Divine Punishment and Concept of “Hell”

أَيَطْمَعُ كُلُّ امْرِئٍ مِّنْهُمْ أَن يُدْخَلَ جَنَّةَ نَعِيمٍ كَلَّا ۖ إِنَّا خَلَقْنَاهُم مِّمَّا يَعْلَمُونَ فَلَا أُقْسِمُ بِرَبِّ الْمَشَارِقِ وَالْمَغَارِبِ إِنَّا لَقَادِرُونَ عَلَىٰ أَن نُّبَدِّلَ خَيْرًا مِّنْهُمْ وَمَا نَحْنُ بِمَسْبُوقِينَ فَذَرْهُمْ يَخُوضُوا وَيَلْعَبُوا حَتَّىٰ يُلَاقُوا يَوْمَهُمُ الَّذِي يُوعَدُونَ يَوْمَ يَخْرُجُونَ مِنَ الْأَجْدَاثِ سِرَاعًا كَأَنَّهُمْ إِلَىٰ نُصُبٍ يُوفِضُونَ خَاشِعَةً أَبْصَارُهُمْ تَرْهَقُهُمْ ذِلَّةٌ ۚ ذَ‌ٰلِكَ الْيَوْمُ الَّذِي كَانُوا يُوعَدُونَ

“Does each and every one of them covet to be admitted to the Garden of Bliss. No (never shall they enter it). We have created them for that substantial purpose (the worth of) which they know.  But nay! I call to witness the Lord of the easts and the wests. We are certainly Powerful to change (them into) better beings than they are and that We can never be frustrated (in Our purpose). Therefore, leave them alone to indulge in unimportant conversation and to amuse themselves (in idle pursuits) until they meet that day of theirs that they are warned of, the day when they (having risen to life) will come out hastily from their graves as though they were racing to a target (which they must meet). Their eyes will be downcast and shameful; humiliation will be overwhelming them. Such shall be the punishment of the day with which they are being threatened”. (70:36-44)

This is a clear message of the Holy Qur’ân related to the purpose of divine punishment in the Hereafter – to change the corrupt ones into better ones. The verses tell us that all human beings – good or bad – are created with a special purpose. That purpose is already made known in the previous verses of this chapter (70:22-35). The divine aim of “punishment” is the to remove the impure from the pure (8:37).  Good is part of your essence. How could it be otherwise, as “Perfectly Good Creator” created your essence? Evil is not a part of your natural repertoire. To be good and do good is the prescribed way (95:4), while to be evil, and do evil is an option given to you (91:7-8). Evil is a learnt behaviour. If you are conscious of the consequences, you will determine your behaviour and refrain from evil. The punishment is the introduction of aversive stimuli aimed at reducing the unwanted behaviour. A learnt behaviour can be decreased or even eradicated by punishment and expectation of reward; what may be called negative and positive reinforcement. The same principle applies to divine punishment. The divine punishments aim at reducing excess of evil that coexist with inherent good.  

The word used for punishment in the Holy Qur’ân is ‘adzâb عَذَابِ (2:7; 2:10; 2:90). It is derived from ‘adzuba, which is something that can be easily swallowed, something that is digestible. ‘Adzbun is to deny a thing, to hinder one, to debar, to prevent (Tâj al-‘Arûs, Lisân al-‘Arab, Lane). Punishment is called ‘adzâb as it hinders, debars and prevents from committing evil acts. There are different kinds of punishment mentioned in the Holy Qur’ân such as: عَذَابٌ عَظِيمٌ “mighty punishment (2:7), عَذَابٌ أَلِيمٌ “woeful punishment” (2:10), عَذَابٌ مُّهِينٌ “humiliating punishment” (2:90), عَذَابِ النَّارِ “punishment of the fire” (2:126), عَذَابٌ شَدِيدٌ “severe punishment”, عَذَابٌ وَاصِبٌ ”perpetual punishment“ (37:9), “the greatest punishment” الْعَذَابَ الْأَكْبَرَ (88:25) or simply الْعَذَابِ “the punishment” (2:96). The reader should differentiate the word for punishment (‘adzâb) with definite article al, as in al-‘Adzâb al-Âkhirah  الَعَذَابُ الْآخِرَةِ (11:103) and without the definite article says in above examples. When used with definite article al the punishment refers to the great punishment of the Hereafter, otherwise it may mean any punishment.

