What Is Jahannam?
Suffering in hell is both physical and spiritual, and varies according to the sins of the condemned. As described in the Quran, Hell has seven levels (each one more severe than the one above it); seven gates (each for a specific group of sinners); a blazing fire, boiling water, and the Tree of Zaqqum. Not all Muslims and scholars agree whether hell is an eternal destination or whether some or even all of the condemned will eventually be forgiven and allowed to enter paradise.
Most of how Muslims picture and think about Jahannam comes from the Qur’an, according to scholar Einar Thomassen, who found nearly 500 references to Jahannam/hell (using a variety of names) in the Qur’an. Jahannam appears in the Qur’an 77 times, Al-Jaheem 23 times.
The description of Jahannam as a place of blazing fire appears in almost every verse in the Qur’an describing hell. Jahannam is described as being located below heaven, having seven gates, each for a specific group or at least a different “portion” or “party” of sinners. The Quran also mentions wrongdoers having “degrees (or ranks) according to their deeds”which some scholars believe refers to the seven gates. The one mention of levels of hell is that hypocrites will be found in its very bottom.
The Quran mentions three different sources of food in hell:
- Ḍari‘, a dry desert plant that is full of thorns and fails to relieve hunger or sustain a person (88:6);
- ghislin, which is only mentioned once (in 69:36, which states that it is the only nourishment in hell);
- zaqqum is mentioned three times.
The Hadiths (the corpus of the reports of the teachings, deeds and sayings of the Islamic prophet Muhammad) introduce punishments, reasons and revelations not mentioned in the Quran. In both Quranic verses and hadiths, “the Fire” (Jahannam) is “a gruesome place of punishment that is always contrasted with Jannah, “the Garden” (paradise). Whatever characteristic “the Garden offered, the Fire usually offered the opposite conditions.” Several hadith describes a part of hell that is extremely cold rather than hot, known as Zamhareer.
According to Bukhari, lips are cut by scissors. Other traditions added flogging. An Uighur manuscript, also mentions drowning, stoning and falling from heights. Based on hadiths, the sinners are thought to carry signs in accordance with their sins.
In addition to the Quran and hadith are “Eschatological manuals”. These were written after the other two sources and developed descriptions of Jahannam “in more deliberate ways”. While the Quran and hadith tend to describe punishments that unbelievers are forced to give themselves, the manuals illustrate external and more dramatic punishment, through devils, scorpions, and snakes.
Manuals dedicated solely to the subject of Jahannam include Ibn Abi al-Dunya’s Sifat al-nar, and al-Maqdisi’s Dhikr al-nar. Other manuals—such as texts by al-Ghazali and the 12th-century scholar Qadi Ayyad — “dramatise life in the Fire”, and present “new punishments, different types of sinners, and the appearance of a multitude of devils,” to exhort the faithful to piety. His hell has a structure with a specific place for each type of sinners.
Al Ghazali, in his book The Remembrance of Death and the Afterlife, describes and discusses the “wrongdoer” and graphic, sometimes violent scenes of Jahannam.
According to theologian Al-Ghazali, Afterlife will start with the “Day of the Arising” and a trumpet blast which will wake the dead from their graves. “The Perspiration” —when all created beings, including men, angels, jinn, devils and animals gather and sweat unshaded from the sun—will follow. Sinners and unbelievers will suffer and sweat longer on this day, which lasts for “50,000 years”. God will judge each soul, accept no excuses, and examine every act and intention—no matter how small. It is believed those whose good deeds outweigh the bad will be assigned to Jannah (heaven), and those whose bad deeds outweigh the good to Jahannam. Finally the souls will traverse over hellfirevia the bridge of sirat. For sinners, it is believed the bridge will be thinner than hair and sharper than the sharpest sword, impossible to walk on without falling below to arrive at their destination.
According to Leor Halevi, between the moment of death and the time of their burial ceremony, “the spirit of a deceased Muslim takes a quick journey to Heaven and Hell, where it beholds visions of the bliss and torture awaiting humanity at the end of days”.
