We have a fresh opportunity to reflect about paradise.
At this point professor Christian Lange, who was the Principal Investigator of HHIT ("The here and the hereafter in Islamic traditions"), a four-year research project funded by the European Research Council From 2011 to 2015, isn’t going to speak about his views on the paradise in the Qur’an alone, but he also speaks about hell.
professor Christian Lange
Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies - Religious Studies - Islam and Arabic
Research Institute for Philosophy and Religious Studies (OFR) - Religious Studies.
His first book, Justice, Punishment and the Medieval Muslim Imagination (CUP, 2008), is a study of state violence under the Seljuq dynasty (11th-13th c.). He's also co-edited a collection of essays on the topic of public violence in Islamic societies (EUP, 2009), as well as a multi-author volume on the Seljuq dynasty (EUP, 2011). From 2011 to 2015, He was the Principal Investigator of HHIT ("The here and the hereafter in Islamic traditions"), a four-year research project funded by the European Research Council that studied the various ways in which Muslims past and present have defined the shifting boundary separating this world from the next. He's written a general history of paradise and hell in the course of HHIT (see the link to the publication below) and edited a volume on hell in Islamic traditions (ditto).
Q: First of all, I know you are a specialist in Islamic studies. I wonder what made you focus on Islamic studies?
CL: When I began studying Islamic Studies in the 1990s, I was first and foremost fascinated by Islamic languages, Arabic and Persian in particular, and enjoyed learning them very much. My interest in Islamic political, social, and intellectual history developed from there. I was also lucky to have a number of inspiring teachers at the University of Tübingen, Germany. In the 1990s, Tübingen was one of the most important centers in Germany of scholarship on Islam. The situation today is changed. Other universities, for example the one in Berlin, nowadays play a bigger role.
Q: The one in Berlin, nowadays play a bigger role, I wonder what you mean.
CL: This has to do with the fact that Berlin became the capital of reunified Germany, and started to attract a lot of students, scholars, as well as money for research. The Free University of Berlin, for example, offers many PhD scholarship for students in Islamic Studies and Middle Eastern Studies, and the Brandenburg Academy of Sciences sponsors a major project on the Qur’an, called Corpus Coranicum, which examines early manuscripts of the Qur’an and studies the qira’at, among other things.
Q: The hereafter in Islamic traditions, it is a very big project, we know you're Principal Investigator that lead a team of Dr Simon O’Meara, Dr Eric van Lit, Yunus Yaldiz MA, and Pieter Coppens MA duration: 2011 – 2015, could you elaborate on the project, please ?
CL: In many parts of Western society, there is a notion that Islam is a religion that is very much oriented toward the hereafter, in the sense of devaluating the present life and putting all of one’s hopes on the prospect of a happy afterlife. I wanted to show that the Islamic tradition has much more to offer than that. Yes, expectations about the end of the world are important, and sometimes they become manifest in political, or even radical militant movements. But the hereafter, in Muslim thought and practice, has many more functions than that. First and foremost, it provides ethical guidelines for the here-and-now. Also, thinking in Islam about how we should conceive of the “reality” (haqq) of the otherworld is extremely diverse. I knew I couldn't do all of this on my own. In order to capture this variety, I put together a team of researchers studying different aspects of the history of paradise and hell in Islam. In the team, we had someone studying the falsafa tradition, someone studying Sufi Qur’an commentaries, someone studying the paradise and hell sections in the Kutub al-zuhd by Ibn al-Mubarak, Ahmad b. Hanbal and some other compilers; we also had an art historian who worked on the relationship between al-akhira and wordly architecture; and I myself worked mostly on hadith literature, but also on sermons about paradise and hell, as well as mystical and philosophical conceptualizations of paradise and hell.
Q : No doubt you examine the Qur’an, I'd like to know how to find the paradise in the Qur’an.
CL: There are many intriguing aspects that deserve study. For example, does the Qur’an picture paradise as being connected to the world or not? And does paradise coexist in time with the created world? I’m suggesting that, according to the Qur’an, paradise is neither located in this world, nor in the otherworld. Rather, it is situated where this world and the otherworld meet. It’s a fairly complicated argument that requires one to compare all the relevant verses and passages about paradise in the Qur’an.
