Back when I was taking college elementary-education classes, my professors often liked prompting us to let our future students draft up their own classroom rules. The point of this was to give students a small sense of power and investment in the organization and welfare of their classrooms. The predicted hitch: children are rather draconian creatures on the topics of fairness and justice. We teachers-to-be were warned that we might be shocked at the strict standards our students –never once considering their likeliness to run afoul of their own rules– would set for themselves and the punishments they’d proscribe, and that we’d probably need to intercede and temper things out a bit. This is true of broader society as well: people are likely to be more comfortable with setting up and living in a world full of harsh rules and punishments as long as they think it’ll never apply to them.
The Quran sets up some harsh punishments for unbelievers. Today’s surah is going to be marred by some very vivid and cruel images of Hell. Their purpose is to scare the unbelievers and make them receptive to Muhammad’s guidance. The point of the Quran’s insistence upon Hell is to convince people that they really need to listen to the things that will get them to heaven. It is also a reminder to believers that their response to God is supposed to be gratitude for making the effort to guide them away from Hell. In the midst of the surah we’ll listen in to a prayer of Abraham’s (Ibrahim‘s) and observe the gratitude and grace of a man who knows God guides and listens to him.
Those who don’t expect to be punished often don’t stop to think about the harshness of the punishments they are backing. Yet these things reflect the proposed character of the God or world they believe in, and today’s surah shall stir some old questions about God as Islam sees Him.
Take a moment, read the 52 ayat.
Guidance or Error
The past few suwar, starting with Surah Yunus, have opened up with similar mystical letters and introductions to announce the pedigree of their material. Surah Ibrahim expands this introduction, making clear that the Quran (and Muhammad) is being given by God to dispel the people’s ignorance and guide them to heaven. The second ayah continues on to remind people that God owns the earth, and those who disbelieve are warned they will be punished severely. From this point the Quran tells Muhammad to remind his people of Moses, including when Moses also reminded his people of the prior prophets. It’s a little gratifying for me to see the surah wad up the early prophetic cycles into one general account of preaching, argument, persecution, and destruction, since that is how I’ve handled them in the past. These cycles and other ayat in the surah focus on the difference between those who are guided and those who aren’t, and the respective fates of both groups.
The prophets function as a literal example of God’s guidance. They are portrayed as normal people, speaking plainly in the language of the people they come from and are sent to, not performing miracles (even though Moses is included, his miracles do not feature here). They speak with confidence in the face of doubt and oppression. They are patient but not soft on their opponents. These prophets and their followers survive persecution and then live in the land of their destroyed persecutors.
The opposition to the prophets is supposed to serve as examples of people who didn’t build their lives off divine guidance. These opposers are more relatable in this surah than in past. Their challenges to the prophets are reasonable: why should they give up the teachings of their elders when the prophet cannot support his claims with evidence? And since God is not providing miracles, the prophets can only argue with the unbelievers using monotheistic axioms. It’s reasonable for the unbelievers to prefer the teachings of their elders (who at least have lifetimes of experience) over the testimony of one person who can only assert but not prove. Of course, the opposers follows up their “disquieting doubt” with persecution, so they aren’t good people still. Ayah 15 transitions to representing these persecutors with the word “tyrant.”
Fun Fact: The word for “tyrant” here is jabbaar, coming from the roots j-b-r. These roots contain the meaning of “fracture, fragment” and lend themselves to “tyrant” in the sense of “breaker.” The roots also form the word al-jabr, “algebra,” proving to all grinding highschoolers that algebra is indeed the breaker of souls.
Despite the persecution, what makes these tyrants more relatable is that they aren’t acting out of malice. In ayah 21 when the unbelievers are going into Hell, the followers ask their leaders for help to withstand the punishment. The leaders confess that if God had guided them [with knowledge on how to be more comfortable in Hell], they would have shared guidance with their people, but that nothing can be done to ease the experience of Hell now. This portrays the tyrants as finite men who mean well by their people, even when faced with the hopelessness if Hell. This contrasts with the next ayah in which Satan declares that he deliberately lied to his followers knowing that he would be abandoning them. Satan is clear to say, however, that his only part was as tempter, and that he shares no responsibility in their punishments.
In ayat 14-17 the tyrant is condemned to earthly failure and torment in Hell. This torment is described as being force-fed purulent (“pussy, rancid”) water. Disturbing as that image is, it follows with the even more disturbing declaration that though his punishments should kill him, “he is not to die,” and a massive punishment still awaits him.
Ayat 49-51 describe the mujrimiin, “criminals,” entering Hell wearing garments of liquid pitch and with their faces on fire. Are these punishments allegorical? Is there any evidence in their context to suggest they are so? And while the word “tyrant” might suggest those convenient hate-figures –the Hitlers and Stalins of the world– how broad is the category of “criminals”? And does anyone, no matter how horrible they were in life, really deserve physical torments like the ones described here and elsewhere for endless time? (Though it is true that we cannot comprehend eternity anyways and are already out of our logical depths.) These questions should trouble even the believer who isn’t worried about being punished, because they reflect upon the character of God. The contradiction between a merciful God and creatively brutal eternal torment in Hell is obvious to anyone looking at the religion from the outside in. This contradiction is apparent to some Muslims in the community too, and scholars struggle to reconcile it. I mentioned back in Surah 2, part 1 that in Muslim communities a similar idea was circulating, but the Quran taken alone makes this difficult.
