The Prophet Yahya (PBUH) suffers – and shows – true Martyrdom

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, 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.”

Now Herod had arrested John and bound him and put him in prison because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, for John had been saying to him: “It is not lawful for you to have her.” Herod wanted to kill John, but he was afraid of the people, because they considered John a prophet.

On Herod’s birthday the daughter of Herodias danced for the guests and pleased Herod so much that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she asked. Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist.” 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 – contrary to the sharia law of Musa (PBUH).  The 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.

The Result of Yahya’s martyrdom

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)

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? 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. 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 those who follow violence today.

Zabur Closes – with Promise of the Coming Preparer

The coming of the Prophet Yahya (PBUH) Foretold

We saw in the Sign of the Servant that the Servant was promised to come. But the whole promise of his coming balanced on an important question. Isaiah 53 began with the question:

Who has believed our message …? (Isaiah 53:1a)

Isaiah (PBUH) was predicting that this Servant would not be readily believed, and the problem was not with the message or the Signs of the Servant because they would be precise in timing by cycles of ‘Sevens’ as well as by name and specifying that he would be ‘cut off’. The problem was not that there were not enough signs. No, the problem was that the hearts of people were hard. So someone needed to come before the Servant came to prepare people for his coming. Therefore the prophet Isaiah (PBUH) gave this message about the one who would prepare the way for the Servant. He wrote this message in his book of the Zabur in the following way

A voice of one calling:

“In the wilderness prepare

the way for the LORD;

make straight in the desert

a highway for our God.

Every valley shall be raised up,

every mountain and hill made low;

the rough ground shall become level,

the rugged places a plain.

And the glory of the LORD will be revealed” Isaiah 40:3-5

Isaiah (PBUH) wrote about someone who would come ‘In the wilderness’ to ‘prepare the way for the LORD’. This person would smooth out the obstacles so that the ‘glory of the LORD will be revealed’. But Isaiah did not specify in what way this would be done.

The Prophet Malachi – Last Prophet of Zabur

The Prophets Isaiah, Malachi and Elijah (PBUT) shown in historical timeline
The Prophets Isaiah, Malachi and Elijah (PBUT) shown in historical timeline

About 300 years after Isaiah came Malachi (PBUH) who wrote the last book of the Zabur. In this last book Malachi (PBUH) elaborates on what Isaiah had said about a coming Preparer. He wrote:

“I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the LORD Almighty. (Malachi 3:1)

Here again the messenger who would ‘prepare the way’ is predicted. After this Preparer comes then ‘the messenger of the covenant’ will come. What covenant is Malachi (PBUH) referring to? Remember that the prophet Jeremiah (PBUH) had predicted that Allah would make a new covenant by writing it in our hearts. Only then would we be able to quench our thirst which always leads us to sin. This is the same covenant that Malachi (PBUH) is referring to. The giving of that covenant will be signaled by the coming of the Preparer.

Malachi (PBUH) then closes the entire Zabur with the last paragraph of his book. In that last paragraph he again looks to the future and writes:

“See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.” Malachi 4:5-6

What did Malachi (PBUH) mean by ‘Elijah’ would come before the great day of the LORD? Who was Elijah? He was another prophet whom we have not looked at (we cannot look at all prophets of Zabur since it would make this too long but see him in timeline above). Elijah (PBUH) lived around 850 BC. He was famous for living in the wilderness and wearing garments of animal hair and eating wild food. He probably looked quite peculiar. Malachi (PBUH) wrote that in some way The Preparer who comes before the New Covenant will be like Elijah (PBUH).

And with that statement, the Zabur was completed. This is the last message in the Zabur and was written about 450 BC. The Taurat and the Zabur were full of promises of things to come. Let us review some.

Reviewing the Promises of Taurat & Zabur that were still unfulfilled

So with the close of the Zabur in 450 BC the Jewish people lived in anticipation of the fulfillment of these wonderful promises. And they kept waiting and waiting. One generation replaced another and then still others would come – with no fulfillment of these promises.

What happened after the Zabur was completed

As we saw in the History of the Israelites, Alexander the Great conquered most of the known world in 330 BC and from these conquests the peoples and civilizations of the world adopted the Greek language. As English today has become a universal language for business, education and literature, in that time Greek was similarly dominant. Jewish teachers translated the Taurat and Zabur from Hebrew into Greek around 250 BC. This translation was called the Septuagint. As we saw here, this is where the word ‘Christ’ comes from and we saw here that this was where the name ‘Jesus’ also comes from.

The Prophets Isaiah, Malachi and Elijah (PBUT) shown in historical timeline
The Prophets Isaiah, Malachi and Elijah (PBUT) shown in historical timeline

During this time (300 – 100 BC which is the blue period shown in the timeline) there was an ongoing military rivalry between Egypt and Syria and with the Israelites dwelling right between these two empires they were regularly caught up in the battles. Some specific Syrian kings sought to impose the Greek religion (a religion of idol worship) on the Israelites and to eradicate their worship of One God. Certain Jewish leaders led an uprising to defend their monotheism and restore the purity of worship instituted by the Prophet Musa (PBUH). Were these religious leaders the fulfillments of these promises that the Jews awaited? These men, though faithful followers of worship as instructed in the Taurat and Zabur, did not fit the Prophetic Signs. In fact they themselves did not even claim to be prophets, just pious Jews defending their worship against idolatry.

Historical books about this period, describing these struggles that preserved the purity of worship were written. These books provide historical and religious insight and are very valuable. But the Jewish people did not regard them as being written by prophets and so these books were not included in the Zabur. They were good books, written by religious men, but they were not written by prophets. These books were known as the Apocrypha.

But because these books were useful they were often included alongside the Taurat and Zabur to give a complete history of the Jewish people. After the Injil and the message of Isa al Masih (PBUH) was written the books of Taurat, Zabur and Injil were combined into one book – al kitab or Bible. Some Bibles today will even include these books of Apocrypha, though they are not part of Taurat, Zabur or Injil.

But the promises given in Taurat and Zabur were still fulfillment. Following the Greek influences the powerful Roman Empire expanded and replaced the Greeks to rule over the Jews (this is the yellow period that comes after the blue in the timeline above). The Romans ruled efficiently but harshly. Taxes were high and the Romans tolerated no dissent. The Jewish people longed ever more for the fulfillment of the promises given in Taurat and Zabur, though in their long wait their worship became very rigid and they developed many extra rules not from the prophets but from traditions. These extra ‘commands’ seemed like good ideas when they were first suggested but they quickly replaced the original commands of the Taurat and Zabur in the hearts and minds of the Jewish teachers.

And then finally when it looked like perhaps the promises were long forgotten by Allah, the mighty angel Gabriel (Jabril) came to announce the long awaited birth of the Preparer.  We know him today as the Prophet Yahya (or John the Baptist – PBUH) . But that is the beginning of the Injil, which we look at next.