How to Make a Martyr

Mansur al-Hallaj hanged and stoned.

Mansur al-Hal

laj hanged and stoned.“Brother, did you hear about Mansur al-Hallaj? No? Well, let me tell you . . . you won’t believe what happened. You know he’d been imprisoned, right? Some trumped up charges of course, but we knew they’d get him sooner or later. They finally found an excuse to put him up for trial, something about how his followers were still causing trouble. They thought if they only got rid of Hallaj, everyone else might calm down and Baghdad could be peaceful again-though to tell you honestly, brother, I’m not sure I like those bastards in charge too much myself…”


There really was a Mansur al-Hallaj, and he was executed in Baghdad in 922. Hallaj is considered a Sufi, one who identifies with a mystical expression of Islam, and he is well remembered today, in large part due to his execution. Unlike other Sufis, such as al-Ghazzali, Farid ud-Din Attar, and Rumi, Hallaj wrote very little, but he survives in story, myth, and legend.

Hallaj taught an interior expression of his faith. He was executed, at least in part, for two reasons. First, he claimed that the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca incumbent upon all Muslims who are able, could be performed wherever one lived, even in the privacy of one’s home. For Hallaj, the hajj was a spiritual journey that had nothing to do with an actual physical journey. And second, it is told that Hallaj was known to say “ana al-haq,” or “I am the Truth.” Haq means truth in Arabic, but it is the definitive form of the noun that caused problems. God is said to have ninety-nine names, most of them definite forms of adjectives: the Greatest, the Strongest, the Forgiving. The Truth is one such name, and in saying “I am the Truth,” Hallaj was thought to be committing blasphemy, to be claiming that he himself was God. Taken together, these “crimes” caused the powers that be to fear that an uprising would occur should Hallaj garner too many disciples.

But the real story here is not the details of Hallaj’s life and teaching. What’s really important is the story of his death.


“So they decide he’s guilty, which was a foregone conclusion of course, after everything he’d done, and they sentence him to lashes, hanging, dismemberment, and then death by fire. Sounds like some serious overkill, but you knew they wouldn’t want to make it look like they’d gone soft.

“Right away they want to get on with it. Yesterday, they lead him out of the jail to where they’ve got the gallows set up. And wouldn’t you know it, as soon as Hallaj sees the gallows, he starts to laugh! That’s right, laugh. He can hardly contain himself, he’s crying he’s laughing so hard. This really bothers the guards, so they start right in with the beating-it’s supposed to be a thousand lashes, but around five hundred, he hasn’t even groaned, just mumbles something about Constantinople, like he’s still planning on taking over the city.

“But he’s bleeding pretty badly and they worry he won’t make it to the next round, so they decide to start with the dismemberment. They get him up, sharpen the knives, and what does that old fox do? He tells the guards he forgives them! What cheek! As if he can!

“After they chop off his hands, they start to haul him over to the gibbet, and he looks just as serene as can be. On with the noose, drop the floor, and leave him hanging for a good thirty minutes, although you can’t tell a thing from how he’s just hanging there like it’s a walk in the park. By now, if the governor thought he’d be shutting up the rabble rousers, the opposite is happening, people are starting to murmur that if Hallaj can take all of this, then surely they can endure a little more suffering themselves.”


You may have noticed that other people have been dying in Baghdad as of late: American soldiers, Iraqi civilians, deranged suicide bombers, “resistance” fighters, Iraqi police and military personnel. Saddam Hussein also died recently, followed by two of his top lieutenants, one of whom was a brother-in-law. All three were hanged, Saddam famously so thanks to a cell phone and YouTube, and one of the lieutenants was apparently decapitated in a “hanging gone wrong.” Mercifully, this gruesome spectacle hasn’t shown up on the virtual airwaves. Yet.

But you have to hand it to the government of Nouri al-Maliki: they sure know how to get a story started. In an interview, Wadud Shams Al-Din, one of Saddam’s legal defense team, described his final meeting with him: “He was smoking a cigar. He looked at me and began to laugh. . . Saddam looked at me and said: ‘Wadud, men do not cry in times of hardship.'”


“At this point, it looks like Hallaj must be dead, so they let him down, and chop of his legs and head. But wouldn’t you know it, the blood keeps pumping out of the stumps as if the heart is still working! It’s a total mess, and the crowd starts to move in closer and closer. The governor is completely beside himself, so he orders to have this huge fire started. Soon as it’s glowing white hot, they throw all the parts on. And sitting there on top is the head, eyes shut with the most calm, peaceful expression you’ve ever seen.”


It wasn’t an issue that Hallaj died, but how he had died, his behavior in facing death, and the extraordinary, even supernatural, events that seemed to accompany his death. The account of this death gets retold again and again, the narrator relaying to his friend the power of Hallaj, most profoundly after Hallaj already has been executed, and the retelling of this story begins to take on a life of its own. The idea that in executing Hallaj his blasphemy would fade away is a classic example of unintended consequences: Hallaj matters now more than ever because he was put to death, and because the story of his death compelled others to continuing imagining that death.


“I guess that’s the end of it, but you know what I heard? Just this morning, after the fire died down, they gather up all the ashes and toss them in the Euphrates-they don’t want any burial so that his followers have a site to gather around, you know.

“As soon as the ashes hit the water, they start moving around all funny, like the current isn’t affecting them. And apparently, they formed themselves into letters . . . ana al-haq.

“I am the Truth, his same old blasphemy.”


I’ve been wondering about what makes a martyr. Saddam’s decorum (if we can debase a noble word with reference to such an ignoble individual) while facing death-he shamed his audience after they’d started chanting the name of Moktada al-Sadr, a cleric who by all accounts has been at the forefront of some of the worst Shiite-on-Sunni violence-Saddam’s decorum strikes me as the perfect moment for the making of a martyr’s story.

A martyr’s story tends to eclipse both the martyr and his message. Hallaj became the martyr par excellence, and his death was told, embellished, and retold innumerable times over the following centuries. It matters less who Hallaj was or what he believed, but rather that his willingness to die for those beliefs-and his behavior during the execution-was something to be admired, even something to wish for oneself. A martyr’s story becomes the thing itself, and its adaptability can fuel any number of flames.

Is it possible that the story of Saddam’s death at the hands of his enemies could outlive the memory of Saddam himself, that the horror of his rule could be superseded by the spectacle of his execution?

This would be a sad, no, a truly terrible thing. More death would follow, more lives lost, futures ruined. I don’t know if this will happen, and I pray in my own small way peace will come-may peace come tonight!-to Baghdad. But the possibility has been given, and I’m concerned all the more that we too-and all of us are responsible-that we too will be facing unintended consequences.

Because stories have power, and because stories can be free even from facts, I can hear in my distant nightmares, “Saddam is dead. Long live Saddam!”

That should wake us all, kicking and screaming.


“Like I said, you don’t have to believe me, but if you want to hear it from someone else, I’m meeting some of Hallaj’s boys at the café tonight. I’m thinking of going even though, you know, his preaching was never really my thing. But I’m going anyhow-I mean, how can you argue with a scene like that? You coming too?”

Martyn Oliver is a Ph.D. candidate in Religion and Literature at Boston University. He has also written about the infamous Muhammad cartoons for KtB.