Do You Translate شهداء as Martyrs?

From Nina Paley, see:

If there is one word that most alienates English-language readers of Arabic literature it’s neither masha’allah nor insha’allah — which are perhaps mostly objects of curiosity — nor jihad nor madrassa (except for specialist Islamophobes) but شهيد, commonly translated as martyr.

This is not because we Anglos lack the idea of dying as witnesses and would only die for our Big Macs or laptops or Prada whatchamacallits. Americans have a great reverence for fallen soldiers, for instance, even such soldiers as were fighting in unjust, corrupt wars. But there isn’t really a word that coalesces around this respectful reverence. It could be felt for any of those who witnessed and died at the World Trade Center in 2001. But an English-language speaker would not call these men and women “martyrs.”

Originally, the words شهيد and martyr (from the Greek) had much in common: The word martyr originally meant a witness (شاهد), but then it morphed — into someone who witnessed with risk,  someone who died, a religious person — as it was used and made use of by the early Christians.

The English-language term changed again (according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the year was 1931) to become an “exaggerated desire for self-sacrifice.”  When the word martyr now appears in (non-Arab) English-language discourse, it usually carries this connotation. OMG, don’t be such a martyr. One surely could write a whole book about the sociocultural shift in the meaning of “martyr.” I won’t.

Or, in the specialty Islamophobe dictionary, the term means (roughly) look what those freaky Arabs mean when they say martyr. It turns around and points back at itself, but is no less scary for that. 

Still, I guess, the words martyr and شهيد remain similar enough that most translators will substitute one for the other. I suppose it happens in both directions, although I’m not sure what sense would come out of, Wallahi, don’t be such a شهيد.

And then, recently, I found someone working against this translation of شهيد as martyr. It wasn’t in a translation of Arabic literature to English, but in a book written originally in English, Ahdaf Soueif’s Cairo: My City, Our Revolution. Soueif doesn’t entirely eschew the words martyr and martyrdom. She uses them as synonyms for shaheed/shuhada several times, as if getting the reader ready for the switch. Then, as the book goes on, she substitutes shuhada. It is as though she is trying to gently move us to a new linguistic and cultural understanding. Off you go: shuhada. 

Soueif does not explain herself here, but she does say in an endnote: “Shaheed, plural: shuhada. Martyr. The root sh/h/d is ‘to see’ and ‘to bear witness’. A ‘witness’, for example in a court case, is a ‘shahed’. Being a ‘shahed’ is only part – a temporary part – of a person’s identity or function. A ‘shaheed’ is someone who bears ultimate witness; someone whose sole function now is to bear witness”.

Of course, one could argue that many English/Arabic terms are “false friends.” They seem alike in the dictionary, but have developed very different nests of associations in actual practice. One could further argue that we can’t react by transliterating every blessed one of them.

But shuhada, I argue, is a special case. When an Anglo reads martyr, it isn’t just that she gets the wrong associations. It isn’t just that she doesn’t understand the word’s much broader application in Arabic. It’s that a dense roadblock is thrown up between her and the whole text. Either the word causes her to giggle or flinch in terror, or both.

I suppose it could feel honest to translate شهيد as martyr. After all, one doesn’t want to “clean” these sort of uncomfortable moments out of the text.  But, I think, while the effect on the text will (probably) be messy, it will (probably) also be wrong.


    1. Right you are, and done.

  1. Reblogged this on the arabophile and commented:
    Spot-on example of the difficulty of translating ANYTHING, which goes far, far beyond finding equivalents for words and idioms as such: the comparison with 9/11, the fact that “martyr” was not used but “victim” was, probably has some connection with the fact that “Anglo” societies are further away from religion than Arab societies, but maybe only slightly. Still, I would say that shaheed does have similar giggle-and-flinch connotations as martyr most of the time — until something happens and there are suddenly a lot of shuhada. Then it becomes almost banal. I prefer the term elli matu, those who died, but that’s just me…

  2. Spot-on example of the difficulty of translating ANYTHING, which goes far, far beyond finding equivalents for words and idioms as such: the comparison with 9/11, the fact that “martyr” was not used but “victim” was, probably has some connection with the fact that “Anglo” societies are further away from religion than Arab societies, but maybe only slightly. Still, I would say that shaheed does have similar giggle-and-flinch connotations as martyr most of the time — until something happens and there are suddenly a lot of shuhada. Then it becomes almost banal. I prefer the term elli matu, those who died, but that’s just me…

    1. Well, we could say that the US is still rather religious, although manifesting differently from in Arab societies, and—maybe even more importantly here—Americans have a quite different attitude toward death.

