Beyond Death -
The Islamic Conception of Heaven
by Dr. Muhammad Fazl-ur-Rahman Ansari (R.A.)
A lecture delivered at the All-India Philosophical Congress held at Calcutta in December, 1935
In the name of Allaah, The Bountiful, The Merciful
We thank and praise Him (Allaah) and invoke the Blessing of Allaah on His Messenger, our master, Muhammad, the last of all the Prophets.
At the outset it seems necessary to make a few remarks concerning the function of philosophy with regard to the problem. The problem is of a transcendental nature and directly pertains to our religious consciousness.. That heaven is real and exists cannot be revealed to our senses. But should it for that reason be denied by philosophy? No. Philosophy must take its data from various forms of human consciousness – from the scientific consciousness, from the artistic consciousness, from the moral consciousness, –so also from the religious consciousness. It is not the function of philosophy to question their facts because they alone are its data. Its function is rather “to grasp their elements conceptually and to combine them into a system” (1)
Life-after-death and hence heaven and hell are data given to us by the religious consciousness. The business of philosophy is to understand them – to evaluate them
My task at the present occasion is to present the Qur'aanic conception of heaven, for it is this conception which seems to me to be the most credible. But before doing so it seems necessary to give briefly the views of the Qur'aan concerning the various stages of human life. The following verses from that Book are highly instructive in this connection: -
“(Those) who shall inherit the heaven, they shall abide therein.
“And certainly we created man of an extract of clay;(2)
“Thus we made him a small life-germ in a firm resting place.
“Then we make the life-germ a clot; then We make the clot a lump of flesh; then We make the lump of flesh bones; then We clothed the bones with flesh; then We caused it to grow into another creation; so blessed be Allaah, the Best of the Creators.
“Then after that you will most surely die
“Then surely on the day of resurrection you shall be raised.
“And certainly we made above you seven ways; and never are We heedless of creation.
“And We sent down water from the cloud according to a measure: then We cause it to settle in the earth, and most surely We are able to carry it away.
“Then We cause to grow gardens of palm-trees and grapes for you; you have in them many fruits and from them do ye eat.” (Ch.23 V 11-19)
These verses give us in brief the whole purpose of human evolution as also the part played by religion in human life. Man arises out of the earth. The earthly matter passes through several stages before it finds its sublimation in the human form.. It takes the form of the life-germ which, though it is microscopic in size, is the repository of the physical, intellectual and moral features of man. The germ grows and becomes man. In a grown-up man it is the physical aspect which is more usually and more thoroughly realised. But the human frame is only a vehicle for the soul to develop itself. The soul has to evolve itself from the crude form of simple consciousness to a certain stage of spirituality. This evolution can be worked out only through the cultivation of our faculties. The Qur'aan uses the word “falaah” for this cultivation...”Falaah’: literally means the furrowing out of the latent faculties. Thus the peasant who tills the land and brings to surface the innumerable treasures of the earth is called a “fellah” in Arabic. Man ought to act similarly. His soul possesses infinite potentialities of advancement.. He has to fill the field of the depths of his soul and bring out his latent faculties. But just as the ordinary peasant needs rain for his crop, so man too needs a rain. That rain comes from God in the form of Revelation and is given to humanity through the medium of Prophets. Man should become a receptacle for his spiritual rain if he wishes to read a good harvest. Without it the field of human soul would become sterile and subject to decay. This has been further pointed out in another verse:
“Consider the soul and Him Who made it perfect, then breathed into it its sin and its piety. Successful indeed is he who purifies it and sorrow will indeed be his portion who corrupts it.” (Ch. 9 V 7-10)
Thus the Qur'aan regards man as a revolutionary being who has been created of the goodliest fibre and possesses the highest capacities of making spiritual progress. In fact, the very first attribute of God mentioned in the opening verse of the Holy Qur'aan is “Rab”, that is He Who leads His creatures through one stage after another until they attain perfection.
Our present life is a preparation. It is necessary to work up our faculties and bring them up to a certain stage of evolution in our earthly sojourn. Then alone shall be fit for progress in the life after death.
Our every action in this has a hereafter. It creates a permanent impression on the soul. When the soul departs from the body, it leaves the body for good. It then adopts another kind of body. The great Muslim philosopher and divine, Shah Waliullah, calls it “”Nusma” (3) . This “nusma is perhaps what is spoken; have by Sir Oliver Lodge as ectoplasm. He says: ”Exudation (secretion) of a strange white evanescent dough-like substance, which has been photographed by scientific enquirers in different stages of evolution, and which shapes itself into parts or whole of the body, beginning in a putty-like mould, and ending in a semblance (taking a form). This is the spiritual body that contains the Spirit and yet is distinct from the ordinary body.” (4)
Death is thus not annihilation but a gateway for entering into a new life – a life of unlimited progress. But we can enter that life only if we can make ourselves fit for it. This may be illustrated by an example suppose we take down two seeds from a tree- one ripe the other immature. We sow both under similar conditions but we do not get any plant from the immature seed although it commenced its life with the same potentialities as the ripe one. Similarly, if we have not attained a certain stage of spiritual development in our earthly life, we cannot enter the heavenly life.
