What is the Islamic view of the afterlife, paradise, and hell? Is punishment in hell eternal?

The Qur'an makes reference to the different stages of human existence (56:60-61), starting from the stage of the fetus, through birth, development, and growth, leading to aging, deterioration, and ultimately physical death (17:21). It identifies life after death, or akhirah (2:62), as a gateway to a higher level of existence.

The period between death and resurrection is termed barzakh (intermediate) in the Qur'an (23:99-100). It is the state between both the physical and spiritual worlds. The final stage is that of resurrection (qiyamah) where every individual will be held accountable for his or her deeds and rewarded for the good they have performed and forgiven or punished for the sins they have committed (Qur'an 3:194). Allah is referred to (Qur'an 1:4) as Master of the Day of Recompense. Muslims do not believe in the Day of Accountability for the sake of salvation. Rather, this day but awakens each human being to the fact that life is a test (Qur'an 67:2), that life has a purpose (23:1115), that our actions have effects (4:85), and that we have a responsibility to do good while avoiding evil (9:71). The purpose of life, then, is to fulfill one's responsibility to our Creator and to His creation. The test of life is to manifest goodness while avoiding evil and injustice, and in the process, our existence should serve as a catalyst toward leaving behind a better world.

Existence in the afterlife takes two forms. One is the abode for those who have done good. This abode is referred to (Qur'an 18:107; 23:11) as Jannah/Firdous (the Garden/Paradise). Though the Qur'an makes reference to Paradise in the form of similes, in reality we cannot perceive nor imagine the pleasures and tranquility of Paradise (32:17). It is therefore aptly referred to as the Abode of Peace (10:25).

The other abode is Jahannam (Hell/Great Depth of Blazing Fire) and represents the evil consequence of sinful actions and perhaps a remedial zone for the purification of the wrongdoers. Some consider hell to be eternal and that those who enter there will remain therein for eternity.

However, the terms abad and khulud suggest that the expression "lengthy period" more appropriately captures the duration of the punishment meted out in Jahannam.

From numerous Qur'anic references, it is apparent that punishment is not meant to exceed the crime or the wrong which has been perpetrated. It would contradict the spirit of the Qur'anic message and the Mercy of Allah if a sinner were to be punished for eternity for sins committed over a lifetime of 60-80 years. The fact that Allah rewards tenfold the good that people do but punishes the sinner only in accordance with the wrong committed (Qur'an 6:160) indicates the merciful nature of the Supreme Being, who increases the reward but not the punishment. He Himself says in reference to the sinners in hell: "the fire is the abode wherein you shall abide, except as Allah pleases. Certainly thy Lord is Most Wise, All-Knowing" (Qur'an 6:129).

Is there a hierarchy of religious people in Islam similar to Christianity, or is imam the only title?

There is no priesthood in Islam and the title imaam means a leader, whether a community leader, spiritual leader, or political leader. It often happens that the person entrusted with leadership of the spiritual needs of the community is one who has specialized in "religious studies." When such a person is assigned by the community the position of leading the daily prayer at mosques, presenting the weekly Friday sermon, praying for the sick and burying the dead, and giving opinions on religious matters, then he is traditionally referred to as imam. These tasks are not restricted to a particular class or category of people. It is the responsibility of every Muslim to empower himself or herself to perform these tasks. Whosoever has the knowledge, know-how, character, and credibility to lead could fulfill these roles, as there exists no religious hierarchy in Islam.

In both the Sufi and Shi'ah traditions, however, one finds an added dimension of authority that accompanies one who is considered the imam. But this is due more to spiritual reverence, being considered "closer" to God due to their piety rather than to a hierarchy in position.

There exist, of course, numerous institutions of learning throughout the the Muslim world where students pursue the study of religious sciences. Ijaazah, or degrees, are obtained, and those who have completed such studies are most often the ones who are charged with serving as leaders in religious matters. Such leaders could be male or female, though the leading of congregational prayer has historically been a male occupation.

There are also cultural titles that members of the community assign to people according to their specialized study. For example, one who memorizes the entire Qur'an is referred to as a haafiz; one who has mastered the art of Qur'anic recitation is called a qaari; one who has studied Islamic law extensively is called a mufti; and elders, or learned ones, are called sheikh. None of these indicate a religious hierarchy and should not in any way be considered synonymous with reverend, bishop, archbishop, or pope.

My husband does not speak to my parents and does not want me or our daughters to speak to them. He discourages both their visiting me and also any contact between them and their grandchildren. Does he have the right to do this according to Islam?

Neither any moral code nor any decent human being would deny a person the God-given natural right to communicate and interact with the most important people in our lives. Allah has decreed that we respect and honor our parents as a command second only to acknowledging the supremacy of Allah (Qur'an 17:23). The Qur'an states that we are duty-bound to be ever-grateful to Allah and our parents (31:14). Prophet Muhammad has on numerous occasions referred to the paramount importance of respecting parents and has emphasized the significance and duty of maintaining these ties, while reprimanding those who dishonor or break such ties.

If your parents are not a source of danger, and if they are not a source of immoral or irreligious influence, then no one has the authority to deny you or your children from having access to your parents. What example is being set for your daughters? They too will, Insha-Allah (God willing), marry and have kids. How would your husband feel if their husbands were to refuse them any contact with him or deny him access to his grandchildren? Do not do unto others what you would not wish to be done unto you.

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