A Philosophical Explanation of the Doctrine of Hell

The Review of Religions (English), March/April 1908 Issue (Vol. 7, Nos. 3 and 4, pp. 128–137)

The belief in the continuity of the existence of the human soul is a universal belief, and one so deeply rooted in the very nature of man that the most powerful forces of materialism have not yet affected it in the least. Whether the deep-rootedness of this belief in human nature is due to its innateness, or whether, as an Atheist or an Agnostic would argue, it clings to the mind with the ordinary tenacity of old associations, it is a solid fact that the belief in a life after death has not lost any ground even in this civilised and materialistic age, and it is equally true that the progress of science and the application of scientific principles to all branches of learning is in favour of, rather than against, the truth of such a belief.

Starting on the basis then, that there is a life after death for every human being, the first question of vital importance which arises in connection with this belief is as to the state of the soul in that afterlife. That every religion has preached that the righteous will be rewarded for their good deeds and the wicked punished for evil deeds is an undeniable fact, but even philosophically considered the question affords a similar solution. We see that most often a man reaps even in this life the good or bad consequences of his good or evil deeds and that except in rare cases he himself is responsible for the happiness or misery which is his lot in this life. If a life after death has been ordained for the human soul, it could not have been meant but for its progress, its advancement to higher and higher stages. Without this the doctrine of a life after death becomes horrible. Even in this short space of life we find the soul progressing and advancing step by step from lower to higher stages. Could an everlasting life have then been designed for the unending torments of hell? The very idea makes one shrink and turn back in horror. Such a doctrine deals a deathblow to the justice and mercy of God. No intelligent being could have made man and preserved his soul for such an end.

Most religions have fallen into a grievous error on this point, and it is only the teaching of Islam that we find conformable to reason and in consonance with Divine justice, love and mercy. There are many that talk of the love and mercy of God, but, as if God were only the God of a particular people, His love and mercy are considered not to touch anyone who is outside the circle of believers in a particular set of doctrines. To such a person God cannot be said to be even just as He punishes his evils or unbelief of a few years with everlasting woes and torments. And though a tendency is witnessed in certain quarters to soften this horrible idea, the sublime truth that the human soul is ever-progressing and attaining to higher and higher goals of spiritual progress and union with God which the Holy Quran alone has taught has not yet been recognised.

Even the opening chapter of the Holy Quran gives us clearly to understand that Almighty God made man not for consigning him to everlasting torments, but to make him attain to higher and higher conditions of existence and to deal with him most mercifully. It reads thus:

اَلۡحَمۡدُ لِلّٰہِ رَبِّ الۡعٰلَمِیۡنَ ۙ﴿۱﴾ الرَّحۡمٰنِ الرَّحِیۡمِ ۙ﴿۲﴾ مٰلِکِ یَوۡمِ الدِّیۡنِ ؕ﴿۳﴾

“All praise is due to God Who is the Nourisher of all the worlds, Who is the most Merciful (the Arabic word Rahman used here indicating the showing of mercy by God to His creatures without their having done anything to deserve it), the most Compassionate (the Arabic word Rahim indicating that whenever a person implores His mercy or does anything to deserve it, He forthwith shows mercy), the Lord of the Day of Judgment.”

The four attributes of the Divine Being mentioned in these opening verses of the Holy Quran are the basis of all His other attributes. It will be seen that all these four attributes speak of the unbounded mercy of God shown to His creatures in all the worlds, that is, in this world as well as the next. There are numerous other verses in the Holy Quran which speak of the great mercy of God to His creatures and leave no doubt that man has not been created for being subjected to torments. But everlasting torment inflicted upon a person without any good following therefrom, as torment in hell is generally interpreted to be, is opposed to the Divine attribute of mercy as the Holy Quran depicts it.

