A study of Qur’an verses on Paradise
Surah Al-Waqi’ah , 11-40: They are the ones brought nigh, in Gardens of bliss – many from those of old and few from those of later times – upon embroidered couches, reclining upon them, facing one another. Immortal youths wait upon them with goblets, ewers, and a cup from a flowing spring, wherefrom they suffer neither headache nor stupefaction, with fruits as they choose, and the meat of birds as they desire, and (there shall be) wide-eyed maidens, the likeness of concealed pearls, as a recompense for that which they used to do. They hear no idle talk therein, nor incitement to sin, save that “Peace! Peace! is uttered. And the companions of the right; what of the companions of the right? Among thornless lote trees, clustered plantains, and extended shade, gushing water, and abundant fruit, neither out of reach, nor forbidden, and (upon) raised beds. Truly We brought them into being as a (new) creation, then made for them virgins, amorous peers, for the companions of the right – many from those of old, and many from those of later times.
This text is chiastic in structure:
2a. context of the garden
central idea: ‘Peace, Peace’.
2b. context of the garden
At its centre, and therefore the principle teaching on the Hereafter are the words ‘Peace, Peace’. This is the principal condition, contextualized by the phrase “They hear no idle talk therein, nor incitement to sin”. This teaching on peace reflects the very name of the religion ‘Islam’, which means ‘peace’. The other aspects of the description are minor.
“many from those of old and few from those of later times”
The phrase suggests a deterioration in time, a departure from a golden age. But it cannot be presumed it means that salvation is only for some. It is echoed in the Gospel phrase ‘take the narrow path, many will seek to enter but will not be able”.
“the companions of the right”
‘Of the right’ is not a geographical term but refers to the righteousness of the companions; they have followed the right path etc.
“couches” and “embroidered”
The question was raised about the meaning of these terms. The English translation could suggest couches in the Roman manner of dining which is hardly likely. Raised beds translates furush, which can also be used in classical Arabic as an allusion to women
The word translated as ‘maidens’ is hur , the plural of both ahwar (masc.) and hawra (fem.), both of which describes “a person distinguished by hawar,” which latter term primarily denotes “intense whiteness of the eyeballs and lustrous black of the iris”. Hawar can thus simply mean “whiteness” or “purity”. Rather than ‘maidens or ‘youths, therefore, a better translation would be ‘companions pure.’ The word for youth is also in the plural in the original text.
The imagery of the garden would appeal to the residents of the oasis of Mecca situated in the arid Arabian Desert. However, just as the description of the future in Isaiah 25:6 that mentions “a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear”, is never taken literally in the Christian interpretation, the Qur’anic description of the Garden is not to be taken literally, as many do. It is true that one of the Hadith gives a very literal understating of this scene, and refers to the 72 virgins etc. However this particular Hadith is not regarded as “strong” or “reliable.”
Even so, Surah Al-Waqi’ah , 11-40 has been used to deceive the many young men today who willingly take up arms and even become suicide bombers, with the belief that they will enjoy these delights, not just after Judgment Day but immediately. Their situation in this life is so unsatisfying that they readily kill and get killed for the sake of an immediate life of unbounded pleasure.
The Arabic word is jaza’a– with regard to their good deeds.
“virgins, amorous peers”
Surah Al-Waqi’ah , 11-40 does emphasize the sexual delights of heaven, differently from the Bible. The Song of Songs presents sexual relationship as the best description of the relationship between YHVH and his people but it is ‘this worldly’. Christian parables speak of the marriage feast at the end of time. It is the Messiah, however, who will enjoy. Christian theology therefore has something to learn from Islam in his regard.
Surah Al-Waqi’ah , 11-40 is a male centered text and is questionable from a woman’s perspective.
Surah Al-Baqarah , 25: And give glad tidings to those who believe and perform righteous deeds that theirs are Gardens with rivers running below. Whensoever they are given a fruit therefrom as provision, they say, “This is the provision we received aforetime,” and they were given a likeness of it. Therein they have spouses made pure, and therein they shall abide.
The contrast is made between “provision” from the Gardens, that is in the Hereafter, and the provision “aforetime”, that is in this world. The goods of this earth are a lesser form, a mere likeness (mutashabih) of the goods that will be given, and their anticipation. It means also that the condition of heaven must not be imagined in terms of this world (dunya). This world is both like and unlike heaven, not forgotten but surpassed.
The text speaks again of the spouses (azwaj), male or female, who are ‘pure’, without the limitations of worldly existence, in all senses: injury as well as menstruation, excreta, and bodily functions considered distasteful and unpleasant. The contrast is clearly made between Here and Hereafter (akhirah), one being a sign of the other.
This has echoes with Jesus’ multiplication of the loaves, which is a sign of the banquet of heaven.
“Therein shall they abide” is a common refrain in the Qur’an, describing the inhabitants of both Paradise and Hell.
Surah Al-Qiyamah , 22-23: Faces that Day shall be radiant, gazing upon their Lord. And faces that Day shall be scowling, knowing that a spine-crushing calamity will befall them.
The term ‘Day’ refers to the Day of the Last Judgment. It echoes the ‘Day’ in the New Testament.
The contrast is made between two types of faces, the “radiant” and the “scowling”.
“gazing upon their Lord”
The text complements the text on the Garden where there was no reference to seeing the Lord. The one refers to the delights of the garden and the other focuses on the delight of “gazing upon their Lord”.
The word “shall” indicates a time of the future, a reason for hope.
