Death is the mother of beauty–from the poem Sunday Morning by Wallace Stevens
I recently had a conversation with a friend, regarding the role that the afterlife plays in people’s perception and adherence to religion. For me, it wasn’t fear of death that motivated me to convert to Islam. My attraction to Islam was based on its purely monotheistic stance. It was more of an answer to the confusing idea of the trinity found within Christianity. For a time it was enough to think that I had found the true and primordial monotheistic faith. However, years later as I began an honest and sincere critique of the Quran, armed with a new-found sense of courage, rife with doubts and questions, my faith wavered and I realized that Islam too, has inherent flaws. But I digress.
Despite my own reasons for converting to and staying within the confines of religion for so long, it is true, I suspect, that a fear of death does lead people down a similar path. The concept of justice also plays a role–the idea that those who were wronged on earth will be set right and those who were the wrongdoers will be punished. So it goes to reason, one must look at what constitutes a wrong and what will put a person into an afterlife which is a punishment, or in the Islamic, Judeo-Christian tradition: Hell. Likewise, Islam promises a reward for those who are faithful and conform to Quranic edicts. Furthermore, unlike the Catholic view of the afterlife in which there is such a place as purgatory, or the Jewish idea of sheol, in Islam there is a dichotomy of two extremes. There is the unfathomable pain and suffering one will experience in hell and the pleasure and wealth one will experience in heaven. I once read that the Quran speaks of hell in over 500 verses. Nowhere is this dichotomy more clearly spelled out than surah Waqiah (The Inevitable).
From the onset, the surah presents the opposite nature of the two realms of the afterlife and the inhabitants within. On God’s right hand, sits those who will be companions in Paradise. We’re told Paradise consists of people reclining on thrones made of jewels with young boys serving wine from a flowing stream. These inhabitants will eat amongst beautiful and pure companions while eating abundantly from fruits and meats.
One the opposite hand sit the inhabitants of hell. Hellfire is described in gruesome detail. I have to say, throughout the Quran, the imagery depicting hell is quite powerful, terrifying and repulsive.
41. The Companions of the Left Hand,- what will be the Companions of the Left Hand?
(They will be) in the midst of a Fierce Blast of Fire and in Boiling Water,
And in the shades of Black Smoke:
Nothing (will there be) to refresh, nor to please:
And later in verse 51
51. “Then will ye truly, O ye that go wrong, and treat (Truth) as Falsehood!- “Ye will surely taste of the Tree of Zaqqum.
“Then will ye fill your insides therewith,
“And drink Boiling Water on top of it:
“Indeed ye shall drink like diseased camels raging with thirst!”
Such will be their entertainment on the Day of Requital!
It is We Who have created you: why will ye not witness the Truth?
Coincidentally (or not), the concept of jahannam, or the Arabic word for hell as described in the Quran, originated from the Jewish traditions. Long after the writing of the Talmud, in which sheol is described, Jewish rabbis, as a reaction to the destruction of the second temple and continued Roman oppression, began to devise an idea of paradise for the believers who have suffered here on earth. Likewise, the oppressors and sinners would find themselves in a place the writers called Gehinnom (note the linguistic similarity). Gehinnom is believed to be a valley near the city of Jerusalem. Some Rabbinical commentators postulate that the Hinnom valley was a place where perpetual fires were kept burning to consume garbage and cadavers. It makes sense, given this description, that the writers would see such a horrid place as being the ultimate eternal punishment for a sinful soul.
Belief in or fear of the after life is a great and powerful tool used by religion to gain and maintain its adherents. Death is perhaps, the biggest mystery of all, and also the most terrifying. Indeed, not only do we fear death on a psychological level, it seems as if we also fear it on a biological level. All animals avoid death instinctively and complex physiological mechanisms are triggered by impending threats which serve to protect the organism–also known as the fight or flight response. It makes sense, that a fear of hell and promises of ecstasy play a convincing role in persuading the believer to maintain and conform to religious doctrine. It’s comforting, if not naive to think that our good actions will be rewarded and those who are evil, the agents of injustice and suffering, will be punished. We often see injustice abound in this life so it’s nice to think it will all be set right in the next.
I’m as of now undecided on an afterlife. Of course, the kicker is, none of us can truly know until we’re dead. In the meantime, I’ve put aside a God who tells his creation,
“Those who disbelieve Our revelations, We shall expose them to the Fire. As often as their skins are consumed We shall exchange them for fresh skins that they may taste the torment Lo! Allah is ever Mighty, Wise.”
I certainly don’t believe in heaven or hell at least not in the traditional religious sense.
I’m at peace knowing that my life exists now, and therefore will always exist in space and time. While life is still mine, I’d like to make the most of it and surround myself with meaning and beauty. If I act morally I’d like to think it was for morality’s own sake, and for the sake of a better and functional society. If I treat others with kindness, I’ll do it for the simple pleasure and sincere respect for my fellow human beings. I’ll never tell another person “I love you for the sake of Allah’. Rather, I love you because you’re worthy of love.
I hope to love well and love much along the way.
*Edit: Just minutes after publishing this post, I happened upon a poem by John Keats, written to his lover, Fanny Brawne. It seems appropriate so I will post it here.
“I have been astonished that men could die martyrs
for their religion–
I have shuddered at it,
I shudder no more.
I could be martyred for my religion.
Love is my religion
And I could die for that.
I could die for you.
My creed is love and
You are its only tenet.”