Understanding Islamic View on Universality of Salvation and limited duration of hell
BY DR.MOHAMMAD MAROOF SHAH
Most Muslims assume that punishment for nonbelievers will not end as they shall be compelled to stay in eternal hell and that none will enjoy stay in hell at any point of time as if God’s mercy has no dominion or role there. Many Muslim theologians believe that God doesn’t need any reason (sin) to consider punishing someone in hell and can send anyone to hell. None of these assumptions have gone unchallenged by towering Muslim scholars, philosophers and Sufis. Before discussing the specific case of Ibn Taymiyyah against eternality of hell and exclusivist view on salvation, let us sum up certain points against the popular view.
How come hell is called a friend (mawla) and mother (umm) in the Quran? How can any place be sealed for good against penetration of divine mercy? If we note that one is not punished for sins but by sins as noted by many astute minds and if suffering in punishment follows sin or transgression and joy in heaven is the very constitution of things or contact with Reality or the very substance or nature of consciousness that constitutes us, how can there ever be symmetry between hell and heaven? In fact the Quran is explicit affirming this asymmetry. The spirit that constitutes our core, is in fact, incorruptible. Both death and punishment can accrue only to nafs (psyche).
There have always been authorities denying hell’s eternality in every tradition including Islamic, a point major scholars of hadith have not failed to note. Deep down, it is hard to digest the belief that anyone will be roasted in fire endlessly even if one subscribes to belief in eternal hell. That is in why we see that Ibn Arabi “never once argues for a non-eternal Hell, even if he does argue for a non-eternal punishment in Hell.”
We discuss part of the chapter on Ibn Taymiyyah and Ibn al-Qayyim in incisive work Muslim Scholarly Discussions on Salvation and the Fate of ‘Others’ by Mohammad Hassan Khalil. In al-Radd ‘alā man qāla bi-fanā’ al-Jannah wa al-Nār Ibn Taymiyyah points out that, unlike the issue of Heaven’s duration, we do find differences of opinion amongst both the Salaf and the Khalaf (‘Later Generations’) regarding Hell’s duration. He brings number of arguments and meticulous analysis of relevant verses and traditions to argue that the punishment in Hell will eventually cease to exist, and that everyone will leave it at some point. He cites the authority of Ibn Mas‘ūd, Abū Hurayrah, Abū Sa‘īd alKhudrī, ‘Umar ibn al-Khatab and others in his support.
Citing the relevant exegetical reports associated with Q. 6:128 – a verse that concludes with, “[God] will say: ‘The Fire is your resting-place, abiding therein (khālidīna fīhā), except as God wills (illā mā shā’a Allāh). Your Lord is truly wise, all-knowing’” he quotes Ibn ‘Abbās as saying that it is improper for any human to pass a judgment on behalf of God, and that no one can determine who the inhabitants of either Heaven or Hell will be. He argues that the Divine threat and exception (“except as God wills”) here refers not to the ‘People of the Qibla,’ as the beginning of the verse implies that it is in reference to both the jinn who “misled a great many men” and “their supporters (awliyā’uhum) among men” who “profited much from each other.” The latter must certainly include the Unbelievers. He further quotes a statement attributed to Ibn Mas‘ūd stating that a time will come in which no one will remain in Hell, and that that will take place after its inhabitants will have remained in it for ‘ages’ (ahqaban).
For Ibn Taymiyyah, the verse 11:107-08 constitutes one of the strongest arguments for limited duration of hell. “[The wretched shall be] abiding [in Hell] (khālidīna fīhā), so long
as the heavens and earth endure, except as your Lord pleases (illā mā shā’a rabbuka);
Your Lord does indeed what He wants.” Here Ibn Taymiyyah cites the view attributed to
various Companions that “except as your Lord pleases” is to be applied to every Divine threat (wa‘īd) in the Qur’an. Khalil here points out that unlike Ibn al-‘Arabī, Ibn Taymiyyah considers the qualification to be a reference to the stay in Hellfire, and not simply the state of Hell’s inhabitants. The former is known for arguing that hell will eventually cease to be a place of punishment and Al-Jili who often builds on him has pointed out that there are compensatory pleasures during one’s stay in hell (on the analogy of pleasure in scratching one’s clot on wound).
Dissenting remarks by al-Subki on authenticity of tradition of Umar cited by Ibn Taymiyyah notwithstanding, he presents evidence for the eventual salvation of all and goes on to cite more reports substantiating the argument for a temporal Hell. ‘Abd-Allāh ibn ‘Umar is quoted as saying that “there will come a time upon Hell in which its gates will be shut, and no one will remain in it.” al-Sha‘bī is quoted as saying that “Hell is the fastest of the two abodes (i.e. Heaven and Hell) in being inhabited, and the fastest in becoming desolate.”
For Ibn Taymiyah the canon does not state that Hell will never perish; instead it indicates that Hell’s inhabitants will remain in it ‘continually’ (abadan), receiving its
decreed punishments, with no way out. And such canonical passages simply refer to the “inability of Unbelievers to leave Hell while Hell exists, which is unlike the situation of those in Hell who uphold the ‘Unity of God’ (Tawhīd), who will be able to leave Hell during that time by way of intercession (shafā‘ah).”
Summing up one may say that, for Ibn Taymiyyah:
The Qur’anic verses such as 78:23, 6:128, and 11:107 indicate that “Hell is of limited duration and that its continuation is conditional.”
“It has been established that God will allow into Heaven those who have never committed a good deed, such as the creation made specifically for Heaven, people who were initially consigned to Hell, and children whose fathers were righteous On the other hand, no one will be punished for any reason other than sin.”
Building on such Qur’anic verses as 15:49-50, 5:98, and 6:165 his argument is that “the blessings from God are the products of His names and characteristics, and are thus a reflection of His essence, thus necessitating their eternality. Punishment, on the other hand, is His creation, and like His other creations (e.g. this world), it will eventually perish once the wisdom behind its existence has been obtained.” This argument is developed further by Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah.
Given that “God states in the Qur’an (e.g. 6:12) and the authentic hadith collections that His mercy encompasses everything…if God’s punishment really were eternal, there would be no mercy in that.”
We needn’t buy the Ash’arite thesis that God, because of His omnipotence, could punish anyone, with or without sin as a basis.
It is noteworthy that the illustrious student of Ibn Taymiyyah, Ibn al-Qayyim goes much further in elucidating arguments for both the non-eternality of Hell and the eventual salvation of all.
Dr. Mohammad Maroof Shah is an author and Columnist, interested in the the interface of philosophy, literature, religion and mysticism