Martyrdom in Modern Islam Piety, Power, and Politics By Meir Hatina (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014. 276 pages.)

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Showkat Ahmad Dar



Meir Hatina, associate professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies and
director of the Levtzion Center for Islamic studies at the Hebrew University
of Jerusalem, explores the evolving perceptions of martyrdom in modern times
and their relevance on past legacies in both Sunni and Shi‘i milieus. He also
makes comparative references to Judaism, Christianity, and other non-Islamic
cultures. The book is divided into eight chapters, an introduction, a conclusion,
a bibliography, and an index.
In the introduction the author discusses the manifestations of martyrdom
throughout history, its definitions, socio-political implications, and importance
in various world religions. In order to present this concept’s historical evolution
and notions and how it is an effective tool for forming and reinforcing
groups, Hatina has framed his book in a series of well-arranged chapters.
In the first chapter, “Defying the Oppressor: Martyrdom in Judaism and
Christianity,” the author traces the historical and theological foundations of
this phenomenon in both religions. He relates how traditional Jews were ready
to sacrifice their life and viewed martyrdom as the highest degree of their love
for God. However, he argues that with the advent of the Zionist movement,
this readiness was replaced “by an activist approach to self-sacrifice for the
national revival.” Christians, on the other hand, considered martyrdom “the
key for salvation.” By quoting the remarks of Quintus Tertullian (d. c. 240),
the father of Latin Christianity, namely, “your cruelty is our glory” and “the
blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church” (p. 26), Hatina seeks to express
the early Christians’ readiness to embrace their non-violent and defensive
deaths at the hands of the pagan Romans.
In chapter 2, “Dying for God in Islam,” Hatina delineates the evidence of
martyrdom in Islamic texts and its diverse interpretations by renowned scholars.
He mentions the two types of death in this regard – death for the cause of Allah
and self-inflicted suicide – and cites the relevant fatwas of both Sunni and Shi‘i
scholars. Denouncing any sort of self-inflicted suicide, including murder with
reference to shar‘ī texts, he nevertheless appreciates the soldiers’ wish for death
on the battlefield against their enemies. He presents martyrdom in Islamic legal
thought as an exalted form of death and argues that theologians stressed that a
soldier who desires such a death eventually finds a greater reward ...

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