The current popularity of Islamic martyrdom practices in the Middle East, particularly in Palestine and Israel, urgently requires scholarly investigation of this fundamental cultural activity. In order to reveal the patterns of martyrdom in Islamic societies and to compare them to similar human activities in other cultures, my analysis takes Victor Turner’s concept of the social drama as its theoretical background. Thus my essay consists of three parts. Firstly, important early Islamic narratives concerned with martyrdom will be examined. The second part of the essay discusses the structures and figures of these narratives and considers their role in the social drama. Thirdly, I will present and discuss some contemporary texts written by Islamic authors and activists in which the patterns of martyrdom resurface.
Martyrdom in Muslim Foundation Texts
As in many cultures, Muslim foundation texts relate the fate of allegedly historical characters who voluntarily offer their lives for the sake of belief. While martyrdom is rarely mentioned in the Qur’Án, historical texts and religious tradition provide a considerable number of figures and stories which celebrate early Muslims who died “in the way of God.” The fates of these characters unfold a variety of martyrdom patterns which not only run through all of Muslim historiography, theology and law, but are also evident in the contemporary variant of Islamic legitimised martyrdom as it is deployedin present global political struggles.
In his discussion of Islamic martyrdom, in which Qur’anic texts are taken as a point of departure, Ethan Kohlberg identifies “battlefield martyrdom” as the earliest type of Muslim martyrdom. And indeed, most of the martyrs who figure prominently in early Muslim historiography are those who fell in the clashes and battles between the rising Muslim community and their “pagan” enemies. According to the chronology apparent
in Muslim historiography, however, the first amongst the adherents of Islamic belief to be martyred were those who refused to renounce Islam. Most of them belonged to the musta’zafun, the weak, poor and marginalized stratum of the Mecca population, who were particularly attracted to Islam. Both tradition and historiography relate the stories of figures such as Yasir and Sumayya, Ammar bin Yasir, Amir bin Fahira, and Bilal. Ibn Hisham’s biography of the Prophet gathers some narratives concerning their fates.The Quraishis incarcerated the weak and poor among these first Muslims, starved them, and deprived them of water in order to make them renounce their faith. While some of them indeed abandoned their faith, others endured the torture. They either died or were redeemed by rich Muslims. Bilal, a black slave, exemplifies the latter fate. His owner Umayya bin Khalaf bin Wahb bin Hudhafa bin Jumah tried to make him renounce Islam by exposing him to the midday heat in Mecca. To increase the suffering, he also placed a rock on the slave’s chest, but instead of calling out in pain Bilal uttered the creed “ahad, ahad” (“one, one” i.e. there is only one God) until Abu Bakr finally redeemed him.3 The same happened to Ammar Ibn Yasir, while his parents Yasir and Sumayya died in the course of the torture. Abu Jahl, the prominent adversary of Muhammad, is said to have stabbed Sumayya, who is considered to be the first female martyr in Islam.
The focus on suffering is paramount to the stories of these early martyrs. Persecution and particularly pain are the means by which the truth of the martyrs’ testimony is highlighted. In the course of these stories, pain, which generally dissolves order and individuality, paradoxically strengthens identity, as paradigmatically expressed by Bilal’s utterance “ahad ahad.”4 The figures who suffer for their belief receive their respective reward. If they survive, they obtain a highly esteemed position in Muslim society, like Bilal, who became the first muezzin, and Ammar bin Yasir, who was later appointed governor of Kufa. Those who die gain their reward in the hereafter and enter paradise.5
It is this paradox of “power through weakness” that transforms these characters into symbolical figures which then enter the community’s memory. Conversely, the names of individuals who renounce Islam are rarely mentioned.
These stories of suffering for belief occur within a certain period of Islamic history, as the Muslim community is conceived of as a minority living among a majority adhering to the “old and pagan” religion of the Quraish. The continuous persecution finally re-sulted in the emigration of the Muslim community to Medina, and as a consequence of this move the structure of the conflict with the Quraish changed its quality and became a confrontation between spatially and socially distinct communities.
