Roads to Paradise: Eschatology and Concepts of the Hereafter in Islam

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  • Book Title:
 Roads To Paradise
  • Book Author:
Sebastian GüntherTodd Lawson
  • Total Pages
1549
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ROADS TO PARADISE – Book Sample

ROADS TO PARADISE – Introduction

Concepts of eschatology and the hereafter are among the most characteristic and fundamental elements of faith and spirituality in Islam. Next to the belief in God, the broad spectrum of ideas concerning paradise and hell, salvation and damnation, and eternal bliss and unending wretchedness are central to Islamic religion. Reward and punishment in the afterlife for deeds in this life have given form to religious and scholarly discourse and debate in the Muslim world throughout history.

 The same themes have also been critical points of encounter, both spiritual and practical, between the Muslim world and “the West.” This is perhaps one of the main reasons the wide range of Muslim deliberations on “life after death” and “the world to come” are significant not only from an intellectual but also from a cultural point of view. Indeed, these debates among Muslim scholars provide us with valuable insights into the thoughts and feelings of individuals and communities living “in” Islam, as they touch upon nearly every aspect of human life.

And given the common themes and questions discerned in this discourse, such debates provide a mirror for an audience and culture with a shared Abrahamic tradition.

Since the rise of Islam, concepts of the end of human life and of the world as we know it, namely the last judgment, and eternal life in a hereafter, have deeply shaped the beliefs of Muslims from systematic theologians to the “aver­ age” believer.

 And this has been true whether such concepts of the end have been construed teleologically and historically or spiritually and existentially. The eschatological component of Islam lends dynamic and characteristic form and content to Islamic thought and Muslim life, whether religious, political or cultural, on both the individual and societal levels.

 Remarkably, this observation is true not only for the various sophisticated eschatological theories advanced by trained Muslim scholars but also for related ideas current in Muslim daily life and lived experience, something we might refer to (however problematically) as lay piety. It applies to Sunni communities as much as it does to Shiʿi and other Muslim identities, past and present. Together with the unique oneness and omnipotence of God, concern with the afterlife is a – if not the – central religious preoccupation of Islam.

While there are a number of serious studies on the great diversity of escha­ tological views in Islam, it is frequently and unfortunately the popular (not to say vulgar) references to and preoccupation with “martyrs” and “suicide” attacks which have made their way into the headlines of newspapers and the consciousness of the public when it comes to the “Muslim paradise” and the “roads” that lead to it.

Such preconceptions are more dangerous than the dangers fantasized about. Islamic discourse on paradise and the afterlife is infinitely more complex, subtle, and sophisticated than such uneducated distortions would indicate. Ignoring this intellectual and philosophical depth becomes, in the cur­ rent context of cross­cultural communication and interdependence, something comparable to a crime against humanity.

Just one example of the kind of rich­ ness that awaits the unbiased and fair­minded observer of contemporary Islamic culture, in profound contrast to the negative notions mentioned above, is the fact that certain contemporary liberal Muslim thinkers use what may be thought of as the “metaphor of paradise” to express their visions of an Islam­oriented civil society. This instance of “Islamicate paradise discourse,” along with a rich variety of other interpretations, is explored in these collective studies.1

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Previous and Current Research

In line with Quranic eschatology, as indicated for example in the widely quoted and contemplated verse: “Soon will We show them Our signs in the external world ( fī l-āfāq) and in their own souls ( fī anfusihim) that they may know this is the Truth” (Q 41:53),2 “last things” may be considered under two major categories: last things in the “external world” and on the plane of history ( fī l-āfāq), and last things in the “internal world” within the soul ( fī anfusihim) on the plane of the timeless (lā zamān) and the placeless (lā makān). In Islam these two categories are frequently found addressed simultaneously and some­ times with no clear indication of which we should choose or assign priority

