Hell is Meant for Purification and is not Permanent

We believe the two fundamental beliefs in Islam, which it shares with Judaism and Christianity are belief in the Transcendent God and accountability in the life after death. The former is discussed at some length in the commentary of Surah Fatihah and the latter in the commentary of Surah Waqi’ah.

We want to pool useful essays about Afterlife, with that in view we are presenting this short article.

The following description is from a short section in the Introduction to the commentary of the holy Quran by Muhammad Ali, the headings are also from the source.

Hell is Meant for Purification

Quite in accordance with the idea of paradise as a place of unending progress to higher stages of life is the idea of hell, where punishment is not meant for torture but for purification, in order to make a man fit for spiritual advancement. The idea underlying hell is that those who wasted their opportunity in this life shall, under the inevitable law which makes every man taste of what he has done, be subjected to a course of treatment for the spiritual diseases which they have brought about with their own hands. It is for this reason that the Holy Qur’an makes a difference between the abiding in paradise and the abiding in hell, allowing a termination in the latter case but not in the former.

As I have already noted, punishment for evil deeds sometimes takes effect in this very life, and the Holy Qur’an lays down the principle in clear words that every such punishment is a remedial measure:

“And We did not send a prophet to a town but We seized its people with distress and affliction that they might humble themselves” (7:94).

“And indeed We sent messengers to nations before thee, then We seized them with distress and affliction that they might humble themselves” (6:42).

It is clear from this that God brings down His punishment upon a sinning people in order that they may turn to Him; in other words, that they may be awakened to the higher life. The same must, therefore, be the object of the punishment in hell. That this is really so is made clear, in the first place, by giving the utmost prominence to the quality of mercy in God, as already pointed out, and then by stating clearly that all men have been created for mercy:

“Except those on whom thy Lord has mercy; and for this did He create them” (11:119).

The purpose of God must be ultimately fulfilled and, though man may bring down punishment on himself by his deeds, yet as God has created him for mercy, mercy is the ultimate end in the Divine scheme. Elsewhere we are told:

“And I have not created the jinn and the men except that they should serve Me” (51:56).

They must, therefore, ultimately be made fit for the service of God, and that is the higher life. With all its fearfulness, hell is called a maula (patron) of the sinners, in one place (57:15), and their umm (mother), in another (101:9). Both these descriptions of hell are a clear indication that hell is meant only to purify a man of the dross which he has accumulated with his own hands, just as fire purifies gold of dross. In fact, it is to point to this truth that the Holy Qur’an uses the word fitnah (which originally means the assaying of gold, or casting it into fire to purify it of dross), both of the persecutions which the faithful are made to suffer (22191; 2922; 29:10) and of the punishment which the evildoers shall suffer in hell (37:63), where the food which those in hell shall be given is called fitnah, because the object in both cases is the same, the faithful being purified through persecutions and the evildoers by hell-fire. Therefore hell is called a patron of the sinners, because, through suffering, it will make them fit for spiritual progress; and it is called a mother of the sinners to show that its connection with them is that of a mother with her child, the sinners being brought up, as it were, in the bosom of hell. The fire is a source of torment, but it is also a purifier. The keenness of the torments of the other life is due to the keener perception of the soul, which is the necessary result of its separation from the earthly vessel. Bliss and torment, therefore, grow equally keener in that life.

Punishment of hell not everlasting

It is in consonance with its remedial nature that we find it stated that the sinners shall ultimately be taken out of hell. It is true that the word abad is thrice used in the Holy Qur’an in connection with the abiding in hell (4:169; 33:65; 72:23), but abad indicates eternity as well as long time, and that the latter significance must be taken in this case is made clear by the use, in the same connection, of the word ahqab (78:23), meaning years or long years. Besides this, a limitation is placed on the abiding in hell by the addition of the words except as thy Lord please, the exception clearly indicating the ultimate deliverance of those in hell. The following two verses may be noted in this connection:

“He will say: The Fire is your abode — you shall abide therein, except as Allah please. Surely thy Lord is Wise, Knowing” (6:128).

“Then as for those who are unhappy, they will be in the Fire; for them therein will be sighing and groaning — abiding therein so long as the heavens and the earth endure, except as thy Lord please. Surely thy Lord is Doer of what He intends” (11:106, 107).

Both these verses show clearly that the punishment of hell is not everlasting. To make this conclusion clearer still, the latter of these occasions may be compared with the next verse which describes the abiding in paradise:

“And as for those who are made happy, they will be in the Garden, abiding therein so long as the heavens and the earth endure, except as thy Lord please — a gift never to be cut off” (11:108).

The two expressions are similar: those in hell and those in paradise abide in it as long as the heavens and the earth endure, with an exception added in each case showing that they may be taken out of it. The concluding statements are, however, different. In the case of paradise, the idea that those in it may be taken out of it, if God pleases, is immediately followed by the statement that it is a gift which shall never be cut off, showing that they shall never be taken out of paradise; while, in the case of hell, the idea of those in it being taken out of it is confirmed by the concluding statement — “Surely thy Lord is Doer of what He intends”.

The conclusion drawn above is corroborated by the sayings of the Holy Prophet. Thus a saying reported in the Muslim concludes:

“Then will Allah 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 ones. So He will take out a handful from the Fire and bring out a people who never worked  any good” (Ms. 1:72).

Further, Bukhari records a saying to the effect that, when the sinners are taken out from hell, they shall be thrown into “the river of life, and they will grow as grows a seed by the side of a river” (B. 2:15), which clearly indicates that they shall be made fit for a higher life. The Kanz al-‘ummal records the following: “Surely a day will come over hell when it will be like a field of corn that has dried up, after flourishing for a while” (KU, vol. vii, p. 245); “Surely a day will come over hell when there shall not be a single human being in it” (Ibid). A saying of ‘Umar is recorded as follows: “Even if the dwellers in hell may be numberless as the sands of the desert, a day will come when they will be taken out of it” (Fath al-Bayan).

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