Reconciling Divine Justice with Eternal Punishment: An Analysis of 3 Responses from the Shi’i Tradition

The question of divine justice with regards to the punishment of the hereafter is one that has been debated for decades. It has always been a question as to how eternal or perpetual punishment can be justified for a sin that only took a limited span of time. It is known that man lives in this world for several years, a duration that is incomparable to the everlasting abode in the hereafter. Within this short period, he carries out certain acts that, based on divine justice, necessitate punishment and retribution. However, upon exploring the narrations and verses of the Qur’ān, it seems the quantity of the punishment is not proportionate with the disobedience of the servant in this world. For example, by committing a sin here for one hour it is possible to be thrown into the hell fire for eternity. Furthermore, the torture and pain in hellfire is of a degree that man cannot even fathom. Consider the following verses that allude to the quantity of the punishment in hellfire:

يُريدونَ أَن يَخرُجوا مِنَ النّارِ وَما هُم بِخارِجينَ مِنها وَلَهُم عَذابٌ مُقيمٌ

They would long to leave the Fire, but they shall never leave it, and there is a lasting punishment for them. (5:37)

 يُضاعَف لَهُ العَذابُ يَومَ القِيامَةِ وَيَخلُد فيهِ مُهانًا

The punishment being doubled for him on the Day of Resurrection. In it he will abide in humiliation forever. (25:69)

The idea of eternal punishment has been mocked by atheists and sceptics and it has been held that such an act can only be carried out by a sadistic and oppressive God. Consider the following meme that I recently spotted on social media:

Perhaps part of the reason why the idea of eternal punishment is problematic for many is due to the fact that the common understanding of hellfire has been shaped by Judeo-Christian traditions and values which seem to be very different to what is now considered the Islamic tradition. Shaheed Mutaharri criticizes Bertrand Russell for failing to view the Islamic understanding of punishment:

Bertrand Russell, who objects how can there be a God who punishes us severely for very minor crimes, has failed to appreciate that the relationship between this world and the hereafter is not of the social man-made or conventional sort.

The likes of Russell are far from and unaware of Islamic truths and sciences. They are even unfamiliar with the basic Divine truths. The likes of Russell are only familiar with the Christian world, and have not the least awareness of Islamic philosophy, theology, mysticism, and the other Islamic sciences. In the eyes of a person with even the most minimal awareness of Islamic teachings, and of the philosophical tradition of the East, Russell is not even at the level of a primary school student.[1]

In this essay I outline 3 different answers given by different scholars who come from different backgrounds. I allude to the views of Ibn Arabī, Qaysarī, Sheikh Muhammad Jawād Mughniya, Shaheed Mutaharrī, Syed Kamal al-Hayderī, Ayatullah Jāffer Subhāni, Allāmah Tabataba’i, Mulla Sadrā and Jalāl al-dīn Āshtiyāni. Different approaches have answered this problem in different ways, and I conclude by siding with the approach of Allāmah Tabataba’i, Mulla Sadrā and Jalāl al-dīn Āshtiyāni.

NEGATING THE PERPETUITY OF PUNISHMENT

The first, and most controversial, answer succumbs to the problem and agrees that we can not make sense of eternal punishment. As such, those who espouse this answer attempt to show that punishment in hell will not be eternal. This view has been clearly expressed by some famous mystics such as Muhyī din ibn Arabī and those who commentated on his works, such as Dāwūd Qayṣarī. (Although debates range as to whether Ibn Arabī was a Shī’ī, I have included his opinion here as there is absolutely no doubt that even if he wasn’t a Shī’ī, his works have left a tremendous impact on Shī’ī philosophy and mysticism and thus warrants mention.)

In fact, it can be gleamed from some narrations that this view was common amongst the Muslims during the time of the Imams since some Muslims even thought that Hell would become a habitable place for some plants after a period of time. Consider the following narration about Imam al-Redhā (A):

When my master ordered buying herbs, he ordered quite a large amount and also watercress (jirjīr). It then would have been purchased for him and he (the Imam) would say, ‘How dimwitted certain people are when they say that it grows in a valley of hell and Allah, most Majestic, most Glorious, says, ‘Its fuel is people and stones’ (2:24); then how can herbs grow therein?’[2]

In brief, Ibn Arabī claims that while the disbelievers will remain in hell forever, their punishment will be limited and after some time they will not experience any form of punishment even though they would remain in hell.

As for the people of the Fire, they finally attain felicity, but in Hell, for the form of the Fire will become necessarily cool and safe for those who dwell in it at the end of their punishment period. This is their felicity. The felicity of the people of the Fire after exhausting the (sufferings) they deserve is like the felicity of God’s friend (Abraham) when he was thrown into the fire. He suffered, because he saw it, and he knew from his past knowledge that fire causes injury and pain to creatures which come near it. He did not know God’s intention: what the fire was meant to impart to him. However, after experiencing these sufferings, he found the fire cool and safe, though he still witnessed the color (of its flames flashing back at) him, for it was fire in the people’s eyes.[3]

In his Futūhāt al-Makkiyah, chapter 58, he says:

…the actions of the vile (fujjār) are in the lowest of the low (asfala sāfilīn), if the Most Merciful was to have mercy upon them from His throne of mercy through the gaze that we mentioned, He would make their dwellings a place of comfort and thus they would neither live nor die therein and they would be in the bliss of hell forever like the bliss of someone who is sleeping and sees happiness in his dreams and maybe his body on the bed is ill, full of pain and poverty and yet in his dream he sees himself as possessor of authority and bounties and sovereignty. If you were to see what the sleeper was seeing in his dream and what he is enjoying you would say: He is in bounties (and you would be correct) and if you were to see him as lying on the hard bed with his ailment, and pain and poverty and injury, you would say: he is indeed in punishment.

