The Eschaton and Justice in the Thought of Mullā Sadra

Gabriel Said Reynolds


When the pious Shi‘i Muslim authors mention the name of the twelfth and final Imām, the Hidden Imām, they add the phrase, ‘ajjal Allāhu farajahu, “May God hasten his emergence!” This phrase expresses the intense anticipation with which they await the return of the Imām. What is it, though, that lies behind their collective anticipation? It is not the personality of the Imām; he disappeared into occultation (ghayba) as an infant in 260/874. Despite the reports of his communication with the leaders of the Shi‘i community during the period of the minor occultation, despite the claims of many to have met the Imām during the hajj since then, little is known of his personality.

Indeed, the day of the Imām’s emergence is longed for not because of who the Imām is. It is longed for because of what he will do. For the Hidden Imām, when he returns, will establish heavenly justice on the Earth.[1] He will bring to an end the long dark reign of oppression of God’s people, which began on the day of Saqifat b. Sā’ida, when Abu Bakr was unjustly chosen to succeed the Prophet Muhammad (s). Through the Imām the light of divine mercy will shine upon God’s chosen community.

The details of how he will do this were worked out by the classical Shi‘i theologians, including Kulayni (d. 329/940-1), Nu‘māni (d. 359/970-1), Ibn Bābwayyah (d. 381/991-2), al-Shaykh al-Mufid (d. 431/1022) and Muhammad b. al-Hasan at-Tusi (d. 459/1067). They composed the script of an elaborate eschatological drama in which the Imām will carry the banner for the āl al-bayt.

The twelfth Imām will not only seek vengeance on behalf of his community. He will also seek personal revenge against the community that threatened him with murder (the fate of his eleven predecessors) forcing him to enter ghayba as an infant. As a tradition attributed to Ja‘far al-Sādiq(a) (d. 148/765) predicted, “There is no choice for [him] but ghayba…he will be afraid for himself.”[2] When the Imām emerges from his ghayba, however, he will not be afraid. He will return as the sāhib al-zamān “master of time” and al-qā’im bi-‘s-sayf “the one who rises with the sword,” exacting revenge on his enemies. As Tusi puts it, quoting a prophetic hadith, “God will destroy falsehood and the time of the dogs will end. Through Him the humiliation of slavery will be removed from your necks.”[3]

The Imām, having emerged as the Qā’im, will attack the unbelievers of the Quraysh, whose ancestor Mu‘āwiya b. Abi Sufyān opposed ‘Ali at Siffin.[4] He will also take control of Kufa, the site of ‘Ali’s murder, killing the hypocrites and the doubters of the city.[5] Thus Nu‘māni refers to the parousia of the Qā'im as the ‘adhāb, the chastisement, for the suffering that the enemies of the Shi‘ah will receive. The punishment begun by the Qā'im in this world will be completed by God Himself in the next. After the final, peaceful era in human history comes to a close, the dead, awakened by the great horn blast of the angel Isrāfil, will be gathered with the living on the Day of Judgment, to meet punishment or reward for a second time. In this fashion the events of the eschaton, as-sā‘a, and the events of the apocalypse, yawm al-din, are inextricably connected. Together they form one drama, a drama that appears to be a sectarian anti-Sunni polemic.

Scholars of apocalypticism might describe the development of this eschatological drama in sociological terms.[6] According to the phenomenon of relative deprivation, groups who see themselves deprived, in relation to other groups, compensate for that deprivation by imagining a distant yet inevitable reversal of affairs. However, at a deeper level it is uncovered that this drama is fundamentally theological, not sectarian.

Kulayni, Nu‘māni, Ibn Bābawayyah, al-Shaykh al-Mufid and Tusi were intellectuals concerned with theoretical questions about God and His relation with humanity. In their writings about the eschaton they sought to develop a theory that corresponded with their theological principles. The first of these principles, divine justice, compelled them to explain why a God who wills the best (al-aslah) for His creation would let His chosen people, āl al-bayt, suffer so terribly at the hands of the unrighteous. The Shi‘i eschatological drama is that explanation. Accordingly, Nu‘māni comments on the Qur'ān 30.19 (“He revives the earth after its death”) with the remark, “Indeed God revives it by the justice of the Qā'im upon his parousia[7] Thus the Shi‘i eschaton is not essentially a sectarian polemic about bloodshed and revenge against Sunnis. Instead, it is a fundamental element of the theodicy constructed by Shi‘i theologians. Without it, the whole edifice would fall.

