One of the hardest issues I have had to struggle with is the concept of hell in Islam. I cannot imagine people burning forever and ever for whatever crime or disbelief they committed. If Allah is so merciful, how does he do this to his own creation. There are billions and billions of human beings and most of them are not Muslims. I just can’t understand how most of them will just burn in hell.
First of all, I would like to clarify that it is not the ‘non-Muslims’ who shall be given eternal punishment. It is actually the ‘Kaafirs‘ or the rejecters. There is obviously a difference between the two terms. The first one (i.e. ‘non-Muslim’) merely refers to the fact that the individual in question does not ascribe to Islam, as his religion. While the second one implies that a person, even after adequate knowledge of the truth and even after recognizing the truth from falsehood, has opted to reject the truth. A non-Muslim, shall only be subjected to eternal punishment, if he is a Kaafir as well.
Keeping this brief clarification in perspective, let us now turn to your actual question. You state that the implementation and the justification of eternal punishment is, somewhat, incomprehensible for you. You believe that no crime, however grave it may be, deserves eternal punishment.
I would suggest that rather than trying to ascertain the justified level of severity for the punishment of each crime, as we are not even in a position to do so, we should concentrate on trying to understand the overall scheme of things in the life of this world and the principles of the subsequent results in the life hereafter, as given in the Qur’an.
The following points may be of some help in understanding the scheme of things in the life of this world and that of the hereafter, as given in the Qur’an:
The life of this world is a test (Al-Mulk 67: 2)
Before putting man in the test of the life of this world, God gave us the option to accept or avoid the responsibility of taking this test, fully clarifying the consequences of our success and/or failure. Attracted by the unimaginable rewards, man accepted the responsibility and consented to take the test and face the consequent results (Al-Ahzaab 33: 72). However, the memory of this acceptance, for the purpose of effective testing of man, has been erased from man’s mind. Nevertheless, man shall, once again, clearly remember this acceptance in the hereafter.
To help man succeed in the test, God made a number of arrangements. These arrangements can broadly be divided into two categories:
Internal Arrangement: This arrangement is common to all humans. Under this category fall all the abilities that humans possess with reference to gathering information and drawing conclusions. Besides the five senses, this category includes the human faculty of reasoning and drawing inferences (Al-Sajadah 32: 9). Moreover, this category also includes not only the information about the basic good and bad behavior (Al-Shams 91: 8), but also the human conscience, which checks and discourages man from doing wrong and instigates and encourages him to do good (Al-Qiyamah 75: 2)
External Arrangement: Besides the internal arrangement, God also made an external arrangement for reminding and clarifying man of the right path and of the consequences of his divergence from the right path. Under this category, God chose the best of men from a given community and revealed His message upon them. The selected person, in turn was to deliver the revealed message to his community. These selected people were called ‘Nabi‘ (i.e. prophet). God sent his prophets in the world in such great numbers that, according to the Qur’an, mankind is left with no excuse of rejecting the basics (i.e. Tawheed – oneness of God, Risa’lah – the institution of prophethood, and Aakhirah -the Day of Judgment) of God’s path (Al-Nisaa 4: 165).
Even after all these arrangements, God promised forgiveness for all such people who, after having committed a crime – however grave it may have been – repented and resolved to correct their behavior (Al-Nisaa 4: 17).
Under this basic scheme, God has warned man of eternal punishment in case of the following crimes:
A general attitude of arrogance and haughtiness in the face of any and every truth that comes one’s way (Al-Zumar 39: 72);
Intentional indulgence in:
Ascribing partners, associates or equals to the one God (Al-Furqaan 25: 68);
Killing an innocent soul (Al-Furqaan 25: 68);
Committing adultery (Al-Furqaan 25: 68);
Living a life completely engulfed in sin and disobedience to God (Al-Baqarah 2: 81);
However, it may be mentioned here that whatever crime a person may have committed, during his life, if he truly and sincerely repents for these crimes, corrects his behavior and honestly seeks God’s forgiveness, the Qur’an has promised forgiveness for such a person. Moreover, the Qur’an also tells us that besides the crime of ascribing partners, associates and equals to God, God may, for whomsoever He pleases (without being unjust), forgive any crime (including the one’s mentioned above). Nevertheless, God shall never forgive a person who associated partners to Him and did not repent or correct his behavior (Al-Nisaa 4: 48).
Thus, as a corollary of the details given above, we may say that it is only those who, even after all of God’s arrangement of saving them from punishment, refuse to be saved and are persistent of proving themselves to be deserving of punishment. It is only those who prefer to taste of God’s wrath, over His mercy.
If Allah is so merciful, how does He do this to His Own creation?
The Qur’an tells us that God’s abounding mercy is available to all during the life of this world. However, in the hereafter, it shall only be limited to those, who prove themselves to be truly deserving of this mercy during the test of this life.
I am sure that if you consider the above explanation, you shall insha’Allah see that in view of the extra-ordinary arrangement to guide man to the path of success, the limited number and the gravity and severity of crimes that deserve eternal punishment and also the arrangement of informing man regarding the punishment of these crimes, prior to judging him, the punishment no longer seems to be unjustified or against the concept of mercy.
21st April 2000