Given the qualitative change in the conflict, the rapid spread of Islam in the seventh century and its swift transformation into a religion of the aristocracy, it is hardly surprising that a martyrdom focusing on pain and torture is barely developed within Sunni Islam.The term battlefield martyrdom can be used to describe characters first appearing in texts dealing with the events after the emigration, specifically the subsequent military clashes between the Muslims and Quraishis and their respective allies. Particularly the reports about the fates of those Muslims who fell in the raids and battles at Uhud, al- Raji’, and Bi’r Ma’una provide elements which enhance the earliest pattern of martyrdom. Khubaib bin Adi figures prominently since his fate demonstrates and elaborates the above motifs of incarceration, torture and dying for the sake of belief, and combines them with elements of vengeance and fighting. Even though the reports about Khubaib’s fate vary to a certain degree,6 the events surrounding his death can be summarised as follows: at the beginning of the third7 year of the emigration, emissaries of the Banu Lihyan approached Muhammad and asked him to send missionaries to teach Islam to the people of Banu Lihyan. Pleased to see that his call was finally being heard by the Banu Lihyan – a tribe originally allied with the hostile Quraish – the Prophet dispatched a group of missionaries, among them Khubaib and Zaid bin al-Dathina, and appointed Asim bin Harith as their leader. On their way to the Banu Lihyan, the latter attacked the missionary group at a place called al-Raji’. As it turned out, the Banu Lihyan had re- sorted to a ruse in order to take vengeance for their tribesmen who had fallen during previous clashes, and to take hostages. During a fierce fight the Banu Lihyan kill Asim bin al-Harith, who refused to surrender, and take Khubaib and Zaid as prisoners. Back in Mecca, the Banu Lihyan sell Khubaib to the Banu l-Harith bin Amir bin Naufal, who want to take revenge on Khubaib because he had killed al-Harith during the battle of Badr. A sacred month, however, delays Khubaib’s pending execution; he is held as a prisoner in the house of a tribe’s woman called Mawiya. The imprisonment prepares the scene for a number of events and miracles by which his transformation into a martyr is completed. At the end of the sacred month, the Banu Lihyan kill Khubaib at a place in the vicinity of Mecca called al-Tan’im. Before he dies, he meets Zaid bin al-Dathina, who faces a similar fate. On their way to execution, they encourage each other to uphold their faith.
With regard to the type of martyrdom, the juxtaposition of the fates of Amir bin Harith and Khubaib highlights the transitional aspect of the story. The former, as a pure “battlefield martyr”, falls during a fight, while the latter figure still carries the imprints of the suffering of the early martyrs. Our discussion will begin with the development of Khubaib’s story. It is clear that the events at al-Raji’ represent a minor episode within the larger conflict between the Muslims and their enemies, which originally started when the Prophet Muhammad began propagating the new religion of Islam, thus breaking with the existing order of the Quraish. The story of al-Raji’ is hence merely one act in the large drama of the foundation myth of the Muslim community. Already the story’s opening draws attention to a major issue in the struggle between the Muslims and their enemies. When resorting to a ruse the Banu Lihyan emphasise that vengeance is a governing principle in their value system, more important than truth- or faithfulness, pivotal elements in the values formulated by Islam. As related above, the encounter of the Muslims with the Banu Lihyan brought about the death of Asim bin Harith, whereas the Banu Lihyan took Khubaib hostage. The Banu Lihyan sold him to a clan of the Qurai-shis called the Banu Harith, who were seeking to avenge a family member killed by Khubaib in a previous battle. Khubaib’s incarceration sets the stage for his transformation into a martyr figure. As prison marks off the space of Khubaib’s transformation, his immediate execution is delayed due to a sacred month. This period determines the time of the protagonist’s metamorphosis. Therefore his place in the house of Mawiya acquires a liminal quality displaying his situation on the borderline between worldly life and the hereafter. This interstice most aptly exhibits the protagonist’s values, belief system and exemplary behaviour. Mawiya observes a miracle performed on food, when, although out of season, delicious grapes larger than she had ever seen before were granted to the prisoner. The fact that he obviously receives otherworldly, paradisiacal fare reveals the close relationship to the divine that Khubaib enjoys in this interstitial space. A second incident shows his moral superiority as a Muslim. Khubaib asks Mawiya for a razor to shave off his pubic hair in order to prepare for his death. Mawiya sends her son into the prisoner’s room where the little boy hands over the blade to Khubaib. However, the latter does not exploit the situation by taking revenge for being held in captivity or the pending execution. Instead of threatening the boy or extorting his release, Khubaib treats him well and allows him to return to his mother. In this way Khubaib goes beyond the tribal order of vengeance, which is one of the driving forces of the story. In the further course of events the issue of vengeance will be transferred onto a metaphysical dimension. On the other hand, the incident proves his moral superiority, Khubaib, due to his religious commitment to truth and sincerity, is keeping his promises, unlike the Banu Lihyan. Simultaneously, the episode emphasises the protagonist’s purity and thus underlines his state on the threshold to the divine and the holy. A third motif that appears in the reports is the detained Khubaib’s ritual reciting of the Qur’Án. The women of the tribe are fascinated with his recital and start to admire him. Such a scene bestows an erotic facet upon relationships between the figures. As for Mawiya, we learn that she adores Khubaib’s behaviour and considers him to be the best human being she had ever seen. The reports congruently state that she later embraced Islam and became a good Muslim.
