Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Martyrdom and the Sword in Early Christianity and Islam

James M. Arlandson, Ph.D.

This article covers martyrdom by the sword in our comparative study of the two religions, in their origins.

Martyrdom means dying for one’s faith.[1] The New Testament predicts that some disciples will die for the faith, but why? In which context? What are the rewards?

Islam has three important passages dealing with martyrdom, and we can ask the same questions. Why do Muslims die? What are the contexts of their deaths, and what are the rewards?

Early Christianity

The Theology of Martyrdom

Some passages in the New Testament deal with martyrdom.

Luke 9:23-24 is about the personal cost of discipleship, and discipleship means getting training, learning. The verses say:

23 Then he said to them all: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it.[2] (Luke 9:23-24; cf. 14:27; Matt. 10:38-39; 16:24; Mark 8:34)

These verses appear in the context of Jesus predicting his own death in Jerusalem, where he will have to pick up his cross and carry it to the place of crucifixion outside of the city and put it in the hole where Roman soldiers would hoist it up.

In the New Covenant, which the disciples could join or refuse, they had to know the terms of the agreement, the contract. All of them would have to take up their cross daily – not a one-time act. They would have to lose their old or former way of living for themselves and find their new life. Their strong attachment to money, fame, and comfort will have to be renounced in the new kingdom Jesus was ushering in.

The cross means that they must follow Jesus no matter what, on a daily basis; a “daily martyrdom” is continuous. Are they willing to join this new movement?

The next verses are still about the cost of discipleship, but it takes on another level of risk. Luke 21:12-13, 16-19 say:

12 "But before all this, they will lay hands on you and persecute you. They will deliver you to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name. 13 This will result in your being witnesses to them... 16 You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. 17 All men will hate you because of me. 18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 By standing firm you will gain life. (Luke 21:12-13, 16-19)

These verses come in the context of the end times, when persecution would be intense. But we should not limit the passages just to that ultimate timeframe, for in one sense we are living in the end times right now (Hebrews 1:2). This intensity could happen at any time. Disciples must be willing to be delivered to the authorities of various sorts – religious or secular – so that we can be witnesses to them.

We shall see, below, that Paul the apostle and others fulfilled these verses. But the trouble does not stop there for the disciples. Sometimes even family members will betray the new follower and learner of Jesus and turn him over to death by the authorities.

This persecution and possible death happens in the Islamic world, when a Muslim converts to Christ.[3]

But the disciple should stand firm, and no hair will be harmed. This promise of no harm cannot be literal, since he may lose his life, but the image refers to no eternal or spiritual loss. This is martyrdom that does not come from waging military war, but spiritual war, by preaching the gospel.

The next verses say that some disciples may be crucified by the Jerusalem religious establishment or its agents. One verse reads:

34 Therefore I am sending you [the Jewish leadership] prophets and wise men and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. (Matt. 23:34)

And another one says:

2 They will put you out of the synagogue; in fact, a time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is offering a service to God. (John 16:2)

The context of Matt. 23:34 is Jesus’ lengthy denunciation of the Jerusalem religious establishment and its agents. The second-person pronoun “you” and “your” addresses them directly. And John 16:2 appears in the context of Jesus’ final words to his disciple before being arrested. Both verses say religious leaders will kill and crucify some of Jesus’ disciples and believe they render service to God.

The apostle James, one of the twelve, was not directly killed by the religious establishment, but by Herod Agrippa, who was zealous for the religious law, as we shall see, below.

Before Paul’s conversion he used to persecute and imprison disciples, and he approved of Stephen’s martyrdom – the first one in recorded church history – when Paul stood by, while the crowd stoned Stephen to death (Acts 6:11-8:1). Paul thought he was serving God, and so did those who arrested Stephen. “This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place [the temple] and against the law,” said the false witnesses (Acts 6:13).

In the Hall of Faith in Hebrews 11 the author extols the courage of men and women of God in the past:

36 ...Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. 37 They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated – 38 the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. (Hebrews 11:36-38)

The author goes on to say (12:1) that since we believers are surrounded with “such a great cloud of witnesses” (those great men and women in the past in the Hall of Faith), we should “throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles” us and “run with perseverance the race” of our course of life.

Thus, martyrdom tests our level of commitment and purifies and strengthens us.

