An Islamic Perspective on the Role of the Body in the Care of the Dying
The COVID-19 pandemic embedded one mantra in our quotidian existence: ‘social distancing’. Our habitual interactions had to conform to a new normal, as spontaneous somatic gestures like handshakes and hugs were off-limits. Within healthcare, and especially palliative care, this mitigated physical contact put an end to many types of human touch. I draw on the spiritual significance of the body in the Islamic tradition to set forth an account of what it means to be present with the dying, as an embodied mode of love and attentive care. Such presence, enacted through our bodies, is not about ‘controlling’ or ‘curing’ suffering but about meditatively bearing witness to it. I argue that Islamic perspectives on embodiment as a locus of sacral significance offer us resources to conceive human fragility and vulnerability not as encumbrances to be stoically surpassed but as experiential realities that lie at the core of our human condition of relational selfhood.
Climate Change and Specific Evil: An Avicennan Reading
The famous philosopher Avicenna (d. 1037) outlined a well-known theory of evil in his Metaphysics of The Healing. In this text, he argues not only that evil is always outweighed by good, but that evil can only afflict individuals and not their species as such. This paper will weigh in on the phenomenon of global climate change, which is often framed as a threat to humanity, from an Avicennan perspective.
Suffering Before God:
The Hermeneutics of Tawhid in the Act of Supplication
This paper will explore Islamic perspectives on human suffering with reference to two classic supplicatory texts in the tradition, namely Zayn al-‘Abidin’s al-Sahifat al-Sajjadiyyaand ‘Abd Allah Ansari’s Munajat. I will seek to unravel the hermeneutics of tawhid or divine unity at play in these works, paying particular attention to the prayer of the afflicted. It will be argued that the perspective of tawhid shapes the prayer of the one in affliction, which in turn shapes the reader’s response to and understanding of Islamic attitudes towards suffering.
Aesthetic Theodicy: Light from the Horizon of Karbala
Whereas classical theodicies present solutions to the problem of evil using rational means and from an objective, impersonal angle, in this presentation I seek to explore lines of inquiry into the problem of evil and suffering that are rooted in subjective experience and based on non-rational or super-rational modes of awareness. Beginning with indications in certain Sufi texts that the problem of evil can only be resolved by transcending the rational plane, I then suggest that although most of us may not have direct access to this kind of awareness, a bridge towards it is made possible by art, and particularly art that is rooted in the consciousness of levels of reality that transcend the realms in which suffering occurs. In the second half of the paper, I present a contextualized case study of how this approach is used within Shi‘i mourning traditions, offering a reading of a performance of two poems (‘A Dagger on Thirsty Lips’, and ‘Save my Heart, No one Steals the Heart of My Heart-Taker’) by Hossein Fakhri in the early morning of Ashura 2010, showing how poetry, melody, and embodied practice are brought together as part of what may be considered an aesthetic theodicy. I end by considering the avenues of thought and practice that are opened up by the perspectives presented in this presentation.
Seyyed Hossein Nasr’s Metaphysical Theodicy
For a theological problem as historically vexed as that of the presence of evil in a world that is created by an infinitely good and loving Creator, the suggestion that this problem can be definitively solved would strike many today as implausible. To be sure, in almost all contemporary cases, solutions are proffered squarely within the confines of the disciplines of philosophical theology and philosophy of religion, both of which tend to neglect the form of knowledge usually referred to as gnosis. For the prominent Muslim philosopher Seyyed Hossein Nasr, by contrast, no fully satisfactory account of evil and suffering is possible without metaphysics, at the heart of which lies the certitude said to be characteristic of gnosis, and whose integral reality normatively demands the purification, autology, and ultimately liberation of the knowing self. Nasr’s “metaphysical theodicy” therefore ostensibly involves not only a theoretical solution to the problem of evil but also a comprehensive exposition of the practical significance of evil and suffering for the human quest for happiness.
Hume on Trial: Can Evil and Suffering be Justified?
Muhammad U. Faruque
For many contemporary philosophers, the presence of “horrendous evils” in this world seems highly incompatible with a warranted belief in the existence of a God who is good, just, and omnipotent. Against such suppositions which can be traced back to Pierre Bayle and David Hume and which find their modern, stronger formulations in William Rowe and Paul Draper, I argue that it is erroneous to consider that the goal of creation is a custom-made heaven and the imperfect human. Rather, the telos of creation is the human being’s spiritual development and ultimate perfection for which evil and suffering in life can be a way to actualize one’s latent spiritual and ethical flourishing. This position also explains why, in the Islamic tradition, there is a view which maintains that those closest to God are the ones who suffer the most.
