The Muslim Paradise is called in Arabic Al-Jannah ‘the garden’ while the Persian word Al-Firdaus ‘Paradise’ is restricted to one region of this celestial abode. Muhammad’s description of Paradise is well known to be expressed in materialistic terms. While spiritual interpretations of the heavenly delights have emerged from time to time the literal translation remains the orthodox view. It is found in several suras which belong to the first period of his preaching. His Paradise is essentially a garden in which there are beautiful women, couches covered with rich brocades, flowing cups and luscious fruits.
Life after death presents a vista of progress and advancement far beyond anything conceivable in this world: “See how We have bestowed more on some than on others; but verily the Hereafter is more in rank and gradation and more in excellence.” (Al-Isra 17:21)
At a later period Paradise was represented as a pyramid or cone in eight levels, it was given one more storey than Hell as it was believed the elect would be greater than the damned. The different levels are built of different materials of increasing value e.g ‘Garden of Eternity (Al-Furqan 25:15); ‘Home of Peace’ (Al-An’am 6:127); ;The Gardens of Pleasure’ (Al-Maidah 5: 65); ‘Illiyyun’ (Al-Mutaffafin 83:18);each has a gate. At the top grows the lote-tree whose branches shade the whole pyramid: “Behold, the Lote-tree was shrouded (in mystery unspeakable!)” (An-Najm 53:16).
The books in which are written the deeds of men are kept in Paradise along with a prototype of the Quran. Beside it is the kalam or reed-pen which writes on the tablet. There is also a prototype of the Ka’aba called the ‘frequented house’ and objects which are to be used at the last judgement like the balance, for weighing the deeds of men, seats for the prophets and flag-standards. Muhammad’s prototype standard is planted on a mountain called the mountain of glory which rises on the flank of the pyramid of Paradise. Above the pyramid lie the worlds of dominion and power, the Throne and the Tabernacle of God. It has been suggested that Muhammad had seen Christian miniatures or mosaics representing the gardens of Paradise and interpreted the figures of angels as being those of young men or young women.
Descriptions of Paradise in the Quran
A garden in which there are beautiful women, couches covered with rich brocades, flowing cups and luscious fruits: Descriptions of Paradise in the Quran are found in passages such as Muhammad 47:15; Ar-Rahman 55:46-78; Al-Waqi’ah 56:10-27; Al Imran 3:185 and Ad Dahr 76:12-22)
Rivers of water, rivers of milk, rivers of wine, rivers of clear honey: (Muhammad 47:15) Included in this is the attractive river Al-Kauthar (108:1) On Muhammad’s alleged visit to heaven it is recorded that “I came upon a river (in Paradise) the banks of which were made of tents of hollow pearls. I asked Jibrael, “What is this (river)?” He replied “This is the Kauthar” (Bukhari Volume 6 Number 488). Tradition states it was given to Muhammad, its water whiter than milk, sweeter than honey, and on its waters are birds whose necks are like the necks of camels.
They are literally the ‘white ones,’ the maidens in Paradise. One notable feature is their eyes which have a black iris in contrast to the clear white around it. They are described in the Quran in Al-Baqarrah 2:25, Al-Imran 3:15, An-Nisa 4:57, Ar-Rahman 55:56 and verse 72 although it should be noted that the designation ‘pure’ should not be taken in a Christian context but rather that they are free from bodily impurity and defects of character.
It was while Muhammad lived a chaste and temperate life with his one wife of sixty years of age that the majority of his revelations featured the sensuous bliss of heaven. In the ten years following the Hijra into Medina his descriptions concerning the women of Paradise are much more restrained and only two or three revelations found. “ For the righteous are Gardens in nearness to their Lord, with rivers flowing beneath; therein is their eternal home; with companions pure (and holy)” (al-Imran 3:15 & An-Nisa 4:57). The sensuous literal interpretation of these women can be seen in the comments of the Sunni scholar ‘s Tafsir Ibn Kathir which states that these female companions will have no menses, urine or stool.