So far, these brief episodes concerning the circumstances of Khubaib’s detention have surrounded the martyr character with a canon of symbols related to his contact to the divine, to the erotic, and to purity.
The ensuing execution provides a second set of episodes that finalise the character’s metamorphosis into a martyr. After the sacred month has passed, the Banu Harith lead Khubaib to al-Tan’im, the place of execution.8 On his way he meets Zaid bin al- Dathina, who is awaiting a similar fate. Both encourage each other in face of their impending death. At al-Tan’im Khubaib asks his executioners to pray two rak’as so as tobe prepared for his death. He is contented with just two of these sequences of movements and recitals so as to not delay the execution. The execution scene resumes the element of pain that distinguished the figures martyred in the earlier period. When his executioners offer him his release on the condition that he renounces Islam, Khubaib fears neither pain nor death and insists on his belief and his support for the Muhammadan call. The reports present the execution in detail: how the Quraishis torture Khubaib, kill him and how, upon his death, his face is directed towards the qibla, the direction of prayer as prescribed by the Muslim rites. Shortly before his death, Khubaib threatens the Quraishis with a verse that asks for divine vengeance and thus transfers the issue to metaphysical dimension. Therefore, the execution is left to the tribe’s youth, who cannot be held responsible, while fear of a possible divine revenge spreads among the adults. The reports exemplify the effect of Khubaib’s death by narrating the scene as seen through the eyes of a witness, the young Sa’id bin Amir al-Jumahi. Not only does witnessing the execution frighten him – the trauma becomes inscribed into his memory – so that, as the biographies later report, he faints each time he recalls the situation. It is said that he became one of the most pious among the Muslims. Later he was appointed governor in the Bilad al-Sham.9 Sa’id’s story, however, is not limited to conversion. Very much like the reports concerning Mawiya, his biography epitomises the significance of memory, of utmost importance for martyrdom stories. Both figures transmit Khubaib’s story and likewise serve as a proof of his virtues and power. In spite of being obviously defeated, the figure appears mighty and powerful. It is this paradox that characterises Khubaib in particular and martyr characters in general. Their paradoxical nature significantly contributes to their symbolic power.
The reports about what happens to the hero’s dead body illustrate a further aspect of the topic. At night, the Muslims attempt to retrieve Khubaib’s corpse in order to bury him. However, when they look for him, they find that his body has vanished. Interestingly, Khubaib’s fate coincides here with that of Asim bin Thabit. After the latter fell at al- Raji’, a swarm of bees protected his body and prevented the Banu Lihyan from defilingit. The following night a flood sent by God washed the body away. Without a burial, a ritual closure, the fates of the protagonists remain somehow incomplete, continuing on in an ambiguous state of uncertainty somewhere between life and death, just like the stage of the larger conflict which frames their particular fates. This ambiguity reflects both the paradox inherent to martyrdom and its transitional quality.
The basic structure of martyrdom as exemplified by Khubaib might be summarised as follows: the hero is defeated in an incident occurring within a broader conflict between two communities adhering to different systems of belief. His struggle and period of detention outline certain values and truths that characterise the religious and social order of his community. The miracle of food with its paradisiacal connotation expressing the hero’s closeness to the divine, his reciting the holy writs and the erotic impact thereof, and the elevation of the issue of vengeance into a transcendent realm, all these elements underscore the superiority of the order represented by him. As a symbolic figure the protagonist is distinguished by his paradoxical nature. Physically defeated, he stays alive in the memory of his community. This paradox also reflects the irreconcilable state of conflict as well as its transitionality. A short survey of Hadith- literature and historiography related to martyrdom reveals that most of them cluster around the topics visible in the story of Khubaib. Much of the material mentioned in the tradition can be found as embellished and contextualised narratives in historical and biographical writings. The majority of the events occur in the reports about the famous battles and raids of the Muslim community, namely Badr and Uhud. It is, however, not our intention to scrutinize these texts and to conjecture how these might be interrelated in some way. Rather, we wish to outline how these traditions fit into the pattern shown above.