This is how the people of hell would be “then they would neither die nor live” (Qur’ān 87:13) i.e. they would never wake up from their sleep. That is the mercy that Allah has on the people of hell, who are its inhabitants and their like . . . At this stage if the people of heaven would look at the people of hell and see their stages and what Allah has placed therein and the ugly scenes it contains, they would say: they are being punished. But if they are shown the divine spiritual beauty for what they call ugly and they were to see what state they [people of hell] are in their sleep and they knew their temperament they would say: they are enjoying bounties…[4]

And in chapter 305 after a long passage he says “it is necessary to say that mercy is for all i.e. the people of hell and people of heaven”

And then he says

…and it is not necessary that the inhabitants of hell who dwell therein eternally be punished [eternally] as well. For indeed its inhabitants, its builders and those in charge of it – the angels – and what is in it of insects and snakes and the other such animals that will be raised on the day of judgement, for none of them will hell be a punishment, and similarly for those who remain therein who neither die nor are alive. Everyone who reaches their hometown is happy and the greatest punishment is being separated from your hometown, and were the people of hell to be separated from hell they would be tortured by that for being away from what they were meant for and Allah created them in a way that they were in sync with that place . . . and we find amongst ourselves those whom Allah has created with a merciful nature, that they have mercy on all of Allah’s servants and if Allah were to make them authorities over His creation they would remove the aspect of punishment from this world due to the deep seated mercy in their hearts. The people of such characters are like me and you, and we are created beings and possessors of whims and desires while Allah has said of Himself that He is the most merciful. Therefore, there is no doubt that He is more merciful on His creations than us and we understand from ourselves this high degree of mercy so how can He eternally punish them while having this general quality [of mercy]?

Allah is kinder than that especially since we have intellectual proofs that He does not benefit from our obedience and neither do disobediences hurt Him.[5]

He goes on to add several more arguments as to why the possibility of eternal punishment is absurd: He quotes a Hadith al-Qudsī in which God says were He to give every person what they asked for, that would not cause even a minute reduction in His treasures. Therefore, it seems unlikely that those in punishment would not call out to God to save them from the torment of Hell and God would not respond to their prayer.[6]

Qaysarī in his commentary of Fusūs al-Hikam also supports this idea and adds that by virtue of God being the most merciful, it does not befit Him to punish anyone eternally and the little amount that He does punish is only in order to make the person reach his required stage of perfection, similar to how gold and silver are thrown into the fire to purify them.[7]

On another occasion, Qaysarī adds that when the inhabitants of hell are initially thrown into hell, they will feel the torture of the blazing fire as God says:

إِنّا أَعتَدنا لِلظّالِمينَ نارًا أَحاطَ بِهِم سُرادِقُها ۚ وَإِن يَستَغيثوا يُغاثوا بِماءٍ كَالمُهلِ يَشوِي الوُجوهَ ۚ بِئسَ الشَّرابُ وَساءَت مُرتَفَقًا

Indeed, We have prepared for the wrongdoers a Fire whose curtains will surround them [on all sides]. If they cry out for help, they will be helped with a water like molten copper which will scald the faces. What an evil drink, and how ill a resting place! (18:29)

خالِدينَ فيها لا يُخَفَّفُ عَنهُمُ العَذابُ وَلا هُم يُنظَرونَ

They will remain in it [forever], and their punishment shall not be lightened, nor will they be granted any respite. (2:162)

However, as time progresses and they become acclimatized to the fire of hell and forget about the pleasures of heaven, they will say

سَواءٌ عَلَينا أَجَزِعنا أَم صَبَرنا ما لَنا مِن مَحيصٍ

It is the same to us whether we are restless or patient: there is no escape for us. (14:21) 

Qaysarī then says that at this point the mercy of God will encompass them and the punishment shall be lifted. He adds that for the gnostic, the punishment is actually sweet from one aspect since he knows its reality. He supports this understanding based on the narration that certain plants will grow in hell after the fire is extinguished and punishment is over.