While there is every indication in the teaching of Islam that there will be wives in heaven this literal approach is strongly opposed by Jesus Christ who said “They neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven” (Matthew 22:30). Islam generally defies this spiritual interpretation bringing forward various hadiths: Umm Salamah R.A narrates that she said to Rasûlullah SAW “O Rasûlullah, are the women of this world superior or the hûrs?” He replied, “The women of this world will have superiority over the hûrs just as the outer lining of a garment has superiority over the inner lining.” – Muhammed ibn Ka’b Al-Qurazit narrates from a person of the Ansâr (people of Madînah) that Rasûlullah SAW said, ” A person of Jannat will come to 72 wives which Allah specially created in Jannat (hûrs) and 2 human wives. The human wives will have virtue over the [hûrs] because they worshipped Allah in the world.(Targheeb Vol.4 Pg.534) — Narrated Abu Huraira: The Prophet said …. everyone will have two wives from the houris, (who will be so beautiful, pure and transparent that) the marrow of the bones of their legs will be seen through the bones and the flesh.” (Bukhari Volume 4 Book 54 Number 476)
Development and origin of the huris
Their origin is to be found in Zoroastrian sources which speak of Paries – spirits in bright array and beautiful to captivate the heart of man. The name Houri is derived from an Avesta, or Pehlavi source signifying the better land in Avestic terminology although the Arabs trace the word to hur, or black-eyed. Later ideas of the huris took the view that when the believer entered Paradise, he was welcomed by one of these beings; a large number of them are at his disposal; he cohabits with each of them as often as he has fasted in Ramadan, and as often as he has performed good works besides. Yet they always remain virgins: “And made them virgin, pure (and undefiled),” (Al-Waqiah 56:36).
Spiritual interpretation of the function of the huris: Many Muslims (e.g. Muhiyyu’d Din, Al Baidhawi and Al Ghazzali) have endeavoured to explain away the sensual colouring of the Paradise described by Muhammad. Al Baidawi (“Rusum-I-Hind,” part 2, cap.2, page 264 note 4), for example, endeavours to prove that the association of the Muslim with the damsels of Paradise is merely Platonic while Al Ghazzalli believes that the Beatific vision of Allah Himself morning and evening is the promised reward to the pious. Other Sufi authors have spiritualised the huris but overall Muslim traditional scholars of Sunni, Shia or Wahhabi inclination agree that the descriptions are literal.
The vision of God
It is important not to reconcile the sensual descriptions we have mentioned above to understand such phrases in a Christian sense. This will be plain if we study the whole of the Traditions in which Muhammad speaks of the Vision of God. But perhaps the following Tradition taken form Mishkat page 493 will suffice for our purpose:-
“The Apostle of God said, ‘Verily the least of the inhabitants of Paradise in position is he who shall indeed behold his gardens and his wives and his pleasure and his servants and his couches extending over the space of one thousand years’ journey, and the most acceptable of them with God shall look upon His face night and morning.’ Then he recited “Some faces, that Day, will beam (in brightness and beauty); Looking towards their Lord” (Al-Qiyama 75:22,23)
Here we see that the very same passage which tells of the Vision of God mentions also the carnal delights and represents God as approving of His servants’ indulgence in them.
The place of torment is most frequently spoken of in the Quran and Traditions as an-Nar (the Fire). The Muslim name of Hell jahannam (occurs 77 times) is derived from the Hebrew gehinnom, it was a valley near Jerusalem in which sacrifices were offered to Moloch in the days of apostasy. Nearly all the references to hell punishment are found in the Medinan suras. Allusions are found in the Meccan suras but are very brief. They are directed against unbelievers in the prophets mission and not against sin. All the wealth of Arabic vocabulary is exhausted on the torments of hell. The idea of Hell frequently appears in the Quran whether because Muhammad himself had been much struck with the idea or because he thought it useful to insist on it to work upon the feelings of his hearers.
