Gibbon on Martyrs