As for the verses that talk about punishment, Qaysarī adds that they do not go against what Ibn Arabī says, for one thing can be a punishment from one aspect and pleasant from another aspect.[8]

Mulla Sadrā in his Tafsīr mentions the arguments for both sides, those who say punishment is eternal and those who say it will come to end. While mentioning the view of Ibn Arabī and Qaysarī, he adds:

And amongst that which proves the non-eternality of punishment is the narration, “There will come a time upon the hellfire when watercress (jirjīr) will grow from its depths. And Baghawi – famously known as the reviver of the sunnah – has mentioned in his Ma’ālim al-Tanzīl under the exegesis of the verse 11:108 that ibn Mas’ūd said: there will definitely come a time upon the hell fire where there is no one in it, and that will be after its inhabitants had stayed there for decades.”[9]

Syed Abdullah Shubbar claims that Mulla Sadrā also shared the same view as Ibn Arabi and hence could be considered as a proponent of the view.[10] However, amongst the commentators and students of Mulla Sadrā, there is a debate as to whether he changed his view towards the end of his life or not. From his words in Kitāb al-Arshīyah, which is said to have been his last book, it seems he moved away from his initial support of the view of Ibn Arabī. After describing Ibn Arabī’s view that the inhabitants of hell will remain therein forever, but their punishment will change into blessings that are in sync with their nature and thus they will be enjoying within the hellfire, he says:

As for me, what has become clear for me – since I have been engrossed in spiritual exercise and studies – the abode of hell is not an abode of blessings. Rather, it is a place of pain and distress and in it is eternal punishment. However, it’s pains are fragmented and renewing, continuously without interruption, and the skin there will be replaced, and there is no place there for peace and comfort since that station in that realm is like the station of construction and destruction (kawn wa fasād) in this realm.[11]

From his other writings, it seems Mullā Sadrā’s view became more in line with the 3rd answer in this essay and evidence for this will be discussed in that section.

Although this view seems to have been initiated by Ibn Arabī and was accepted by his students, the effects of this view have not remained solely in his circles. The contemporary Lebanese scholar, Sheikh Muhammad Jawād Mughniya, also advocates for non-eternality of the punishment in hell, though he is by no means considered a mystic or philosopher.

In his tafsīr of the Qur’ān, he discusses the issue of eternality of punishment in hell. He begins by stating that the prima facie understanding of some verses indicate that eternal punishment awaits the one who rejects God and His signs (2:39), the one who intentionally kills an innocent soul (4:92) and the one who is surrounded by his mistakes (2:81). However, we know that God’s justice dictates that the quality and quantity of punishment should be commensurate with the crime and therefore we should ask: making a person reside in hell perpetually with all sorts of gruesome punishments like scalding water and hot iron rods being pierced into the body while acknowledging the complete weakness of man – does this severe and painful punishment match the essence of God, who is pure good and mercy? It is understandable to punish for a while or to permanently block one from the bounties of paradise, but what about this kind of punishment where the skins are constantly replaced and there is no respite?

He then answers possible questions that could be raised – is there any kind of punishment that is too much for the killer of Imam Hussain (A) or the one who drops a nuclear bomb and wipes out a nation or the one who starts an evil practice and it continues after him wreaking havoc on the earth? The answer is that no punishment is too great for the likes of Yazid, but is every sinner a Yazid? Or is every person who starts an evil practice the cause of massive amounts of destruction and havoc on the earth? The question we must ask is not about these people but about other sinners who are lesser in rank.

If you ask, what shall we do with the verses of the Qur’ān and prophetic narrations that mention eternal punishment? The answer is that none of them are beyond reinterpretation. He suggests that we should reinterpret the verses that mention eternal punishment to mean punishment for a long time, but not forever.

If again it is asked that the jurists would not accept such a reinterpretation as there is no contextual indicator to prove it, the answer would be that those jurists who have studied the proofs for the mercy of God would accept my opinion and use this as an indicator to turn these verses away from their apparent meaning, at least in the case of some sinners.

He then goes on to quote several narrations that mention for example, that many will act as intercessors on the day of judgement and the last one to be an intercessor will be God, the most merciful. Or for example, the narration that says the mercy of God will be so widespread on the day of judgement that even Iblīs (Satan) would be hoping to receive some of it. Furthermore, he adds, these are matters of belief (aqāid) in which some jurists are actually muqalidīn (emulators).

He then adds another argument saying that in these matters it is completely okay for God to break His promises. It is only not befitting to go against promises about heaven, but threats about hellfire do not have to be carried out. As such, when everyone would be hoping to receive the mercy of Allah on that day, it would be completely okay for God to not carry out His threat of eternal punishment.

Lastly, if it is asked once more, what are the possible alternative understandings of these verses, it would be said eternal here means lengthy punishment and not perpetual, or remaining in hell without punishment such as the ‘tent of Hātim al-Tāi’ or like the presence of Prophet Ibrahim (A) in the fire. He adds that this could be supported by some narrations that say that the inhabitants of hell would be playing with the burning coals and would be throwing them at each other, while such games do not make sense even if the punishment was reduced let alone in its extreme form [hence punishment must be removed completely]. He finishes by quoting a passage from Ibn Arabī’s Futūhāt, thus showing that this idea originated from Ibn Arabī.[12]

This view of hell being eternal but the punishment being temporary has been vehemently criticized by Syed Abdullah Shubbar[13] as such an understanding goes against the apparent understanding of multiple verses and authentic narrations, not to mention that some of the arguments put forth can be used to negate the actual (limited) punishment itself. As such, this response would not be acceptable to most religious people and therefore another answer must be given to the problem of eternal punishment.

Two other answers seem to be common amongst the theologians and philosophers. For example, Ayatullah Jāffer Subhāni in his al-ilāhiyāt alā huda al-kitāb wa al-sunnah wa al-aql, summarizes these 2 answers, without discussing his preferred opinion, as a response to the question of how eternal punishment can be justified.

