Monday, September 6, 2010

Martyr and Witness (and why a common root in Arabic?)

It seems that the words Martyr and Witness are inextricably intertwined. At least in some cultures and languages they are. I first realised they are related when I noticed that words in Arabic (and Persian as well as in Urdu) are from the same root: Sh-H-D شهد

Witness : شاهِد (shaahid)

Martyr : شهِيد (shaheed)


Further research reveals that this is also the case in Greek, Church Latin and Syriac. It seems that in the Classical Mediterranean world the concepts of martyr and witness were not related to each other linguistically. However during the Age of the Apostles of Christ the first instances of the relationship between these two words came to light. From this time onwards till the issue of the Edict of Milan by Constantine in 313AD, with varying degrees of persecution, the Christian believers (starting with Stephen Martyr in 33AD) were tried by various Roman courts for apostasy and were found guilty of this crime, usually punishable by death. 

Why for apostasy? Throughout the history of the Roman empire, the Romans had been highly tolerant of other religions and gods. The Roman emperors / senate went so far as to identify the new gods they came across amongst the theology of their newly acquired subjects with those of their own Roman pantheon, as long as these subjects sacrificed to the Roman gods as well. But this was not all, the Romans were even more accommodating. Jewish theology clearly forbade sacrifice to the Roman or any other pagan gods. The Romans accepted Judaism as an ancient and venerable religious tradition from remote antiquity and did not construe this prohibition against sacrifice as Jewish disrespect against Roman gods. Christian theology, nascent though it was during the Age of the Apostles, too forbade sacrifices to pagan gods. At the same time the Christians, the Hellenistic Christians at any rate, maintained that though they too followed the same God of the Scripture as the Jews, they were not a sect of Judaism and were not bound by the Hebrew Bible. They had the New Testament, the Gospel which replaced the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible. Hence to the Romans these Christians were neither pagans nor Jews and as the Romans only knew of Jesus Christ as a minor mischief maker in a far-flung-edge-of-the-empire-garrison town and not the Son of God, the Christians could only be apostates. Apostasy was considered to be a heresy of the highest order by the Romans and was thought of as the primary reason for the Roman gods’ anger with the Roman people. Ergo the Roman zeal to eliminate apostasy in all forms from within the vast expanse of their empire. Zeal ;) :), nice word to describe the Zealots’ greatest enemy.

Now, back to the Christian martyrs in the Age of Apostles and thereafter. It seems that it was believed by the Early Christians that those amongst them who were being called to trial by the Romans on charges of apostasy were actually being called by God to bear witness to His truth. They were providing testimony of God, of the Gospel and of Jesus Christ; and they were ready to “seal” their testimony with their own blood by submitting to capital punishment for their belief. The Christians also believed that in doing this they were following the example of Jesus Christ, Martyr Kat’ Exochen, martyr par excellence, who bore witness to the truth of God before Pontus Pilate and then gave up his life on the cross for this testimony.

Some of the languages which share this association between the words Martyr and Witness are given below:




(Church and Modern, not Ancient)





Syriac ܣܗܕܐ


(hence Persian, Turki, Urdu etc by extension)




There could be other languages as well which share common roots for Martyr and Witness but I have not been able to uncover the  relationship.
It seems that relationship between Martyr and Witness is a fundamental Early Christian concept. Perhaps that is why this connection is not evident in Hebrew, Ancient Greek, Old Latin, Aramaic (unsure), Old Persian, Uzbek, Sanskrit, Welsh, Gaelic, High / Low German etcetera.

This learning has been fascinating for me but now it brings me to the threshold of a new question. Why do the words Martyr and Witness share the same root in Arabic?

It seems that a common root for Martyr – Witness is not a Semitic concept.  Most Semitic languages do not share the root Sh-H-D for Martyr-Witness; they have different roots for these two words. Hebrew, Aramaic and Geez do not show any signs of a common ground between Martyr and Witness (perhaps they do but I am inept at a thorough analysis in these languages). Syriac, a Semitic language, is a variant of Aramaic and is an exception. Syriac developed into its classical form during the Age of Apostles and thereafter. Further it has always been used as a liturgical language of one of the oldest churches in the world. Hence a common root Martyr-Witness in Syriac is perfectly natural.

But why the same root for Martyr-Witness in Arabic? Why this second exception from amongst the group of Semitic languages?

It seems to me that Classical Arabic did not receive this Martyr-Witness concept from a linguistic Semitic sources but rather from a religious source, namely Christianity. The more I think about it the more Gunter Luling’s assertions of a Christian Pre-Islamic Mecca and a Christian Ur-Koran spin faster and faster around my head. Prof Luling’s work is extremely good and extremely erudite and I do not claim to understand most of it. Hence I will desist from writing about his work or about any other Higher Criticism.

A further study of Pre-Islamic Arabic poetry should shed some more light on whether the same root for Martry-Witness was used during times of “Jahiliyya” (Ignác Goldziher rolls his eyes). Again there could surface some more words for either Martyr, Witness or for both. And finally in which sense have these words been used in Pre-Islamic poetry?

It could be that Arabic has a common root / word for Martry and Witness because of a natural linguistic evolution akin to the same phenomenon seen in Greek and Syriac but independent of these. Perhaps the reason is something else entirely but I would certainly like to know about it and am wiling to do more thorough research on this enigma. Anybody got Hazrat Sibawayhi’s email ID?