Jackson Zinn-Rowthorn: The Eschatology of Nearness

Jackson Zinn-Rowthorn
Third Response Paper
RELG 272

 

The Eschatology of Nearness

The Qur’an makes frequent reference to the Hereafter, the mystical plane that awaits humanity on the other side of death. It is the realm of divine justice, where the sum total of a man’s wrongdoing is weighed against his piety to determine his fate. Allah considers each case and hands down a sentence — either punishment in eternal Hellfire for the wicked, or reward in boundless Paradise for the righteous. This mechanism of final judgement is often likened to a farmer’s harvest — in this life, man sows; in the next life, man reaps.1

Descriptions of the the Day of Arising (where the dead congregate and wait for judgement), Hellfire, and Paradise are present so as to give Muslims a sense of what lies ahead. Of the Day of Arising, Al-Ghazali writes, “it is upon that day that you shall see the heavens cleft asunder, the shattering stars scattered about … the mountains blown away, and stretched out shall be the earth.”2 Humans will congregate naked and soaked in sweat in a crowded, barren land awaiting judgement.3 Those strong in their beliefs will be judged quickly and escape this realm of destitution, while sinners and nonbelievers will linger for what will seem like centuries.4 When the moment of judgement arrives, each person will confront God alone, the story of their life wholly complete. They will be wrought in that moment with a deep, permeating self-awareness of their own deeds, sinful and pious, and as such, they will tremble with shame as God looks upon their lowly, naked forms.5 For nothing can be hidden from the Creator — the Qur’an says, “sufficient is thy soul this day as witness against thyself.” Then God casts his judgement, either damning them to suffer without end or blessing them with deep abiding joy. Either way, their eternal fate is sealed.

The Qur’an also illustrates, in vivid detail, the spoils of paradise and the torments of hellfire. Paradise is described as “the Gardens of Pleasure” (56:12), whose residents are served “wine from a flowing spring” (56:21) and “fruit of what they select, and the meat of fowl from whatever they desire” (56:20-21). There, no ill-will is expressed, no harsh words arep spoken — “only a saying: ‘Peace, peace’” (56:26). Conversely, those cast into Hellfire will find a place of “scorching fire and scalding water” (56:46). They will eat from the tree of zaqqum, whose fruit, “like murky oil, boils within bellies” (44:45). And they will endure great suffering as “the Fire will burn their faces and they will grin therein, their lips displaced” (23:104).

The potent imagery with which the realms of the Hereafter are described seems to run contrary to the Qur’an’s assertion that “None can perceive what blessings are hidden for man in that realm [of Paradise] which will delight his eye” (32:17). This verse suggests that human cognitive faculties are unable to fathom the true nature of the Hereafter.7 So the real purpose of the vivid specificity of the language is not to describe the literal experience of the afterlife — rather, it is to inspire readers of the Qur’an to fear God and act piously, so that they may avoid tremendous suffering and reap magnificent joy.

Fortunately for humankind, the Qur’an functions as a moral guidebook, detailing the ritual and ethical actions that will propel one to Paradise after death, and the sacrilegious and sinful actions that will reap punishment in Hellfire. Much of the ethical doctrine of the Qur’an is rooted in the idea that virtuous behavior is akin to nearness to God, and sinful behavior is akin to distance from God. This means both that to act morally is to be near to God, and that to be near to God — to believe fervently in Him, to show profound appreciation for His gifts — is itself the ultimate moral action. Consequently, a chief virtue of Islam is loyalty, or faithfulness (wafā), which manifests in both the “horizontal” relationship between man and man and the “vertical” relationship between man and God.8 In the horizontal sphere, wafā is employed by honoring an agreement or covenant of any form — for example, maintaining inter-tribal accord, practicing marital fidelity, or engaging in fair financial transactions. Vertical wafā is devotion to Allah, recognizing and heeding the divine covenant, namely, “I will be your God and you shall be my people”. This covenant, expressed by God many times in the Old Testament is reinforced in the Qur’an — “O Children of Israel, remember My blessing with which I blessed you and fulfill my covenant and I shall fulfill yours” (2:40).9 Since practicing wafā horizontally is a moral action, it functions as a mechanism to bring oneself nearer to God. And since to bring oneself near to God is to practice wafā vertically, it can be said that there is no operative eschatological difference between divine devotion and devotion to humankind. Both will reap the same reward — “whosoever fulfills his covenant with God, on him will God bestow a great reward” (48:10).

If nearness to God lands one in Paradise, then distance from God lands one in Hellfire. The concept of the kafīr appears throughout the Qur’an, referring to the kind of person who is distant from God.10 Kafīr do not consider their blessings to be Divinely bestowed, and are therefore ungrateful. They do not consider their earthly actions to be determinative of their fate after death, and are therefore unfearing. The Qur’an makes clear the eschatological fate of such  people — “[God] has prepared for the kafīr a painful chastisement” (33:8).

It is implied in the Qur’an that a person will naturally manifest sacred virtues like generosity and compassion in this life if he or she is loyal and spiritually near to Allah. This proximity to God will be actualized in the next life for the virtuous, who will be blessed eternally with the pleasures of Paradise. Likewise, if one is spiritually far from God in this life, that distance too will be realized in the next life, under circumstances far less pleasurable. For we are all governed by the Divine principle of the eschatological harvest — what we sow now, we reap in the Hereafter.

 

Notes:
Mujtabá Mūsavī Lārī and Hamid Algar, Resurrection, Judgement, and the Hereafter (Qom, I.R. Iran: Foundation of Islamic C.P.W., 2010), 148.
Al-Ghazzālī, The Remembrance of Death and the Afterlife: Book XL of The Revival of the Religious Sciences, 184.
3 Ibid., 180.
4 Ibid., 183.
5 Ibid., 193.
6 Ibid., 192.
7 Lārī and Algar, 149.
8 Toshihiko Izutsu, Ethico-Religious Concepts in the Qur’an (Montréal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2002), 87.
9 Ibid., 88.
10 Ibid., 90.

 

Bibliography:
Lārī, Mujtabá Mūsavī, and Hamid Algar. Resurrection, judgement, and the hereafter. Qom, I.R. Iran: Foundation of Islamic C.P.W., 2010.

Izutsu, Toshihiko. Ethico-Religious Concepts in the Qur’an. Montréal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2002.

Al-Ghazzālī. The Remembrance of Death and the Afterlife: Book XL of The Revival of the Religious Sciences.