The imagery of hell is well developed within Muslim literature. For example, in the Qur’an there around five hundred or so verses referring to it (1). According to scholars Sachiko Murata and William Chittick, “No scripture devotes as much attention as the Koran to describing the torments of hell and the delights of paradise” (2).
The fear of hell is integral to Muslim religiosity and it has generated various interpretations and descriptions at the popular level, during different historical periods, contexts, and among mystics, renunciants. For those interested in this diversity, scholar Christian Lange’s Introducing Hell in Islamic Studies is an insightful resource (3).
Hell’s Eternality and Fiery Descriptions
The major theme for hell in the Qur’an is of fire; it is often referred to as an-Nar (“the Fire”). There are derivates of the theme, including al-sair (“the blaze”), al-jahim (“the hot place”), and al-laza (“the flame”). It is a place of eternal torment that the condemned will experience (35:36). The devout will be placed in paradise while the damned remain there,
“Then, surely it is We who are most knowing of those most worthy of burning therein. And there is none of you except he will come to it. This is upon your Lord an inevitability decreed. Then We will save those who feared Allah and leave the wrongdoers within it, on their knees” (19:70-72).
“(As for) those who disbelieve in Our communications, We shall make them enter fire; so oft as their skins are thoroughly burned, We will change them for other skins, that they may taste the chastisement; surely Allah is Mighty, Wise” (4:56).
The imagery is both rich and developed: those in hell will be “in scorching wind and scalding water” (56:42) where it boils and bursts with rage (67:7-8). The damned will wear “garments of liquid pitch and their faces covered by the Fire” (14:50) and scalding water will be poured upon their heads (22:19-20). Those in hell with suffer humiliation (25:69), their faces and backs will be struck (8:50), their faces “blackened” by the heat (23:104), and the damned will be dragged on their faces into the fire (54:48). The torment and agony will be eternal: “as often as their skins are roasted through, We [Allah] shall change them for other skins that they may taste the punishment” (4:56). But despite cries for extinction and alleviation from this pain, they will not be able to escape this eternal misery (14:17). The pleas of the damned fall on deaf ears and their future is ever-increasing torment (78:30).
The Qur’an also presents the image of hell as a prison. The condemned have chains around their necks (13:5, 34:33 36:8), are fettered by iron hooks (22:21), and are guarded by merciless angels appointed by Allah (66:6). The food that the damned will eat will come “from the discharge of wounds” (69:36) and there will be bitter fruit of the Zaqqum tree (37:62-67). Because the damned will be hungry, they will eat from this tree growing at the bottom of hell (37:62-66; 44:43-46). However, despite their nourishment, the condemned will be continually thirsty and hungry.
Several other behaviours will send persons to hell: stealing the property of orphans (4:10), murdering a believer (4:93, cf. 29-30, 3:21), slander (104), slandering chaste women (24:23), denying the reality of the Day of Judgment (25:11-14), and rejecting the divine origin of the Qur’an (74:16).
According to Q15:44, hell has seven gates or levels, with each for a category of sinners. Muslims will be located at the mildest level before going to paradise. The second level is for Christians, the third for Jews, the fourth for the Sabeans (or Zoroastrians), the fifth for the Magi and polytheists, the sixth for idolaters, and the lowest seventh level, which will be the worst of the torments, is for the hypocrites (those who once accepted and embraced Islam but then turned away in apostasy). In some verses, hell is said to be the destination for those who rejected Muhammad’s mission. In an early teaching given by Muhammad, alWalid ibn al-Mughirah al-Makhzumi is condemned by Allah for rejecting the Prophet’s teaching (74:11-26). The Qur’an also teaches that “hell has been prepared for the unbelievers” (3:131) and evil demons (26:95).
Women and Hell
In later verses of the Qur’an, the justification for hell extends beyond opposition to Muhammad to include a broad list of sins suggesting the no person is beyond judgment and condemnation. Women seem especially vulnerable. Though not often mentioned directly in the Koran’s teachings on hell, in popular Islamic tradition women are in greater spiritual peril than men.
Although the Qur’an (4:1) provides hope of paradise to anyone who “does righteous good deeds and is a true believer,” one finds in the Hadith tradition a less favourable picture for women. In Sahih al-Bukhari, a woman, according to Muhammad, had locked up a cat that later died from hunger and she was condemned to the tortures of hell because of this (3:323). Al-Bukhari furthers informs his readers that Muhammad taught that most persons in hell will be women due to their ungratefulness towards their husbands; women are also intellectually deficient to men,
“Once Allah’s Apostle went out to the Musalla [to offer the prayer] of Eid al-Adha or al-Fitr prayer. Then he passed by the women and said, “O women! Give alms, as I have seen that the majority of the dwellers of hell-fire were you.” They asked, “Why is it so, O Allah’s Apostle?” He replied, “You curse frequently and are ungrateful to your husbands. I have not seen anyone more deficient in intelligence and religion than you.” The women asked, “O Allah’s Apostle! What is deficient in our intelligence and religion?” He said, “Is not the evidence of two women equal to the witness of one man?” They replied in the affirmative. He said, “This is the deficiency in your intelligence. Isn’t it true that a woman can neither pray nor fast during her menses?” The women replied in the affirmative. He said, “This is the deficiency in your religion.” (1:181-82)
- Thomassen, Einar. 2009. “Islamic Hell.” Numen 56(2/3):401-416.
- Murata, Sachiko., and Chittick, William. 1998. The vision of Islam. Paragon House. p. 21.