The final verse in this brief section on martyrdom in early Christianity is about specific persecution of the church of the city Smyrna, in Asia Minor (modern Turkey). The verse says:

10 Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life. (Revelation 2:10)

Jesus speaks to the apostle John the revelator and tells the church through John that the members must be faithful during persecution, even to the point of death. To encourage them, Jesus reminds them of the crown of life – eternal life. The context of this promised gift is that these Christians were already converted and committed to Christ.

Their future martyrdom would not guarantee them a place in heaven, for the born-again experience (John 3:3) already assured them of that. Rather, during their tough times, they may consider wavering and wobbling and turn back from following Christ.

He has to remind them that a crown of life awaits those who remain faithful. Christians who understand Biblical theology do not draw the conclusion that martyrdom gets them a fast-track to heaven in a religious war or even after suffering unjust persecution.

Examples of Martyrs

Christians in the early church fulfilled and carried out these verses on being persecuted and even dying for their faith. Peter and James were the two closest disciples of Jesus, the inner core.[4] Though Paul was not part of the inner core because he converted after the crucifixion and resurrection, he too saw the risen Jesus, though Paul was the last of the apostles to do so, as though “abnormally born” (his words in 1 Corinthians 15:7).

All three of them had a reason to pick up swords to fight their way out of persecution. Yet none of them died as holy warriors. They passed away as godly peaceful martyrs preaching the good news and teaching the faith.


Peter, the fisherman from Galilee, lived a full life attuned to the new kingdom, after the death and resurrection of Jesus and Pentecost (Acts 2). Peter was changed, but his change would get tested.

He and John the apostle faced a trial before the Sanhedrin or the high court of Jerusalem (Acts 4:1-22). Though ordered to stop teaching, they kept doing what they were called to do. Then he and the other apostles were arrested, imprisoned, released by an angel, re-arrested, flogged, and told not to preach again. At no time did he disobey God and stop preaching his message (Acts 5:17-42). He initiated civil disobedience for a godly cause, the gospel, an initiative that has inspired persecuted peoples everywhere for many centuries afterwards.[5]

About ten years later, Herod Agrippa arrested Peter and threw him in jail. Yet an angel helped him escape, so he went back to the church, who had been praying for him. He told them what had happened. He thought it best to leave, and no doubt took his wife with him (Acts 12:1-19). Sometime after Herod’s death (Acts 12:19-24), Peter and she came back to the capital, where he continued to lead the church there (Acts 15:1-35). At a time unknown to us, Peter and his wife seem to have left Jerusalem and Galilee for good.[6] Eventually they made their way to Rome (cf. 1 Peter 5:13). Church tradition takes up the events that occurred in their lives.

When Peter and his wife arrived in the huge city, a community of Christians thrived. This was to be their new home. The community realized right away that Peter had evolved into a great leader. He was part of the inner core of the twelve disciples. He told his stories that he had witnessed firsthand, as an eyewitness of Jesus. Peter was soon given – or maybe it happened naturally and gradually – the position of the bishop of Rome, the first one.[7]

Then tragedy struck. If this tradition can be believed, his wife was arrested and then led away to be executed. We do not know the reason, but it was surely because of being persecuted for the gospel. He tried to comfort her in her inevitable death by focusing on the temporariness of life and the eternity of heaven. “My dear, remember the Lord,” he told her. She was going home, and he would see her soon, hoping to encourage her.[8]

Then he too was martyred under Nero (ruled 54-68), by being crucified upside down because, presumably, he felt unworthy to be crucified right-side up, as Jesus was. A third-century Roman elder could still point to the cemetery where Peter was buried in Rome.[9]

Peter joined his wife at last, in heaven.


Like Peter, James was also a member of the inner core of the twelve disciples. He is about to learn the lessons of trials and death. As Jesus was headed toward Jerusalem where, he foreknew, death awaited him, James’s mother asked him to allow her two sons (John the apostle was the other son) to sit on either side of Jesus, left and right, in his kingdom.

Jesus replied with an answer they did not fully understand. He asked, “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” “We can,” they quickly and confidently answered. But the cup refers to suffering and possibly death (Matt. 20:20-28). In James’s case, he was hauled before the Sanhedrin (Acts 5:17-42). Like Peter, he too was flogged, but stood firm for the gospel.

