Afterlife: Islamic Concepts

views updated


The doctrine of an afterlife is not only a frequent theme within the Qurʾanic revelation, it is also central to the way in which Muslims have understood and explained the reasons for humankind's existence in this world. In Muslim thought, the notion of an afterlife is not only seen as giving meaning to what is a short-lived stay on this earthwith all that it entails of seemingly inexplicable human suffering, loss, and deathbut it also places humankind within a divine plan, which endows them with a sense of purpose and an ultimate destiny. The knowledge of a future life beyond death, the quality of which will be determined by the moral quality of one's life on earth, has served to instill in Muslims a constant awareness of both the precarious nature of this existence and the urgent need to prepare for that future one. This urgency had manifested itself from the outset, both in the revealed text of the Qurʾān, the foundation stone of all Muslim dogma and ritual, and in the formative intellectual history of the community.

Afterlife in the QurʾĀn

According to Muslim tradition, the revelations of the Qurʾānthat is, the verses (āyāt ) that make up the chapters (sūrahs )are ascribed to one of two periods of Muammad's prophetic career, the earlier Meccan period and the later Medinan one. The apocalyptic passages and images in the Qurʾān that herald the coming of the next life belong primarily to the former. Indeed, they constitute one of the most salient features of the earlier phase of Muammad's preaching, testifying to the importance of the notion of an afterlife within the overall framework of the Qurʾanic message.

The apocalypse

The apocalypse, as the climax of history, is referred to variously as "the Day of Judgement" (yawm al-dīn), "the Day of Resurrection" (yawm al-qiyāma), "the Last Day" (al-yawm al-ākhir), "the Day of Decision" (yawm al-fal), or "the Promised Day" (al-yawm al-mawʿūd). The eschatological scheme and its accompanying symbols that usher in the next world is one familiar enough from the Judeo-Christian, and to some extent the Zoroastrian, tradition. The basic elements are, in brief: The next world will arrive in the wake of the destruction of this oneat an unknown point in time, referred to as the "Hour" (al-sāʿa ), unknown to all but God, the blowing of a cosmic trumpet(ūr ) will annihilate all creatures and destroy the familiar universe; a second sounding of the trumpet will resurrect all humankind to face the final reckoning. Every soul (nafs) is called to contemplate its "book" (kitāb ) of deeds, and its deeds will be weighed in "scales" (mīzān ). A light balance will dispense a soul to hell, whereas a weighty one will merit paradise. The "wretched" (shaqī), their faces blackened in terror and despair, are driven like animals to their final abode, and with their hands bound in fetters to their necks they are thrust violently into the fire of hell, where they are drenched in liquid pitch, their skins are consumed by the fire, and their faces are grilled by its flames. They suffer beatings with maces of iron, gulp fetid boiling water, taste festering blood and consume a bush of bitter thorn in the midst of scorching winds and thick black smoke.

The "fortunate" (saʿīd), are congratulated and led away in the company of angels towards the already-opened gates of paradise, the light of divine pleasure radiating from within them and all around them. They take up their paradisiacal abodes in the "Gardens of Eden" (jannāt ʿAdan ), each one of them in an exclusive garden, wherein they recline on jewel-encrusted beds, dressed in the finest silk, arrayed in heavy brocade, and adorned with silver bracelets; surrounded by bashful and amorous virgins (ūr ) resembling hidden pearls, they are waited on by stunningly beautiful youths who serve them the purest intoxicants, bring them endless varieties of fruits, and are constantly at their service.

Eternal life and the hereafter

The Qurʾanic idea of continued existence and eternal life in the hereafter functions not only as a consolation for believers, in view of the tribulations inherent in life on earth, it is also intended as an incentive for humankind to believe, to perform good deeds, and to reap the reward. For, the "other life" (ākhira, lit. "final one"), as the Qurʾān tells us, is "better" and "more enduring" (Qurʾān 87:17) than this life; "the life of this world is but amusement and play; it is the life to come that is the true life" (Qurʾān 29:64). The delights of this world, according to the Qurʾān, are transient, ultimately unsatisfying, and generally adulterated in some way. The delights in the next world, however, will be eternal, endlessly enjoyed, and absolutely pure. It is the way in which the earthly quality of these familiar delights will be redefinedtransformedthat is crucial. Thus, in paradise, the houris, the wide-eyed beautiful virgins, will not have been touched by either human or jinn (Qurʾān 55:56); the rivers will run with "water unstaling," with "milk forever fresh," with "the clearest honey," and with "wine that is a delight to the drinkers" (Qurʾān 47:15); their drink therein "will not cause their heads to throb, nor will it make them lose their reason" (Qurʾān 56:19); the cup they will pass from one to another will inspire "no idle talk, no sinful urge" (Qurʾān 52:23). Muslim tradition would later add numerous narratives to the descriptions of paradise that emphasized the pure nature of one's existence in the next world, an existence free of the vile bodily functions of this world. One early adīth reported by ʿAbd al-Razzāq al-anʿānī (d. 827) in his compilation of traditions (Muannaf) describes the first band of those entering paradise thus: "their faces shall resemble the full moon; they will excrete no mucus, neither will they salivate or ever need to defecate."

An indication of the centrality of the afterlife within the overall Qurʾanic narrative is that almost every act forbidden or condemned by the Qurʾān, as well as every deed commended and encouraged by it, is done so with a view to the consequences of that action or behavior for a person's fate in the next life. Thus, those who violate God's covenants are described as having "purchased the life of this world at the price of the life to come" (Qurʾān 2:86 and 3:77). In contrast, it is written that "God has purchased from the believers their selves and their worldly possessions and in return has promised them Paradise" (Qurʾān 9:111). Indeed, the Qurʾān describes the "true losers" as "those who have forfeited their souls and their relatives on the Day of Resurrection" (Qurʾān 42:45), because, having offered nothing for their future life, they now find themselves in eternal hellfire.

But whereas the Qurʾān contains frequent references to scenes that will take place on the day of judgement, as well as graphic descriptions of the pleasures enjoyed by the "inhabitants of the Garden" (aāb al-janna ) and the torments suffered by the "inhabitants of the Fire" (aāb, or ahl, al-nār ), crucial elements of eschatology, which had significant consequences for the scheme of the afterlife, were only worked out in the wake of intra-Muslim sectarian polemics; yet even these elements had not taken long, in historical terms, to crystallize. Already within little more than a hundred years of the Prophet's death and the codification of the Qurʾān, there emerged all of the eschatological variations and modifications to the afterlife scheme, as they are known from the compositions of the classical period, and as they are familiar to Muslims today. It was at this formative stage that the second instance of "urgency," referred to at the beginning of this article, manifested itself.

The Formative Period (c. 657800)

Two civil wars that split the community definitively within a generation of the Prophet's death and resulted in major schisms that exist in modern times were fought over the question of the rightful leadership of the community. This was not only because the rightful leader (imām ) was necessary for the overall guidance and well-being of the community, but, more importantly, because an illegitimate leader put the salvation of the entire community at risk by endangering the afterlife scheme (as understood by all early Muslims) in which the elect community of believers were a single guided community destined for Paradise.

What seemed like purely political disagreements went to the heart of religion, for, in early Islam political opponents were necessarily religious ones too: if the leadership of the elect community of believers was to be assumed by the wrong individual, who then led them astray from the path to salvation, the entire community ran the risk of being misled. Political offences, violating as they did the stipulations of the Qurʾān, prompted similar questions about the salvation status of grave sinners within the Muslim community and, paradoxically, forced Muslims to consider a formal definition of what constituted "belief" (īmān ). In other words, given that there is a single community of believers destined for paradise, how did one remain within it, and what offenses excluded one from it?

Discussion of the consequences of serious offenses had been confined, at a primary stage, to the political arena, but more and more discussions came to focus on grave violations of the Qurʾanic stipulations for proper moral conduct. In time, an increasingly influential group of Muslim theologians, known as traditionalists (ahl al-adīth ), came up with a compromise to the simple afterlife scheme that had been assumed by the community at its birth. The compromise was both the result of protracted debates over the salvation status of political "sinners" (religious offenders) within the Muslim community, and the political reality that frequently saw Muslim pitted in battle against fellow Muslim. These traditionalist theologians modified certain aspects of the postmortem judgement to ensure that all those who professed Islam, even if they should die without having repented of their sins, would eventually end up in paradise: if they did go to hell, they would suffer only a purgatorial stay, one consonant with the severity of their neglect of religious duties.

It should be noted that the traditionalists believed that authoritative opinions (legal and theological) could only be found in the mass of traditions (reports containing words and deeds) ascribed to the Prophet and his Companions. This body of literature, authenticated (in the sense that it was believed to go back to the Prophet), but collected and transmitted from the late seventh and early to mid-eighth centuries ce, had grown to huge proportions. It was within this body of traditions that those eschatological variations, which were used to modify the scheme of the afterlife, began to appear. The traditionalists made such variations authoritative by weaving them into the exegetical narratives to certain key verses in the Qurʾān. These verses included one that was ambiguous about the eternality of hellfire punishment (Qurʾān 11:107); another that suggested that certain individuals whose evil deeds may counterbalance their good ones, and would thus merit neither paradise nor hell (Qurʾān 7:46); and finally, two verses that were interpreted as proof of the widely held belief that the Prophet will intercede for his community on the day of judgement (Qurʾān 17:79, 93:5).

