Karma - Journey of the Soul

What does Imam Ahmad Al-Hassan (fhip) say about Karma?

“I am the owner of my karma. 

I inherit my karma. 

I am born of my karma. 

I am related to my karma. 

I live supported by my karma. 

Whatever karma I create, whether good or evil, that I shall inherit.”

– Aṅguttara Nikāya, The Buddha, v.57, Upajjhatthana Sutta 

The Sanskrit word karma means action or deed, which explains how it works: our actions, particularly the intention behind our actions, determine our karma. Whatever you do, the good and the bad will eventually return to you. It is like a law of nature. And like ripples on a pond, karma tends to continue in many directions once in motion. You’ve likely heard of this concept before. The term “karma” and its relative term “reincarnation” are almost exclusively associated with Eastern religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, and Taoism. But it does not begin or end there. 

The belief in reincarnation dates back as far as the ancient Egyptians and Greek philosophers such as Pythagoras, Socrates, and Plato all believed in spiritual rebirth or transmigration of the soul.

But did you know that these ideas are also present in the teachings of Islam? 

Although modern Muslim scholars refute it, the teachings about karma and reincarnation are hiding in plain sight. The Holy Quran states, 

“And you were dead, and He brought you back to life. And He shall cause you to die, and shall bring you back to life, and in the end shall gather you unto Himself.”

– Holy Quran, Al-Baqarah verse 28

This verse describes samsara. Buddhists and followers of Hinduism both believe that all creatures are trapped in samsara – the endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. The determining factor for our status in this chain is our karma, past and present. Our past actions affect us either positively or negatively. Our current deeds will affect us in the future. So what, exactly, is the beholder of karma? Followers of Hinduism believe in the existence of a soul, which is eternal, invisible, imperishable, and unchanging. It exists beyond the grasp of the mind and the senses. Hindus call it Atma or Atman, the breathing one who is deep inside and the witness to all that happens. 

The eternal soul reincarnates according to the karma it has accumulated. On the other hand, Buddhists believe in an energetic force called Alaya-vijnana, which causes rebirth. Only this “store consciousness” continues in the cycle of rebirth. Much Like seeds in a garden, actions are planted in the “store consciousness.” These deeds can be watered and grow due to causes and conditions. Karma can return if conditions are ‘right’ in your current life or continue during the cycle of rebirth. Any seeds that do not bloom in your current life, continue in your consciousness. Buddhists and Hindus may use different terms to describe it but the concept is the same. They are speaking about the soul.  It is energy or consciousness that never dies. In Islamic tradition, the soul or “Ruh” is a separate entity from the ego or “Nafs”. 

When asked whether reincarnation is a reality, Imam Ahmad Al-Hassan (fhip) answered, 

“It is true. The soul never dies.”

Sayings of Imam Ahmad Al-Hassan (PBUH), p.135, hadith 266

The journey of the soul is never-ending. You might assume that a soul, which incarnates in a human form, will return to a human body in the next life. However, according to Buddhist and Hindu teachings, this is not the case. 

The Buddha taught that rebirth occurs in one of six different realms. These realms of rebirth include Deva (the heavenly), Asura (the demigod), Mansuya (the human), Tiryak (the animals), Preta (the ghost), and Naraka (the residents of hell). Hindus believe in a similar arrangement.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna explains, 

“When one dies in the mode of goodness, he attains to the pure higher planets. When one dies in the mode of passion, he takes birth among those engaged in fruitive activities; and when he dies in the mode of ignorance, he takes birth in the animal

Bhagavad Gita 14.14-15 

According to Krishna, karma is generated only in human life. The lower species are merely atoning for their negative karma and gradually rising towards a human rebirth. The residents of the heavenly planes are expending their good karma before falling again to human life on earth.

Imam Ahmad Al-Hassan (fhip) has revealed that Buddha and Krishna were both prophets of God. Considering that, it is no surprise that we find the same concept of transmigration of the soul between human and animal bodies in the Holy Quran. 

Surah Al-Mai’da, verse 60 states, 

“Say, “Shall I inform you of [what is] worse than that as penalty from Allah? [It is that of] those whom Allah has cursed and with whom He became angry and made of them apes and pigs and slaves of Taghut. Those are worse in position and further astray from the sound way.” 

– Holy Quran, Surah Al-Mai’da, verse 60

The Holy Quran confirms that some souls, based on their unlawful actions, will return to the bodies of animals rather than humans. However, most Muslims do not ascribe to these beliefs. The topic of reincarnation is controversial within the Muslim faith. Unsurprisingly, the most influential Islamic document about reincarnation remained hidden for centuries.