On Suffering and the Human Condition:
Reflections from the Sufi Tradition
The “problem of suffering,” as conceived of in Christianity and Buddhism, has never occupied a central place in the theological disquisitions of classical Muslim thinkers. Yet the Islamic tradition has not remained silent about such a problem either, since pain, suffering, and hardship are an essential part of the human condition, and the exile of Adam and Eve brought with it, according to the Quranic account, not only a loss of Paradise, but also a loss of the felicity that marked their habitation in their original home. By drawing on the meditations of the Sufis, this paper offers a contemporary reflection on the problem with particular attention given to the necessity of suffering in our experience of this world, the spiritually transformative power of pain, and our attempts (sometimes futile) to fully understand the question forced on everyone who experiences it: Why? In the process of outlining the contours of a modern Sufi response to the problem, some critical comparisons with Buddhist and Christian philosophy will be offered.
Necessity and Freedom in God, Evil, and the Human Response
The first part of this paper argues that there is a continuous attempt in Islamic philosophy and Sufi metaphysics to reconcile seemingly contradictory notions of necessity and freedom in God on the premise that if there is necessity in God, this stems from divine perfection—not from an external source or principle, or an internal desire to realize an unrealized potentiality. Thus, God’s acts may be described as simultaneously necessary and free. The second part of the paper will seek to apply this necessitarian and volitional view of divine agency to the problem of evil and discuss the type of human response that this view entails.
Living with Pain, Confronting Addiction
Many addicts attribute their behavior to a deep pain, thirst, or hunger. Sufi spiritual psychologists, like Rumi and ‘Attar, consider inner pain as a quality not just of addicts but of all humans. Rumi identifies the power of choice (and its immediate consequence of pain) as the Trust accepted by humans from which heavens and earth shrank away. As such, Sufis resist the medicalization of inner pain—rather than an impediment, this paper will argue that pain is the very means by which humans attain perfection.
Under the Shadows of the Names:
An Akbari Approach to Systemic Oppression Beyond Liberal Individualism and Marxian Structuralism
The general problems of theodicy have been compellingly addressed in the works of the likes of Plotinus and in the Islamic context, Ibn al-‘Arabī and others, but colonial modernity has introduced unprecedented formations of evil, including the denial of the very notion of evil. Modernity has also produced unique philosophical responses to the gross social inequalities and evils to which it has given birth, the two most prominent of which can roughly be described as the historical-materialist and the liberal individualist, each of which prescribe different kinds of individual and collective responses to these evils. Taking the crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic as a case study, this paper will first demonstrate its origins and imbrication in dynamics of colonial oppression, and then will explore the limitations of both historical-materialist and liberal individualist models for addressing this crisis and its roots. Finally, based on the works of Seyyed Hossein Nasr and Ibn al-‘Arabī, this paper will develop an alternative model of the nature of the modern evil of colonial oppression, and therefore what individual and collective responses to it should look like.
Aphorisms on God, Evil, and Liberation
This paper will present a set of aphorisms on God, evil, suffering, and the human quest for felicity from a contemporary Islamic philosophical perspective.
Trials as Transformation: Islamic Chaplaincy and the Problem of Human Suffering
It is sometimes through life’s greatest hardships and suffering that we experience the deepest transformation. Seen thus, suffering can become a means towards seeking our higher self and can be experienced not only as hardship but also as Divine gift and blessing, as it becomes a means of outward and inner growth and a returning to our fiṭra or primordial disposition. In this paper, I will offer a case study analysis of how college students may navigate, endure, and make meaning of hardship and suffering in their lives and in the world around them, thereby challenging the prevailing narrative that joy, peace, and purpose are rooted only in the pursuit and attainment of the delights of life.
