Nar (from al-nar, Ar. "the fire") is the common designation for hell in Islam—a blazing abode where God punishes unbelievers and wrongdoers. Muslims use nar synonymously with jahannam, and they juxtapose both terms to janna ("garden"), the blissful home of the righteous in the hereafter. The idea of a place of punishment and suffering in the afterlife is found in many religions, but the Islamic concept is actually an outgrowth of centuries of religious reflection about the afterlife rooted in the cultures of the ancient Near East, rabbinic Judaism, early Christianity, and Zoroastrianism. Early Arabian poetic imagery contributed to its assimilation into Islamic eschatological discourse. Nar is also the element from which Satan was fashioned, in juxtaposition to God's light (nur), and the clay used in Adam's creation (Q. 38:76–77).
According to Islamic eschatological doctrine, al-nar is not just a natural element, but also a real place where humans experience horrendous bodily torments at the hands of angels and demonic creatures. In the Qur˒an, it is described as an evil "home" or "dwelling," where wrongdoers don garments of fire, drink boiling water, eat the fruit of an infernal tree, and are dragged about by iron hooks (37:62–68, 22:19–21). This imagery complements Qur˒anic discourses about the bliss of the righteous in paradise, and it was elaborated with gruesome detail in the hadith, theological tracts, and visionary literature during the Middle Ages. Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111) wrote that in hell the damned "are thrust down upon their faces, chained and fettered, with hellfire (nar) above them, hellfire beneath them, hellfire on their right and hellfire on their left so that they drown in a sea of fire" (al-Ghazali, The Remembrance of Death and the Afterlife, p. 221). Hell was also conceived as a hierarchy of seven levels, each assigned a different name derived from the Qur˒an (for example, "abyss," "blaze," and "furnace"), to which different classes of unbelievers and wrongdoers will be consigned in the afterlife. The angel Malik and his deputies, the Zabaniyya, will help administer their punishments. In some accounts, hell was portrayed as a monstrous creature with thousands of heads and mouths. Theologians debated whether the damned would suffer there for eternity, but many invoked the Qur˒an (11:107, 78:23) in favor of the opinion that its torments were purgatorial, and that eventually many would be admitted to paradise.
Pious Muslims have invoked hell to promote mindfulness of God and the life of the hereafter, against the distractions of mundane existence. Sufis, however, taught that both the fear of hell and desire for paradise were distractions for wayfarers seeking intimate union with God. Some, like Jalaluddin Rumi (d. 1273), used hellfire as a metaphor for the evil inclinations of the self that can only be quelled by divine light or the water of mercy that flows from the virtuous heart. Others equated it to the burning passion of the lover that leads to annihilation of the self in God the beloved, or to the torment experienced in separation from God. Since the twentieth century, Muslim modernists have posited that both hell and paradise are psychological or spiritual states of being rather than actual places in the hereafter. Today, however, traditional understandings continue to have a compelling influence on Muslim beliefs and practices, often with politicized overtones. The Jama˓at-e Islami of Bangladesh, for example, has threatened that Muslim women who fail to support this radical organization will be condemned to hell.
Ghazali, Abu Hamid al-. The Remembrance of Death and theAfterlife (Kitab dhikr al-mawt wa-ma ba˓dahu): Book XL of the Revival of the Religious Sciences (Ihya˒ ˓ulum al-din). Translated by T. J. Winter. Cambridge, U.K.: Islamic Texts Society, 1995.
Smith, Jane Idleman, and Yazbeck Haddad, Yvonne. TheIslamic Understanding of Death and Resurrection. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1981.
Juan E. Campo