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MARTYRDOM IN CHRISTIANITY AND ISLAM

 

Brian Wicker

 

 

    This paper compares and contrasts the concepts of martyrdom in two twentieth-century plays: T.S. Eliotís Murder in the Cathedral (1935) and Murder in Baghdad: the Tragedy of Al Hallaj by ĎAbd al-Sabur (1965).  The comparison is illuminating because ĎAbd al-Sabur, a well-established Egyptian poet and teacher of literature, was deeply influenced by Eliotís modernism, and seems to have conceived his Arabic drama as a companion piece to Eliotís.  Each writer is concerned to bring out what he conceives to be the essence of genuine martyrdom.  Eliot does so as a Christian in the Catholic tradition, while ĎAbd al-Sabur is a Sunni Muslim confronted by a Sufi-influenced Shia Ďsaintí.[i]   How much do they have in common?

 

   In discussing a Christian martyrdom it is necessary to distinguish two separate, but connected aspects.  The first is what the martyr him- or her-self was and did.  This is a matter of history and biography; that is, of what can be discovered or recovered from the accounts of what happened leading to the martyrdom, together with any available information about the state of mind of the martyr at the time of his or her confrontation with death.  The second aspect is the process by which, at least in the case of Catholic martyrs, public recognition emerges, leading to the formal canonisation of the martyr as a saint.  Obviously this second aspect depends heavily upon the first, for it requires answers to the question whether the virtues or characteristics of the person concerned qualify her or him for inclusion in the calendar of martyrs.  But it also involves a theological question: namely, how far do these qualities measure up to the requirements for martyrdom?  What exactly do we mean by Ďmartyrí?  What tests are to be applied to any particular claim for martyr status?  Of course, formal public recognition of martyr status in no way prevents others, who do not get recognised, from being genuine martyrs as well.  Anyone whose acts and dispositions leading to death are of the required kind, in the appropriate situation, will be a martyr whether or not the Church knows this.  In any case cults centred on people regarded by a local church as martyrs cannot be prevented from arising.  Indeed it is usually because of such local cults that a formal process of canonisation takes place (as in the case of Thomas Becket).  Part of the function of the formal process of canonisation is to prevent spurious and undesirable claims gaining public favour.  But canonisation in no way limits martyrdom status to those who gain favour with the church Ďauthoritiesí, and get their names on the calendar.  A question that arises here is whether persons who find themselves in what we may call martyr-situations may be formally or informally recognised as martyrs even when they are not members of the community of the Christian baptised.  This is the question that underlies my consideration of the case of al-Hallaj, who is the protagonist in ĎAbd al-Saburís play.

 

 

    Murder in the Cathedral [ii] is about the killing, on the orders of King Henry II, of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, in late 1170AD.  Thomas, himself of Norman descent, had been appointed the senior judicial authority in England, in 1155.  As such he enjoyed the worldly pleasures of being the kingís closest confidant and adviser on matters of state.  The only higher position to which he could aspire was the Archbishopric of Canterbury, to which the Pope appointed him in 1162.  Almost as soon as he was made Archbishop, Thomas forsook his former worldly life and pleasures, including his friendship with the king, and single-mindedly took upon himself the pastoral and spiritual responsibilities of leading the church in England.  It was this change of direction in Thomasís life that infuriated Henry.  When it led Thomas to oppose the kingís interference in church affairs, the latter decided to get rid of Thomas, and ordered his murder.  Knights loyal to Henry carried out the order, in the Cathedral, on December 29th 1170.  Almost immediately a popular cult grew up around Thomasís martyrdom, and Thomas was canonised in 1173.

 

   The action of Eliotís play consists primarily of Becketís confrontation with four different spiritual temptations. The first three are temptations he has already anticipated. The first is to return to Ďthe good times pastí, and to be easy-going with those who were once his friends.  This is hardly a temptation at all; it has come twenty years too late, as Thomas points out.  Next comes the temptation to regain the political power that was once Thomasís as chancellor, in order to dispense justice to the poor and needy; the very people whom Thomas is called to serve. Thomas dismisses this temptation, by challenging the tempter: shall I

 

                                              Ďwho bind and loose with power from the Pope,

                                               Descend to desire a punier power?í

 

Thirdly comes the temptation to create Ďa happy coalition of intelligent interestsí, against  Ďthe tyrannous jurisdiction of kingís court over bishopís courtí.  In short, to side with the Norman barons, who think of themselves as the Ďbackbone of Englandí, against the misgovernment of the king.  Thomas dismisses this temptation too, with a contemptuous shrug:                                                                                                 

                                             

                                              ĎPursue your treacheries as you have done before:

                                               No one shall say that I betrayed a kingí.

