Killed or Martyred? An Issue of Linguistics in Muslim Media

June 11, 2006 at 1:22 am (Islamism, News, Pakistan)

Urdu tends to be pretty picky about what words are used when speaking about death.

For example, no one says a goat, cow, chicken, camel, or other edible animal is killed or slaughtered: one says the animal is sacrificed. The verb “to be sacrificed” is “zibah hona”. Similarly, one uses specific terminology when discussing human beings. Just like English, which has “passing away,” “deceased,” “late,” and other euphemistic ways of expressing death and dying.

A notable example is how newspapers reported the death of the many people who were killed when a suicide terrorist blew himself up during a congregational prayer at a gathering celebrating/commemorating the birthday of Muhammad. In Urdu, it was said that they were “shaheed”, “martyred.” This distinction, for some reason, does not carry into English. In English it was written that they were killed, in Urdu that they were martyred. (Nuances like these make it important to read a people’s media in their own language.)

While in the South Asian portion of Chicago today, I picked up an Urdu newspaper, and I am wont to do. One was the Pakistan News, the other was the Pakistan Times. The Pakistan Times had no mention of az-Zarqawi. (Both are weeklies, so it is possible that the Pakistan Times was printed before az-Zarqawi’s death.) The Pakistan News had the news on their front page. However, what interested me is that they said az-Zarqawi was “halaak” (destroyed, slaughtered, killed) instead of “shaheed”. Very interesting. (The entire headline (“amreekee fazaa’i hamle maiN aboo mus’ab az-zarqaawee halaak”) said “In an American air assult, Abu Mus’ab az-Zarqawi killed.”)

On the Internet, things are different. Which word is used depends on whom the newspaper is quoting. Some people say he was martyred, some say he was killed. Significantly, Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA, Pakistan’s prominent and vocal religious party) expressed its displeasure at America (again) over az-Zarqawi’s martyrdom. According to an English Pakistani Shiite online newspaper, however, the National Assembly of Pakistan ignored a request by MMA to say prayers for az-Zarqawi. (Amongst many Muslims it is customary to “pray fatihah” for someone when he has died, which is a prayer consisting of Qur’anic chapters whose merit is transferred to the deceased. It is a way of honoring him and benefitting him.) It is not surprising that MMA would request this, nor is it surprising that the government would, in its own way, deny such a request. After all, Pakistan has to deal with its own terrorists.

The same Shiite online newspaper has a story on how Hamas’s mourning for az-Zarqawi’s martyrdom has unleashed anger in Iraqis towards Hamas. What is striking about the Shiite website is that az-Zarqawi is thoroughly reviled. Recall the az-Zarqawi had been trying to stoke a full-fledged civil war between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq, and was responsible for a number of horrendous terrorist attacks against Shiite civilians. Who knows, he may have been behind the attack that destroyed the Imam Hassan al-Askari Mosque’s dome. It amazes me, though, that there still would be people who consider az-Zarqawi a martyr. Quite sad.

innaa naHnu-l-a’lam.


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