A Glance at Paradise and Hell - 2

2) A Description of Hell

Muslims observe the fast so that they may be spared the torment of hell. What kind of place is hell, and what sort of torment? Books have been written discussing only this subject. The Holy Qur’an contains vivid descriptions of the psychological and physical torture awaiting those who did not live up to what the Almighty had expected of them, who did not honour the trust whereby He entrusted them, and who did not carry out the goal for which He created them, that is, to worship Him, and Him alone.

Qur’anic references to such torment maybe reviewed in Surahs such as these: al-Baqarah,Aali-’Imran, alMaaida, al-An" am, al-A’raf, al-Anfal, Younus, Hud, al-Ra’d, al-Hijr, al-NahI, Maryam, Taha, al-Hajj, al-Muminoon, al-Noor, al-Furqan, al‘Ankabut, Luqman, al-Sajdah, al-Ahzab, Saba, al-Zumar, Ohafir, alTur, al-Hashr, al-Ma’ arij, al-fluruj, al-Fajr, al-Nisaa..., in most Surabs, as a matter of fact, for the Holy Qur’an was revealed to warn humans against the fire of hell and to attract them to the eternal bliss and happiness: to a kingdom that never diminishes. 

What physical shape does hell take? Let us review these Qur’anic verses:

(As for) those who disbelieve in Our Signs, they are the people of the left hand. On them is fire closed over. (Holy Qur’an, 90:19-20) 

"Closed over" means capped; hell may be compared to a pot, with a lid, on an oven, a pot which is burning both inside and out. The meaning becomes more clear when we recite these verses: 

And what will make you realise what the crushing disaster is? It is the fire kindled by Allah, (a fire) which rises above the hearts. Surely it shall be closed over them, in extended columns. (Holy Our’an, 104:5-9)

"Closed over them" conveys the same meaning as in 90:20 above. And its columns may be indicative of its depth, hence such columns are "extended," quite lengthy, and Allah knows best. How large are its sparks? The answer is provided by its Creator and ours: "Surely it sends up sparks like palaces" (Holy Qur’an, 77:32).

Since references to hell abound throughout the Holy Qur’an, we ought to stop here to review some traditions of the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) and the Imams (as) describing the horrors of the place called hell, a place as intense in heat as it is in chillness, a place whose fire is fed by sulphur pieces each one of which is as large as the largest of the earth’s mountains. Equally large are the areas where those being tormented are taken to be chilled after being charred by its fire. In other words, they are taken from one extreme to another. There are on our planet ice mountains as well as volcanoes spewing rivers of molten or fluid rocks as lava; so is the case with hell: it contains both heat and chilliness.

On p. 309 of Ibrahim al-Selek’s book The Divine Traditions, a compilation of Qudsi ahadith, the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) is quoted saying that hell complained to its Lord saying, "O Lord! [Even] my parts are consuming one another!" whereupon the Almighty permitted it to take two breaths, one in the winter and one in the summer, hence the severe heat of the summer and the bitter cold of the winter. Had it been pennitted to take more than two, no life would have become possible on earth.

While the lucky ones are enjoying the fruits of Paradise, the residents of hell will be eating thorn-like ‘food" that will reach their throats and halt there; it neither reaches their stomachs, nor does it enable them to vomit. This is one of the foods on hell’s "menu." Another type is prepared for them from the pus of the wounds of those being tortured in hell, then boiled to a degree that will split their bowels.

The Prophet of Islam (pbuh) is quoted on p. 145, Vol. 1, of al-Zamakhshari’s Rabee’ al-Abrar as having asked Archangel Gabriel (as), "Why have I never seen [archangel] Michael smiling?" Gabriel (as) answered, "Michael never smiled since hell was created." Anas, may Allah be merciful to his soul, is quoted by al-Zamakhshari saying that the least degree of torture in hell are two pairs of shoes made for someone in it from the heat of which his brain boils. More details about this horrific place are excerpted from al-Zamakhshari thus:

The Messenger of Allah (pbuh) has said, "During my night journey (israa), I heard a huge noise, so I asked Gabriel, ‘What is this huge noise, O Gabriel?’ He (Gabriel) said, ‘It is a rock thrown from the tip of hell into it, and it has been falling for the past seventy Autumns, and it has now reached its bottom." Abu ‘Asim ‘Ubayd ibn ‘Umayr ibn Qatadah al-Laythi, Mecca’s judge (d. 68 A.H.), has said, "Hell exhales one exhalation because of which all angels and prophets tremble, so much so that even Ibraliim (Abraham) (as) kneels down and says, 

‘Lord! I plead to You to only spare me!"’ Abu Sa’eed alKhudri is quoted saying, "If a mountain is hit with one of the clubs used by the angels charged with hell, it will be fragmented into bits and turned into dust." Tawoos ibn Keesan al-Khawlani is quoted saying, "When hell was created, the angels became extremely frightened, and when you (humans) were created, they became calm.

" Al-Hasan ibn Yasar al-Basir has said, "By Allah! None among the servants of Allah can withstand its heat! It has been said to us that if a man stands in the east and hell in the west, and if it is partially uncovered for him, his skull will boil. Had a bucket of its pus been dropped on earth, not a single living being would have remained alive." Hisham ibn al-Hassan al-Dastoo’i used not to put out his lamp at night. His family objected and said to him, "we cannot tell when it is daytime and when it is nighttime!" He said, "By Allah! If I put the lamp out, I will remember the darkness of the grave, and no sleep can then overcome me."

Punishment in hell will be according to the type or types of sins committed during the life of this world. For example, those who treasured their money and were negligent about taking out their zakat and other religious taxes will be burned with what they had treasured on their foreheads, on their sides, and on their backs. In other words, on most of their bodies.