It is true that the Holy Quran mentions hell as the abode of the evildoers and even depicts its horrors, but it must be borne in mind that according to the Holy Quran both heaven and hell are places for the perpetual advancement of man to higher and higher stages. The Holy Quran says on one occasion:

لَتَرۡکَبُنَّ طَبَقًا عَنۡ طَبَقٍ ﴿ؕ۱۹﴾

“Verily you shall all be surely transferred from state to state” (The Holy Quran, 84:19).

The whole mankind is addressed in these words, and accordingly as those in paradise shall make perpetual advancement, those in hell will not be suffering fruitless torments.

On the other hand, the torments of hell will be the means of purging them of the evil effects of their deeds done in this life. This is the only philosophical explanation of hell, and this explanation has been given by no other book but the Holy Quran. It is the Quran only which teaches that heaven and hell grow out of a man, that a heavenly or a hellish life begins in this world and that the spiritual fruits of good or evil deeds done in this life assume a manifest form in the next. The fire of hell is no other than the fire of sins, as the Holy Quran says:

نَارُ اللّٰہِ الۡمُوۡقَدَۃُ ۙ﴿۶﴾ الَّتِیۡ تَطَّلِعُ عَلَی الۡاَفۡـِٕدَۃِ ؕ﴿۷﴾

“The fire of the wrath of God burned on account of sins which rises above the hearts” [The Holy Quran, 104:5–6].

The origin of the fire of hell is, therefore, in the sins which a man commits in this life, and it is thus with his own hands and in this very life that he prepares a hell in which he will find himself in the next.

The Holy Quran, as I have already said, does not teach that those in hell shall suffer everlasting torments, and this is an important consideration which conclusively settles the question that hell is meant for the advancement of man and for his purification. There is no doubt that the abiding of evildoers in hell is mentioned in some verses of the Holy Quran to be for abad, which sometimes means prospective eternity, but abad also signifies a long time. Hence, we have such phrases as

کان ہزا فی اباد الدہر

which means:

“This was a long time ago” (see Lane’s Arabic-English Lexicon).

But there are numerous passages in the Holy Quran showing that those in hell shall ultimately be taken out. Thus in 6:128, we read:

قَالَ النَّارُ مَثۡوٰىکُمۡ خٰلِدِیۡنَ فِیۡہَاۤ اِلَّا مَا شَآءَ اللّٰہُ ؕ اِنَّ رَبَّکَ حَکِیۡمٌ عَلِیۡمٌ ﴿۱۲۸﴾

“God said, Verily the fire is your resort to dwell therein unless thy Lord will it otherwise. Verily, thy Lord is Wise and Knowing” [The Holy Quran, 6:128].

On another occasion, those in hell are spoken of as “staying therein for years” (78:23). The original word is احقاب ahqab, which is the plural of حقب huqub, meaning a year or years, or seventy or eighty years, or a long time (see Lane’s Lexicon). The statement that the evildoers will abide in hell only for a limited number of years shows clearly that according to the Holy Quran the torments of hell are not everlasting, for infinite time cannot be measured by a finite number of years.

Again, in 101:9, the hell is called a “mother” of those who shall go into it. The use of this word is, I think, the clearest evidence as to the true nature of hell as described in the Holy Quran. What is meant is that as a child is brought up by the mother, so those in hell will be brought up in that place for a new life — the life of perpetual advancement in paradise.

It is true that the Holy Quran also speaks of hell as a place of torment or tortures, but these torments according to the Holy Book are remedial. Just as a patient has to devour bitter medicines and to undergo operations and amputations which are most painful, but which are undoubtedly the only steps which can restore him to health, so also it is with the torments of hell which are not only the natural consequences of the poison of sins, but are at the same time the most necessary steps to undo the effect of the poison and to breathe into a person a new life in which he must go on making unending progress. Thus, hell is also a manifestation of the mercy of God, though of a different kind from heaven. The one is a place for restoring health to those who have destroyed it by their own actions in this life, while the other is a place for the advancement of those who enter into the other life with their spiritual faculties unvitiated. In fact, so clear is the teaching of the Holy Quran on this point that none but a most superficial reader of it could overlook it. Again and again the Holy Quran speaks of the workers of iniquity as blind, deaf, dumb, dead, meaning of course that they themselves have wasted their spiritual faculties, and accordingly before they can make any spiritual advancement in the attainment of that highest goal of the human soul — the union with God — they must be subjected to the operations which should restore the action of those faculties. In clearer words still, the Holy Quran tells us that

