(lit.: “return”), theological term that has had many meanings according to the context in which it was professed.


RAJʿA (lit.: “return”). Abuʾl-Ḥasan Ašʿari (q.v., d. 935) introduces this concept in his work Maqālāt al-eslāmiyin as a belief held by a large majority of the “Rāfeża”—which in this context means Imami Shiʿites (Ašʿari, p. 46; on the term in general see Kohlberg, “Rāfiḍa”). In his Ketāb al-enteṣār, the Muʿtazilite Ḵayyāṭ (d. between /902 and 912) also attributes this doctrine to the Rāfeża, all the while adding that the latter conceal it from non- Shiʿites (Ḵayyāt, p. 95). It is true that in theological or heresiographical works, expressions such as rajʿiya, ahl al- rajʿa and aṣḥāb al- rajʿa (i.e., those who believe in rajʿa) in almost all cases, designate Imamis in particular, and the different Shiʿite movements more generally. Imami doctrinal works do indeed lean toward this direction (Fażl b. Šāḏān, pp. 381 ff.; Ebn Bābawayh, pp. 88 ff.; Mofid, pp. 13 and 50 ff.; Majlesi, LIII, pp. 39 ff.) although information remains discrete, as noted by Ḵayyāt. E. Kohlberg has already dedicated an excellent study to this concept (Kohlberg, “Radjʿa”). The present study will therefore mainly reiterate the concept in its broader terms while summarizing and nonetheless provide additional information where required, including other sources and more recent studies that have since been published.

The term rajʿa "return," sometimes known as karra, pl. karrāt (meaning “return” as well, but also “that which returns,” “that which repeats often,” hence, “cycle”) has had many meanings according to the context in which it was professed.

Let us first consider a quasi “spiritual” interpretation of the term the return of the soul, after the perishing of the body into another body, or the transmigration of the spirit of a saintly person or wali (more specifically, of an Imam) into another body. This kind of “return,” designated by the terms ḥolul or tanāsoḵ, was denounced by heresiographers as a highly deviant belief and attributed by them to “extremist” (ḡāli; pl. ḡolāt) Shiʿite sects (ps-Nāši’, pp. 27 ff.; Nowbaḵti, pp. 33, 80, 89-90 ; Saʿd b. ʿAbd-Allāh Qomi, pp. 45 and 107; Rāzi, p. 311). Two clarifications must however be made to this information. First, the distinction between “moderate” and “extremist” Shiʿites is a later development. At any rate, it seems artificial regarding early Imamism as it appears based on the most ancient sources that have come down to us. All the theories and doctrines attributed by the heresiographers to the ḡolāt are encountered in one form or another in the corpus said to be “moderate,” in this case the oldest compilations of Twelver Shiʿite Hadith. Moreover, almost all of the major figures of Shiʿite “extremism” were, directly or indirectly, the disciples of Imams. Many among them, “cursed” by an Imam, find themselves in the entourage of the following Imam; which seems to indicate that the “public condemnation"( laʿn, barāʾa) was no more than a “tactical means”—quite regularly practised in esoteric circles—to divert external threats (Amir-Moezzi, 1992a, pp. 310-17; 1992b, pp. 229-42). Next, regarding the transfer of a spirit from one Imam to another, careful examination of the texts seems to demonstrate that it is more precisely a matter of transmission of the “Light of Alliance /Divine Friendship” (nur al-walāya) from one wali to another. In this particular case, rajʿa is not concerned with the transmigration of the soul but the passage of saintly light from one person to another. The phenomenon is also designated by many other terms such as naql (“transfer, transport,” taqallob (“reversal” or else the passage from one “mortal coil” [qālab] to another) and finally tanāsoḵ, which in this specific case is not a process of metempsychosis but rather of metemphotosis (Komayt, p. 69; Nahj al-balāḡa, no. 93, p. 279; Amir-Moezzi, 1992a, pp. 109-10). This kind of Return is said to pertain to the imams no doubt, but also to certain revolutionary Shiʿite thaumaturges such as ʿAbd-Allāh b. Moʾāwia, Bayān b. Samʿān and Moḡira b. Saʿid (Tucker, 1975a; 1975b; 1980; Halm, 1982).

