Jahannam is a designation for hell and is related to the cognate Hebrew word gehinnom ("Hinnom Valley"), originally a site near ancient Jerusalem where children were immolated as sacrificial offerings, which subsequently became a garbage dump. In early Jewish and Christian eschatology, Gehenna was believed to be where wrongdoers would be punished by fire in the hereafter. This is the meaning Jahannam carries in the Qur˒an (where it is mentioned seventy-seven times), the hadith, and later Islamic eschatological discourses. It is often used synonymously with "the Fire" ("nar"), and in juxtaposition to "the Garden" ("janna"), the Islamic paradise of the blessed.
The Qur˒an depicts Jahannam as an infernal dwelling or refuge with seven gates (counterparts for the seven heavens) awaiting unbelievers, hypocrites, and other sorts of offenders (4:140; 15:43–44). It will be the fiery abode of jinns and satans, as well as humans (11:119; 19:68), including polytheists and "people of the book" (98:6). Indeed, according to one verse, all will go to Jahannam, but God will save the pious and abandon wrongdoers there on their knees (19:72). Polytheists and their idols will become fuel for its fire (21:98). The authoritative hadith collections, such as those of al-Bukhari (d. 870), Muslim (d. 875), and Ibn Hanbal (d. 855), expand upon these Qur˒anic discourses, detailing its horrific features and inhabitants. Hadiths describe it as a pit of fire seventy times hotter than earthly fire, guarded by the angel Malik, into which plunge the damned who fail to cross a narrow test bridge (al-sirat) that traverses it. They enumerate the kinds of sinners punished there, among whom are the Jahannamites—Muslims who have committed major transgressions, but who will eventually win entry to paradise.
The most elaborate descriptions were formulated in the tenth century C.E., and later commentaries and eschatological texts are those of al-Tabari (d. 922), al-Samarqandi (d. c. 983), al-Ghazali (d. 1111), al-Qurtubi (d. 1273), Ibn Kathir (d. 1373), Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya (1350), and al-Suyuti (d. 1505). In these books, Jahannam is said to consist of seven hierarchical levels, the highest for Muslims and the lower levels for Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, polytheists, and hypocrites. Commentators furnished it with geographic features such as blazing mountains, valleys, rivers, and seas, as well as houses, prisons, bridges, wells, and ovens. They also provided it with venomous scorpions and snakes to torment its inhabitants. In modern times, Jahannam remains a popular sermon topic.
Achtemeier, Paul J., ed. "Gehenna." In Harper's Bible Dictionary. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985.
Jeffrey, Arthur, ed. A Reader on Islam: Passages from Standard Arabic Writings Illustrative of the Beliefs and Practices of Muslims. The Hague: Mouton & Co., 1962.
Juan Eduardo Campo