Quranic Paradise: How to Get to Paradise and What to Expect There
Muhammad Abdel Haleem
The afterlife is an inevitable reality in Islam, the crucial point of which is judgment, followed by requital, whether it be bliss in paradise or torment in hell. Since the Quran is the supreme authority in Islam, the starting point of everything Islamic, and is considered by Muslims to be categorically and thoroughly authentic, this article on paradise examines the subject only in relation to the Quran.
The subject occupies a very important position in the text and naturally much has been written about it by Muslims and non-Muslims. This study examines three questions: Who will get to paradise?, What qualifies them to do so?, and What can they expect when they get there? The examination is based on close linguistic analysis of the text of the Quran. This requires extensive quotation from the text to let the Quran itself speak about the subject. The material is examined critically, paying attention to the context, the questions of quantity and quality, the relative values the Quran assigns to any given rewards, and the way paradise is presented in the Quran in general. This examination shows that much of what has been written – by Muslims and non-Muslims alike – on the three questions formulated above involves the misinterpretation of some aspects of the Quranic picture of paradise and the mistranslation into English of some crucial terms.
2 Inevitability of Judgment
The resurrection and judgment are fundamental in Islamic theology. Without them, the creation of humans would be in vain.
“Did you think We had created you in vain, and that you would not be brought back to Us? Exalted be God!” (Q 23:115–6).
Without them, divine justice would be compromised:
“Would We treat those who believe and do good deeds and those who spread corruption on earth as equal?” (Q 38:28).
“What makes you, then, deny the judgment? Is God not the most just of all judges?” (Q 95:7–8).
Justice entails final recompense: whatever recompense people may have in their life on earth is not comprehensive, or lasting; it is also mixed with the imperfections of this world (Q 2:155, 42:30, 87:17). Thus the divine scheme from the beginning was to have two worlds, al-ūlā (“the first”) and al-ākhira (“the last”), each word occurs in the Quran 115 times. Linguistically, it is impossible to use one of these two terms without it recalling the existence of the other. A good prayer for Muslims is to ask God to grant them happiness in al-dārayn, the two homes.
This scheme is unalterable. There is no escape from the day of resurrection:
“Say [Prophet], ‘God gives you life, then He causes you to die, and then He gathers you all to the day of resurrection about which there is no doubtʼ” (Q 45:26),
“a day that cannot be averted” (Q 42:47).
There is no escape from judgment either.
“People will come forward after resurrection in separate groups to be shown their deeds” (Q 99:6).
“Every soul will be repaid in full for what it has done. God knows best what they do” (Q 39:70).
3 Who Will Reach Paradise?
Anyone, male or female, found at the judgment to have the required qualifications will get to paradise:
“Anyone, ( The pronouns used in the Quran to introduce these statements are man and alladhīna, both of which are particles of generalization and inclusiveness (taʿmīm).) male or female who does good deeds and is a believer will enter paradise and will not be wronged by as much as the dip in a date stone” (Q 4:124).
“Those who believe and do good deeds will have gardens of bliss” (Q 31:8; see also Q 4:57, 122).
God promises this to them:
“This is a true promise from God. Who speaks more truly than God?” (Q 4:122; see also Q 3:194, 28:61, 40:8),
“. . . the true promise that has been given to them” (Q 46:16).
They will not be alone but will have the company of all the good members of their families.
“They will enter the perpetual gardens along with their righteous ancestors, spouses, and descendants” (Q 13:23).
They will be in the best company:
“among those God has blessed: the messengers, the truthful, those who bore witness to the truth and the righteous – what excellent companions these are!” (Q 4:69).
All these are the people of paradise.
4 What are the Qualifications for Entry into Paradise
It is clear throughout the Quran that there are two essential qualifications for entry into paradise: īmān (“belief”) and ʿamal ṣāliḥ (“good deeds”), which frequently collocate in the Quran (there are about 60 citations in the Quran of āmanū wa-ʿamilū ṣāliḥāt. See ʿAbd al-Bāqī, al-Muʿjam al-mufahras 411–2) making it clear that one without the other is not enough. Paradise is a reward for
“what [the blessed believers] have done” (Q 56:24).
So fundamental is ʿamal that
“God has created death and life to test you and reveal which of you is better in actions” (Q 67:2).
An important question is, “belief in what?” Quranic exegetes seem to take this as known and do not comment on it. The answer can be sought in the Quran itself.
The Messenger believes in what has been sent down to him from his Lord and so do the believers. They all believe in God, His angels, His scriptures and His messengers – we make no distinction between any of His messengers. They say, ‘We hear and obey. Grant us Your forgiveness, our Lord. To You we all return!’ (Q 2:285).
This is not just for the believers in the message of Muḥammad but it applies right from the beginning. When Adam and his wife were sent out of the garden:
“We said, ‘Get out, all of you, but when guidance comes from Me, as it certainly will, there will be no fear for those who follow My guidance nor will they grieve’ ” (Q 2:38).
