A Shiite Theology of Solidarity through the Remembrance of Liberative Suffering

By Babaei, Habibollah | Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

A Shiite Theology of Solidarity through the Remembrance of Liberative Suffering


Babaei, Habibollah, Journal of Ecumenical Studies


I. Introduction

In the Shiite community, the memory of liberative suffering constitutes the theological basis of solidarity, resistance, and righteousness. Such memory of suffering, which may exist in other traditions as well, has a powerful potential not only to create solidarity within religious communities but also to forge connections among different religions. By memory, I refer to a remembrance that is simultaneously cognitive and emotional. As I use the term, memory is not only a cognitive issue stemming from "imagination," "recollection," and "repetition," but it is also an "affection" that arises from passions, such as suffering. Also, memory of suffering does not imply "resurrection" of past suffering in the present. Rather, it means recognizing, reconsidering, and sensing tangible aspects of past suffering, on the one hand, and experiencing its constructive and instructive dimensions, on the other. By "liberativity" of suffering, I refer to redemption from suffering, not from sin (as in the Christian context). By "suffering," I do not primarily mean everyday pain such as illness and disease. Rather, I refer to particular instances of quintessential, comprehensive, and collective suffering, both physical and emotional, that have fallen on specific historical figures and communities. Finally, by "solidarity," I refer to a type of integration and societal ties through which different peoples, even on a global scale, come together to prevent new suffering. Solidarity not only correlates with a type of society, as Durkheim says; it is also associated with a specific type of commonality within a particular community. In other words, solidarity that is based on shared joy differs from solidarity that is based on the memory of pain and suffering.

The memory of liberative sufferings can be an effective means to overcome internal and external disputes within and among various traditions. While I draw primarily upon instances of suffering in the Shiite Islamic tradition, I do so only to illustrate how solidarity can be founded upon the memory of suffering. I do not intend to suggest the exclusivity of Shiite suffering in the history of suffering but, rather, to put forth a model that can serve as a common logic between Muslims and others. I pose to my non-Muslim audience such questions as: Are there instances of suffering for (liberative suffering) in their own traditions? Could remembrance of suffering for help to create solidarity within their own contemporary contexts? Could such remembrance be employed as a bridge among different religions (or, at the very least, among Abrahamic religions) to bring them to a common purpose?

This essay introduces an interpretation of Shiite theology of "suffering and solidarity," which finds resonance in the Qur'an, as a contribution to contemporary approaches to altruism, self-sacrifice, and peace. The qur'anic exegesis of Mohammad Hussein Tabatabai (1) is used to search for specific references about the Shiite approach with regard to the subject of solidarity that could be achieved through the memory of suffering. Then follows a phenomenological study of the relationship between suffering and solidarity, on the one hand, and suffering and rising conflicts, on the other. Although this latter section draws upon Christian theological interpretations of suffering, it is not intended to be a comparative study. Rather, I refer to the Christian tradition in order to find a common language and to render Shiite theology and tradition comprehensible to Western theologians.

II. Liberative Suffering in the Islamic Scripture (The Qur'an)

Three types of meaningful suffering can be identified in the Qur'an: Nonliberative suffering, time-specific liberative suffering, and eschatological liberative suffering. Nonliberative suffering falls only upon individuals and does not impact others or society. In other words, this type of suffering, which can fall upon both prophets (such as Job, Jonah, or Zachariah) and nonprophets, is redemptive neither for self nor for others (Q. …

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