Eschatology: Islamic Eschatology

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In every area of religious life, the scriptural religions have developed along courses charted between the constraints and potentialities of their sacred texts and the expectations of the popular imagination. Nowhere has this process been more evident than in the development of Islamic eschatology, which has never been completely systematized. Many intertwining factors account for this situation. Like all scriptures, the Muslim sacred book is elliptical. The Qurʾān may hammer away at the inevitability of resurrection and the rewards and punishments of the afterlife, but of the period between death and resurrection, the topography of heaven and hell, the possibility of intercession, or the nature of redemption it says little indeed.

Furthermore, the otherworldly, radical dualism of the monotheistic scriptures has rarely existed in pure form; it has usually been blurred through interaction with popular ideas and practices. Special tensions arise in the handling of death, where this world meets the next; thus eschatology becomes particularly complex. Of the monotheistic faiths, Islam had perhaps the richest backdrop and the widest cross-cultural stage. Preceded by a rich pagan heritage, the pioneers of Islam also worked within a larger monotheistic environment: some actually entered Islam from Judaism, Christianity, or Zoroastrianism; others came into contact with the practitioners of those religions. The impact of Islamic eschatology on this and other types of exposure was particularly pronounced, as was the Islamic cast given even to the most closely shared elements. Finally, the natural temporal, geographical, and ideological variations of the first thirteen centuries of an expanding Islam have been joined in its fourteenth and fifteenth centuries by modernist rethinkings.

The Qurʾanic Foundation

Not even a casual reader could miss the Qurʾān's emphasis on the final reckoning and dispensation, or its parallel concentration on the homiletic and hortatory dimensions of the prophetic role itself; almost every sūrah refers to eschatology, particularly to the physical rewards and punishments of heaven and hell. However, one must always keep in view the larger ethical and monotheistic context that surrounds the Qurʾān's insistence on physical resurrection and consignment; taking this insistence out of context has led many modern Western scholars to confuse the sensuous with the sensual while they ignore the equally sensuous treatments of a Dante or a Bosch.

The Qurʾān's pervasive appeal to the sensesthe concrete, graphic presentation of the two dispensations and most other matters as wellis consistent not only with its oral nature but also with its need for reiterated proof of the most persuasive kind. As a didactic as well as apocalyptic work, it must argue against an archaic Arabian cosmos in which fateful time determined the course of life and assured the finality of death, neither of which depended on the creator's intentions:

And when they see a sign [from God], they would scoff. And they say, "This is nothing but manifest sorcery. What! when we are dead and become dust and bones, shall we indeed be raised up?" (37:1416)

In contrast, the Qurʾān's caring creator, Allāh, is also the annihilating judge who will end the human world at his chosen time (Yawm al-Qiyāmah, the Day of Resurrection; al-Sāʿah, the Hour); resurrect humans, body and soul; judge them according to their acceptance or rejection of his clear signs as elucidated by the many messengers he has sent; and consign them to their eternal rewardthe fiery suffering of Jahannam (Hell, Gehenna) or the easeful pleasure of Jannah (Garden, Paradise):

And they [the unbelievers] say, "Woe, alas for us! This is the Day of Doom. This is the Day of Decision, even that you cried lies to." (37:2021)

The distinction between these two is stark and unequivocal, much like the distinction between desert and oasis. Fire and the Garden are a pair of polar opposites, each being everything the other is not (dead/living, shady/hot, shadowy/light), just as the inhabitants of one are everything the inhabitants of the other are not (bestial/human, deaf/hearing, ignorant/understanding, blind/sighted, living/dead, dumb/speaking, ungrateful/grateful, neglectful/mindful, uncharitable/charitable, indecent/chaste, faithful/idolatrous, prideful/humble):

The unbelievers shall be in the fire of Gehenna, therein dwelling forever; those are the worst of creatures. But those who believe, and do righteous deeds, those are the best of creatures. (98:67)

Jahannam is, like the desert, hot and dry, its inhabitants always thirsty; Jannah is cool and moist, its inhabitants never wanting. Irony informs the contrast. The denizens of Hell are given "drinks," but of molten metal or oozing pus that melts the contents of their stomachs; they are "cooled" by boiling water poured over their heads, new skins replacing the burned ones; and they are "sheltered" by columns of fire over their heads. They are "clothed," but in garments of pitch or fire; they eat, but like cattle:

As for the unbelievers, for them garments of fire shall be cut, and there shall be poured over their heads boiling water whereby whatsoever is in their bellies and their skins shall be melted. (22:1920)

The Garden has rivers flowing underneath and fountains; its inhabitants recline on cushioned couches, clothed in brocade garments, peaceful, never fatigued, sheltered, eating fruits in a refined way, drinking a musk-perfumed wine that produces no sickness or intoxication, and enjoying the presence of the ūr, "wives" made pure and untouched. (Although the Qurʾān says that women gain entrance to the Garden, too, it describes no pleasure for women equivalent to the ūr.)