      I suppose if texts could be “properly” translated so that people “really” understood one another we’d all live happily ever after, and how boring would that be.

  3. When translating Christian Arabic texts, one certainly translates shahid as ‘martyr’. Mar Jirjis al-Shahid, etc. The term is even attested in pre-Islamic Arabic, where it’s a loan from Syriac and Aramaic. Terms like Beit Shode or Bayt Shuada’ are common enough. That the term might be used in early Muslim texts of one who dies fighting is interesting precisely for the attempt to link dead warriors with the cult of the saints.

    “… we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.”

    Or again,

    “In the name of the spirits of the departed free sacred to the memory of that portion of American seamen, soldiers and citizens who perished in the cause of liberty & their country on board the prison ships of the British (during the Revolutionary War) at the Wall-about. This is the corner stone of the vault which contains their relics.”

    That’s not your local imam, either. That’s President Lincoln speaking of the young men who sacrificed themselves (note the religious terminology) on the fields of Gettysburg and the inscription of the 1776 Prison Ship Martyrs Monument near the Brooklyn Naval Yard (a reliquary).

    In both cases, the blood of martyrs is presented as deserving of cultus.

    To use religious language of the war dead runs very, very deep in the western psyche, as far back as Perikles and his funeral oration, indeed, to the Homeric epics.

    Admittedly, the usage in modern Muslim texts sometimes does sound inappropriate. One wonders why? Is it perhaps because many in the US and EU no longer regard being a warrior as an honorable occupation. The soldier is the baby killer or the victim, etc. Or is it that everyone these days is a martyr. Or is it perhaps that the term is sometimes extended by modern Muslims to include omnicidal psychopaths.

    If the latter, how very unfortunate, as it dishonors those who die fighting honorably in defense of near universal ideals. Consider, e.g., how the actions of some in Chechnya defiled what otherwise was an entirely just war of national liberation, fought by men of honor for a people who had suffered unimaginably for centuries at the hands of Russians. Who remembers that, though, and not the barbaric horrors of Beslan.

    1. Ali,

      I think if you go to the average person in the US, you will find a tremendous reverence for the soldier-figure. The 9/11 dead; those individuals are a red line. But no one would use the word martyr for them. No one would use the word martyr for the firefighters who died trying to rescue them. Not because there isn’t a tremendous reverence, but because the word in English—while its roots are honorable—has changed a great deal since Lincoln’s time.

      I have NOT thought through what it means that this word has changed, and have no hypothesis on the matter whatsoever. I believe the attitude toward death has changed. I dunno. Maybe it’s something else.

      However, I don’t think we can say that the concept of “Homeland” and “Soldier” and “Patriotism” are not important, that Americans don’t have a reverence for soldiers. If you look at criticism of the Iraq war, for instance, it is from the point of view that “our soldiers” should not be dying, or debasing themselves in an unjust conflict, etc.

      1. Those murdered on 9/11 are not martyrs but victims…. The term ‘victim’, too, is religious — or at least once was. Latin victima of the animal killed for a sacrifice, the sacrificial victim, the oblation. That for Christians in turn echoes the suffering of Christ himself, at once both priest and victim.

        Curious how humans can only call on religious language to talk about such matters.

        Sorry, just to be clear, I don’t mean to suggest that the sentiment against soliders are at all universal, only that it’s out there and keenly felt by members of the U.S. military. Nor does it have to be explicit even. Sometimes it’s just a matter of folks not caring or not understanding. (GIs “debasing” themselves in Iraq being a case in point — but that’s above my pay grade, so no more on said topic from me.)

