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Afterlife

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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

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    Afterlife

    Muslims believe that one's condition in the afterlife is determined by the degree to which that person has accepted the unity and justice of God and therefore acted justly and with mercy toward others. Believers—those who have faith in God's revelations and have lived accordingly—will go to heaven. Nonbelievers and evildoers will be punished in hell.

    Qur'anic Teaching.

    The culture into which Muhammad was born did not generally believe in the afterlife. When Muhammad began to preach about the resurrection and the accountability of each person at the time of judgment, he faced scorn and skepticism. Nevertheless, the message of the Qur'an teaches that God will indeed raise the dead, judge all people based on their deeds during their lifetime, and determine their eternal destiny. The moment of resurrection and judgment represents the final and absolute power of God over human destiny and the crucial nature of responsible human behavior.

    The Qur'an provides details about the events that signal the end of time and the coming of the day of resurrection, the judgment process, and the conditions that will be experienced in paradise and in hell. The Qur'an says, for example, that terrifying events will signal the end of the world and that all people will gather for judgment. It describes the crossing of the Sirat bridge (which spans the fires of hell), the possibility of intercession, and the preparation for one's final entrance into hell or into the gardens of bliss. Surah 9.19–30 of the Qur'an explains how the circumstances of one's final resting place are indicated in the accounting of one's book of deeds. The person who is given his or her book in the right hand is destined for a blissful eternal rest. But the person who is given the book in the left hand will be seized, bound, and exposed to the burning fire of hell.

    The Fire of Hell.

    The fire of hell—called Jahannam—is often decribed in traditional Islamic literature as having seven gates. Information gathered from several passages in the Qur'an suggests that these gates may be meant for different categories of sinners. The bridge of Sirat stretches over the flames. Those who have lived a good life pass across the bridge easily. But evildoers find the bridge razor-thin and fall into the flames.

    The tortures of the fire are fearsome. Roaring flames, fierce boiling waters, scorching wind, and black smoke torment the wretched inhabitants. Their scorched skins are exchanged for new ones so they suffer the pain repeatedly. The sinners drink foul liquids in a hopeless effort to quench their thirst. Boiling water is poured over their heads and iron hooks drag them back if they try to escape.

    The Gardens of Paradise.

    The Qur'an clearly identifies those who are destined for a blissful eternal rest in the gardens of paradise. These fortunate souls do good works and are truthful and obedient. When they fail, they express remorse and seek forgiveness. They feed poor people and orphans, and they have faith in the revelations of God.

    Descriptions of life in the garden are as vivid as those of the tortures of the damned. The faithful are peaceful and content. They enjoy gentle speech, pleasant shade, fruits, and meat if they desire. They drink delicious wine from a shining stream and suffer no ill effects. Servants wait on them as they recline in silk robes on beautiful couches. Male inhabitants of the garden enjoy the attentions of the huris, beautiful young women with eyes like pearls. The joys of paradise also include choirs of angels singing in Arabic and the ability to eat and drink 100 times more than one could normally hold.

    Religious Issues.

    Theologians have addressed a host of issues concerning the reality of human responsibility and of divine judgment. One such question involves the dilemma of individual freedom versus the recognition of divine power and omniscience. Another is the matter of God's justice balanced with God's mercy. The Qur'an makes it clear that those who are in the fire will remain there forever. Later commentary interprets it to mean that they will remain only as long as the fire lasts, and that God in his mercy will at last bring all souls to paradise.

    Throughout Islamic history there have been wide differences in thinking about whether the details of resurrection and judgment should be understood literally or symbolically. Traditionalists believe that for the great mass of the faithful, the descriptions given in the sacred scripture are to be taken at face value. More recently, however, some scholars have come to see the details of the afterlife as metaphors and symbols.

    One of the strong affirmations of traditional Islam has been that those who earn eternal happiness in the garden will have the opportunity to gaze on the face of God. Some Muslims believe that this is to be taken literally. Others interpret this to mean that the ultimate reward of a good life is the supreme pleasure of dwelling in the hereafter in the presence of the divine.

    Until recently, most Muslims writing about Islam in the twentieth century have avoided going into detail on the subject of the afterlife. Instead, they have chosen to affirm the reality of human accountability and of the day of judgment without focusing on the specific consequences of that judgment. The great majority of commentators who speculate on the nature of the realities of the afterlife acknowledge that the world to come is beyond clear human understanding. They maintain that all that humans need to know is that the judgment itself is inevitable and that God's justice will prevail.

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