I’m going to reach backwards (but forwards timewise) and tie in Surah at-Tawba, ayah 63, because I didn’t mention it amongst the other things of my at-Tawba posts. This ayah describes fiery Hell to be a perpetual abode (khalidan refers to continuous existence) for anyone who opposes God and Muhammad. I looked up the roots kh-l-d in a Quranic index and read through every entry. All entries communicate continued existence, almost always in ayat about people living in Paradise or Hell (with some exceptions being Satan saying the forbidden fruit would make men live forever, a man perpetuating in his earthly preferences, or men building forts as if they would live forever). The word is used identically in both cases, but unlike the references to live in Paradise forever, some of the phrases about living in Hell forever are followed by “except as He wills.” Therein lies some idea that not everyone will really live in Hell forever. Muslims who do not like the general application of perpetual torment make the most of these ayat.
This site lays out the Shia view in which only serious offenders abide in Hell eternally, while others might be admitted into heaven after a time. Sunnis are not organized in a way that I can tell their popular consensus, but this site and prominent Sunni scholar posits that only those who shirk are tortured for eternity, while believers whose serious sins outweighed their good deed will be redeemed after a purgatorial stint. This site heavily draws upon traditional Sunni materials (including scholarly Quranic commentaries called tafsir) that seem to indicate all monotheists will shift out of Hell and into Paradise eventually. And last of all here’s a nice polite forum on the topic. It is interesting that so many hadith and tafsir feature Muslims taking a kinder view of Hell than we’ve seen the Quran communicate. If they are right, does that mean Pharaoh’s deathbed conversion will be honored once his sins are punished?
I do find it interesting that none of those communities question the inherent immortality of every human. In my view (a minority Christian view known as Conditionalism or Annihilationism), the punishment for sin is death and immortality in the resurrection is only a gift from God to those who seek Him. Without questioning the ability of a human soul to actually die, one must ask what happens to a person whose punishment doesn’t drag on forever. This might be what leads some of the above Muslims to take a partial or total Universalist view, where Paradise awaits those who complete their punishment in Hell.
Gratitude and Grace
These images of Hell and punishment do constitute a legitimate threat that is also dangled before believers. Ayah 31 warns believers to establish prayer and spend [in charity] the earthly things that God has given them before judgement comes and they have no escape or advocates. Ayah 52 tells believers they are getting this message as a reminder. In contrast to the stick of Hell, the surah takes time to examine some of the good things that God has provided for them. Men are told to be grateful for these good things, and the point comes down to this being the desired response of believers to God. And of course, that God makes efforts through messengers to guide people away from Hell is also to inspire gratitude in itself, which is why believers are being regularly reminded of it. The carrot of Paradise likewise serves to inspire.
We are also told of Abraham praying to God on behalf of Mecca. Abraham is grateful for having sons in his old age, and has settled some descendants (i.e. Ishmael) in a valley around God’s sacred house (the Ka’ba). It is emphasized that God listens to and answers supplication. Most of the prayer is concerned with Abraham asking God to protect the faith and welfare of his descendants. We also learn that Abraham considers anyone who follows his example to be descendants.
What is striking to me about Abraham is that he is the kindest and most compassionate of the Quran’s prophets. Abraham models an extreme amount of grace and forgiveness. In Surah Hud we saw him arguing with the angels on behalf of Lot’s doomed people. Today in ayah 36 Abraham entrusts those who do not follow his monotheism to God’s mercy and forgiveness. We also know that Abraham’s parents were confirmed polytheists, and yet Abraham prays for them still.* Moreover, in this prayer, Abraham makes no mention of punishments of any nature. That particularly stands out to me in this surah when almost every other ayah has paid reference to Hell, wrath, or judgement. Abraham has no fear of punishment, and does not clutter his faith by dwelling on how others will be punished.
*Surah at-Tawba, coming much later and with a message of disassociation and wrath, makes sure to clarify that Abraham only prayed for his parents to fulfill a promise, not because he thought there was value in the act. This reduces Abraham’s contrast with the avenging Muhammad.
I haven’t yet been brave enough to ask my Muslim friends what they think of these things. I don’t want to put them in a situation where they have to start applying these hellfire images to me. Most religious folk I know –megaphone-blaring-college-campus-missionaries aside– prefer not to think about Hell at all in their assurance that they do not have to. While it is assuring to read opinions of some Muslims that say I mightn’t be in Hell eternally and that my punishment would be proportionate to my crimes, I think I’m fitting into that potential category less and less the more I explore Islam and don’t convert. I worry that if I talked about Islam with my Muslims friends, the more they’d be drawn to perceiving me as eternally doomed should I not convert. I don’t know how that would affect our friendships.
While I don’t like knowing that Muslims recite and live with these images of punishment on a ritual and regular basis, I do still find in my friends more of the attitude of Abraham. They have are kind to me, helpful, and supportive of my Arabic learning…even if they don’t know (yet) one of my applications of it. To my Muslims friends who have read my posts up to this far and still not written me off, God bless you, and I hope you will still have patience with me in the future.