Then there is the question how the Qur’anic message about paradise develops from the Meccan to the Medinan period. One sees, for example, that certain names of paradise, such as jannat al-na’im, seem to occur more often in the Meccan period, while jannat ‘adn, for example, is more commonly used in the late Meccan and Medinan periods. How to explain this?
Orientalists of former times probably would have said that the Qur’anic message “changes” over time. I prefer to speak of a chrystallisation of the message. As the audience of the Qur’an became more and more acquainted with the doctrine of paradise, more and more elements were added.
Q: You're suggesting that, according to the Qur’an, paradise is neither located in this world, nor in the otherworld, how do you prove that?
CL: There are verses in the Qur’an that indicate that paradise is a mountain, such as when God tells Adam to “go down” (ihbit) to the earth - al-Zamakhsari says that this refers to horizontal movement, as when God tells the Israelites to “go down” to Egypt. Commentators usually say that the garden of Adam and the garden at the end of time are the same, and that this garden was (and is) on earth. At the same time, there are verses that speak of a paradise in heaven. So, which of the two is correct? Unless one wants to claim that the Qur’an contradicts itself, it seems to me the only solution is to assume that paradise, according to the Qur’an, is situated between this world and the otherworld.
Q: Although there're the seven paradises mentioned in the Qur’an, you mentioned only two paradises, jannat al-na’im in the Meccan period and jannat ‘adn in Medinan periods. for example, what about Jannatul Firdaws (Garden of Paradise)?
CL: The name Firdaws is mentioned for the first time in verse 11 of surat al-Mu’minun, a sura that scholars in the Western tradition regard as belonging to the “middle Meccan period” - I believe most Muslim scholars would agree with this, even though I’m unaware that they distinguish as categorically as Western scholars between early, middle and late Meccan periods. That is, jannat al-Firdaws occurs slightly later than Jannat al-na’im (or also, Jannat al-ma’wa and ‘Illiyyun) and slightly earlier than Jannat ‘adn. If you put all this next to one another, you get a kind of chronology of the Qur’an’s preferred terminology of paradise.
Q: What about virgins in Paradise, professor?
CL: On the question of the hur al-‘in, I agree with the German scholar Horovitz, who argued as early as in 1923 that the hur al-‘in (last mentioned in verse 54 of the middle Meccan surat al-Dukhan), are gradually replaced in the Qur’an (in Medinan suras, e.g. surat al-Baqara 25, surat Al ‘Imran 15, etc.) by the azwaj muttahara, that is, the purified wives of Muslims. I believe this is also how Muhammad ‘Abduh and Rashid Rida, for example, saw the issue.
Q: What about hell in the Qur’an?
CL: It’s an interesting question. In Western scholarship, there is a lot more research about paradise in the Qur’an than about hell in the Qur’an. Some Western scholars have claimed that paradise occupies a much more important role in the Qur’an than hell. I’m not so sure this is correct. Some people may disagree, but quantitatively speaking, the Qur’an, at least in my count, gives more attention to hell than to paradise. At any rate, I believe hell in Islam is a topic that deserves more attention by scholars. In addition to writing about it in my book, I’ve also edited a volume on the topic, which is Open Access and available for free here: http://www.brill.com/products/book/locating-hell-islamic-traditions
Q: Yes, you're right, hell is mentioned more than paradise in the Qur’an, How did Prophet Muhammad see paradise and hell?
CL: In my view, this is difficult to know with precision. What makes it so difficult is that most of the medieval scholars of hadith agreed that the criteria for reliability of isnads of hadiths about paradise and hell were lower than in other areas of the hadith corpus. For example, al-Tirmidhi, in his al-Jami’ al-Sahih, collects some 80 hadiths about paradise and hell. More than half he classifies as “rare”, gharib. This contrasts sharply with the percentage of gharib hadiths in, for example, his chapters on fasting (17%) or inheritance (7%). Later authorities such as Ibn Abi Hatim in the 4th/10th century and al-Hakim al-Naysaburi in the 5th/11th century agreed that hadiths in the area of al-targhib wa-l-tarhib did not require strict criticism, as long as they were useful in educating people. There were others, of course, who disagreed, Ibn al-Jawzi for example in the 6th/12 century, or the later Hanbali scholars of Damascus.
