Thinking of Hell and its punishments is always a warning for believers. The fear of punishment as well as the hope in Allah’s mercy helps people to carefully choose their pathway and keep away from wrongdoings. However the concept of eternal punishment is one of those difficult concepts to be understood and explained by scholars, philosophers and mystics. While God’s mercy and generosity exceeds his anger why should there be an eternal punishment?
“O YOU who are in heedlessness of your own self … Renounce all thought upon what you must leave, and turn your minds to thoughts of your final destination. For it has been given you to know that Hell is the destiny of all men.” (Al-Ghazali: 1989, p.219)
The tension of human beings towards eternity is an innate tension which is involuntary. Therefore he is not able to demolish this tension, but he is able to bring this tension under his control and direct it towards the right or wrong path. Although being eternal is desired by all human beings, but only most of those who believe in resurrection and hereafter will try to fabricate a satisfactory position for their next life. While those who believe that death is the end of being have no motivation to direct this innate tension towards the right path. Nevertheless their belief will not change the fact that there exists a life after this worldly life. The only thing that will change is their destiny in their next life.
The above statement set by Al-Ghazali is the first paragraph of the chapter ‘The Inferno, and its Terrors and Torments’ in his famous book The Remembrance of Death and the Afterlife. Ghazali’s claim that ‘Hell is the destiny of all men’ is based on the verse below;
And there is not one of you but shall come to it; this is an unavoidable decree of your Lord. And We will deliver those who guarded (against evil), and We will leave the unjust therein on their knees. (Maryam, 71-2)
After this shaking beginning he portrays almost every dimension of hell and the torments that people should expect in hell according to their deeds in this world. Imagining what he has written is horrible for the reader, while he is warning us that hell is the destiny of all of us.
There are many Quranic verses describing the resurrection day and specifically defining different levels of heaven and hell. According to these verses people will be divided to different groups according to their deeds. Each group will have a separate status. However they have the opportunity to pass through these levels to higher levels. Even those who are in hell will gradually ascend towards heavenly places. Nevertheless there is a very moot concept in Quran that states a group of people will remain in hell forever. This concept is named khulud which has always been one of the challenging arguments amongst theologians, mystics, philosophers and exegetes. The effort of this essay is to provide an investigation of the concept of khulud in hell and the challenging dimensions of this concept. Different ideas and interpretations set forth by scholars will be argued.
Believing in resurrection, heaven and hell is based on the belief in unseen. Therefore it is clear that the best way to deal with the questions and objections on the issues related to unseen is to refer to divine sources; Quran and hadith. However this does not mean that human is not able to deal with this issue using rational argument. I will provide the rational arguments on this topic in the next part of the essay.
Raghib Al-Isfahani defines khulud in his Al-Mufradat as the maintenance of a thing on a previous situation. According to Arabs everything which defies change and decay is described with khulud. (Al-Isfahani, p.154)
There are a considerable number of verses in Quran stating that a few groups of sinners will remain in hell eternally. There are many arguments amongst theologians on the issue to discover which group of sinners will eternally remain in hell. But as these theological discussions are not in focus of this paper I would just refer to Allamah Tabatabayi’s interpretation who suggests that atheists and polytheists will remain eternally in hell. I will provide a more comprehensive discussion on his interpretation later on.
Some of the verses that imply the eternal hell are as follows:
… Abiding eternally therein. The punishment will not be lightened for them, nor will they be reprieved. ( Baqarah ,162)
They will wish to get out of the Fire, but never are they to emerge therefrom, and for them is an enduring punishment. (Ma’idah, 37)
Multiplied for him is the punishment on the Day of Resurrection, and he will abide therein humiliated – (Forqan, 69)
Thus will Allah show them their deeds as regrets upon them. And they are never to emerge from the Fire. (Baqarah, 167)
Although these verses are directly expressing the concept of khulud and eternal punishment, but there has been theologians and scholars who doubted this concept and tried to interpret it in different ways to reject the idea of eternal punishment. The main reason for these interpretations is a question that cannot be answered by the measurement and judicial systems of this world. The question is that ‘can there be any common measure between a finite act and an infinite punishment?’ (Algar: 2008, p.215) The reason for which scholars are making interpretations to reject the idea of khulud is that they refer to Allah’s mercy saying ‘how can He, in His mercy, create someone whose destination would be a perpetual chastisement which no one could bear?’ (Tabatabayi)
- The first group set forth the idea that khulud is contrary to God’s justice and the sin and its punishment are not balanced. In this case it is important to take into account that the type of punishment in this world is different from the one in hereafter.
Jaddi puts forward three types of punishment;
- Arbitrary punishment which is the penal laws of human societies.
Mousavi Lari argues that there is a wrong comparison between the punishments of this world and the next world. He states that making this ‘incorrect assumption that punishments in next world are unchanging and fixed in accordance with the legislator’s assessments of the degree of the crime’ there is no way of reconciling an eternity in hellfire with the necessarily finite nature of any offence. In hereafter ‘the punishment is not fixed for the deed by means of a set of fixed juridical criteria. (Mousavi Lari: 2008, p. 220)
- Cause and effect punishments.