REWARDS AND PUNISHMENT ARE EXISTENTIALY THE ESOTERIC ASPECT OF ACTIONS

Shaheed Murtadha Mutaharri in his famous work al-Adl al-Ilāhi and Syed Kamāl al-Hyderi in his encyclopedia of divine justice, Mawsūat al-Adl al-Ilāhi, both espouse this view as a response to the issue of perpetual punishment being unjust. What follows has been adopted from Syed Kamāl’s work.[14]

The principle that this problem seems to be based on is that within a conventional system of punishment, the degree of punishment should be compatible with the crime for it to be just. For example, for the crime of jaywalking, justice would dictate punishment along the lines of a meager fine. If someone were imprisoned for several years due to jaywalking, this would be an instance of oppression.

A comparison between the worldly realm and the hereafter would suggest that this analogy is not suitable for our discussion. There is no doubt that there is a deep connection between the 2 realms of this world and the hereafter. What man plants in this realm, he will reap in the hereafter. However, with this connection there are also some significant differences in the laws that operate in these realms. The laws of the hereafter are different to the laws we know here.

One major difference between the 2 realms is regarding the system of recompense. Generally, there are 2 types of recompense;

1. Conventional/Arbitrary Reward

By this we mean a lack of any real causal relationship between an action and its rewards. The reward is conventionally and arbitrarily set up by someone in a position of authority e.g. setting a fine for breaking a certain rule. In Islamic terminology this would include the system of hudūd and penalties. Humanity has realized the need for such a system of justice in organizing society and as a method of discouraging people from trampling on the rights of others. The benefits of having such a system of punishment include:

  1. Stops the criminal or others from repeating such misdemeanors
  2. As a condolence to the oppressed and a means of giving them psychological tranquility. This is in the case where a crime has been committed against another human whereby when they see the oppressor getting punished, they feel a sense of comfort

Therefore, such a system of punishment is necessary for the running of society and cannot be replaced by anything. This does not mean that we are against rehabilitation centers where criminals can be trained to behave in better ways for indeed such centers are helpful in reducing crime. However, such training does not replace the need for justice. Both these systems have their place in running a society.

Therefore, this system of retribution is necessary. However, those in charge of setting the punishment should take into consideration the commensurability between the crime and punishment.

But an interesting point to note here is that such punishments cannot be envisaged in the hereafter. The reason is that, in that realm there is neither the question of deterrence from future crimes, nor of a need for revenge. The hereafter is not a realm for performing deeds, such that man ought to be punished to deter him from further crimes. Nor is it the case that the Lord, God forbid, has any sense of revenge and spite that He needs to resolve a psychological complex through retaliation. Similarly, the issue of assuaging the hurt feelings of the oppressed is not relevant there-especially if that oppressed is a saint and beloved of God, and a locus of universal Divine mercy. By all the more reason, others who are not saints, would also prefer the goodness, grace, and forgiveness of that realm to a world of revenge and vindication.

Furthermore, not all punishments are for a violation of people’s rights, such that one may argue that Divine justice demands that the oppressed person’s heart should be won through a retaliation aimed at the oppressor. A large portion of punishments are related to polytheism, hypocritical display of worship, neglecting God’s worship, etc. These are Divine rights and not people’s rights; and in such cases none of the two effects and characteristics of worldly punishment would apply.[15]

2. Existential Recompense

By this we mean there is a real existential relation between the act and its rewards like the relation between drinking poison and death. This type of relation is of two types:

i. Rewards that proceed the completion of the action

This realm is a place of cause and effect and based on this a sin and its results follow the law of causality. For example, drinking alcohol, which is considered a sin, is the cause and the resultant physical and mental effects that follow is the effect. The same can be said about other sins such as adultery, lying, murder etc. for most of the sins have some sort of effect in this realm even though the full recompense is on the day of judgement.

This type of relation, even though it is considered as a real, objective existential relationship in which the effect which is the reward, necessarily follows from the cause and cannot be separated from the cause, yet the point that needs to be noted is that we find that the action is done in a preceding time and context and the result follows after in a different time and context from the action.[16]

These effects are not conventionally set up so that we may discuss whether there is a commensurability between the act and reward. Rather, they are natural consequences that cannot be averted. The Qur’ān has alluded to the fact that there are natural consequences of our good and bad actions that serve as rewards/punishment.

وَما أَصابَكُم مِن مُصيبَةٍ فَبِما كَسَبَت أَيديكُم وَيَعفو عَن كَثيرٍ

Whatever affliction that may visit you, is because of what your hands have earned, and He excuses many [an offense]. (42:30)

This verse manifests the justice and mercy of God. For every misfortune that afflicts man, there is a cause which is due to his actions. However, Allah (SWT) out of His mercy does not let every effect reach us. He forgives us and averts that misfortune out of his kindness

وَلَو أَنَّ أَهلَ القُرىٰ آمَنوا وَاتَّقَوا لَفَتَحنا عَلَيهِم بَرَكاتٍ مِنَ السَّماءِ وَالأَرضِ وَلٰكِن كَذَّبوا فَأَخَذناهُم بِما كانوا يَكسِبونَ

If the people of the towns had been faithful and Godwary, We would have opened to them blessings from the heaven and the earth. But they denied; so We seized them because of what they used to earn. (7:96)

ظَهَرَ الفَسادُ فِي البَرِّ وَالبَحرِ بِما كَسَبَت أَيدِي النّاسِ لِيُذيقَهُم بَعضَ الَّذي عَمِلوا لَعَلَّهُم يَرجِعونَ

Corruption has appeared in land and sea because of the doings of the people’s hands, that He may make them taste something of what they have done, so that they may come back. (30:41)

Discussing this phenomenon, Allāmah Tabatabā’i says

Obviously, natural phenomena are somehow related to human deeds. If humanity remains obedient to the commandments of Allah and walks on His chosen path, happiness and goodness follow and the doors of bliss are opened.

On the other hand if he strays from the path of obedience and continues in his error, mischief and bad faith, chaos appears in the land and on the sea, nations are destroyed because of the injustice prevalent in them, the state of law and order deteriorates, conflict and war become the norm of the day; in short, happiness becomes a scarce commodity and unhappiness reigns in the land.

Not only this, natural calamities and disasters appear, like flood, earthquakes, lightening, cyclones, etc. Allah has mentioned the deluge of the dam of Ma’arib, the flood of Nūh, the lightening of Thamūd and the gale of ‘Ad as some examples of phenomenon.

When a wicked nation is submerged in depravity, vice and evil, Allah makes it taste the bad consequences of its misdeeds, and this leads to its decline, fall and destruction.[17]

ii. The real reward which is the esoteric aspect of the action

This type of reward is specific to the day of judgement and involves an existential relationship between the action and its reward which is nothing other than the inner aspect of that action and not something external to the action. In this system, there is no time lapse between the action and reward, and they are simultaneous. However, while in this world, man does not pay attention to this reward and is negligent of it, even though it is present.

The retribution in the hereafter is the embodiment of the deeds done here. The rewards and punishments there are actually these very acts of goodness or evil and which will be revealed and manifested when the veils are lifted. The recitation of the Qur’an here, will become a beautiful entity there-a presence which will perpetually accompany the reciter. On the other hand, backbiting or hurting people will manifest as the gravy of the mongrels of hell.

In other words, our acts have an earthly dimension which is temporary and ephemeral-and that is the one which appears in this world as the spoken word or done deed; and they have another celestial dimension and appearance-which even “after” the deed is done, never disappears and is an inseparable effect and offspring of ours. Our deeds from that celestial dimension and unseen perspective are permanent, and one day we shall reach those deeds and will be able to perceive them in their celestial form and appearance. If they are beautiful and pleasing, it will be bounty and grace for us, and if they are ugly and unpleasant, it will be our fire and hell.[18]

This type of connection between action and reward is stronger than the conventional one in the first type as well the cause and effect of the second type. The Quran alludes to this type of reward;

يَومَئِذٍ يَصدُرُ النّاسُ أَشتاتًا لِيُرَوا أَعمالَهُم

فَمَن يَعمَل مِثقالَ ذَرَّةٍ خَيرًا يَرَهُ

وَمَن يَعمَل مِثقالَ ذَرَّةٍ شَرًّا يَرَهُ

On that day, mankind will issue forth in various groups to be shown their deeds. So whoever does an atom’s weight of goodwill see it, and whoever does an atom’s weight of evil will see it. (99:6-8)

يَومَ تَجِدُ كُلُّ نَفسٍ ما عَمِلَت مِن خَيرٍ مُحضَرًا وَما عَمِلَت مِن سوءٍ تَوَدُّ لَو أَنَّ بَينَها وَبَينَهُ أَمَدًا بَعيدً

The day when every soul will find present whatever good it has done; and as to whatever evil it has done it will wish there were a far distance between it and itself. (3:30)

وَاتَّقوا يَومًا تُرجَعونَ فيهِ إِلَى اللَّهِ ثُمَّ تُوَفّىٰ كُلُّ نَفسٍ ما كَسَبَت وَهُم لا يُظلَمونَ

And beware of a day in which you will be brought back to Allah. Then every soul shall be recompensed fully for what it has earned, and they will not be wronged. (2:281) 

يا أَيُّهَا الَّذينَ كَفَروا لا تَعتَذِرُوا اليَومَ ۖ إِنَّما تُجزَونَ ما كُنتُم تَعمَلونَ

O faithless ones! Do not make any excuses today. You are only being requited with what you used to do. (66:7)

Consider the fact that this verse says mā kuntum (with what) and not bi mā kuntum (for what)

إِنَّ الَّذينَ يَأكُلونَ أَموالَ اليتامى ظُلمًا إِنَّما يَأكُلونَ في بُطونِهِم نارًا وَسَيَصلَونَ سَعيرًا

Indeed, those who consume the property of orphans wrongfully, only ingest fire into their bellies, and soon they will enter the Blaze. (4:10)

 لَقَد كُنتَ في غَفلَةٍ مِن هٰذا فَكَشَفنا عَنكَ غِطاءَكَ فَبَصَرُكَ اليَومَ حَديدٌ

You were certainly oblivious of this. We have removed your veil from you, and so your sight is acute today. (50:22)

Consider the idea that Ghaflah (heedlessness) can only be about things that are present. Therefore, it would not be correct to tell man that he was heedless if his rewards and punishment were not present with him in this world.