In ‘The Soul’s Journey After Death, Ibn Qayyim Al-Jawziyya, a theologian in the 14th century, writes explicitly of punishments faced by sinners and unbelievers in Jahannam. These are directly related to the wrongdoer’s earthly transgressions.
Concepts of Jahannam
Traditionally, the layers of hell were thought of corresponding with the layers of earth. Scholars thought about different ideas, where the entrance to hell could be located. Some believed the sulphourus well in Hadramawt, allegedly haunted by the souls of the wicked, to be the entrance to the underworld. Others considered the entrance in the valley of Hinnom. In a Persian work, the entry to hell is located in a gorge called Wadi Jahannam in Afghanistan.
Eternal or temporary
The Ulama were not in agreement on whether abodes in hell last forever or not. Several verses in the Quran mention the eternal nature of hell or both heaven and hell. [Note 1] Quran 7:23, the damned will linger in hell for ages. Two verses in the Quran (6:128 and 11:107) emphasize that consignment to hell is horrible and eternal — but include the caveat “except as God (or your Lord) wills it”. Some scholars considered this an escape from the eternity of hell. Quran (10:107) suggests that Jahannam will be destroyed some day, so that its inhabitants may either be rehabilitated or cease to exist. The concept of hell’s annihilation is referred to as fanāʾ al-nār.
The common belief among Muslims is that duration in hell is temporary for Muslims but not for others, thus combining the concept of an eternal hell with that of the Christian Catholic concept of purgatory.
Some scholars like al-Ghazali and the thirteenth-century Muslim scholar Al-Qurtubi describe hell as a gigantic sentient being, rather than a place. In Paradise and Hell-fire in Imam al Qurtubi, Qurtubi writes, “On the Day of Judgment, hell will be brought with seventy thousand reins. A single rein will be held by seventy thousand angels…”. Based on verse 67:7 and verse 50:30 Jahannam inhales and has “breaths”. Islamicity notes “the animalistic nature” of “The Fire” in Quranic verse 25:12: “When the Hellfire sees them from a distant place, they will hear its fury and roaring”. According to a hadith, God will ask Jahannam, if it is full and Jahannam answers: “Are there any more (to come)?”
Sunni concept of Jahannam
Sunnism traditionally divides Jahannam into seven stages. According to one common tradition the layers of hell are:
- A fire for sinners among the Muslims
- Inferno interim for the sinner among the Christians
- Provisional destination for sinners among the Jewish
- The burning fire for renegades
- A place for witches and fortunetellers
- Furnace for the disbelievers
- A bottomless abyss for hypocrites, like the Pharaoh and people who disbelieves after Isa’s table or Muslims who are outwardly believers but inwardly infidels.
Another common tradition divides “seven earths” identified with hell, into the following:
- A dim (surface), inhabited by mankind and jinn.
- Basit (plain), the prison of winds, from where the winds come from.
- Thaqil (region of distress), the antechamber of hell, in which dwell men with the mouth of a dog, the ears of a goat and the cloven hoof of an ox.
- Batih (place of torrents or swamps), a valley through which flows a stream of boiling sulphur to torment the wicked. The dweller in this valley have no eyes and in place of feet, have wings.
- Hayn (region of adversity), in which serpents of enormous size devour the infidels.
- Masika/Sijjin (store or dungeon), the office where sins are recorded and where souls are tormented by scorpions of the size of mules.
- As-Saqar (place of burning) and Athara (place of damp and great cold) the home of Iblis, who is chained in the midst of the rebel angels, his hand fastened one in front of and the other behind him, except when set free by God to chastise his demons.
Mystic concept of Jahannam
Muslim mystics, just like non-mystics, take Jahannam to be a place where sinners in this world will be punished, but they have provided various characterizations of the notion of the Jahannam. Historically speaking, Sufi views develop from the fear of God to the love of God; they emphasize the interior of the sharia as well as its exterior. Sufism was finally developed into the theoretical mysticism which cultivated in the theories of ibn ‘Arabi and his followers.