The episodes mentioned or alluded to in these texts focus mainly on the erotic aspect, purity, and the paradoxicality and, hence, transitionality of the martyr, suspended between life and death. In regard to the erotic facets there are well-known Hadith- texts that assign to each martyr one or several wives from among the Huris.10 However, if we compare the widespread topos of the paradisiacal Huris being married to the martyr with the events as they occur in Khubaib’s story, it is striking that the Huri theme combines both the erotic and the paradisiacal aspect, while in Khubaib’s story the erotic aspect is limited to his relationship to earthly figures. Here the grapes granted to him express the contact to the divine. Considering the closeness of Khubaib’s story to Christian martyrdom patterns – a short but revealing comparison of both will follow later on –, this shift in the imagery might be further proof for the hypothesis put forward by Christoph Luxenberg, who maintains that the Syro-Aramaic root of Huri denotes white grapes, the paradisiacal fare, which is bestowed on Khubaib during his detention.11
Other traditions, like the following transmitted by Abu Huraira, relate that “the two wives rush to the martyr before his blood clots on the ground, as if they were gazelles whose young got lost in a desert somewhere on earth, and both of them hold in her hands a basket containing good things of the world and what can be found therein.”12 Here the paradisiacal and the erotic atmosphere merge with an image of fare. The erotic facet is also striking in another narration which associates a Muslim warrior’s martyrdom with his earthly marriage. The night before the battle of Uhud Hanzala bin Abi Amir’s bride foresees the martyrdom of her bridegroom in a wedding night’s dream. She saw how the gates of heaven opened and, after Hanzala entered, the gates closed again.13
Concerning purity, the topic of washing the martyr’s corpse occurs frequently. However, angels take over the task. For example, after Hanzala’s death, the Prophet explains to his relatives that angels take over the task of washing the corpse.14
Angels frequently figure in establishing the deceased’s contact to the divine. They either shadow his corpse after dying or they elevate the fallen to heaven.15 This imagery is on the one hand associated with the integrity of the martyr’s body, while on the other hand it hints at the figure’s transitionality suspended between life and death. Many of the to- poi related to martyrdom focus on this issue, as in the case of Amir ibn al-FahÐra, who was among those the Quraishis tried to force to renounce Islam. He finally met his destiny at the Bi’r Ma’una incident.16 A witness reports that he was elevated to heaven after his death.17 Another variation of the theme is reflected in the story about the exhumation of the intact bodies of Abdallah bin Amr bin Haram and Amr bin al-Jamuh, untouched by decay forty-six years after their burial. The two fell during the battle of Uhud. The report says that even a wound in Abdallah’s face bled when his hand was removed from it, and the same happened when someone hit the foot of one of them. Their shrouds as well as Syrian Rue (Harmala)18, a burial object placed at their feet, were found unchanged.19 The image of the wounds still bleeding after death is transferred to the metaphysical when it is said that the wounds of those who were injured for the sake of God will bleed at the day of the resurrection.20
Another motif related to the transitional nature of the martyr figures reveals the issue of where to bury those fallen in the way of God. When relatives return from the battle with their fallen, the Prophet insists that they should be buried where they were killed. This is an obvious denial of the ritual practise of returning corpses to the abode of their families; instead, they are to remain at the place that designates the line of conflict.21
These rather earthly images find their metaphysical analogue in a purely paradisiacal imagery. In this context the Qur’an refers to those fallen in God’s way in sura 3:169 and 2:154 when emphasising their “living with God.”22 Another cluster of Hadiths develops a partly enigmatic imagery around the martyrs living in or on the threshold of paradise.
One of its facets is the close relationship to the divine. A tradition explaining the cir- cumstances of Qur’an 3:189 chronologically places its revelation in the aftermath of the battle of Uhud, when Jabir asked the Prophet about his father’s fate. Jabir learns from the Prophet that God does not talk directly to anybody but from behind a veil; Jabir’s father, however, is addressed face-to-face. Asked for his wishes, Jabir’s father pleads for his resurrection, but not in order to continue his life on earth, but to experience the joy of dying in the way of God a second time. Tradition mainly locates the fallen in the way of God in paradise, although there is one tradition, going back to Ibn Abbas, that locates them at the gate of paradise, where they receive their fare in the morning and in the afternoon.23 Here we again find that fare is a prominent feature of the paradisiacal realm. A similar picture is also found in the most enigmatic statement about the martyr’s place in paradise. Concerning the Muslims killed in the battle of Uhud, it is said that God brought their souls into the bodies of green birds, which come to rest at the rivers of paradise and enjoy its delicious fruits. The souls take refuge in golden lanterns positioned in the shadows of the throne. In paradise they enjoy fare and refreshing drinks.24
Apart from the image of fare, it seems difficult to decipher the comprehensive meaning of the saying. The green birds and the lanterns close or attached to the divine throne certainly express the martyr’s proximity to the divine, while “green” and the lanterns may carry connotations of eternity.