Now, after departing from the physical body, the soul does not enter its life of heaven or hell at once. It remains suspended in the ethereal (beyond the earth) world, called Barzakh in Islam,. Here its faculties remain in abeyance, though in fact, and this state will continue till the hour of resurrection when it will be sent to either heaven or hell. But the impressions which it has acquired on earth through its actions come to the surface. Character being the crystallisation of one’s thoughts “the thoughts that he or she was thinking in the world take their shape – virtuous thoughts take happy shape and wicked thoughts take shapes of calamities according to what he believed in this world”
The Qur'aan declares that a day will come when the solar system will be destroyed which will result in ending the present conditions of life totally. God will then bring into existence new heavens and a new earth, as the Qur'aan states:
“On the day when the earth shall be changed into a different earth, and the heavens (as well), and they shall come before Allaah, the One, The Supreme.” (Ch. 14 V48)
This new world will have an affinity with the body of the soul which will be different from the one it had on earth. This new body has been described in the Qur'aan as ‘new creation’ (Ch 34 V 7). It; has been further stated to take the colour of our actions on earth. The Qur'aan says:
“….. (some) faces shall turn bright and (some) faces shall turn dark, then as to those whose faces shall turn dark (it will be said): Did you disbelieve after believing? Taste therefrom the chastisement because you disbelieved. And as to those whose faces turn bright they shall be in Allah’s Mercy: in it they shall abide.” (Ch 3 V 106-7)
Now, the souls which are suffering from spiritual diseases and do not come up to a certain standard will be sent to a spiritual hospital called hell. The Qur'aan has to say much on the subject but to go into details would be a long digression. Suffice it to say that hell will be one of 2the stages in the process of evolution for the soul that has not utilised the opportunities provided to it in its earthly sojourn and has stunted its faculties and got diseased and corrupted. After cure it will come ;out of that state and shall start on its evolutionary journey. Imaam Bukhari records a tradition of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) to this effect:
“When the sinners shall have attained tahzib and tanqiyah, they will be allowed to enter heaven.”
The words “tahzib’ and tanqiyah are highly meaningful. Tahzib means the cutting off of the branches of a tree so that this tree may enjoy a more luxuriant growth, and tanqiyah means the separating of the corrupt and the corruptible parts from a thing in order to purify it completely.
Having briefly viewed the nature of hell, let us come to the heavenly life. The souls which attain the required standard of perfection will start on their evolutionary journey anew in the next world. They will carry impressions of their actions done on earth. These impressions will, because ;of the rightness of the actions, enclose the soul in a garb of indefinable happiness – “indefinable” because it will be of a wholly different character from earthly happiness. In our present state of finite and chained existence we cannot realise the reality.. Our words have been invented to express primarily of the physical nature. They cannot convey ideas of transcendental verities. These can be described only allegorically as the Qur'aan does. Ibn Jareer says:
“Whatever is in the heaven has no resemblance with anything of this world except in name.
The Qur'aan says”:
“No souls know what is in store for them of the joys (.that which will refresh the eyes) as the reward of their actions” Ch 32 V 17).
According to a Hadith (Bukhari) God hath provided for the righteous that which “no eye hath seen, nor ear hath heard, nor hath it ever occurred to the mind of man>” Thus the expressions descriptive of heaven which occur in the Qur'aan are allegorical, e.g. gardens, rivulets costly garments delicious fruits, ltc. .To illustrate this point further, I may cite an incident of the Holy Prophet’s life. A pious lady saw a river in a dream and she somehow or other came to think that it pertained to one of the deceased Companions of the Holy Prophet, Ottoman bin Mason. She related her dream to the Holy Prophet for explanation. He said:
“It (i.e. the river) is his (noble) actions flowing for him (or for his benefit)”.
I shall now give certain verses of the Holy Qur'aan which depict the heavenly life, but would like to put them under nine different heading for the sake of clarity.
(1) The Qur'aan speaks of the heavenly life as the eternal one. It says:
And whoever believes in Allaah and does good deeds, He will cause him to enter gardens beneath which rivers flow to abide therein foreve” (Ch 8 V 2)
Toil shall not affect them kin it, nor shall they be ever ejected from it.” (Ch 14 V 48).