What, then, are we to make of the eschatological doctrine of the Shi‘i philosopher Sadr al-Din al-Shirāzi (d. 1050/1640)? Sadrā wrote almost six centuries after the last of the above theologians, and his description of the eschaton has a different form altogether. In fact, Sadrā’s understanding of the entire human experience is different.

According to Sadrā the human soul is not created but originated. It has a pre-existence, as part of the universal soul, before becoming individuated in this world. When the body dies, the soul enters into a third phase of its existence, in which it is separate from both the body and the universal soul.[8] Through all of this the soul is in substantial motion, al-haraka al-jawhariyya, or, better, substantial development, towards God. The task of the soul in this development is to achieve a complete understanding of that which is true, i.e. existence (which is none other than the divine existence), and that which is not, i.e. physical, material or imaginative phenomena. In this way, the soul is actualized, as Fazlur Rahmān puts it;[9] that is, the soul recognizes both pure existence and its participation therein.

Very few souls, however, will manage to actualize themselves during this lifetime, and so they will continue this struggle after the death of the body; the legend of a torture of the grave ‘adhāb al-qabr, during which the angels Munkir and Nakir will interrogate the deceased, is in fact nothing other than a reference to this very struggle.[10] In this way the events of history are overwhelmed by the trans-historical drama of the soul. Yet like his Shi‘i predecessors Sadrā insists on defending the justice of God. He refuses to say, as the Ash‘arite do, that categories of just and unjust, or good and evil, cannot be imputed to God; that is, he maintains not only that God is just, but that He is just in a way comprehensible to humans.

How, then, does Sadrā’s eschatological vision incorporate his understanding of divine justice? This is the question at stake here, and I will address it in two parts. First, I will present Sadrā’s theology of God in greater depth by comparing it with that of at-Tusi, not Muhammad b. al-Hasan at-Tusi but the philosopher Nasir al-Din at-Tusi (d. 672/1274). Second, I will analyze Sadrā’s eschatological doctrine as it is expressed in his treatise Risālat al-hashr.

Tusi, who lived between the theologians mentioned above and Mullā Sadrā, explains the presence of evil and divine justice in a way that is both historical and philosophical. In this way his thought, like his life, marks a transition between those early theologians and Mullā Sadrā. Tusi maintains that evil is an inevitable product of the divine decree, even if it is not willed by God. This he explains by arguing that God’s knowledge of things comes from his creation of them through the First Intellect. In this way God creates, and therefore knows, in an absolute fashion. That is, His knowledge is not bound by spatial or temporal context; He does not know things in respect to “here” or “there,” nor in respect to “was,” “is” or “will be.” Tusi compares this knowledge to that of a person who knows a book well. Such a person does not know the book in the sequence of its words, but rather its absolute nature.[11]

This, one might rightly object, is a rather scholastic response to the dilemma presented by the exigencies of religious orthodoxy, i.e. that God must know particulars, and philosophical principles, that there must be mediation between the One and the many. Be that as it may, this theological construction also allows Tusi to resolve the dilemma presented by God’s omnipotence and benevolence and the existence of evil. For God’s knowledge of things is absolute, yet they come into existence in a particular fashion, or, as F. Rahmān puts it, in a causal chain; e.g. lakes come from rain, children from intercourse, buildings from construction, etc. This causal chain makes for the best of all possible worlds. However, since specific events come into being through accidents, evil is a necessary possibility therein. Thus evil is in its essence particular, accidental and secondary. Among other things, it is the product of decisions taken by humans in this causal chain, including the selection of Abu Bakr at Saqifat b. Sā’ida, the rebellion against ‘Ali (a) at the Battle of the Jamal, the opposition to ‘Ali (a) at Siffin and the murder of Husayn (a) at Karbalā'.

Thus the particulars of human history, including its evils, are a product of the causal chain, yet the overall story of human history (to return to the analogy of the book) is known by God through His creation, a creation crafted in the best interests of humanity. God has created in such a way that whatever evils might enter into human history will ultimately be resolved within human history. History will have a happy ending.

Like Tusi, Sadrā approaches this problem from the perspective of metaphysics, yet his vision of the problem is trans-historical. Sadrā’s approach to theodicy begins and ends with the principle of wahdat al-wujud, and this produces a fundamental difference. The question to Sadrā is not what God knows or how God creates, but rather how God is. Sadrā argues that God is nothing other than pure existence. He is, therefore, present in and with all existents, including humans, while at once transcending them as the only being of pure existence. (Hence the principle of wahda fi ‘l-kathra and kathra fi ‘l-wahda.)