Such an interpretation gains meaning especially if we take into consideration the Christian martyr cults in the ancient Near East. It would be naïve to assume that Muslim concepts of martyrdom emerged isolated from their Christian environment, in which martyr cults were paramount. A short comparison later on will outline common features and differences in Christian and Muslim martyrdom concepts. For now, however, we may assume that the bird symbolism derives from the paradisisiacal birds in the Christian canon of paradisiacal images, while the lanterns (Arabic qanadil, from Latin candela) could be commensurate with the Christian candles lit in the memory of martyrs.25 Another frequent motif is the martyr’s wish to return to earthly life in order to die in the way of God again.26 When surveying these narrations from Hadith- and history, however, those relating to martyrs in paradise develop a symbolism focussing on the transitional, the gifted fare, and eternity, their erotic facet remaining marginal. As already alluded to at several places, certain similarities between Christian and Muslim concepts of martyrdom are obvious. Such a comparative study certainly demands, and deserves, in-depth analysis. For our purposes here, a juxtaposition of Khubaib’s story with the events of St. George’s martyrdom might suffice to disclose some revealing consistencies and interesting differences.27 At least since the fifth century George was one of the most prominent saints venerated in Palestine, Arabia, and the whole Middle East. Legend has it that the third-century Cappadocian Christian, who protested against the persecution of his fellow believers and refused to renounce his faith, was excessively tortured, and was indeed martyred more than once. Several scenes of his passion are reminiscent of Khubaib’s fate. One encounters a slightly different version of the food miracle, the incident taking place in the house of a poor widow, who hosts the martyr. Interestingly, here, too, a little boy appears in this episode. George treats him well and heals the blind, deaf and dumb son of the widow. At another point of the passion, the wife of the emperor overhears his recital of psalms and converts to Christianity, as do those people who witness his suffering and attend his execution embrace his faith. During his sufferings he is able to talk to God directly. Like Khubaib, he says a prayer before his execution, affirming his belief, and then threatens his executioners with divine revenge in the form of a fire from heaven that would devour his adversaries.
Similarly to the Muslim narrations on martyrdom, the occurrences accompanying George’s passion are characterized by imprints of the erotic and the contact to the di- vine. Even the images and metaphors developed in the narrations are analogous, as are certain methods of torture mentioned. A fundamental difference to the fate of the Mus- lim martyrs is, however, how George is repeatedly revived by Christ after being martyred. But even this topic resonates in Muslim tradition, when the martyrs ask God to be returned to earth in order to die in His way a second time.28 These discrepancies in the configuration of the stories are interesting, as they mirror fundamental theological and dogmatic differences between Christianity and Islam on the one hand, and, on the other hand, make clear how the social environment in which the story is set determines its course.
Martyrdom as a Social Drama
For a theoretical framework for the phenomenon of martyrdom, considering martyrdom as a part of a “social drama” appears to be a promising approach. The societal conflict providing the background for martyrdom obviously features the characteristics of a social drama. Victor Turner, who discovered social drama as a means for solving social conflicts, bases his ideas on the assumption that culture is a performative process. A social drama occurs in or between communities or groups that possess a common history. The four stages of the social drama can easily be identified in the conflict which accompanied the emergence of the Islamic faith. The first stage is marked by a breach of social norms that initiates the conflict. Regarding the foundation myth of the Muslim community, the attempt to establish an alternative, competing religious-social order triggers off a struggle with the representatives of the traditional order. This breach gives way to an escalating crisis, the second stage of the social drama. In the course of the social drama’s third stage, the communities involved reach a state of reflection by means of trials or ritual acts. In the social drama as reflected in the foundation myth of the Muslim community, the reflective third stage is discernible in the episodes and periods which exhibit the differences between the old and the new order. In the context of this larger social drama martyrdom can be conceived of as one of the performative episodes that negotiate the conflict in the symbolical sphere. Inspired by Arnold van Gennep’s analysis of the ritual process, Turner explains that the third stage of the social drama is the most interesting one, as in its course an interstitial or liminal space emerges, one in which different worlds intermingle. This can be characterized as a world inverted, which carries qualities related to the erotic, the holy and the divine. It may be performed in different forms, as a trial, as ritual acts, or a play and, of course, be narrated as a foundation myth. In the drama’s third stage new symbolical canons arise which represent the community’s identity.29 Martyrdom evidently represents a stage where the conflicts appear irreconcilable. It precedes the fourth stage of the social drama, when the parties gain solution of the conflict or the final break is accomplished. In our context it is noteworthy that metaphors related to imprisonment and the imagery of incarceration are a frequent means for representing such a semiogenetic moment.30
Martyrdom thus belongs to the means through which social dramas mark the beginning of new orders and thus find their way into the canon of foundation myths in many communities. The differences crystallised in the course of the negotiation and the symbols taking their place become fundamental elements in the identity of the emerging community. The drama enters the cultural memory, which in turn is of paramount importance in the cultural practices that create and maintain identity.31 Moreover, social dramas carry on social and cultural reflectivity. But above all, social drama may be used or exploited by certain individuals or groups in order to mobilize communities for certain purposes. Modern Restaging of Martyrdom.
