by Navid Zaidi
Heaven and Hell are not places. They are states, or conditions of the soul’s existence, in the life after death. Their descriptions in the Qur’an are visual representations of an inner fact, i.e., their character.
Hell, in the words of the Qur’an, is ‘God’s kindled fire which rises above the hearts’ (Al-Humazah 104:6-7). In other words, this ‘fire’ originates in a person’s inner consciousness. This clearly alludes to the spiritual nature of the ‘fire’ in a person’s belated realization of wrongdoing. It is a painful realization of one’s failure as a person that arises within one’s own consciousness, not imposed by an external agency.
According to the teachings of the Qur’an, the re-emergence of the soul brings it a ‘sharp sight’ (Qaf 50:22). This newly awakened self-consciousness and reason in a person will plead that he/she had always been more or less conscious, and perhaps even critical, of the urges and appetites that drove him/her to evildoing. However, this belated and, therefore, morally ineffective rational cognition will not diminish but rather enhance the burden of self-realization.
Imagine this painful condition of soul’s existence with utter loneliness and bitter desolation, the torment of unceasing frustration, the darkness and despair intensified beyond anything imaginable in this world and you will know, however vaguely, what is meant by ‘Hell’.
There is no such thing as eternal damnation in Islam. The word ‘eternity’ used in certain verses in the Qur’an relating to Hell, is explained by the Qur’an itself to mean only a period of time (An-Naba 78:23).
The Qur’an suggests an undiminished survival of the individual personality and consciousness in the life after death. In the Qur’anic view of the life to come, death and resurrection are continuous stages in the career of each human soul.
The life of the soul is one and continuous. However, time cannot be totally irrelevant to the development of personality. A person’s character tends to become permanent. Its reshaping must require time.
Hell, therefore, as conceived by the Qur’an, is not a pit of everlasting torture inflicted by a revengeful God. It is a metaphor for a corrective experience which may make a hardened soul once more sensitive to the cool breeze of Divine Grace.
This concept is explained by the Qur’an where it speaks of the fire of Hell as a person’s friend (mawla), i.e., the only process by which the soul may be purified and redeemed (Al-Hadeed 57:15). However, this process is not imposed by an external agency. It arises from within a person’s own consciousness.
The soul will continue to march onwards from state to state (Al-Inshiqaq 84:16-19) to receive ever-fresh illuminations so that there will be further opportunities for the soul to create new situations during its endless career in the hereafter.
Heaven is a metaphor for the joy of victory over the forces of disintegration. It is the existence of the soul in an inner state of unimaginable happiness in the afterlife. Imagine the most joyous sensations, beauty, love, consciousness of fulfillment, perfect peace and harmony and you have, however vague, the idea of what is meant by ‘Heaven’.
In a nutshell, this is beautifully mentioned in the Qur’an in the expression ‘the human being who has attained to inner peace’ (nafs-e-mutmainnah) (Al-Fajr 89:27-30).
Since Heaven and Hell are not localities, they cannot be the sole property of one group or another.
With a remarkable breadth of vision, the Qur’an repeatedly stresses the fundamental idea that salvation is open to all human beings equally (Al-Baqarah 2:62). This is a very important point and must be properly understood in order to get a clear insight into the Islamic theory of salvation.
It is with the irreplaceable singleness of its individuality that the human soul will approach God and see for itself the consequences of its past action and to judge the possibilities of its future (Maryam 19:93-95).
Therefore, it is a person’s duty to purify his/her soul and save it from corruption during this earthly life (Ash-Shams 91:7-10). In other words, Heaven is not ours as of right; it is to be achieved by personal effort. We are only a candidate for it.
And how to make the soul grow? By good deed.
It is the deed that prepares the soul for dissolution, or disciplines it for a future career. The fundamental principle of a good deed is to respect your own soul as well as that of others.
And how to corrupt the soul? By narrow-mindedness. In many ways narrow-mindedness degrades the whole person and may eventually demolish the structure of the human personality. This is often fueled by an underlying feeling of discontentment.
Now, the Muslims may feel that Islam is the ‘best religion’ and might think that it would be a good thing if all of humanity became Muslim. On the contrary, as explained by the Qur’an, that is not the will of God (Al-Maidah 5:48, Al-Baqarah 2:148).
So often we find that when one leaves his/her own country it brings a chance to come into contact with other religious traditions and learn about them. This should naturally result in getting closer to reality, realizing that among humanity there are so many different dispositions.
It is only through closer contact with other traditions that we realize the positive things about them. This naturally creates a mutually comfortable feeling to arise. Then, as expressed by the Dalai Lama, it is like going to a restaurant. We can all sit at one table, order different dishes according to our own taste, but nobody argues about it!