The word used for Hell is al-Jahîm الْجَحِيمِ (83:16), translated as Gehenna. It is derived from jahama that means to have looks with severe, stern and morose face. Hell is also called Jahannam جَهَنَّمَ (14:16; 16:29; 20:74; 39:60…), which means, “a dark and waterless place that makes the faces of its dwellers ugly and contracted” (Lane, Lisân).  The “fire of Hell” is nâr jahannam نَارِ جَهَنَّمَ (9:35).  Other words used for Hell are, “The great Fire” النَّارَ الْكُبْرَىٰ (87:12) and “blazing fire” نَارًا حَامِيَةً. Different kind of evil acts have different grades and types of punishments.  Not all punishments refer to the great punishment of the Hereafter (6:43; 7:4; 7:97; 7:134-136; 8:32; 10:98; 15:83; 32:21). You read:

   وَخَلَقَ اللَّهُ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضَ بِالْحَقِّ وَلِتُجْزَىٰ كُلُّ نَفْسٍ بِمَا كَسَبَتْ وَهُمْ لَا يُظْلَمُونَ

“Allâh has created the heavens and the earth with an eternal purpose to ensure that every soul be recompensed according to his deeds and no one be done injustice to.” (45:22)

Creation of heaven and earth was Allâh’s free choice. He gave you some of His attribute of free choice. Out of His Great Mercy, He then guides you to make the right choice (91:7-8), and informs you about the recompense for your right or wrong decision (91:9-10)

Punishment” is the natural Consequence of Evil Acts 

In a society, there are doers of good, and there are doers of evil. The doers of good may or may not get a reward, but those who commit crime, when caught, are liable for punishment according to state laws. The punishment may be hard or mild, depending upon the crime committed. Sometimes the criminal escapes. Divine law is not different from the state laws of punishment, with a difference that nothing remains concealed and nothing escapes from Divine recording. You are told every action, good or bad, is recorded (18:49; 19:79; 36:12)

كُلُّ أُمَّةٍ تُدْعَىٰ إِلَىٰ كِتَابِهَا الْيَوْمَ تُجْزَوْنَ مَا كُنتُمْ تَعْمَلُونَ

“Every community will be summoned to (face) their records (of deeds). (And it shall be said to them,) `This day you shall be recompensed according to your deeds.” (45:28)

The Holy Qur’ân mentions all possible bad actions and evil deeds that are to be avoided if one wants to escape punishment in this world or in the Hereafter (2:178, 188,206; 4:16, 26; 5:33, 38; 6:120; 24:2,4…).  Your failure to avoid them leads to the ordeals you suffer in your life.  These sufferings may continue in the Hereafter. Contrary to criminal laws of the society, Allâh punishes not every crime – great or small.

Divine Punishment starts before the Day of Resurrection

وَالْمُرْسَلَاتِ عُرْفًافَالْعَاصِفَاتِ عَصْفًاوَالنَّاشِرَاتِ نَشْرًافَالْفَارِقَاتِ فَرْقًافَالْمُلْقِيَاتِ ذِكْرًاعُذْرًا أَوْ نُذْرًا

“I call to witness those (messengers of Truth) who are sent forth to spread goodness (in continual series). Those that drive off forcefully (falsehood and forces of evil as chaff is carried before the wind), And those that spread (the truth) far and wide, And those (forces) that fully distinguish (the right from the wrong), And those (forces) carrying the (Divine) Message of (rising to) eminence far and wide, (And those presenting the source of eminence) in an attempt to purify (some) from the abomination of sin and to warn (others)” (77:1–6)