The Tortures of the Damned
The Muslim Hell has seven dimensions – the hottest is the gravest. It is reported as braying and boiling and almost bursting with rage as though it were a wild animal (Al-Mulk 67:7,8). From the bottom of hell-fire springs the bitter tree Zaqqum the shoots of its fruit-stalks are like the heads of devils (As-Saffat 37:62-68)
The Fire and smoke: the flames of fire burn and the smoke chokes (Ar Rahman 55:35); the water will be boiling so that nothing will be available for refreshment (Al Waqia 56:41-44); every time it shows signs of abatement the fierceness of its fire will be increased (Al Isra 17:97); There will be some to whose ankles the fire will reach, some to whose knees, some to whose waist the fire will reach, and some to whose collar-bone the fire will reach (Muslim Book 40, Number 6815); Nothing endures, nothing is left alone it darkens and changes the colour of man!” (Al Muddaththir 74:26-29); skins are roasted through (An Nisa 4:56); they will be bound and clothed in liquid pitch to enhance the burning (Ibrahim 14:49,50); hell will be filled not only men but the Jinn and the hosts of Satan will burn there (Al Shura 26:95, As Sajda 32:13)
They will be scolded with boiling water: The pond ab-l-hamilm is so hot that the moment a sinner drinks it, his upper lip swells to such an extent that it covers his nose and eyes. Then as it passes down the throat, his tongue burns, the mouth contracts and ultimately this boiling water tears apart the human lungs, stomach and intestines (Al Hajj 22:19,20)
Additional pain and punishment: Chains bind the length of which will be seventy cubits! (Al-Haaqa 69:30-32); the only food to be found is a bitter Dhari’ which does not nourish nor satisfy hunger” (Al-Ghashiya 88:4-7); the food causes choking or the pus of sores (Al-Muzzammil 73:12,13, Al-Haqa 69:36); the drink is boiling festering water impossible to swallow (Ibrahim 14:16,17, Sa’d 38:57); the inhabitants of Hell neither die nor live ( Al Ala 87:12,13); if they wish to escape they will be beaten with maces of iron (Al-Hajj 22:21,22); Hell’s prison is called Sijjin in which the record of the wicked is preserved (Al-Mutaffafin 83:7) and its main keeper the angel Malik will not destroy the inhabitants even though they cry out to be destroyed (Az-Zukhruf 43:77)
The seven doors (gates) of Hell: The architectural conception of hell is considerable in the Quran unbelievers will be led to Hell in a crowd and when they arrive its gates will be opened (Az-Zumar 39:71); its seven gates will be opened each for a special class of sinners (Al-Hijr 15:44). Orthodox Islam teaches that all Muslims will go to Hell, the majority of mankind will be in Hell, especially the poor and women. Muslims are assigned to jahannam, for them it is a type of purgatory meant for purification which shall not be everlasting. Although all Muslims will go to hell for those who have not committed great sins, hell will be cool and pleasant.
The other portals are reserved as follows: Laza for Christians; El Hutmah for Jews; Sa’eer for Sabeans; Sakar for Persian Magi; El Jahim for idolaters and Hawiyah for hypocrites.
Who will be in Hell? Those whom Allah has led astray will be gathered lying flat on their faces, blind, dumb, and deaf (Al-Isra 17:97); the unbelievers will be the fuel for the fire (Al-Baqarrah 2:24) and those who devour the property of orphans will eat up a fire into their own bodies (An-Nisa 4:10); the orthodox teaching is that all Muslims will go to Hell, the majority of mankind will be in Hell, especially the poor and women “Narrated ‘Imran bin Husain: The Prophet said, “I looked at Paradise and found poor people forming the majority of its inhabitants; and I looked at Hell and saw that the majority of its inhabitants were women.”; those whose balance is light (Al-Maminun 23: 103);
Believers taken out of Hell
The Quran indicates that all Muslims will enter hell (Maryam 19:70-72) Ibn Kathir, the great expositor of the Quran, interprets the words “Everyone of you will enter it” by citing two stories. The first cited Abdullah Ibn Rowaha, who said, “I do not know if I will escape from it or not;” and the second cited Abu Mysarah who used to say every night before he goes to bed, I wish that my mother had not given birth to me, then weep. Someone asked him “Why do you weep Abu Mysarah?” “The Quran told us that we shall enter Hell, but we were not told that we will get out of it.” Another hadith says “Those who have merited Paradise will enter it; the damned will go to hell, God will then say: Let those who leave hell whose hearts contain even the weight of a mustard seed of faith: then they will be released, although they have already been burned to ashes, and plunged into the river of rain-water or into the river of life; and immediately they will be revived.” Additionally there is a recorded saying of ‘Umar as follows: “Even if the dwellers in hell may be numberless as the sands of the desert, a day will come when they will be taken out of it” (Fath al-Bayan) However, Al-Ashari taught that making sinners despair was contrary to the teaching of the Quran that Allah will pardon all else except idolatry “but He forgiveth whom He pleaseth other sins than this” (An-Nisa 4:116). It is this latter view that has prevailed in orthodox Islam.
Al-Bukhari records that many will be taken out of the fire: Narrated Abu Said Al Khudri The Prophet said … Allah will say: ‘Bring out the people of the Fire.’ Adam will say: ‘O Allah! How many are the people of the Fire?’ Allah will reply: ‘From every one thousand, take out nine-hundred-and ninety-nine.’ (Bukhari 4:567)
The length of the punishment in Hell
The Quran itself seems to hesitate a little on the question of the eternity of punishment in Hell. While the Quran at times indicates it will be an eternal punishment the addition of the words “except as thy Lord please or willeth” seems to indicate that there will be an ultimate deliverance of those in hell (Hud 11:106,107; Al-An’am 6:129).