According to ibn ‘Arabi, the Hell and the Heaven refer, in fact, to distance from, and proximity to, God, respectively. The Hell which is home to wrong-doers is their conception of their distance from God, and the painful punishment and humility is that of distance. Such a distance is caused by one’s indulgence in their natural desires and the illusion of things other than God as existent. But such a distance is only illusory, since everything is a form of the degrees of the Divine Existence, and thus, everything other than God is but illusion. According to ibn ‘Arabi, the Hell and the Heaven are psychological states of the soul manifestated after its separation from the body. In later centuries, Sufis did not even find it acceptable for one to ask for the Heaven in the hope of meeting God or to do good in fear of hell.
In book 87 Hadith 155, “Interpretation of Dreams” of Sahih al-Bukhari, Muhammad talked of angels each with “a mace of iron” who guarded hell, and then expanded on the Qur’an’s discourse describing Jahannam by recounting it as a place that
“was built inside like a well and it had side posts like those of a well, and beside each post there was an angel carrying an iron mace. I saw therein many people hanging upside down with iron chains, and I recognized therein some men from the Quraish”.
Some prominent people in, or destined to arrive in, hell mentioned in the Hadith and Quran are: Fir’awn (viz., the pharaoh of The Exodus, mentioned in Surah Yunus (specifically Q10:90-92), the wives of Nuh and Lut (mentioned in Surah At-Tahrim, specifically Q:66-10), and Abu Lahab and his wife (who were contemporaries and enemies of Muhammad and mentioned in Surah Al-Masadd, specifically Q:111).
According to Muhammad, the majority of the inhabitants of hell will be women, due to an inclination for gossip, conjecture, and idle chatter., though other hadith also mention that the majority of people in paradise will be women 
Other people mentioned in Hadith include, but are not limited to, the mighty, the proud and the haughty.
According to one hadith, out of every one thousand people entering into the afterlife, nine hundred and ninety-nine of them will end up in the fire.
Sahih Muslim quotes Muhammad as saying that suicides would reside in Jahannam forever. According to Hadith collector Muwatta Imam Malik (Imam Malik), Muhammad said: “Truly a man utters words to which he attaches no importance, and by them he falls into the fire of Jahannam.”
Al-Bukhari in book 72:834 added to the list of dwellers in Jahannam: “The people who will receive the severest punishment from Allah will be the picture makers”. Use of utensils made of precious metals could also land its users in Jahannam: “A person who drinks from a silver vessel brings the fire of Jahannam into his belly”. As could starving a cat to death: “A woman was tortured and was put in Hell because of a cat which she had kept locked till it died of hunger.”
At least one hadith indicates the importance of faith in avoiding hell, stating: “… no one will enter Hell in whose heart is an atom’s weight of faith.”
Some of the Quranic parables describing the sufferings in hell resemble those of the Christian New testament.
- The Bible states:
- “And he gave a cry and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me and send Lazarus, so that he may put the end of his finger in water and put it on my tongue, for I am cruelly burning in this flame.”Luke 16:24
- “And in addition, there is a deep division fixed between us and you, so that those who might go from here to you are not able to do so, and no one may come from you to us.”Luke 16:26
- “Unhappy are you who are full of food now: for you will be in need. Unhappy are you who are laughing now: for you will be crying in sorrow.”Luke 6:25
- Resemble the Quran stating:
- “And the companions of the Fire will call to the companions of Paradise, “Pour upon us some water or from whatever Allah has provided you.” They will say, “Indeed, Allah has forbidden them both to the disbelievers.”17:50
- “And between them will be a partition, and on [its] elevations are men who recognize all by their mark. And they call out to the companions of Paradise, “Peace be upon you.” They have not [yet] entered it, but they long intensely.”7:46
- “So let them laugh a little and [then] weep much as recompense for what they used to earn.”9:82
The Book of Revelation describes a “lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death”, which most Christians believe to be a description of Hell, comparable to Jahannam as “the fire”. While the Quran describes Jahannam as having seven levels, each for different sins, the Bible (as regards the issue of levels), speaks of the “lowest Hell (Sheol)”. It also refers to a “bottomless pit”, comparable to the lowest layer of Jahannam in most Sunni traditions.
