Eternal Damnation of the Non-Believers and the Merciful God of the Holy Quran?

Written and collected by Zia H Shah MD, Chief Editor of the Muslim Times

In the feisty dialogue, in the above video between the most famous atheist, Prof. Richard Dawkins and Mehdi Hasan, the famous host of Al Jazeera English, around minute 19:45, the issue of child abuse in the Catholic Church and bringing up children in the tradition is discussed.

Dawkins tells a story of a woman in USA, who wrote to him that when she was seven years old, she was sexually abused by a priest in a car and around the same time a friend of hers, who was also seven and from a Protestant family died.  She was told that as she was a Protestant, she will be roasting in hell forever. The lady told Dawkins that of those two abuses, the physical sexual abuse was dirty and messy, but she grew out of it. But, the mental abuse of threat of hell fire, took years longer to grow out of. Mehdi Hasan then puts a poll to the audience about sexual abuse and intellectual abuse, with threat of eternal fire and the audience finds both these abuses to be horrible.

Now, the Muslim readers may find many of the beliefs of Christianity, like Trinity, Eucharist, Original Sin or vicarious atonement as wrong and could care less about the subtle differences between the Catholics and the Protestants! But, in this we may be able to also see the futility of many of our own inter-sectarian or theological debates.

The key issue here is how could a Merciful and Just God of Abrahamic faiths punish some, with eternal fire and condemnation, for some wrong beliefs or some finite wrong deeds?

I recently attended my 40th high school reunion in Boston, USA.   We were 96 students in our high school class of Cadet College Hasanabdal, Pakistan, from grade 8-12 (1973-1978). We were together for five formative years of our life in this private boarding school, and as a result formed very close bonds with each other.  Twenty seven of us are in USA now and 22 gathered for a weekend reunion on the last weekend of September, in a beach town near Boston, Gloucester.  Needless to say that we had wonderful time as some of us were meeting after 10-40 years.

Twenty of the 22 were Muslims of one color or the other, one was a self professed atheist and one a Christian.  We discussed and enjoyed a host of subjects, but there was no religious debate or tension.  Everyone bonded nicely with each other once again, across a span of decades.

Eight days after the reunion, our Christian classmate, whom I will call John, who is a psychiatrist in Canada, announced in our Whats-app group that his father passed away, at a ripe old age of more than 100, a day ago and he will be flying to Pakistan for the funeral.

All of us prayed for his father in our comments and wished him salvation and paradise and wished patience for his family. None of us seemed to be prescribing to the official position of the so called scholars of Islam, only a few of whom can see paradise for the Christians. We were perhaps drawing inspiration from our friendship and from our spirit of religious tolerance and our understanding of the Quranic verses highlighting that salvation cannot be monopolized:

Surely, the Believers, and the Jews, and the Christians and the Sabians — whichever party from among these truly believes in Allah and the Last Day and does good deeds — shall have their reward with their Lord, and no fear shall come upon them, nor shall they grieve. (Al Quran 2:62)


Surely, those who have believed, and the Jews, and the Sabians, and the Christians — whoso believes in Allah and the Last Day and does good deeds, on them shall come no fear, nor shall they grieve. (Al Quran 5:69)


As to those who believe, and the Jews, and the Sabians, and the Christians, and the Magians and the idolaters, verily, Allah will judge between them on the Day of Resurrection; surely Allah is Witness over all things. (Al Quran 22:17)

I was very happy and reassured that the whole of our Whats-app group did the right thing, in consoling John and giving him hope and optimism.  But, where does the myopic view of the orthodox Muslims come from, many of whom prescribe eternal fire for the non-Muslims?

Could it be they are misreading the holy Quran?

The root word used in reference to the eternal paradise or hell is خلد.  I searched in the website as to how often this root word appears in the holy Quran, in different forms.  The result was that it appears 87 times in 86 different verses of the Quran.  I have empirically chosen to quote the six times that it appears in Surah Nisa, below:

These are the limits set by Allah; and whoso obeys Allah and His Messenger, He will make him enter Gardens through which streams flow; therein shall they abide forever; and that is a great triumph. (Al Quran 4:13)

And whoso disobeys Allah and His Messenger and transgresses His limits, He will make him enter into Fire; therein shall he abide for a very long time; and he shall have an humiliating punishment. (Al Quran 4:14)

And those who believe and do good works, We shall make them enter Gardens through which streams flow, to abide therein forever; therein shall they have pure spouses; and We shall admit them to a place of pleasant and plenteous shade. (Al Quran 4:57)

And whoso kills a believer intentionally, his reward shall be Hell wherein he shall abide for a very long time. And Allah will be wroth with him and will curse him and will prepare for him a great punishment. (Al Quran 4:93)

But as to those who believe and do good works, We will admit them into Gardens, beneath which streams flow, abiding therein forever. It is Allah’s unfailing promise; and who can be more truthful than Allah in word? (Al Quran 4:122)

Surely, those who have disbelieved and have acted unjustly, Allah is not going to forgive them, nor will He show them any way, except the way of Hell, wherein they shall abide for a long, long period. And that is easy for Allah. (Al Quran 4:168-169)

The same words خَالِدِينَ فِيهَا أَبَدًا in the verse 122 in reference to paradise, I have translated as forever and in 169 in reference to hell as a long, long period; borrowing the idea from a conventional translation.  I then decided to read the translations of these verses in a website that has almost 60 different English translations of the holy Quran.

The results were not encouraging!

When we read each verse of the holy Quran in isolation then it can have a very different meaning compared to what can be understood, when we read it in light of all the other verses of the Quran, highlighting Allah’s All-Embracing and Over-whelming mercy, compassion and justice.

Hell fire is only a metaphor.  Yes, it is only a metaphor and is not literally true and we don’t know the precise details of hell, and the Quran does not intend to demystify the Afterlife completely for us, just like we don’t know the precise details of paradise and God uses the metaphors of different fruits, non-intoxicating wine, rivers of milk and honey, to invite believers to righteousness.  Hell is a place for reformation and not meant to be a torture chamber and the purpose of this metaphor is to dissuade us from mischief. It is a stick, just like metaphors of paradise are a carrot, for our advancement.  In short, hell is Meant for Purification and is not Permanent. The spiritual paradigm of Afterlife is summarized for us but we can never conceptualize the details, just like a fetus is incapable of conceiving the life he or she meets, once delivered from the mother’s uterus.

To better read and understand the holy Quran, I have joined a group of scholars / students to write a contemporary commentary of the holy Quran, focusing on its message of compassion and justice, rather than an obsession with literalism or orthodoxy. For links please see below:

In this commentary we have collected a group of articles, to outline the best way to read and understand the holy text. The Quran is to be read, with an open mind, as an insightful poetry or prose and not as a legal document, to be used for intellectual wrangling and forcing of the ideas on others. Here is the collection under the heading, Scope and Style of the Quran from the Table of Contents:

With love, peace and prayers until the next time!

The Muslim Times has the best collection of articles about the holy Quran

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