Human Nature and the Purpose of Existence

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.

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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