Suffering and the Problem of Evil

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.

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?

Back to Religion Library