The Evolution of Hell: Punishment in The Qur’an (It’s Lit #20)


Well, after speaking on the Bible—a book I’ve been familiar with my whole life, though have only recently read in full; a book I’ve only scratched the surface of in terms of context and depth—I’d like to move on to some other holy texts I’ve recently read that I am far less familiar with.  I’m speaking of the two greatest spinoffs of the Old and New Testament—The Qur’an and The Book of Mormon.

In this first essay, I will be writing a bit about The Qur’an.  As mentioned, I am far more ignorant of the depth of this text than I am of the Bible, so I will be speaking on it’s content more than it’s context, and I will leave the culture of Islam completely out of it; that’s a topic for a guest on a future podcast.  Rather than focusing on the culture that has developed after 1500 years of this text being in circulation, I will focus primarily on the text itself—AKA, if I were to pick this book up at Barnes & Nobles, looking for a good Bible fan fiction, what could I get out of it?

The Qur’an, from what I know through my brief research prior to reading, is the primary holy text of Islam, and was allegedly divinely dictated to Muhammed at various times throughout the middle of the seventh century.  As you may know, it has now become the second most widely practiced religion on earth.

As far as its structure, The Qur’an leans much closer to poetry than it does to narrative.  Indeed, any of the narrative segments of the text are stories lifted from the Old Testament.  Because of this, I imagine that the original Arabic is likely far more beautiful and rich than it’s English translation, which I found to be, at best, rather repetitive.

One of the most repeated motifs in this book is Hell, and that’s the topic I’d like to discuss today.  Those of you who know me personally, or who have followed my essays or podcasts, may know that Hell is a topic I think about a considerable amount.  The concept of eternal punishment has always felt a bit harsh to me, and I have tried for much of my life to understand the utility of such a concept beyond simple manipulation (which is certainly one of its major utilities).  In the Old and New Testament, the concept of Hell went from nonexistent, to vague, to somewhat fleshed out.  In this essay, I will be looking at how the concept of Hell has seemed to evolve in The Qur’an, where it is given it’s most direct characterization yet.

As far as I can tell, the concept of Hell as a station of the afterlife (in the Abrahamic texts) was first explored in the New Testament.  Jesus often speaks of fire and burning in relation to Hell, though there is a case that the words he actually used were meant to be taken as metaphors (he uses the word Gehenna, referring to a burning trash dump outside the city limits, or Hades, the old Greek concept of the afterlife).  Whether or not Jesus intended these descriptions to be literal, however, they seem to be the root of the Christian idea of a Hell in the afterlife, and I imagine this narrative entered the cultural mythology in various places during the spread of Christianity.

In The Qur’an, Hell is fleshed out to a far greater degree.  In fact, it is touched on in nearly each of the 114 Surahs, often multiple times.  This Hell is consistent and intense.  One of the earlier descriptions of Hell (which isn’t far different from the descriptions that follow throughout the rest of the text), is as follows: ‘As for those who deny the truth, their supporter is Satanic, who brings them out of the light into darkness.  They are heirs of the Fire, and there they will remain forever’ (Surah 2:257).  This concept of punishment through eternal burning is repeated and expounded upon throughout the rest of the Surahs.

Is there a possibility that this Hell is metaphorical, as some have argued for in regards to its treatment in the New Testament?  I suppose there is a possibility, the best evidence I could find being Surah 3:7: 

‘Some of [this book’s] verses are clear and precise in meaning—they are the basis of the Book—while others are allegorical.  Those with deviation in their hearts will pursue the allegorical, so as to create a dissension by seeking to explain it: but no one knows the meaning except god’.  

Thus we are left to wonder, is the text’s treatment of Hell allegorical or literal?  Is it dangerous to explain it as literal, or to leave it as allegorical?  With the preponderance of Hell’s descriptions, it would seem to me that the concept of eternal punishment is one of the concepts in the text to be taken very literally.

