Hell and the Quran
The classic Christian doctrine of hell receives a most interesting treatment in the Quran, providing a number of fanciful particulars and whimsical embellishments. On the Day of Judgment, unbelievers will be “dragged into the Fire upon their faces” (Surah 54:48) “by their scalps” (Surah 70:16, Dawood, Sale, and Rodwell translations). Their faces will be “blackened” (Surah 39:60). They will have manacles, chains, and yokes placed upon them (Surah 34:33; 40:71; 76:4). One surah even declares that the wife of Abu Lahab (one of Muhammad’s bitter opponents) “will have upon her neck a halter of palm-fibre” (Surah 111:5)—apparently fireproof palm fiber.
According to the Quran, hell is a place of raging, fiercely blazing fire (Surah 73:12; 92:14; 101:11) with leaping, piercing, burning flames (Surah 4:10; 17:97; 25:11; 37:10; 48:13; 77:30-31; 85:10; 104:6-7), in which people “neither die nor live” (Surah 87:12-13). In addition to flames, hell also contains scorching winds, black smoke (Surah 56:42-43), and boiling hot water through which the disbelievers will be dragged (Surah 40:71-72; 55:44). In fact, unbelievers will both drink and be drenched with boiling water:
Lo! We have prepared for disbelievers Fire. Its tent encloseth them. If they ask for showers, they will be showered with water like to molten lead which burneth the faces. Calamitous the drink and ill the resting-place! (Surah 18:30, emp. added).
These twain (the believers and the disbelievers) are two opponents who contend concerning their Lord. But as for those who disbelieve, garments of fire will be cut out for them; boiling fluid will be poured down on their heads. Whereby that which is in their bellies, and their skins too, will be melted; And for them are hooked rods of iron. Whenever, in their anguish, they would go forth from thence they are driven back therein and (it is said unto them): Taste the doom of burning (Surah 22:19-22, emp. added; cf. 6:70; 10:5; 37:67; 44:48; 56:54,93)
The ingested boiling water will cut and tear the bowels (Surah 47:15). Yet the drinking of boiling water apparently will be accompanied by an occasional cold drink: “Hell, where they will burn, an evil resting place. Here is a boiling and an ice-cold draught, so let them taste it, and other (torment) of the kind in pairs (the two extremes)!” (Surah 38:57-59, emp. added; cf. 78:24-25). Ali renders the phrase: “a boiling fluid, and a fluid dark, murky, intensely cold!”
In addition to liquid, the diet of the unbeliever will include some solid food: “On that day (many) faces will be downcast, toiling, weary, scorched by burning fire, drinking from a boiling spring, no food for them save bitter thorn-fruit which doth not nourish nor release from hunger” (Surah 88:2-7, emp. added). The Quran alleges the existence of a specific tree from which hell’s occupants will eat:
Is this better as a welcome, or the tree of Zaqqum? Lo! We have appointed it a torment for wrong-doers. Lo! it is a tree that springeth in the heart of hell. Its crop is as it were the heads of devils. And lo! they verily must eat thereof, and fill (their) bellies therewith. And afterward, lo! thereupon they have a drink of boiling water (Surah 37:62-67).
All will certainly be gathered together for the meeting appointed for a Day well-known. Then will you truly—O you that go wrong, and treat (Truth) as Falsehood!—you will surely taste of the Tree of Zaqqum. Then will you fill your insides therewith, and drink Boiling Water on top of it: Indeed you shall drink like diseased camels raging with thirst! Such will be their entertainment on the Day of Requital! (Surah 56:50-56, Ali’s translation).
Lo! the tree of Zaqqum, the food of the sinner! Like molten brass, it seetheth in their bellies as the seething of boiling water (Surah 44:43-46).
Uninspired Jewish folklore postulated the same tree (cf. Sukkah 32).