Alongside this “spiritual” meaning, “return” has many other “corporeal” interpretations in which the eschatological dimension occupies a central place. First, it designates the wali’s emergence from occultation (ḡayba) in order to (re-) establish justice and wisdom. This motif of return, after quite a long period of absence, of a saviour prevailing over death is derived from Mazdeism and Judaism, both well-known to the Arabs, even before the advent of Islam (Friedlaender, 1909, pp. 23 ff.; 1910, pp. 10-15; Ṣadiqi, p. 165, n. 2). The second caliph ʿOmar b. al-Ḵaṭṭāb (r. 634-44) had already refused to believe in the death of the Prophet, claiming that the latter had (re)-entered occultation, as had done Moses before him (Ašʿari, p. 15; Malaṭi, p. 14). Some groups among the sect of the Saba’iya as well as some among the Kaysāniya, most likely a twin sect of the former (van Ess 1974-75, passim), respectively professed the occultation of ʿAli b. Abi Ṭāleb and his son, Moḥammad b. al-Ḥanafiya, who was not a son of the Prophet’s daughter Fāṭema, and their return as eschatological saviour, to restore justice upon earth (al-Qāḍi 1974, index and 1976, pp. 299-301; van Ess 1991, pp. 306-309). The different Wāqefiya sects of one or another Imam also applied these beliefs to their guides. The Imāmiya, which had become the Eṯnāʿašariya from the first half of the 10th century (Kohlberg, 1976) were the main inheritors of these ancient beliefs and applied them to he whom they revered as the Twelfth and final Imam—their mahdi and qāʾem, Moḥammad b. Ḥasan ʿAskari. Among Twelver Shiʿites, this interpretation of rajʿa is more often designated by the term ẓohur (“manifestation”) or still kòoruj (literally: “exit,” here in terms of a rise against injustice), moreover, this event will be projected to the “End of Time” (āḵer al-zamān) (Modarressi 1993; Arjomand 1996). In this context, the Return occurs to provoke an armed “rise” against the forces of evil and ignorance. Hence the appellation qāʾem or Mahdi, one of whose meanings is “the Standing One,” i.e., “he who rises” to fight injustice in contrast to other Imams called al-qāʾed, literally “the Seated,” i.e., he who has not been commissioned an armed uprising. Refusal to accept death of the hero, faith in his occultation and return to definitively conquer evil are all themes also encountered within a number of revolutionary and millenarian movements that punctuate the Omayyad and ʿAbbasid periods, like the Moḡiriya and the Bayāniya (whose eponyms we have already cited) or various groups of followers of emblematic figures such as Behāfarid, Bābak “Ḵorramdin,” or Abu Moslem (Melikoff, chap. 4; Laoust, index; Ṣadiqi, chaps. 1 and 6; see also ABU MOSLEM ḴORĀSĀNI).

Still in eschatology, rajʿa may have the following meaning: at « the end of time » return to life of a certain number of deceased individuals, more specifically, Friends of God (prophets, saints and Imams), victims of injustice and cruelty as well as their tormentors, in order that the victims might avenge the criminals. This represents the general idea of such a conception of rajʿa, but there are many divergences regarding the details depending on the different movements that profess them. According to some traditions, this Return to life will occur just prior to the advent of the Mahdi, others have it coincide with this event, still others place it after (e.g. Majlesi, LIII, pp. 39 ff.; see also Sachedina, pp. 166 ff.). According to almost all of the texts, this “particular resurrection” (ḥašr ḵāṣṣ), as differentiated from the great universal Resurrection (ḥašr ʿāmm or rajʿa ʿāmma – universal Return), concerns only the pious and impious of the Muslim community, whereas other reports, much more rare, mean the event to imply the good and evil of religious communities prior to Islam. Finally, according to the heresiographers, certain “extremist” sects professed that rajʿa ʿāmma designates the return to life of all the deceased prior to the Resurrection (Ps-Nāšiʾ, pp. 27 ff.; Šahrastāni, I, pp. 165 ff.; II p. 17). There is also difference of opinion regarding holy figures and their executioners that return to life. However, in the mass of often contradicting Hadiths, some names are encountered more frequently: ʿAli (appropriately called “the lord of returns,” ṣāḥeb al-karrāt ; cf. e.g. Borsi, pp. 210 ff. ) and his enemies, in particular his assassin Ebn Moljam, Jesus-Christ and his tormentors, the enigmatic Koranic prophet “Esmāʿil, faithful to his Promises"(“ Esmāʿil, ṣādeq al-waʿd”; cf. Koran 19:54-55 ) and then especially Imam Ḥosayn, victim and martyr par excellence, whose vengeance seems to have been a necessary condition to purge the Islamic community of the worst crime it committed in order to prepare it for the final Resurrection (Ebn Qulawayh, chap. 19, pp. 65 ff. and chap. 50, pp. 136 ff.; Majlesi, LI, pp. 77-78 and LIII, pp. 101-17; also Crow, 1986, passim). Thus, before obtaining their reward or eternal punishment, the persecuted saints will avenge themselves of their persecutors, or rather the Mahdi will be the instrument of their vengeance, by killing or mutilating the latter.