The bitterest cup of suffering came about ten years later. Herod Agrippa was zealous to keep the law and sought the favor of the Jerusalem religious establishment.[10] He arrested James, and before anyone in the church had time to react, Herod ordered him beheaded in about A.D. 44.

James had indeed drunk the cup of suffering, even death.[11]


Paul used to persecute the church, in an extra-zealous season of his life, and he did it out of love for the law and service to God (Acts 8:1, 3; 9:1-9; 22:4; 1 Corinthians 15:9; Galatians 1:13; Philippians 3:6; 1 Timothy 1:13). But then he too had his own Pentecost, so to speak. He was on the road to Damascus, when a light flashed around him. He heard a voice asking him why he was persecuting him (Jesus, that is, the church). Scales covered his eyes, and he had to be led by the hand to Damascus. The powerful became the helpless.

While fasting, he got prayer from a disciple, and the scales fell off his eyes. The “violent” (Paul’s word in Titus 1:13) persecutor became the peaceful apostle who proclaimed his message without the sword.

It was at this change of heart and new direction that Jesus said he was going to show Paul how much he would suffer for Jesus’ name (Acts 9:15-16). Time would tell how accurate that prophecy would become.

The persecutions, including beatings, stoning, riots, and imprisonment from which Paul suffered are too numerous to sketch out here, but towards the last one-fourth of the book of Acts, he was arrested by Jewish authorities and then protected and taken to Rome by the Roman authorities. After a series of complicated court appeals, charges, counter charges, and narrow escapes, he found himself under house arrest in Rome for two years. He was permitted to preach and had a certain freedom (Acts 28:11-30).

The strongest evidence, taking Acts and 1 and 2 Timothy into consideration, though scholars debate the question, says that Paul was acquitted, probably because no one appeared to testify against him. He was released and left Rome.

Then he came back to the capital about two years later, whereupon he was re-arrested, found guilty, and beheaded, tradition says, by Nero, in about A.D. 65-66.[12]

Paul writes his departing words, which some have used on their gravestones today:

6 For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure. 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8 Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day – and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing. (1 Timothy 4:6-8)

The words perfectly encapsulate Paul’s life on earth and his hope for a reward in heaven.

Early Islam

The Theology of Martyrdom

We turn now to Islam and three passages that speak of martyrdom: Quran 61:10-12; 4:74; and 9:111.

Quran 61:10-12

In Quran 61:10-12, the Arabic word "jihad" (root is j-h-d) is the context to trade in this life (the currency) for the life to come (the benefit the martyr gets).[13] The verses read:

10 You who believe, shall I show you a bargain that will save you from painful punishment? 11 Have faith in God and His Messenger and struggle [j-h-d] for His cause with your possessions and your persons – that is better for you, if only you knew – 12 and He will forgive your sins, admit you into Gardens graced with flowing streams, into pleasant dwellings in the Gardens of Eternity. That is the supreme triumph.[14] (Quran 61:10-12)

The textual context of vv. 10-12 reveals five themes.

First, Muhammad scolds the hypocrites (nominal Muslims) for promising to do things, but not following through, in the context of fighting in solid lines or ranks in the cause of Allah (vv. 3-4). This faction of “conscientious objectors” does not wish to join Muhammad in his wars.

Second, it is interesting that the chapter is entitled “Solid Lines” because of v. 4; Allah loves it when his soldiers line up neatly in battle.

Third, the word “fighting” in v. 4 comes from qital (root is q-t-l), which means only warring, slaying, slaughtering, and killing.

Fourth, Muhammad appeals to Moses and Jesus as inspirations because they too encountered resistance from their followers (vv. 5-6; 14). Muhammad is just like them and better.

Finally, Allah tells his prophet that it is Islam, despite the opposition, which will prevail over all other religions (vv.7-9). Thus, the context of Quran 61:10-12 is warfare (q-t-l), and it will overcome Judaism and Christianity.

Interpreting Quran 61:10-12 shows that the divine bargain has death as the currency behind it. The qitalist is the seller, and Allah is the buyer. What do Allah and his followers get in the exchange? The martyrs receive the forgiveness of sins and heaven, and Allah receives complete devotion to him in establishing his community and religion. Allah has sent Muhammad as his messenger with the truth – the final answer – which must win out over all other religions (v. 9).