The Quran also states:
God took a pledge from the Children of Israel. We made twelve leaders arise among them and God said, ‘I am with you: if you keep up the prayers, pay the prescribed alms, believe in My messengers and support them, and lend God a good loan, I will wipe out your sins and admit you into gardens graced with flowing streams’ (Q 5:12).
Here belief and required actions are the same as those required of Muḥammad’s followers and the result is the same, their sins will be wiped out and they will be admitted to gardens. After listing Zechariah, John, Mary and Jesus, Abraham, Moses and Aaron, and Ishmael and Idrīs, the Quran continues:
After listing Zechariah, John, Mary and Jesus, Abraham, Moses and Aaron, and Ishmael and Idrīs, the Quran continues:
These were the prophets God blessed, from the seed of Adam, of those We carried in the Ark with Noah, from the seed of Abraham and Israel – and those We guided and chose. When the revelations of the Lord of Mercy were recited to them, they fell to their knees and wept . . . those who repent, who believe, who do righteous deeds will enter the garden. They will not be wronged in the least: they will enter the garden of lasting bliss promised by the Lord of Mercy to His servants (Q 19:58–61).
There are in addition sundry references with regard to Moses in Q 7:156, 169– 70; Abraham in Q 28:82–5; and Joseph in Q 12:101 asking to join the righteous in paradise. The Quran tells us that the scriptures of Abraham and Moses (Q 87:17–19) testify that the hereafter is better and more lasting. More generally:
“The [Muslim] believers, the Jews, the Christians, and the Sabians – all those who believe in God and the last day and do good deeds will have their rewards with their Lord. No fear for them, nor will they grieve” (Q 2:62; see also Q 4:163, 5:69).
In respect to the People of the Book, the Quran emphasizes:
. . . they are not all alike. There are some among the People of the Book who are upright, who recite God’s revelations during the night, who bow down in worship, who believe in God and the last day, who order what is right and forbid what is wrong, who are quick to do good deeds. These people are among the righteous and they will not be denied the reward for whatever good deeds they do (Q 3:113–5).
With regard to belief in God as a requirement for entry to paradise, it should be noted that the Messiah (Jesus son of Mary) is quoted in the Quran as saying:
“Children of Israel, worship God, my Lord and your Lord. If anyone associates others with God, God will forbid him the garden, and hell will be his home” (Q 5:72).
Significant also is the fact that belief in God’s messengers should be without distinction between them, i.e., one should not believe in some and not in others:
“God will give due rewards to those who believe in Him and His messengers and make no distinction between any of them” (Q 4:150–1).
In the Quran they all preach the same fundamental message, the later ones confirming the earlier (Q 3:3, 82).
The entry requirement being the same for all, the Quran stresses that, with regard to the requirements of belief and good deeds, Muslims have no right to expect any different treatment from that given to the People of the Book or vice versa:
It will not be according to your hopes, or those of the People of the Book: anyone who does wrong will be requited for it and will find no one to protect or help him against God; anyone, male or female, who does good deeds and is a believer will enter paradise and will not be wronged by as much as the dip in a date stone (Q 4:124).
4.2 Good Deedsʿ
Amal, in its various forms, occurs over 380 times in the Quran, and is strongly connected with entry into paradise:
“This is the garden you have been given as your own because of what you used to do” (Q 43:72).
The emphasis is on good deeds and the Quran frequently repeats the collocation alladhīna āmanū wa-ʿamilū l-ṣāliḥāt (“those who believe and do good deeds”). A sure way of identifying good deeds is to trace the ones the Quran itself lists as good deeds that lead to the garden. For example:
Hurry toward your Lord’s forgiveness and a garden as wide as the heavens and earth prepared for the righteous, who give both in prosperity and adversity, who restrain their anger and pardon people – God loves those who do good – those who remember God and implore forgiveness for their sins if they do something shameful or wrong themselves – who forgives things but God? – and who never knowingly persist in doing wrong. The reward of such people is forgiveness from their Lord and gardens graced with flowing streams, where they will remain. How excellent is the reward of those who labor! (Q 3:133–6).
There is a similar long list in Q 25:64–76, ending with,
Those who pray, “Our Lord, give us joy in our spouses and offspring. Make us good examples to those who are aware of You.” These servants will be awarded the highest place in paradise for their steadfastness. They will be met with greetings and peace. There they will stay – a happy home and resting place.
We have commanded man to be good to his parents: his mother struggled to carry him and struggled to give birth to him . . . when he has grown to manhood and reached the age of forty, he [may] say, “Lord, help me to be grateful for Your favors to me and to my parents; help me to do good work that pleases you; make my offspring good.” We accept from such people the best of what they do and overlook their bad deeds. They will be among the people of paradise, the true promise that has been given to them (Q 46:15–6).
