In order to understand the afterlife imagery in Islam it is helpful to understand a bit of background about the cosmology of Islam. According to the Qur’an Allah created the earth and seven heavens for his creatures. These seven heavens should not be thought of as seven distinct destinations for the dead. Rather the heavens are spatial-temporal regions distinct from earth (there is some debate among Islamic scholars about the exact nature of each). Allah (God) created Adam and Eve, and the Garden of Eden is the paradise (one of the heavens) which he created for them (Qur’an 2:35). God then, “…confer[s] authority on Adam and tells the angels to prostrate themselves before Adam as God’s pontifex, the mediator between heaven and earth.” (Ashton and Whyte, p.90) One of the angels, Iblis (or Iblees), refuses to prostrate himself. He is cast down and, “…became of the disbelievers.” (Qur’an 2: 34). Iblis (Satan) is exiled from paradise. Satan asks to be reprieved from eternal punishment until judgment day. God grants this request, and Satan, “…vows to waylay God’s people…” (Ashton and Whyte, p. 90). As with the Christian tradition Adam and Eve likewise are eventually expelled from paradise for eating from the forbidden tree. However, unlike Satan, they are given a promise that those (of their descendants) who believe and are righteous will return to paradise to dwell there for eternity, while those who do not believe and are wicked, “…are the companions of the fire; they will abide therein eternally.” (Qur’an 2:81-82).
According to Islam the earthly life span of every individual is determined by God. After death each must wait until the Day of Judgment, which is known only to God, for resurrection. In Islam it is, “…an article of faith that there is a Day of Resurrection and of Judgment on which the living and the dead shall answer for their thoughts and actions…” (Coward, p. 56) Prior to the day of resurrection there will appear an anti-Christ figure, who shall be defeated upon the return of Christ, the messiah. A golden age of peace will follow and at its end will be the day of resurrection. The Qur’an implies that resurrection will be corporeal, although Islam, like Christianity, is open to non-literal textual interpretation. After resurrection every individual must stand before God to answer for his or her actions. Each will be given a record of their deeds, “Then as for he who is given his record in his right hand; he will be judged with an easy account…But as for he who is given his record behind his back; He will cry out for destruction.” (Qur’an 84: 7-8, 10-11) Upon the passing of judgment the wicked will be separated from the righteous. God will spare those who are genuinely remorseful, but the wicked will be sent to hell, where they will, “Burn in a blaze.” (Qur’an 84:12) In fact, hell burns with such great fury and rage that it nearly bursts. It is surrounded by scalding water, and whenever the fires begin to abate, “…we shall increase for them the blaze.” (Qur’an 17:97) The image of hell is of unbearable heat and suffering.
The destination for the righteous is heaven. The imagery of heaven is of two gardens, filled with abundance. This can be interpreted as a return to the Garden of Eden. Each garden has spreading branches, two flowing springs, and two kinds of every fruit. The righteous recline,”…on beds whose linings are of silk brocade and the fruit of the two gardens is hanging low. “(Qur’an, 55: 54). There is some debate about whether this image of heaven is to be taken literally. Some orthodox commentators have taken the imagery literally and do believe heaven to be a place of sensual pleasure. Whether the imagery of heaven and hell are taken literally they do clearly show that in Islam the afterlife is an eternity during which the righteous experience God’s infinite grace and the wicked God’s awesome wrath.
Much has been made in the popular imagination about the “virgins” promised Islamic men. There is imagery of beautiful and virtuous maidens (houri) throughout the Qur’an’s description of heaven. As examples:
Within gardens and springs, Wearing [garments of] fine silk and brocade,
facing each other…We will marry…fair women with
large, [beautiful] eyes. (Qur’an, 44:52-54)
In them [the gardens] are women limiting [their] glances, untouched before them by man
or jinni – As if they were rubies and coral. (Qur’an, 55:56,58)
However, this aspect of heaven has been emphasized more than it probably should be. The Qur’an is as open to literal or figurative interpretation as is any other religious text. The unifying quality of the imagery in the Qur’an, from either the literal or figurative perspective, is of abundance and God’s grace. The natural themes of heaven: shade, streams, and plentiful fruit, can be thought of as most emblematic of this grace.
The Holy Qur’an: Translation. Sahih International Version: online at http://quran.com/
Ashton, John and Whyte, Tom, 2001, The Quest for Paradise, San Francisco:
Coward, Harold (ed.), 1997, Life after Death in World Religions, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis
Kassis, Hanna, “Islam.” In Coward, Harold (ed.), 1997, Life after
Death in World Religions, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
The Qur’an 75: 2-4, reads, “And I swear by the reproaching soul [to the certainty of resurrection]. Does man think that we will not assemble his bones? Yes, we [are] able [even] to proportion his fingertips.”↩
Two ancient Muslim scholars who have discussed the sensual pleasures of heaven are al-Ghazali (d. 1111 CE) and al-Ash’ari (d. 935 CE). Please see WikiIslam.net for a discussion of these commentators and their influence.↩
The jinn (or genies) are the third of God’s sentient creations, along with humans and angels. Like man they can be good or evil. The Qur’an asserts that they are, “…created from scorching fire.” (Qur’an 15:27).↩.