        An all-volunteer force is fantastic, but it has also led to an abject ignorance in the broader public as to the realities of what the military does and how it does it, or even why. There’s a large literature by military authors on the subject, on finding ways to bridge this military-civilian gap. It may not be possible. When only a small percent of Americans are serving in the military, only a small percent of Americans understand just what it means to serve in the military. And “Thank you for your service” while appreciated, will often sounds hollow — unless spoken by another vet or by the parents and spouses of vets.

        Try to imagine what it might be like for a 23-year-old to finish their third tour in Afghanistan, and head off to university on the GI bill. Who they gonna talk to? Other students? Right… “I’m like against all war.” “Hey man, you kill anyone?” Most of the guys imagine war’s like a video game. What they can’t imagine is the smell of charred flesh and spilt bowel, what it’s like pick bits and pieces of a friend’s legs out of your own gear, or what a Daisy Cutter does to human flesh and how frakking amazing it feels when that human flesh belongs to other guys. Faculty? My mid-sized university has a total of two veterans in the classroom.

        1. Well, as you say, they are “victims,” because the word martyr doesn’t spread out in English the way it can spread out in Arabic. The firefighters are “heroes.” (It really did become a sort of religious war with GWB at the helm, didn’t it, so they would’ve been martyrs had the terms been equivalent. Nay?)

          So how do you use the word in English? You could maybe say that a guy who died in bombing an abortion clinic was a martyr, but it would make you feel yucky about him and his cause. You surely wouldn’t feel that he made any appropriate sort of sacrifice, unless you were way on the way-far-out side of the political spectrum.

          I can’t think of any way to use the term “martyr” in a respectful, positive way in the contemporary political sphere.

          Sure, definitely, it could also have to do with Americans being totally separate from the idea of sacrifice, either military or much other kind of sacrifice…or from glorifying/respecting sacrifice in daily life & practice.

          1. > the term “martyr” in a respectful, positive way in the contemporary political sphere

            Current usage typically won’t support it, I guess — much as it won’t support “crusade,” a word regularly used of American military action in the past. In middle register, non-religious language, I suspect one will find “martyr” only in set expressions (“martyr for the cause” being the one that most comes to mind).

            (Your observation about firefighters is a good one. Odd, too. My sense is that the usage is somewhat different in the case police officers.)

            I poked around a bit in Eyal J. Naveh, Crown of Thorns: Political Martyrdom in America From Abraham Lincoln to MLK Jr …, as much as I was allowed, via Google books. It looks fascinating. Contemporary debates re FDR being just hero, or also martyr. There does seem to be some logical to the code.

            > It really did become a sort of religious war with GWB at the helm, didn’t it, so they would’ve been martyrs had the terms been equivalent. Nay?

            As the cool kids say, One down, three to go. Oorah? (Or is it two now? Didn’t watch the evening news….)

            The better part of my mother’s stock will happily offer candles and incense before an icon of President Bush — were they religious. As they’re mostly journalists or Kantians, I suspect even they would balk at ‘martyr’. Something simple like ‘liberator’ works well enough.

            It’s not a Left v Right thing for them, you see … decades of the alternative … well, one tends to see things somewhat in a different manner than the guys doing the massacring, torturing, and raping (and their enablers, whether the U.S. and E.U. Left, or cancerous Russia and evil Putin). Inscrutable Kurds … go figure.

            Perhaps it would be easier for you were you to imagine Bush (and Obama) as the guerrillero heroico, replete with scruffy beard and greasy beret, and the war as an anti-imperialist crusade, against unjust British lines on colonial maps and the rapacious Iraqi empire.

  4. Oh! My abstract for Cairo Conference is about that “Mother of the Martyr as a Revolution- Stimulating Figure: Radwa Ashour’s Siraaj, a Postcolonial- Feminist Reading.” that is to say, “OUm Alshaeed”. In the draft, I wanted to keep the word Shaheed because of all the complexity around it but I changed my mind at last to make it more accessible. But now you say, it isn’t which also takes me to the other meanings of the word. Shaeed in Islam can be anyone dying while doing her/his work faithfully. For instance, if a mother, while cooking for her kids dies, she is a shaheedah. Also those who die on fire or drowning, are shuhdaa, and those who die protecting thie homes, families, others are shuhadaa. There are degrees, the best of which is dying for a religios cause; that is to say for Allah.