Given the transitional quality of martyrdom, it is no surprise that the cultural activity of restaging martyrdom mainly occurs at locations or in times characterised by transition. Apart from aptly reflecting an individual’s or a community’s situation in an unsettled conflict – seen from the perspective of a minority position –, martyrdom creates meaning when, by the means of such a cultural activity, a superficially senseless position or dynamic is embedded into an existing symbolic canon. In particular the Muslim intellectuals’ perception and portrayal of the international and national conflicts in a Manichean manner abets this tendency. In order to justify their claims to legitimacy and as the upholders of truth, the twentieth-century Islamic movements in Egypt and elsewhere in the Muslim world increasingly make use of the martyrdom schemes as they appear in the Muslim foundation myth, seeing them as a means for maintaining and practising identity. As an apt tool for a lucid exploration of identity, literature provides an appropriate space for restaging such social dramas.
It was the small number of early martyrs in Islam who served as models as the Egyptian writer and member of the Muslim Brotherhood Ahmad Ra’if tried to launch a series of theatre plays entitled “The First Martyrs in Islam”. One play of this series, which he himself wrote and published, was “Yasir and Sumayya.”32 Using the material available in Islamic historiography, “Yasir and Sumayya” displays and embellishes the stories surrounding the martyr couple and their son Ammar. Of course Abu Jahl figures as Muhammad’s adversary and torturer. The play refrains from establishing an explicit relation to the writer’s contemporary situation. Nonetheless, the choice of the topic and the portrayal of the characters and their relationships allude to the contemporary context and relate the present to the symbolic canon provided in the Islamic foundation myth.
The playwright and writer Ali Ahmad Bakathir,33 who was among the supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and a prolific writer in its newspapers and magazines, also introduced the martyrdom topic into his work. In the context of discussing martyrdom as a part of a social drama it is particularly interesting to consider Bakathir’s discussion of the existence of an autochthonous theatrical tradition in Arab and Islamic culture. Bakathir states that the beginnings of the theatre were indeed existent in Islamic culture, and that “the rites of pilgrimage for example can be seen as a kind of drama which enacts the memory about Ibrahim al-Khalil, the fate of his wife Hajar and his son Isma’il. The Arabs have performed these rites ever since and later Islam affirmed them as the rites of pilgrimage to the Haram, the house of God.”34
Bakathir compares the religious foundations of the theatre in different cultures and concludes that forms of performative expressions exist in the religion of each culture. However, regarding Arabic culture, he sees “a difference between these rites and the performative religious ceremonies of other peoples, since all individuals in the community of the Arabs participate in these rites. That is to say, it is not that a group from the community performs these memories while the others observe their actions, as in the case of other peoples. Furthermore, the different roles (of the rite) are not divided among the individuals of the particular group, so that each one of them figures in a certain part, rather the community as a whole performs the rite and each individual in the community performs all its parts.”35 It is rather noteworthy that Bakathir considers the rites of pilgrimage as being a kind of memorial activity in which all members of the Muslim community participate. Although Bakathir does not further develop his thought and refrains from scrutinizing the dynamics of the collective performance, his idea comes close to one of Turner’s assumptions, namely that a social drama is a cultural means by which identity is maintained. Against the background of such an approach to theatre, Bakathir’s various attempts to put historical topics on stage appear only reasonable. Even though in his plays performance remains restricted to the members of the troupe, theatre is not just a means of education and entertainment but one of the memorial practices in culture, contributing to the maintaining, renewal and developing of identity. Bakathir’s approach to theatre and performativity is to a certain degree reflected in the theatrical activities of the Muslim Brotherhood. Theatre played a major role in its cultural activities, which led to the emergence of a considerable corpus of plays and some troupes touring Egypt. Moreover, the movement encouraged writers to compose religious plays.36
Bakathir wrote many plays and novels set in early and medieval Islamic history. Among the posthumously published plays of Bakathir, his “The Noble Prisoner ‘Khubaib bin Adi’” explicitly restages the early martyr’s fate in contemporary theatre.37 Up until now there is no further information available about the whereabouts of the play, however, according to what we know about the theatre activities of the Muslim Brotherhood, the play fits into its theatrical agenda, which set out that in the course of one show a historical play enlightening events from the Islamic past and a contemporary play were to be staged.38
