The Power of Martyrdom: The Killing of the Hamas Spiritual Leader Gives Militant Islam Another Potent Image. but Violent Death Is Also Revered in Judaism and Christianity

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Five times a day, the men and boys kneel and touch their foreheads to the floor of the makeshift mosque in west London. The congregation numbers a dozen or so, but Friday prayers attract so many that the faithful spill out of the house to fill the garage. As the men rock back and forth, a tinny speaker amplifies the imam's prayers inside: "May Allah elect me to the ranks of the prophets and the martyrs, whom He will favour with rewards." The rite, repeated by men and women from west London to the West Bank, reminds Muslims that martyrdom is blessed, a sacred sacrifice that can fuel and regenerate the moral life of both the individual and the community.

Martyrdom is the believer's uncompromising response to the compromised secular world of oppressive authorities, mercenary politicians and blasphemous practices. Where others bend to the unbelievers' influence, the martyr defends the faith against all attacks--even at the cost of his life. And the lives of others.

Martyrdom comes from the Greek word for "bearing witness". In Islam, shahada has its roots in the Koran, which, according to the Brighton-based imam Abdul Jalil Sajid, "singles out for special tribute those who die in the defence of their faith". Islam honours its martyrs. Imam Hussein, revered by Shias as the rightful heir to the Prophet Muhammad, was killed in 680 during the Battle of Karbala, where he and 72 members of his family tried to defend themselves against 1,000 attackers. A golden shrine has been erected in the Iraqi city in his memory, and it has become a site of pilgrimage for Muslims the world over.

In Iran, every 25 September, believers visit the tombs of those who died for their faith during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), the "Sacred Defence" war waged to protect the Iranians' devout Islamic faith from the secular forces of Saddam Hussein. Visitors spray the tombs with perfume and sweep them clean.

Martyrs to the Palestinian cause are remembered in posters, stickers and cards held aloft by mourners. Swathed in keffiyehs, they adorn Arab homes in the West Bank. And they are swapped among schoolchildren in the same way British children swap football stickers.

Now Sheikh Ahmed Yassin joins the martyrs' ranks. Assassinated by the Israelis in Gaza City last Monday, the spiritual leader of Hamas has already had his status--victim in the holy war--confirmed by Yasser Arafat. The funeral procession of 200,000 mourners was led by militants who used loudspeakers to call out: "What is your aim? To be killed. Who is your leader? Sheikh Yassin. Who is your prophet? Muhammad."

The procession, with its shrieks and incantations, weeping men and veiled women, looked suitably exotic on western television screens. It confirmed the depiction of suicide bombers as the executors of an alien and impenetrable will. We think of martyrdom as an exclusively Muslim concept, the extremist theology of fundamentalist sects. This suggests hypocrisy--or at least ignorance. Martyrdom has long played a role in Christian and Jewish traditions. Consider St Edmund, King of the East Angles from 855AD. He was shot with arrows in a battle that pitched the Christian soldier king and his subjects against heathen Danish invaders. Similarly, there are St Theodore Tyro and St Theodore Stratelates, the martyrs of Melitene, St Ignatius of Antioch and St Gordius of Cappadocia, to name but a few. Although the Christian Church honours legions of martyrs who passively awaited their fate (being torn limb from limb by wild beasts, or having their virginal breasts lopped off by a spurned suitor, or being stoned to death), the Church militant has been a much-cherished image in Christianity since the Middle Ages, when its iconography, as the art historian Frank Dabell points out, "was everywhere to be found: in woodcuts found in churches, and in tabernacles at every street corner".

For Jews, Masada has been a pilgrimage site since the first Zionists settled in Palestine. …