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Last Updated: 2010/01/21
Summary of question
What is Islam's viewpoint regarding reincarnation?
What is Islam's opinion on consecutive lives (reincarnation)?
Concise answer

A few centuries back in India a theory known as "reincarnation" was developed concerning the consecutive return of souls to this world after death. During the ages this theory was gradually taken into serious consideration by people all around the world and even became, for some, a part of their religious principles. But, throughout this long period, great scholars have challenged this theory and objected to it, presenting several of its faults.

Islam clearly refutes the notion of the soul returning to this world in the form of another person or any sort of animate creature, in order to perform good deeds and reach enlightenment or be awakened or anything else so that they can obtain the required circumstances for living with other purified souls. In regard to this idea the Quran says: "Until, when death comes to one of them (those who join partners with Allâh), he says: "My Lord! Send me back, so that I may do good in that which I have left behind!" No! It is but a word that he speaks, and behind them is Barzakh (a barrier) until the Day when they will be resurrected."

In a narration Imam Ridha (as) says: "He who believes in reincarnation has rejected God almighty and has perceived heaven and hell to be unreal."

Detailed Answer

According to the teachings of divine prophets, through death, the soul departs the body and is transferred to barzakh where it continues its life. If he was a good person, he will enjoy the rewards given to him in exchange for the good he has committed, and if he was a bad person, he will be punished there until the Day of Judgment. The prophets' teachings disclose that it is Allah's (swt) will that the soul not return to start a new life, but in fact enters barzakh and remains there till the Day of Judgment.

However, centuries ago a theory known as "reincarnation" concerning the consecutive return of souls to this world was put forward by a group in India. Gradually it was taken into serious consideration by people all around the world that perceived there was substance to it, to the extent that for some it turned into a religious principle. Throughout this long period, great scholars have discussed and argued about the theory and have presented several faults regarding it.

The followers of this belief perceive that two groups of souls won't return:

The first group is those who have reached the highest climax of their spiritual capacity and as a result attain the highest level of prosperity after death. This group doesn't lack a thing; thus it doesn’t need to return to this world to make up for the deficiencies in its past.

The second group of people is those who are in the deepest level of wretchedness. These people have gone so astray and lost the path of righteousness so badly that it has brought them eternal misery for which they can never, even in the slightest way, replace or make up for by returning to this world.

They conceive that reincarnation is confined to a third group; the group in between the two extreme groups (those who have found their way and those who have lost it for good). After death, these people return to this world, transmigrating to things that match their deeds in the previous life. Hence they have given every form of reincarnation an different name. If the soul were to return in the form of a human again, it would be called "naskh" and if it were to transmigrate to an animal it would be called "maskh" and if it came back in the form of a plant it would then be called "faskh" while if it was to take on the structure of a solid inanimate object it would be "raskh".

The followers of this theory believe that the soul returns with the purpose of correcting its deficiencies and perfecting the spirit by achieving the greatest human qualities. Also, they also say that one of the reasons why the soul returns is so those who, despite leading pious lives full of morality and honesty, were deprived of convenience and opportunities in the previous life and faced various difficulties like illness and poverty can be given a better life, having a healthy body and a convenient lifestyle as a reward for the righteousness in their past. As opposed to those that have enjoyed every blessing even though they took it for granted by oppressing people with their irrational and immoral manners; these people must return to be punished. Their souls will appear in the next life as animals, plants, solid inanimate objects or paralyzed, ill, isolated and banished humans, depending on how bad they were before. Either way they will be returned to see the consequences of their corrupt lives.

On the other hand Islam clearly refutes the notion of the soul returning to this world in the form of another person or a different living creature, to obtain what is needed to reside alongside the other purified souls. In line with this the Quran says: "Until, when death comes to one of them (those who join partners with Allâh), he says: "My Lord! Send me back, "So that I may do good in that which I have left behind!" No! It is but a word that he speaks, and behind them is Barzakh (a barrier) until the Day when they will be resurrected"[1].

Whereas, according to the theory of reincarnation the Day of Judgment, Heaven, Hell, the reward and punishment of the hereafter all and all, lose their true position and meaning; for they perceive that almost every human is subsequently sent back after death to this world to face the results of their acts. This is completely in contradiction with the teachings of the divine prophets and the fundamental beliefs of Islam and has been considered as kufr by Shia Imams. Ma’mun once said to Imam Reza: “What's your opinion about those who believe in reincarnation?” The Imam replied: "One who believes in reincarnation has denied God Almighty and has claimed Heaven and Hell to be unreal.”[2]

Similarly, Imam Sadiq (A.S.) also says: "They suppose that both Heaven and Hell do not exist, nor will resurrection happen and in their view resurrection is nothing but transferring from one body and structure to another. If the soul was a righteous one while in the former body it will return in a better and superior structure at the highest level imaginable in this world, but if it was corrupt and ignorant, it will return in the form of four legged animals that are used for hauling things which live in pain and hardship or in the form of a small ugly looking bird that flies at night and and likes the graveyard and finds peace there".[3]

Of course, one must be aware that not only is the idea of reincarnation in contradiction with the teachings of the prophets and is considered to be kufr and denying resurrection and otherworldly reward and punishment of the hereafter, it is also known to be an unsubstantial theory in the eyes of scholars and philosophers which have presented several faults regarding the matter.