The term “Islamicate” may require some clarification. It was coined by the American historian and Islamic studies scholar Marshall Hodgson (The venture of Islam, Chicago 1974, i, 57–60) in an attempt to refine as much as possible the technical terminology of Islamic studies. Based on the double adjectival “Italianate,” Islamicate is meant to account for phenomena in the cul­ tural sphere of “Islamic” dominance and, at the same time, distinguish between more purely Islamic religious elements, such as

adīth, tafsīr, fiqh, prayer, religious practice in general, mosques, madrasas, and so on, and, say, the writings of the Christian philosopher of Baghdad Abū Bishr Mattā b. Yūnus (d. 328/940), the Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides of Cordoba (d. 601/1204), or the modernist Syrian poet Adonis (b. 1930), as well as non­religious architec­ ture, some graphic and fine arts, carpet manufacture, fashion, literature, historiography, phi­ losophy, medicine, science and many other areas of human intellectual and artistic expression, which are products from within an Islamicate – rather than a purely Islamic – milieu or context.

Editors’ translation. (Abdel Haleem translation: “We shall show them Our signs in every region of the earth and in themselves, until it becomes clear to them that this is the Truth.”) to.

Indeed, the message is clear: it is not a matter of “either/or” but of “both/ and.”3 As a bridge between antiquity and the so­called middle ages, Islamic discourse – largely in Arabic but certainly not restricted to that language – may be thought to have harnessed much of the eschatological charge of previous “middle eastern” religious discourse – whether religious and scriptural, mystical or philosophical – in the reading, understanding, and performance of the new and distinctive Islamic religious call (daʿwa) and identity. Muslim scholars attempted to demonstrate that Islam, on the plane of history, represented an element of a logical and divinely ordained eschaton for previous religions and civilizations; they also believed that Islam provided a “guidebook” to a further eschaton in the timeless realm.

The brief chronology of a few representative works mentioned below testifies to the remarkable and unique role of eschatology, of paradise and the roads leading to it, for Islamic religion and culture. There is general scholarly agreement that Islam is a “religion of eschatology,” and that the topics of death and the afterlife feature more in its revealed scripture, the Quran, as well as in the prophetic tradition, adīth, than comparable texts in other religious traditions. Such concerns inform the general élan of daily praxis and lived experience.

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They permeate arts and letters as much as theology, philosophy, and mysticism; moreover, they also permeate the natural sciences and related disciplines. Thus it is remarkable, to say the least, that there is still no comprehensive general study of eschatological concepts in Islam available for consultation by scholars and the educated public. William Chittick, in his recent substantial article on Muslim eschatology has stated the situation clearly and succinctly:

The Koran speaks of death, the end of the world, and resurrection more than any other major scripture. The Hadith, or corpus of prophetic sayings, follows suit, as does the tradition in general. The relevant primary literature is vast, and nothing like an adequate survey of important texts has been written.4

We might well ask how and why this most important feature of such a major and widely spread religion has been so ignored by generations of “post­ enlightenment” scholars. True, there are numerous articles available for consultation, both general and specific. In addition to the excellent summary just mentioned, the late Marilyn Robinson Waldman’s “Islamic Eschatology” (1987) demonstrates the simultaneous richness of the topic and its remarkableneglect.5

 These articles also suggest the various ways in which the topic can be approached, and point out that eschatology permeates Islamic religious cul­ ture in a unique way, from scripture to law, from theology to mysticism, from practice to theory, from art to architecture. As for more specific studies, these may be found under the appropriate headings in such scholarly works as the Encyclopaedia of Islam, the Encyclopaedia Iranica and the Encyclopaedia of the Qurʾān, to name three of the most widely consulted reference works in pro­ fessional Islamic Studies.

Here the researcher may find – however inconsis­ tently or variously transliterated from their original scripts – learned articles under the rubrics of such relevant technical terminology as: maʿād (return [to God, paradise]), irā (the path [stretching over hell]), janna (paradise, paradisal garden), jahannam (hell), ʿa (the hour, eschaton), qiyāma (resurrection), and the like.