 

At this point Thomas thinks he has finished with temptations: but there is an unexpected fourth challenge to be confronted.  This tempter offers Thomas just what he most desires, namely to be a saint; that is to

 

                                       ĎSeek the way of martyrdom, make yourself the lowest

                                        On earth, to be high in heavení.

 

This is the hardest, most subtle temptation of all, because the tempter is simply a version of what Thomas himself still is, in the here and now. This temptation does not come from a past which Thomas has already overcome; it expresses what Thomas wants now, which is to be a martyr, and to be recognised as such.  He has to overcome it by struggling with himself in our presence, in front of the chorus, and in the presence three priests and the tempters collectively, who meanwhile reflect on the depths of Thomasís dilemma, his Gethsemane experience.  In the end he does so.  As he says:

 

 

 

                                      ĎTemptation shall not come in this kind again.

                                       The last temptation is the greatest treason:

                                       To do the right deed for the wrong reasoní.

 

    The core of Eliotís conception of martyrdom lies here, in the struggle of Thomas with the fourth temptation.  So it is scrutinising it in more detail that we can begin to understand the key point of the play. This is that you cannot become a martyr by your own choice.  Martyrdom is not a matter of allowing yourself to be killed, for whatever cause, however just or meritorious.  It is a matter of allowing God to choose (or not to choose) whether you should be martyred.  Martyrdom is the ultimate abnegation, because it is not only giving up your life, but also giving up all your desire; even, and perhaps especially, including the desire to be a martyr.  For that desire is the last gasp of the overwhelming, perpetual temptation to do what you want to do, rather than doing what God wills for you.  So the essence of martyrdom is the conquest of desire itself. The mere will to live has already been overcome; but this is not enough.  The will to die has to be conquered also.  The martyrís death has to come as a gift, not as the fulfilment of any wish, any ambition, any aspiration on his part.

 

  This becomes clear in the sermon that Thomas preaches on Christmas morning, between the two main Acts of the drama.  For he has now confronted the last temptation, and already knows what is going to happen.

 

      ĎA Christian martyrdom is never an accident, for Saints are not made by accident.  Still less is a Christian martyrdom the effect of a manís will to become a Saint, as a man by willing and contriving may become a ruler of men.  A martyrdom is always the design of God, for His love of men, to warn them and to lead them, to bring them back to His ways..the true martyr is he who has become the instrument of God, and who no longer desires anything for himself, not even the glory of being a martyr.í

 

   Eliot emphasises the temptation to become a saint as the effect of a manís own will, by later putting some of Thomasís opening words, as he enters upon the stage, into the mouth of his last tempter.  On his entrance, Thomas had said this to his priests, referring to the women of Canterbury who form the chorus to the drama:

              

            ĎThey speak better than they know, and beyond your understanding.

            They know and do not know, that action is suffering

            And suffering is action.  Neither does the agent suffer

            Nor the patient act.  But both are fixed

            In an eternal action, an eternal patience

            To which all must consent that it may be willed

            And which all must suffer that they may will it,

            That the pattern may subsist, for the pattern is the action

            And the suffering, that the wheel may turn and still

            Be forever stillí.   

   

The worldly priests do not understand any of this mysterious speech.  The fourth tempter is the only person who does understand it, because he is reflecting back to Thomas what Thomas already knows from theology books, but which he cannot fully make his own until his alter ago, the tempter himself, has uttered them.  But what do we, as audience, make of it?  We too have to learn what it really means, by looking at, and indeed participating in, the making of the martyr.  For we too are those for whom the martyrdom of Thomas has to be endured: we are as much the Ďchorusí as the women of Canterbury are.  Their words, as they begin to understand what it is all about after the murder is over, have to become ours too.

 

   But what do these words signify?  Thomasís final struggle is the struggle to come to terms, in his own life, with their meaning.  His only action now is to suffer: he can do no more, having conquered the temptations of worldly activity.  But to suffer is itself a form of action, since being acted upon by God in His execution of His Will is the only response now open, and responding is itself an action.  To submit to being Godís patient is the ultimate deed.  But even this act of suffering must not be the product of a desire to suffer, for that would be to reinstate desire at the very point where desire itself has been extinguished.  As a Christian thinker and scholar, Thomas has already learnt this from books of theology and from the Christian tradition.  But now he has to do more: he has to embody this understanding in his own action, in his own body.  And this is what the fourth temptation is about.  The tempter says directly to Thomas the very thing that Thomas has said to his priests:

 

                  ĎYou know and do not know, what it is to act or sufferí

 

but now this truth is to be absorbed into Thomasís own body and soul.  He has to face the fact that what he already knew, as a matter of theology, is about to be enacted in himself.  He not only knows now what a martyr is, he has to show what it is, by going through with it in his own death.

