The following translation is taken from the work Maṣābīḥ al-Anwār fī Ḥall Mushkilāt al-Akhbār written by al-Sayyid ʿAbdullah Shubbar (d. 1242 AH / 1827). Two editions of the work exist, one published by Mu’assasah al-Nūr lil-Maṭbūʿāt of Beirut in the late 1980s, and a recent edition was published by Dār ol Ḥadīth in 2011.
In this two-volume work, ʿAllamah Shubbar tackles more than 350 difficult traditions, that are often challenging to interpret, justify or understand and have been subject to criticism. The traditions include a wide-variety of narrations, including theology, ethics and even jurisprudence.
That which we transmitted from al-Muḥaddith al-Ḥurr al-ʿĀmilī from the Prophet (p) who said:
الدُّنْيَا سِجْنُ الْمُؤْمِنِ وَجَنَّةُ الْكَافِرِ
The world is a prison for the believer and paradise for the disbeliever.
This tradition has been transmitted by both the Sunnis and the Shiʿa. The critique on it is as follows: There are many believers whose status in this world is full of honour while there are many disbelievers whose status in this world is constrained and dire. It is possible to respond to this critique in different ways:
1. Even if a believer’s condition in the world is that of honour and ease, but in comparison to the hereafter and their condition there, it is as if they are in a prison in the world. The opposite is true for a disbeliever. This response is also transmitted from Abī Muḥammad al-Ḥasan (a) when a Jewish man complained to him (a) and he (a) responded with this.1
2. The narration can be predicated on what is the case most of the times with respects to the believers and the disbelievers – this way of interpretation is permissible to do.
3. A believer in the world is always engaged in obedience, fulfilling the obligations and recommendations at all times, and refraining from the prohibitions and the detested acts and continues to contemplate about the hereafter by remembering the hell-fire, the reckoning, and the punishment. From the perspective that they are continuously engaged in this while unable to detach themselves from it, a believer is in prison. On the contrary, a disbeliever is always engaged in sins and pleasures. The thought of paradise or hell-fire does not concern them, neither the reckoning nor the punishment – thus the world is a paradise for them.
4. The world is a prison for a believer who is complete in their faith, and it is heaven for a disbeliever who is complete in their disbelief. This is as per what is narrated that those who are tested the most with calamities in the world are the Prophets, then the Awsiyā’, and so on.
5. The tradition is an informative statement in the meaning of a command. Meaning, it is necessary for a believer to consider the world as a prison for themselves, just like a prisoner does not desire anything more than what is necessary, like food, and their thoughts are occupied with ways of escaping. This meaning is far-fetched in the remainder of the tradition, but it is possible to justify the latter part by saying that in relation to a disbeliever it is being uttered in a state of threat and eternal punishment, like the verse: [41:40] Do whatever you will. Or it could mean, a disbeliever has the right to consider the world as a paradise, because they will not have any share in the hereafter except in punishment and chastisement.
6. A believer considers the world as a prison for themselves and does not desire it, nor has an affinity towards its pleasures, but rather fears its deceptive qualities despite benefiting from it apparently, whereas the disbeliever is the opposite of that.2
Sayyid Ali Imran studied in the seminary of Qom from 2012 to 2021, while also concurrently obtaining a M.A in Islamic Studies from The Islamic College of London in the summer of 2018. He continued his seminary studies in legal theory, jurisprudence and philosophy, eventually attending the advanced kharij of Usul and Fiqh in 2018. He is also a regular instructor for Mizan Institute.
- As recorded in Nūr al-Abṣār fī Manāqib Āl Bayt al-Mukhtār, by Mu’min al-Shablanjī.
- This is different than the previous point because in the previous explanation it was being claimed that the informative statement should actually be read as a command for what a believer should do, whereas this sixth explanation is giving a report about what a believer and a disbsliever are already doing.