These verses tell you that God ever sent His Prophets with a message and teachings to reform corrupt societies. They not only brought with them the divine guidance, but also, in case of denial, warned of pending punishments. Their narrations in the Holy Qur’ân inform you of different kinds of punishment people received because of their denial (15:79,83; 16:26,113; 29:5). You read: “And We certainly destroyed several generations before you when they went wrong in spite of the fact that there had come to them their Messengers (of God) with clear proofs but they would not believe. Just (as We repaid them) so We repay all such guilty people (with punishment) (10:13).  This verse and several others (16:63) point out that, with the forces of reformation, punishment of sin starts already in this very world (6:43; 7:4; 7:97; 7:134-136; 8:32; 10:98,102; 15:83…). The punishment people receive is not because of their disbelief in the Lordship of Allâh but a consequence of their evil action (10:98; 11:116-117). He says: “And if Allâh were to seize the people for their (committing) injustice (and their ascribing partners with Him), He would not leave any (unjust and polytheistic) living and crawling creature on the face of the earth” (16:61). Allâh warns you ever again to be at guard before you decide the way you go. If you make wrong decision, He gives long respite (7:183; 22:44) out of His Mercy, to think over and mend (7:156) though He says:

هُوَ الْقَادِرُ عَلَىٰ أَن يَبْعَثَ عَلَيْكُمْ عَذَابًا مِّن فَوْقِكُمْ أَوْ مِن تَحْتِ أَرْجُلِكُمْ أَوْ يَلْبِسَكُمْ شِيَعًا وَيُذِيقَ بَعْضَكُم بَأْسَ بَعْضٍ

“He has the power to send upon you a calamity from above and from beneath your feet or He may throw you into confusion by making you confront with conflicting parties, and make you taste the dissension (and violence) of one another.” (6:65)

In the Holy Qur’ân punishment of fire عَذَابِ النَّارِ (2:126) refers mostly to the ordeals and destructions of warfare. The word nâr ( نَّار fire) is often used in Arabic as a symbol of war. The Arabs used to kindle fire as a sign of imminent war. There is yet another type of punishment of “fire” mentioned in the Holy Book. This is the punishment that “rises over the feelings of the hearts” (104:5-7) and kindles fire in the heart and burns it. You read:

وَمَا أَدْرَاكَ مَا الْحُطَمَةُ نَارُ اللَّهِ الْمُوقَدَةُ نَارُ اللَّهِ الْمُوقَدَةُ

“And what should make you know what the crushing torment is? (It is) the fire set ablaze by Allâh, which rises over (the feelings of) the hearts” (104:5–7)

Vice, crime, unfulfilled worldly desires, unsatisfied impulses and other sinful acts generate a feeling of restlessness and distress in conscious hearts. Persistent grief and anxiety brings the soul out of equilibrium. From the sorrows that emerge from such unfulfilled worldly desires, and the nafs al-Lawwâmah, نَّفْسِ اللَّوَّامَةِ, the self-reproaching soul which stirs conscious hearts at the time of evil acts, a fire is set ablaze that makes the hearts burn. This burning is felt like a “crushing torment” ٱلْحُطَمَة. Such hearts suffer from extended grief and weariness (35:3536). Thus, this “crushing torment”, originates already in this present life in the form of spiritual and emotional torture. This punishment remains hidden from the eyes of others and continues into the hereafter as the “the hellish fire”.  

The Door of Repentance Remains Open

إِنَّمَا التَّوْبَةُ عَلَى اللَّهِ لِلَّذِينَ يَعْمَلُونَ السُّوءَ بِجَهَالَةٍ ثُمَّ يَتُوبُونَ مِن قَرِيبٍ فَأُولَـٰئِكَ يَتُوبُ اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِمْ ۗ وَكَانَ اللَّهُ عَلِيمًا حَكِيمًا

“Verily, Allâh undertakes to accept the repentance of those who do evil through lack of knowledge, then repent soon after. Such are the persons towards whom Allâh turns with mercy. And Allâh is All-Knowing, All-Wise” (4:17).

Allâh has kept the door of repentance open if you are indulged in evil acts (6:54). But repentance is of no avail if you go on doing evil until, when death visits you, you say, I do repent now, nor it is of any use to those who die whilst they are engrossed in evil acts.  Before this Allâh has given a long respite to you to think over and repent the evil ways (7:183; 22:44).  