All I can really conclude is that the concept of Hell in this text seems far harsher than any I have visited before.  Now, my question is, how can this be helpful?  Or, in this case, with my limited exposure, I will view the question as follows: If I decided to totally convert, following The Qur’an as I currently understand it, as outlined above, how would it serve me?

On the positive end, I can see this concept of Hell being useful insofar as it is useful in other Abrahamic religions: Do what is right, and thereby avoid misfortune, which we will call Hell, and decorate with poetic language to show it’s undesirability.  Follow the Truth when you find it, and ignore it at your peril.  This idea is put forth in Surah 4:137: ‘As for those who come to believe, and then deny the truth, and again come to believe, and again deny the truth, and thereafter grow stubborn in their denial of the truth—God will never forgive them, nor will he guide them.’  Along with this, God is often described in the text as ‘Oft-Forgiving, Most-Merciful’.  From what I can tell, this means that so long as you constantly have your heart to God, know his word to be true, and try your best to follow him, he will forgive you.  If you have totally calibrated your heart to evil, however, you will be condemned.  This idea is further explored in my second essay on the Bible, where I talk about the concept of ‘Following the Lord’.

On the more skeptical end, I could see this characterization of Hell as a theological trap into a new system of belief, a tactic I will hereby refer to as ‘Religion Roulette’.  This snare is erected through a religion’s assertion that it is the one true doorway into heaven, and is strengthened through the sub-assertion that to avoid this religion is to land yourself in Hell.  Thus, adherents of the religion are made to argue as follows: ‘If this religion is true, then believing it is insurance against Hell—if it is false, I have nothing to lose!’

This would be a decent argument if there was only one religion that asserted itself as the only path to salvation.  The Qur’an, however, is not compatible with Christianity, another religion that asserts itself thusly.  In fact, The Qur’an directly states:

 ‘Indeed, they are deniers of the truth who say, “God is the Christ, the son of Mary.”  For the Christ himself said, “Children of Israel, serve God, my Lord and your Lord.”  If anyone associates anything with God, God will forbid him the Garden and Fire will be his home’ (Surah 5:72).  

Thus, you are snared in Religion Roulette—pick one or the other, and hope you’re right.  The wages of choosing incorrectly is eternal punishment.

To snare one in the game of Religion Roulette, once they have accepted your version of insurance, is to have complete spiritual control over your adherent.  This is the danger present in any religion that asserts dogmatic Truth.  The Qur’an frequently sets itself up to be read like this, with lines such as, ‘if anyone opposes the Messenger [Muhammed] after his guidance has become clear to him...We shall let him pursue his chosen path and shall cast him into Hell’ (Surah 4:115).  Now that that’s settled, adherents must follow the rules in the text, some of which include Surah 4:34, which condones the light beating of a disobedient wife.

These rules and tactics of manipulation are certainly not confined to Islam.  It is the danger of religious fundamentalism the world over.  See the Spanish Inquisition, the genocide in Burma, or any number of religiously-inspired attacks and injustices throughout history.  From what I’ve spiritually explored, it seems that using these books of ancient wisdom to commit such atrocities would be a great way to land yourself and others in Hell, if such a place really exists.  

I have chosen to bring this topic up in relation to the Qur’an simply because I found its descriptions of Hell as a punishment for defectors to be more intense and persistent than any holy text I have read as of yet—therefore it was a great jumping off point to discuss the dangers inherent in the game of Religion Roulette, a game of manipulation that has been played in Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, and I imagine any other religion out there.  It’s one of the primary dangers of religion, and I believe it deserves just as much discussion as the benefits of religion.  After all, we must understand the whole of something in order to understand its true meaning and utility.

With that being said, I look forward to next week’s discussion of what may be the greatest fan fiction ever written: The Book of Mormon!

Jesus’ American Brew: The Truth and Utility of Joseph Smith’s Book of Mormon (It’s Lit #21)

Jesus’ American Brew: The Truth and Utility of Joseph Smith’s Book of Mormon (It’s Lit #21)

The Bible, Pt. 3: Who Does Paul Think He Is? (It’s Lit #19)