Martyrdom: A Very Short Introduction

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OUP Oxford, Nov 29, 2012 - Political Science - 141 pages
Martyrdom is not only a sharply contested term and act, but it has a long history of provoking controversy. One person's 'martyr' is another's 'terrorist', and one person's 'martyrdom operation' is another's 'suicide bombing'. Suicide attacks have made recurring questions about martyrdom more pertinent to current discussions. What is martyrdom? Why are some people drawn towards giving up their lives as martyrs? What place does religion play in inciting and creating martyrs? How are martyrs made? Why are some martyrs and martyrdoms remembered more than others? How helpful is the distinction between active and passive martyrdoms? In order both to answer such questions and to understand the contemporary debates about martyrdom, it is helpful to consider its diverse roots. In this Very Short Introduction, Jolyon Mitchell provides a historical analysis to shed light on how the concept and practice of martyrdom has evolved, as well as the different ways in which it is used today. ABOUT THE SERIES: The Very Short Introductions series from Oxford University Press contains hundreds of titles in almost every subject area. These pocket-sized books are the perfect way to get ahead in a new subject quickly. Our expert authors combine facts, analysis, perspective, new ideas, and enthusiasm to make interesting and challenging topics highly readable.

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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.


1 Debating martyrdom
2 Portraying martyrdom
3 Remembering martyrdom
4 Contesting martyrdom
5 Reforming martyrdom
6 Politicizing martyrdom
7 Questioning martyrdom
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About the author (2012)

Jolyon Mitchell is Director of the Centre for Theology and Public Issues at the University of Edinburgh. A former BBC World Service Producer and Journalist he is author or editor of many books, articles and essays. Recent books include Media Violence and Christian Ethics (CUP, 2007), TheReligion and Film Reader (contributing co-editor, Routledge, 2007), Promoting Peace, Inciting Violence (2011), and Religion and the News (2011).

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