A great prominence is given to the Attributes of Mercy and Forgiveness: al-Rahmân, al-Rahîm, and al-Ghafûr of Allâh. The Holy Qur’ân says: “He has taken upon Himself (the rule of) mercy” (6:12; 6:54). There is a hidden Mercy in His wrath (- ghadzab) and His punishment, whereas in human affairs there is anger often without any mercy whatsoever. If a human being gets angry, at the moment of his anger, he typically will not think of any mercy, and his acting out of anger will not contain any tinge of mercifulness. Allâh’s wrath is never free from being mixed with His Mercy, because Allâh is “the Lord of All-Embracing Mercy” (6:147).  There is a great message of hope and a feeling of love inspired in you when you read:  

  قُلْ يَا عِبَادِيَ الَّذِينَ أَسْرَفُوا عَلَىٰ أَنفُسِهِمْ لَا تَقْنَطُوا مِن رَّحْمَةِ اللَّهِ ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ يَغْفِرُ الذُّنُوبَ جَمِيعًا ۚ إِنَّهُ هُوَ الْغَفُورُ الرَّحِيمُ

 “Say, O My servants, who have committed excesses (and wrongs) against their own souls, do not despair of the mercy of Allâh. Surely, Allâh forgives all sins. He is the Great Protector, the Ever Merciful.”  (39:53)

Such a Merciful and most Gracious One cannot punish human beings without there being some elaborate reformative design that would set them again on the right path for a higher and progressive life after they have been cleansed from the dirt of sin and evil. When He resorts to punishment, His punishment cannot be ruthless and never-ending, but is rather like the punishment of a mother towards her child (101:8–11), a punishment to reform, not to devastate.  

The Persian mystical poet Hâfiz Shîrâzî said: The Great Mercy wants to reach out and teach us. Break all our teacup talk of gods. If you give the Beloved His choice, on some nights He would drag you by your hair around the room, taking away from your grip all those toys of the world that bring you no joy. The Beloved sometimes gets tired of speaking sweetly and wants to rip to shreds all your erroneous notions of truth. The Beloved sometimes wants to do us a great favour by holding us upside down and shaking all the nonsense out.

We read in verse 4:48, “Surely, Allâh does not forgive that a partner be associated with Him but He forgives everything short of it to whomsoever He will. And whoso associates a partner with Allâh has indeed committed a very great sin". This verse and the similar verse 4:116 emphasize the seriousness of the sin of associating partners with Allâh.  The passage uses the word ghufiru, translated as “forgive,” whose root word, ghafara means, “to cover up,” “to envelop,” “to curtain,” or “to provide protection.” One can only protect or cover a body. These associates are non-existent, so He does not find them, and that is why He does not cover them. Thus, this verse expresses the extreme dislike of this action on the part of Allâh by saying these associates are “non-existent” before Him. The statement “Associate no partners with Allâh, surely this (act of) associating partners (with Him) is a grievous wrong.” (31:13) is the cornerstone of all statements in the Holy Qur’ân. Association of other gods with Allâh is not limited to the worship of objects of nature or to suppose that any of His creation, dead or alive, possess one or more of the Attributes of Allâh to the same extent. To go after ones desires, making these desires the object of goal and ultimately object of “worship” is also a form of association with Allâh (25:43). Even here, Allâh has kept open the door of repentance open and forgiveness during your lifetime. It is not impossible that one may well realize that he was treading on the wrong path and running after a shadow. He may feel the need of correction and repentance. This door is still open to him during his lifetime. On the Day of Judgement Allâh’s Mâlikîyyat (Kingship) shall prevail. He may forgive all those sinful acts for which you were unable to ask forgiveness during your lifetime, with the exception of “associating partners” with Allâh. This act will not go unpunished unless the sinner turned to Him with repentance during his lifetime.  إِنَّهُ هُوَ الْغَفُورُ الرَّحِيمُ  He is the Great Protector, the Ever Merciful.”  (39:53

Good and Evil shall not Continue to Co-exist after Death

You will observe that good and evil are two opposing forces that exist side by side in societies and individuals. Good without evil has no meaning. Likewise, evil without good has no meaning either. Good is absence of evil. The presence of one makes you realize the absence of other. In a person, one condition may dominate the other (41:35). Allâh says on the Day of judgement He will separate the two:  

