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Religion Library: Shia Islam

Suffering and the Problem of Evil

Written by: Anna Akasoy

The suffering and martyrdom of the Imams is a key theme of Shiite Islam and has repercussions on systematic theology, spirituality, and political visions. Shiite theology and hagiography allow for a number of perspectives on human suffering that lend it a sacred purpose. As a spiritual worldview and moral example of selflessness, the sacrifice of the Imams is a model to be emulated and a source of consolation, a way of relating collective or individual suffering to a greater and meaningful divine plan as well as reassurance of the Imams' power to intercede on behalf of believers.

Shiites can find support for such a vision in interpretations of the divine words recorded in the Quran. Thus, David Pinault in his The Shiites discusses esoteric Shiite commentaries on verses 100-110 of sura 37, which deal with Abraham's agreement to sacrifice his son Ishmael and his substitution for a 'great sacrifice'. While according to exoteric interpretations this sacrifice was a ram, Shiite exegetes suggest that the hidden meaning of this sacrifice is the grief that overcame Abraham once he was granted foreknowledge of the events of Karbala. Here as well as in the Shiite culture of martyrdom and grief generally speaking different types of suffering are intertwined, namely the direct, physical suffering and the knowledge of the sacrifice individuals have made on behalf of the community. Within such an interpretative framework of human history, injustice constitutes a necessary evil. Without Yazid, Husayn would not have been able to sacrifice himself. Suffering can be understood as a test and an opportunity to join the meta-historical group of righteous believers.

As the anthropologist Michael Gilsenan has pointed out in his Recognizing Islam, the Muharram passion play is more than a distinctively Shiite and very efficient way of displaying the suffering of the community in the public sphere. The archetypes in the sacred narratives can also have an impact on the way contemporary players are perceived. While the suffering of the believers receives a sacred notion, the mythological role of Yazid and the Umayyads as the tyrants and archenemies of the believers may turn the political rulers into such overwhelming forces in the public perception.

On a more theoretical level, the problem of how to reconcile God's omnipotence and justice with the existence of evil in this world has occupied Muslim theologians since the formative period. Free will and predestination are related problems. While the majority of Sunni theologians have concluded that the paradox of theodicy is inexplicable, the rationalist school of the Mutazilites, who were close to Shiism, have emphasized God's justice and concluded as one of their principles that believers have to be rewarded with eternity in paradise and unbelievers must be punished in hell.


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