Also, the bargain apparently saves even Muslims from a painful torment in hell. This image of humans suffering in hell, which includes even reluctant and disobedient Muslims like the hypocrites, occurs frequently enough in the Quran (2:81, 206; 23:103; 66:8; 20:124-126, to cite only a few). The economic metaphor is effective.

Further, Muhammad guarantees martyrs a place in Islamic heaven in exchange for a struggle not only with their possessions, but also with their persons or lives. Hence, jihad in this context means more than an inner struggle against sin; jihad also must include bloodshed in these three verses.

Finally, in the bargain, Muhammad mixes salvation with works, which is bound to force Muslims to strive hard (j-h-d) to earn their place in heaven. Hence, martyrdom is the ultimate good work.[15]

Quran 4:74

In Quran 4:74, the second passage, the word for struggle (jihad) switches to qital (q-t-l). This word means warring, fighting and killing with swords, and it again becomes the context for fatally selling or trading this life (the currency) for the hereafter.[16] The verse says:

74 Let those of you who are willing to trade the life of this world for the life to come, fight [q-t-l] in God’s way. To anyone who fights [q-t-l] in God’s way, whether killed [q-t-l] or victorious, We shall give a great reward.[17] (Quran 4:74)

The context of this verse consists of warfare (q-t-l) outside of Medina and strife within the city between Muhammad and a faction of hypocrites, some of whom want only the spoils of war, and others of whom want peace, prayer, and almsgiving. Muhammad, however, chooses the warpath, along with forced prayer and forced almsgiving, two of the Five Pillars in Islam.

Moreover, Muhammad splits the world in two: believers and unbelievers in the context of warfare or q-t-l (v. 76). A believer fights (q-t-l) for God, but an unbeliever fights (q-t-l) for an unjust cause and for Satan. So the world is divided up into Dar-al-Islam (Abode of Islam) and Dar-al-Kufr (Abode of Unbelief), which belongs therefore to Dar-al-Harb (Abode of War). This means that Islam may wage war on unbelief, because this holy warfare – both q-t-l and j-h-d – eliminates the disciples of Satan.

If a civilization does not come under the control of Islam, then ipso facto it perpetuates injustice, so Islam needs to subjugate the civilization in order to establish justice.

The interpretation of Quran 4:74 is simple enough.

First, the trade or selling of one’s life forms the currency in which one conducts the trade with the deity. Allah demands a Muslim’s whole life in the context of warfare. As a return payment, Allah gives the martyr Islamic heaven. In this scenario Allah receives the establishment of his true religion and guidance.

Second, the short verse piles on violent and bloody qital in various forms, three times. This word clearly does not mean a struggle with sin only in the soul.

Finally, a qitalist fights in God’s cause or way, and two results ensue: either he lives to fight another day so that maybe he can be martyred, or he dies in battle and securely goes to Islamic heaven, completing the ultimate good work.

Quran 9:111

In Quran 9:111, the third and final passage, Muhammad continues using qital (q-t-l) in its various forms as the currency for death in battle. The verse says:

111 God has purchased the persons and possessions of the believers for the Garden – they fight [q-t-l] in God’s way: they kill [q-t-l] and are killed [q-t-l] – this is a true promise given by Him in the Torah, the Gospel, and the Qur’an. Who could be more faithful to his promise than God? So be happy with the bargain you have made: that is the supreme triumph.[18] (Quran 9:111)

The textual context of Quran 9:111 shows Muhammad scolding the hypocrites who finished building a mosque while he was away in Tabuk (vv. 107-110). They asked him to bless it when he returned to Medina, but instead he ordered it torn down. In contrast to the hypocrites, in the verses after 9:111, Muhammad defines what true believers are: they do good works, bow down and prostrate themselves and forbid what is wrong (v. 112).

Finally, the textual context says that Muslims ask their prophet if they should pray for their polytheistic relatives. He orders them not to, inventing a story about Abraham who had prayed for his polytheist father, but who changed his mind and washed his hands of his father, after Abraham learned that he was the enemy of God. If Abraham prayed for his father only because he had made an earlier arrangement with him, but then washed his hands of him, why would Muslims pray for their relatives and ancestors (vv. 113-116)?

