Shīʿa Islam: History and Doctrines / Ayatullāh Jaʿfar Subḥānī
The Rajʿa as depicted in the Qur’an and traditions
The Shīʿa are often criticized for believing in the Rajʿa, which is mentioned in some Qur’anic verses and narrations. Anyone speaking about this concept is often accused of heresy while these critics may not realise that the first one who promoted this idea in the Muslim community was none other than ʿUmar b. al-Khaṭṭāb.
After the news of death of the Prophet spread among people, everyone rushed to the Prophet’s house to attend the funeral. ʿUmar swore by God, saying: ‘Muḥammad has not died. He is absent from people’s eye and he will return to cut the hands and feet of a group of people.’ (Sīra Ibn Hishām, 4/305). The serious nature of ʿUmar’s statement shows he actually believed in this. His statement essentially means that the Prophet is not permanently deceased but will return from this death to punish his enemies, with his final death coming later. This is the concept of Rajʿa (lit. ‘Repeat’), which says that some people will return to the world after they have died.
The Qur’an has also recounted instances where people have come back to life in this world after their death and scholarly exegetes have explained the verses accordingly. Here, we will list those groups which the Qur’an says were brought back to life in this world for readers to study them:
A group of Israelites (Q2:44-45)
An Israelite who had been murdered (Q2:72-73)
A group of people who died and were brought back to life (Q2:243)
Ezra being brought back to life one hundred years after his death (Q2:259)
Resurrection of the dead in this world following Jesus ’prayers (Q3:49)
If coming back to life in this world after death is impossible, how can one explain these cases in the Qur’an? Such reports clearly show that returning to this world after death is not only possible but has actually happened and has nothing to do with the transmigration of souls, which is when a person dies at seventy years of age and enters another world only for his spirit to once again enter this world through the process of gestation and rebirth in the body of a child, which proceeds to grow up again and die. This is also known as reincarnation.
Reincarnation has other meanings too. A man’s spirit enters the body of another individual or animal while there is no harmony between this single spirit and the two bodies. Shīʿa scholars and scientists have written numerous books and exegeses in rejecting this notion of reincarnation as well. They say the doctrine of reincarnation leads to apostasy and polytheism. In their view, reincarnation is a pretext to deny the afterlife and final judgment. They say every man will return to this world after death in one of the following ways to face punishment or be recompensed.
However, Rajʿa is completely different. Here, the human soul re-enters its own body as if it had never left. Having discussed the possibility of Rajʿa and distinguished it from Reincarnation, it is now time to look at the evidence for this belief:
Qur’anic proofs for Raj‘a
A Qur’anic verse says a group of the dead will be brought back to life by divine command in this world: ‘The day We shall resurrect from every nation a group of those who denied Our signs, and they shall be held in check.’ (Q27:83)
In this verse, the Qur’an announces the that a group from each nation will be brought back. This does not refer to Judgment Day, as that is when everyone will be brought back to life. The Qur’an describes Judgment Day as follows:
‘There is indeed a sign in that for him who fears the punishment of the Hereafter. That is a day on which all mankind will be gathered, and it is a day witnessed.’ (Q11:103)
Another verse reads: ‘The day We shall set the mountains moving and you will see the earth in full view, We shall muster them, and We will not leave out anyone of them.’ (Q18:47)
The first verse speaks about the return of a specific group of people to this world while these speak about all people being brought back without exception.
The ʿAbbāsid Caliph, Maʾmūn, asked Imam al-Riḍā about the Rajʿa. The Imam told him: ‘It has already occurred for people and the Qur’an has discussed it. The Prophet has said that whatever happened to the previous communities will also befall the Muslim community. (Biḥār al-Anwār, 53/59)
So far we have discussed the possibility of the Rajʿa and the evidence for it in the Qur’an, but we have yet to understand how people will be selected for this and for what purpose will they be brought back. This is the most fundamental question we must address.
Regarding the first question, Shaykh al-Mufīd has said that when Imam al-Mahdī appears, only two groups will return: pure believers and the pure disbelievers. Anyone others than these two groups will remain dead until Judgment Day. (Taṣḥīḥ al-Iʿtiqād, 40/45)
The reason the believers will return to this world is so they can help Imam al-Mahdī and earn greater rewards. Meanwhile the disbelievers will face justice in this world before going to the punishment of the Hereafter.
Frequently Asked Questions
How can these believers and tyrants return to this world while God has forbidden their return? The Qur’an says: ‘It is forbidden for [the people of] any town that We have destroyed [to return to the world]: they shall not return.’ (Q21:95)
The answer to this question is clear: The ban is only for those disbelievers who have died as a result of divine punishment befalling their town and not anyone dying of natural death.
Some verses show that return to this world is highly desired, but not possible for everyone:
When death comes to one of them, he says, ‘My Lord! Take me back, that I may act righteously in what I have left behind.’ ‘By no means! These are mere words that he says.’ And ahead of them is a barrier until the day they will be resurrected.’ (Q23:99– 100)
This verse expresses a divine habit (sunna ilāhiyya), namely that as a general rule there no life in this world after death. This group intends to return to this world to correct its past faults. Such a return is not possible. However this does not rule out other exceptions to the divine habit. So this verse has no connection with the return of believers and disbelievers in the Rajʿa.