  

  Eliotís thesis is that the conquest of all desire, including even desire for holiness, lies at the root of all true sanctity, of all martyrdom.  For without this, he argues, the martyr cannot wholly submit his own will to the will of God.  But the thesis about the abnegation of desire cannot be safely generalised for all martyrs: for many martyrdoms are not sufficiently well-recorded for such knowledge of the victimís state of mind to be available.  And people have died as martyrs because of a thirst for justice rather than through a complete and conscious renunciation of all desire, including the desire for justice.  In this respect, Eliot underestimates, or perhaps misrepresents the second temptation posed to Thomas.  Of course simply resuming the life of a public administrator would be an ignoble choice.  The second tempterís suggestion that

 

 

               ĎPower obtained grows to glory,

                Life lasting, a permanent possessioní

 

is a genuine and dangerous possibility that Thomas rightly spurns.  But the tempter has a better case to make than this:

 

           ĎTo set down the great, protect the poor,

            Beneath the throne of God can man do more?

            Disarm the ruffian, strengthen the laws,

            Rule for the good of the better cause,

            Dispensing justice make all even,

            Is thrive on earth, and perhaps in heavení.

 

  In rejecting even this plea I think Thomas spurns the adminstratorís life too easily.  After all, setting down the great and protecting the poor is what many have been martyred for, as the example of Oscar Romero shows.  Yet to do so may well involve collaboration with the powers of this world.  The administrators of (say) Amnesty International or Oxfam know this well enough.  They have to cajole worldly businessmen, and even make deals with governments, in order to achieve the justice they seek. Thomas More showed that the political life is not absolutely incompatible with sanctity.  Plainly such a life requires the individual to habour the desire to do good, rather than to deny all desire for the sake of the higher claim to submit to the divine will.  Thus, in spurning the second tempterís argument, Thomas is allowed to avoid the necessary dilemmas which many saints have had to grapple with and solve, each in his or her own way.  That success in such an enterprise is impossible without Godís grace is obvious enough.  But that such grace can come from the purification of desire, as much as from its elimination, is also clear.

 

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   The immediate reason for the murder of al Hallaj, according to ĎAbd al Sabur in Murder in Baghdad, is not that he has incited rebellion against the Sultan (as Thomas had opposed the will of Henry II), for while he is accused of this in the trial scene of the play, it is announced that the Sultan has personally cleared him of this charge.  The accusation on which he is condemned is heresy; namely that ĎGod reveals Himself to himí or ĎGod manifests Himself in himí.  (p. 74)  The judges have been asked by the Sultanís Vizier whether al Hallaj Ďclaims that God manifests Himself in him, and such other things inspired by the devilí.  In other words, they think they have to decide whether al Hallaj is claiming to be a specially favoured soul who has a mystical relationship to God which is denied to orthodox Muslims.  As a Sufi, al Hallaj is here being tried for unorthodoxy. The playís translator says, in his Introduction, that among other unorthodox beliefs within Sufism, one is that God Ďis immanent, whereas orthodoxy holds that God is transcendentí. (p. xix)  Belief in Godís immanence seems to be al Hallajís crime, for which he is condemned:

 

 

                         ĎThe Sultan may grant amnesty for a crime committed against the State,

                           But God does not forgive one who sins against Himí.  (p. 71)

   

  Underlying al Hallajís claim that God is manifested in him (but of course not uniquely in him) is a profound theological idea: God is Love.  It was Godís Love which first led al Hallaj into the Sufi order, with the purpose of developing a fuller spiritual understanding of divine Love, and then out of it again into the world, in order to preach Godís Love to the poor and dispossessed.  Within orthodox Islam the Sufi doctrine of divine Love (expressed in the play by Shibli, the Shaykh of the Sufis) could be permitted to flourish only as long as it remained enclosed within a closed circle of mystical persons who made no attempt to preach it to the masses.  This was doubtless because of a fear that such a doctrine of divine Love, through which God becomes manifest in human loving, would prejudice the concept of Godís utter transcendence which is central to Muslim theology.  This is the underlying reason why al Hallajís decision to preach Godís Love to the world leads to his condemnation; because his belief in Godís Love, especially of the poor and oppressed, is both a political threat to the absolute authority of the Sultanís regime and a theological threat to the religious claims of orthodox Islam.