Thus, the textual context is made up of local verbal and political fighting (j-h-d and q-t-l); squabbling with his internal enemies like the hypocrites (cf. Quran 9:4, 73, and 123); and disagreement with and correction of his uninformed Muslims who want to pray for their polytheist ancestors and relatives.

The interpretation of 9:111 is the same as the previous verses. The jihadist uses his life as currency, and Allah buys it and gets his religion disseminated. In return the jihadist gets a guaranteed place in heaven.

However, Muhammad’s belief that the Torah (first five books of the Bible) and the Gospels parallel the Quran on martyrdom is unfounded. His knowledge of the Bible generally and the Torah and Gospels specifically was limited because he was no scholar (Quran 7:157). What he learned mainly came from storytellers and poets who circulated along the trade routes, stopping in towns to ply their verbal trade.

The Torah does say 3,500 years ago that the ancient Hebrews should fight to clear the land of Canaan of pagans (Deuteronomy 20:16-17), not to wage wars of worldwide conquest for Judaism. But the Torah does not have a developed theology of heaven. God’s command to them was not to win heaven in an economic bargain.

Further, as we have seen in this article, it is true that New Testament verses speak of a willingness to give up all material possessions for the kingdom of God and to lay down one’s life mainly in a spiritual way, and possibly by a physical death under severe and fatal persecution, but the verses are not found in the context of a bloody religious war.

Rather, Jesus calls his disciples to pick up their cross and follow him, not pick up a sword, hit people with it, and win heaven in a divine commerce.

Examples of Martyrs

How did the early Muslims work out and practice martyrdom? We can do no better in answering this question than by looking at three[19] of the four so-called rightly guided caliphs, who are reported to have died a martyr’s death, according to the Islamic doctrine of martyrdom.


Umar (ruled 634-644) was the second caliph who ruled after Muhammad died. Umar’s death came quickly. A Christian Persian slave confronted him and told him that the slave’s taxes were too high. Umar disagreed. A few days later the slave stabbed Umar six times while the caliph was leading prayer and proclaiming “God is greatest.”

Umar established taxes after the Islamic armies conquered new territories, so he mixed the military and the political and tax policies and other earth-bound matters with religion.

He died shortly afterwards.[20]


The third caliph was Uthman (ruled 644-656). As time wore on during his rule, opposition grew. One of the more tragic and ominous scenes – it presaged Uthman’s assassination – took place when he and Ali (the fourth caliph, below) quarreled over the kinds of governors Uthman had appointed. Dissidents from Kufah, a city in southern Iraq, complained to Ali, and he took their complaints to Uthman. Ali predicted that Uthman would be killed, and there would be bloody civil war in the Muslim community. Uthman replied that he had done nothing wrong, but appointed men of whom Umar would have approved. Ali charged that Umar kept closer scrutiny of his appointees and flogged them if he had heard a single dissentious word from them. Instead, Uthman allowed rebelliousness to fester.

Ali left him, and Uthman went right into the mosque.[21] A man there stood up and said, “If you wish, by God, we will cause the sword to judge between us and you – ourselves and you, by God!” Uthman told him to sit down and be quiet.[22]

Matters got worse from there. While he was reading the Quran in his residence, the assailants fought their way past his servants and guards and stabbed him. His blood still stained the copy of the Quran, when it was discovered later.

Uthman too mixed politics and conquests and public policies with religion and died from the toxic mixture.[23]


Ali (ruled 556-661) was the fourth caliph and was Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law. In 661 he met a violent death. Two assassins lay in wait for him. When he walked through the door of the mosque in Kufah, a garrison town in southern Iraq, one of them struck him on the top of his head with the assassin’s sword.

They had listened to a woman who said the one of them could marry her if he took revenge for Ali’s crushing the Kharijites, the religious-political faction that seceded from the caliph.[24]

In his last will and testament, which survived, remarkably, he writes to his main two sons Hussain and Hasan: Muhammad is Allah’s servant and messenger “whom he sent with right guidance over every other even though the idolaters abhor it” (Quran 9:33, 61:9, 48:28). Ali believed in jihad, also writing: “Fear God, fear God with regard to jihad in the path of God with your property and your lives”[25]

Politics and armed conflict within Islam itself in a Civil War was the context of Ali’s death.