See, the inhabitants of Paradise today are busy in their rejoicing, they and their spouses, reclining upon couches in the shade; therein they have fruits, and they have all that they call for. (36:5557)

This marvelously wrought dichotomy underscores the need for humans to choose. Fire and Garden appear not for their own sake but as signs of God's mercy or wrath. Belief in the last day is only a small part of the total challenge (see, for example, sūrah 2:172173). Although Adam's expulsion from the original Garden is acknowledged, it produced no original sin that must be redeemed, even if Iblis, the fallen angel, does constantly tempt humans to wrongdoing. One earns one's fate by choosing to adhere or not adhere to clearly specified spiritual and behavioral norms. Judgment is as fair as a business transaction: one's deeds are weighed in the balance, neither wealth nor kin availing. If one has been faithful and grateful, accepted his signs and messengers as true, prayed, and given charity, one is rewarded. If one has been faithless and ungrateful, given the lie to the signs and messengers, given God partners, prayed insincerely or not at all, and been selfish with and prideful of one's material goods, one is punished. In this instance of the radical transvaluation common to the monotheistic religions, what one valued is taken away, and what one did not value becomes an eternal reward.

The signs of the advent of the Day are equally frequent and graphic: people scattered like moths, mountains plucked like wool tufts and turned to sand, earth shaken and ground to powder, heavens split and rolled back, stars scattered, seas boiling over, and sun darkened. However, not every question is anticipated, and little attention is paid to the period between revelation and eschaton, even less to the time between death and resurrection, except to say that it will seem like nothing. As later Muslims took the Qurʾanic eschatological drama to heart, they interpreted it where is was specific and elaborated it where is was not.

Post-Qurʾanic Variations

This process of elaboration produced considerable variation, in scholarly discourse as well as in the popular imagination, where the rich folklore of millennia was enriched by the new religion and transmitted in elaborate detail.

Sunnī variations

The Sunnī majority turned to the elaboration of the Qurʾanic eschatological schema as soon as the adīth (reports about the exemplary deeds, utterances, and unspoken approval of the Prophet) began to form; significant developments continued for centuries, especially in three topic areas: (1) the period between death and resurrection; (2) the role of eschatological figures; and (3) judgment, afterlife, and the mitigation of punishment.


In classical thought, the word barzakh came to stand for both the time and place of waiting between death and resurrection, even though the Qurʾān uses the word rarely and only in the sense of a barrier. By the time of the famous theologian al-Ghazālī (d. 1111), who wrote in detail about the barzakh, a clearer picture had emerged. At the moment of death, ʿIzrāʾīl, the angel of death, appears; then the soul slips easily from the body, borne upward by other angels. Subsequently, the angelic pair Munkar and Nakīr question the dead in their graves about their deeds. The interrogation is followed by pressure on all grave-dwellers and punishment of some. Whether this punishment prefigures or mitigates later punishment is unclear. According to some, the dead may interact with the living during the barzakh, particularly in their dreams.


The period between revelation of the Qurʾān and the Day of Judgment, as well as the eschatological figures who function therein, also received further attention. Key figures include al-Dajjāl, the false savior or "Antichrist," and the Mahdi, the divinely guided one. Al-Dajjāl, who appears in the adīth but not in the Qurʾān, will emerge toward the end of time after a long period of social and natural disintegration, and he will conquer the earth until killed either by the returned Jesus or the Mahdi, another non-Qurʾanic figure. The latter, in this sense, is an unnamed reforming member of the family of the Prophet who will be sent to restore peace and justice on earth for a period of time before the end and to fulfill the mission of Muammad as his last temporal successor (caliph), as interpreter of his revelation, and as enforcer of Islamic law (sharīʿah ).

