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Islamic eschatology

William C. Chittick claims that the Koran “speaks of death, the end of the world, and resurrection more than any other major scripture” and that the Hadith (a book of prophecy) follows suit (Chittick 132), which considering the general religious obsession with death, sets the bar high for Muslim eschatology.  According to Islamic texts, when the end of days approaches, terrible events give warning to those who are paying attention.

Warned or not, everyone in heaven and earth falls into unconsciousness for forty years when the angel Isr­āfīl blows the trumpet announcing that the day has come, and everyone in heaven and earth.  When Isrāfīl blows his trumpet again, everyone awakens and is ushered onto a great plain.  Without shelter or clothes and under a burning sun, everyone—humans, animals, and demons alike—sweats so much that the plain floods.  The water level reaches the knees, the armpits, or the nostrils, depending on the particular source’s wrath.  Everyone is left in this state for some extended period of time (40 years, 300 years, or possibly longer) though believers experience it only as the time it takes to say a single daily prayer.

Once God decides he has let his creations marinate for long enough, he begins the day of resurrection, which according to some sources lasts 50,000 years.  God descends to personally ask every person one by one to explain not what he did but why he did it.  The scrolls of their deeds are placed on a scale, good on one side and evil on the other.  Once judged, the soul is taken to the bridge over hell.  Those whose scales are tipped to the side of good find the bridge short and broad, and cross easily.  Those not so righteous see the bridge as it really is, “finer than a hair and sharper than a sword,” and they slip and fall into hell (Chittick 133).

Not all who fall remain there, though, because God asks for mercy for many of them.  After this, the prophets defend the souls in their communities, and then every person who has crossed the bridge in safety also gets a chance to speak for the damned.  Even a few souls who have no one to speak for them, who managed to go their entire lives without ever doing any good, are granted clemency: the “Most Merciful of the merciful” casts the ashes of their souls into paradise, and they spring up from the remains.  Chittick writes, “there is a strong current in the accounts…that suggests that hell is in fact a purgatory for many, if not most, of those who go there” (Chittick 134).

The Koran and the Hadith literature delight in describing the horrors of hell in graphic detail,[1] but unlike the John of Revelation, who relished the terrors of the coming punishments but seemed rather bored by bliss, the writers of Muslim literature linger on the joys of paradise just as much.  The rewards waiting there for the righteous are not just spiritual: they are also material, sensual, and often erotic.  The best part of heaven, however, is its proximity to God; Hell, its distance.


[1] People are cast into the flames clothed in garments of tar, but whenever they open their mouths to scream their agony, boiling water is poured down their throats, which melts their organs.  In a personality about-face worthy of Yahweh, the same God who just granted clemency to so many replaces the organs and skin of the damned whenever they are burned away so they can be properly pierced, prodded, and torn to pieces by demons again.

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