“The righteous fulfill their vows . . . for the love of Him, they give food to the poor, the orphan and the captive . . . ‘We feed you for the sake of God alone. We seek neither recompense nor thanks from you’ ” (Q 76:7–9).
It is important to note that, in these lists, the Quran does not speak of any single deed that will lead to janna but gives a whole set of deeds. That is why each passage should be read as a whole, as shown above. In this way it becomes clear how the Quran itself speaks about these deeds and we understand more perfectly the comments it makes on them, which give them their respective values and show the Quran’s persuasive rhetoric (targhīb). When Muslims read these passages, especially in Arabic, they experience the contents in a way that cannot be obtained by extracting and analyzing them. For example, when Q 46:15–6 is reduced to the instruction to be good to parents, it loses its persuasive force.
Sometimes the Quran does not list deeds as entry requirements, but just states more generally
“those who believe and do good deeds,” or simply talks about al-muttaqīn (“those who are mindful [of their Lord],” Q 44:51, 52:17, 54:54, and 77:41),
or man khāfa maqāma rabbihi
(“those who fear [the time when they will] stand before their Lord,” Q 55:46, 79:40).
These two descriptions cover every good deed because such people will stay away from whatever is bad and do whatever is good.
5 What Awaits Those Qualified to Enter?
Although the Quran tells us that the joy of paradise is kept hidden:
“No soul knows what joy is kept hidden in store for them as a reward for what they have done” (Q 32:17),
let us attempt to explore what is revealed through hints and images (mathal) of this joy. We begin from the beginning.
“On the day when you see the believers, both men and women, with their light streaming ahead of them and to their right, ‘The good news for you today is that there are gardens, graced with flowing streams, where you will stay. That is the supreme triumph’ ” (Q 57:12).
After being given such excellent news, Those who were mindful of God will be led in throngs to the garden. When they arrive, they will find its gates wide open and the keepers will say to them
“Peace be upon you, you have been good. Come in, you are here to stay,” and they themselves will say, “Praise be to God, who has kept His promise to us and given us this land as our own. Now we may live wherever we please in the garden. How excellent is the reward of those who labor!” You will see the angels surrounding the Throne, glorifying their Lord with praise (Q 39:73–5).
6 Where is the Janna?
The Quran does not specify where exactly the janna will be. This is perhaps part of the mystery of paradise which makes it part of al-ghayb (“what has been kept hidden”) for the pious. What is given in the Quran is only a mathal (a likeness) of something indescribable. Accordingly, the exact structure of paradise is not specified. However, the Quran tells us that
“its breadth is like the breadth of the heaven and earth” (Q 3:133, 57:21),
so it cannot be anywhere on earth as we know it. It is also described as being ʿāliya (“high or lofty,” Q 69:22, 88:10). It has abwāb (“gates,” Q 13:23, 30:13, 39:73), which are opened to welcome the blessed, with angels to greet them, whereas the gates of hell are closed and are opened when a consignment of the damned arrives (Q 39:71).
7 Names of Paradise
Janna is the generic name that occurs more than 66 times in the Quran, the dual jannatān occurs twice in relation to the next world and twice in relation to this world, and the plural jannāt occurs 69 times. The root of the verb j-n-n indicates being covered and protected, in this world this relates to being concealed and protected from the sun by the branches of trees. Some suggest that janna is taken from the Hebrew word gan (Genesis 2:8 – 3 Kinberg, Paradise 12.) However, the root is well known in Arabic: junna is a shield, jinn are unseen. Speculation about non-Arab origins (Ibid., 13–5.) remains speculation. Whatever may be said in that respect, the fact is, when the Prophet Muḥammad recited the Quran to the Arabs, he naturally used words they would understand, simply because they were part of the language they knew and used. Whatever foreign origin there may have been does not in any case affect the whole picture of paradise in the Quran. Christians and Jews see paradise in the Quran as different from the one in their texts, or they would not have criticized the Islamic version. The Quran is an Arabic text. The Muslims who received it were native speakers of Arabic. They knew what the words meant. They also believed that everything that was said about paradise was meant to be seen as a reward for good deeds.
The word janna/jannāt comes in iḍāfa constructs as jannat al-maʾwā (“garden of abode,” Q 32:19, 79:39), jannat al-naʿīm (“garden of bliss,” e.g., Q 22:56, 31:8). Janna is also described in a number of ways, dār al-salām (“home of peace, wholeness,” Q 6:127, 10:20) and dār al-khuld (“the eternal home,” Q 41:28). People in paradise are said to be in maqām amīn (“a secure dwelling,” Q 44:51). Paradise is also described as al-dār al-ākhira (“the last home,” Q 40:39) and al-ḥusnā (“the best,” Q 10:26, 13:18). The Quran also speaks of jannāt al-firdaws (Q 18:107). Whatever the origin of the word firdaws when it came into Arabic in pre-Islamic times, (Badawi and Abdel Haleem, Dictionary 700.) the general meaning for Muslims is that of a high, selected place in paradise, hence the common phrase al-firdaws al-aʿlā (“the lofty paradise”). All the names and adjectives of paradise give the picture of a good and highly desirable place.
