Throughout the long history of mankind people of various cultures have developed beliefs in the afterlife as a place of reward and punishment. The only remaining wonder of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the pyramids, are a monument set in stone to this belief in a continuing existence after death. Islam teaches us as well that in the afterlife, on the day of judgment, people will be judged. Faith and good deeds done during one’s lifetime will be rewarded with paradise. If, however, one loved this “transitory world,” as it is called in the Quran (Q 75:20), too much and disregarded the hereafter, then one will be punished with hell, the place of no hope and full of suffering. On the day of judgment, it is no longer possible for one to make up for one’s corruption by worldly temptations and for one’s unjust and merciless deeds. The Quran, therefore, warns again and again to contemplate life and its origin and man’s true destiny. The clear significance of what happens in this life, the Quran reminds us repeatedly, can only be known only in view of the hereafter.
The tenets of Islam with regard to eschatological concepts such as paradise, hell, the day of judgment, and eternity are best explained in view of its understanding of humankind and especially its duties on Earth. Man’s role as God’s vicegerent on Earth, although excellent, is nevertheless limited in scope and power. He is obliged to take responsibility for himself and for the Earth. He is a representative and not an absolute ruler and must obey the instructions transmitted to him. Faith leads him to search for the “face of God, the Almighty.” His living space, the creation which he did not create and which he cannot sustain by himself, has been entrusted to his stewardship. The special position of man in this creation is explained in the Quran as being due to the fact that, in contrast to other creatures which, as the Quran states (Q 3:83) all obey God, man was created a free being. He can therefore freely choose to follow his destiny and therefore follow the straight path which has been determined for him, or he can neglect his human duties and stray onto wrong paths, thus increasingly losing himself. If he follows his destiny, and thus acts responsibly and follows his conscience, he will be richly rewarded (Q 16:30). If he strays onto wrong paths, but recognizes his mistakes and sincerely regrets them, he is granted another chance to live a fulfilled life with a new path being opened to him. “If only he (man) would race up the steep path,” it says in the Quran (Q 90:11), and strive for good, selfless deeds, patience, and mercy. God’s lifeline (Q 3:103), His guidance, is only received by those who truly regret “what their hands have forwarded,” as the Quran states (Q 78:40), namely their unjust deeds.
However, only in the gardens of paradise in its various chambers (Q 29:58)will people receive all that they desire (Q 16:31). There they will forever live as their souls have desired, as the Quran teaches. Here their search for the“face of God” (Q passim) will finally be rewarded (Q 92:20). Paradise is God’sabode (Q 3:198), the garden of eternity, reward and home coming (Q 25:15). He who reaches paradise will dwell therein forever and will not wish to leave(Q 18:108). “As We produced the first creation, so We shall bring it back again,” says the Quran (Q 21:104). The eternal delight of the soul, everlasting enjoyment, as the Quran expresses it (Q 9:72), is “God’s good pleasure; that is the mighty triumph.”
1 The Choice of the Path
From a general point of view it seems that there are many paths available toman to achieve the ultimate goal of his desires, the realization of his life in its abundance. However, the issue of their relevance arises repeatedly, especially when we become disappointed again and again in our efforts.
The Quran thus recommends that man develop his reason, the most precious of God’s gifts, in order to think independently and not to follow the masses. Reason, occasionally also referred to as the “heart” in the Quran, is the light that aids us in finding the right path destined for us. “And God summons to the Abode of Peace,” teaches the Quran, “and He guides whomsoever He will to a straight path” (Q 10:25).