Imami interpreters of the Koran base this belief on verses such as 2:243 and 259 17:6 24:55 27:83 and 28:5-6 Similarly, the eschatological term maʿād (literally: “return to the origin”) of verse 28:85 is interpreted in this way (ʿAli b. Ebrāhim Qomi, sub 28:85; Ṭusi, I, pp. 254 ff.; II, p. 283; VIII, p. 120; Ṭabresī, I, p. 257; II, p. 270; XX, pp. 251 ff.). Moreover, a Shiʿite reading of verse 3:185 adds to the text of ʿOṯmān’s Koran codex: “Every soul will taste death” (kollo nafs ḏāʾeqat al-mawt) the phrase “and will return to life"(wa manšura), an expression that is interpreted as alluding to rajʿa (ʿAyyāši I, p. 210, no. 169; Ḥelli, p. 17; regarding the “Shiʿite Koran” and studies pertaining to it, now see Amir-Moezzi, 2002, pp. 722-25 and n. 1 to 3).

With the emergence and domination of the rationalist theological and juridical tradition during the Buyid period (Amir-Moezzi, 1992a, pp. 15-48) certain Imami thinkers seem to have accorded the concept of rajʿa a purely political connotation, namely the return to power in the hands of the Shiʿites during the reign of the Mahdi (ʿAbd-al-Jabbār, pp. 177-85; Jāḥeẓ, I, p. 24). However, this rationalisation of the concept, which occurred most likely under the increasing influence of Muʿtazilite thought upon the dominant tradition, was rejected by the great majority of learned Imamis. The defence of the compatibility of doctrinal meaning of the notion of Return with Muʿtazilite conceptions of human reason and divine justice even becomes a recurring polemical theme between theologians from both sides (Šarif Mortażā, I, pp. 125-26; Ṭusi, I, p. 255; McDermott, pp. 268 ff.; for more details on the actual content of these polemics, see Kohlberg, “Radjʿa”).

The doctrine of Return will remain an Achilles heel - one of the most frequently referred to vulnerable points employed by adversaries of Shiʿism to denounce the “heresies” that in their view characterise Shiʿism. Rajʿa is mainly presented as a doctrine supposedly foreign to Islam and borrowed from other religions, Judaism in particular. It is true that the different meanings applied to the term—from transmission of saintly light or transmigration of souls to the manifestation of a saint after a period of occultation or yet again revival of the dead before Resurrection—have a number of precedents in several Near and Middle Eastern religions (Mazdeism, Manichaeism, Judaism, Judaeo-Christian movements, Christian gnostic sects or pagan faiths, etc.). As E. Kohlberg most pertinently emphasises, it is no doubt for this reason that in his work, al-Šiʿa fi ʾl-mizān the late contemporary Lebanese scholar, Moḥammad Jawād Magniya, is obliged to state that rajʿa does not at all form part of the fundamental principles of the Imami faith, that the concept was simply transmitted by traditional texts and it is thus permissible for the believer to either accept or reject it (Kohlberg, “Radjʿa”; Maḡniya, pp. 54-55).


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(Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi)

Originally Published: July 20, 2005

Last Updated: July 20, 2005