Suffering as Metaphysical Narrative:
Another Author’s Story
Cyrus Ali Zargar
The Qur’an begins its description of the betrayal, imprisonment, and ascendancy of Joseph by declaring it an example of “the most beautiful of stories.” Among its central themes is Joseph’s lack of agency vis-à-vis the events that happen to him: Joseph finds himself trapped, condemned, and finally redeemed. In this paper, I explore the futility of human agency as an outlook that brings consolation when embraced. This perspective appears in full relief when contrasted with what Stanley Hauerwas has described as the quintessential modern American aspiration, namely, to be “a people who believe that they should have no story except the story that they chose when they had no story.” The perception of an intelligence, or Other, who shapes and alters our personal stories facilities the cultivation of receptive character traits. These traits do more than yield persons of grit. Indeed, they place one within a world subject to interpretation.
Self-knowledge, Divine Trial and Discipleship
Mukhtar H. Ali
This paper investigates one of the essential topics of Islamic spirituality which is self-knowledge and its relationship to divine trial and tribulation. Knowledge of the soul has been the focal point for Islamic philosophers, mystics and sages as they have included it in every discussion on spirituality. Self-Knowledge constitutes knowing how to discipline and transform the soul, and thereafter actualize the higher human faculties of the heart and intellect. Because the soul is allusive and recalcitrant by nature, spiritual teachers have devised various stratagems to discipline and rectify it. There are two aspects to that training: human and divine. On the human side, one disciplines himself through the intellectual faculty and/or is trained by an expert who is considered the spiritual physician, Shaykh or sage. On the divine side, God is the teacher who trains His servant through bounties or trials. The trial is the mirror, or the reality-check through which the believer sees his own soul, rectifies his behavior and awakens to God-consciousness. The divine trial may extend beyond the individual as in the case of a pandemic, often giving rise to a global awakening. Learning lessons through divine trial has many aspects, the most salient of which will be covered in this paper.
Unnecessary Evil: An Islamic Neoplatonic Theodicy from the Ismaili Tradition
This paper draws constructively on Islamic Neoplatonic thought from the classical and contemporary Ismaili tradition to present a Muslim theodicy in metaphysical and soteriological terms. According to classical Ismaili philosophers, God directly creates a perfectly good first creation known as the First Intellect – which corresponds to the “best possible world” in modal terms and directly solves the classical problem of evil. The metaphysical root of “evil” is an ontological imperfection that exists within the Universal Soul – which is the proximate effect of the First Intellect and merely the indirect effect of God. This imperfection prompts the Universal Soul to seek perfect goodness by way of goal-oriented action; therefore, the Universal Soul strives to achieve self-perfection by creating the Cosmos. Through the Universal Soul’s creative activity, its potential perfection manifests in the world as goodness, compassion, and justice, while its latent imperfection manifests as corruption, deficiency, and moral evil. The Universal Soul emanates individual souls that strive to become perfect and cleanse themselves of evil. The human soul’s experience of external and internal evil facilitates its recognition of and desire for goodness and perfection – which corresponds to a soul-building theodicy. Accordingly, the medieval Ismaili philosophers and the Ismaili Imam Aga Khan III (d. 1957) explain that the natural calamities endured by human beings due to factors beyond their control present an opportunity for the human soul to purify and perfect itself spiritually. In this way, while evil must be ultimately transformed into perfection, the experience of evils provides occasions for the soul’s spiritual progress.
Transformative Love Amid Suffering: A Perspective from Hilmi Ziya Ülken (1901-1974)
Taraneh R. Wilkinson
In his iconic Ethics of Love, Ottoman-Turkish philosopher and scholar of religion Hilmi Ziya Ülken proposes that transformative love is both a response to the human condition of suffering and an intentional route to address the suffering and human isolation caused by human injustice and mutual alienation. Specifically, he proposes a humanizing love that transcends individual interests yet still affirms individual vitality and uniqueness. In this paper, I lay out his views on love and further show how they are informed by his commitment to his “monopluralism” or affirming the multiplicity in creation by affirming God’s unity.
Human Suffering in Light of the Oneness of Being
Mohammad A. Mansouri
The great Persian Sufi metaphysician ʿAzīz al-Dīn Nasafī contains an abundance of fruitful reflections on the problem of evil, human suffering, and the transient nature of the material world, all seen from the vantage point of waḥdat al-wujūd or the oneness of being. After outlining Nasafī’s treatment of evil and suffering in detail, I will then seek to evaluate Mohammed Rustom’s aphorisms on God, evil, and liberation in their own light, thereby highlighting the creative ways in much Muslim philosophers past and present have engaged with topics of abiding human concern.