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Religion Library: Shia Islam

Human Nature and the Purpose of Existence

Written by: Anna Akasoy

Since the medieval period, Quranic exegesis has been an important context in which Muslim scholars expressed their views regarding the nature of the human being and its place in the created world. Key for ideas in this respect are verses 12-14 of sura 23 of the Quran, which describes the creation of the human being from a clot of blood. In his interpretation of the Quran, Muhammad Husayn al-Tabatabai (d. 1981) comments on these verses, elaborating on the short text, identifying elements, and putting them in a larger context: "From the order of these verses it is clear that at the beginning the gradual creation of matter is described and then, when reference is made to the appearance of the spirit, consciousness, and will, another kind of creation is mentioned which is different from the previous form of creation" (translation by Seyed Hossein Nasr). Furthermore, Tabatabai notes that while individuals may forget the existence of their body, there is always awareness of the 'I'. He draws a clear dichotomy between the body, which is placed in time and space, and the spirit, which is free of these aspects, but endowed with knowledge. The 20th-century scholar argues along similar lines as exegetes of previous centuries, and Sunnis too hold similar views regarding human nature.

Regardless of their sectarian affiliation, Muslim scholars have struggled with theological problems concerning the nature of God and his relationship with the created world, especially humankind. One of the main issues was how to balance God's omniscience and human free will, God's omnipotence and justice, and the punishment and reward that awaits humans on the Day of Judgment. Another set of questions concerns the circumstances of the creation of the world, the reason why God created it, and what this implies for humans. Even though there are rationalist tendencies in both Sunni and Shiite theology, these trends became more important for Shiite scholars. As in other problems discussed in Islamic theology, the greatest difficulty lies in a potential limitation of God's omnipotence and self-sufficiency. When endorsing rationalist approaches, Shiites answered these questions in the same way as the Mutazilites, a school of theologians that emphasized God's justice and human free will, but which died out in the 10th century.

Shiites also share a number of popular traditions with Sufis as part of their common esoteric tendencies. Among them is a hadith qudsi ('sacred hadith'), an extra-Quranic statement of God, in which he describes himself as a "hidden treasure" that longed to be discovered. The purpose of mankind is thus not only to venerate God, but also to seek knowledge of him. Among the theologians, this has led to specialized debates. In addition to the monotheistic beliefs Shiites have in common with all other Muslims, they have a special duty to venerate the family of the prophet and are supposed to recognize the Imams as such. The attitude of humans to these principles will have consequences. When the Hidden Imam returns as the Mahdi, justice will be restored. Those who suffered will be rewarded, and those who have been unjust will have to suffer.


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