The New Testament doctrine of martyrdom teaches that the believer may suffer unjust persecution from preaching the gospel alone. In no way does the New Testament use the terms of a business transaction. Instead, it recognized the sociological fact that early Christianity was in competition with other religions, like Judaism and paganism. As the new religion rubbed against the earlier two, sparks flew. The new “sectarians” or Christians were in the powerless position and so were on the receiving end of persecution that sometimes resulted in death, in the extreme cases.

It was not too difficult to predict that in the heated religious environment of the larger ancient Mediterranean world, some competitors would believe that persecuting the new “threatening” religion would have to happen, inevitably; the new religion must be confronted and eliminated.

But Jesus had not picked up the sword to attack people. He died an unjust death – though planned and used by God, according to New Testament theology – in Jerusalem at the hands of his persecutors.

His later followers walked in his footsteps. They too suffered sometimes from unjust persecution and were put to death in notable cases. This martyrdom has nothing to do with Christians’ initiating military war and imposing taxes and flogging people in the Roman empire.

Rather, violence was inflicted on the peaceful Christians. In no recorded case in early Christianity are these nonaggressive and peaceful examples contradicted. The warpath of Emperor Constantine in the fourth century and the Medieval crusaders does not set the institutional genetic code in the very origins of Christianity in the New Testament.

Only Jesus does. And he and his disciples turned the world upside down by simple proclamation.

Islam takes a different path. Three important Quranic passages covering martyrdom appear in the context of jihad and qital, and both words signify, in their context, warfare: 61:10-12; 4:74; and 9:111. The passages recognize that the jihadist needs a religious motive to risk his life, in addition to gaining wealth and riches after a conquest.

That is, what if the Islamic army lost? Or what if a jihadist or qitalist died in battle, whether the army won or lost? He needed the promise of eternal life. The passages set up an economic exchange or transaction. The jihadist or qitalist is the seller, and Allah is the buyer. The seller gives up his life as the currency, and in exchange he gets heaven. The buyer gets to expand his religion around the world. It is no wonder that these verses can be viewed as setting up the economy of death in early Islam – and even throughout Islamic history.

Muhammad set the institutional genetic code for his followers. He waged war, and his followers walked in that path. Three caliphs died from the aftermath of many wars. They died violent deaths – assassinations by the sword or a dagger. None of these leaders were nonviolent. None of them died from the unjust violence that arises against peaceful and righteous preaching alone. Their assassinations were the direct result of mixing taxes, conquests, power politics, and the sword with religion. And they died from the toxic mixture.

Islam therefore incorporated aggressive or active violence into the doctrine of martyrdom. That is, Islam is permitted to wage war, and Muslims died in it. So they become martyrs.[26]


[First published: 1 May 2012]
[Last updated: 18 May 2012]

Articles in the Series:

1. Introduction

2. The Mission of Jesus and the Sword
3. The Mission of Muhammad and the Sword

4. The Gospels and the Sword
5. The Quran and the Sword

6. Two Kinds of Swords

7. The Early Church and the Sword
8. The Early Muslim Community and the Sword

9. The Sword and the Jews

10. Martyrdom and the Sword

11. Q & A on the Sword

12. Conclusion

[1] In the Greek of the New Testament and early Christianity, “martyr” originally meant “witness” for one’s faith. But its definition soon evolved to mean anyone who dies for his faith. In the Quran shahid (sh-h-d), a witness or martyr, appears many times, e.g. 2:23, 133, 143, 282; 3:98, 99, 140; 4:33, 41, 69, 72, 135, 159, 166; 5:8, 44, 117; 24:4, 6, 13, to reference only the noun in the Medinan chapters. Islam, as we shall see, takes “martyr” – one who dies for his religion – in a different direction.

[2] The New International Version is used in this article, unless otherwise noted. If readers would like to see other translations, they can go to

[3] The proof of these death threats for converting to Christ can be searched all over the web. Type in key words like “Muslim conversion,” “apostate,” or “apostasy” into a search engine. See, for example, David Charter, “Young Muslims begin dangerous fight for the right to abandon faith,” Timesonline, Sept. 11, 2007. Accessed Aug. 1, 2011.