The gazing does not necessarily imply intimacy, because attendants at the court of a king would gaze upon their master from a distance, in wonderment. Nevertheless the effect of gazing is seen in the faces and presumably in the whole body.
How literally should this be taken? Is there a resonance here, in some way, with the teaching of Gregory Palamas who states that at the resurrection the faithful will, with their material eyes now made capable by the resurrection, actually see the glory of God? Is the meaning literal as in Palamas or just metaphorical, to be interpreted only a ‘spiritual’ sense? Classical commentators would interpret the meaning allegorically but the modern ‘ordinary’ Muslim would understand it literally. This view is attested in many Hadith, among them: “Truly, you all will see your Lord with your own eyes” (IK, Q).
Surah Al-‘Imran , 14-16: Made to seem fair unto mankind is the love of passions, among them women, children, hoarded heaps of gold and silver, horses of mark, cattle, and tillage. Those are the enjoyment of the life of this world. And God, with Him is the beautiful return. Say, “Shall I inform you of what is better than that? For those who are reverent, there shall be with their Lord Gardens with rivers running below – they shall abide therein – and spouses made pure, and Contentment from God.” And God sees His servants, who say, “Our Lord, truly we believe, so forgive us our sins, and shield us from the punishment of the Fire.
A contrast is set up between the goods of this earth and the alternative offered by the Qur’an: “Shall I inform you of what is better than that?” namely the Gardens, the spouses made pure and Contentment from God. God is present: “with their Lord” but not so evidently as compared with the text of Surah Al-Qiyamah , 22-23 where they gaze on their Lord.
The last few phrases of this Surah echo the Lord’s Prayer, especially its phrases “forgive us our sins,” and “save us from the time of trial”.
Surah Al-An’am , 31-32: Lost indeed are those who deny the meeting with God till, when the Hour comes upon them suddenly, they say, “Alas for us, that we neglected it!” They will bear their burdens upon their backs. Behold! Evil is that which they bear! The life of this world is naught but play and diversion. Better indeed is the Abode of the Hereafter for those who are reverent. Do you not understand?
The word “lost” is strong. How strong is it? Is it eternal damnation?
This reminds us of the statement in the Psalm “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God’.”
“meeting with God”
The word for meeting or encounter is laqiya. It seems to indicate an intimacy greater than ‘gazing’ or ‘being with’ as in earlier texts we have considered. But some Muslims are not at ease with this intimacy. Sufis, however, understand Judgment Day as the moment of union with God, and so total intimacy.
“play and diversion”
The contrast is made once more between this world and the Hereafter, between “play and diversion” and “meeting God”. The “Hour” reminds us of the Day mentioned earlier and the “hour” which features so strongly in the New Testament.
This is a text of warning. This same warning will be repeated later.
Surah Al-Shura , 36: Whatsoever you have been given, it is the enjoyment of the life of this world, and that which lies with God is better and more lasting for those who believe and trust in their Lord.
The enjoyment of this life is passing but it is also the metaphor for the Garden of delights. That enjoyment is not rejected but is seen for what it is, and cannot compare with the “better and more lasting” world to come. It is the contrast of permanence and impermanence.
Surah Al-Ahzab , 66: On the Day when their faces are turned about in the Fire, they will say, “Oh, would that we had obeyed God and obeyed the Messenger!”
“faces turned about in the Fire”
This is strong verse, which seems to propose lasting punishment. But is it lasting? The phrase “faces turned about in the Fire” is shocking.
“Oh, would that we had”
They regret ‘Oh that we had.”
This contrasts with the idea of hell in the Christian tradition where there is no regret. For example, the rich man burning in Hades, according to the story of Dives and Lazarus in the Gospel of Luke, does not regret what he has done but is only concerned with his own thirst or with his brothers’ survival. Is hell permanent according to Christian teaching? Is hell permanent according to the Qur’an? Some interpret this verse as simply a message for the present time; a warning that a life not in submission to God will only cause wrong and distress. Since God is merciful there can be no hell. Another opinion was expressed in our group, which held that a permanent hell is a possibility though not necessarily an actuality. Is this a cruel image of God? What do other texts in the Qur’an say? Our discussion ended with this question.
The enjoyments of this life are seen as a forecast, a metaphor, an anticipation, and an allegory for the far greater joy of the Hereafter. The pleasures of earth are to be enjoyed; these texts are not ‘puritanical’. All the delights of earth, of body, mind and spirit, will be found fulfilled. God will be part of that joy, his presence being expressed differently: just present in some sense, or gazed upon from a distance or an actual meeting with God. This presentation of pleasure and joy is in stark contrast with the distress of those who refuse to submit to God. They will suffer fire and every distress, though it is not quite certain whether this will be an eternal punishment.
The reference to sexual pleasure, which is clearly emphasized, is a point that Christian theology could take up more clearly.
This study of Qur’an verses on the Hereafter is the work of the Mela Theological Group which met
at the Janssen Spirituality Centre,, 22 Woodvale Rd, Boronia. 23 July 2015
Rev. Dr Merrill Kitchen; Rev. Dr John Dupuche (Senior Lecturer, MCD University of Divinity / Catholic Theological College; Honorary Fellow, Australian Catholic University; member of the Ecumenical and Interfaith Commission); Dr Herman Roborgh; Mr Tom Thomas; Rev. Nick de Groot svd, (Director, Janssen Spirituality Centre;); Rev. Dr Jacob Kavunkal svd (Associate Professor, MCD University of Divinity / YTU);