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Afterlife and the Quran
by Dave Miller
The Quran’s portrayal of afterlife and the spirit realm is a confused hodge-podge of borrowed ideas from a variety of sources, as well as the author’s own misconceptions. While the Bible does not clarify every aspect of life beyond the grave, nor answer every question that one might have about that realm, it nevertheless affords a consistent, cohesive, definitive treatment of the subject that contrasts sharply with the Quran. Consider, for example, the Quran’s handling of the concepts of heaven and paradise [NOTE: Quranic references are taken from the Muslim translations by Pickthall (n.d.) and Ali (1934).]
The Quran makes repeated reference to the existence of seven heavens. Consider the following allusions: “He it is Who created for you all that is in the earth. Then turned He to the heaven, and fashioned it as seven heavens. And He is Knower of all things” (Surah 2:29, emp. added); “Say: Who is Lord of the seven heavens, and Lord of the Tremendous Throne? They will say: Unto Allah (all that belongeth). Say: Will ye not then keep duty (unto Him)?” (Surah 23:86-87, emp. added); “The seven heavens and the earth and all that is therein praise Him” (Surah 17:44, emp. added). Speaking of the creation of the Universe, the Quran states: “Then He ordained them seven heavens in two Days and inspired in each heaven its mandate; and we decked the nether heaven with lamps, and rendered it inviolable” (Surah 41:12, emp. added). Noah’s admonitions to his contemporaries included reminders of Allah’s creative activities: “See ye not how Allah hath created seven heavens in harmony, and hath made the moon a light therein, and made the sun a lamp? (Surah 71:15-16, emp. added; see also 23:17; 65:12; 67:3; 78:12).
In sharp contrast to the Quran’s “seven” heavens, the Bible speaks of only three. The “first heaven” is the Earth’s atmosphere—the “sky”—where the birds fly (Genesis 1:20; 8:2; Isaiah 55:10; Luke 13:19). The “second heaven” is “outer space”—where the Sun, Moon, and stars are situated (Genesis 15:5; 22:17; Deuteronomy 4:19; Nahum 3:16). These two heavens together are referred to in the first verse of the Bible: “In the beginning, God created the heavens (plural—DM) and the earth” (Genesis 1:1, emp. added). The “third heaven” in biblical thought is the spirit realm beyond the physical realm where God and other celestial beings reside (Deuteronomy 10:14; 26:15; 1 Kings 8:27,30). It often is referred to as the “heaven of heavens”—a Semitism wherein the genitive is used for the superlative degree—meaning the highest or ultimate heaven (cf. “Song of songs,” “King of kings,” “Lord of lords”). While the Bible uses the number seven frequently, it never mentions anything about any so-called “seven heavens”—even in the apocalyptic book of Revelation where the number seven is used figuratively and prominently (54 times). The Quran’s allusions cannot be rationalized as poetic or figurative, since none of the Quranic citations gives any indication of a figurative use.
Where did the Quran get its notion of seven heavens? Uninspired sources clarify the circumstance. Jewish rabbis frequently spoke of seven heavens (Ginzberg, 1909, 1:9; 1910, 2:260,313; 1911, 3:96; 1925, 5:9-11,23,30). They also spoke of seven gates to hell (Ginzberg, 5:19,267; 1928, 6:438), another feature copied into the Quran that is in conflict with the Bible: “And lo! for all such, hell will be the promised place. It hath seven gates, and each gate hath an appointed portion” (Surah 15:43-44). Additionally, the Quran’s use of the phrase “the seven paths” (Surah 23:17) is a Talmudic expression (Rodwell, 1950, p. 145).
The term “paradise” is of Persian derivation, and referred to “a grand enclosure or preserve, hunting-ground, park, shady and well-watered” (Thayer, 1901, p. 480). The Jews used the term as “a garden, pleasure-ground, grove, park,” and came to apply it to that portion of hades that was thought “to be the abode of the souls of the pious until the resurrection” (p. 480). With this linguistic background, the word is used in three different senses in the Bible: (1) it is used in the Septuagint (Genesis 2:8,9,10,15,16; 3:2,3,4,9,11,24,25), the Greek translation of the Old Testament, to refer to the literal Garden of Eden on Earth where Adam and Eve lived (Septuagint, 1970, pp. 3-5). It normally is translated “garden” in English versions; (2) it is used one time, in a highly figurative New Testament book, to refer to the final abode of the saved, i.e., heaven (Revelation 2:7); and (3) it is used in connection with the hadean realm. The Hebrew Old Testament term for this waiting place is sheol, and the New Testament term is hades. The Quran shows no awareness of these biblical distinctions. Instead, it advocates the existence of seven heavens (as noted), paradise (which apparently is among the seven heavens), and hell (an evident reflection of the uninspired influence of both Jewish and Persian sources of the sixth and seventh centuries).