8 Janna, Jannāt, Jannatān
Al-janna as a singular refers to the garden, the abode of the good, in contrast to al-nār, the fire, the abode of the bad. As such, al-janna collocates with the word aṣḥāb (“the companions,” Q 36:55), udkhulū (“enter [imperative],” Q 43:70), abshirū (“rejoice in the good news,” Q 41:30), ūrithtumūhā (“have been given as an inheritance,” Q 43:72), mathal (“the likeness of,” Q 13:35, 47:15), uzlifat (“brought near,” Q 50:31, 81:13), farīq fī l-janna (“a group in the garden,” Q 42:7), and baytan fī l-janna (“a house in the garden,” Q 66:11). When it is indefinite, or in the plural and the dual, it is a garden inside the main garden ( The word janna is also used to signify an ordinary garden, as in Q 18:39 and 68:17.)
Jannāt in the plural indicates greater privilege from God and collocates with lahum (“for them,” Q 85:11), jazāʾuhum (“their reward,” Q 98:8), athābahum (“He rewarded them,” Q 5:85), la udkhilannahum (“I will admit them,” Q 3:195), yubashshiruhum bi- (“He gives them the good news of . . .,” Q 9:21), waʿada (“He promised,” Q 9:72), aʿadda lahum (“He prepares for them,” Q 9:89), and fī jannāt (“in gardens,” Q 22:56). In very few places does it appear with the definite article al-. Out of the 69 occurrences 40 appear with anhār (“streams”) and 29 without.
Jannatān (two gardens) occurs only twice, in Sura 55, verses 46 and 63.Two gardens are for the better class of believers and two others for the less deserving. Annemarie Schimmel observes that “the Quranic description of paradise is rather consistent . . . but our imaginative faculty becomes slightly confused when, in Surat al-Rahman, (Sura 55:36–73), two gardens are mentioned, with two fountains of running water and two kinds of every fruit . . .” ( Schimmel, Celestial garden 17.) J. Wansbrough discussed the two versions occurring at the end of Sura 55 and argues that version A [55:46–61] represents an elaboration of version B [55:62– 77] “both by rhetorical device and exegetical gloss.” ( Wansbrough, Quranic studies 25–9.) He goes on to reduce the whole figure to one garden. However, this ignores the context of the Sura itself, which is built on duality from beginning to end, and the principle that different parts of the Quran explain each other. Indeed two and a half lines after the end of Sura 55, in Sura 56 we have an explicitly expressed tripartite division similar to the one in Sura 55, one for those brought near, another for those on the right hand, and the third of the trio refers to the fire. The two gardens in Sura 56 are different in quality, like those in Sura 55, and this conclusively proves that the numbers are as stated in 56 and cannot be reduced in the way Wansbrough argued. ( See Abdel Haleem, Understanding the Quran 167–81.)
Nor is there any need for our imaginative faculty to be confused: Suratal-Raḥmān mentions two pairs of gardens as understood by Annemarie Schimmel. The question arises, “Why two gardens for those brought near and two for the less deserving?” The answer to this can be found in the Quran, when it refers to the people of Sheba:
“There was a sign for the people of Sheba. In their dwelling places: two gardens, one on the right and one on the left: ‘Eat from what your Lord has provided for you and give Him thanks, for your land is good and your Lord most forgiving’ ” (Q 34:15).
Two gardens – one on the right and one on the left – represent the ultimate luxury.( The Quran’s explanation makes more sense than all the speculation given by Qurṭubī and quoted in Kinberg, Paradise 15.) This is further confirmed in the parable of the two gardens in Surat al-Kahf (Q 18:32ff.), where the use of two gardens shows more privilege given by God. So jannatān in Sura 55 cannot, as suggested by Schimmel, be explained as merely “caused by the necessity of the rhyme in the dual, provoked by the initial word ar-Rahman.” ( Schimmel, Celestial garden 17–8. See also A. Neuwirth’s contribution to this volume.)
9 Essential Components of Paradise
The essential component of paradise is flowing water. This is logical since God says,
“We made every living thing from water” (Q 21:30).
No garden can exist without water, whether in the damp equatorial heat, the dry heat of Arabia, (Schimmel, Celestial garden 14.) or the well-watered lands of the temperate zones. (Astronomers continue to search for signs of water on planets as the essential basis of all life.) Springs and fountains are “flowing” (tajriyān, Q 55:50) and “gushing” (naḍḍākhatān, Q 55:66); the righteous cause the spring to gush (Q 76:6). Such verbs indicate life, energy, and plenty. (These and other special characteristics are shown in all the language used by the Quran to describe paradise. See Abdel Haleem, Understanding the Quran 103–5.) But water comes mainly in the form tajrī min taḥtihā l-anhār, literally “running from beneath it” or “beneath the trees,” anhār is always in the plural and always running, which seems to bring a healing effect. “We shall have removed all ill-feeling from their hearts: streams will flow at their feet. They will say,
‘Praise be to God who guided us to this: had God not guided us we would never have found the way’ ” (Q 7:43).
