Unnecessary Evil: An Islamic Neoplatonic Theodicy from the Ismaili Tradition

Khalil Andani

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.

About the Presenter

Khalil Andani (khalilandani.com) holds a Ph.D. in Islamic Studies from Harvard University (Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations) and serves as an Assistant Professor of Religion at Augustana College. His dissertation, “Revelation in Islam: Qur’anic, Sunni, and Shi‘i Ismaili Perspectives”, was awarded Best Ph.D. Dissertation of the Year by the Foundation for Iranian Studies in 2020. His first book project, based on this dissertation, will be an analytical and historical investigation of Muslim theologies of revelation in the formative and classical periods of Islam. Khalil's publications include articles in The Oxford Journal of Islamic Studies, The Brill Journal of Sufi Studies, Religion Compass, The Journal of Islamic and Muslim Studies, chapters in The Oxford Handbook of Islamic Philosophy, Deconstructing Islamic Studies, Global-Critical Philosophy of Religion, and The Routledge Companion to the Quran. Khalil also maintains an active social media presence on Twitter, YouTube, and Academia where he makes his scholarship available to wider non-academic audiences.