According to the Bible, hades is a broad term that designates the receptacle of disembodied spirits where all humans who die await the Lord’s return (Luke 23:43; Luke 16:19-31; 2 Corinthians 12:4) prior to the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:35-54), the Judgment, and the final disposition of all humans to one of two ultimate eternal realms, i.e., heaven or hell. This realm encompasses two “compartments”: one for the deceased righteous, and one for the deceased wicked. The area inhabited by the righteous is “paradise,” while the area for the wicked is “tartarus.” Very little information is actually given in the Bible in the way of description regarding hades. In fact, the only descriptive detail provided (Luke 16:19-31) indicates that within hades, (1) paradise is described as a place where one is “comforted” (vs. 25), and (2) it is separated from tartarus by “a great gulf ” (vs. 26). That’s it! Absolutely no additional elaboration is given regarding paradise—no couches, no maidens, no rivers of water, no gold goblets. Hades, within which are paradise and tartarus, is, in fact, a temporary realm that will be terminated at the Judgment (Revelation 20:13-14). From that point forward, only two eternal realms will exist: heaven and hell.
The only detailed description given of heaven in the Bible is in the book of Revelation—a self-declared apocalypse (apocalupsis—“revelation”—1:1), i.e., a symbolic, figurative depiction that is not to be understood literally (see Swete, 1911, pp. xxii-xxxii; Gasque, 1975, 1:200-204; Thomson, 1939, 1:162-163). Hence, the “street of gold” (21:21), “pure river of water of life” (22:1), “tree of life” (22:2), and cube-shaped, walled city situated on twelve foundations of precious stones with pearl gates (21:19-21) are explicitly stated to be strictly figurative (“signified”—1:1). The Bible seems to go out of its way to avoid attempting to describe a nonphysical, spiritual, eternal realm to humans who live in a physical, finite realm. It says just enough to “whet the appetite” of an honest seeker of truth, without succumbing to the mistake of overwhelming the reader with a wholly carnal impression of heaven. The Quran commits precisely this blunder. Paradise is repeatedly represented in literal, materialistic terms:
Therefore Allah hath warded off from them the evil of that day, and hath made them find brightness and joy; And hath awarded them for all that they endured, a Garden and silk attire; Reclining therein upon couches, they will find there neither (heat of) a sun nor bitter cold. The shade thereof is close upon them and the clustered fruits thereof bow down. Goblets of silver are brought round for them, and beakers (as) of glass (bright as) glass but (made) of silver, which they (themselves) have measured to the measure (of their deeds). There are they watered with a cup whereof the mixture is of Zanjabil, the water of a spring therein, named Salsabil. There serve them youths of everlasting youth, whom, when thou seest, thou wouldst take for scattered pearls. When thou seest, thou wilt see there bliss and high estate. Their raiment will be fine green silk and gold embroidery. Bracelets of silver will they wear. Their Lord will slake their thirst with a pure drink. (And it will be said unto them): Lo! this is a reward for you. Your endeavour (upon earth) hath found acceptance (Surah 76:11-22, emp. added).
