Hell is a subject generally avoided in polite conversation these days, but it is a subject the Qur’an talks about a great deal. The torments of Hell are described in graphic detail in over 500 places, throughout the Qur’an. Here are just a few verses:
“Boiling fluid will be poured down on to their heads; it will melt their stomachs and skins. For them will be hooked rods of iron Whenever, in their anguish, they try to escape from Hell, they shall be dragged back…” (22:19-23)
“A Fire which will encompass them like the walls and roof of a tent, will hem them in: they will cry out for help but will be granted scorching water like melted brass, that will melt their faces” (18:28-30)
“Dragged through scalding fetid fluid and burnt in the Fire.” (40: 70-72)
“As often as their skins are roasted off We shall exchange them for fresh skins” (4:56)
“No food except pus” (69:36)
“The tree of Zaqqum… Like molten brass it will boil in their intestines. Like the scalding of searing water. (It will be said) “Seize him and drag him into the midst of the Blazing Fire! Then pour over his head the torment of scorching Water” (44:43-48)
“They will be given boiling water to drink so that it tears their bowels to pieces” (47:15)
“Never will it be eased off them nor will they be given respite” (3:88)
“Never will they get out.” (5:37)
“Hell for all eternity” (4:169)
There are Muslims who take these descriptions literally. They say Hell is a real place and the descriptions in the Qur’an are literally true.
There are other Muslims who say that these descriptions are metaphorical. They symbolise a state of being outside our knowledge and experience.
The first view that God will literally torture unbelievers, keeping them alive & replacing their skins over and over again so they are forced to suffer the most unbearable pain for all eternity, not only goes against all reason, it makes a mockery of the oft-repeated prefix: بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم “In the Name of God the Most Merciful the Most Compassionate.” No amount of creative reasoning can ever square eternal torture with even a small amount of mercy, let alone with: “The Most Merciful of those who show Mercy.” ارحم الراحمين
As for the second view, that Hell is metaphorical, this is no different to the first view. It always puzzles me why some Muslims think if it is a metaphor, then that changes its meaning to something reasonable & acceptable. A metaphor means describing something using imagery that reflects that which is being described and aids our understanding of it. If one uses graphically grotesque endless torture as a metaphor, it obviously means unimaginable suffering & agony. It cannot mean something benign. So whether unbelievers are to be literally burnt forever or it’s a metaphor for some other inconceivable torment – the result it is exactly the same: A punishment that will cause unimaginable suffering & the most extreme pain possible whether it be physical or spiritual.
My own view is that Hell is a myth.I’m not saying there are no consequences for our actions, but only that Hell as described in the Qur’an – whether literal or metaphorical – is a fiction.
At best it can perhaps be understood as a type of cautionary tale much like ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf’ or ‘Little Suck-a-Thumb’ who had his fingers chopped off by the Great Tall Tailor and other such stories aimed at frightening children into behaving.
Of course no adult really believes little boys who play practical jokes should be fed to wolves nor children who suck thumbs should have their fingers amputated. But they do serve a purpose. Playing on human fears has always been an effective way to get people to do what you want.
The problem with cautionary tales however, is they need to be believed in order to be effective! Once they’re no-longer believable they lose their power. Eternal torture may have been a plausible concept once upon a time, but today it has become an embarrassment for most rational-minded believers.
Apart from its irrational aspects, using fear of torture is a terrible way to teach morality & good behaviour. Not only can it be psychologically damaging, but it may have the opposite effect, i.e. a person brought up to behave through fear may feel no compunction about doing wrong in the absence of fear. They will also be more likely to use fear & threats of violence themselves, in order achieve what they want. As Thomas Pain said: “Belief in a cruel God makes a cruel man.”
It is without doubt far better to teach using reason, compassion, patience & good example. In this way people will behave in a moral & ethical manner because they truly believe it is the right thing to do, rather than out of fear of being tortured.
There may have been a time when treating humans like children – like; ‘Little Suck-a-Thumb’ – was expedient, but as the saying of Rabia al-Adawiya (the 8th Century Sufi saint) reveals:
“I wish to set fire to Paradise and pour water on the flames of Hell,”
even then, there were those expressing the view that the human race should aspire to higher ideals and motives of love & compassion, rather than being herded by a stick & carrot.
You might say; but isn’t the Qur’an revealed by God? So how can Hell be a myth?
Firstly I would say there is nothing wrong with myths. Myths have always been an important way humans have sought to convey ideas & explain the world.
Secondly, yes I believe Muhammad was inspired but I also believe this inspiration came through his own mind and being. It was he who interpreted this inspiration according to his time, culture and personality. It was he who composed the words and phrased the sentences.
The Qur’an may be divinely inspired, but it is human authored! Not only that but language is a human creation and it is flawed. Even when expressing human ideas we can see how inadequate language can be when it leads to endless misunderstandings between us. How much more inadequate is it to express transcendental ideas!?
The Qur’an is inextricably linked to it’s context and environment and most important of all, it is fallible – not infallible! This means that while the Qur’an can be a source of inspiration – we should not feel bound by that which does not stand up to close scrutiny. God demands we think for ourselves and constantly re-evaluate according to our own context and environment. We must apply our own mind to the Qur’an rather than abdicate our responsibility to others.
