DURING MY days of ignorance, when caught in the grip of sin, I used to say, ‘God curse me, let me burn in hell.’ As an agnostic living in the slipstream of a contemporary reinterpretation of heaven and hell, such a remark was so easily said. It was as if to say two things: I can’t help my sinfulness, and hell couldn’t be all that bad really. Indeed, many Christians today no longer think of hell in the traditional terms of centuries (even decades) past. There is ample evidence of this in Christian books: I find that hell is often described merely as a feeling of alienation from God. The above sentiment expressed by John Stott, a Preacher at London’s All Souls, is one I have heard more than once from Christian quarters. Only a God who had suffered as mankind suffers, the argument goes, could have any right to judge them.
For Muslims, belief in the Day of Judgement, Paradise and Hell is a crucial aspect of life. Each of these elements is very real. In the Islamic world view, the life we are living now is preparation for the Day of Judgement. It is only necessary to consider the suffering which many have endured to see that Muslims do not share the unorthodox reservations of some Christians. One of the first individuals to embrace Islam during the life of Muhammad was an Abyssinian slave named Bilal. In order to demonstrate his opposition to Islam, the chief of one of the Meccan clans would take Bilal into the desert each day, and beat him severely and torture him, repeatedly demanding that he renounce Islam and declare that he believed in the idols. Bilal, however, would only repeat that God is One. Later in the early years of Islam, the Meccan tribes placed a boycott on the Muslims, forcing them into starvation. The Muslims, however, continued to affirm that God is One, believing that they would face the Day of Recompense. In fact, Muslims believe that striving through affliction is a means of expiating sins or, alternatively, of gaining a higher position in Paradise.
Today I wouldn’t dream of uttering those words which once so easily slipped from my tongue. When despairing at my sinful soul, today I can only plead, ‘O my Lord, forgive me, turn me from my sins and save me from the Fire.’ The Day of Judgement is something to truly fear, for every deed we put forth in this life will be recalled. Of course, Protestants differ on this, whilst Roman Catholics at least believe that faith in Jesus must be accompanied by works. Presumably one who believes that faith in Jesus alone leads to salvation does not need to think very much about the Hour. It is, however, very much in the mind of the practising Muslim. In what follows, I intend to describe this belief.
When we are preparing to go abroad on holiday, we always spend some time thinking about what we should take. This is the likeness of the Muslim, preparing for the Day of Judgement. He or she is not thinking much about this life, for it is only a temporary realm. ‘Be in this world as a stranger or a traveller,’ the Prophet told one of his companions. God granted mankind this life in order that we might prepare for our return to Him. In the time we have, we are granted many opportunities to stock up with good deeds. Death, however, cuts us off from our period of preparation.
Death has been described as an awakening after a dream:
‘It is a second birth into a greater life. If the life of this world was created for work and trial, then the life of the next world was created for judgement and lasting compensation.
At death the soul leaves the body. All things are now absolutely clear to that soul – the realities concerning all of which one was unaware during his lifetime or chose ignore. The Messenger of Allah reported, “When one of you dies, he is shown his place [in the Hereafter] morning and evening. If he is from the people of Heaven, then among the people of Heaven. And if he is from the people of Hell, then among the people of Hell. And it will be said to him, ‘This is your place until Allah resurrects you on the Day of Judgement.’ ” Thus each soul remains until the Day of Judgement (according to its preview of the Hereafter), feeling sadness and regret or happiness and reassurance. [...]
The reality of death is that it is simply a stage in man’s development, as birth was – a transition from one world to another. Knowledge of this fact given to the Muslim is another example of Allah’s endless mercy upon him, for with this knowledge he can prepare himself for success.’ (Umm Muhammad, 1994, Realities of Faith, pp.71,73)
When we die, we enter the first stage of a new life. Likewise, the entire universe will be destroyed when the Hour arrives, in preparation for the real life which we have been promised. In the Qur’an:
‘When the sky is shattered and when the planets are scattered and when the seas are exploded and when the graves are exposed, then will a soul know what it has put forth and kept back.’ (Qur’an 82:1-5)
‘And the day the Hour is established, the criminals will swear that they had remained but an hour.’ (Qur’an 30:55)
With God’s restoration of life to the dead, mankind will return in the state in which it died, of either belief or denial, a doer of good or a doer of evil. On the Day of Judgement, all shall be gathered together, though each individual shall be alone, their friends and family ties abandoned.
‘People will be gathered on a land that is white, untrodden, pure and unowned by anyone. They will be gathered as they were at birth – barefoot, naked and uncircumcised – but they will be too preoccupied to notice each other. This Day every person will be concerned only with the judgement which awaits him, no longer thinking of those he loved in his earthly life – even being willing to sacrifice them to save himself, if only that was possible. On that Day Allah will fold up the heavens, taking them in His right hand; and He will fold up the earth, taking it in His left hand, saying, “I am the Sovereign. Where are the tyrants? Where are the arrogant?”
Then there will be the taking of account and the judgement. The justice that man instinctively longs for but never realizes in this earthly life will be established. And the justice of Allah is complete, taking into account all deeds, intentions and conditions. Not one particle of good or evil will be ignored in His register. [...]
Everyone will be perfectly convinced of the justice of his judgement, and the balance will prove to him without a doubt what he deserves. Indeed, nothing will benefit him this Day except the good which he had put forth in his former life and the mercy and forgiveness of Allah, which he hopes for now. [...]
The successful person on that Day will feel proud and happy before his Lord and before all of creation, but the one who is exposed and scandalized will have no escape from humiliation. [...]
There are detailed accounts of Hellfire and of Paradise in both the Qur’an and the sunnah, informing us that the consequences of our actions and intention will be both physical and emotional. These descriptions serve to bring the concept closer to man’s understanding, yet it is perceived that the realities of the next life are greater than the human mind can comprehend. [...]
In the Qur’an, Allah gives a picture of both sides of the Hereafter in order that the believer may attain a healthy balance between fear and hope; for certainly, an excess of either, in the form of despair or excessive optimism, is a deterrent to effort. Every Muslim must be aware that his fate is in his own hands by the will of Allah and that what awaits him in the life to come depends completely upon himself in this time of examination.’ (Realities of Faith, pp.76-83)
It was in despair at my propensity to sin that I used to utter those hideous words. Others philosophise about the hereafter. Some demand a suffering judge. Some want a hell wherein man experiences only alienation from God. People are allowed to believe what they like, as long as it is not a ‘salvation issue’. But Muslims believe that there is a reality; one defined by God. They believe in the Day of Judgement, in Paradise and Hell, and thus they act accordingly.
‘Every soul will taste death, and you will only be given your compensation on the Day of Resurrection. So he who is drawn away from the Fire and admitted to Paradise has attained [his desire]. And what is the life of this world except enjoyment of delusion?’ (Qur’an 3:185)