[4] James’s brother John was also part of the inner core of three, but he did not die a martyr’s death, so he is not included in this article.

[5] Eusebius, Church History, 5.24. Eusebius is quoting Polycrates, bishop of Ephesus, (fl. 190s) describing Christian martyrs who were inspired by Peter’s words.

[6] However, Peter and his wife may have gone back to visit people or honor a festival. People in the ancient world were much more mobile than we realize. But we just do not know if he returned. On his travels he may have preached to the Jewish Diaspora in Pontus and Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, all in Asia Minor (modern Turkey). Eusebius (3.4) may be getting this idea from Peter’s first epistle (1 Pe. 1:1). Again we just do not know. But it is certain that he landed in Corinth. He achieved so much fame and admiration that a faction grew up around him, in competition with Paul (1 Co. 1:12; 3:22), who founded the church in the city. Paul had to write that all of the apostles belong to the people (1 Co. 3:21-23).

[7] Eusebius 3.1, 4.

[8] Ibid. 3.30. Eusebius is quoting Clement of Alexandria, (c.155-c.220), scholar-teacher in that city, Miscellanies VII.11.63.

[9] Ibid. 2.25 and 3.1. Eusebius refers to Gaius, a Roman presbyter.

[10] Baker Encyclopedia of Bible People, ed. Mark Water (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 301.

[11] Eusebius records the tradition that says the guard who took James to Herod’s court was so moved when he saw James testify that he too admitted he was a Christian and was beheaded with the apostle (2.9).

[12] Ibid. 2.25, 3.1.

[13] Jihad can mean “to toil, exert strenuously, overload (a camel), be diligent, struggle, strive after . . . strive with might.” (Omar, Dictionary, 105). But in many contexts it can mean “holy war.”

[14] M.A.S. Abdel Haleem, The Quran, rev. ed. (New York: Oxford, 2010). The words in brackets are mine. The word "bargain" (t-j-r) can also mean “to traffic,” “to trade,” “be in business,” and in its noun form “trade,” “mercantile affairs,” “business,” and “bargain” (Quran 2:16, 282; 4:29; 9:24; 24:37; 35:29; 62:11). All of them convey the central meaning of an economic exchange. But in these verses the meaning comes in the context of laying down one’s life for the cause in jihad (Omar, Dictionary, 74). The historical context of Chapter 61 is difficult to pin down, but it may concern the battle of Uhud in 625. Also, Muslims expelled the Jewish Nadir tribe from Medina in August 625 on the charge of refusal to pay blood-wit (compensation for loss of life) and a revelation that members of the tribe were attempting to assassinate him. The larger historical context of Quran 61:10-12, then, is warfare with the Meccans and internal conflict in Medina, all of which the Muslim community managed to overcome. For the historical context of the three Quranic passages, see Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s translation the Meaning of the Holy Quran, 11th ed., (Belleville, Maryland: Amana, 2004), and his introductions to each chapter. If readers would like to see various translations of the Quran, they may go to the website and type in the references.

[15] One hadith says: “Narrated Abdullah bin Abi Aufa: Allah's Apostle said, ‘Know that paradise is under the shades of swords’" (Bukhari, Jihad, 4.2818; with small mechanical edits). The “shades of swords” means dying in a jihad, and paradise is guaranteed.

And this hadith says that paradise is gained by martyrdom in jihad:

Narrated Al-Mughira bin Shua: Our prophet told us about the message of our Lord that "Whoever amongst us is killed will go to paradise." Umar asked the prophet, "Is it not true that our men who are killed will go to paradise and their's (i.e. those of the Pagan's) will go to the (Hell) fire?" The prophet said, "Yes." (Bukhari, ibid. 4.2817, with small mechanical edits; the parenthetical notes are the translator’s; the note in brackets is added.)

This hadith says that no one would wish to return to this earthly world, except the martyrs, so that they could die again.

The Prophet said: "Nobody who dies and finds good from Allah (in the Hereafter) would wish to come back to this world, even if he were given the whole world and whatever is in it, except the martyr who, on seeing the superiority of martyrdom, would like to come back to the world and get killed again in Allah’s cause." (Bukhari, ibid. 4.2795, with slight mechanical changes; parenthetical comments are the translator’s; cf. 36, 97, 2795, 2790).