Thus the whole problem changes. God is no longer an outside figure controlling human history. For human history is only one manifestation of divine existence. It is as though a movie camera has panned back and revealed a much grander vision, so that the original scene of human history is shown to be incomplete. The impact of this grander vision on Sadrā’s eschatological thought will become clear by a brief examination of his treatise on the Resurrection, Risālat al-hashr (Letter on the Gathering).[12]

The first thing to note is that this treatise does not deal exclusively with the resurrection of humans. Most Islamic eschatological treatises, like those by the authors mentioned above, are collections of hadith that describe the trials which humans will undergo before entering heaven or hell. Some of these hadith are developed through the historicization of Qur'ānic references, to the divine throne (chapter 2: 255), to the heavenly scale (chapter 7: 80) or to the sirāt (chapter1: 6 etc.). Sadrā breaks definitively from this tradition in Risālat al-hashr, as he addresses therein the Resurrection not only of all living things, but of all existing things.

Sadrā begins by describing the resurrection of those beings that have actualized themselves, becoming pure intelligences (al-‘uqul al-khālisa). He proceeds by treating, in downwards steps, the resurrection of existents further away from actualization: reasonable beings (al-nufus al-nātiqa), animal beings (al-nufus al-hayawāniyya), vegetative force (quwwat al-nabāt) and inorganic elements (al-jamād wa-l-‘anāsir). Thus from the very structure of this treatise it is clear that for Sadrā the Resurrection is not primarily about the punishment or rewarding a specific religious group, but rather about the progression of all existing things, or as Sadrā puts it, “all that which is in the Earth and the heavens,”[13] to the source of their existence. In the introduction Sadrā explains why this is so:

God Most High does not create anything without a telos (ghāya). Therefore, all present things must have an activity and a telos….It has been confirmed through proof that the final telos of His (Most High) activity is His essence. His essence is the telos of all teloi as it is the base of all bases. Doubtless the telos of a thing is to arrive at and finish at its essence, unless something delays it. That which cannot arrive at its essence cannot be imagined in any way, even metaphorically, to have a telos.[14]

Thus Sadrā maintains that all existing things have a telos, and that this telos is nothing else than a participation in the divine essence itself. Sadrā considers this model an innovation that is preceded only by the thought of Aristotle:

Understand that the format which we have demonstrated, the affirmation of the return of all things and their arriving at God Most High and the final realm, is a noble science, a lofty pursuit, a precious quest, a prize of the prizes of faith, a treasure house of the treasure houses of the Merciful, the jewel of which is not found in the store-house of any of the famous sages, those who followed the Peripatetics or others, except for the first teacher [Aristotle].[15]

Sadrā might be accused of lacking humility. However, he cannot be accused of lacking the principles of divine justice and mercy that are central to traditional Shi‘i eschatology. The difference is that his solution is not worked out with the science of history, but with the science of philosophy. The life of the soul during its earthly existence, during its attachment to the earthly body, al-jism al-dunyawi, is only one chapter in the longer saga of its progression from and to God. Therefore the ultimate manifestation of God’s mercy in the end times will not be the coming out of the Hidden Imām (or the coming down of Jesus), but rather the elevation of existents towards the divine intellect, and thence towards God Himself. The eschaton, in fact, is nothing other than an act of divine mercy; it as though God reaches His hand down to earth, where most souls are confused and helpless, and lifts those souls up to a higher level where they might have a better view of reality. In Sadrā’s words:

Certainly He will destroy this world and turn all that is in the Earth and the heavens into nothingness, oblivion. Nature will return into the world of the soul. The soul will return into the world of the intelligence. The intelligence will return into the One, the Almighty. As He (Most High) says: “He will blow the Horn and those in the heavens and Earth, excepting those whom God wills, will be struck down. He will blow it again and they will rise up, seeing.”

Thus if things return to their original place, after leaving the world of motion, of transformations, evils, pains, of the sadness of death, treachery, terror and of being struck down, the divine mercy will show compassion on them another time with a life that has no death, a permanence that will not be broken.[16]

In this passage, Sadrā quotes the Qur'ān, al-Zumar 39: 48, a verse that is traditionally understood as a description of the death and resurrection of humans. Yet Sadrā applies this verse to all existing things; they will all be transformed into a new and elevated state, into a heavenly Jerusalem, to borrow the biblical phrase.  

Finally, it should be noted that Sadrā’s vision of the eschaton is based on his conception of the intellect. That is, Sadrā understands the return to God as an odyssey of intellects as they struggle to comprehend true existence. Thus it is in the intellectual arena where the moral contest will be played out, as God aids humans in their efforts to comprehend Him, all the while refusing to compel that comprehension. In this way Sadrā at once preserves the justice and compassion of God as well as human responsibility.