However, not all Sunnī Muslims expect such a figure and the term has often been used more like the related mujaddid, that is, a divinely guided renewer who at any point may bring the Muslim community from deviation back onto God's straight path through intellectual, spiritual, or temporal leadership. Unlike mahdī, mujaddid has cyclical connotations; it has been applied to figures at the turn of each Muslim century, from the first to the most recent. Since the eschaton failed to arrive, and since Muammad was believed to have purified and sealed off revelation for all time, not to reappear until the Day of Judgment, other figures could frequently rise to importance.


According to many post-Qurʾanic commentaries, the Day of Judgment will be announced by two blasts from the trumpet of the archangel Isrāfīl, whereupon souls will be reunited with bodies in the graves, resurrected, and assembled, perhaps to wait for an extended period of time. Their deeds will be read out of the heavenly books and weighed in the balance. When they cross the bridge over the Fire, the reckoning will be verified: sinning believers will fall into the Fire temporarily; sinning nonbelievers, permanently. Saved believers will cross safely into the Garden, where some kind of "vision" of God may await them. According to many writers, each prophet will lead his own community, with the whole procession led in turn by Muammad and the Muslim community. At the pool or pond (aw), the Prophet may intercede for some of the Muslim faithful in the Fire. However, some authors even argued that the Fire was a kind of purgatory for not only some but all its inhabitants.

The structure of Fire and Garden was delineated, too, with architectural models preferred, as in the Qurʾān. The Fire has seven concentric circles or layers, representing hierarchically arranged levels of punishment; the Garden has seven or eight layers, perhaps pyramidal, with the throne of God at the top. This kind of elaboration was promoted by the concomitant development of several genres of literature that detailed the Prophet's famous night journey to Jerusalem and ascension from there through the seven heavens.

Shīʿī variations

The informal structure of Sunnī eschatological figures has a formal analog in the Shīʿī imamate. Among the Twelver Shīʿāh, the cosmic order and the eschaton's arrival depend absolutely on a line of descendants of the Prophet through his daughter Fāimah and cousin ʿAlī. These imams, as they are called, are understood to have been conceived in God's mind from one beginning as the principle of good, to have been transmitted for centuries as light in the loins of the prophets and the wombs of holy women, and to have emerged in human form as the twelve vicegerents of Muammad (like the twelve assistants of all previous prophets).

They suffered, as had all the prophets, and their suffering and that of all previous and subsequent humanity culminated in the martyrdom of the third of their line, usayn, at the hands of the sixth caliph, Yazīd (680683). usayn's suffering was the central redemptive act in the cosmic drama, shared in and made visible to all previous prophets and identified with by later followers. Its final avenging on the Day of Judgment will symbolize the triumph of good over evil, justice over injustice. The followers of the imams will be redeemed not only through usayn's actions but also by the identification with his suffering they demonstrate when they weep and when they visit Karbala, the site of his martyrdom, reenacting its drama (taʿziyah ), and reciting poetic laments.

Before the Day, the twelfth and absent imam, al-Qāʾim, will have returned as Mahdi to prepare the way. The Mahdi will arrive at the end of a long period of disintegration culminating in the appearance of al-Dajjāl, whom he will kill, just as he will kill all the enemies of the family of the Prophet. By then Jesus will have returned and will rule for a time, after which the Mahdi (and perhaps usayn himself) will reign in peace and justice, fulfilling the mission of all the prophets. The family of the Prophet will participate not only in intercession but in judgment as well, in the persons of ʿAlī or Fāimah or usayn.

ŪfĪ Variations

Muslims who adopted a ūfī orientation were led to special eschatological views as a result of their asceticism, their search for union with God in this life, and their extreme love of God. Early ascetics such as asan al-Barī (d. 728) stressed their fear of Hell and their desire for Paradise because they were ultrasensitive to their human sinfulness; they tended to seek the otherworld because they so strongly rejected this one. In asan's words, "Be with this world as if you had never been there, and with the otherworld as if you would never leave it." However, when love of God became a key element in Sufism, new views of the otherworld began to appear. For the earliest Muslim love mystic, the Arab poetess Rābiʿah al-ʿAdawīyah (d. 801), selfless love of God required the ūfī to be veiled from both this world and the other by her vision of God, whom the ūfī must love so much that Paradise and Hell are both forgotten. ūfīs such as Yayā ibn Muʿādh al-Rāzī (d. 871) replaced fear of punishment and hope of reward with complete trust in God's mercy and found death beautiful because it joined friend with friend. Others went much further. The Turkish poet Yunus Emre (d. 1321?) argued that the ūfī must reject not only this world but also the next; some of his poems ridiculed a literal interpretation of the Qurʾān's eschatological details.

