Theological Issues

Theological issues arising from eschatological teachings include, significantly, the doctrine of intercession (shafa'a), which is treated in detail in the kalaam texts, partly in consequence of early challenges to its validity. While the Qur'an states that ''no soul shall bear the burden of another'' (6:164; 17:15, and elsewhere), and explicitly rejects a redemp-tionist theology (2:48), it leaves the door open for some form of intercession in verses such as ''no one shall intercede with Him except by His permission'' (2:255). It seems that intercession by angels (53:26), true witnesses (43:86), or those who have made a covenant with God (19:87) may avail. A set of hadith regarded as sound by the traditional canons presented the Prophet as interceding for sinners of his community, both at the judgement day, and following the condemnation of some sinners to hell.18 As this tension was debated, one source of particular difficulty was whether the Prophet will play an intercessory role for his community and whether additional sources of mediating spiritual aid (wasila) such as the ''friends of God'' (awliya'), might be efficacious. Sunni Islam gave an affirmative answer here, reacting against the Mu'tazilite insistence that any form of intercession must compromise God's unity and justice. Sufi circles with a particular devotion to the Prophet as ''the perfect human being'' (al-insan al-kamil) were particularly likely to uphold the intercessory possibility. Certain more recent positions such as those espoused by Wahhabism that emerged in the eighteenth century building on Ibn Taymiyya's hostility to intermediaries, or certain strands in twentieth-century rationalising Islamic modernism, have sought to reduce or eliminate any connection between this world and that of the departed, leading to a denial of intercessory powers and an aversion to practices and symbols of any sort of veneration.19

Controversies over intercession were inevitable in the context of a religion which set such store by the sole omnipotence of God, and which had emerged in prophetic tension with a polytheistic system. Yet it was clear to almost every Muslim that unless prayer on behalf of others is to be abandoned, some kind of intercessory devotional life must be part of Islam; and the hadith which affirmed the Prophet's intercession for his community clearly confirmed this. The Mu'tazilite alternative here, as on some other issues, seemed to reduce God to a calculating, merciless automaton, unresponsive to human prayer.

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