لِيَمِيزَ ٱللَّهُ ٱلْخَبِيثَ مِنَ ٱلطَّيِّبِ وَيَجْعَلَ ٱلْخَبِيثَ بَعْضَهُۥ عَلَىٰ بَعْضٍۢ فَيَرْكُمَهُۥ جَمِيعًۭا فَيَجْعَلَهُۥ فِى جَهَنَّمَ ۚ أُو۟لَـٰٓئِكَ هُمُ ٱلْخَـٰسِرُونَ

“So that Allâh may distinguish and separate the impure from the pure and (in doing so) He will pile the impure one upon another, then He will huddle them all together, then He will consign them [the huddled pile] to Gehanna. Such, in fact, are the very losers.” (8:37)

To be good and do good is the prescribed way, while to be evil, and do evil is an option. This option shall be removed on the Day of Judgement. Allâh will separate people according the grades of their actions so “that He might show whoever of you was the best in deeds and conduct.” (11:7). Then He says:

إِنَّ ٱلْمُجْرِمِينَ فِى عَذَابِ جَهَنَّمَ خَـٰلِدُونَ لَا يُفَتَّرُ عَنْهُمْ وَهُمْ فِيهِ مُبْلِسُونَ وَمَا ظَلَمْنَـٰهُمْ وَلَـٰكِن كَانُوا۟ هُمُ ٱلظَّـٰلِمِينَ وَنَادَوْا۟ يَـٰمَـٰلِكُ لِيَقْضِ عَلَيْنَا رَبُّكَ ۖ قَالَ إِنَّكُم مَّـٰكِثُونَ لَقَدْ جِئْنَـٰكُم بِٱلْحَقِّ وَلَـٰكِنَّ أَكْثَرَكُمْ لِلْحَقِّ كَـٰرِهُونَ

“The guilty will be abiding in the torment of Gehanna. That (torment) will not be allowed to abate for them (unless they are completely cleansed from their rust), and once caught in it they shall completely despair. (By punishing them so) We did them no injustice, rather (We were just, and) it was they themselves who were the unjust and wrongdoers indeed (and corrupted their own souls by their actions). And they will cry, O Mâlik [the angel in charge of Hell], let your Lord finish with us (and thus rid us of the torment once for all). He will reply, ‘You have to remain (here) in this very state’. (God will say,) ‘We really brought you the Truth, yet most of you were those who found the truth hard (to follow)’.” (43:74–78)

Ibn al-‘Arabî said, “Dont you see that if one is in the Fire, it is because Allâh is just? If he is in paradise, it is because of His fadzal [favour, graciousness]; Allâh favours and obliges. If you say this one is an infidel, I say, Allâh is just. If you say this one is a man of Faith, I say, Allâh favours and obliges with His paradise. He decrees and differentiates the affair.”

“Hell” is the Manifestation of Allâh’s Mercy

The Holy Qur’ân uses many Words to differentiate the various acts of evil—such Words as dzanb, itham, ‘udwân, sharr, fuhush, sûi, isyân, fisq, fujur, khatâ’; fasâd, baghî, munkar and kufar. Each of these words expresses a different aspect of evil. Allâh says evil is a disease of heart (2:10; 5:52; 8:49; 9:125). For such souls, a curing treatment is needed.  Then Allâh says evil deeds rust the hearts:

كَلَّا ۖ بَلْ ۜ رَانَ عَلَىٰ قُلُوبِهِم مَّا كَانُوا يَكْسِبُونَ

 “The truth is that their (evil) deeds have rusted their hearts” (83:14)

The Ever Merciful cannot leave the corrupted and rusted souls as such forever. The rust must be removed through heat and then cleansed by fire. He says: “Then your hearts hardened after that, so that they were (hard) like rocks or harder still” (2:74). Such hard “hearts” should be “melted” with the Fire of Hell nâr jahannam نَارِ جَهَنَّمَ. You always get a chance to clean the dirt on your heart before it gets “rusted” and hard during your lifetime. Unfortunately, many die before their process of cleansing and healing is finished. For such souls, a curing treatment is needed. You are told:  