    1. Well, surely the people at the conference will be able to think their way into the other meanings, and that they are a very different audience than of Soueif’s book?

      You know, as I was reading the Anthony Shadid obit this morning, I was thinking, well, he was certainly a witness (old meaning), and he certainly died while doing his work faithfully. But if you called him a martyr to any English-language speaker, they would be…offended I think.

  5. Marcia, this is a very interesting article; thank you for stimulating my mind hehe. Like Mona, I was also going to mention the other kinds of deaths which qualified as “shahadah”. Personally I cringe every time I hear the word. To me, only God can decide who is a shaheed and who isn’t (if you believe in that sort of thing). There are far too many murderers who are labeled “shaheed” by their followers.

    And because I am always looking for alternatives to words I don’t like, I was thinking “the fallen” as one of the choices for “shaheed”.

    1. Yes, maybe it’s particularly difficult to translate since it’s a word that’s contested space in Arabic. How can you translate a word that’s a moving target?

      For instance, many were calling the soccer fans killed in Port Said shuhadah, but then a Salafi insisted they were not, because they were in the act of doing something forbidden.

  6. The issue of the nuance of words is one that is so difficult to address when teaching a language, using a language or translating a language. I find I have reactions to the term martyr that go back to my childhood Sunday school classes and bring up images of some poor soul pierced with arrows. And the current usage of the term which implies someone who seeks discomfort so that they can brag about overcoming it is also discomforting. I don’t know that there is a really good solution to the question of exactly how the term should be translated. I do know that the usage of “martyr” in conjunction with suicide bombing places emotional obstacles to the usage in other contexts, partly because of the incredibly strong European/American (I won’t say Christian because I don’t think it’s just religious) antipathy towards suicide.

    I’m delighted to see this brought up and just wish more people in journalism were thinking of these things too.

  7. All these thoughtful comments are much appreciated!

  8. Interesting as ever, thanks! I think I would still consider شهيد to be much less trauma-inducing for a translator than, say, جهاد (a word that simply refuses to be translated… you feel like you’d rather sit every individual reader of your translation down to explain the whole history, connotations and implications of the word, before moving on to that particular context you’re translating!). I would argue that if Arab Christians use the word شهيد for the Christian concept of martyr then it should be fine to translate شهيد as martyr. If we’re going to find different terms every time Islamic concepts differ slightly from Christian ones, where do we stop? As you say yourself “we can’t react by transliterating every blessed one of them” 🙂

    1. Perhaps there is a difference between the UK and North American reader…but I’m going to have to throw in with شهيد as more difficult, that North Americans are less…thrown off their game by the word جهاد. Although I could be wrong. We could do a study on eye movement or sweat glands while reading. See which of us wins the bet.

      And yes, OK, if it was a text that seemed to evoke an older understanding of martyr, English-language readers can understand that the word differently as applied to “olden times.”

      And yes, transliteration is a pretty limited strategy and takes a lot of authorial (or translatorial) work. I really have no solution, I just like problems. 🙂

  9. (oh and for “don’t be such a martyr”!), I’d suggest something like والنبي ما تتمسكنش بقى! “tamaskan” a verb derived from “maskeen”!

  10. One of the things that still kind of bugs me about Turkey is how the state has explicitly appropriated religious terminology for nationalist ends. Although the English-language press usually avoids translating it as “martyr” the standard term in modern Turkish for “Turkish soldier fallen in battle” is “şehit”. (Its Arabic roots are obvious.) But don’t you dare apply it to anyone else; there have been prosecutions of Kurdish politicians who called PKK casualties “şehit”. The standard term for legal witness is “şahit” (similar to the distinction in Arabic noted above). “Gazi” in modern Turkish means “veteran” (but because everyone gets conscripted, it’s usually only applied to those who sustained an injury) which must have the more religiously bellicose sultans turning a bit in their graves.