By associating such extra-scriptural elements with these Qurʾanic verses, the traditionalists were able to introduce a modified scheme of the otherworldly fate of the Muslim community. The canonical manuals of adīth, without exception, state that no Muslim will remain in hell forever. Some will be removed from hell directly through God's intervention, whereas others will exit from it because, as the manuals inform us, the Prophet will intercede for the grave sinners of his community (minor offenses were automatically forgiven by God, so long as grave ones were avoided [Qurʾān 4:31]). Neither of these two doctrines had been explicitly taught in the Qurʾān. Nevertheless, they came to represent dogma for most Muslims. In so doing, the traditionalists had succeeded in retaining, at least superficially, the early ideal of the unified community destined for paradise.

Khārijite, Murjiʾite, and Muʿtazilite thought

Of course, not all parties were convinced by the theological innovations of the traditionalists. Two religio-political parties that had emerged in the wake of the civil wars, namely, the Khārijites (the first sectarians in Islam) and the Murjiʾa (an antisectarian movement that sought to politically reunite the divided community), resisted the influx of such teachings as having no explicit foundation in the Qurʾān. In addition, Muʿtazilah (a late-eighth-century theological school that propounded the use of rational methods and made God's justicetogether with the idea of human free willthe founding principles of their thought) also saw no sound basis for either the idea of a temporary hell or the Prophet's intercession (shafaʿa ) on behalf of grave sinners. For these rationalists, both ideas violated their principle that God's justice ensured that every individual was free to chose his or her acts in this life and would be recompensed accordingly in the next.

Needless to say, it was the traditionalist doctrine that found popular appeal among the majority of Muslims, who took comfort in the knowledge that the Prophet would be at hand to ensure their salvation at the scene of the judgement. It is noteworthy that the Muʿtazila also denied the punishment of the tomb (ʿadhāb al-qabr ) and the "vision of God" (ruʾyat Allāh ) in the next life, both of which, judging by the adīth material, had come to form part of the popular beliefs of Muslims from the middle of the eighth century.

The Classical Period (post-800 ce)

Most of the developments in afterlife theology that took place during the formative period made their way into the major traditions of Islam. The doctrine of temporary hell and the Prophet's intercession were accepted by almost all Sunnīs and Shīʿah. The only difference was that in the case of the latter, the privilege of intercession was also extended to the imāms (with the understanding that no Shīʿī will remain in hell forever). With Sufism, however, it is difficult to make similar generalizations.

Early in its development, Sufism, properly mysticism, came to assume a certain "orthodoxy" from the point of view of traditionalist Islam. The principal figures associated with its development, the likes of al-asan al-Barī (d. 728), al-ārith al-Muāsibī (d. 857), and al-Junayd b. Muammad (d. 910) were all considered pious Muslims by the mainstream tradition. Classical Sufism to a large extent culminated in the works and writings of al-Ghazālī (d. 1111) himself, a bastion of traditionalist Islam. And yet Sufism would later incorporate Neoplatonic and Gnostic elements, as evidenced in the works of the great Andalusian mystic Ibn al-ʿArabī (11651240), elements that could not be accepted by the mainstream tradition. Sufism shared with other mainstream Muslim practice an insistence on the proper observation of the law (sharīʿah ). Indeed, it emphasized that the practice of Islam's rituals should be carried out with discipline and devotion: constant remembrance of God (dhikr ), a quintessential ūfī practice, and the awareness of impending death and resurrection was the only way to prepare oneself for the next world.

One significant development in the classical period, in part due to the influence of Neoplatonic thought as expounded principally by Avicenna (d. 1037), but already suggested at an earlier stage by some of the rationalist theologians, the Muʿtazilahas well as by their more orthodox counterparts, the Ashʿarīs, was the question of whether the Qurʾanic descriptions of the joys of paradise and the pains of hell should be understood literally or symbolically. The rationalists, while acknowledging the explicit scriptural references to carnal pleasures and pains, preferred to understand these as metaphors for spiritual delights and torments. The spiritual aspect became key, not just for rationalist theologians but also for philosophers and certain mystics. If, indeed, the afterlife was to be a spiritual existence of the immortal soul, then humans, through their souls, could "taste" of these joys in this world.