The question now is what are nahr and anhār? The normal translation is “rivers.” This, however, does not seem to fit the image. To have rivers everywhere under paradise or under the trees would be too wet. Nor does the translation “rivers” agree with the original root verb n-h-r, which means to flow. Nahr is al-māʾ al-ʿadhb al-jārī (“fresh running water”) (Marʿashlī and Marʿashlī, Ṣiḥāḥ ii, 615.) Anhara l-ʿirq means the vein kept flowing. ( Muṣṭafā et al., Muʿjam al-wasīṭ ii, 957.) What seems to be important in paradise is fresh, running water, so the most suitable translation in the context of jannāt tajrī min taḥtihā l-anhār seems to be “gardens graced with running streams.” In Q 47:15 there is a description of “rivers of water, forever pure, rivers of milk forever fresh, rivers of wine, a delight for those who drink, and rivers of honey clarified and pure”; all these rivers are running and seem to suggest a fresh, plentiful, and continuous supply rather than some specific kind of river, whether larger or small. ( There were no major rivers in Arabia.)
Annemarie Schimmel writes that “the most famous detailed description of these rivers can be gathered from Sura 47:16ff. . . . The idea of the four rivers . . . Thus agreeing with the concept of four rivers, which many Western writers seem to repeat and some relate it to the four rivers in Genesis.” (Schimmel, Celestial garden 15.) Bell, for example, says: “The details have their parallels in Christian and Jewish literature.” He quotes Horovitz and Grimme. ( Bell, Quran translated ii, 515 note 1.) There are in fact, as mentioned in the quote above, more than four rivers and they are not necessarily taken from any Biblical source. What is described is in fact four types of drink, each type in plentiful supply, described as rivers (anhār) ( Anhār min māʾ, wa-anhār min laban, wa-anhār min khamr, wa-anhār min ʿasal.) Nor is there any need to go to the Bible for a source or parallel.( Genesis 2:10. The four rivers here are geographical.) In fact the source is in the Quran itself, in Q 16:65–9, where the four types of drink are mentioned in exactly the same order as they are in Q 47:15ff. – water, milk, wine, and then honey. All are given to show the power and grace of God to all people, not just the believers. In fact this passage and this part of the Sura are addressed in a Meccan Sura to the polytheists of Mecca, who consumed all these four drinks and this predates 47, a Medinan Sura.
Other components of paradise include tall, shady trees ( Among all the luscious gardens and plentiful streams, lofty buildings are provided for believers (Q 25:75, 29:58, 39:20)) laden with an unceasing supply of fruit that hangs within reach, and is not forbidden. The blessed, with their spouses (Q 36:56) will be seated comfortably (muttakiʾīn, often mistranslated as “reclining”) (Takiʾa jalasa mutamakkinan means “he sat well established in his position”; al-muttakaʾ “is what you sit on, an upholstered chair with a back and two arms”; al-muttakiʾ is “man istawā qāʿidan ʿalā wiṭāʾ mutamakkinan” (“he who sits upright on something under him, in an established position”), Muṣṭafā et al., Muʿjam al-wasīṭ ii, 1052.), on upholstered seats (surur, Q 56:15) and arāʾik (Q 83:23), which are things to sit on, not beds but chairs. Seated on them, the people of paradise will look around (yanẓurūn, Q 83:23, 35), clearly enjoying the scene around them. There will be what delights the eyes (Q 43:71) and nothing to jar the ears:
“There you will hear no idle talk” (Q 88:1),
“no vain or lying talk” (Q 78:35).
They will wear green silk garments and gold and silver bracelets (Q 18:31, 76:21).
The Quran describes food and drink in paradise, mainly fruit such as they choose, meat of any bird they like (Q 56:21), wine that never intoxicates or loosens their tongues in idle talk (Q 52:23), wa-saqāhum rabbuhum
(“and their Lord gives them a pure drink,” Q 76:21) (what an honor!) flavored with ginger (Q 76:17)
– a very healthy diet one may say. The Arabs who first received the Quran were people who celebrated with meals of camel, goat, and sheep meat but none of this is mentioned in paradise. What is described in paradise is more in the nature of light snacks which, together with everything else given in paradise, will be offered by God who will tell the blessed:
“This is a reward for you: your striving has been thanked” (Q 76:22).
10 Women in Paradise
The fact that God will not allow the deeds of believing women to be wasted but will reward them in paradise (Q 3:156) with a comprehensive list of rewards, and will tell them that their efforts are thanked, has been subject to criticism by some: “Thoroughly studied, but also criticized in non-Islamic circles is the topic of the women granted the faithful as a celestial reward in the Quranic Paradise.” ( Kinberg, Paradise 18.)
To describe the women as being “granted to the faithful as a celestial reward” is a misrepresentation of the Quranic picture. “As a reward” is mentioned in the Quran not just referring to women but to the whole picture of what has been promised in long passages, e.g., Q 52:17–28, 55:46–60, 56:11–26, 76:7–22. To think that the reward is “women for men” shows a very odd selectivity and reductionism. The Quran tells us that
“God has promised the faithful, men and women, gardens graced with flowing streams, there to stay, and goodly dwellings in eternal gardens and – greatest of all – God’s good pleasure” (Q 9:72).
In Q 33:35
“God has prepared forgiveness and a rich reward . . . for Muslim men and women, believing men and women, obedient men and women, truthful men and women, patient men and women . . .”
In Q 36:56,
“the people of paradise, . . . and their spouses, are seated on chairs in the shade . . .”
so the believing women of this world will be resurrected, judged, and rewarded in paradise. Just as men will be
“created anew in a form they do not know” (Q 56:61),
God will create women anew (anshaʾnahunna),
“virginal, loving, of matching age (atrāb)” (Q 56:35):
everyone will be young again, male and female. They will not be suffering from old age. They will praise God, who settled them in the everlasting home where no toil or fatigue will touch them (Q 35:35). The women seen in paradise are kawāʿib (Q 78:33). Much has been made of this kawāʿib,which occurs only once in the Quran. As the authors of al-Ṣiḥāḥ ( Marʿashlī and Marʿashlī, Ṣiḥāḥ ii, 397.) explain, “al-kāʿib wa-hiya l-jāriya ḥīna yabdū thadyuhā li-nuhūd” – a kāʿib is “a young girl when her breast shows as it develops,” so what is intended here is clearly their youthfulness rather than the “swelling breasts” that regularly recur in Western writing. ( E.g. Schimmel, Celestial garden 15.) According to Lane, jāriyatun kāʿib is a girl whose breasts are beginning to swell, or become prominent or protuberant, ( Lane, Lexicon vii, 2616.) so the first meaning here is that the breasts are beginning to swell. It should be remembered that the dictionaries mention a jāriya – young girl. Those who exaggerate the physical aspects of the Quranic paradise choose a further stage in her development. In colloquial bedouin Arabic people express the same concept by saying al-bint bazzazat (the girl has developed breasts), even when they are just beginning to appear. The boys will be wildān mukhalladūn (Q 76:19), of an age matching the girls. In fact, any physical description of the people of paradise is very sparse: ḥūr ʿīn, with beautiful large eyes is mentioned only twice (Q 52:20, 56:22).
“They are like rubies and brilliant pearls” (Q 55:56).
The physical description for both men and women is:
“You will recognize in their faces the radiance of bliss (naḍrat al-naʿīm)” (Q 83:24).
Nowhere are they seen in any sexual situations or even sleeping. In fact, what is clear in the descriptions is that they are sitting in groups all the time, ( The guilty person, in contrast, will suffer on his own (Q 44:44, 53)). facing each other.
“We shall remove any bitterness from their hearts. [They shall] be seated, facing each other, as brothers . . .” (Q 15:47).
“They will be honored in gardens of bliss, seated facing each other” (Q 37:42–4),
“on seats lined up in rows” (Q 52:20).
“They pass around a cup which does not lead to any idle talk or sin” (Q 52:23).
Given these sparse descriptions Muslims usually express great surprise that many Westerners seem to criticize the physical pleasures in the Quranic paradise. Some have expressed their disapproval of such Western thinking in strong language – On a recent visit to Morocco, the issue of the image of the Islamic paradise in the West was raised at a meeting with a group of Muslim scholars. The quick reaction was, as I recall: “We do not take our criteria of what is good paradise or inferior paradise from such people. Europeans and Americans consume more food and drink than whole continents in the rest of the world, and they cannot sell anything without having scantily-clad young women advertising it. It must be because they are obsessed with food and women that they pick on this in the Quranic paradise, change the true description and blow it out of all proportion, and do not see the real extent of the spiritual joy and bliss which far outweigh any physical description.”
11 Physical and Non-Physical Rewards in Paradise
As Ibn Rushd explains, the representation of existence in the afterlife as being bodily and not merely spiritual, is more suitable for the majority of people, as it is easier to understand and more moving. (Ibn Rushd, Manāhij 245.) Figurative representation of spiritual realities may be appropriate only for speculative thinkers, whereas the simpler religious explanations are aimed primarily at the great majority. Scriptures address human beings of all varieties of mental, psychological, and cultural backgrounds, at all times and in all parts of the world.
“We sent you [Prophet] only to bring good news and warning to all human beings (kāffatan lil-nās)” (Q 34:28).
