Dr. Syed Abdul Latif
We are privileged again to present here in an abridged form, another of Dr. latif’s thought provoking articles. It deals with an important topic of life in the hereafter. We have given somewhat elaborate introduction of Dr. Syed
Abdul Latif in the summer 2019 issue of ‘The Spark’. To be brief and concise here, Dr.Latif is an accomplished scholar in Islam by his own independent pursuits contrary to the traditional scholars. This makes him uniquely, a free investigator, thinker and an intellectual. He was born in 1891 at Kurnool a small town in Southern India. The pinnacle of his secular education was the award of PhD in English by University of London in 1924 and his tenure subsequently as the head of the department of English at Osmania University, Hyderabad, India. To his honor and to the great benefit of many English speaking Muslims and non-Muslims , he has translated Quran into English titled “AL-Qur’an”. He passed away in Hyderabad in 1971.
In some form or other, the belief in the life hereafter is common to all Faiths. What that life in reality is, can be known only when one enters upon it. It is certainly not a return to earth again or what is called a “rebirth”, in flesh and blood. Life according to the Quran is not a cycle, it is linear. The description of the life to follow given in the stories which have found their way into the hadith literature and which have exercised a fascination for the mediaeval mind among Muslims has, except in a few cases, no parallel in the Quran. The Quranic method is to convey just a vision of it, and that by means of what are specially called amthal and mutashabihat (parables, similitudes and, metaphors) essentially symbolic in import, for the life beyond is something which man in his present environment can never comprehend or understand.
The vision conveyed by means of mutashabihat is intended to be satisfying to the intellect alike of men of insight and those less gifted. The righteous will have a life of peace and the unrighteous of disquiet. That is the impression they are meant to convey. And the similitudes offered are necessarily to be drawn from the life of comfort already known to human beings. So the picture of comfort provided is that of gardens beneath which rivers flow, of fountains of milk and honey, of pleasant society and so forth. But there is always a corrective to the picture clinching the vision.
The gardens of heaven are different from those of this world.
The fruits are not subject to seasons (Q. 13:35).
The water of rivers does not petrify: It tastes differently (Q. 47:15).
The companions are not set in corporal frame. They are made of purity (Q.2:25).
They do not hold vain discourse (Q. 19:62).
Likewise the similitudes touching the life of Hell are drawn from the field of corporal suffering, and are meant to symbolize the condition in which the soul of the unrighteous will find itself in its new setting. The Quran itself affords clarification. “And who shall make thee understand what the fierce fire is?” asks the Quran and itself furnishes the answer: “It is God’s kindled fire which riseth up to the hearts (of men)”. (Q.104:5-7). Seems it is the feeling of terror which seizes their hearts; the verse likens Hell to a mind in an exquisite spiritual distress. The picture of Hell and Heaven, which the Quran thus conveys is that of two different states of the human soul set in an environment different from that in which its present life is lived.
According to the Quran, everyone will have to pass through Hell (Q. 19: 71-73). It is contended by orthodox commentators that the text refers to a bridge over Hell which, as stated in a hadith, one has to cross on the Day of Judgment – an
idea which curiously runs parallel to what prevailed in early Zoroastrianism. The Quran, may it be pointed out, makes no mention of such a bridge whatsoever. Even so the contention that Hell and Heaven are but two different states of the soul in the life Hereafter is upheld by the hadith which provides a bridge across Hell: for to the Faithful, Hell will say:”Cross the bridge. O true believer for thy light hath put out my fire.” The issue is clarified by JALALUDDIN Rumi, the poet and mystic, in his Mathnavi (II. 2554 – 2568).
At the gathering for judgment the Faithful will say,”O Angel, is not Hell the common road,
Trodden by the believer and the infidel alike?
Yet we saw not any smoke or fire on our way.
Then the Angel will reply: “That garden which you saw as you passed,
Was indeed Hell, but unto you it appeared a pleasance of greenery.
Since you strove against the flesh and quenched the flames of lust for God’s sake,
So that they became verdant with holiness and lit the path to salvation.
