This piece is written as a contribution to NatGeo’s series, The Story of God
‘Oh wow, this cheesecake is just pure heaven!’, I heard a young lady gush whilst at Starbucks a few years ago. I smiled to myself, noting her interesting phrasing, as I perused my Quran. Reading the Quran in Starbucks is one of my little pleasures in life. That day, I was contemplating the concept of ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’ in the Quran. My present conception had come a long way since my childhood but I was still refining my views.
I was raised in a religious household but it was not always the case. When my grandmother passed in 1985, a very devoted relative came for the funeral services and awoke religious fervour in our household. That largely meant that we started practising the Muslim ritual prayers and special litanies. The novelty of it quickly grew tiresome for my nine year old self but I do remember one thing: a vivid picture of heaven and hell.
It was through the story of Prophet Muhammad’s night journey (isra’ wal mi’raj). In some versions of the story, he was given glimpses of the afterlife. Various enjoyments due to performing particular good deeds and various punishments due to performing bad ones. This gave me a vivid idea of what the afterlife would be like. Perhaps these depictions were meant for children but I now see these stories pop up in whatsapp group with senior citizens!
As I studied the Quran more deeply, I came to realize that it used a rather wide variety of terms which supposedly referred to the afterlife. Terms like ‘day of judgement’ (yawm ad-deen), ‘day of resurrection’ (yawm al-qiyamah), ‘the last day’ (yawm al-aakhir) and a host of others were simply said by Traditionalists to refer to the afterlife. However, there were other opinions which disagreed. I was most surprised to find one of them to come from the founder of Bahaism (yes, he studied the Quran!) who opined that these terms referred to momentous occasions in the present life, for example, social revolutions! It seems to fit the fact that, in the Quran, Moses was to warn people of the coming of ‘the hour’ (Chapter 20 Verse 15). If ‘the hour’ was the end of the world, then was no way his people would experience it. Rather, ‘the hour’ referred to the fall of the oppressive society of the Pharoah of Egypt.
Does this mean the Quran has no concept of the afterlife? Of course it does, it speaks of days where every soul would be recompensed for its deeds (39/70) and also where every community would be judged along the witness they received (16/89). These are clear occasions of the classical judgement day.
Similarly, the concepts of ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’ in the Quran can refer to conditions in the present life as well as to the hereafter. If we contemplate the terms used to depict them, we may be to understand why. In the Quran the term for ‘heaven’ is ‘jannah’ which literally means ‘garden’. The same word is used for earthly gardens as well. These gardens symbolize a life of cultivation and fulfilment. In the same way, ‘fire’ is used to symbolized hell. We can see how fires work in this life too, they destroy and consume.
(pic courtesy of Cinta Islam: http://cintaislam1.blogspot.co.uk/2013/04/ciri-ciri-bidadari-syurga.html)
In my opinion, the Quran uses similar language to depict both momentous occasions in this life and in the next to show that they are essentially the same thing – periods in which our deeds bear fruit.
This understanding undoubtedly changes the perception of the ‘chosen’ personalities mentioned in last week’s ‘Story of God’ episode by NatGeo. Instead of these personalities warning us of a distant afterlife, they are also warning us of social upheavals caused by oppression. This certainly makes our religious experiences far more relevant.
Indeed we must strive to attain a foretaste of heaven now. And we must get through an earthly hell to do that!