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Religion Library: Shia Islam

Human Nature and the Purpose of Existence

Written by: Anna Akasoy

Consistent with the Shiites' esoteric approach to the Quran, holistic views of human existence and history as part of the created world occur frequently in Shiite thought. In The Shiites, for example, Pinault cites traditions according to which the entire world shares the grief for Husayn: "the sky shed tears of blood for forty days; wild beasts roamed the jungles in agitation; genies recited poems of lamentation; seventy thousand angels descended to Husayn's grave to weep; the earth emitted blood in grief."

In the Shiite learned tradition, holistic worldviews are often presented with Neoplatonic features. Human nature, for example, is explained in terms of more general principles such as the intellect and matter. Likewise, in a typical Neoplatonic manner, the top-down perspective, which explains God's creation of the world, is combined with a bottom-up perspective, which suggests ways in which humans can ascend intellectually and spiritually. The idea of a hierarchy of beings is more popular in Shiite thought than in "orthodox" Sunnism, which posits on the one hand a direct relationship with God—as expressed in the oneness of God, the strict prohibition of assigning partners to God, and the rejection of seeking intercession from Imams or Sufi shaykhs—and on the other hand a transcendence of God that does not leave much possibility for intellectual or spiritual ascent. The higher beings in Shiite Islam, i.e., the Imams and descendants of Muhammad, together with the esoteric hermeneutics, the holistic cosmology, and the emotionally and physically intense rituals bridge the existential gap between God and the believer.

Although the concept of original sin has no equivalent in Islamic thought, in particular spiritual-minded Muslims share the idea of an initial state of mankind, characterized by intimacy with the divine and spiritual piety. The aim of spiritual exercise and the direction of salvation history is that this state is established again. Furthermore, there is an idea of pure spirituality and authentic religion at the beginning of human history, before the Deluge. Shiites with antinomian trends consider Islamic law a superficial, outer element of religion that can be abandoned in favor of this pure, initial state.

Minority groups associated with Shiism have presented further ideas concerning human nature and the relationship between God and mankind. In the 8th century, a certain Abu al-Khattab presented himself as the deputy of Jafar al-Sadiq, who eventually repudiated him. After Abu al-Khattab was killed in ca. 755, a variety of groups maintained that he was a prophet and sent by Jafar who was God. One of these groups claimed immortality, another that the world would not end. As in many other extremist Shiite groups, some believed in the transmigration of souls.

Study Questions:
1.     How do Shiites handle the paradox of divine sovereignty and human free will?
2.     What theological traditions do Shiites share with Sufis?
3.     What place does the idea of a hierarchy of beings have in Shiite theology?


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