Since you turned the fire of wrath to meekness, and murky ignorance to radiant knowledge;
Since you made the fiery soul (nafs) an orchard where nightingales of prayer and praise were ever singing,
So hath Hell-fire become for you greenery and roses and riches without end.”
Whatever the nature of Hell and Heaven, it is to be admitted that life in either sphere must eventually subserve an ultimate divine purpose common to all mankind, which according to the Quran marks a distinct stage in creative evolution. For it is clear that Hell and Heaven whether they are mere states of the soul or otherwise cannot remain for all times. That will be stagnation and stultifying the purpose of evolution. Hence it is that the Quran takes care to disclose the purpose. “(I affirm that) from state to state (from one lower to one higher) shall ye move forward.” (Q. 84:19). It is a promise held out to the righteous and the unrighteous alike.
And how is this to be fulfilled?
The Quran makes it repeatedly clear that the righteous on earth and the unrighteous will have to carry with him to the next stage in life, the reactions of his deeds indelibly impressed upon his soul. His action, his thought, his speech, his feeling, and his imagination – nay, even his fancy will cling to his neck tenaciously and mark the character of the life he has lived.
And every man’s misdeeds have We fastened about his neck; and on the day of Resurrection will We bring out for him a record which he shall see spread open before him. (We shall then say), “Read thy record. Thy ownself should suffice thee to make out an account against thyself this day.” (Q. 17:13-14)
In ways peculiar to the new stage of life, will everyone be made to realize the beauty or the ugliness of the life he has pursued in the past, but which through ignorance, perversity or willful disregard of the “Signs of God”, he had refused to see for himself while he had still the time and opportunity to make amends guided by the “balance set in his nature”. The beauty of his past life or its ugliness is brought face to face with him in the stage after death in a form which in his fresh set-up he will behold with joy or look upon in helpless anguish.
In Quranic view, the life beautiful is to march onward towards perfection. Likewise, the ugly has first its own process of purification to go through. For the one there is freedom of movement, for the other, there is the handicap of the self to overcome. The situation of one is styled as nearness to God (Qurb): the other as distance from God (Bu’ad). It is this distance which is but a reflection of its unrighteous life on earth, the distance so to say that he has assumed towards God in his earthly life. “And he who has been blind here (to Truth), shall be blind in the Hereafter and far away from the right path.” (Q. 17:72). It is the resultant distance from the very countenance of God that will be galling to the soul of man. To use the scriptural terms it will be “Hell” for him as “Heaven” for the other. “The most favored of men”, said the Prophet, “will be he who shall see his Lord’s countenance and His glory, night and day, a felicity which shall surpass all the pleasures of the body as ocean surpasses a drop of water.”
In this connection let me observe that in the Quranic sense, Hell and Heaven begin for man in this life; for whatever good he does or evil, it at once becomes part of him and gives him a foretaste of Heaven or Hell to follow. The good deed will promote spiritual elevation; the evil deed, its own downward feeling. If man could but realize the ugliness of his deed before his death and feel sincerely repentant, and retrace his steps, there is always the grace of God to bring him peace of mind (what is called maghfirah).
“And surely, We shall let him have a wild chastisement (here in this world) before they are meted out a higher punishment (in life to come) in the hope that they might in the meanwhile turn to Us penitently.” (Q.32:21)
That is the way to burn out impurities or pass through Hell in order to fit oneself to enter Heaven. Realization of the ugliness of sin is naturally painful. It is mental and spiritual torture, or in the language of Quran ‘Hellfire’. The process of purification is needed not merely for the habitual transgressors but even for those, essentially righteous, who fall off the righteous track; for no human being is infallible. In their case while they are equipped in every other way to enjoy freedom of movement towards perfection; they will have to drop before their march begins that which would retard their progress. In the imagery of the Quran, they have to enter Heaven by a passage through Hell, even as others. (Q. 19:71). The righteous finish this course in their present life by a painful realization of the nature of whatever error they might have fallen into. It is a process of repentance in time, and of forgiveness and of spiritual cleansing before death.
