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Martyrdom: A Very Short Introduction

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  • Posted February 7, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    Giving up one┬┐s life or accepting death for the sake of firmly h

    Giving up one’s life or accepting death for the sake of firmly held beliefs and convictions has a long and, mostly, noble history. It seems to have figured in various cultures and religions. Most of these acts have been recognized or treated as instances of martyrdom. This term etymologically means bearing of a witness, but has come to signify the witness of the ultimate kind – willingness to die for a cause or an ideal. 

    Most of us in the West consider martyrdom to be a quaint and ancient practice, out of place in the modern society, and reserved for fanatics. However, many acts of so-called martyrdom exist even today, and they highlight some of the difficulties of defining this term more precisely. Over the centuries there have been many debates and strong disagreements over what is a “true” martyrdom, and whether or not it can be used as a justification for a particular set of political and social actions and demands. 

    This very short introduction to martyrdom aims to give a fairly comprehensive historical account of this practice. The author draws on classical, Christian, Islamic, and many secular acts that have come to be considered martyrdoms. The book covers some of the contemporary, as well as modern, attitudes towards those acts and shows how they contributed to various social, political and religious movements. The book is scholarly and very informative, but it still manages to be accessible to a broader audience. 

    One question that I feel this book doesn’t answer adequately is WHY is martyrdom an effective political and social tool for overcoming the entrenched power relations. I would like to understand better the psychological and sociological forces that are at play which can make martyrdom into something much more useful and impactful than a seemingly meaningless waste of a human life. 

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