By Samuel Gonzalez
According to Merriam-Webster, Heaven is described as “the dwelling place of the Supreme Deity and the righteous dead,” or as “a spiritual state of utmost happiness and eternal communion with God.” In the West, Heaven has commonly been depicted as this ethereal sort of eternal existence alongside angels and cherubs and clouds – with the perception of the Islamic Heaven as overly sensual and libertine, a free-for-all of earthly delights in Heaven. As incorrect as this view is, many people still hold it as fact – in reality, the Quranic vision of Heaven offers something much more enriching, rewarding, and powerful.
Etymology and Pronunciation
So is it Jannah? Paradise? Heaven? The Garden? Jannah is the Arabic word as it appears in the Qur’an – with ‘Heaven’ and ‘Paradise’ appearing as common translations. In the prophetic story of Adam and Eve, the word used to refer to the Garden of Eden is also Jannah, which reflects the paradisiacal, delightful nature of Heaven. The word Jannah is pronounced in the following way:
- Ja as in the English word ‘jam’ or ‘jack.’
- The double n is pronounced strongly and is emphasized, slightly holding its sound in the middle of the word.
- Ah as in ‘Hannah’ or ‘banana.’
Interestingly, there are two verses in the Qur’an which do not use the more common Jannah to refer to Heaven. This word is Firdus, which derives from the Persian word Pardis, which just so happens to be the origin for the English word Paradise. In the Qur’an, Heaven is depicted as having several layers, with Firdus representing the seventh and highest level of Heaven. By contrast, the Hellfire is also described in great detail, inversing the seven layers of Heaven and transforming them into a blazing parody of Jannah.
The Physical Description of Paradise
While the Qur’an does emphasize heaven’s sensual pleasures, those are not the sum total of its pleasures because the Book of Allah also points to heaven’s spiritual and religious delights. Below are a few verses that explicitly state some of the physical descriptions of the Hereafter:
And those who eschewed disobeying their Lord shall be driven in companies to Paradise so that when they arrive there its gates will have already been thrown open and its keepers shall say to them: “Peace be upon you; you have done well. So enter. Herein you shall abide.” [39:73]
And they are those who endure patiently, seeking their Lord’s pleasure, establish prayer, donate from what We have provided for them—secretly and openly—and respond to evil with good. It is they who will have the ultimate abode: the Gardens of Eternity, which they will enter along with the righteous among their parents, spouses, and descendants. And the angels will enter upon them from every gate, saying, “Peace be upon you for your perseverance. How excellent is the ultimate abode!” [13:22-24]
In an elevated Garden, wherein they will hear no vain speech. Within it is a floating spring, within it are couches raised high, and cups put in place, and cushions neatly arranged, and carpets spread around. [88:11-16]
They and their spouses – in shade, reclining on adorned couches. For them therein is fruit, and for them is whatever they request or wish. [36:56-57]
In the Gardens of Bliss. . . all will be reclined on jeweled thrones, they will be reclining face to face and will be attended to by eternal youths with cups, pitchers, and a drink of pure wine from a flowing stream which will cause neither headache nor intoxication. [56:12,15-23]
They will be adorned therein with bracelets of gold and will wear green garments of fine silk and brocade, reclining therein on adorned couches. Excellent is the reward, and good is the resting place. [18:31]
They will be served any fruit they desire and meat from any bird they desire, and they will have maidens with gorgeous eyes like pristine pearls as a reward for what they used to do. [56:20-24]
They will be amid thornless lote trees, clusters of bananas, extended shade, flowing water, abundant fruit, never out of season or forbidden. [56:28-33]
Their reward with their Lord will be Gardens of Eternity, under which rivers flow, to stay there forever and ever. Allah is pleased with them and they are pleased with Him. This is only for those in awe of their Lord. [98:8]
They [the believers] will turn to one another inquisitively. [52:21]
The Non-Physical Descriptions of Paradise
Allah rewards his faithful servants with everything mentioned above and more, only because it is befitting of His Station to take pleasure in good deeds, love, and justice spread throughout the earth. Hence, while the physical descriptions are good and enjoyable, the true reward is what lies behind these manifestations: the approval of Allah, the love of Allah, and eternal communion in the presence of Allah.
Their reward with their Lord will be Gardens of Eternity, under which rivers flow, to stay there forever and ever. Allah is pleased with them and they are pleased with Him. This is only for those in awe of their Lord. [The Noble Qur’an 98:8]
Allah has promised the believers, both men and women, Gardens under which rivers flow, to stay there forever, and splendid homes in the Gardens of Eternity, and—above all—the pleasure of Allah. That is ˹truly˺ the ultimate triumph. [The Noble Qur’an 9:72]
For some Muslims, the physical descriptions of Paradise are enough to motivate them to tighten up and perform charity, but for many others, it is the non-physical descriptions that really pull them in. Imagine a place where the love of Allah simply penetrates the very air you breathe and illuminates the light with which you see and interpret the world. Here on earth, humans are in a constant flux of shame and confidence, guilt and innocence, anxiety and security, scarcity and financial wellbeing, activity and rest, sadness and happiness, etc. These dualities very much define the human experience as we navigate life on earth but do not represent us – these are the result of one’s perceived separation from Allah, however small or minuscule. In Jannah, the idea of Allah being pleased with His servants means a constant awareness of Allah’s presence, which is love, mercy, and justice. In Jannah, to be in the presence of Allah as one walks through gardens and palaces made of silver and gold means to be constantly aware of Allah’s all-pervading love, which penetrates every square inch of Jannah.
