Andrew Seligson: Eschatology in the Qur’an

Qur’anic eschatology is defined by few key factors. The first component is the importance of remembrance of the Day of Judgment. The second component which is also linked to remembrance is the idea of resurrection and being held accountable for one’s choices and actions in this life due to the scales. The third component is the structure of reward and punishment, and how concepts are related to following the footsteps of the Prophet.

The remembrance of the Day of Judgment shows up within Qur’an itself, the prophetic Hadiths, as well as in the Islamic theological tradition. For example, in Sura 69 The Hour of Truth, The Qur’an states that the Qur’an itself is a reminder of the day of Judgment to the pious, as well as a torment to those who have turned away from Allah: “It is a reminder to the pious. We know full well that some of you are deniers. But it is anguish to blasphemers. It is the truth in all its certainty. So glorify the name of your Lord Almighty!”.[1] One of the main features of this day of Judgment, as also stated in the Gospel of Matthew, is that the trumpet shall be blown, the elect will gather from all corners of the Earth, and those who have died and those who are still alive will be held accountable for all their deeds and misdeeds. For example, in Sura 75 The Resurrection, it states: “Does man imagine We shall not reassemble his bones? . . . Man that day shall be informed of all his works, from first to last. In truth, man shall witness against himself, Even as he advances his excuses”.[2] This fear of hellfire, as well as the desire to be seen as righteous and kind in the sight of the Lord on the day of Judgment, should all be remembered in the daily life of the believer.

A beautiful anecdote in Al-Hasan emphasizes the link between role of remembrance and being held accountable for one’s moral actions on the day of Judgment:

Al-Hasan relates that the emissary of God once had his head in Aisha’s lap and fell asleep. She remembered the Afterlife, so that she wept, shedding tears that dropped onto the cheek of God’s Emissary who awoke. ‘What made you weep, Aisha? He asked, and she said, ‘I recalled the afterlife: shall you remember your family on the ay of Arising? And he replied, by him, in Whose hands lies my soul, there shall be three places in which a man shall remember no one but himself: when the Scales are erected and actions are weighed, so that the son of Adam shall watch to see if his balance shall be heavy or light; and at the Assessment of the scrolls.[3]

As we discussed in class, there is an element of detachment and individual assessment when we face God and the Scales on the Day of Judgment. While later theologians debated the idea whether there is an intermediary who can advocate for you on your behalf, this still remains hotly debated in scholarship and theological debate. The key point is that no one can take your place, and that you are ultimately responsible as a single individual, facing God as a single individual.

The third key element of eschatology in the Qur’an is hellfire and paradise. While there are different tiers of paradise and therefore different tiers of moral praxis, it is clear that there is an either/or component of this structure. There are a variety of interpretations of this concept. While there is the literal interpretation that when we die, we literally are sent to a burning place where we stay forever, there are other interpretations as well. In my opinion, the concept of Hellfire and Paradise ought to be linked to the notion of the “narrow passage” or the “narrow gate”, which is also present in the Gospels in the Sermon on the Mount. In order to come to the visions that Muhammad saw, we must pass through a series of trials and tribulations so that we can return to the vision and the dream. As the Prophet Muhammad witnessed in the seventh level of paradise, a place destined for the most moral and pious individuals, there was a great tree, a garden, and rivers flowing. This is attested to in the Qur’an consistently: “Enter the Garden, you and your spouses, rejoicing. There shall pass among them trays of gold and cups, and in it shall be that souls desire or eyes delight in, and you shall abide therein eternally. Such is the Garden bequeathed to you in return for your deeds. In it you shall have much fruit from which to eat”.[4] Thus, in my interpretation, paradise and hellfire are concepts that describe visions and paths that Muhammad took. Repeating and walking in the ethical and peaceful ways of Muhammad is a way to be guided towards the vision that Muhammad received, a vision which God promised to him would be a reward to all Muslims who follow the path of Islam.

[1] Sura 69: 47-52

[2] Sura 75: 8-14

[3] Ghazzālī, The Remembrance of Death and the Afterlife, in Book XL of The Revival of the Religious Sciences, (Cambridge, U.K.: Islamic Texts Society, 1989), 196

[4] Surah 43: 68-72