God breathed some of His spirit into man when He created him, as the Qur’an teaches us (Q 15:29). He is closer to us than our jugular vein (Q 50:16), it is explained, and He answers anyone who calls out to Him (Q 2:196). In their search for God, mystics like to refer to the Quranic verse (7:172) which states that God told man when He created him that He is his Lord and Creator, and that man must obey Him. Because of this innate knowledge, man can-not claim on the day of judgment that he did not know his obligation to obey God. The revelations in the Quran remind all human beings of their true Lord and their true destiny, which consists in serving Him (Q 76:29). “Surely this is a reminder,” states the Quran. “So he who will may take to his Lord a way”(Q 76:29). Accordingly, Sufis or Islamic mystics, attempt to submit themselves as unconditionally as possible to the will of God, who, as He transmits in His revelations, only wants salvation and happiness for humankind. The love of the mystic for God, as the well-known Islamic philosopher and mystic al-Ghazālī(d. 505/1111) once said, is “a state that is tasted (i.e., experienced personally) as reality by him who proceeds on this path (of the mystics).” As al-Ghazālī also expressed, the spirit of man “is something divine . . . and cannot be grasped by the human mind.”(Ghazālī, Iḥyāʾ iii, 4)
On this topic, the Quran states that God has put faith in the hearts of those who believe in Him and the day of judgment, and “He has confirmed them with a Spirit from Himself” (Q 58:22). “To God belongs the Unseen of the heavens and the earth,” states the Quran (Q 16:77). To the question concerning her opinion about paradise, the mystic Rābiʿa al-ʿAdawiyya (d. 185/801), famous for her love of God, answered: “Oh my Lord, if I pray to You out of fear of hell, burn me in it, and if I pray to You in hope of paradise, so banish me from it, but if I pray to You for Your own sake, then do not conceal from me Your eternal beauty.”(Rābiʿa al-ʿAdawiyya in ʿAṭṭār, Tadhkirat al-awliyāʾ i, 30.)
2 The Straight Path of Faith and Good Deeds
If we return for a moment to the teachings of religion and thus to the origin of all human conceptions of happiness, morality, responsibility, and human fulfillment, we receive more detailed insight into how these ideas are to be understood and how they can be realized, and thus how we can reach the paths that lead us to paradise.
The paradise described by the revelations marks the beginning and the end of human history. It is the vision of a perfectly happy life at the beginning of creation and then again at its end, in eternity. The first paradise, a life of innocence and lasting bliss (Q 9:21), we can imagine in our desires, but we can not imagine the coming paradise in eternity in the same sense, for we are not able to truly imagine eternity. As the Quran teaches us, only faith imparts knowledge of the last things to us – meaning the day of judgment, the hereafter, and eternity – and with it a life of constantly sought, voluntary good deeds. He who desires paradise, it says, strives for it with his actions. Man erroneously always thinks he knows what he is doing. Strictly speaking, however, this is a mistake. Only in the hereafter, as the Quran teaches us repeatedly, will the veils be taken from his eyes, and he will be told what he has done. “Unto Him shall you return,” the Quran warns repeatedly. “Then He will tell you of what you have been doing” (Q 6:60, see also 58:7).
The Quran encourages man to reflect on his destiny, as his own deeds determine his fate in this and the coming world. Thus, he should let himself be guided in his actions by reason. When man strays from the path destined for him, the straight path of Islam, the voluntary submission to God and His will, he will occupy “the lowest of the low” (Q 95:4–6). However, when he realizes his destiny he receives, as the Quran states, a reward that has no end: paradise. Moreover, he already receives rewards in this world. “We have certainly created man in the best of stature; then We return him to the lowest of the low, except for those who believe and do righteous deeds, for they will have a reward uninterrupted” (Q 95:4–6). The Quran stresses that no one is burdened with more than they can carry (Q 2:286, 7:42, 46:16). “Those who believe and do deeds of righteousness,” promises the Quran, “unto them the All-merciful shall bestow love” (Q 19:96).
3 The Denial of the Message of the Straight Path
He who denies the truth of the revelations and only believes in the temporal and material world, i.e., this world, but not in the next world, should prove, the Quran teaches, that he has power over creation. However, he is not capable of this; he cannot even, as the Quran expresses, “possess . . . so much as the skin of a date-stone” (Q 35:13). Another example (Q 2:258) mentions the ProphetAbraham, who responded to a king who claimed to be the almighty one who rules over everything: “See, God raised the sun in the East, why don’t you raise it from the West.” Thus he silenced him. To be precise, we are not even capable of controlling the smallest part of creation. Our ability to understand creation and thus ourselves is limited, as experience shows us. This begins with our knowledge of time, which touches our entire life. It is not truly possible for us to imagine that there is a limit to time, and to conceive what was before time or what may be after its end. On the other hand, we are completely capable, when we think about it, to grasp these limits to our understanding and thus also to anticipate that life and creation keep secrets from us. We have then begun to expand our intellectual horizons.