The martyrs get beautiful dark-eyed houris or virgins in heaven.

They are called so [fair or light females with dark eyes] as one’s eyesight is perplexed while looking at them, and also because of the intense blackness of their irises and intense whiteness of the sclerotic coat of their eyes . . . . (Bukhari, ibid. 4.6, [chapter 6], with slight mechanical alterations; the words in brackets have been added.)

This one says that Islamic paradise has one hundred grades that are reserved for the mujahadeen or jihadists (note the three letter root j-h-d in mujahideen and jihad).

...The prophet said, "Paradise has one hundred grades which Allah has reserved for the Mujahidun who fight in Allah’s Cause, and the distance between each of two grades is like the distance between heaven and the earth. So when you ask Allah (for something), ask for the Al-Firdaus which is the middle (best) and the highest part of Paradise. (Bukhari, ibid. 4.2790, with slight mechanical alterations; parenthetical comments are the translator’s.)

The hadith are searchable online at the Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement, under the aegis of the University of Southern California.

[16] Omar, Dictionary, 442-43.

[17] Abdel Haleem,’s translation; my bracketed insertions. The key word "trade" (sh-r-aa or sh-r-y) can mean, depending on the context, “to buy, sell, purchase, conclude a sale, give or take in exchange” (cf. Quran 2:16, 41, 79, 90, 102, 174, 175, 207; 3:77, 179, 187; 4:44; 5:44, 106; and 12:20, 21; 16:95; 31:6). The martyr trades or sells his life in qital or war and buys a reward with it – up in heaven (Omar, Dictionary, 289). Three different passages reveal that Quran 4 occurred in nearly a three-year span: after the Battle of Uhud in 625 in which Islam lost 70 holy warriors (vv. 1-35); the so-called Prayer of Fear in which Muhammad instructs his soldiers how to pray during a military campaign in 626 (v. 101-103); and during still another military expedition in 627, in which he instructs his soldiers how to perform ablutions when no water is available (sand is used) (v. 43). Whichever timeframe Quran 4:74 fits into, the overall historical context shows Muhammad establishing his community in Medina during warfare outside of the city.

[18] Abdel Haleem’s translation; my bracketed insertions. This verse repeats the Arabic word "purchased" (sh-r-aa or sh-r-y) in Quran 4:74, but it uses a new word for "bargain" (b-aa-‘ or b-y-’) and can mean, depending on the context, “to sell, trade, buy” . . . or “merchandizing, barter, to sell to one another, exchange; to make a contract, make a covenant . . . to exhibit, offer goods for sale” (cf. 2:254, 275, 282; 14:31; 24:37; 48:10; 18; 60:12; 62:9). Though the words are different, their semantics overlaps with the other Arabic words in the previous two passages (Omar, Dictionary, 70). The historical context of Quran 9:111 sees Muhammad returning from a military expedition against the Byzantine Empire in 630, two years before his death in 632 in the Tabuk campaign. The historical context of Quran 9:111, then, is warfare (q-t-l) on a large scale against the Byzantines.

[19] Recall that Abu Bakr was the first caliph (r. 632-634). He is not included in this article because he did not die a martyr’s death from battle, but from a sickness.

[20] Tabari 14.90.

[21] Ibid. 15.141-43. It is difficult to take Ali’s criticisms of Uthman’s weaknesses seriously. Uthman did flog leaders, suppress a rebellion in the Egypt-Tunisia area, and exile rebels or talk with them.

[22] Ibid. 15.144.

[23] Ibid. 15.205-06.

[24] Ibid. 17.215-16.

[25] Ibid. 17.221. This Quranic verse is translated by the Tabari translator.

[26] It should be pointed out that sometimes Muslims died while preaching, but in early Islam armies are never far behind. These preachers can also be considered martyrs; further, so can these five who do not fight in a jihad.

Narrated Abu Huraira: “Allah's Apostle said, ‘Five are regarded as martyrs: They are those who die because of plague, abdominal disease, drowning or a falling building etc., and the martyrs in Allah's Cause.’” (Bukhari, Jihad, 4.2829, with small mechanical edits).

The last reason, “Allah’s cause,” indeed refers to jihad, but the other acts throw the Islamic definition of martyr wide open.