وَأَمَّا مَنْ خَفَّتْ مَوَازِينُهُ فَأُمُّهُ هَاوِيَةٌ وَمَا أَدْرَاكَ مَا هِيَهْ نَارٌ حَامِيَةٌ

“But as for the person whose scales (of good deeds) are light (and of no account), The abyss [Gehenna] shall then be a (nursing) mother to him (till the souls are completely cleansed of the taint of sin and they are reborn). Ah! What should make you know what that (abyss) is! It is a blazing Fire (for burning out all the dross that people collect by leading a sinful life in this world)” (101:8–11)

Here the Holy Qur’ân has used the Word أُمُّهُ ٌ, ummahu, “(his) nursing mother,” to describe the hellfire. It is called ummahu, ones nursing mother, to indicate that one’s connection to hellfire is similar to that of a baby with its mother. As the embryo goes through various stages of development in the womb until it is born, so will the guilty sinners pass through different processes until their souls are ready for a new birth and start a development towards eternal life in His Gardens. The Word umma, the nursing mother, also describes the relationship between mother and child.  The mother not only admonishes a child in order to educate and teach good manners, she also at times punishes him. She nurses him whenever the child becomes ill and needs treatment, even admits him into a hospital when required. However, mostly she grants him protection and care. “The bosom of hell is like the bosom of a mother.” In this abode, the dweller of hell is nursed and brought up in the same manner as a child is nursed and brought up. Moreover, as the love and mercy of a mother towards her misbehaved, naughty, and discourteous child is stronger than her anger and punishment, so is the Love and Mercy of the All-Mighty Lord, because He has not only the love of a father but also the kindness of a mother for His creation. Then you are told:

قُل لِّلَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا سَتُغْلَبُونَ وَتُحْشَرُونَ إِلَىٰ جَهَنَّمَ ۚ وَبِئْسَ الْمِهَادُ

“Say to those who disbelieve, You shall soon be overcome and gathered together to be driven towards Gehenna. What an evil abode it is! " (3:12)

Allâh says Gehenna is al-Mihâd الْمِهَاد – a word derived from mahada – meaning an abode, a resting place that lies spread out with provisions (Tâj al-‘Arûs, Lisân al-‘Arab, Lanes dictionary), a kind of convalescent home. Hell is also called the “friendly protector” maulâ, of the sinners. You read, “Hell-Fire is the final abode of you all. That is your friendly-protector” مَأْوَاكُمُ النَّارُ ۖ هِيَ مَوْلَاكُمْ  (57:15). This is to indicate its role as a protecting friend that hinders from further sinful acts. Mirsâd مِرْصَادً is another description of hell. You read:

إِنَّ جَهَنَّمَ كَانَتْ مِرْصَادًۭالِّلطَّـٰغِينَ مَـَٔابًۭالَّـٰبِثِينَ فِيهَآ أَحْقَابًۭالَّا يَذُوقُونَ فِيهَا بَرْدًۭا وَلَا شَرَابًاإِلَّا حَمِيمًۭا وَغَسَّاقًۭاجَزَآءًۭ وِفَاقًا

“Surely, only Gehenna shall be in wait (for those who deny the truth). A closed place for the rebellious. There they shall be staying for long (till all their maladies are completely treated). There they shall find no (comfort of) coolness, nor (intoxicating) drink. All that they shall have will be boiling water or stinking fluid (befitting their disease), A befitting recompense (for the evils done by them)” (78:21–26).