 

   In defending himself at the trial, al Hallaj has to explain what led him to the way of martyrdom.  He tells his judges that he has been through the process of becoming learned; and he has sought God in prayer.  But neither of these on its own has overcome his Ďfear of death, fear of life, fear of the unknowní. (p. 64)  In going through these stages of spiritual progress he has come to understand that Ďwhat I was worshipping was my fear, not God Ė I was worshipping more than one God: my God was also my fear..(and) I felt that I was selling my prayers to God..greed was also my Godí.  In making fear and greed into objects of worship al Hallaj asks himself:

 

            ĎIs associating other Beings with God preordained?

             Otherwise, how would I worship Him alone?

             And concentrate my thought upon Him alone?í (p. 65)

 

Here al Hallaj is acknowledging his own Muslim orthodoxy.  The fierce monotheism, or anti-Trinitarianism, of Islam is at its strongest in al Hallajís soul at this point.  But he is also aware of something else about God, as he recalls the words spoken to him at his Sufi robing:

                                                    

              ĎTrue love is the death of the lover,

              So that he may live in the Beloved.

              You are not a lover until you have discarded your own identity,

              And have assumed His.í  (p. 21)

 

This surely is the crux of al Hallajís predicament: his love of fellow human beings leads him to preach the Ďsecretí of Godís Love, namely that it (which of course is the pattern of ordinary human loving) leads us to Ďassume the identityí of the Beloved.  Hence the claim that God is manifest in him simply by loving him: the claim for which he is condemned.  It is this mystery which the orthodox characters in the play cannot understand, and certainly cannot accept, because they think it undermines Godís aseity and utter one-ness.  Hence too their anxiety that the Ďsecretí of this Love might be exposed.

 

  Al Hallaj goes on to explain to the orthodox law officer who comes to arrest him that

 

              Ďmy being is a part of Him which shall return to Himí

 

and when the law officer perspicaciously protests:

 

             ĎDo you mean that this worn out frame is part of God,

             

al Hallaj goes on:

 

             ĎYes, a broken frame is a part of Him when it is pureí. (p. 30)

             

Of course, the law-officer is right.  Except metaphorically, nothing can be a part of God, and certainly nothing so inadequate as a fallen human being.  God is not divisible into parts.  Al Hallaj is certainly taking a risk of being misunderstood in putting his point in this way, thus misrepresenting what he truly means.[iii]  But, more importantly, in saying these words he gives away something that Sufism insists is a secret that must never be betrayed:

 

                 ĎDo you now know that love is a secret between two lovers?

                  It is a relationship which, if made public, defiles our honor..

                  We had made a covenant that I should keep the secret

                  Until I lie in my tomb, silenced by deathí.  (pp 30-31)

 

This betrayal of the secret of Divine Love, which seems to be modelled on the secret of the sacred sexual union of man and woman, is what haunts al Hallaj.  He expects and even thirsts for the punishment which comes from betraying the secret.  From his point of view it is the giving away of the secret which is the real cause of his death.

 

***********************************************************************

   I find it hard to see why the reality of Godís Love has to be kept a secret, rather than being at the core of preaching about God.  Is it because all love between God and man is conceived as a kind of marriage contract, the innermost reality of which has to remain secret between the partners?   Or is it because it is part of a closed Sufi tradition, not to be revealed outside the order?  Anyhow, theologically it is hard to see the rationale for such secrecy.  Furthermore, there are good philosophical reasons for al Hallajís claims about Godís being manifest in himself, i.e. that God Ďis in every man without distinctioní. (p. 30)  Although al Hallaj in the play does not suggest these reasons, they would have been plain once Aristotleís philosophical inheritance had been absorbed into Islam.  For of course it is central to Aristotleís account of causality, which was later absorbed into both Christian and Muslim philosophy, that causes are present in, and manifested in their effects.  Just as the sunshine is in the cornflakes (to quote the very Aristotelean Kelloggís advertisement), so too God, as cause of everythingís existence, is in His creatures, and especially in his supreme earthly creation, humankind.   Is it the absence of this Aristotelean insight that leads the orthodox characters in ,Abd al Saburís play, rather surprisingly, given the enormous debt to Aristotle in other areas of Muslim thought, to deny al Hallajís most telling claim about his relationship to God?  For I see no good reason why it should be thought that Godís being manifested in his creatures, as the cause of their existence, is any kind of threat to His one-ness or transcendence.  Why then the Ďsecretí?  Aquinas had no difficulty with it: why should any Muslim theologian?  If God is Love (as Sufism and Christianity both proclaim) why should there be any difficulty in believing that God is manifested in human beings?  Why should any Muslim wish to deny this?