The Quran also claims that hell possesses “keepers” or “guardians” (Surah 40:49; 96:18). Malic is the primary angel in charge of hell who presides over the torments inflicted on unbelievers: “The sinners will be in the punishment of Hell, to dwell therein (forever)…. They will cry: ‘O Malik! Would that your Lord put an end to us!’ He will say, ‘Nay, but you shall abide!’ ” (Surah 43:74,77). Of course, the Bible says nothing of any so-called guardians of hell. In fact, the Bible teaches that even Satan is not presently in hell. Rather, “our adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Peter 5:8; cf. Job 1:7; 2:2). The Bible appears to indicate that some angels are being confined in a waiting place prior to the Day of Judgment: “And the angels who did not keep their proper domain, but left their own abode, He has reserved in everlasting chains under darkness for the judgment of the great day” (Jude 6). But Satan and his angels will be thrown into the lake of fire at the end of time (Matthew 25:41; Revelation 20:10).
Additional allusions in the Quran to unbiblical (and outlandish) concepts regarding hell (also borrowed from uninspired ancient rabbinical literature) include: (1) a veil between hell and Paradise (Surah 7:46), drawn from the legend recorded in the Midrash on Ecclesiastes 7:14 (cf. Tisdall, 1905, p. 124), as well as a place between the two that enables a “crier” to communicate with both sides (Surah 7:44); and (2) the report of angels who eavesdrop on God (Surah 15:18; 37:8; 67:5; cf. Hagigah 6.1).
Even giving the Quran’s allowance for the difficulty of representing a nonphysical, eternal realm in language that enables humans to derive a sufficient understanding of the horror of hell, the Quran makes the mistake of depicting hell as a place for physical bodies. It offers an abundance of detail that removes the impression of hell being a spiritual realm. It shows no understanding or awareness of eternity involving a spiritual, nonmaterial realm where human spirits will be clothed with new, spiritual bodies. The Bible, on the other hand, provides clarification on just such matters, giving just enough information for the honest, objective reader to grasp this very point—i.e., that it will be a nonphysical realm, but will entail unending pain and suffering for the spiritual body (Matthew 25:31-46; Luke 12:4-5; John 5:28; 1 Corinthians 15:35-55). The Bible is sufficiently generic to be credible. The Quran suffers from the embellishment that one would expect from an uninspired, human author. Its myriad of detail on this subject cannot be dismissed as merely figurative.
Next to the doctrine of monotheism, the doctrine of hell and punishment receives more attention than any other doctrine in the Quran—maybe even more than monotheism. In fact, to the unbiased reader, the Quran is positively top-heavy—completely unbalanced—in its almost constant emphasis on fire, torment, and eternal punishment. Keeping in mind there are 114 surahs in the Quran, observe that the word “hell” occurs 102 times in Pickthall’s translation (95 in Ali’s) in 54 surahs. “Fire” occurs 161 times (203 in Ali) in 65 surahs. “Punish/punishment” occurs 115 times (169 in Ali) in 43 surahs. “Doom” occurs 215 times in Pickthall in 62 surahs. This means that the Quran refers to hell, fire, doom, and punishment in 92 of its 114 surahs—which is 80 percent of the Quran! In sharp contrast, the New Testament—which approximates the Quran in length—uses the word “hell” (gehenna) only 12 times (Matthew 5:22,29,30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15,33; Mark 9:43,45,47; Luke 12:5; James 3:6). While the Bible certainly emphasizes the certainty and inevitability of eternal punishment, it places the subject in proper perspective and provides a divinely balanced treatment. The Quran, on the other hand, is thoroughly preoccupied with incessant threats of punishment ad infinitum. Its inordinate fixation on hell, fire, torment, and punishment is another proof of its human origin.
Ali, Abdullah Yusuf (1934), The Qur’an (Elmhurst, NY: Tahrike Tarsile Quran), ninth edition.
Pickthall, Mohammed M. (n.d.), The Meaning of the Glorious Koran (New York: Mentor).
Rodwell, J.M., trans. (1950 reprint), The Koran (London: J.M. Dent and Sons).
Dawood, N.J., trans. (1976 reprint), The Koran (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin).
Sale, George, trans. (no date), The Koran (New York: Hurst).
Tisdall, W. St. Clair (1905), The Original Sources of the Quran (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge).