Muhammad Asad, The Message of the Qur’ān; Translated and Explained by Muhammad Asad (1980)

Thus, explaining the reference to the bliss of paradise in 32:17, the Prophet indicated the essential difference between man’s life in this world and in the hereafter in these words: “God says, ‘I have readied for My righteous servants what no eye has ever seen, and no ear has ever heard, and no heart of man has ever conceived’” (Bukhārī, Muslim, Tirmidhī). On the other hand, in 2:25 the Qurʾān speaks thus of the blessed in paradise: “Whenever they are granted fruits therefrom as their appointed sustenance, they will say, ‘It is this that in days of yore was granted to us as our sustenance’ – for they shall be given something which will recall that [past]”: and so we have the image of gardens through which running waters flow, blissful shade, spouses of indescribable beauty, and many other delights infinitely varied and unending, and yet somehow comparable to what may be conceived of as most delightful in this world.

However, this possibility of an intellectual comparison between the two stages of human existence is to a large extent limited by the fact that all our thinking and imagining is indissolubly connected with the concepts of finite time and finite space: in other words, we cannot imagine infinity in either time or space – and therefore cannot imagine a state of existence independent of time and space – or, as the Qurʾān phrases it with reference to a state of happiness in afterlife, “a paradise as vast as the heavens and the earth” (3:133): which expression is the Qurʾanic synonym for the entire created universe. On the other hand, we know that every Qurʾanic statement is directed to man’s reason and must, therefore, be comprehensible either in its literal sense (as in the case of the āyāt muḥkamāt) or allegorically (as in the āyāt mutashābihāt); and since, owing to the constitution of the human mind, neither infinity nor eternity are comprehensible to us, it follows that the reference to the infinite “vastness” of paradise cannot relate to anything but the intensity of sensation which it will offer to the blest.

By obvious analogy, the principle of a “comparison through allegory” applied in the Qurʾān to all references to paradise – i.e., a state of unimaginable happiness in afterlife – must be extended to all descriptions of otherworldly suffering – i.e., hell – in respect of its utter dissimilarity from all earthly experiences as well as its unmeasurable intensity. In both cases the descriptive method of the Qurʾān is the same. We are told, as it were: “Imagine the most joyous sensations, bodily as well as emotional, accessible to man: indescribable beauty, love physical and spiritual, conscious­ ness of fulfilment, perfect peace and harmony, and imagine these sensations intensified beyond anything imaginable in this world – and at the same time entirely different from anything imaginable: and you have an inkling, however vague, of what is meant by ‘paradise’.” And. on the other hand: “Imagine the greatest suffering, bodily as well as spiritual, which man may experience: burning by fire, utter loneliness and bitter desolation, the torment of unceasing frustration, a condition of neither living nor dying; and imagine this pain, this darkness and this despair intensified beyond anything imaginable in this world – and at the same time entirely different from anything imaginable: and you will know, however vaguely, what is meant by ‘hell’.”

Side by side with these allegories relating to man’s life after death we find in the Qurʾān many symbolical expressions referring to the evidence of God’s activity. Owing to the limitations of human language – which, in their turn, arise from the inborn limitations of the human mind – this activity can only be circumscribed and never really described. Just as it is impossible for us to imagine or define God’s Being, so the true nature of His creativeness – and, therefore, of His plan of creation – must remain beyond our grasp. But since the Qurʾān aims at conveying to us an ethical teaching based, precisely, on the concept of God’s purposeful creativeness, the latter must be, as it were, “translated” into categories of thought accessible to man. Hence the use of expressions which at first sight have an almost anthropomorphic hue, for instance, God’s “wrath” (ghaḍab) or “condemnation”; His “pleasure” at good deeds or “love” for His creatures; or His being “oblivious” of a sinner who was oblivious of Him; or “asking” a wrongdoer on Resurrection Day about his wrongdoing; and so forth. All such verbal “translations” of God’s activity into human terminology are unavoidable as long as we are expected to conform to ethical principles revealed to us by means of a human language; but there can be no greater mistake than to think that these “translations” could ever enable us to define the Undefinable.

And, as the Qurʾān makes it clear in the seventh verse of Āl ʿImrān, only those whose hearts are given to swerving from the truth go after that part of the divine writ which has been expressed in allegory, seeking out [what is bound to create] confusion, and seeking [to arrive at] its final meaning [in an arbitrary manner]: but none save God knows its final meaning.”

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Muhammad Asad, The Message of the Qur’ān; Translated and Explained by Muhammad Asad, Dar Al-Andalus Limited, 3 Library Ramp, Gibraltar, Consulted online at “Quran Archive - Texts and Studies on the Quran” on 27 Sep. 2022: http://quran-archive.org/explorer/muhammad-asad/1980?page=1009