Such minimal physical descriptions as are present in the Quran would thus be fitting for some of the people the Quran addresses. Similarly, the philosopher Abū Manṣūr al-ʿĀmirī (d. 381/992) said
“It is inevitable that the rewards [in paradise] should be made in a way that is pleasing (and torment be made in a way that is painful) and that its nature cannot be apprehended except by giving a standard or a gauge for it of what human senses have experienced.”( Al-ʿĀmirī, Kitāb al-Iʿlām 138.)
The fact is that human beings are not angels and should be addressed as human beings. When the Meccans requested that an angel, not a human, be sent to them as a messenger of God, the answer was decisive:
“Say [Prophet], ‘If there were angels walking about on Earth, feeling at home, We would have sent them an angel from heaven as a messenger’ ” (Q 17:95).
According to the picture given in the Quran, when humans go to paradise they will not be turned into angels; they will still be a class of creatures different from the angels. The angels will be carrying the throne of God (Q 69:17), or
“surrounding the throne, glorifying their Lord with praise” (Q 39:75).
They also come and greet the new arrivals in paradise and welcome them (Q 13:23–4, 39:73).
Even the physical comforts of paradise are shown in the Quran as a mark of honor and appreciation from God (Q 70:35, 76:22), a grace from Him (Q 44:57).
In Q 47:14, in addition to the plentiful supplies of four different drinks(anhār), “and fruit of every kind,” the blessed will have “the forgiveness and pleasure of their Lord.”
When provision is attributed to God in the plural of majesty, it ensures a very special privilege, e.g., adkhalnāhum (“We have made them enter”), amdadnāhum (“We have provided them”), and zawwajnāhum (“We have joined/paired them”); when provision is attributed to Him in the singular, it is given in the form of rabbuhum (“their Sustainer”) (e.g., Q 2:63, 3:169, 42:22, 45:30, 68:34, and 76:21) or in the form of “My servants” (Q 21:105, 89:29).
Being seated comfortably with their spouses, surrounded by beautiful scenery, wearing green silken robes, does not in any case detract from feeling spiritual. One does not have to be naked or shabbily clothed, sitting in a rough place, or segregated by gender in order to feel spiritual.
“Say, ‘Who has forbidden the adornment and the nourishment God has provided for His servants?’ Say, ‘They are [allowed] for those who believe during the life of this world: they will be theirs alone on the day of resurrection’ ” (Q 7:32).
“Should the reward of good be anything but good?” (Q 55:60).
The people of paradise feel that they have been given such good things as a grace from God, which enhances their spirituality and makes them more thankful. Even before they reach paradise, they receive the blessing of being protected from the fire of hell and they themselves are aware of this and thankful for it (Q 35:35, 52:27). When they are inside paradise, they have a chance to see the sufferings of those in hell and recognize the blessing of God in not being there (Q 37:57). The Quran always brings out the contrast between hellfire and the garden of paradise. The believers have long recognized that whoever God sends to hell is put to shame (Q 3:192).
On the day of judgment, after being spared the suffering and shame of being taken to hell,the believers, both men and women, will be seen with their light streaming out ahead of them and to their right and they will be told,
“The good news for you today is that there are gardens graced with flowing streams where you will stay. This is truly the supreme triumph” (Q 57:12);
You, soul at peace, return to your Lord, well pleased and well pleasing; go in among My servants; and enter My garden (Q 89:27–30).
On the day of judgment, after being spared the suffering and shame of being taken to hell,
the believers, both men and women, will be seen with their light streaming out ahead of them and to their right and they will be told, “The good news for you today is that there are gardens graced with flowing streams where you will stay. This is truly the supreme triumph” (Q 57:12);
You, soul at peace, return to your Lord, well pleased and well pleasing; go in among My servants; and enter My garden (Q 89:27–30).
The greater honor of being among God’s servants comes first.
He will admit them by the gate of honor, by a gate that is well pleasing to them (Q 4:31, 22:59).
For them there will be no fear, no grief, no shame (Q 10:62, 66:8).
God will thank them (Q 2:158, 76:22).
The blessed will have a sure footing with their Lord (Q 10:2).
They will live securely in gardens and rivers, secure in the presence of an all-powerful sovereign (Q 54:54–5).
There will be radiant faces, looking toward their Lord (Q 75:22–3).
God is well pleased with them and they are well pleased with Him (Q 98:8).
God has promised the believers, both men and women, gardens graced with flowing streams, where they will remain; good peaceful homes in gardens of lasting bliss; and – greatest of all – God’s good pleasure: that is the supreme triumph (Q 9:72).
They will have the good company of their good spouses, parents and children (Q 13:23, 52:22).
. . [they] will be among those He has blessed: the messengers, the truthful, those who bear witness to the truth, and the righteous. What excellent companions these are! (Q 4:69).
They will be in dār al-salām (the home of peace) (Q 6:127). They rejoice that they will not die (Q 37:59).
They are there forever and will not be expelled (Q 15:48).
