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Heaven, Hell, and Non-Muslims in the Qur’an

Gabriel Said Reynolds

Heaven and hell are important notions to the Qur’an, the scripture of Islam. The divine voice of the Qur’an assures its audience that those who are faithful and do good will enter into paradise, which it names janna (related to Hebrew gan, meaning “garden”) and firdaws (from Greek paradeisos, whence too the English word paradise). In the Qur’an paradise is indeed a garden, a place where the blessed will recline, eat, drink, and be accompanied by women. On several occasions the Qur’an describes paradise with the term jannat ʿadn, meaning “The Garden of Eden,” inviting the intriguing possibility that heavenly bliss is a return to the Garden in which God placed the first human couple.

This illuminating read offers a deeper understanding of Islamic theology and its perspectives on eternity.

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The Qur’an also threatens its audience with vivid images of hell, described with various terms including Jahannam (Greek geenna or “Gehenna,” derived ultimately from the Hebrew term ge Hinnom, “the valley of Hinnom”—the name of a valley on the outskirts of Jerusalem where pagan sacrifices once took place). In the Qur’anic hell those punished will be struck by angels, drink boiling water, and eat from the tree of Zaqqum, whose fruit is like the heads of devils. On numerous occasions the Qur’an seems to promise unbelievers that their destiny is hellfire. In chapter 5 the Qur’an has Jesus declare, “Indeed whoever ascribes partners to Allah, Allah shall forbid him [entry into] paradise, and his refuge shall be the Fire, and the wrongdoers will not have any helpers” (Q 5:72). In the second chapter God himself declares, “But those who are faithless and deny Our signs, they shall be the inmates of the Fire and they shall remain in it forever” (Q 2:39). Dozens of such statements could easily be culled from the Qur’an.

These threats and promises lead many to the conclusion that the Qur’an has a fundamentally pessimistic view of the salvation of the other, of non-Muslims. Aslim taslam, “Convert to Islam and you will be safe,” goes an expression that dots early Islamic traditions, implying that those who do not convert are in danger. In response to a question as to whether morally sound non-Muslims (or “unbelievers,” Arabic kafirs) can avoid hell, the popular Islamic fatwa site, “IslamQA” (associated with the Syrian scholar Muhammad al-Munajjid), offers a stark reply: “The point is not whether their morals are good, rather the point is whether they submit to Allaah [sic] and obey his commands.”

The problem with the fatwa is its remarkably limited view of divine sovereignty. It denies God’s ability to find goodness, even holiness, in those who do not practice Islam. The Qur’an, by contrast, gives God considerable freedom to judge as He pleases. The Qur’an repeatedly insists that God has the right to punish, or forgive, whomever He wills. In a single chapter (or “Sura”) of the Qur’an we find the following: “God singles out for His mercy whomever He wishes” (Q 2:105); “To Allah belong the east and the west. He guides whomever He wishes to a straight path” (Q 2:143); “He will forgive whomever He wishes and punish whomever He wishes” (Q 2:284).

A few Suras later we find the Qur’an condemning the very idea that anyone could be sure who is, and who is not, going to heaven. In Qur’an 5:18 the divine voice of the Qur’an rejects the claims of the Jews and Christians of benefiting from a special election: “The Jews and the Christians say, ‘We are Allah’s children and His beloved ones.’ Say, ‘Then why does He punish you for your sins?’ No, you are humans from among His creatures. He forgives whomever He wishes and punishes whomever He wishes.” If the Qur’an reprimands Christians and Jews for thinking that they have a special privilege with God, is this not a way of asking Muslims to have a more open disposition? Cannot Muslims too be “punished for their sins”?

Indeed the proper disposition in regard to the question of salvation is manifested by none other than Jesus in the Qur’an. When, later in that Sura, the question of the salvation of Christians is at issue, he humbly and piously admits that their fate is entirely in the hands of God: “If You punish them, they are indeed Your servants; but if You forgive them, You are indeed the All-mighty, the All-wise.” Here the Qur’an had a perfect moment to declare that Christians are condemned, but it chose instead to leave their fate to the will of God. By comparison the muftis of IslamQA seem too certain of who is, and who is not, going to heaven.

The idea that Christians or other non-Muslims might be saved is not new to Islamic tradition. Qur’an 17:15 has God declare, “We do not punish [any community] until We have sent [it] an apostle.” To the famed theologian Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111) this verse means not only that Jews and Christians who have never heard of Muhammad can be saved, but also that Jews and Christians who have never had a full and authentic hearing of his miracles can be saved. They cannot be blamed, one might say, for their “invincible ignorance” (to borrow a term from Catholic theology).

Remarkably the later Muslim scholars Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328) and Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya (d. 1350), both of whom are seen as inspirations for the Salafi movement, which informs IslamQA, would even entertain the idea that hellfire would not be permanent (an idea with its own history in Christian theology, from Origen to David Bentley Hart). For Ibn Taymiyya the very essence of hell is therapeutic punishment. God’s merciful nature is fundamentally inconsistent with the notion of eternal punishment. Everyone—including sinful Muslims and infidels—will be released from hellfire once they have paid the appropriate punishment for their sins. And hellfire itself will be extinguished.

This is a controversial teaching, especially among Salafis who revere Ibn Taymiyya, and it is not clearly taught by the Qur’an itself. What the Qur’an does affirm repeatedly, however, is God’s sovereignty. The God of the Qur’an can be wrathful, even vengeful. Yet He is nevertheless merciful. And He is free to extend His mercy to whomever He chooses.

Gabriel Said Reynolds is professor of Islamic studies and theology at Notre Dame and the author of The Qur'an and the Bible.

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