This sort of punishment is quite easy to explain. There is reaction to all acts of a human in this world. For example if a young man neglects for a second and falls from a height as a result of which he becomes paralysed for the rest of his life. He may live for fifty years or a thousand years. He would suffer the consequences of one second of neglect and one may say that it is unjust to him. (Mousavi Lari: 2008, p. 223) Allamah Tabatabayi illustrates that ‘the punishment is not the result of the sin and disobedience which were limited and came to an end. It is the effect of the perpetual ugly shape to which the man’s psyche was moulded as a result of those limited and counted sins. There is no question here of a limited cause bringing about an unlimited effect – which, of course, is impossible’. (Tabatabayi)
- This punishment is the manifestation of the sin.
According to Mulla Sadra ‘every external form also has a distinctive manifestation in the place proper to the soul. And every form in the soul and every deep-seated habitual disposition also has being in the external (physical world)’… ‘thus actions become the cause of states of character in this world; but souls, by taking on the structure and form (of these habits) become the causes of psychic bodies in the other world’. (Morri: 1981, p. 241) Therefore the eternal punishment of the wrongdoer is the manifestation of his essential misery and his habits. There is a narration by Imam Al-Sadeq that says:
“If one group among the people of hellfire is destined to stay there eternally, this is because it was their intention to persist in sin if they were made immortal in this world. Likewise, it the people of paradise are destined to remain there eternally, this is because it was their intention always to obey God and His commands it they were made immortal in this world. The type of eternal existence each group enjoys is therefore determined by its own aims and intentions.” (Mousavi lari: 2008, pp. 226-7)
- The second group are those who see contradiction between ‘the justice of God’ and ‘the eternity of the punishment’, they try to interpret khulud with other possible meanings relying on the general principle that allows such interpretations as long as ‘they do not clash with the clear and obvious sense of the verse’. (Algar: 2008, p. 216)Therefore they refer to the following verses of Surah Al-Houd:
As for those who were [destined to be] wretched, they will be in the Fire. For them therein is [violent] exhaling and inhaling. (106) [They will be] abiding therein as long as the heavens and the earth endure, except what your Lord should will. Indeed, your Lord is an effecter of what He intends. (Houd, 107)
Their provided interpretation is that the unbelievers will be eternal in hell but the hell will not be eternal and they will be ‘abiding therein as long as the heavens and the earth endure’. But one could refer to other verses of Quran to reject their interpretation; as in the Quran Hell is called Dar al-khuld (the eternal house) (41:28) and the punishment of the hell is mentioned as Azaab al-khul (the eternal punishment). (32:14) however this cannot be a convincing answer. Allamah Tabatabayi points out the problems rose by this verse and revised it considering different dimensions of it.
The verse states that the wretched ones will eternally remain in hellfire ‘as long as heavens and earth endure’. How could something be eternal while there is a limit for it? This verse has somehow restricted the eternality of the hellfire as well as the continuous pleasure of paradise to a set time. Allamah Tabatabayi refers to other Quranic verses and suggests that the heavens and the earth of hereafter is not the same as this world’s; (Tabatabayi: 2005, vol. 11, pp. 29-30)
[It will be] on the Day the earth will be replaced by another earth, and the heavens [as well], and all creatures will come out before Allah, the One, the Prevailing. (48)
- Some scholars say that the punishment and the hell are eternal but people will gradually exit from the hell.
And [yet], among the people are those who take other than Allah as equals [to Him]… (165)
This verse again focuses on a group of people who are polytheist.
Those who followed will say, “If only we had another turn [at worldly life] so we could disassociate ourselves from them as they have disassociated themselves from us.” Thus will Allah show them their deeds as regrets upon them. And they are never to emerge from the Fire. (167)
There polytheists recognise that their deeds and the gods they worshiped beside Allah descend them towards the hellfire. They see the manifestation of their deeds infront of them as the eternal hellfire. Now they wish they could have another chance to return to the world. But their punishment is eternal and unlike the idea of some scholars they cannot leave the lell, although they wish to;
What leads to eternal punishment?
Although according to Al-Ghazali ‘hell is the destiny of all men’ but most of them will be forgiven and go to paradise. However the verses of Quran that directly introduce the people of eternal punishment emphasise on the fact that polytheists and atheists are those who will remain in hell forever. Some of these verses are mentioned bellow;
“Do they not know that the punishment of whomsoever opposes God and His messenger is the fire of hell, to reside therein eternally?” (9:63)
“Those who engaged in disbelief and called our signs lies are the people of hellfire; they shall dwell in it eternally.” (2:39)
“Whoever amongst the Muslims turns back to his religion and dies in a state of unbelief … will always be a companion of fire.” (2:217)
From these verses it is obvious that the gate of penetration is open to human to the final second of his life. But when he dies as a kafir or mushrik he should expect the eternal hell. While for those who have committed a certain number of lessen sins and offences, they shall either spend an appropriate amount of time in hellfire or receive the kindness and forgiveness of God. (Algar: 2005, p. 217)
However there are still scholars who make an objection on the concept of khulud saying that polytheists and atheists will be finally forgiven and released from hell. I will discuss this objection later on from Mulla Sadra’s point of view.