    So the problem because a humorless version of the one you brought up: While “don’t be a martyr” doesn’t have a straightforward equivalent, neither does “Stephen was a martyr” or even “Hussein was a martyr” make immediate sense in modern Turkish because neither died for the state. It gets more complicated when you talk about Greeks, Armenians, or Alevis or even leftist political figures who were killed by the state for “witnessing” their beliefs. Are they şehit? This kind of semantics is the mess of live wires Turkish politics is made of but doesn’t want to talk about.

    I also wonder what that Salafi would have said about Turkish football star Arda dedicating a goal to the “Turkish martyrs” last fall…

  11. Hi,

    Although the word Martyr comes from witness, but I find it describing the case of dying for a cause much more than it being for witnessing something. The witness part here is a bit more complex and carry an indirect meaning related to judgement day when a martyr will be then a witness on his era or people. In brief, I see the Arabic and English meaning aren’t ‘False Friends’ at all, they both carry the exact same meaning, unless I am missing something about the English meaning of the word.

    One side note: I see there is more confusion for the meaning of the word Shaheed among Arabs more than that between Arabs and those who do not speak Arabic. Some prefer to use it as a religious word, hence they use it for those who die for a religious cause only, i.e. they use it for Muslims only. While, some prefer to use its social meaning more than the religious one, hence use it to refer to those who die for either religious, national, or any other respected cause.
    Adding to this confusion, some clerics also call a Muslim who dies in a fire or drown in the sea – even if not for a religious cause – they call them martyrs as well.

    1. Tarek,

      The “witness” aspect I think is only a side-note, suggesting that etymologically the words seem very similar while in practical use they’re so different.

      I think what you’d be missing about the English meaning of the word is that it’s become a word that’s more or less only 1) old-fashioned or 2) ridicule. It is very, very difficult to use “martyr” to refer respectfully to someone who’d died. While it means different things to different Arabs, the word is usable.

      Anyhow, indeed, I think part of the reason it’s such a difficult translation is because it’s a “moving target,” a contested space in Arabic which makes it more

  12. That Salafi Shiekh got a piece of Almufti’s mind who reproached him and anyone else for making the deceased’s families feel worse. Like Nisreen, he believed, and so do I, that it is only Allah who decides who is a martyr and who is not ( again if you believe in that sort of thing). There is a hadeeth Shareef that says that if a believer has always wanted to die as a martyr and has always been ready to die like one, he/she is granted that even if they die in their own beds.
    من سأل الشهادة بصدق ، بلغه الله منازل الشهداء ، وإن مات على فراشه
    I hope I did not add to your confusion.
    The term is dichotomous; what can be a amartyr in one culture could be a murdere, (thug, traitor, “Baltagi”) in another.

  13. And now you are making me think deeply and seriously about the title of my paper!!! Knowledge can be hell.Thank you Marcia.

  14. Lynx, I agree that there is an issue with this, but I completely disagree with your conclusion. It’s only because most Americans have heard of “martyrs” in a Middle Eastern context as part of suicide bombing operations. But I would argue that it’s only a matter of exposing them to more instances of MEers dying for non-religious causes – for instance, being martyred in the name of Egyptian democracy – for them to develop if not an outright positive, then at least a neutral connotation of the term.

    For instance, if you said “Malcolm X died a martyr for black rights,” I don’t think anyone would negatively react to the word “martyr” in this context – even though Malcolm X was very stridently Muslim – because it is universally understood that MX was devoted to the rights of both non-Muslim and Muslim blacks, and was not some fanatical proto-fascist trying to kill people or impose Sharia.

  15. Here’s a hypothetical for you: Suppose there is another mass rally for women’s rights in Tahrir and several women are killed by the police لا قدر الله – do you think Americans would react negatively to the idea of “martyrs for women’s rights” ?

    1. I don’t pretend to have fully thought it out; the blog’s just a place to toss out ideas.

      So anyhow, YT…I think people would be divided on Malcolm X as a “martyr” for black rights, although more on the yay side than the nay. And the women, yes. Indeed, I think part of the work Soueif was doing was getting people to expand their idea of martyr, to make the English word a more complex, open space. So maybe you’re right, the place we need to work is on the English-language word.