It is in this sense that, for many mystics, elements of the eschaton and the afterlife were internalized as constituting potential experiences of the soul in the here and now. In a similar departure from the traditionalist conception of the afterlife, the philosophers saw deathand not the resurrectionas the beginning of the next life: at the point of death the soul will be freed from its bodily incarceration and able to enjoy the superior delights of the intellect. A preference for metaphorical interpretations would reemerge in twentieth-century reformist writings, such as those of Muammad ʿAbduh (18491905) and Muammad Rashīd Riā (d. 1935).

Twentieth-Century Approaches

The little that is written about the afterlife in the modern day tends to be a regurgitation of ideas and narratives taken from the classical period. In this respect, many contemporary scholars adopt the traditionalist understanding of a physical resurrection together with a literalist conception of the joys and pains of the afterlife. There are exceptions, however, and these can generally be found in the interpretations of so-called liberal or progressive Muslim thinkers.

In developing a methodology that seeks to connect the revealed text and the realities of the modern world, progressive Muslim thinkers recognize the difficulty of embracing a literal conception of the Qurʾanic descriptions of the afterlife, let alone a physical resurrection of the body. One example is the Syrian thinker Mohamad Shahrour (b. 1938). In his al-Kitāb waʾl-Qurʾān (The book and the Qurʾān), he argues that a different physical world will come into being in the wake of the destruction of this one. This transition will also constitute a transformation of the laws governing matter. Thus, there will be a physical reconstitution of bodies in the next world. But these other laws will mean that matter will not be subject to the opposing forces inherent in the nature of matter, forces responsible for the decay and breakdown of all things: thus, in the next world, nothing will die nor will anything be born.

Another example can be seen in Qurʾān and Woman, the African American intellectual Amina Wadud's (b. 1952) book that stresses, "Although the detailed and graphic depictions of the Hereafter [] are sometimes quite explicit, it is obvious that these descriptions are not to be taken entirely literally, [they] are the Qurʾān's way of making the ineffable effable, of making the Unseen phenomena conceivable"(p. 58).

And yet, the idea that there will be some sort of reconstitution of a material formthat is, a corporeal afterlifehas always maintained its hold on the imagination of believers.

Popular Piety

Whereas remembrance of the transience of this world and reflection on the imminent arrival of the other constitute a central element in Muslim devotions across the confessional divide, nowhere is the concern with the reality of the afterlife more obvious than in the rites performed for the dying and the dead. An early Islamic Egyptian epitaph, dated to 796 ce, bears the following inscription, intended as a supplication for relief for the dead person in his tomb: "[O God] make spacious its [the tomb's] entrances and spare him [the dead person] the punishment of the tomb" (RCEA, no. 58). Another epitaph, from near modern-day Cairo, dated to 831 ce, asks God to make the dead person's tomb "like a garden from the gardens of Paradise" (RCEA, no. 204).

Awareness of the imminence of the other world, that is to say, the need to prepare for it within the brief prelude that is this life, is reflected in the symbiotic relationship that manifests itself between the living and the dead. The dying person has the Shahādah, the profession of the faith, whispered into his or her ear. At the point of burial, the dead are "instructed" (talqīn ) by the living to give the correct answers (in the form of God's Oneness and Muammad's prophethood) to the questioning that they will face in their graves (masʾalat al-qabr ) at the hands of the two angels Munkar and Nakīr (also a relic of popular belief from the classical period). Prayer manuals, Sunnī, Shīʿī, and ūfī, are replete with invocationsusually performed before the deadthat articulate the awareness on the part of the living that they will soon share the fate of the former. Muslims have always said prayers for their dead in the hope that when their time comes others will say prayers for them. Inscriptions on tombs usually enjoin the passersby to recite the fātia, the opening verse of the Qurʾān. Not only does this provide comfort for the dead, it also secures a double reward for the one reciting it: the reward for the action itself and the knowledge, supported by numerous adīth s, that the Qurʾān intercedes at the resurrection for whoever recites from it.

However one interpreted the depictions of the afterlife in the Qurʾān, whether literally, spiritually, or metaphorically, all Muslims, be they Sunnīs, Shīʿīs, ūfīs or philosophers, agreed that the value of these scriptural narratives lay in emphasizing the importance of leading a "moral" life: the reward of the hereafter was too great to forfeit.

See Also

Attributes of God, article on Islamic Concepts; Eschatology, article on Islamic Eschatology; Free Will and Predestination, article on Islamic Concepts; God, article on God in Islam; Imān and Islām; Islam, overview article.