I don’t think it is possible for us to ever understand the process of revelation by which Muhammad received the Qur’an. But here’s an analogy I think might help:
Imagine a blind man sitting in front of you. He was blind from birth. You want to describe the colour red to him. How will you do it? What will you say to him? Remember he has been totally blind from birth. What words or images can you put into his mind that will convey the colour red to him? You might say it’s impossible because he lacks the sense of sight. But you can communicate with him through his other senses. You could give him a red rose and tell him, this is what red smells like. Or give him a red ruby and tell him, this is what red feels like. Or you could let him taste a pomegranate and say this is what red tastes like. Or you could tap a red drum and say this is what red sounds like. In each case you are doing the best you can to communicate the colour red in the only way he can understand. Yet his limitations means that what he understands and articulates will inevitably be very wide of the mark. If that wasn’t enough, whatever he says to others will be framed according to the limitations of his time and context.
I can only dimly guess at the original inspiration that Muhammad experienced in this instance. Perhaps it was connected to the idea that actions have consequences. But I don’t need to guess at the influences that led Muhammad to phrase that inspiration in the way he did, because Hell as described in the Qur’an is clearly an amalgamation of ideas current at Muhammad’s time. It would have been perfectly natural for him to interpret inspiration about actions and consequences in this way.
The view of Hell current in Muhammad’s time evolved from the various religions in the Middle East. It is interesting to note that early Judaism originally had no concept of Hell nor an afterlife. The concept of an afterlife was introduced by later rabbinical writers during the Hellenic period borrowing from neighbouring pagan religions. The Old Testament itself speaks only of ‘Sheol’ which meant ‘grave’ and it had a neutral connotation. A gloomy place of almost non-existence that everyone goes to – good or bad.
It wasn’t until Christianity that a doctrine of Hell as a place of punishment for unbelievers begins to develop. One of the words translated as Hell in the New Testament is Gehenna which is the Greek version of the Hebrew word Gehinnom, (where the Qur’anic word Jahannam comes from.)
Gehinnom literally means “The Valley of (the sons of) Hinnom.” It was a real place – a valley outside the walls of Jerusalem which had been used by pagans for child sacrifice. In fact Gehinnom still exists and is now a park in greater Jerusalem.
This is Gehinnom: “The Valley of Hinnom”
At the time of Jesus this place was deemed unholy and used to burn not only rubbish from the city, but also the dead bodies of criminals & animal carcasses. Continual fires were necessary to keep down the stench and putrefaction. The audience at the time Jesus would have immediately understood his metaphorical reference to Gehinnom in the Gospel of Matthew (23:33) when Jesus criticised the scribes & Pharisees saying:
“Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of Gehenna?”
It is clear from the New Testament that Hell was not originally regarded as eternal. All mentions of hell by Jesus in the Gospels and in the Book of Revelations indicate that the unbelievers will be burned and destroyed and their torments will not last forever.
The idea of Hell as ‘eternal’ developed later as Christians were persecuted by the Romans. Feeling powerless, the Christian church fathers turned to elaborate fantasies of Hell that awaited their pagan oppressors, in order to console & reassure themselves in the face of terrible oppression. Later, when Christianity became the state religion of Rome the church found the idea of Hell a convenient & effective way to control people.
The myth of Hell was graphically detailed by Christian writers, with images of unbelievers being forced to drink boiling water, having their skins ripped off and put back on again, have their eyes put out and put back in.
For example Cyprian of Carthage says Hell is: “An ever-burning Gehenna and the punishment of being devoured by living flames will consume the condemned; nor will there be any way in which the tormented can ever have respite or be at an end. Souls along with their bodies will be preserved for suffering in unlimited agonies… ” [A.D. 252].
And Cyril of Jerusalem said: “If a man is a sinner, he shall receive an eternal body, fitted to endure the penalties of sins, that he may burn eternally in fire, nor ever be consumed… ” [A.D. 350].
At the time of Muhammad this very graphic and literal view of Hell was the current view and so it was only natural that this is how he would describe it.
I think we too often misunderstand the words ‘revelation’ and ‘inspiration’. I believe that to a lesser or greater extent we can all be inspired in different ways. How we express this inspiration is determined by our environment, personality & limitations. It’s like scooping up water from a gushing river using a small container. No matter how great the river, the container can only carry an amount equal to its capacity. In addition the container’s contents will also affect the water. If the container has blue dye, or vinegar or milk or musk etc… then the water will take on those qualities also.
So while inspiration may well come from an a divine source of infinite wisdom, unbound by limitations of human language nor context – it must nevertheless be conveyed through a human being that is of finite wisdom and limited vision. A human being that is bound by the limitations of human language and imagination.
Whatever inspiration Prophet Muhammad received, it had to be expressed though his person, his character and his culture.
This must be borne in mind when reading the Qur’an. They are human words attempting to convey spiritual experiences beyond human language.
With this in mind we can appreciate that the verses about Hell are Muhammad’s interpretation of the inspiration he received, interpreted according to the period and culture in which he lived. Human words describing a fictional place based on images current at the time.