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Death and Islamic Understanding of Afterlife - Heaven And Hell

koran muslim hur earthly

Heaven, sometimes said to have seven levels, is generally described as a lush garden where the faithful reap the rewards of obedience and morality. Its inhabitants revel in "gardens underneath which rivers flow" (Koran 4:57, 22:23, etc.), peaceful serenity, cool shade and breezes, rivers of water, milk, and honey, luscious foods and drink (including nonintoxicating wine), luxurious furnishings and clothing, and so forth. While some interpret these images as metaphorical, envisioning a purely spiritual bliss in the presence of God, most tend toward literalistic and corporeal interpretations, while recognizing that the true reality of heaven is beyond earthly comprehension.

Although the afterlife is generally the same for both men and women, one aspect of heaven appears to have distinctly gendered overtones. The hur, virginal "companions, with beautiful, big and lustrous eyes" (Koran 56:22), are mentioned four times in the Koran (44:54, 52:20, 55:72, and 56:22), though without much detail; post-Koranic sources extrapolate on these accounts. The hur are understood to be rewards for males in heaven, and differ from earthly women in their delicate beauty, purity, and lack of illness, menstruation, and pregnancy. Ordinary Muslim women may also go to heaven, where each is said to have just one husband, usually her earthly husband. Thus the hur appear to join earthly wives as additional heavenly companions for men. However, some commentators see the hur as companions and servants of female believers as well: "Just as the gardens, rivers, milk, honey, fruits, and numerous other things of Paradise are both for men and women, even so are the hur" (Smith and Haddad, p. 167).

Hell, often called simply "the fire" (al-nur), is depicted in the Koran as a place of unending torment, filled with flame, acrid smoke, boiling waters, and the wails of its unfortunate inhabitants. The damned can gain no comfort: "he is given to drink of oozing pus, the which he gulps, and can scarce swallow, and death comes upon him from every side, yet he cannot die; and still beyond him is a harsh chastisement" (Koran 14:16–17, Arberry's translation). Further, "as often as their skins are wholly burned, we shall give them in exchange other skins, that they may taste the chastisement" (Koran 4:56). As noted, however, some Muslims ascribe to God such profound mercy that he ultimately rescues even the most undeserving sinner from these torments.

The vivid imagery of heaven and hell in Muslim sources adds weight to the call to "remember" death. As a late-twentieth-century Muslim author observed,

This clear reality of the future Life is always before the mind and consciousness of the devout Muslim. It is this awareness which keeps the present life, in the midst of the most intense happiness and the deepest pain alike, in perspective: the perspective of a passing, temporary abode in which one has been placed as a test in order to qualify and prepare himself for his future Home.… Therefore the Muslim, knowing that God alone controls life and death, and that death may come to him at any time, tries to send on ahead for his future existence such deeds as will merit the pleasure of his Lord, so that he can look forward to it with hope for His mercy and grace. (Haneef, p. 37)


Arberry, Arthur J. The Koran Interpreted. 2 vols. New York: Macmillan, 1955.

Averroës. The Distinguished Jurist's Primer: A Translation of Bidayat al-Mujtahid. Translated by Imran Ahsan Khan Nyazee. 2 vols. Reading, U.K.: Garnet, 1994. A good English-language source for death-related ritual law.

Denny, Frederick Mathewson. An Introduction to Islam. 2nd ed. New York: Macmillan, 1993. Useful treatment of death rituals.

Haneef, Suzanne. What Everyone Should Know about Islam and Muslims. 2nd ed. Chicago: Library of Islam, 1996.

Ibn al-Naqib, Ahmad al-Misri. Reliance of the Traveler: A Classic Manual of Islamic Sacred Law: "Umat al salik." Edited and translated by Nuh Ha Mim Keller. Rev. ed. Beltsville, Md.: Ammana, 1999. Another good English-language source for death-related ritual law.

al-Nawawi. Gardens of the Righteous: Riyadh as-Salihin of Imam Nawawi. Translated by Muhammad Zafrulla Khan. London: Curson, 1975.

Peters, F. E. A Reader on Classical Islam. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994.

Sells, Michael A., trans. and ed. Early Islamic Mysticism. New York: Paulist Press, 1996.

Smith, Jane Idleman, and Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad. The Islamic Understanding of Death and Resurrection. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1981. The definitive scholarly study of the topic.

Paul R. Powers

Death and Islamic Understanding of Afterlife - Bibliography [next] [back] Death and Islamic Understanding of Afterlife - Resurrection And Judgment Day

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