  16. Well, a suggestion might to make use of an expressive resource Western languages have, and Arabic has not. Namely, capitalization. You can use Witness, or maybe Fallen (in Italian we have a broadly similar distinction between “caduti” and “Caduti”, where the capitalizion marks a death either as innocent victim of atrocious foes or as honorable standerd-bearers of a positive cause – typically national) with the capital letter.

    1. I like “the Fallen” a lot – I’m just wondering how to fit it in a generic passage.

  17. Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

    It seems like words that have deeply religious connotations(whether or not they are often used in that context) may have the greatest potential for mistranslation. In American culture, where the idea of “shame” carries little weight and social mores dictate that one’s morality cannot be enforced, or even question publicly, how do we translate words such as “haraam”? Perhaps we reference this blog in a footnote to highlight the vagaries of Arabic-English translations.

  18. How about Archbishop Romero? He’s one of the “Martyrs” discussed (by Carolyn Forche) in Susan Bregman’s book of that name (Harper Collins, 1996), and it’s pretty clear that his martyrdom had both a religious and a political aspect…

    1. You’re right; Carolyn is perhaps one of the people who expands our idea of responsibility and sacrifice, too.

  19. What strikes me as I think about the word in Arabic is that it attempts to communicate that a particular death was meaningful. Not everyone who dies, even in war zones, is a martyr. But those who call some who die “martyrs” do so in order to signify that their death was not meaningless — that they died for a cause, and because of that their death had meaning that transcends the loss of life. In English the closest single word that does all this is martyr. It is imperfect, because of its historical baggage, but so is شهيد.

    There’s another thing (cultural overgeneralization alert). We WASPs don’t like to talk about death or think about it very much in the US. Someone dies, everyone clams up and goes silent and hopes that the awkward moment will pass. Not so in the Arab world: death marks a moment where people insist on reconnecting with one another, and where people take seriously the fact that they are mortal. And traces of this are all over the language and lived culture.

    There is an disjuncture between the cultural contexts regarding death — and this issue cannot be translated at the level of individual words. These questions go way beyond how to render شهيد — it’s about how to render this broader context where the meaning of death has different resonances in each language, and where equivalences may not be found on the lexical level.

    1. Yes, yes. I’m sure you didn’t read through all the comments, but I do think it’s more a difference in attitude toward death than in difference toward religion.

      I guess, since they have such different baggage, I liked that Soueif was trying to bring them together, to infuse “martyr” with some meaning from شهيد, (and perhaps thereby to show that death could mean something, and that it wasn’t just yucky to fixate on death).

  20. Yes, I wish I’d written my piece AFTER I’d read all your comments. Next time.

      1. i agree — this was a great conversation,marcia, thanks for instigating it!

  21. How can one translate a religious term for a non-religious culture (maybe in America the problem is less pressing. I cannot say)? It is an interesting question. Nothing that I can think of works. I am speaking from an English perspective but since the Great War, even the War Dead has carried an association of futility. Perhaps now even dying is not a pre-rerequiste for honour. cf. Bonhoeffer vs. Primo Levi.

  22. Here’s an interesting use of “martyr” in English with reference to an Israeli warrior:

    “Gone are the uncomplicated, Leon Uris-scripted days of one- eyed war heroes and Yoni Netanyahu’s martyrdom on the tarmac during the raid on Entebbe.”

    That’s Jeffrey Goldberg yesterday in a Bloomberg piece titled “With These Enemies, Israel Needs More Friends”:

  23. For an interesting use of “witness” (in English, in a blog yesterday) applying the term to journalists who die while reporting to and for the rest of us what they have witnessed in war zones, see Caitlin Fitz Gerald’s “Syria, bearing witness, and doing something”:

    which concludes:

    … as one last note, I want to say: rest in peace, Ferzat Jarban, Basil al-Sayed, Shukri Abu al-Burghul, Gilles Jacquier, Mazhar Tayyara, Anthony Shadid, Rami al-Sayed, Marie Colvin, Remi Ochlik. I hope that the rest of us can find a way to make sure that your acts of witness inspire change, and that the sacrifice you made for them is honored.

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