Strictly speaking, the only thing we know of time is that it is not really in our hands. We do not know how much more of it is available to us. We often feel that it seems to be sliding through our fingers. When we want it to pass quickly, it seems to move much too slowly. On the other hand, when we want a lot of time, it passes much too quickly. What we can finally ascertain when we think about time more closely, is that first and foremost, we can use our time, the time that is given to us, either in a way that is meaningful for our lives – or we can waste it. Eternity cannot be defined with temporal concepts. However, in our experience of the timeless beauty of creation, we can come close to it, as when we experience and observe in our lives the timeless relevance of such basic human values as love or justice. If we bring to mind these and similar considerations on the limitations of our knowledge, and if we see that we can transcend these limitations by way of certain experiences, then we have a suit-able starting point to further pursue questions on paradise and the paths leading there.
In antiquity, the concept of the eternal cycle of things was taught. With the religions of revelation, however, a linear notion of time developed. It is only at the end of time as we know it, the day of judgment, that will man recognize, so it is revealed, what he has made of himself and his life through his deeds. Until then, we can only speculate on eschatological questions, or we can believe in the religious teachings concerning these issues. God alone, says the Quran(Q 6:59), knows the key to the unseen.
What does the Quran teach us as to why man had to leave the peace and joy of paradise to lead a temporally limited life on Earth with all its difficulties, uncertainties, and insecurities? According to Islamic teachings which paths lead back to paradise?
4 The Lost Paradise and the Teachings of God’s Rightful Guidance
According to Quranic teachings, Adam and Eve had to leave paradise because they did not obey God and ate from the fruits of the forbidden tree. They allowed themselves to be tempted, because the fallen angel Satan, in order to harm them, led them to believe that this tree was only forbidden to them because it was the tree of eternity and royal supremacy (Q 20:120). Their desire to seize eternity and power by means of the fruits of the forbidden tree, i.e., their arrogance, thus made them lose their peaceful and happy life in the garden of paradise. Instead, their deeds resulted in their condemnation to mortality and a life in uncertainty and fear. The Earth was assigned to them as a temporary abode, where, as the Quran says (Q 20:123), there is hostility among people instead of the peace of paradise.
When Adam realized what kind of fate he had been condemned to for his disobedience, he regretted his mistake. He regretted his defection from God and his disobedience toward Him. Thus, he turned back to Him and obeyed again. As the Quran states (Q 2:37–8), “Adam received certain words from his Lord, and He turned toward him.” God told him that He would send His guidance to mankind. Those who followed this divine guidance did not need to fear and would not become sad. However, those who did not follow God’s rightful guidance would be lost forever. In the Islamic view, Adam is the first of many prophets that were sent to mankind to remind them of their true destiny. In His message to Adam, God stresses the responsibility of man for the salvation of his soul. He points out that this is of the utmost importance for every individual and that it is, therefore, wrong to demand piety from others while forget-ting oneself, as this only means that one does not possess reason (Q 2:44).
Even the role model for Muslims, the Prophet Muḥammad, only “trans-mitted” divine revelations, as the Quran teaches us (Q 28:56). It was not his duty, so it was revealed to him, to lead people to faith, as only God gives faith and right guidance. Every day in their prayers, Muslims ask God for His guidance, to lead them to “the straight path, the path of those upon whom He bestowed favor, not of those who have evoked His anger or of those who are astray” (Q 1:6–7).
5 The Prophet Muḥammad as Role Model
As a role model for humankind, the Prophet Muḥammed referred to the self-less loving mother, at whose feet, as he said, lies paradise. He stressed repeatedly that one should risk one’s life in the defense of the weak and the wrongly persecuted. According to his understanding, religious life should be defined by the way we behave toward our fellow human beings. “He who does not show mercy toward humankind,” he taught, “will not receive God’s mercy.” He thus also said that a man would be judged according to how he treats his wife. He said that in general, religion is about proper, considerate, and just behavior. With regard to the question how to judge one’s own behavior, he said that when we listen to our conscience, we know what to do or what to avoid: “Piety is good behavior. Sacrilege is that which disturbs the soul and what you do not want other people to know.”