But for him who feareth the standing before his Lord there are two gardens. Which is it, of the favours of your Lord, that ye deny? Of spreading branches, Which is it, of the favours of your Lord, that ye deny? Wherein are two fountains flowing. Which is it, of the favours of your Lord, that ye deny? Wherein is every kind of fruit in pairs. Which is it, of the favours of your Lord, that ye deny? Reclining upon couches lined with silk brocade, the fruit of both gardens near to hand. Which is it, of the favours of your Lord, that ye deny? Therein are those of modest gaze, whom neither man nor jinni will have touched before them, Which is it, of the favours of your Lord, that ye deny? (In beauty) like the jacynth and the coral—stone. Which is it, of the favours of your Lord that ye deny? Is the reward of goodness aught save goodness? Which is it, of the favours of your Lord, that ye deny? And beside them are two other gardens, Which is it, of the favours of your Lord, that ye deny? Dark green with foliage. Which is it, of the favours of your Lord, that ye deny? Wherein are two abundant springs. Which is it, of the favours of your Lord, that ye deny? Wherein is fruit, the date—palm and pomegranate. Which is it, of the favours of your Lord, that ye deny? Wherein (are found) the good and beautiful—Which is it, of the favours of your Lord, that ye deny?—Fair ones, close—guarded in pavilions—Which is it, of the favours of your Lord, that ye deny? Whom neither man nor jinni will have touched before them—Which is it, of the favours of your Lord, that ye deny? Reclining on green cushions and fair carpets. Which is it, of the favours of your Lord, that ye deny? Blessed be the name of thy Lord, Mighty and Glorious! (Surah 55:46-78, emp. added).
In addition to the multiple gardens or paradises (55:46,62; cf. 83:18-19; Lings, pp. 95,202) with couches, green cushions, carpets, silk attire, silver bracelets, goblets and beakers of silver, shade, branches and foliage, fountains and springs, dates and pomegranates, youthful servants of everlasting youth and fair virgins, paradise also will include golden trays or dishes (43:71), flowering meadows (42:22), a pure wine (non-intoxicating—56:19) sealed with musk and mixed with water from the heavenly spring of Tasnim (83:25-28), multiple storied halls or mansions (29:58; 34:37; 39:20), fowl flesh (56:21), thornless lote-trees (56:28), and clustered plantains (56:29). The references to paradise in such materialistic terms go on and on in the Quran (cf. 15:45-47; 18:32; 22:23; 35:33; 37:41-49; 38:51-53; 44:51-55; 47:15; 52:17-28; 88:8-16; et al.). The contexts in which they occur discount the standard Muslim explanation that they are “figurative.” In fact, one verse even equates the fruit on Earth with the fruit in paradise: “And give glad tidings (O Muhammad) unto those who believe and do good works; that theirs are Gardens underneath which rivers flow; as often as they are regaled with food of the fruit thereof, they say: This is what was given us aforetime; and it is given to them in resemblance” (Surah 2:25, emp. added).
One would think that Muslim women would feel short-changed in the afterlife. Paradise for men will include access to maidens: “pure companions” (2:25; 3:15; 4:57), “fair ones with wide, lovely eyes” (44:54; 52:20—or “beautiful, big and lustrous eyes”—Ali; cf. 55:72) like “hidden eggs (of the ostrich)” and “hidden pearls” (37:49; 56:23), “those of modest gaze” (37:48; 38:53—or “chaste women restraining their glances, [companions] of equal age”—Ali; cf. 55:56; 78:33), who are “good and beautiful” (55:70), “virgins” (56:36), “whom neither man nor jinni will have touched before them” (55:56,74). Such lascivious, lustful appeals to sensual and sexual passions are transparent—and typical of male authors unguided by a higher power.
Additionally, the Quran and the Bible conflict with one another on the matter of marriage in the afterlife. The Quran unquestionably indicates that marriage will persist in paradise (Surah 13:23; 36:55; 40:8; 43:70). In fact, God Himself will perform the ceremonies: “Lo! those who kept their duty will be in a place secure amid gardens and water-springs, attired in silk and silk embroidery, facing one another. Even so (it will be). And We shall wed them unto fair ones with wide, lovely eyes” (44:54, emp. added; cf. 52:20). But Jesus soundly refuted this notion in His interchange with the Sadducees: “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels of God in heaven” (Matthew 22:30).
The emphasis on food, drink, and physical pleasures in the Quranic depictions of afterlife reflect a perspective that one would anticipate from a desert-bound Arab Bedouin. This preoccupation with carnal things and material comforts exposes the description as uninspired, and stands in stark contrast with the Bible’s handling of the subject. So also with the redundancy of repetitious phrases: “gardens underneath which rivers flow” (used 32 times in Pickthall—see Al-nasir). The Quran’s treatment of the afterlife verifies its human origin.