The long-hidden manuscript, “Al-Haft Al-Shareef,” relays a conversation between Imam Al-Sadiq (pbuh) and his companion Al Mufaddal ibn Umar Al-Jaf’i. In the manuscript, Imam Al-Sadiq (pbuh) cites the evidence for reincarnation from the Quran, Sunnah and Ahadith. The doors of the manuscript talk about the different forms of reincarnation. The soul that transmigrates from human to animal is called a Maskh. Imam Al-Sadiq (pbuh) reveals a much deeper significance to this process and the tale of how it came to be. The story traces back to the creation of Adam (pbuh) and Iblis. God created Iblis (and his seed) from fire and Adam (and his seed) from light and the shadows, and their bodies from clay. When God made a covenant with Adam and his seed, He said to the prophets, vicegerents and close ones,

“I shall Veil myself with the Human Veils, so when I call you to Adam, make him your Qibla for I made Adam My Qibla. And I shall command Iblis and his Seed to prostrate to him but he shall be too proud and will disobey along with his Seed, so my Punishment shall become incumbent on them. And I am Allah and there is no God but I, I do not wrong anyone or punish them except with a reason and proof.” 

– Al-Haft Al-Shareef, Al Mufaddal ibn Umar Al-Ja’fi, door 10

When God called upon the Angels, the prophets, the righteous ones and the believers all prostrated to Adam and made him their Qibla (the direction of worship). However, when God called upon Iblis to prostrate before Adam, he refused. 

“So Allah created from the Disobedience of Iblis the Hell Fire. And He created from the Disobedience of the Seed of Iblis the Maskh (Transformation/Reincarnation into an Animal or such lowly things). So Iblis looked at the Maskh and said “What is this?” Allah said `You and your seed shall be installed in these In the Slaughtered, And Ridden, And Eaten and Drunk, And in every Species and Sex…” Then Allah made Iblis and his Seed wear the Bodies just the same as He made Adam and his Seed wear Bodies. And from there they resembled the humans (in body) and their Maskh (transformation/ reincarnation form became hidden) when they all wore the Bodies. And a man might meet you in his Body while you think he is a human, but in reality he is a monkey or pig or dog or bear.”

– Al-Haft Al-Shareef, Al Mufaddal ibn Umar Al-Ja’fi, door 10

Note the role of karma in this process. Maskh is a creation of his own volition. A soul’s intentional actions determine its rise and fall. It would be incorrect to think of reincarnation in lower life forms as a punishment. The wonderful thing about karma’s effect on reincarnation is that it enables God’s mercy to be bestowed.

The Holy Quran states, 

“And indeed We will make them taste of the Lower Penalty of this (life) prior to the supreme Penalty, in order that they may return.”

– Holy Quran, As-Sajdah verse 21

The soul, which has committed unrighteous deeds, takes the form of a lesser being to cleanse itself before the final judgment. Hindus believe that once in the vessel of a lower species, the soul cannot exercise free will and is more or less condemned to a sentence. Like a criminal who tries to illegally enjoy life by circumventing the law rather than following it, the soul must atone for its mistakes. Then, through gradual purification by suffering, the soul can rise again to the human platform.

It is impossible to ignore the striking similarities between Buddhist, Hindu, and Islamic teachings about karma and the ongoing cycle of birth, death and rebirth. But what happens when this cycle comes to an end? 

The aim for Buddhists is to reach the state of nirvana or enlightenment. Nirvana means “quenching” or “blowing out,” like the flame of a candle. What this refers to is the extinction of ignorance and earthly suffering. The Buddhists believe once you have obtained the state of nirvana you stop accumulating negative karma because you have transcended it. You spend the rest of your life and sometimes future lives working off the accumulated negative karma. Once you have escaped the karmic cycle, you achieve para nirvana, the final nirvana, in the afterlife. Just like the Buddhists, the ultimate aim for Hindus is to reach the end of the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. The Hindus call it moksha, which means liberation. One can break the cycle of rebirth by breaking free of the bonds of karma. 

Karma entangles us and keeps the soul revolving in the cycle of repeated birth and death. Only pure spiritual activity can free us from reincarnating. In the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna explains, 

“Those who serve Me with unalloyed devotion rise above the three modes of material nature and come to the level of the Brahman.”

– Bhagavad Gita 14.26

“People who have no faith in this dharma are unable to attain Me, O conqueror of enemies. They repeatedly come back to this world in the cycle of birth and death.”

– Bhagavad Gita 9.3

Hindus believe that when a person achieves moksha, he ultimately achieves unity with the Supreme Being. The goal in Islam is the same – to transcend the trappings of this worldly existence in favour of a return to God. Imam Jafar Al Sadiq (pbuh) said, 

“…Did you not hear Allah’s words: ‘That to thy Lord is the final Goal.” (Holy Quran 53:42) “For if a man knows his Lord then he has reached the Goal that was desired of him and is more Aquainted with Allah than the Oneness and Knowing. But Handcuffs and Shackles have been put on the Short Comers but whoever has reached and known these Degrees that I have read to you has become emancipated from Slavery, and the Chains and Shackles have been raised off of him…” 

– Al-Haft Al-Shareef, Al Mufaddal ibn Umar Al-Ja’fi, door 13

Imam Ahmad Al-Hassan (fhip) said: 

“Free your minds, my children. Free it of all chains.”

Sayings of Imam Ahmad Al-Hassan (PBUH), p.24, hadith 23

Our thoughts, intentions, and actions keep us chained to this world. And it is within our power to become free. Throughout time, God has taught us about the soul’s journey through his messengers. Many voices have delivered the same message: The soul is infinite. Its final destination is up to us. And the first step on the road back to God is to believe.

Related Articles