Reflection on the argument from cannibalism in Islamic theology

Eric van Lit

PhD in Islamic studies

 Tuesday December 13ᵗʰ, 2016

seminar-ericA little problem keeps popping up century after century, in the writings of all kinds of Muslim theologians (80 to 90 authors have been identified so far); what happens if one person were to eat another person, can they both have bodily resurrection?

The first occurrence of this theological question is to be found long before the advent of Islam, in Athenagoras’ De resurrectione in the second century and Augustin (fifth century) does not hesitate to call it the strongest argument against bodily resurrection. It is also discussed by Thomas Aquinas and many medieval christian theologians.

When al-Sayyid al-Šarīf al-Ǧurgānī (d. 816/1413) deals with this issue, making a distinction between essential and non essential body parts, he actually answers the anthropological and philosophical question of what is a person. What is the link between our identity as separate persons and our body? Another question that emerges from this one is: What is resurrection, the gathering of scattered body parts or a new creation? These questions are actually what makes the cannibalism argument relevant in the end.

Some theologians argue that the body is but a mere instrument, and the soul alone will be judged at resurrection. ʿAlāʾ al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī (d. 877/1472) is an early example of this. This nips in the bud the very point of the discussion, that has gone as far as whether the bodily parts of a righteous person would suffer hell’s fire if these parts had been eaten by a sinner, thus becoming part of his body.