In Bakathir’s dramatisation of the story most of the motifs the historical narratives provide occur. He introduces, however, some essential modifications concerning the presence and the roles of the characters. Apart from Khubaib, Mawiya, the woman in whose house Khubaib is kept as a prisoner, appears as a central figure. Bakathir names her Jalila and also embellishes the part of her son, who appears in the play as Amir. In the historical reports the boy either remained nameless or was mentioned as Abu Husain. The purpose of Bakathir’s focus on the two becomes clear as the events of the play unfold: the little boy befriends Khubaib in his prison and finally converts to Islam after recognising that the values and virtues to which the “noble” prisoner subscribes belong to the core values making up the new religion. Jalila is the second figure in the play who embraces Islam in face of Khubaib’s fate. Their conversion almost outweighs Khubaib’s story. It is their witnessing of the events and their development into true Muslims on which the play focuses at the end. Even though the play performs the liminal experience of Khubaib and exposes its paradoxicality, the figure remains a rather lifeless catalyst for the others’ transformation. Another focus that Bakathir introduces into the play is the issue of torture. JalÐla and the members of her tribe try to force Khubaib to renounce Islam by maltreating him. The martyr endures the torture uttering “al-Hamdu li-llah” (Thanks to God), which contributes to the conversion of the boy and his mother, who in the beginning even took part in the whipping. Of course Khubaib’s contact to the divine is expressed by the food miracle, which frequently occurs in the course of the play.
However, Bakathir refrains from fully performing the erotic elements in Khubaib’s story. Although Jalila shows a considerable admiration for the prisoner, which does not lack a romantic undertone, a certain sense of prudishness prevails. When for example the little boy hands the blade over to the prisoner, Khubaib uses the tool for trimming his beard and not shaving his pubic hair. The play also tackles the issue of treason and vengeance, as evident in Muslim historiography.
Bakathir’s main achievement in dramatising Khubaib’s story lies, apart from enabling its performance on stage, in his emphasis on Amir and JalÐla, who witness the events and even share Khubaib’s liminal experience. Although to a certain degree they partake of his martyrdom, they survive. The liminal experience elevates them to another ontological level, closer to the divine, which transforms them into religious activists. Likewise, they fulfil the task of transmitting these experiences to the audience.
It is obvious that Bakathir’s drama on Khubaib bears the imprint of the persecution suffered by the Muslim Brothers in Egypt during the first two decades after the 1952 revolution. Persecution became an overwhelming topic in the writing of Egyptian Islamic activists. In particular autobiographical writings pick out the experiences of detention as a central theme. The most famous example of a Muslim activist’s autobiographical literature is the prison memoirs of Zainab al-Ghazali, “Days of My Life.”39 In her discussion of the memoirs Miriam Cooke suggests that al-Ghazali chose the motif of martyrdom and the imagery of the martyr as one element in forming the protagonist; however, when discussing the martyrdom paradigm, Cooke does not refer to the particulars of this paradigm as it appears in the Muslim foundation texts. Cooke even claims that the fate of al-Ghazali resembles the paradigm of Christian saints.40 As we will see though, the elements of the martyrdom paradigm are instrumental in structuring the text. Just as Bakathir used the martyrdom of Khubaib to create a liminal condition elevating the protagonists to a new ontological level, it will become clear from the analysis of the prison memoirs that al-Ghazali exploits the martyrdom paradigm to cast herself as an outstanding Muslim activist. If we scrutinise the arrangement of al-Ghazali’s text, we see that the basic structure recalls the structure of Khubaib’s story in many respects. We find the elements of treason, incarceration and execution. The text opens with a car accident in which the protagonist is injured. Later the reader learns that the Egyptian secret service plotted against al-Ghazali and staged the accident.41 After the accident has opened up the narrative space, the first chapter presents al-Ghazali’s religious-political vita. Already at this stage the author shows a clear inclination towards martyrdom, many of the persons she ranks among her acquaintances and fellows were sentenced to death or subsequently killed, and she uses the epithet “martyr” when mentioning them.42 Furthermore, the first chapter alludes to the ideological differences between the nationalist government and the Islamic movement, reducing them to a conflict of Manichean dimensions, and equates the contemporary situation with the conflict between the early Muslim believers and the pagan population of Mecca. Another similarity to the Khubaibian subtext is her educative mission, since she considers teaching Islamic belief as her main task in society.