Among those ūfīs who sought union with God and a vision of him in this life, that experience transformed conventional notions of Paradise and Hell. For them, the perfect ūfī was not subject to changing states, including death, or concerned about created states, such as the otherworld. Some came to believe that having been touched by the primordial fire and light of God's love made them impervious to the fires of Hell, and that Paradise would provide pure experience of God, not the sensuous delights described in the Qurʾān. In the words of Shiblī (d. 945), "the fire of Hell will not touch me; I can extinguish it." ūfī enlargements of Muslim eschatological thinking was not without its ironies: while popular ūfī practice encouraged rituals that might increase the joys of Paradise, cultivated ūfī thought discouraged hoping for Paradise even for the vision of God it might provide.

Modern Responses

Many modern Sunnī thinkers do not discuss the eschaton at all, apparently finding it too difficult to rationalize. The concerns of those who do treat the eschaton are unusually continuous with those of their premodern counterparts, but modern thinkers have also developed new emphases and rediscovered old ones.

Along the traditionalist end of the spectrum, thinkers such as Amad Fāʾiz (d. 1918), Muammad ʿAwwād (d. 1980), Shaykh al-Islām Ibrāhīm al-Bayjūrī, Muammad Khalīfah, Muafā al-ayr, and Ahmad Galwash tend toward various kinds of literalism, reiterating in modern language such concerns as the agony of death, questioning and punishment/reward in the grave, the awareness of the dead, and the physicality of resurrection and afterlife. At the other end of the spectrum are those, such as M. Sadeddin Evrin, who attempt to verify the Qurʾān with scientific research (the description of the signs of the eschaton, for example). Some, such as anāwī Jawharī (d. 1940) Muammad Farīd Wajdī (d. 1954), lean toward a kind of European-inspired spiritualism that posits a world from which the spirits of the dead think about and help the living. In between the two poles are various modernists who tend to downplay the traditional eschatological specifics in favor of a stress on the continuity between this life and the next, the naturalness of death and the likeness of the barzakh to sleep or semiconsciousness, and the nature of human responsibility and accountability. Many practice allegorical interpretations of the Qurʾān. For example, Syed Ameer Ali (d. 1928) sees a spiritual meaning in the Qurʾān's sensuous descriptions of Paradise and Gehenna. Abū al-Aʿlā al-Mawdūdī (d. 1979) stresses the practical value of Islamic eschatology in helping human beings deal with death and mortality. Muammad Iqbal (d. 1938), in The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, describes Paradise and Gehenna as states rather than localities.

Modernist thought has also taken forms much less consistent with received eschatological thinking. The founder of the Amadīyah sect, Mīrzā Ghulām Amad of Punjab (d. 1908), made eschatological claims of his own, asserting in 1880 that he was the Mahdi, at once the incarnation of Jesus, Muammad, and Kra. Amadī Qurʾān commentaries, such as that of Maulana Muammad Ali (d. 1951), have continued to develop unusual eschatological views. For example, the opening of the graves is said to be prefigured by the opening of the earth to the mining of precious metals; the afterlife is seen as an example of the unceasing progress that also takes place on earth; the resurrection is presented as a new manifestation of hidden realities; and a heaven on earth is anticipated as well as a heaven after death.

The use of allegorical interpretation in the service of modernist rationalization has not been universal. Important modernists such as Muammad al-Mubārak, Sayyid Qub, Muafā Mamūd, and Muammad ʿAbduh have remained loyal to Qurʾān and adīth in their rejection of allegorical interpretation but have also argued against literalism, finding both of them inadequate means of expressing the realities of the next world. Others have established a relationship between the eschaton and the widely perceived need for social reconstruction. For them, death and resurrection are most meaningful in the context of living an ethical life. They emphasize human accountability and focus on the ways in which considerations of the next world can promote morality in this one. These approaches have their parallel among those Shīʿī Muslims who, embarrassed by the supernaturalism of traditional eschatology, deny the return of the last imam and yet find meaning and a redemptive quality in usayn's death when it is understood as a protest against injustice and oppression. Such thinkers seem to have rediscovered ancient Qurʾānic priorities in their pursuit of modernization.