Abu Tharr al-Ghifari, may Allah be pleased with him, used to say, ‘Tell those who treasure their wealth that they will be burnt therewith on their foreheads, on their sides, and on their backs till they are filled with fire." The Messenger of Allah (pbuh) has said, as we are told on p. 243, Vol. 8, of Bihar al-Anwar, "No servant of Allah who has wealth and who does not pay its due zakat except that he will be burnt with metal pieces heated in the fire of hell whereby his forehead and sides and back are ironed till Allah finishes trying His servants on a Day the duration of which is a thousand years of your own calculation. Then he will see his way, either to Paradise, or to hell."

Abu Umamah quotes the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) explaining the type of drink given to the residents of hell. Says he, "It will be brought to him, and he will hate it; when it is brought close to him, it will burn his face and his skull will fall off. If he drinks of it, it will tear his intestines to pieces till it comes out of his anus." The Messenger of Allah (pbuh) is quoted saying, "The prayers of one who drinks wine will not be accepted for forty days; so, if he dies and his stomach has some of it, it will be incumbent on Allah to make him drink of sadeed, a liquid that comes out of the vaginas of adultresses which will be collected in cauldrons in hell to give to them, so it will incinerate their stomachs and skins."

This tradition has been narrated by Shu’ayb ibn Waqid who quotes al-Husain ibn Zayd who quotes Imam Ja’fer al-Sadiq (as) as indicated on p. 244, Vol. 8, of Bihar al-Anwar. Those guilty of sins other than adultery or fornication will be given a drink of lead and molten brass, as Ibn Mas’ud is quoted in Bihar al-Anwar as saying. Mujahid says it will be the pus and blood of those being tormented, while Ibn Jubayr says it is black water; since hell is black, its water is black, its trees are black, and the faces and bodies of its residents are charred black.

This view is held by al-Dhahhak. Additional torture methods in hell include snakes and scorpions whose fangs, as Ibn ‘Abbas and others narrate, are as huge and as tall as palm trees. The snakes will be as thick as elephants, and the scorpions will be as large as black mules. And the inmates of hell will often be beaten with huge clubs: if they are in the high levels of hell, the blows will cause them to fall into the other layers, each more intense in heat than the other, for seventy years. Once they reach its bottom, its flame will push them back, and so on.

There will be no moment of respite for them in it. Which is the very worst area of hell? Ibn Mas’ud and Ibn ‘Abbas are quoted on pp. 241-242, Vol. 8, of al-Majlisi’s Bihar al-Anwar saying that hypocrites will be lodged in the lowest level of hell where the torment is the most severe. Closed fireboxes, like ovens, are their torture chambers.

Let us now return to Nahjul Balagha to see how Imam Ali (as) paints for us the following graphic description of hell, may Allah never permit it to touch us:

The worst calamity is when someone falls in to the pit of hell; he will feel as if he is being boiled alive therein, and he will find it a never-ending torment, a creature of some sort that snorts and exhales, giving its residents no respite at all, nor does it ever afford them a moment of rest, nor can they ever be shielded from its torment by any power or any sure death. There is no brief slumber in it, nor any interval between its successive waves of torture: an ever-recurring pain from which we seek Allah’s help (Sermon 83) .

It surely is the very worst of all places, a place where the hands of its inhabitants are tied to their necks, and their foreheads are chained to their feet, and their clothing is made of sheets of tar. Their shirts are made of fire, while their torment is a never-ending fire in a place the door of which is capped over its people, in a raging fire the very noise of which is deafening, the sparks of which crackle and there is no freedom from it nor a period for its expiration, nor does it put an end to the people in it to finish them (Sermon 109).

Its heat is intense, its bottom is distant, its tornament" is iron, its drink is pus (Sermon 120). On the Day of Judgement, the unjust imam will be brought without having anyone to help him or find an excuse for him, so he will be hurled into the fire of hell where he will turn with it just as a grinding mill turns, till he collides with its deepest depth headlong. (Sermon 164) If Malik (custodian of hell) becomes angry, he causes its parts to crush one another, and if he rebukes it, its gates fly up and down (and spit like volcanoes). (Sermon 183)

Reference to hell being brought from one place to another suggests beyond the shadow of doubt that distances, places, and spaces are a matter of reality in the life to come as they are in our worldly life. A testimony to hell being brought, that is, being moved or transferred from one location to another, exists in verse 23 of Surat al-Fajr (Chapter 89):

And hell, that Day, is brought (to face all humans); on that Day will man remember, but how will that remembrance benefit him?" (Holy Qur’an, 89:23) and in numerous other Qur’anic verses. Of course those who will move hell from one place to another will be none other than the angels whom we cannot see in this life but whom we will see the moment we die, but let us save the discussion of this most fascinating subject of angels to another book, insha-allah. 

Remember that all these portraits of hell do not include the horrors resulting from being in the company of devils, demons, and condemned jinn’s who will all share hell with condemned humans. A look cast any of these creatures being tortured, their shrieks, their unsightly parts being pulled out of their places, and their skins being peeled off their flesh... may be as terrifying as hell itself. Remember how Allah described mankind as being created in the best form.

Humans condemned to hell will realise this fact more than others, while the blessed will be spared such horrifying realisation. Those who read the story of Saint Joan of Arc (1412- 1431), the French heroine who, despite her tender age, led French armies to victory over the English at Orleans, remember her saying that she saw once a demon, and that she would prefer to walk on burning timbers from one end of the earth to the other rather than seeing it again. Imagine being in the company of such demons for eternity.

Such is hell, and such is its torment. Had we had a glance at it, or even at some of its inhabitants, we would not have minded having to fast each and every day of our life, not only during the month of Ramadhan, the month of Allah, the month of forgiveness and mercy, but all our life.