The core of the narrative centres on the narrator’s incarceration and her enduring the tyranny of the authorities. The depiction of the heroine’s experiences during incarceration creates a liminal condition quite similar to the texts already discussed. Among the elements employed to create this condition, torture plays a prominent role. As the heroine endures all kinds of unbearable torture, her body, just like Bakathir’s Khubaib, becomes the touchstone of the truth of her belief. Likewise, these scenes create the paradoxicality that is instrumental in the genesis of the martyr symbol.
Another scene is reminiscent of the food miracle. After having been exhaustively interrogated and tortured she fell asleep, and saw herself among beautiful people, wearing black silk dresses embroidered with pearls, bringing plates made from gold and silver with delicious food on it, meat and fruits she had never seen before. She enjoyed eating the food, and, after waking up from her nap, she felt satisfied and no longer hungry.43
Although the miracle is transferred to a dream, this scene exceeds the Khubaibian imagery since the paradisiacal atmosphere is further enriched by the text’s allusion to Qur’Án 35:33 “Gardens of Eden! They enter them wearing armlets of gold and pearl and their raiment therein is silk”. Such an allusion implies that the autobiographical narrator entered paradise, even if in a dream. She even outstrips the traditional Muslim martyrs when she enters paradise and returns to earthly life.
It would be interesting to discuss al-Ghazali’s text in a more detailed manner. Here we have to content ourselves with mentioning a few other motifs to reveal the importance of the martyrdom structure running through it. The text does not elide the role of the witness who converts to Islam upon becoming aware of the martyr’s or martyr-like figure’s supernatural capacity evolving from their belief. In al-Ghazali’s memoirs the gaoler Salah takes over this part. In his case the narrator cooperates with the famous thinker of the Muslim Brotherhood, Sayyid Qutb, whose behaviour and character impresses Salah, while Zainab al-Ghazali teaches him true belief.44 The relation between the two of them is reminiscent of the erotically charged relationship between Khubaib and Mawiya. Generally, the erotic aspect of the liminal condition becomes mainly visible in the narrator’s dreams.
Although the ending of al-Ghazali’s memoirs coincides with the defeat of the Egyptian army during the Six Days War, which heralded the decline of Nasser regime, the elements employed to close Khubaib’s story resonate within the text. As Khubaib bin Adi and Zaid bin al-Dathina encouraged each other on their way to execution, al-Ghazali meets her fellow prisoners after the trial in court, among them Abd al-Fattah Isma’il, one of the first fellow activists mentioned in her memoirs. Asking about the fate of the Muslim Brothers she hears her friends shouting: “Martyrs in the way of God”.45 Other scenes in the memoirs recall the imagery related to protecting the martyr’s body from being defiled by his enemies, as in the case of Asim bin Harith. Once, in the course of interrogation, Zainab al Ghazali is locked up in a prison cell and attacked by dogs. Miraculously her body is protected from being lacerated, and even her dress remains unstained.46
This survey might be sufficient to elucidate how the motifs from Muslim martyrdom narratives serve as an effective subtext to al-Ghazali’s prison memoirs. The paradigm of the martyrdom drama effectively contributes to creating the liminal condition that transforms the protagonist into a symbolic figure. The paradoxicality of the martyr figure is one of the most efficient means for shaping her symbolic persona and promoting her agenda. However, a fundamental difference between the earlier martyrdom texts and practices and the autobiographical text is the fact that, apart from the gaoler or torturer, the same character plays all roles necessary in the martyrdom drama: the protagonist, the witness and the transmitter of the events, i.e. the agent determining memory. Thus, instead of entering another ontological dimension, like paradise, or cultural memory, the protagonist uses the symbolism surrounding her to legitimise her religious-political activism. The pattern of martyrdom here becomes the means for weaving an Ego-text. Evidently, martyrdom, as an act in a social drama, unfolds its power as an effective means for maintaining and reshaping identity in times and at locations particularly marked by transition.
As a universally comprehensive cultural practice, enacting this drama provides meaning in times of conflict which appear irreconcilable. The very nature of its closure necessarily creates ambiguity and tension. This transitional quality calls for an ensuing act in which the underlying conflict may be solved and thus keeps it alive. Certainly, the texts discussed mirror but a facet of the cultural practices related to martyrdom. Communities possess a variety of performative activities to stage this essential act of their drama of identity and they are by no means restricted to literature. I would like to suggest that the martyrdom ideologies of Palestinian and al-Qa’ida terrorists carry on these cultural martyrdom practices. However, due to contemporary social and political conditions and ideological manipulation, martyrdom practices are shifted out their ritually framed realms. Instead of playfully exploring identity, their protagonists transfer martyrdom into a bellicose activity, considering real life as a stage.
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