Mirsâd, مِرْصَادً (78:2122), is a closed observing place (Lane). Patient who receive treatments are observed closely. They are under watchful eyes when under intensive care. Hell is also called mathwa’ مَثْوًى – a resort. These verses provide a description of hell where the diseased souls (the sinner) will get treatment. “A nursing home, hospital and a recovering center, a resort, observing place” is the concept we get about hell from the Holy Qur’ân. Hell is thus a remedial place and a permanent resort. It is not for the purpose of torture or reprisal and retaliation, but for the preparation of the corrupted human souls for further never-ending progress, to make the soul fit for further advancement so that it may be awakened for a higher eternal life. So hell is a kind of hospital, a nursing home, established for the treatment of those who were suffering from some ugly and painful diseases, so consequently, during their stay in hell, there would naturally be shrieks and cries, weeping and mourning. You read: “As for the wretched, they shall be in the Fire, where they shall moan and cry” (11:106). Just as in the case of the physically sick, the spiritually sick will have to taste some bitter and nauseous medicine and take distasteful hot drinks (bitter teas and so on), a medicine that “neither nourishes nor satisfies” (88:7) their hunger or thirst. Like those who suffer from a skin disease, they shall also need protective coverings or even a change of skin (22:1920), and like those with cancer, they shall have to undergo some sort of surgical operation (22:21; 23:104) and bandages (14:50).

In order to point out another aspect of hell, the Holy Qur’ân has called it fitnah (37:63), an expression denoting the assaying of gold and the casting of that gold into the fire in order to purify it. The use of this Word is a clear indication that another purpose of the hellfire is the purification of the precious human soul, which was rusted because of sin (which is the non-use or misuse of human faculties) during ones lifetime on this earth. Such a soul must undergo those severe trials, which it, out of laziness, neglected in this life (70:2334; 73:20) and thus must now experience through the remedial ordeals of hellfire.

These four Words—umma, the nursing mother (101:9), maulâ, the friendly protector of the sinners (57:15), mirsâd, the nursing home (78: 2122), and fitnah, the assaying of gold and the casting of it into the fire in order to purify it (37:63)—describe the Qur’ânic concept of hell by informing you that its purpose is to raise the human soul and purify it of the dross of sins, just as you would apply the rule of reward and punishment to educate and train your children. Hell is thus a purgatory for one’s moral and spiritual diseases. In spite of all this suffering, the treatment in hell will cure him, and he “shall neither die therein nor live” (87:13).  The Holy Qur’ân has clearly laid down the same laws for the punishment in hell as are imposed on human beings here in this world for disease and misbehavior (7:94100).

Jalâl al-Dîn Rûmî explained the concept of punishment by fire in the following words in his Mathnawî: “Look at the pea in the pot, how it leaps up when it feels the fire. While boiling, it rises to the top and cries, Why are you setting fire under me?  No! Boil nicely now, and do not try to leap away from One Who has made the fire. It is not because you are hateful to Him that He boils you, He boils you so that you gain flavor, become nutritious, and mingle with essential spirits. This affliction is not because you are despised. When you were green and fresh, you were drinking the water in the garden, and that water drinking was for the sake of this fire.”

Hell is therefore not a punishment resulting from some sort of revenge of Allâh’s. Because of His great Mercy, the stay of the sinners in hell is only for a limited (though very long) time and hell is not eternal (6:128; 11:107; 78:23). This is the consequence of His Attribute “All Embracing Mercy,” which dominates everything (6:147). Otherwise, if the punishment were eternal and never-ending, it could only have been inflicted by a most cruel and merciless God. Compare this interpretation with the Christian belief regarding hell, generally defined as the eternal fate of unrepentant sinners after this life.

Divine Punishment shall be According to Evil Deeds

وَالَّذِينَ كَسَبُوا السَّيِّئَاتِ جَزَاءُ سَيِّئَةٍ بِمِثْلِهَا

“And (as for) those who knowingly committed evil deeds, they shall be punished in measure with the evil done” (10:27) 

Not all your evil actions have the same level and intensity. They will not get the same level and intensity of punishment. Just as not all good deeds shall get the same recompense, so not all corrupted souls will get the same quality of punishment. All your actions, good or bad are conserved. You will reap the reward of your actions accordingly.