The account of Mulla Sadra and Ibn Arabi on khulud
Mulla Sadra believes that each existence naturally moves towards its final Goal which is his good and perfection. With this explanation the concept of khulud in hell will be meaningless. In response to this opinion, Imam Khomeini states that ‘eternity in hell is caused by the extinction of the inborn nature of man which is caused by facing eternally towards this-worldly things. He refers to the following verse …
And recite to them, [O Muhammad], the news of him to whom we gave [knowledge of] Our signs, but he detached himself from them; so Satan pursued him, and he became of the deviators. (175) And if We had willed, we could have elevated him thereby, but he adhered [instead] to the earth and followed his own desire … That is the example of the people who denied Our signs. (A’raaf: 176)
… and states that ‘whoever who has an eternal willingness towards the material nature, it would transpire in the other world as eternity in hell’. (Rahimpour: 1999, p. 319) the question that raise here is that does this person has the opportunity to will and choose the right path? This part of the verse is somehow in favour of Mulla Sadra and Ibn Arabi’s opinion; ‘if We had willed, we could have elevated him thereby’. Why God did not will to elevate him? Mulla Sadra argues that the system of this world needs to have both cruel souls. He states that ‘if all people were blissful by their souls, afraid of chastisement of God, and the hearts humbled and submissive to Him, the worldly system would be disturbed due to the non-existence of the constitutes of the building of this abode…’ (Mulla Sadra: 2008, p.667) considering this fact, then why should they be punished?
Allamah Tabatabayi in reply to this objection argues that ‘service and worship, like mercy, is of two kinds: general and particular. General service is to submit to the Source of existence, that is, God, in the affairs and conditions of existence. Particular service is to submit to God and obey Him, in the path that leads to monotheism. Each type of service and obedience has a reward of its own, a mercy most suitable to it … eternal bliss and eternal chastisement both are parts of that mercy. And the particular service is rewarded by the particular mercy, that is, bounties of the Paradise’.
Mulla Sadra states that there are principles indicating that heaven and hell are abiding for its people. He states that ‘the abiding for each one of the two has another meaning’. Quoting from Ibn Arabi he says that ‘there are those who are blessed due to the blessing of God’. They will enter paradise after purification through the hell. There are also ‘the people of hell due to the justice of God’. This group of people remain in hell ‘to take the pain as compensation for the chastisement, which is parallel to the period of age of their association with the world. Ibn Arabi suggests that the justice of God does not allow an eternal punishment for someone who lived for some seventy or ninety years in this world. While earlier in this paper I provided different kinds of punishment; Cause and effect, and manifestation of sins. The latter kind leads to an eternal punishment: the one that we call it khulud. Ibn Arabi does not deny the fact that kuffar will remain in hell eternally, but he provides his own account of khulud. He suggests that when the period of compensation of people of hell comes to an end they are free to go to paradise, but they will not because they have become ‘innately disposed’ to hell and they are in the state of pleasure to remain in there. (Mulla Sadra: 2008, pp. 666-9)
Mulla Sadra does not agree with Ibn Arabi’s account, however he refers to the verse of Quran: ‘Certainly we have created for hell many of the jinn and mankind’ (7: 179) and in this case he illustrates that if the reason for creation of some beings is to remain in hell according to God’s decree then ‘that entrance must be agreeable to his nature and should be perfection for his existence. (Mulla Sadra: 2008, p. 671)
So far in this essay I provided Quranic verses with regards to the concept of khulud or eternal punishment. I put forth some of the major objections made by scholars questioning the concept of khulud and tried to challenge the objections using Quranic Exegesis and rational arguments. I answered those who were denying khulud as an unjust act of God. But the more important argument rose when those scholars who believed in khulud had different interpretation of the concept. It cannot be denied that all human beings should move towards perfection. But the more important issue to be born in mind is the fact that there are unaccountable pathways towards God who is the final Goal. However God says in Quran that ‘He did not create the jinn and mankind but to worship Him’ and this worship can be dome n different ways. It is acceptable to agree upon the concept of khulud and eternal punishment, as well as accepting with Ibn Arabi’s idea that people of Hell will be satisfied of being in hell forever. This does not mean that they are in a good situation but it is the sort of life that they should get used to it. It is indeed a manifestation of their worldly life in which they were living in misery while they could not see the real face of their life.
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Mousavi Lari, S. M. (2008) Resurrection, judgement and the Hereafter, Foundation of Islamic CPW, Qumm
Mulla Sadra Shirazi (2008) Spiritual Psychology:the forth intellectual journey in transcendent philosophy, vol. VIII & IX of The Asfar , ICAS Press, London
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