 Indeed, if we were to compile a list of words from Islamic scripture susceptible of an eschatological reading or interpretation, it could be reasonably argued that every word, to a greater or lesser degree, refers to the eschaton, however construed. It is perhaps here that we can begin to find an answer to our question above: Why the neglect?

Why is there still no comprehensive monograph on the themes of eschatology and concepts of the here­ after in Islam? Is the topic simply so vast, permeating so much of the cultural and religious discourse of Islam that it seems, simultaneously, an obvious and impossible desideratum?

One example may help us focus more clearly on the problems, or cluster of problems, that bedevil the hope for a universal or com­ prehensive treatment of Islamic eschatology. Here we refer to the example given by Sufism. In the chronology of scholarship offered below we encounter numerous discrete studies on aspects of the thought of Ibn ʿArabī (d. 638/1240) by a variety of scholars; his thought may be considered primarily eschatological to the extent that Sufis and like­minded Muslim philosophers and believers are inclined to view the “meeting with God” as an event to be realized in the pre­ mortem state, not restricted to the hereafter.

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As Chittick says, “most Sufis and many philosophers . . . justify their approach by stressing the need to actualize the return to God here and now, before one is compelled to meet God.”6 As such, within Sufism and the related, more purely existential or mystical modes of Islam, eschatology is an ever­present concern and as such is implicated in – and pertains to – all aspects of life “in the world.” One may consider, therefore, the distinctively Islamic institution of the sunna of the Prophet, which also per­ tains to all aspects of life in the world, as simultaneously symbolic and iterative of this state of affairs in which law, theology, philosophy, and Sufism all find a common center for contemplation and action and are thus ready topics for eschatological research, as will be seen below.

So, the scope of eschatological studies in Islam is wide indeed, too wide for a single author to approach, let alone hope to ever achieve anything even remotely resembling a complete and comprehensive study. It remains true that, even though it is the centerpiece of the Islamic religion, until now it has not attracted a thorough systematic treatment covering its vast and powerful lexicon and the way in which the scriptural passages touching “eschatology” have been digested, elaborated and embodied in the emerging dynamic and rich Islamic cultural and intellectual traditions.

Eschatology is the domesticated Greek word used today in theology and reli­ gious studies (since the middle of the nineteenth century) to refer to the scholarly investigation of the so­called “four last things”: death, judgment, heaven, and hell. As such, it is by analogy adapted here from its original Christian con­ text; it provides a category for the concerns of the present work, a collection of nearly sixty scholarly investigations of aspects of what falls under the general Quranic Arabic word maʿād, “return.” The Quran teaches that humanity is on its way back to the presence of God whence it has journeyed throughout the long, painful history of its collective and individual sojourn on earth.

Before introducing and giving brief summaries of each chapter of our two vol­ umes, we believe it is useful to present a short and necessarily incomplete his­ torical account of eschatological studies in European languages so that we may better place the present work as both a culmination of previous work and an opening for future research. This summary should be seen as something of a preliminary sketch for a future critical and thorough history of the topic.

We begin with Edward Pocock’s (d. 1691) Porta Mosis, a translation of six sections of Maimonides’ commentary on the Mishnah (Arabic text in Hebrew characters, with Latin translation, 1655), to which this Oxford scholar added Notae miscellaneae (published as an independent book in 1705). These Notae miscellaneae (especially its seventh, 78–page chapter) represent probably the first notable scholarly treatment of the eschatology of Islam in Europe. Some time later, Theodor Arnold included a 33­page treatment of Islamic eschatol­ ogy in his German translation (1746) of George Sale’s English translation of the Quran. In addition, there is Ignaz Goldziher’s discussion of the semi­eschato­ logical role of the mujaddid (renewer) held by the tradition to appear at the turn of each century: “Zur Charakteristik Ǵelâl ud­dîn us­Sujûṭî’s und seiner). In 1872, in his Muhammedanische Eschatologie, itz Wolff, through an edition and German translation of ʿAbd al­Raḥīm…

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