Jane Idleman Smith and Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad's The Islamic Understanding of Death and Resurrection (Albany, N.Y., 1981; Oxford, 2002), remains the best introduction to the general topic of the afterlife. Although it focuses mainly on the Sunnī tradition, its information on the modern understanding of the relevant themes and one interesting appendix on women and children in the afterlife is useful. However, one of the best works on Muslim piety and religious life, including contemporary practices, is Constance E. Padwick's Muslim Devotions: A Study of Prayer-Manuals in Common Use (Oxford, 1961; rev. ed. 1997), which examines a range of Muslim devotions and supplications (including those relating to death and the afterlife) and provides extracts from Sunnī, Shīʿī and ūfī prayer manuals. The book is a unique study in this respect and is indispensable for those interested in Muslim practice as opposed to theory.

For more detailed information on the individual elements of the eschaton and themes of the afterlife, the reader is referred to the Encyclopedia of Islam (2d. ed. Leiden, 19542002), although these will require a familiarity with Arabic transliteration: see in particular, "ʿadhāb al-abr" (vol. I, p. 186), "aʿrāf" (vol. I, p. 603), "barzakh" (vol. I, p. 1071), "djanna" (vol. II, p. 447), "iyāma" (vol. V, p. 235), "maʿād" (vol. V, p. 892), "munkar wa-nakīr" (vol. VII, p. 576), "sāʿa" (vol. VIII, p. 654), "shafāʿa" (vol. IX, p. 177). A more accessible recent work, with the entries given in English, is the Encyclopedia of the Qurʾān, edited by J. D. McAuliffe et al. (Leiden, 2000). The work is still in progress, but the following entries may now be consulted: "Eschatology," "Hell and Hellfire," "Intercession." Other projected entries are "Last Judgement," "Paradise," "Resurrection."

Unfortunately, there are to date no complete studies of the Muslim afterlife. A few translations of primary texts on this theme have appeared, most importantly al-Ghazālī's The Remembrance of Death and the Afterlife: Kitāb dhikr al-mawt wa-mā baʿdahu, Book XL of the Revival of the Religious Sciences, Iyāʾ ʿUlūm al-Dīn, translated with an introduction and notes by T. J. Winter (Cambridge, U.K., 1989). For a study of the specific contribution of sectarian polemic to the formation of Sunnī classical doctrine on the concepts of temporary hell and intercession, with specific reference to Qurʾanic exegesis, see Feras Hamza, "To Hell and Back: A Study of the Concepts of Hell and Intercession in Early Islam" (Ph.D. diss., Oxford University, 2002).

An important work is Soubhi el-Saleh's "La vie future selon le Coran," which can be found in the journal Études Musulmanes no. 13 (1971), or as a separate publication (Paris, 1971). Saleh traces the various ways in which the delights of Paradise and the torments of hell were understood according to four types of Qurʾanic commentaries, roughly representing four phases of Muslim exegesis: traditionalist, rationalist, mystic, and modern; the author examines the important question of whether these aspects of the afterlife were understood as being physical or spiritual in each of the four classes of commentaries. For an exposition of the persistently "carnal" attitude towards the delights of Paradise, with a literary focus, see A. al-Azmeh, "On the Morphology of Paradisiac Narratives," Journal of Arabic Literature 26 (1995), pp. 215231.

Shiʿi material

Martin J. McDermott's The Theology of al-Shaikh al-Mufīd (d. 413/1022) (Beirut, Lebanon, 1978) provides a Twelver Shīʿī perspective on the principal elements of the eschaton; Mahmoud Ayoub has looked at the devotional aspects of Twelver practices in his Redemptive Suffering in Islam: A Study of the Devotional Aspects of ʿĀshūrāʾ in Twelver Shīʿism (The Hague, 1978). A useful introduction to Twelver beliefs may now be found in Doctrines of Shiʿi Islam: A Compendium of Imami Beliefs and Practices by Ayatollah Jaʿfar Sobhani, translated and edited by Reza Shah-Kazemi (London, 2001), esp. pp. 120136.

A validation of the female voice in the Qurʾān, together with the consequences for understanding the scriptural depictions of the hereafter, is given by Amina Wadud, Qurʾān and Woman (Kuala Lumpur, 1992), esp. pp. 4461. Fatima Mernissi's Women in Moslem Paradise (New Delhi, 1986) is also interesting for its female perspective.

The tomb inscriptions referred to above are taken from the Répertoire chronologique d'epigraphie arabe (RCEA ), edited by Etienne Combe et al. (Cairo, 1931-1991), see vol. 1, nos. 58 and 204.

In addition, the bibliography provided under the entry "Eschatology (Islamic Eschatology)" complements the one given here.

Feras Q. Hamza (2005)