This emphasis on the intellectual, however, leads Sadrā to an arresting arrogance, a belief that through his own intellectual superiority he has progressed to an advanced stage in this odyssey. Accordingly, Sadrā concludes the Risālat al-hashr by congratulating himself for his intellectual advancement and encouraging the reader to follow his path, declaring:

If you contemplate and apply that which we described to you in this treatise regarding the refined secrets and noble lights, it will be possible for you to become in your spirit an exalted angel, in your soul a straight way and in your intellect a light guiding towards your eternal Lord.[17]

I cannot but find Sadrā’s confidence here troubling. As he sees it, the intellectual wisdom laid out in his Risālat al-hashr is something like the wisdom given by God at the eschaton. As God will reach His hand down to pull up the lost and helpless souls in the eschaton, so Sadrā reaches his hand down to the reader in this treatise.

And yet certainly there is much to commend in Sadrā’s eschatological system as described in Risālat al-hashr. Most notably, Sadrā describes the soul’s destiny in a way that transcends the religious doctrines of any particular community, yet without betraying the fundamental elements of Shi‘i eschatology. In Sadrā’s eschatological system humanity is not divided by vertical lines into separate and opposing groups. Humanity is divided instead by horizontal lines that mark the stages of the soul in its odyssey to pure existence. Indeed, the struggle of the human soul to understand existence and the experience of divine grace in the course of that struggle are elements shared by many different religious communities. From this perspective one can appreciate the sentiments of the contemporary Indian Shi‘i scholar Hasan ‘Askari:

By the very connotation of the word, Islām cannot be restricted to a particular historico-collective group who came to follow the Sunna of the Prophet. Islām now was the quality of all those, irrespective of the religion they practice, who are humble before God’s transcendence.[18]

It is Sadrā’s emphasis on God’s transcendence, then, that makes his eschatology more than an object of philosophical curiosity. It is also a noteworthy contribution to the Dialogue of Civilizations.



[1]. In the words of a contemporary Shi‘i scholar, the faithful wait for the return of the Imām with “la conviction que toutes les injustices et les souffrances subies par les croyants seront vengées et qu’il sera possible de prendre sa revanche ā l’encontre de criminels ayant commis toutes sortes d’atrocités.” Muhammad Bāqir al-Hakim, “L’Imām al-Mahdi et la formation du noyau vertueux,” Aux Sources de la Sagesse, 10.3, 1996, 42.

[2]. Ibn Bābawayyah, Kamāl al-din wa tamām al-ni‘ma, 2 vols., Tehran 1378/1959, 2:157; cf. ‘Ilal al-sharā’i‘, Najaf 1963, 264 and Kulayni, “Bāb fi ‘l-ghayba,” Usul al-kāfi, Tehran 1315, 891. Note that Mullā Sadrā wrote a Sharh al-usul al-kāfi. See D. MacEoin, “Mullā Sadrā Shirāzi,” EI2, 7:547.

[3]. Muhammad b. al-Hasan al-Tusi, K. al-Ghayba, Qum, 1411, 185.

[4]. “Five hundred of the Quraysh will rise [against him], then he will strike them down. Then five hundred of the Quraysh will rise and he will strike them down. Then five hundred more until he has done that six times.” al-Shaykh al-Mufid, K. al-Irshād, Beirut 1399/1979, 364.

[5]. al-Shaykh al-Mufid, 364.

[6]. See, e.g., J. Collins, “Apocalypse,” The Encyclopedia of Religion, ed. Mircea Eliade, New York 1987, 1:334-36.

[7]. Nu‘māni, K. al-Ghayba, Beirut 1983, 14.

[8]. Sadrā, al-Asfār al-arba‘a, Tehran 1387/1958, 4:250.

[9]. F. Rahmān, The Philosophy of Mullā Sadrā, Albany 1975, 259.

[10]. See Sadrā, al-Asfār, 4:218-24.

[11]. On this see Rahmān, 157ff.

[12]. Risālat al-hashr is one of the brief works that Sadrā completed during his retirement in the village of Kahak, a retirement imposed upon him after the accusations of heresy against him due to his teaching of wahdat al-wujud in Tarh al-kawnayn. See MacEoin, 8:547.

[13]. Sadrā, Risālat al-hashr, Tehran 1984, 84.

[14]. Sadrā, 81.

[15]. Sadrā, 117.

[16]. Sadrā, 109.

[17]. Sadrā, 121.

[18]. H. ‘Askari, “Within and Beyond the Experience of Religious Diversity,” The Experience of Religious Diversity, Hants, England 1985, 198-9.


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