Like the Islamic concept of hell, non-Biblical Christian-based writings, such as Dante’s Inferno, speak of hell divided into multiple “circles”. According to the Divine Comdey, each layer corresponding to another sin with Satan inside a frozen area at the very bottom.
In modern times some Christians and Christian denominations (such as Universalism) have rejected the concept of hell as a place of suffering and torment for sinners on the grounds that it is incompatible with a loving God. There are also symbolic and more merciful interpretations of hell among Muslims. Muslims Mouhanad Khorchide and Faheem Younus write that since the Quran states that God has “prescribed to himself mercy”, and “… for him whose scales (of good deeds) are light. Hell will be his mother,” suffering in Jahannam is not a product of vengeance and punishment, but a temporary phenomenon as the sinner is “transformed” in the process of confronting the truth about themselves. The idea of annihilation of hell was already introduced earlier by traditionalistic scholars, such as Ibn Taimiyya. However, this has not been the common view of Muslims; Christian evangelist Phil Parshall, who spent several decades observing and writing about Muslims in Asia, writes that he “never met a Muslim who has attempted to undercut the bluntness and severity of their doctrine of hell.”
Arabic texts written by Jews in Judeo-Arabic script (particularly those which are identified with the Isra’iliyyat genre in the study of hadith) also feature descriptions of Jahannam (or Jahannahum). These seem to have been strongly influenced by the Islamic environment in which they were composed, and may be considered as holding many of the same concepts as those today identified with Islamic eschatology. A Judeo-Arabic version of a popular narrative known as The Story of the Skull (whose earliest version is attributed to Ka’ab al-Ahbar) offers a detailed picture of the concept of Jahannam. Here, Malak al-Mawt (the Angel of Death) and a number of sixty angels seize the soul of the dead and begin torturing him with fire and iron hooks. Two black angels named Nākir and Nakīr (identified with Munkar and Nakir in Islamic eschatology) strike the dead with a whip of fire and take him to the lowest level of Jahannam. Then, they order the Earth to swallow and crush the dead inside its womb, saying: “Seize him and take revenge, because he has stolen Allāh’s wealth and worshipped others than Him”. Following this, the dead is brought before the dais of God where a herald calls for throwing the dead into Jahannam. There he is put in shackles sixty cubits long and into a leather sackcloth full of snakes and scorpions.
The Judeo-Arabic legend in question explains that the dead is set free from the painful perogatory after twenty-four years. In a final quote alluding to Isaiah 58.8, the narrative states that “nothing will help Man on the last day except good and loving actions, deeds of giving charity to widows, orphans, the poor and the unfortunate.”
Some Jewish sources such as Jerahmeel provide descriptive detail of hell-like places, divided into multiple levels; usually Sheol, which is translated as a grave or pit, is the place where humans descend upon death.
Like Zoroastrianism, Islam holds that on Judgement Day all souls will pass over a bridge over hell (As-Sirāt in Islam, Chinvat Bridge in Zorastrianism) which those destined for hell will find too narrow and fall below into their new abode.
In case of a finite hell, as a circulation of beginning and reset, the cosmology resembles to a hinduistic notion of an eternal cosmic process of generation, decay and destruction.
Some descriptions of Jahannam resemble Buddhist descriptions of Naraka from Mahayana sutras in regard of destroying inhabitants of hell physically, while their consciousness still remains and after once the body is destroyed, it will regenerate again, thus the punishment will repeat. However, according to Buddhism belief, the inhabitants are able to gain good Karma and in certain circumstances leave hell again.
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