It is to them will the words be addressed:
“O Soul! which is at rest, Return to thy Lord, well-pleased, well-pleasing ! Enter thou among my servants, And enter thou my Paradise”. (Q. 89: 27-30)
They will have no further need to pass through this mill of purification, for they have already gone through it in their present life. The process will certainly await those who have deliberately neglected their opportunities while they had the time to do so.
From “state to state shall ye be carried forward” (Q 84:19), is then the plan of life, as visualized by the Quran. The ‘life beautiful’, will be carried from state to state till it reaches perfection or ‘beholds the very vision of God’. The ‘life ugly’ naturally will lag behind, and have to make up a long leeway before it can emerge into the life of free movement. How long the process of purification will last is a matter with God. The term ‘abad’, loosely rendered into English as ‘eternal’ in the analogy of the Judaic and Christian concept, in the Quranic sense is just a period appropriate to the sin requiring purgation as fixed by God according to His own sense of time and His own sense of values. Else we have to face the thought of ‘duality’ or a multiplicity of co-existence in eternity with God, a thought running counter to the Quranic concept of tawhid as also to the assertion of the Quran that all created objects shall have an end one day. Surely, Hell and Heaven and man enter the list.
That such is the meaning implied by the term abad as used by the Quran in respect of the process of purification in Hell is manifest from the more explicit terms used to specify the duration. Verses 22 and 23 of chapter 78 speak of Hell as a “home of transgressors to abide therein for years”. Ahqab is the term here used which is plural of huqub which according to the Arabic English Lexicon by E.W. Lane means a period which may range from one year to eighty years, denoting at best a long time. Again verses 107-108 of chapter 11 of the Quran, discountenance the idea of a life in Hell without end. Here, while the blessed shall abide in Paradise “as long as the Heavens and the earth endure with whatever imperishable boon thy Lord may please to add”, life in Hell “shall last as long as the heavens and the earth endure unless thy Lord willeth otherwise: verily thy Lord doeth what He choseth”. Note the life in Hell and Paradise cannot be eternal, since it cannot survive the heavens and the earth which have one day to disappear. Note also the phrase unless thy Lord willeth otherwise, and view in the light of interpretation that life in Hell is to be commensurate with one’s transgressions in life. For, indeed, such is the import of the phrase, is clear from the following verse.
(Say). “He who brings a good deed shall have ten times as much of goodness thereof while he who brings an evil deed, shall be recompensed exactly with a like of it, and none shall be treated unjustly.” (Q. 6:161)
Every ordeal in Hell to be undergone in consequence of an evil action, has thus a limit set to it. For to prolong the agony beyond the limit warranted by the character of the evil done, or forever, will clearly be injustice, and the verse promises that “none shall be treated unjustly”.
The general attitude towards the problem of Hell, notwithstanding the graphic symbolism employed to reveal the hideousness of sin and its consequences, is one of pity transformed into an ultimate force of mercy. “My mercy triumphs over My displeasure, have I inscribed on my Throne” says God , according to a hadith–equdsi of the Prophet. The Quran itself records the divine affirmation: “My mercy encompasseth everything”. And that should help one to reject once and for all the theory of an eternal Hell so strongly upheld even today by our orthodox theologians.
• The graphic pictures of Heaven and Hell given in Quran are only similitudes to indicate two different states of the human soul set in an environment different from that in which present life is lived.
• In Quranic view, the life hereafter is to march onward towards perfection both for righteous and unrighteous. For the former there is freedom of movement and for the latter there is a process of purification to go through. The situation with one is styled as qurb, nearness to God and with the other bu’ad, distance from God. This concept is analogized in Hadith as a bridge one has to cross on the Day of Judgment. For the righteous its crossing is easy and for the unrighteous difficult.
• It is clear that Heaven and Hell whether they are mere states of the soul or otherwise are going to perish and cannot remain for all times. Quranic concept of Tawhid and eternity of God cannot permit the thought of ‘duality’ or ‘multiplicity’ of undying units possessing the quality of co-existence in eternity with God.