Who’s a ‘Martyr’?

“A martyr is a man who dies in fight against infidels,” I read the opening line of a grade-2 lesson about a Pakistani military hero from the 1965 war between India and Pakistan. “Infidels”? I read the line again to make sure I didn’t get it wrong. And maybe I did, for the word in that line was none else than “infidel”. What could be more wrong?

How words are dressed variously, ambiguously, and even wildly is something that hardly escapes my attention. As a child, the manipulative textbooks in religious or political history taught us that someone who dies for his/her country or homeland, defending it, is called a martyr. This definition worked well for serving the political cause of the state of Pakistan, marking India as an enemy state. The same lesson or a different one in the same or another book would then narrate tales of heroism of Pakistani soldiers fighting India in 1965.

But this meaning of ‘martyr’ had a serious drawback in religious terms. If dying for one’s country was martyrdom, then who were the real martyrs in the history of Islam: the Muslims who fought to occupy the land of non-Muslims (infidels) or the infidels who fought to defend their land against Muslim invasions? Literally, the infidels appeared to be the real martyrs. But of course, Islamic dogma wouldn’t allow any others outside Islamic faith to be credited as martyrs.

To dispel this potential undermining of Islamic heroes, books and other publications started referring to “martyr” as people who sacrificed their lives for the sake of their faith. At places, the meaning was broader and vaguely ethical: one who dies for a good cause. The problem with the fist meaning was again obvious. If dying in defense of one’s faith was martyrdom, then all the non-Muslims who fought to defend their religion were martyrs, even by the Islamic definition, for they were just doing what martyrdom required—dying for their faith. Could this be acceptable to Islamic dogma? Obviously not!

On the other hand, the vaguely ethical definition of dying for a “good cause” had its own problems since the meaning of good can be disputable and its use cannot be confined to the dogma of a single religion or the political boundaries of a state. Even terrorists would call their “cause” noble and sacred. Though having greater merit for its openness, the term “good” fails both religious and political correctness. Most, if not all, religions and other systems share key universal values and fighting for them, anyone can attain martyrdom — which, of course, isn’t acceptable to a manipulative state or religious group.

This perhaps is the reason why the definition of martyrdom is being wheeled back to another point i.e. faith, but this time they don’t mean just any faith but Islamic faith only. Fighting infidels is something much more restricted in meaning since in Islam, infidels have been pretty clearly defined, or strongly implied at least. Yet, here again, the definition contradicts itself when tested on an imaginary battleground. If a Pakistani soldier dies fighting not a Hindu (infidel) but a Muslim Indian soldier (of one’s own faith), would he qualify for the title martyr? In such a case, the Indian Muslim was a man of faith as much as our Pakistani Muslim soldier. None of them was infidel; both defending their land as their religion ordains. So what will happen to martyrdom? Or is martyr versus martyr?

Not surprisingly, manipulating a word for political, religious, or other reasons has its cracks which let a critical look at its nature reveal more than is meant to betray. So can we really define a martyr then, without leaving many crevices to undermine its validity? We sure can try—by removing the spectacles of manipulation for serving a particular religion or state, and instead placing universal humanist ideals as the reference point for meaning. The incident of an American soldier dying for an Afghan child is the best recent example of finding meaning in the best available context. We have a martyr here—one who gave his life to save that of a child without letting any biases tether his steps. So let’s follow in his steps, for his are the steps of a martyr.