Q. There is an article on your website about themes from the Qur'an based on Muhammad Asad's commentaries, and one of them says that hell is not eternal. My question is do you have more information to prove this? What is your view of the verses that say that the kuffar (unbelievers) will be in hell forever? And what do you say of the scholars who say it is something necessarily known from the religion that hell is eternal and thus whoever rejects it is not a Muslim?

Also what is the meaning of hell or the fire as mentioned in the Qur'an? Does it mean some sort of literal unimaginable or extreme torment or torture? If so, how does one reconcile between the concept of a merciful God and such a concept of hell? If this is what hell means, then how can a merciful God place any human being in such a state? In the 21st century, we wouldn’t expect any human being to inflict torture, or "cruel and unusual punishment" on another human being. So why would God, who is more merciful than any human being, possibly do such a thing?

A. There seems to be a philosophical problem with the formulations you outlined, so proof has to be provided for any position other than what we have already stated. Sura al Rahman makes it abundantly clear that only the "face of God" survives. Everything else, vis-a-vis God, is transitory. If you read Sura al Bayyinah, you will note that there is a difference between khalideena fiha, and khalideena fiha abada. Linguists and rhetoricians of Arabic make a very clear distinction between the two. Muhammad Asad's view is of course his own and may or may not be correct, as the Qur'an states: "We are given but little knowledge." How could a merciful God do this or that? One counters by saying mercy is tempered with justice. And so some Muslim theorists argue that resurrection is not on a physical level. Others, such as Fazlur Rahman, argue that heaven and hell are all on earth. Others argue, in some Sufi thought, that heaven is peace of mind, and hell is what you torture yourself with after you have done wrong in terms of its mental impact. As the God of the Bible says: "ehyeh asher ehyeh"I am as I am. People will see God in different ways and God allows for this. Some of us see a judgmental Creator; some of us don't. The Qur'anic tropes are symbolic for the most part – the problem is that God never tells us which is literal and which is not, that is where our minds come into play. So when it comes to life in the hereafter, it is mostly guesswork and speculation, which we try to avoid as much as possible. We tend to think of judgment in terms of our human understanding of justice, which is undoubtedly quite different from our Creator's idea of justice in the afterlife. As far as determining who is and is not Muslim and eligible for heaven or hell, the length of time, etc., we leave that to God. Regarding the scholars of whom you speak, apparently God has deputized them to make these judgments regarding who is and is not Muslim. The Qur'an states that some people who are perceived as inferior in this life could be viewed quite differently in the afterlife. And Allah knows best.

Posted May 19, 2013