وَإِنَّ جَهَنَّمَ لَمُحيطَةٌ بِالكافِرينَ

and indeed, hell has surrounded the faithless. (9:49)

The famous Sunni commentator, Ālusi, in his commentary of this verse states:

“…because bad conduct and evil deeds have covered them – and that is fire itself. albeit it has manifested in this realm as conduct and actions and will manifest in the other realm in a different form.”[19]

In brief, this view states that since punishments are identical to the act itself, since they are only the esoteric aspect of the act, it is meaningless to ask how it is just for God to punish in such a manner. The famous philosophical dictum al-dhāti lā yuallal (the essential is never caused) when applied here would be a response to the question, why did God create such gruesome punishments as the esoteric aspect of the action? Could He not have designed them to be less harsh? The philosophical dictum would compare the esoteric aspect of the action to the relation between evenness and the number four. Four is essentially even and is not caused arbitrarily by God.

Sheikh Haider Hobbollāh has raised some observations on this understanding of reward and punishment

This view is generally put forth by the philosophers, especially Sadrian philosophers, and mystics. In fact, this view in the Shī‘ī communities has become so widespread that it is considered to be accepted without any dispute. Proponents of this view believe this position also resolves the issue of khulūd – an eternal chastisement for someone who only committed a limited sin. They will say Allah (swt) will not eternally punish them, rather the chastisement is nothing but the very deed itself. It is like someone who cuts his fingers off – we do not ask why did Allah (swt) leave his fingers cut off for eternity, rather we say this individual him or herself cut their decapitated their fingers themselves for eternity.

Commenting on the origins of such an idea and how it spread within scholarly circles:

In fact, there is even debate on whether this is a view that Muslim scholars came up with or is it a view existed even before Islam in philosophies that existed in other parts of the world. We are not going in depth on the history of this view, but it should suffice to say that even Mullā Ṣadrā acknowledges that this view can be seen in the works of certain Greek philosophers.

Before Ibn ‘Arabī (d. 1240) even though the view was known, it was severely rejected by most Muslim scholars. In fact, Muslim theologians even put forth rational arguments on the impossibility of such a view, although the weakness of their arguments became clearer over time. After Ibn ‘Arabī – who himself defended this view – the opinion became more readily accepted amongst some scholars, until Shaykh Bahā’ī defended this view with further arguments, and by the time Mullā Ṣadrā had also taken this position and defended it, it had become a very widespread belief at least amongst the Imami Shī‘a communities. It was after Mullā Ṣadrā that the Qur’ānic and ḥadīth texts were interpreted through this lens.

He then analyzes each of the verses that are used to construct this idea and provides alternative interpretations. It would suffice here to mention one methodological issue that he raised which is very relevant in interpreting these verses

One exegetical principle we need to discern for ourselves is how do we read the Qur’ānic text for interpretation? Do we take it in context of how the Arabs would generally speak, which includes heavy use of metaphors, figurative language, metonyms and so on, or do we interpret the Qur’ānic text in its literal way as much as we can? Both approaches are valid and used in the Qur’ān, but the dilemma occurs when some scholars believe that the first approach needs to be used on a certain verse while others believe the second approach needs to be used on a certain verse. This is the same dilemma we have here. For example:

[2:174] Indeed, they who conceal what Allah has sent down of the Book and exchange it for a small price – those consume not into their bellies except the Fire. And Allah will not speak to them on the Day of Resurrection, nor will He purify them. And they will have a painful punishment.

Why do we have to presume that people are truly consuming fire into their bellies, and instead, not understand this to be figurative language being used to convey the severity of their sins? Such figurative language was very common amongst the Arabs, even until today. Imagine someone’s child fails an exam at school and the father says to them, “this is your own doing”, or “this is what you’ve been occupied with all day.” What does this really mean? Does this mean that the child’s activities before giving the exam are one and the same as the result he received or is this just a figurative way to condemn the child and tell them that this is the result of your deeds.

Or society might say to a criminal when they are sent to prison for stealing, that “this is your own doing.” What society means is that this is the result of what you yourself did, you committed certain acts and the consequences of those are imprisonment, not that the act of theft is one and the same as imprisonment.

Those who believe in the embodiment of deeds, they also rely on language to prove their claim and stick to the literal meaning of the verses, and this literal approach is not necessarily wrong per se. The question we have to ask here is why the literal approach is preferred over the metaphorical approach when we know the latter is also widely used in the Arabic language and as well as the Qur’ān?

These sentence structures and compositions are not appearing in the Qur’ān for the first time, they already existed amongst the Arabs before the Prophet (p). If the first time we had come across these structures were in the Qur’ān itself, then we would have no choice but to stick to its literal meanings, but when we know such structure was so prevalent amongst the Arabs, there is more reason to read them as figurative, than literal.[20]

REWARDS AND PUNISHMENTS ARE THE NATURAL CONSEQUENCES OF THE ALTERED PSYCHE OF MAN

Another slightly different way of answering the question of perpetual punishment is to look at rewards and punishment in a different lens. The following idea has been presented by Allāmah Tabataba’i and it seems Mullā Sadra al-Shirāzi also leans to this view towards the end of his life.

Briefly, whenever man commits any action it has an effect on his psyche/soul. By repeating certain actions, the imprint and effect on the psyche gradually becomes permanent as a characteristic of the soul. Once a part of man’s psyche, it is these characteristics and qualities that serve as eternal punishment for man in the hereafter.

As for the spiritual bliss and chastisement, they happen to the immaterial soul as it acquires good or bad characteristics and traits and is thus wrapped in beautiful or ugly conditions . . . these conditions and characteristics appear to the psyche in their respective good or ugly shapes, and the psyche enjoys the beautiful and good shapes, if it is itself good; and is tormented by what is bad and ugly, whether it is itself good or bad.

If these resulting shapes are not deeply imprinted on the psyche, and are not agreeable to its person, they are bound to disappear sooner or later, because their appearance is a matter of constraint; and we know that constraint does not continue forever. Suppose there is a true believer who has committed some sins. This man is good and happy in his person, but his psyche has been polluted by, and wrapped in, ugly unhappy shapes. Obviously, this ugly shape, not being deeply imprinted will certainly get removed. But if these ugly shapes have been deeply imprinted on the psyche, then it reshapes the psyche in its own mould. The soul acquires a new shape and becomes almost a new species.

Suppose there is a “niggard man”; now niggardliness gives a new form to his humanity, in the same way as “rationality” gives a new form to “animality “, and “rational animal” (i.e., man) becomes a new species under the genes, “animal”. Likewise “niggard man” becomes a new species under the genes “man”. This species has an eternal existence of its own. The man, before the characteristics of niggardliness were firmly ingrained in his psyche, did practice niggardliness under constraint and felt unhappy. But now he does it, by permission of Allãh, naturally without any constraint. And as it is done by this new species without constraint, it is eternal, endless and perpetual – contrary to the former condition when it was done under constraint and could therefore be got rid of. This man gets punished because of the concomitants of his characteristics and traits . . . What is punishment? It is that from which man runs away (if not inflicted by it yet) and longs to extricate himself (if already suffering from it). And this definition applies to the ugly shapes and frightening conditions which an “unhappy” man suffers in his next abode. It proves that the chastisement of the next world is perpetual and never-ending– for a man whose unhappiness has become an integral part of his personality

Allāmah then further adds:

Perpetual punishment is the effect of the form of infelicity and unhappiness when it becomes an inseparable characteristic of the “unhappy” man. It happens after the man acquires full capability for it – through relevant conditions of the psyche – and exercises his free choice by choosing evil, instead of good. That capability creates in the psyche the shape commensurate with it. We do not ask why a man does human actions, once the matter has acquired the human form – because the human form itself is sufficient cause of human activities. Likewise, we cannot ask why the effects of the inseparable unhappiness and infelicity (including perpetual punishment) are appearing, after the psyche has acquired the form of inseparable unhappiness and infelicity. Because it is its inseparable characteristic and effect

In other words

. . . There is, on the other hand, an action or condition which emanates from the very nature of the man, when that nature is thoroughly polluted, when it is moulded in ugly mould and acquires a shape other than the original one. Man, in that existence, demands terrifying punishment; his transformed psyche, by its very nature, longs for chastisement – although at the same time he does not like it. We have earlier given the example of the man suffering from melancholia: Doubtlessly, the terrifying pictures emanating from his mind are “agreeable” to his psyche, because they are the products of that distorted psyche itself, and such effects are surely agreeable to the related psyche or nature. But at the same time, they are indeed torture and punishment, because the definition of “punishment” applies thereto. In short, the eternal punishment is disagreeable from the viewpoint of sensitivity, and at the same time it is agreeable because it emanates from the psyche itself.[21]

Proponents of this understanding also say that when these qualities become firmly rooted in the soul, they take on a different form in the metaphysical realm. For example, knowledge in this world is an accident of the soul and is grasped by the intellect while in the realm of sleep it comes in the form of ‘milk.’ Those who delve into dream interpretation, consequently, claim that seeing oneself drinking milk in a dream would mean that one would soon gain some increased knowledge.

Therefore, in both realms it is the same knowledge, but it takes different forms. Based on this, it is understood that what can pleasure you in one realm can be hurtful in the other.

Mullā Sadrā says in his Tafsīr, “Reward and punishment on the day of judgement is going to be through the same etiquettes and characteristics that have their roots firmly in the heart through repetition of actions and deeds in this world by people.”[22]

Ayatullah Jaffer Subhāni succinctly distinguishes between this view and the previous one:

The difference between the 2 views is clear. In the [second] view the psyche of the pious or evil man creates his reward and punishment and hell and heaven depending on the characteristics he has acquired in this world to the extent that it is not possible for the holder of such characteristics to gain peace and comfort except through actions that are in sync with them. Based on the [first] view, the action will manifest in the hereafter with its esoteric aspect without the psyche having any role to play in this manifestation of the action in that form. Rather, it is one of the concomitants of the resurrected man, for man is not resurrected alone but rather, is resurrected with whatever is concomitant with his existence, what accompanies it and is attached to it and is not separated from it. In brief, the relation between reward and man based on the [second] view is a relation of production whereby the psyche produces and creates the good and evil reward and on the [first] view it is from the concomitants of the existence of man and attached to it without any form of production.[23]