The famous philosopher, Sadrul Mutaahhilin (Mullah Sadra) says: "the nafs, in its first level of being brought to existence, stands at the level of nature. Then in proportion to its materialistic motion towards perfection, the nafs evolves all the way through being a plant and an animal to being a human. And if the nafs, at any level fulfills its potential (quwwah), even in the most subtle amount, it is impossible for this actuality (fi’liyyah) to regress back into pure potentiality once more. In addition to this, as was said before, the matter (maddah) and form (surah) are a united entity that bears the two aspects of actuality and potential, that take on the path of evolution together, advancing and developing at any point and chance possible, therefore, it is impossible for a soul that has passed the vegetative or animate level to attach to a form of sperm or fetus (be reincarnated in these forms)."[4]

The second flaw in this theory is that how can we claim the oneness of an entity in which hypothetically exists in two different times? Throughout our lives, every single one of us has put behind various stages consisting of diverse physical and psychological traits, but what brings all of these diversities together are links that we call our memories; it is these memories that allow us to call each of us one person, despite all the diversity we experience in our lives. But this can't be said if we believe in reincarnation. How does reincarnation explain the oneness of a person in one life with the person in another life if they have nothing in common, not even memories (because reincarnation says that when one transmigrates into another body, in almost all cases, it forgets all its memories). The physical body cannot be an explanation for unity either because the theory claims that one might return as a woman or a man, a human or an animal, so the two don’t share anything, neither memories, nor the same body. Likewise, psychological similarities also would not help since in that case whichever two people with the same psychological traits would therefore be one, which is obviously an absurd thing to say. In other words, the objection can be put this way; how much psychological similarity is needed in order to determine the unity of two people? Hence we can deduce that the extension of one entity through two separate times is logically unacceptable.[5]

Key Elements for the Arising of this Theory

At this point it is a good idea to point out a few factors that made this theory arise:

A. Philosophical and intellectual elements:

1. Denial of resurrection

Due to fact that some people did not believe in the hereafter and thought it is impossible and at the same time believed that it would be against God's justice not to reward and punish those who had done good and bad in their lives, they were compelled to believe that the soul of the good return to another body, that is much better when compared to the first body as a reward of the good deeds committed, and the soul of the corrupt return as well to face the consequences of their deeds by returning to an ill and flawed body. They are actually cleansed and purified this way.

2. A justification for those who are born handicapped

Some had complications finding a reason as to why children that have not even committed a single sin in their lives have to be born with ill or handicapped bodies; so they drew the conclusion that the soul of a corrupt person must have returned in the form of the child's new body in order to suffer and see the consequences of his former deeds.

B. Psychological elements

1. Compensation for failures and shortcomings

It seems like one of the psychological reasons behind this theory is the vast amount of failures and disappointments we face and experience throughout our lives. The psychological reactions provoked by these failures have manifested in various forms. At times they have led to turning to imagination and finding what they were looking for and lacking there, as seen done by poets when being content to their imaginary lover after not being able to find it in reality. Others on the other hand would comfort themselves with the hope of returning to this world with an all-new life.

As a result of their failures these disappointed people assumed that their souls would return to this world and reach their wishes in the next life.

2. Explanation of violent acts

Another psychological reason for the arising of this theory was to justify their violent acts; such as in the pagan state of the Arabs before Islam that strongly believed in vengeance and vendetta, so much that they might even have had, at times, inherited a particular sense of revenge towards a specific tribe from their ancestors. They perceived that when a member of their tribe was killed, his soul would transmigrate to the body of a bird similar to the owl, called Hameh and constantly fly around his corpse and weep with a terrifying sound and when the body was put in the grave, it would continue flying around the grave crying:"Osqooni! Osqooni!" which means Quench my thirst! Quench my thirst! And it wasnt till the blood of the killer was poured in his grave that the bird would stop.

In the end it is necessary to note that raj’ah (that is known to be one of the Shia's true beliefs) is different from reincarnation; because in raj’ah the soul returns with the same qualities that it possessed when it left this world and will be accompanied by the same old body, hence it does not entail bringing back an annihilated thing nor does it entail the regression of actuality to potentiality, unlike reincarnation in which the soul returns to another physical structure after passing potentiality and reaching actuality and acquiring materialistic perfection.

[1] Mu’minun:99-100.

2] Safinatul-Bihar, under the term نسخ

[3] Ihtijaj Tabarsi, vol. 2, pg. 89.

[4] Shawahidul-Rububiyyah, pg. 161.

[5] Ma’arefe Eslami, pg. 175.

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