Q: In Sunan At-Tirmidhi I wish if you'd chosen one of Sahih, like The prophet Muhammad said, “Allah has said: I have prepared for My righteous servants what no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no heart has conceived. So recite if you wish: No person knows what is kept hidden for them of delights of the eye as a reward for what they used to do (32:17)
Grade: Sahih (authentic) according to At-Tirmidhi
CL: You’re right to bring up this important tradition. In fact I think this hadith qudsi is absolutely central to the entire tradition. It gets repeated again and again, not just by al-Tirmidhi, al-Bukhari and Muslim, but also in the later collections of hadiths about paradise and hell, for example, in the K. Sifat al-janna of al-Isfahani, or the K. al-Budur al-safira of al-Suyuti. In my view, to say that there are things in paradise that no eye has seen etc. contrasts curiously with the fact that the hadith actually does tell us a lot about what eyes will see in paradise. This, I think, requires one to interpret the hadith qudsi. Perhaps what is intended is that there are certain things in paradise (perhaps the mazid of the yawm al-mazid) that no eye has seen etc., in addition to other things that eyes have seen and hearts can conceive. It’s also interesting, I think, that the hadith qudsi is often transmitted with the addition of “balha ma atla’tukum ‘alayhi” (e.g. in Muslim’s Sahih), i.e.: “a’dadtu li-‘ibadi al-salihin… etc. ma la khatara ‘ala qalbi bashar, balha ma atla’tukum ‘alayhi.” - this seems like a specification (takhsis) of the meaning.
Q: You and your team investigate the various conceptualizations of the otherworld in several traditions of thought, such as theology, mysticism, and the popular imagination, could you elaborate on paradise and hell in the popular imagination, please ?
CL: By “popular imagination” I mean the kind of ideas and images one finds, for example, in certain, long versions of the Prophet’s ascension, but also in the Qisas al-anbiya’ (for example in the story of Idris), and in a number of works entitled Kitab al-‘azama, what I would call “popular cosmologies” - there is one attributed to Ibn Abi l-Dunya, to name an example. There are the three well-known texts called Daqa’iq al-akhbar, Qurrat al-‘uyun, and al-Durra al-fakhira. As I discuss in my book, these are relatively unscholarly, and often quite fantastic compilations of hadiths. They are attributed to famous scholars, such as Abu l-Layth al-Samarqandi and al-Ghazali. However, I don’t think that they can safely be attributed to them. It’s more likely, in my opinion, that these texts were only later connected to the names of these luminaries, in order to enhance their status. These texts are full of fantastic details, often quite marvelous ones, from a literary point of view. One recurrent characteristic is that the size and the numbers of the paradise gardens and layers of hell are blown up beyond all limits.
Q: It's said that you show that Muslim religious literature, against transcendentalist assumptions to the contrary, often pictures the boundary between this world and the otherworld as being remarkably thin, or even permeable, I want to know how you show that.
CL: This is the basic argument of my book. The kalam tradition stresses that this world and the otherworld are strictly separate. But there are other traditions that appear to suggest that human beings can have a glimpse of perfection, or an experience of ultimate misery, already during their lives on earth. And I’m not only thinking of the Sufis, who wrote about paradise and hell as things that exist in one’s soul, or of certain philosophers (such as al-Suhrawardi), who argued that the intellectual elite is at times able to connect with the otherworld in dreams and visions. Even in the hadith, one finds on occasion the idea that this world and the otherworld are extremely close to one another; perhaps even that the reality of the otherworld “cuts through” the reality of this world. My favourite hadith in this regard is the one in al-Bukhari’s collection: al-janna aqrabu ila ahadikum min shiraki na’lihi wa-l-naru mithlu dhalik , “paradise is closer to you than the strap of your sandal, and hell likewise”.
Abdelrahman Aboelmajd: Thank you very much, professor Christian Lange.
Christian Lange: It’s my great pleasure. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to tell your readers about my book.
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