On 20 November 2014, the group gathered to discuss life and death in Islam, particularly with regard to the composition of humans, what ends and what persists.
Murata, Sachiko and William C. Chittick (1994) The Vision of Islam. Paragon House. pp. 193-213.
Murata and Chittick have attempted to reach beyond phenomenological and legalistic descriptions of Islam to get closer to a spiritual understanding. To do this, they have emphasizes tawhid (the oneness of God) and the range from tanzih (God’s distant transcendence) to tanshih (God’s immanence in creation).
Death is used both of earthly existence and of separation from God.
There is a death before birth, in which we have not yet come into being.
Humans unfold (after Aristotle) through vegetable and animal stages.
True humanity comes in our speaking.
Other creatures possess one name of God;
humans have (in potential) the ability to name all created things.
Humans have the ability continue approaching God throughout life,
ideally taking up their role as vicegerents (representatives of God).
Humans are made out of clay, shaped by God’s two hands.
Soul represents the interface of clay and spirit (God’s breath).
Angels have intellect, but no free well. They are made out of light.
Humans have the potential to be greater (closer to God) than Angels,
but not all humans have achieved this level of development.
Jinn are made out of smokeless fire and have free will, but lack the names
given to humans.
Muslims pick up the Platonic idea of human existence through participation in God,
but not Platonic subsistence.
[Note that Christians blur the line between Creator and creation
far more than Muslims. For Muslims, nothing subsists but God.]
The period between death and resurrection is more fully articulated.
The Grave (Barzakh, “the barrier”)
refers to the period of consciousness after death.
The soul is met by two angels who judge it by asking questions.
All souls live with the answers they have given in life.
Psychological reward and punishment “in the grave”
along with their earthly baggage.
The Resurrection refers to the end times.
Humans will rise from their graves (usually construed as in the flesh).
Their actions are written in a book of their life, which is weighed.
The good go to the Garden, for eternity with God.
The bad go to Jahannam (Gehenna, trash heap), where they suffer.
God rescues some people from Gehenna; it is unclear whether
the others eventually cease to be, as the opposite pole
from God is nothingness.
There is a great deal of speculation on the soul and generally on ontology in Islam under the mutazilites, but this is largely frowned upon by the Asherites, who dominate Islamic thought from the 12th century on.
We talked about the soul as spiritual process or physical process or substance or identity and how all of these interact.
We talked about the meaning/purpose of Final Judgment. John expressed an appreciation of the barzakh concept as the person encountering themselves fully and dealing with the choices of their life, but wondered if an externally imposed punishment/reward at the end of time was a good concept. Lucas expressed that in Christianity it often had to do with revealing an underlying just order rather than simply a carrot and stick. Kari Jo spoke about the value of Revelation in particular in afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted.
Lucas suggested, from an evolutionary standpoint, the idea of “flow,” that we seem to perform optimally with tasks that are challenging, but not too challenging. Perhaps each person has a spiritual set point where salvation (or obedience or enlightenment…) appears to have just the right level of difficulty. Religious institutions, then, vary with regard to where they set the difficulty level and doctrines like Last Judgment, Purgatory, and Barzakh adjust the set point for communities and individuals.
John worried that it might be unhealthy to be so goal oriented, with concepts like optimal performance. Lucas agreed from a theological standpoint, but still felt it was an interesting perspective phenomenologically: religions may use doctrines this way whether or not they should.
David wrapped up with a reflection on how we get wrapped up in certain historical questions and types of questions – in the West, it has to do with substances and eternity – that may or may not be best way forward. We don’t have to stay on the same tack and this week’s reading on Islam presented an interesting take on souls that addressed very different questions.