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Religion Library: Shia Islam

Suffering and the Problem of Evil

Written by: Anna Akasoy

Among theologians inspired by philosophical notions, Ghazali (1059-1111), fiercely Sunni, made an important contribution to the theodicy debate that has had an impact on Shiite thought too. In the history of Shiism, the multifaceted scholar is known not only for his intellectual achievements, but as a leading figure of the Sunni revival. Ghazali entertained a close relationship with the Seljuk vizier Nizam al-Mulk, who appointed him as the head of the Nizamiyya madrasa he had founded in Baghdad. Following the assassination of the vizier—once attributed to the "Assassins," an Ismaili sect—Ghazali suffered a spiritual crisis. At the end of his quest for certain knowledge he converted to Sufism (while remaining a Sunni) and launched attacks against the Ismailis for their blind imitation, taqlid, which did not provide them with certain knowledge.

This conflict did not prevent Imami scholars like Mulla Sadra from supporting Ghazali's arguments concerning theodicy. It is thus simply in the nature of the created world, which is at the bottom of the hierarchy of being, that it contains certain imperfections or evil. Some of these deficiencies are furthermore only apparent and ultimately serve a higher purpose. While the world as it presently is may not actually be the best of all possible worlds, it preserves this potential. The Neoplatonic tendencies in this approach to theodicy may be typically Shiite in the sense that they reflect a trend which is more popular among mainstream Shiite theologians than among their mainstream Sunni peers, but there are no exclusively Shiite features in such arguments. The resulting picture though is easily compatible with a Shiite worldview, according to which the present world contains obvious evil that, however, simply reflects human nature and forms part of a larger divine plan for human salvation.

Because of the significance of Husayn's martyrdom in Shiite thought this branch of Islam is sometimes compared to Christianity. His fate is reminiscent of Jesus' sacrifice since both died in order to intercede on behalf of the believers. Despite the extraordinary qualities attributed to Husayn and Ali by Shiites, mainstream believers insist on the human nature of Muhammad's relatives.

While there is no concept of original sin in Islamic thought, the common assumption is that the human condition turns people into sinners. They are in need of superior assistance to achieve salvation. Ordinary human beings can contribute to this possibility if they die as martyrs. In recent history—in particular during the Iran-Iraq war—the sacredness of martyrdom has been exploited in political propaganda.

Study Questions:
1.     How does the Muharram passion play shape Shiite spirituality?
2.     In what ways did Ghazali, a Sunni theologian, inform Shiite theology about the presence of evil in the world?
3.     How is Husayn's story comparable to that of Jesus in Christian theology?


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