“Abiding therein, they shall not desire removal from them.” (Ch 18 V 108
(2) That life will be free of all toil, of hunger and thirst and other physical needs. The Qur'aan says:
“Surely it is ordained for you that you shall not be hungry therein, nor bare of clothing, and that you shall not be thirsty therein, nor shall you feel the heat of the sun”(Ch 20 V118-9)
“The gardens of perpetuity, they enter them, rivers flowing beneath them: what they please. Thus Allah rewards those who ward (against evil)” Ch 16 V31
“Toil shall not affect them in it" (Ch 14 V 48)
(3) It will be free of evil thoughts and propensities.
The Qur'aan says::
“And We will remove whatever of ill-feeling is in their hearts.” (Ch 7 V 43)
(4) It will be a state of supreme peace for the soul. The Qur'aan says:
“They shall have the abode of Peace with their Lord.’ (Ch.6 V 127
“They shall not hear therein vain or sinful discourse except the word, peace, peace.” Ch 25 V6
“And as io those whose faces turn bright they shall be in Allaah’s Mercy, in it they shall abide.”(Ch 43V107)
(5) The Heaven will be the Abode of Light
The Qur'aan says:
”On that day you will see the faithful men and the faithful women –their light going before them and on their right hand…”(Ch 57 V 12)
(6) In it a halo of holiness will encircle the souls. The Qur'aan says:
“Whoever does good, whether male or female, and is a believer,, We will most certainly bestow upon him (or her) a pure life…” (Ch 16 V 97)
“And they will be guided to pure (thoughts and) words and they will be guided into the Path of (Allaah) The Praised One.” Ch 22 V 24)
“He will cause you to enter …..the Abode of Purity.” Ch V
“For those who guard (against evil) are … pure mates.” Ch 3 v15)
…”.. and their Lord shall make them drink a pure drink.” Ch 76 v 21)
(7) In the glorious stage of being encircled by Light, Peace, Mercy and Holiness of God, the souls shall sing hymns in praise of God. The Qur'aan says:
“Their utterance to it shall be: Glory to Thee, O Allaah! And their greeting to it shall be; Peace: and they will end by saying: Praise be to Allaah, the Lord of all the worlds.” (10 v 10)
(8) In the heavenly state the souls will be blessed with the goodly pleasure (ridwan) of Allaah. The Qur'aan says:
“O soul that hath found satisfaction! Return to thy Lord well-pleased (with Him), well- pleasing (Him.).” Ch 89 V 27-8)
“Allaah has promised to the believed men and the believing women gardens beneath which river flow, top abide in them, and goodly dwellings in gardens of perpetual abode; and best of all is Allaah’s Goodly Pleasure – that is the grand achievement.” Ch 9 v72)
(9) The climax of the blessings of the heaven will be reached by the vision of Allaah and in living in His Holy Presence. The Qur'aan says:
“Surely those who guard (against evil) shall be in gardens and amplitude,
In the Seat of Truth before (or with) the Most Powerful Lord.” (Ch 54 v54-5)
“(Some) faces on that day shall be bright, looking to their Lord.” Ch 75 v 22-3)
“Their salutation on the day that they meet Him shall be Peace’” Ch 33 v 44)
“Peace – a word from the Merciful Lord.”
Ch 36 v 58)
But when the description ;of the heavenly life has been given, I would emphasize a point again. This description is only meant to give an idea and not to portray the really real heaven. The Holy Prophet says:
“Leave that which you know of it (that is, that form which you make in your mind).”
With regard to the real nature of heaven, I would ultimately refer to the meaning of the word “Janat” which has been generally used in the Qur'aan to denote heaven. In the first place, Janat means something concealed from the naked eye; in the second place, it means rank and luxuriant growth; Thus the heavenly life, according to the Qur'aan, is a life hidden from the eyes which consists in the unfolding of the latent faculties of the soul and its complete growth. Verily, it is a life of complete progress, as the Qur'aan says:
“Most surely this is our provision (or sustenance): it shall never come to an end.”
In the end I have to submit that this conception ;of heaven seems to satisfy all what the heart and the intellect requires of heaven. There is no element in it which conflicts with these yearnings. It satisfies my scientific consciousness because it affirms the existence and validity of law in that life. It satisfies my artistic consciousness because Heaven is a world of Beauty and Grace. It satisfies my moral consciousness because it is the abode where righteousness is combined with happiness and perpetual progress. It satisfies my religious consciousness because it affirms the realisation of the highest yearning of my soul- the Vision of land proximity to my Lord. It fulfils the requirements of the conception of a transcendental condition and is best fitted for our acceptance.
(1) “Realism” C. Z. Hassan, p 2
(2) C. f. another verse of the Qur'aan:
"And Allaah brought you forth from the earth as a growth" (Ch 71 V17)
(4) “The Mystical Message: p 109
(5) Keemiya-I-Sa’adat: Imam Ghazzali