Ultimate Reality and Divine Beings

Shiites and Sunnis share belief in the one God (Allah) who created the world. Likewise, while both agree on general characteristics of God (such as ever-living, omnipotent, merciful), there are also disagreements within both communities about the exact nature of these attributes. At the Day of Judgment humans will be resurrected, judged, and condemned or rewarded in Hell or Paradise. During human history, God has sent a number of prophets and revealed the truth. Both Sunnis and Shiites also believe in the existence of a satan-like character (Iblis), in angels, and in jinns (demons). Distinctly Shiite elements within this general framework include the Imams, the pivotal role of the Mahdi, and more pronounced rationalist and Neoplatonic tendencies in theological debates.

One of the most characteristic features of Shiism is the belief in the Imams. The Imams are sometimes attributed with superhuman powers such as speaking all languages (including those of animals) and having knowledge of the future. Sunni polemicists often criticize Shiites for their deification or exaggerated veneration of the Imams, which the critics identify with the alleged tendency of Jews and Christians to ignore the difference between the creator and the created world.

Another common, though not universal, feature of the Shiite concept of the Imams is that the final Imam, the Mahdi, who is currently in Occultation (for Twelver Shiites, this is the twelfth Imam), will return as the apocalyptic savior. In a well-known hadith, Muhammad announced that "Day and night will not end before God has sent a man forth from my house who bears the same name as I. He will fill the world with justice and equity just as it was filled with oppression and tyranny before" (Shi'ism, by Heinz Halm, 36).

Shiite religious thought has a marked rationalist tendency. An early representative of this trend was the Shaykh al-Mufid (949-1022) in the Buyid period. Another crucial stage took place in al-Hilla, the center of Shiite learning during the Mongol period. It is best known for the Allama al-Hilli (1250-1325; lit. 'the most learned man from al-Hilla'), a rationalist theologian and legal scholar who had embraced tendencies of Mutazilism, a school of rationalist theology which emerged in 9th-century Baghdad, but died out in Sunni Islam. The Allama al-Hilli became very influential in Safavid Iran. His exposition of Shiite dogma, The Eleventh Chapter, still enjoys authoritative status. Shiite thought in the pre-modern era often has Neoplatonic features, in particular the idea of emanations that bridge the gap between the transcendent God and the contingent created world. These also constitute a popular trend in Shiite esoteric exegesis of the Quran. The beginning of the process of creation is thus sometimes described as a manifestation of the divine light. In such traditions, this overflowing light comprises the essences of the protagonists of Shiite salvation history.

The so-called theosophical school of Isfahan with its best known representative Mulla Sadra (c. 1571-1641) is but one example of the popular mystical tradition in Shiite Islam. Sufi orders had been popular in Iran, but were persecuted under the Safavids. Mysticism survived, however, in this intellectual form as well as in the poetic tradition. Thus, even the Iranian revolutionary leader Khomeini, who is mostly associated in the West with his rigorous imposition of conservative Islamic principles and a stern-looking image, has left behind a collection of mystical poetry.

Peculiar concepts of the relationship between God and the world can be found among minority branches of Shiism such as the Ismailis. In their own take on a general Shiite theme, they saw in the prophets those who disclose only the outer truth of the revelation, whereas the inner truth was the sphere of their deputies and restricted to the initiated. The historical and astrological framework for this principle consisted of seven cycles of at least 1000 years in each of which seven Imams followed a prophet (a speaker = Arabic natiq) and his deputy (Arabic: wasi). The seventh Imam would assume the role of the Mahdi, abolish all religions, and restore Adam's original faith.

The intellectual Ismaili worldview is characterized by elaborate cosmologies that have no parallel in Sunni or Twelver Shiite thought and that often entail the belief in metaphysical entities not unlike Neoplatonic emanations, which connect God and the created world. Early Ismailis, for example, seem to have believed in a creation myth where God's command 'Be' (Arabic: kun) became an independent entity, kūnī, which subsequently had to be subdued by God since it had assumed the divine role for itself. Not unlike one Neoplatonic emanation being the source of another one, it created qadar, God's power. These two principles, Kūnī and qadar, are the stages or filters through which God created the world. They also contain the seven heavenly or higher letters (the Arabic root letters contained in the two words) and play an important role in letter mysticism. These ideas have their roots in the Gnostic traditions of the Middle East.

Another prominent representative of this Neoplatonic Ismaili trend is the 10th-century philosopher Abu Yaqub al-Sijistani who promoted a negative theology in which God is beyond description. The first entity that can be approached with the means of language is God's first creation, the intellect, which encompasses all being and is a governing principle for it. The universal soul bridges the gap between the intellect and matter. It is imperfect because of its movement and constant striving for knowledge. This cosmological system is accompanied by an epistemological perspective. The nature of the human soul as part of the universal soul allows it to remember its origins and return. The way to achieve redemption is through the knowledge that the prophets and Imams have disclosed as messengers from the intellect. While this insight is currently granted only to a small minority, everybody has access to it after the arrival of the Mahdi-Qaim.

Another representative of this Neoplatonic thought is Hamid al-Din al-Kirmani (d. after 1020) who distinguished ten intellects with parallels in the Ismaili hierarchy. The interest in hierarchy, which is common among authors under Ismaili influence, is obvious in Kirmani's Rahat al-aql (Comfort of the Intellect), which uses the image of a city with seven walls and fifty-six highways to summarize his philosophical thought. By exploring this city, the rational human soul becomes acquainted with different spheres of reality. The Brethren of Purity (Ikhwan al-safa), a group of otherwise unknown authors in Baghdad, reflects the same trend of an all-encompassing systematic, hierarchical, and interconnected account of reality. They composed an encyclopedia made up of epistles (Arabic: Rasail) that covered a great variety of areas of knowledge (ranging from mathematics and logic over physics to metaphysics) and became highly influential in the Middle Ages. The work is often described as being obsessed with categorizing and counting anything in reality.

Study Questions:
1.     What beliefs do Shiites and Sunnis share?
2.     Who are the Imams and how do they bridge the gap between creation and Allah?
3.     Name some of the key Shiite theologians and their contributions to the development of Shiite faith.

Back to Religion Library
Close Ad