See Also

Imamate; Messianism, article on Messianism in the Muslim Tradition; Miʿrāj; Nubūwah.


The only comprehensive study of Islamic eschatology is Jane I. Smith's and Yvonne Y. Haddad's The Islamic Understanding of Death and Resurrection (Albany, N. Y., 1981), an unprecedented survey, largely of Sunnī thought, clearly and simply organized and concisely presented, with unusual attention given to modern thinkers of several kinds. Fritz Meier's "The Ultimate Origin and the Hereafter in Islam," in Islam and Its Cultural Divergence: Studies in Honor of Gustave E. von Grunebaum, edited by Girdhari L. Tikku, (Urbana, Ill., 1971), pp. 96112, is an awkwardly translated general survey with a useful comparison of Sunnī and Shīʿī concepts of revelation, their relationship to other forms of divinely inspired knowledge and leadership, and their place in eschatology. Annemarie Schimmel's Mystical Dimensions of Islam (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1975) contains fascinating material on ūfī eschatology throughout.

Works that address the issue of eschatology in the Shīʿī tradition in particular include S. Husain M. Jafri's Origins and Early Development of Shīʿa Islam (London, 1979), a straightforward, narrative, chronological account that stresses the ways in which pre-Islamic views of leadership informed various Shīʿī constituencies, concentrating on the centrist, legitimist Twelver Shīʿāh and the contributions of Jaʿfar al-ādiq to their institutionalization. Mahmoud Ayoub's Redemptive Suffering in Islam: A Study of the Devotional Aspects of ʿĀshūrāʾ in Twelver Shīʿism (The Hague, 1978) is a moving and deeply felt rendering of eschatologically relevant piety, with suggestive comparative comments. A. A. Sachedina's Islamic Messianism: The Idea of the Mahdi in Twelver Shīʿism (Albany, N.Y., 1981) is a clear interpretive account of an important topic, with a particularly important analysis of the relationship between imam and prophet.

An important case study is Ignácz Goldziher's "Zur Charakteristik Gelâl ud-dïn us-Sujûtʿï's und seiner literarischen Thätigkeit," Sitzungsberichte der kaiserlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften in Wien 69 (1871): 728, a rare history and analysis of the concept of mujaddid, with an emphasis on one important thinker's identification with the role. John B. Taylor's "Some Aspects of Islamic Eschatology," Religious Studies 4 (October, 1968): 5776, is a selective comparison of Qurʾanic and Mongol-period views, with eschatological thought divided into three categories: didactic, apocalyptic, and mystical. Taylor's references to modern Muslim responses to the topic are unfortunately seriously outdated.

Useful information can be found also in the Shorter Encyclopaedia of Islam (Leiden, 1974), in the following articles in particular: "Barzakh," "al-Dadjdjāl," "Djahannam," "Djanna," "Firdaws," "aw," "Iblīs," "ʿIsā," "Isrāfīl," "ʿIzrāʾīl," "ak-iyāma," "al-Mahdī," "Malāʾika," "Munkar wa-Nakīr," "Shafāʿa," and "Yādjūj wa-Mādjūj." However, the articles are sometimes unclearly or elliptically presented or marred by the open display or subtle influence of many of the ethnocentric biases of earlier generations of scholars, especially as regards the allegedly derivative, irrational nature of Islam.

New Sources

Cook, David B. Studies in Muslim Apocalyptic. Princeton, N.J., 2002.

Kelsay, John, and James Turner Johnson, ed. Just War and Jihad: Historical and Theoretical Perspectives on War and Peace in Western and Islamic Traditions. New York, 1991.

Robbins, Thomas, and Susan J. Palmer, eds. Millennium, Messiahs, and Mayhem: Contemporary Apocalyptic Movements. New York, 1997.

Schafer, Peter, and Mark R. Cohen, eds. Toward the Millenium: Messianic Expectations from the Bible to Waco Studies in the History of Religions 77. Boston, 1998.

Umar, Muhammad S. "Muslims' Eschatological Discourses on Colonialism in Northern Nigeria." Journal of the American Academy of Religion 67 (March 1999), 5985.

Marilyn Robinson Waldman (1987)

Revised Bibliography