كُلُّ أُمَّةٍ تُدْعَىٰ إِلَىٰ كِتَابِهَا الْيَوْمَ تُجْزَوْنَ مَا كُنتُمْ تَعْمَلُونَ

“Every community will be summoned to (face) their records (of deeds). (And it shall be said to them,) `This day you shall be recompensed according to your deeds.” (45:28)

The verse, like many other verses (see 18:49; 19:79; 36:12), informs us about the divine law of “conservations of actions”. You further read:

أَمْ حَسِبَ الَّذِينَ اجْتَرَحُوا السَّيِّئَاتِ أَن نَّجْعَلَهُمْ كَالَّذِينَ آمَنُوا وَعَمِلُوا الصَّالِحَاتِ سَوَاءً مَّحْيَاهُمْ وَمَمَاتُهُمْ ۚ سَاءَ مَا يَحْكُمُونَ

“Do those who commit evil deeds think that We will treat them like those who believe and (accordingly) do deeds of righteousness so that their lives and deaths be alike? How ill they judge!” (45:21)

Allâh has arranged different levels and ranks in hellfire for particular evil deeds in a known proportion. “He will recompense the evil doers according to their deeds,” (53:3). He says: “The hypocrites shall surely be in the lowest reaches of the Fire” (4:145). This is because they received and heard the Divine Messages, and still they conformed only to the outer forms of prescribed commandments while inwardly not having the least belief in them. This sets them apart from other nonbelievers, who never heard the Divine Messages or were kept unaware of them.

You are told that the dwellers of hell will be made to drink intensely hot or intensely cold and stinking fluid, because they had not made proper use of their faculties, had gone to extremes in using them, and had not followed the golden mean (38:5657). Thus, the purpose of the remedy is to achieve equilibrium by lessening that which had increased in intensity and increasing that which had lessened in intensity.

Punishment in “Hell” will not be Eternal

لَّابِثِينَ فِيهَا أَحْقَابًا

“There they shall be staying long” (78:23)

The stay in hell has been described in the above verse with the Word ahqâba أحْقَاب (78:23).  Ahqâba أحْقَاب is derived from haqiba, meaning rainless year, as in haqaba al-Matar – “rain was delayed.” Thus, ahqâba is a long period but not eternity, not forever.  Here the Qur’ânic concept of hell is different from the Christian view that the stay in “hell” is forever. It is also because of the four descriptions (umma, maulâ, mirsâd, and fitnah) that the stay of the sinners in hell is only for a limited (though long) time; therefore, hell is not eternal (6:128; 11:107; 78:23).

In the Divine Knowledge, which the Holy Qur’ân brings to you, Allâh is described as sometimes pleased (98:8) and sometimes displeased (16:106). The anger causes the pleasure to cease, the pleasure causes the anger to cease, and pleasure is the preference also sought by Allâh. It is therefore not possible that the people of the hellfire will suffer Allâh’s anger and displeasure forever without ever enjoying His pleasure. The dwellers of hellfire will eventually be relieved because of the inclination and preference of God for pleasure. It will be His pleasure to relieve the inmates of hellfire ultimately from its tortures.

The Holy Prophet (pbuh) is reported to have said, “Surely a day will come over Hell when there shall not be a single human being in it” (Fath al-Bayân 4:372).  According to ‘Abdullâh Ibn Mas‘ûd (d. 29 AH / 650 CE), the Prophet (pbuh) said, “Surely a time will come over Hell when its gates shall be blown by wind, there shall be none in it”, and a saying of ‘Umar(rz), the second Caliph, is recorded as follows: “Even if the dwellers in Hell may be numberless as the sands of the desert, a day will come when they will be taken out of it” (Fath al-Bayân 4:372). Similar sayings are reported from many other Companions of the Holy Prophet (pbuh), such as Ibn ‘Umar, Jabîr Ibn Abdullâh, Abû Sa ‘îd, Abû Hurairah, as well as from the learned men of the next generation; later such imâms as Ibn al-‘Arabî, Ibn Taymiyyah, Ibn Qayyim, and many others have held similar views.

There is a Hadîth-i-Qudsî transmitted by the Holy Prophet (pbuh): Allâh said, “The angels have interceded, the believers have interceded, now the Most Merciful will intercede. He will draw out from the fire even persons who never offered acts of goodness and whose hardened hearts have been melted. He will then immerse them in the river that flows before the entrance of Paradise called the River of Life.” (Narrated by Jabîr Ibn Abdullâh). See here Chapter 45.