The term martyr (Greek μάρτυς martys "witness") is most commonly used today to describe an individual who sacrifices their life (or personal freedom) in order to further a cause or belief for many. Long ago, 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. The term in the English language is a loanword and often used 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 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.
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).
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:
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:
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.
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(alahi salam) 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 .
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 life-long 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.
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.