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Religion Library: Shia Islam

Afterlife and Salvation

Written by: Anna Akasoy

In a typical rationalist fashion, al-Tabatabai emphasizes God's justice when judging every human being. "God has promised reward and recompense for faith and obedience, and punishment and painful retribution for infidelity and sin, and will not break His promise. And since He is just, His justice demands that in another state of being the two groups of virtuous and evil men, who in this world do not have a mode of life in accordance with their good and evil nature, become separated, the virtuous to possess a good and happy life, and the evil a bad and wretched existence." (translation by Seyyed Hossein Nasr)

While martyrs are celebrated for their sacrifice, martyrdom and other forms of significant suffering are not an absolute imperative. In cases of persecution Shiites may use the device of disguising their beliefs (taqiya). This principle was also accepted by Sunnis and Kharijites under certain circumstances. Those, however, who have lost their lives in the struggle for God's cause are celebrated, as they are in Sunni Islam. For Imamis, salvation lies in self-sacrifice on the side of the losers, often in conflicts with fellow Muslims, and is tragic, whereas for Sunnis, it is heroic and means fighting for the winning side.

In Sunni Islam, individuals are assessed exclusively according to their deeds without the possibility of intercession. Yet even within the Sunni traditions, there are tendencies to allow for possibilities of intercessions, for example by having a relative who dies as a martyr or by praying at the tomb of a Sufi shaykh. The latter is the source of blessings (baraka) that can be passed on. These options are, however, controversial and denied by more "orthodox" Sunni scholars. In Shiite Islam the possibility of intercession through the Imams is generally accepted. Weeping for Husayn or causing others to do so is believed to bring a believer into paradise. According to Shiite accounts of salvation history, the martyrs of Karbala had accepted their suffering even before the world was brought into being in order to create the possibility of interceding on behalf of believers. In some traditions, they can achieve such intercession by visiting the shrines, commemorating the sacrifice of the Imams, and sharing during Muharram the pain of the martyrs. According to a tradition that Pinault reports from Hyderabad, Fatima is present during these rituals and returns after them to paradise with the impression of the veneration for her son.

Study Questions:
1.     What do Shiites have in common with Sunnis in regard to beliefs in the afterlife? And how do they differ?
2.     What does Ismaili theology contribute to the discussion of salvation and the Day of Judgment?
3.     What is the role of intercession in salvation?


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