More than any other key postulate, the nature of heaven and hell has been subjected to a range of interpretations stretching from the purely literal to the utterly allegorical. Hell is a place of just chastisement for sin, which forms a temporary purgatory for sinning believers,whether any punishment there would be truly eternal was a matter of considerable dispute.23 Paradise is presented as a garden (janna) arranged in levels, a verdant place where all wishes are fulfilled, and where the believers will enjoy celestial food and drink and be accompanied by beautiful clear-eyed maidens (hör) who remain perpetually virginal. Some have suggested that the presence of earthly pleasures in heaven is to indicate the transformation of human nature in the next life so that those things forbidden in this world will no longer be sources of corruption and conflict. In fact, the state of satisfaction (ridwan) from God is greater than such delights of the Garden (9:72). In recent times, the well-known poet-philosopher, Muhammad Iqbal (d. 1938), explained that heaven and hell were representations of inner character and states of mind rather than localities.24 On the other hand, some Sufis claimed that one purpose of maintaining eros in Paradise is to valorise it on earth, disclosing it as a sign of something higher.25 This stands in stark contrast to the medieval Christian view, which regarded virginity, not marital life, as an anticipation of the life to come in heaven.
At the summit of Paradise, for those men and women who lived the religion to the full, there is the vision of God (ru'ya), which is unambiguously conceived as a spiritual reward higher than the material fulfilment of personal desires and wishes. This beatific vision was the site of a characteristic argument between Ash'arism and the Mu'tazilites. For the former, the hadith literature had clearly stated that ''a veil shall be lifted, and the believers shall gaze upon the face of God''.26 God was therefore to be seen, in an ocular way that was nonetheless amodal (bi-la kayf). For the Mu'tazilites, sight (basar) can only be a corporeal sense; and since God is not an accident or a body, it is axiomatic that He cannot be seen. God Himself had told Moses that he would not see his Lord (7:143); moreover ''vision (absar) cannot attain Him'' (6:104). Ash'aris, Hanbalis and Maturidis replied with the view that this latter verse applies only to complete perception; and that Moses might see God in the next life, even though God had chosen to veil Himself during that prophet's lifetime. They also denied that there was a logical reason why basar could not apprehend an entity that was neither substance nor accident.27
the salvation of non-muslims
Islam emerged in the context of a prophetic dispute with pagan unbelievers, who were warned that the consequence of their practices and beliefs would be hellfire. Later in the Prophet's ministry the qur'anic challenge was extended to Jews and Christians also. Jews were told that their past disobedience to their own prophets, and more recently their rejection of Jesus and Muhammad, would entail God's wrath.28 Even more seriously, Christians had developed concepts of divine sonship and a three-fold understanding of the divine nature that impugned the core principle of tawhid, the monotheism without which there could be no salvation.29 While the qur'anic critique of the earlier traditions was subject to varying interpretations, it was clear that God was now not merely bringing a version of monotheism that would suit peoples previously impervious to it, but was correcting in a radical way errors that had distorted the primordial monotheism received by the first disciples of Moses and Jesus. Throughout, the Muslim scriptures assume the existence of an ui-monotheismus, an ancient shared tawhid, which must have been delivered to earlier peoples as a reflection of God's desire to save his creatures, but which had been progressively lost or distorted (tahrif), unwittingly or deliberately, as scriptures and primitive doctrines were imperfectly transmitted.
Salvation has hence been available at many points in time and space; and it is a necessary corollary of the givens of divine love and justice that wherever God delivers it, it is full salvation. The emergence of Islam, therefore, was not thought to signal the opening of a radically new chapter in the history of salvation, but rather the reiteration of an ancient truth. The practices of Islam were understood as reminiscences of this cyclical process; in particular, the five daily prayers and the Hajj pilgrimage contain strong references to Abraham, who is the example par excellence of the prophet who invites his people back to the worship of the monotheistic God.
This understanding of salvation history made Muslim discussions with Jews relatively straightforward: the issue would revolve not around tawhid, but around the possibility of a non-Jewish prophet, and the arrival of a new law which would ease the burden placed upon the people of Moses. Islamic considerations of Christianity, by contrast, needed to be more intricate. Both religions began with the understanding that the Mosaic law need not be eternal, and with the assumption that God's purposes in history were merciful and just. Christianity's conclusion that those purposes were most fully realised in a single atonement was not, however, accepted by Muslims, who assumed that the divine love and justice required not one but many equally saving divine acts in history,30 and that ''no soul shall bear the burden of another'' (6:164). This underlying gulf was seldom addressed directly on either side; instead, the considerable polemical literature, generated most often by kalam specialists, but sometimes also by Sufis and jurists, focused on the stability of the Biblical text, and the coherence of the doctrines of Trinity and the Incarnation.31 Given this reluctance to address the underlying difference of emphasis, and the embryonic state of Biblical scholarship, it was inevitable that the debate was generally sterile.
A troubling internal issue for Muslim thinkers, however, was the possibility that the postulate of God's mercy and justice might be endangered by a view of history that regarded followers of abrogated monotheisms as damned. This latter interpretation was derived from qur'anic verses such as ''Indeed the religion of God is Islam'' (3:19) and ''Whosoever desires a religion other than Islam it will not be accepted of him'' (3:35). Yet if God's compassion ensured that sinning Muslims could be saved - at least on non-Mu'tazilite views - through God's forgiveness and the intercession of the Prophet, then there seemed to be a need to extend this compassion to non-Muslim monotheists, particularly where these had never had the opportunity to accept Islam, but had still led lives of virtue. The Qur'an itself can praise the virtues of Christian clergy: ''You will find the nearest of them [Muslims] in affection to be those who say: 'We are Christians.' That is because there are among them priests and monks, and because they are not proud'' (5:82). As a result, Ghazali, the theologian who was perhaps most preoccupied with issues of divine providence, was able to allow salvation to the non-Muslims of his day, provided always that Islam had not been accurately presented to them, and that they had not wilfully refused it.32
In conclusion, the tenor of Islamic eschatology stresses the inexorable triumph of good over evil. God has created the universe and human nature as signs of His goodness; and the final Hour will reflect both His wrath at their subversion, and His final vindication of beauty and mercy. Needless to remark, in any religious tradition teachings and symbols related to final things are particularly susceptible to the workings of the human imagination. This imagination may be developed toward the most sublime and positive spirituality or may be employed to project more mundane and limited fantasies and anxieties. The Islamic spectrum has manifested all these possibilities abundantly. Yet the topic of eschatology, lying within the field of sam 'iyyat, illustrated how areas of theology that were deemed inaccessible to reason were not readily productive of unity based on acquiescence in scriptural reading alone; on the contrary, these were among the most hotly contested doctrines of all. Ash'arism here showed itself characteristically concerned with maintaining the omnipotence of God, but also insisted on doctrines which emphasised his sovereign mercy and forgiveness, notably the doctrines of prophetic intercession, the vision of God, and the desire of God to forgive sins outright, bi-ghayri hisab: without reckoning.
Was this article helpful?