The Garden and the Fire: Heaven and Hell in Islamic Culture

A study of paradise and perdition in the Koran and other sources is recommended by Youssef Choueiri

February 12, 2009

In Muslim and non-Muslim cultures, to enjoy the bliss of heaven or to be assigned to the ghastly world of hell define and sum up the ultimate outcome of religious faith or its violation.

To be rewarded with a place in heaven is a definite indication of a righteous life meticulously pursued according to the prescriptions of one's religious injunctions, while hell is reserved for those sinners who fail to heed clear warnings and adhere to normative rules of conduct.

However, these two stark alternatives have never been concretely apprehended or actually portrayed except as mere speculations, often conveyed through dreams or prophetic visions. Even such speculations have always been subject to alterations, different depictions and varied explanations. So much so, indeed, that in modern times conceptions of heaven and hell have been reduced to the mental states experienced either by the individual on earth or the human soul upon its departure to the afterworld.

Nerina Rustomji's brisk and delightful guide to heaven and hell is meant to reinstate "the materiality" of these two entities in their Muslim contexts while also showing how this has undergone embellishment and subtle changes over time.

In other words, this is a work that undertakes to draw concrete examples of heaven and hell as depicted variously in the Koran, oral traditions, biographies and religious manuals.

By doing so, the author describes "the Islamic heaven" as a garden with its stupendous landscape, flowing rivers, fragrant trees and joyous residents who have been spared for ever the mundane tasks of earning a living or worrying about health and family life.

All are adorned with or embedded in a variety of bright and precious jewels, such as pearls, gold, silver and gems of all primary colours. Emeralds and ivory, for example, do not feature in the Koran or eschatological writings, leading the author to link the appearance of the other precious metals and gems to their availability in Western Arabia, thereby establishing a direct connection between local cultures and speculative visions of paradise.

Hence, believers are not simply promised an abstract afterlife, but are offered in glowing terms the possibility of entering and inhabiting an afterworld of everlasting luxury and ecstatic happiness. This blissful existence is further expanded by promises of the enjoyment of a full social life and the companionship of spouses, sons and daughters.

Even houris are promised to believers, either as pure angels or as young women whose beauty never fades, remaining chaste and untouched by men or jinn. The description of houris, moreover, leaves one wondering as to their true identity: are they human beings or miraculous creatures whose bodies could be formed out of "saffron, musk, amber and camphor", while their hair is nothing less than "raw silk"?

All these enticing delights are tantalisingly dangled before those who kept their faith and upheld the tenets of their religion, including praying, fasting, performing the pilgrimage and paying zakat, a regular tax meant to help the needy and the poor. Furthermore, this Islamic paradise is hierarchically organised, with special status reserved for former prophets or exceptionally pious individuals.

It is in this context that one particular believer is privileged and promised rapid entry into the garden: this is the martyr who sacrifices his or her life in the service of God. While all other individuals are required to adhere to strict rules of upright behaviour almost throughout their life on earth, a martyr is speedily dispatched into heaven promptly and unhesitatingly. By the sheer act of martyrdom, all other sins are immediately absolved and bad deeds erased from God's register of the follies committed by every individual.

Hell, on the other hand, is also shown to be a tangible entity in Muslim literary and oral traditions. The study does not flinch from offering depictions of harrowing and gruesome punishments as detailed in the Koran and the sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad and his companions. Ranging from sinners' skins being scorched by blazing flames to being forced endlessly to swallow boiling water, punishments are inflicted in solitude, either by the sinners themselves or by demons who are adept at cutting off tongues.

In the sources studied, specific torments are meticulously detailed, eternally administered and frighteningly elaborated. Hence, sin in Muslim traditions entails solitude and eternal punishments in the afterworld, while upright religious conduct is rewarded with the company of family and friends as well as a life of perpetual luxury and pleasure.

This is a timely publication, highly recommended for specialists and non-specialists alike.

The Garden and the Fire: Heaven and Hell in Islamic Culture

By Nerina Rustomji

Columbia University Press

240pp, £26.50

ISBN 9780231140843

Published 1 November 2008

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