The word ‘martyr’ is used a lot these days. I hear it when someone is killed in one of the many wars going on, or in some conflict between sects when fighters are killing each other and someone dies. He usually is referred to as a ‘martyr’ by his side (and perhaps a kafir by the other side).
But is this correct? The injil records how the prophet Yahya (PBUH) was martyred during the ministry of Isa al Masih (PBUH) and he provides a great example of how to understand this. Here is how the injil records these events:
At that time Herod the tetrarch heard the reports about Jesus, 2 and he said to his attendants, “This is John the Baptist; he has risen from the dead! That is why miraculous powers are at work in him.”
3 Now Herod had arrested John and bound him and put him in prison because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, 4 for John had been saying to him: “It is not lawful for you to have her.” 5 Herod wanted to kill John, but he was afraid of the people, because they considered John a prophet.
6 On Herod’s birthday the daughter of Herodias danced for the guests and pleased Herod so much 7 that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she asked. 8 Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist.” 9 The king was distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he ordered that her request be granted 10 and had John beheaded in the prison. 11 His head was brought in on a platter and given to the girl, who carried it to her mother. 12 John’s disciples came and took his body and buried it. Then they went and told Jesus. (Matthew 14: 1-12)
We see first why the prophet Yahya (PBUH) had been arrested. The local king (Herod) had taken his brother’s wife from him and made her his own wife – which was contrary to the sharia law of Musa (PBUH). Being a prophet Yahya (PBUH) had publicly said that this was wrong but the corrupt king, instead of listening to the prophet, had arrested him. The wife, who benefited from this new marriage because she was now the wife of a powerful king, wanted the prophet silenced so she conspired to have her grown daughter perform a sensual dance before her husband the king and his guests at a party. He was so moved by the daughter’s performance that he promised to give her whatever she asked. Her mother told her to ask for the head of the prophet Yahya (PBUH). So the prophet Yahya (PBUH), jailed because he spoke the truth, was beheaded simply because the sensual dance of a girl trapped the king in front of his guests.
We also see that the prophet Yahya (PBUH) was not fighting anyone, nor was he trying to kill the king. He was simply speaking the truth. He was not afraid to warn a corrupt king even though he had no earthly power to stand against the might of this king. He spoke the truth because of his love for sharia law revealed to the prophet Musa (PBUH). This is a good example for us today showing how we fight (by speaking truth) and what we fight for (truth of the prophets). The prophet Yahya (PBUH) did not try to kill the king, lead a revolution or start a war. This was how he was martyred.
And his approach was most effective. The king was so conscience-stricken by his murder that he thought that the powerful teachings and miracles of the Prophet Isa al Masih (PBUH) was Yahya (PBUH) come back to life.
Isa al Masih (PBUH) said this about the prophet Yahya (PBUH)
7 As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? 8 If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. 9 Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written:
“‘I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.’
11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. 12 From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence, and violent people have been raiding it. 13 For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. 14 And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. 15 Whoever has ears, let them hear. (Matthew 11: 7-15)
Here Isa (PBUH) confirms that Yahya (PBUH) was the ‘preparer’ prophesied to come and that he was great among the prophets. His entrance to the Kingdom of heaven endures to this day while King Herod – so powerful back then – has nothing because he refused to submit to the prophets.
There were violent people in the prophet Yahya’s (PBUH) day who beheaded others and likewise there are violent people who do the same today. These violent people are even ‘raiding’ the Kingdom of Heaven. But they will not enter it. Entering the Kingdom of Heaven means taking the path that Yahya (PBUH) took – of making peace and speaking truth. We are wise if we follow his example and not the examples of so many who follow violence today.