I believe this view is the most consistent and rational view and falls in line with some narrations as well. The famous philosopher, Jalāl al-dīn Āshtiyāni, while advocating for this understanding that the punishment is due to the permanent qualities of the psyche, criticizes those mystics who say that punishment will turn into pleasure for the inhabitants of hell, asserting that such ideas are baseless whims and weaker than a spider’s web.[24] He then mentions a narration that seems to be in line with this understanding of eternal punishment whereby Imam al-Sādiq (A) says:

The Holy Prophet (S) was once sitting in his mosque when a man from the Jews entered and said: If your lord does not oppress, how can be place in hell for eternity the one who has only sinned for a couple of day? He (S) replied: He makes him reside eternally based on his intention. Therefore, when Allah knows someone’s intention such that if He were to give him life until the end of the world He would continue sinning, He thus makes him eternally remain in hellfire based on this intention, and his intention is worse than his actions . . . And Allah the exalted says, “Say, ‘Everyone acts according to his character. Your Lord knows best who is better guided with regard to the way.” (Qur’ān 17:84)[25]

Through this narration, he shows that the evil doer by constantly repeating the evil act, makes the evil intention firmly rooted in his inner being and thus becomes a permanent aspect of his existence, and hence the punishment would also be permanent. He then goes on to extract several philosophical principles from this narration such as application of punishments on real existents in the hellfire, complete correspondence between evil intentions and punishment and necessity of congruence (sinkhīya) between an effect and its source.[26]

In conclusion, the view that punishments are eternal and justified as they stem from permanently rooted qualities in the psyche of evildoers due to their repetition of evil deeds seems the most justifiable. While intellectual proofs of each opinion have not been discussed, the apparent understanding of textual sources seem most in line with the 3rd opinion.

Footnotes

[1] Shaheed Murtadha Mutaharri, Divine Justice (al-Adl al-Ilāhi). Translated by Sulaymān Hasan Ābidi, Murtaza Alidina and Shujā Ali Mirza, Page 210

[2] Al-Kafi, Muhammad ibn Ya’qub al-Kulayni, Volume 6, Chapter 22, Hadith 4

[3] Muhyī al-Din Ibn Al-Arabī, Fusūs al-Hikam: An Annotated Translation of “The Bezels of Wisdom” Binyamin Abrahamov, Chapter on Yunus, Page 130

[4] Muhyī al-Din Ibn Al-Arabī, Futūhāt al-Makkiyah, Volume 1 Page 364

[5] ibid, Volume 3 Pages 27-28

[6] ibid

[7] Dāwūd al-Qaysarī, Sharh al-Qaysarī ala al-Fusūs, Page 351

[8] ibid, Page 213-214 (al-faṣ al-ismaīlī)

[9] Mullā Ṣadrā al-Shīrāzi, Tafsīr Mullā Ṣadrā, Volume 1 Page 375

[10] Abdullah Shubbar, Masābīh al-anwār fī halli mushkilāt al-akhbār, Volume 1 Pages 284-319

[11] Mullā Sadrā al-Shīrāzi, Kitāb al-Arshīya, Page 95

[12] Muhammad Jawād Mughniya, Tafsīr al-Kāshif, Volume 1 Page 400-402

[13] Abdullah Shubbar, Masābīh al-anwār fī halli mushkilāt al-akhbār, Volume 1 Pages 284-319

[14] Syed Kamāl al-Hyderī, Mawsūat al-Adl al-Ilāhi, Volume 2 Pages 179-218

[15] Shaheed Murtadha Mutaharri, Divine Justice, Page 198

[16] Syed Kamāl al-Hyderi, Falsafat al-dīn, Page 64

[17] Allāmah Muhammad Hussayn Tabatabā’i, al-Mīzan fī tafsīr al-qur’ān, under 2:218. English translation adapted from www.almizan.org

[18] Shaheed Murtadha Mutaharri, Divine Justice, Page 204-205

[19] Mahmūd al-Alusi, Rūh al-Ma’ānī, Volume 10 Page 141

[20] Haider Hobbollāh, transcript of his exegesis of Sura al-Zalzalah at http://www.iqraonline.net/commentary-on-surah-al-zalzalah-part-2/

[21] Allāmah Muhammad Hussayn Tabatabā’i, al-Mīzan fī tafsīr al-qur’ān, under 2:218. English translation adapted from www.almizan.org

[22] Mullā Ṣadrā al-Shīrāzi, Tafsīr Mullā Ṣadrā, Volume 3 Page 322

[23] Ayatullah Jaffer Subhāni, al-īlāhiyāt alā huda al-kitāb wa al-sunnah wa al-aql, Volume 1 Page 297

[24] Jalāl al-dīn Āshtiyāni, Sharh bar Zād al-Musāfir Page 357, Muqadimat Usūl al-Ma’ārif Pages 325-326

[25] Sheikh al-Sadūq, Kitāb al-Tawhīd, Page 386-387

[26] Jalāl al-dīn Āshtiyāni, Sharh bar Zād al-Musāfir Page 358, Muqadimat Usūl al-Ma’ārif Pages 325-326