مَنۡ کَانَ فِیۡ ہٰذِہٖۤ اَعۡمٰی فَہُوَ فِی الۡاٰخِرَۃِ اَعۡمٰی

“those who are blind in this life shall find themselves blind in the next” [The Holy Quran, 17:72],

which means that as they did not make use of the opportunities which were given them in this life to use their spiritual faculties, they will find themselves devoid of these faculties in the next, and will palpably feel the pain and anguish which is the necessary result of their loss and which they are unable to feel in this life on account of their engrossment in the things of this world. But the mercy of God will soon take them by the hand and they will, after passing through all the stages through which it is necessary to pass to regain the use of the lost faculties, attain the real object of their lives. They will be purged of all uncleanliness, for this is necessary to attain to a perfect union with the Divine Being which is the source of all purity.

There are many sayings of the Holy Prophet and his companions which clearly show the truth of what I have said above. In the Holy Quran it is written that

وَ رَحۡمَتِیۡ وَسِعَتۡ کُلَّ شَیۡءٍ ؕ

“Almighty God has made it obligatory upon Himself to show mercy to His creatures” [The Holy Quran, 7:156],

and there is a tradition of the Holy Prophet [Muhammad (pbuh)] according to which Divine mercy is not displayed only in this world as we find it so abundantly manifested, but far greater mercy will be displayed in the next, and the fact is that if this had not been the case the showing of mercy in this life would have been futile. The tradition to which I have here referred, says:

“The Holy Prophet, may peace and the blessings of God be upon him, said that God displayed only a hundredth part of His mercy in this world and it is only this hundredth part whose manifestation is witnessed in all the creatures in this world, and that the other ninety-nine parts of His mercy will be displayed in the next life.”

According to this saying the love and mercy of which we witness countless manifestations in this life, and in which is included not only the mercy of God which He shows to His creatures, but also the mercy and love which is displayed in His unlimited creation, is only a hundredth part of the Divine mercy, and the perfect manifestation of His love and mercy will be witnessed only in the next life.

There is another tradition which is met with in the most reliable collections of tradition according to which God will ultimately take all those out of fire who have done nothing to deserve deliverance therefrom. The concluding portion of this tradition, runs thus:

“Then will God say, ’The angels and the prophets and the faithful have all in their turn interceded for the sinners, and now there remains none to intercede for them except the most Merciful of all merciful beings.’ So He will take out a handful from fire and bring out a people who never worked any good.”

According to this tradition all those who did any good deed in this life, however slight it might be and however preponderating might be the evil which they did, will be taken out of fire upon the intercession of the angels and the prophets and the faithful, and there will then remain a people in it who never did any deed of goodness. These will be taken out of fire only through the mercy of the most Merciful. It should not be thought that a handful is too small a thing or that even after taking it out there might still be many dwellers in hell, for a handful of God could not leave out anybody. In the Holy Quran it is said that

وَ الۡاَرۡضُ جَمِیۡعًا قَبۡضَتُہٗ یَوۡمَ الۡقِیٰمَۃِ

“the whole earth is a mere handful of God on the day of Judgment” [The Holy Quran, 39:67].

It is also clear that since according to the tradition the people who are thus taken out are not taken out because of any good that might have served in them as a seed for a growth of immortal life, but only because the most Merciful will desire to show the full manifestation of His transcendent mercy, therefore it could not be in consonance with Divine mercy that one part should have been chosen for its manifestation while the other part should have been left without any mercy being shown to them.