The Prophet is clearly presented as a role model in the Quran, even though he considered himself to be an imperfect human being, who, like all people, required God’s mercy for his salvation. He said: “Search for the golden mean and the right and know that none of you will be saved based only on your deeds.” They said: “Not even you, oh Messenger of God?” He said: “Not even I, unless God surrounds me with His mercy and grace.”
6 The Search for Knowledge as the Path to Paradise
It is stated in the Quran that since man is destined to be God’s vicegerent on earth, God taught Adam “the names of all things” (Q 2:31), which not even the angels knew. This knowledge enables man to avert harm and the shedding of blood on Earth (Q 2:30 ff). A well-known saying of the Prophet thus states: “For those who go out in search of knowledge, God levels the road to paradise.”
Islam stresses the decisive role of reason in human life and thus warns against accepting opinions and conceptions without examination. He who merely follows the masses, says the Quran, will stray from his path. “. . . if you follow the majority of those on Earth,” it is stated in the Quran, “you will be led astray from the path to God. They only follow their presumptions and are only guessing (instead of knowing anything for certain)” (Q 6:116). Thus, certainty is essential in the search for truth. This certainty about the truth has to be acquired by man himself in his search for knowledge. Only then will he be able to understand and follow the countless signs of God in the world and in himself that are repeatedly mentioned in the Quran (Q 2:118). On the other hand, it is a sign of ignorance if one thinks that one can do without the search for knowledge and says: “Why does Allah not speak to us or there come to us a sign?” (Q 2:118).
The messages of God are only understood by those who have already acquired certainty in their search for knowledge. Therefore it is stated in the Qur’an: “We have shown clearly the signs to a people who are certain” (Q 2:118). Those who originally strove for certainty, but then gave up in their search thereof, are warned in the Quran (Q 41:52) that they have become completely lost and are in deep conflict. However, if they continue in their search, it is stated: “We shall show them Our signs in the horizons and in themselves, till itis clear to them that it is the truth” (Q 41:53).
It is a contradiction to search for truth on the one hand, but to want to determine at the same time what this truth should look like and when it should appear on the other hand, as this is not within our control. “Is it not sufficient concerning your Lord,” asks the Quran “that He is, over all things, a Witness?”(Q 41:53).
Paradise, the Quran teaches us, is basically available to all people of good will who believe in God and strive to do good deeds (Q 29:58). “Those are they from46 Zakzoukwhom We shall accept the best of what they have done, and We shall pass over their evil deeds,” states the Quran (Q 46:16).
The new moon on the minarets of mosques symbolizes the new beginning that is available to every person who opts for it. It gives us the chance to live fulfilled lives in this world and in the world to come. We must change ourselves if we want our lives to change. It is among the duties of Muslims to acknowledge all religions of revelation as valid paths toward God. Furthermore, Muslims should treat all people, regardless of their religion or their ideologies, with friendliness. That is how, according to the Quran, they act justly. “Allah forbids you not, with regard to those who fight you not for (your) Faith nor drive you out of your homes, from dealing kindly and justly with them: for Allah loves those who are just,” is stated in the Quran (Q 60:8). Even when they are unjustly attacked, Muslims are encouraged to signal their readiness for peace if their attackers decide to abandon violence and fighting (Q 2:190). An Islamic tradition states that we should live in this world as if it will last forever, but that we should prepare for the next world as if it will come upon us tomorrow.
ʿAṭṭār, Farīd al-Dīn, Tadhkirat al-awliyāʾ, ed. R.A. Nicholson, 2 vols., London 1905–7. al-Ghazālī, Abū Ḥāmid, Iḥyāʾ ʿulūm al-dīn, ed. B.A. Ṭabāna, 4 vols., Cairo 1957
Mahmoud Zakzouk – is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at al-Azhar University. He received his PhD in 1968 from the University of Munich. From 1996–2011, he served as Minister of Religious Endowments of the Arab Republic of Egypt.