In the Qur’an, the Islamic concept of taqwa may be defined as God-consciousness, or actions and deeds motivated by a proper fear of God. Here on earth, we are riddled with temptations, moral dilemmas, and difficult decisions, and sometimes our thinking is muddled, causing us to make decisions that are not-so-pleasing to Allah. While, as believers, we strive our best to think good thoughts, utter good words, and perform good actions, sometimes we fall short. This is the human situation. Nevertheless, God-consciousness pervades the Gardens of Bliss as one’s eternal state of existence – conversations with other believers in Heaven will be conversations of peace and righteousness; rest and recreation in Paradise will always include Allah and His angels; fashion, garments, and jewelry will not be worn for pomp and pageantry, but will be joyous expressions of one’s nearness to the Creator.
Literal or Allegorical?
“And whoever is in awe of standing before their Lord will have two Gardens. . . Both will be with lush branches. . . In each Garden will be two flowing springs. . . In each will be two types of every fruit. . . Those believers will recline on furnishings lined with rich brocade. And the fruit of both Gardens will hang within reach. . . In both will be maidens of modest gaze, who no human or jinn has ever touched before. . . Those maidens will be as elegant as rubies and coral. . . Is there any reward for goodness except goodness?” [The Noble Qur’an 55:46-60]
As we have seen throughout this article, most of the descriptions of Heaven in the Qur’an are largely physical, comparable to this world. Hence it follows that if one believes that this life is real and that the Qur’an is truthful, the logical conclusion is that the physical afterlife is also real in the sense of taking the form of a solid, tangible world as opposed to a world of energy or disembodied souls. Countless passages suggest that the fruit, the trees, and the refreshments that will be offered to the believers in Jannah will be experienced as literal, concrete delights.
“From changing the nature of your existence and bringing you into being anew in a manner as yet unknown to you.” [The Noble Qur’an 56:61].
According to the Noble Book of Allah, the description of the Afterlife is beyond human comprehension and imagination. The nature of these worlds (their laws, principles, and logistics), if we are to truly embrace the mystery and vast grandeur of Allah, ought to be unimaginable, incomprehensible, and unfathomable. Furthermore, the Qur’an speaks of numerous qualitative differences between the pleasures of earth and the pleasures of Heaven, with the joys and delights of the latter greatly overshadowing those of the former, despite their similarities and comparisons. Some scholars have suggested that the descriptions of Jannah are allegories designed to stimulate the imaginations of believers, since the glories of such a Paradise are too vast and majestic to contemplate in a recitation or text.
The majority consensus among Muslims is that these descriptions are literal, however, a minority view, though largely questionable, teaches that these descriptions are indeed allegorical. Ibn Abbas, the cousin of the Honorable Prophet Muhammad and one of the foremost authorities on the science of tafsir (scriptural exegesis), taught that nothing in Paradise resembles anything in the life of this world, except in name. In this teaching he suggests that, although the delights and pleasures and comforts of Jannah resemble the physical joys of this world, the rewards given to us in Paradise will surpass anything and everything this world offers us in terms of enjoyment, happiness, satisfaction, peace, and comfort.
Heaven is the space of Allah, where believers will reside alongside the different ranks of angels – the Qur’an identifies several places distinct from the abode of believers (i.e. the Throne of Allah, the Site of the Lote Tree, etc.), but the heavens are a place where the divine power and might of God will be felt, God-consciousness will abound within the community, and divine rule will be the governing power. There will be no sadness or suffering, there will be no taxes or sickness – the imagery of Heaven, as it appears in the Noble Book of Allah, is intertwined with images and sensations of pure glory and pleasure, and fulfills the function of showing the beholder the infinite wisdom of the Creator and the bounties He has prepared for those who love Him.
It is He who has created death and life to put you to the test and see which of you is most virtuous in your deeds. He is Majestic and All-forgiving. [The Noble Qur’an 67:2]
In this passage, the purpose of life and death, life on this earthly plane of existence, is explained. Allah created life in order to see who would be best in good deeds – in loving, in administering justice and equality, in showing mercy – and with this passage it becomes clear that life on earth makes no sense without an Afterlife. Without a reward or punishment after death, life on earth is reduced to a meaningless accident, and the universe becomes an unjust place where there is no distinction between good and bad deeds. At the end of time, or at the end of our lives, we will be faced before Our Creator, who will inquire of us: “How did you spend your time on earth? How did you utilize your knowledge? How did you spend your wealth?” We take nothing to the grave other than our good and bad deeds, and our actions will testify for or against us.
What do you think? Share your reflections below!
“Heaven.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster
“Heaven.” The Qur’an: An Encyclopedia. Routledge, New York City, NY. 2007.
Sunan al-Tirmidhī 2531
“Paradise and Hell.” Quran-Islam.org. https://www.quran-islam.org/new_information/heaven_and_hell_(P1257).html