There are many other traditions from which it appears that ultimately even those will be taken out of hell who never did any good deed, while there are certain sayings of the Holy Prophet and his companions according to which hell would ultimately be emptied of all those who are in it. Some of these traditions are met with in the Kanz al-Ummal, and the following two would be sufficient for our purpose:

“Verily a day would come over hell when it will be like a field of corn that has dried up after flourishing for a while” (vol. 7, p. 245);

“Verily a day would come over hell when there shall not be a single human being in it” (vol. 7, p. 245).

There is a saying of Omar [Umar] on record (vide Tafsir Fathul Bayan, the Fath al-Bari, Al-Dur Al-Manthur, and the Hadil Arwah of Ibn-i-Qayyum) which runs thus:

“Even if the dwellers in hell may be numberless as the sand of the desert, surely a day would come when they will be taken out of it.”

A saying of Ibn-i-Masud is reported in connection with a comment upon a verse of the Holy Quran which has already been quoted according to which,

“a time would come upon hell when there shall not be a single person in it and this will be after they have dwelt therein for ahqab” (years — referring to the verse containing the italicised word as quoted already).

There are many other sayings to the same effect, but I think that the quotations already given will suffice to show the reader that Islam rejects the doctrine of everlasting torments in hell.

But even when all this has been said, there remains an important question which has no doubt troubled many a mind. Does the Holy Quran, like the scriptures of other religions, not promise salvation and paradise to those who believe in it, and does it not consign to hell all those who do not believe in it? In other words, does it not unduly narrow the sphere of salvation by limiting it at first to those who express a belief in it, and unduly widen it again by extending it to all believers whether they have actually done anything to deserve it or not? In order to answer these questions we would first explain the attitude of Islam to other religions and then show what is meant by salvation. These two considerations would show the reader the Quranic attitude towards the “unsaved.”

Of all the religions of the world Islam is pre-eminently the one religion which assumes a most tolerant attitude towards other religions and a most respectful one towards the founders of those religions and the great leaders of humanity. Its teaching on this point may be briefly summarised as follows. The one and the chief object of the creation of man is that he should attain a perfect union with God, and to make him attain this object Almighty God has been raising prophets in all countries and in all ages who pointed out the right way to their followers. But after a certain time the teachings of the prophets were neglected or perverted by their followers and other prophets were raised to again point out the right way. According to this teaching, whenever a prophet is raised by Almighty God, true salvation can only be attained by following him, because it is through him that Almighty God is pleased to reveal Himself at that time. Islam does not, therefore, arbitrarily narrow the sphere of salvation by making it attainable by believers in a particular book, but it bases it on the sound principle that the way to salvation is pointed out by every prophet of God and that it is by following that way that salvation can be attained. The Holy Prophet Muhammad was raised at a time when corruptions and errors had found their way into the systems founded by all the previous prophets, and hence it is through him only that salvation, which is another name for union with God, can be attained. Those who do not attain to this union in this world, which is a preparatory world for the next, must pass through another stage which is represented in Islam as the punishment of hell. This is the explanation which the Holy Quran gives as to the necessity of hell in the afterlife and this is the reason why all those who do not follow the Holy Prophet of Islam are spoken of as having their abode there.

As regards the second question, whether all those who have accepted Islam will be saved unconditionally, it must be emphatically stated that the Holy Quran does not teach any such doctrine. It says clearly that only belief in God or the Holy Prophet or the Holy Quran would not avail any person unless he does the righteous deeds which the Quran states to be necessary for attainment to union with God. Right belief is, according to the Holy Quran, the seed which if properly nourished by righteous deeds will bring fruit, but faith alone is not sufficient to make a man attain to union with God. Such union, on the other hand, is considered a very hard task and it is expressly said that there are very few who attain to such union in this life.