In fact examination of the Quran reveals that the number of references to spiritual and moral rewards in paradise exceeds those to material rewards. (Draz, Moral world 158–65.)
12 Figurative Language
With all the descriptions and details given in the Quran, it still states that what has been given is only mathal al-janna (“a picture of the garden,” Q 13:35, 47:15). In the description of the purity of boys in paradise, the Quran uses similes: they are ka-amthāl luʾluʾ maknūn (“like hidden pearls,” Q 52:24) the same simile is used for the women in Q 56:23. In Q 37:49 another simile is used: kaʾanna hunna bayḍun maknūn (“as if they were hidden eggs”) (Arabs described beautiful women as being as precious as ostrich eggs, protected from the dust with feathers). In Q 76:19, the wildān mukhalladūn, people forever young in paradise, are also described metaphorically as ḥasibtahum luʾluʾan manthūra (“you would think them scattered pearls”). The fruit the people of paradise are given will resemble what they were given before (Q 2:25).
What God has for the righteous is better (khayr, Q 3:198) and more lasting (abqā, Q 87:17) than the life and rewards of this world. The Quran does not say how much or in what way it is better. According to Arabic rhetoric, leaving it unspecified indicates that what is talked about is indescribable. It must be remembered that on that day
“the earth is turned into another earth, the heavens into another heaven” (Q 14:48).
Ibn ʿAbbās, a prominent companion of the Prophet Muḥammad, aptly observed,
“There is nothing this world shares with al-janna except the names of things.”(Al-Ṭabarī, Jāmiʿ al-bayān i, 174.).
What is described is only what the good receive on arrival, nuzūlan (Q 18:107; 41:32). Nuzūl is what has been prepared for a guest. (Muṣṭafā et al., al-Muʿjam al-wasīṭ 915.) The command udkhulū (“Enter”) is used in several places (Q 7:49, 15:46, 16:32, 39:73, 43:70, 50:34). In many situations, the Quran says no more than “they will have whatever they wish for.” See Q 25:16, 39:34, 42:22, and 50:35, where God says:
“They will have all that they wish for there, and We have more for them.”
With all the details the Quran gives of paradise, it remains in reality partof al-ghayb (“the unseen/unknown”) and one of the first characteristics of the believer is that they believe in al-ghayb (Q 2:3).
“No soul knows what joy (qurrat aʿyun) is kept hidden in store for them [the believers] as a reward for what they have done” (Q 32:17).
The expression qurrat aʿyun has been variously translated “comfort to the eye” and “joy, bliss.” When God restored Moses to his mother, it was so that taqarra ʿaynuha (“her eye might be comforted, and not grieve,” Q 28:13). What is kept hidden now will become clear and real when the good arrive in paradise, and it is no wonder that even after being there for a long time, they will not wish to leave (Q 15:41, 18:108). Why should they desire to leave when they have already achieved al-fawz al-ʿaẓīm (“the supreme achievement,” e.g., Q 57:12).
In the Encyclopaedia of the Qurʾān, after describing the women granted to men as a “celestial reward” and the delicacies of eating and drinking in palaces, the author of the article on paradise goes on to say, “Such pleasures and those like them are often defined as ‘[the great] triumph’ ( fawz).” This seriously misrepresents what al-fawz al-ʿaẓīm stands for in the Quran. The author gives a list starting with Q 4:13, which mentions nothing of the physical details being discussed. It merely says
“God will admit whoever obeys God and His Messenger to gardens graced with flowing streams, and there they will stay: ‘that is the supreme triumph.’ ” Q 5:119
is also cited but again does not mention the details:
“God will say, ‘This is a day when the truthful will benefit from their truthfulness. They will have gardens graced with flowing streams, there to remain forever. God is pleased with them and they with him: this is the supreme triumph.’ ”
Cited also in the list is Q 9:72, but all we have in the verse is:
“God has promised the believers, both men and women, gardens graced with flowing streams where they will remain. Good, peaceful homes in gardens of lasting bliss and, greatest of all, God’s good pleasure: that is the supreme triumph.”
Q 9:89 and 100, also included in the author’s list, are even briefer. See also Q 45:30:
“Those who believed and did good deeds will be admitted by their Lord into His Mercy: that is the clearest triumph.”
Similarly, Q 48:5, 57:12, 61:12, 64:9, and last on the list 85:11:
“Those who believe and do good deeds will have gardens graced with flowing streams: that is the great triumph.”
None of these mention the delights claimed in the Encyclopaedia of theQurʾān to be al-fawz al-ʿaẓīm. The true blessing of paradise for the believers, then, is to be admitted by their Lord to the joy kept hidden in store for them (Q 9:72 and others, see above)
“and, greatest of all, God’s good pleasure.”
Muhammad A.S. Abdel Haleem OBE – is King Fahd Professor of Islamic Studies and director of the Centre of Islamic Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. He received his PhD in 1973 from the University of Cambridge.
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