 

   Part of the answer may lie in a further theological point.  If God is Love, and the source of all love in this world, then it seems to follow that there must be some distinction of Lover and Beloved within the undoubted one-ness and aseity of the Godhead.  Al Hallaj admits as much when he says that love is necessarily a secret between two lovers, and implies that this is true of divine Love as well as of human love. (p. 30)  Anyhow, a thoroughgoing Thomist must say[iv] that the very concept of loving demands that there be a beloved Ďotherí.  Anyhow it seems quite inappropriate to think of Godís Love as merely self-love.  Since love is an outpouring of the lover as a gift to the beloved, love even within the Godhead must indeed be a gift of Lover to Beloved.  This is the fundamental reason for the doctrine of the Trinity, which (as Aquinas, not to mention the Nicene creed, never fails to insist) in no way whatever prejudices the absolute one-ness of God.  Whether the Sufi doctrine of the Divine Love, as manifested in al Hallajís life and martyrdom, shows any sign of recognising this truth I leave to others to decide.

 

   Murder in Baghdad contains an unresolved mystery about al Hallajís fate.  How is the preaching of Divine Love which is the fundamental cause of his martyrdom to be reconciled with Muslim orthodoxy?  And why is it something to be kept a secret so sacred that its betrayal, even in the act of preaching Godís Love for all of us, is a capital offence, and is welcomed as such by those who profess it?  The lack of an answer to this question in the play tends to emphasise the possibility that political reasons account for al Hallajís murder, despite his own protestations to the contrary.  How  far then does Eliotís claim, that martyrdom necessitates the overcoming of all desire by the victim, in order that she or he becomes wholly submissive to the divine will, also apply to ĎAbd al Saburís play?  It is not a prominent theme there; and indeed the political effects of al Hallajís decision to go out and preach his doctrine of Divine Love comes across clearly as something that results from what al Hallaj wants to do.  His is an active, not a passive martyrdom.  He can mount a good challenge to Eliotís second temptation.  Indeed sometimes he positively seeks martyrdom, even perhaps to the extent of doing the right deed for the wrong reason:

 

          ĎPunish me, O my Beloved, for I have divulged the secret

           And betrayed our covenant.

           Do not forgive me; my heart can bear no more...

           Make my frail body, my wrinkled skin,

           The instruments of your punishmentí.    (p. 33)

 

Yet the emphasis in the play upon al Hallajís insight about Godís Love is implicitly in tune with Eliotís conception.  For God to be truly manifest in him is for him to be identified with Godís will, and to that extent the overcoming of all desire other than to do what God wants seems implicit in the subtext if not so much in the words put into his mouth.  

               

   However, there is a tension, if not a downright contradiction, at the heart of al Hallajís predicament.  He is right to insist that Godís Love is manifested, as first cause, in the very existence of his creatures.  But if, as the orthodox characters in the play also imply, in their condemnation of al Hallaj, Godís love does not involve a beloved Ďotherí within the Godhead, then this Love necessarily requires a beloved Ďotherí within creation, and perhaps especially in Godís supreme creation, humankind.  If there is no Beloved within the Godhead, then the part of the Beloved has to be taken by human beings.  To this extent we are necessary to God.  And this surely compromises Godís transcendence.  This is the dilemma which al Hallaj poses, not only to himself but to the orthodox Muslims who confront him.  ĎAbd al Saburís play does not attempt to resolve the tension.  But it manifests it in a particularly striking way.  Perhaps this is its primary value as a study of an Islamic martyrdom.  

 


 

[i] It should be pointed out that, having no Arabic, I am relying wholly on the English translation of ĎAbd al-Saburís work, by Khalil I. Semaan (Leiden, E.J. Brill, 1972)

[ii] First performed in Canterbury Cathedral in June 1935.  The text was published by Faber and Faber, of London, at the same time.  In concentrating on the theological aspects of Eliotís drama I am unable adequately to discuss the playís great literary importance, especially the fact that it virtually inaugurated the modern revival in English of the classical Greek form of tragic drama in verse; a revival later taken up not only by Eliot himself but by a number of other authors.

[iii] Whether ĎAbd al Sabur himself understands how misleading these words are is not altogether clear.  I am assuming that there is no evidence that the historical al Hallaj actually said them.

[iv] As Peter Geach does say, in his very Thomistic discussion of the virtue of Charity, in The Virtues: The Stanton Lectures 1973-74 (Cambridge University Press, 1977)