Q. At one of the tarawih prayers, while delivering a sermon during a break in the prayers, the speaker mentioned that some scholars assert that we existed in some form prior to this life. One got the impression that he was suggesting some type of reincarnation. Have you ever heard of such a theory? How do we juxtapose this with the Qur'anic diction that the next life is an eternal one? How do we know which state of "reincarnation" we are in and how many of these do we go through before the everlasting life in the hereafter?

A. The Qur'an does not give any indication of reincarnation from a previous life. Its verses are simple and direct: "He it is who has created you from one being, and from that being its mate…" (Q4:1, 39:6) In fact, the only indication or theories one may propound to indicate some sort of metamorphosis would be in that first creation. Was the first human fashioned from clay and that clay directly evolved into a human? Or did that clay mold go through certain stages before it became a human? And if so, is the Qur'anic story to be seen as symbolic rather than actual? There is talk among the exegetes that other creations may have preceded us on earth. The Qur'anic language does not seem to indicate this, and such talk must therefore remain within the realm of conjecture.

Sura 19:67 clearly indicates that we were created ex nihilo. All the talk about a previous life, etc. seems to be out of a desire to inculcate imported beliefs. For those who will see an apparent contradiction between Q19:67 and the verses that show our coming into being from clay, the answer is clear if one understands the word attributed to Allah – "badee" – creating without any matrix, etc. There was no human life, and Allah created us from that which He had created, i.e. the dust. Previous to this, there was no human/humanoid life. The Qur'an is concerned with a certain message to us, and is not, as many would like it to be, a repository of scientific and historical data.

Regarding the everlasting life in the hereafter, this is tied to another theory that is dominant among Muslims: that of life in the grave. The Qur'an gives no such indication. We die, rot, and are resurrected in a manner that Allah deems fit. Some mufassirs argue as to whether we will be resurrected in our normal human forms or not. And this has led to several ancillary theories, indeed laws, some of which argue against cremation and organ donation. None of these have basis in the Qur'an, which tells us that we die, are buried, and when Allah chooses, will resurrect us in a manner known only to the Divine: "On the day when we roll up the heavens like a scroll rolled up for books (completed), even as We produced the first creation, so shall We produce a new one; a promise We have undertaken; truly shall We fulfill it." (Q21:104) I guess one can stretch the verse to give some indication of a type of reincarnation, except that the term is usually applied to that rebirth – even in a different form – which occurs in a terrestrial dimension. Unless one assumes that the new creation that Allah produces will be on earth, the term would be problematic: as He created us in the beginning, so too can He in the end. That resurrected being that we become is the one that presumably will endure permanently. And Allah is the Best Disposer of all affairs.

Posted January 4, 2004