By Nawar Fakhry Ezzi
Jul 21, 2016
“O my Lord, if I worship You for fear of Hell, burn me in Hell; and if I worship You for hope of Heaven, exclude me from Heaven. But if I worship You for Your Own sake, do not withhold Your eternal beauty from me.”
This is a famous prayer and a prominent example of loving God unconditionally by Rabia Al-Adawia who was a female Muslim ascetic from eighth century Iraq.
The prayer has always intrigued me, but I have never dared to pray it because although I hope I worship God for His own sake, I do fear hell and I do hope for Heaven as many people do. Some Islamic scholars argue that this combination of hope and fear governed by love is the “right formula” to follow in worshipping God.
Rabia might argue that all we need is love, and it might be the case for some, but for most people hope for reward and fear of punishment are necessary as well to keep them disciplined and provide them with the motivation to excel in whatever they do whether as worshippers, citizens or even employees.
The problem, however, is not when people count solely on love, but when they remove it from the equation and adhere to fear and hope leading them to worship God as automatons devoid of spirituality. This could lead them to doing good things for the wrong reasons, such as helping a fellow human being in order to collect “points” to go to Heaven without actually seeing the human they were helping or in some cases they could even go completely astray as in the case of terrorists who kill themselves and others around them assuming that killing could earn them the “jackpot” of going to Heaven.
Many people from different religious traditions hold the belief of an afterlife, which includes some kind of retribution according to their deeds during their lifetime. Muslims’ belief in an afterlife consists of an eternal life in Heaven or Hell after the resurrection of their bodies on Judgment Day. Although Heaven was briefly described in the Holy Qur’an, Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was narrated as saying that God says in Heaven there is “what no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no heart has conceived”.
Accordingly, our absolute belief in Heaven would not contradict the fact that in our humble mortal perception, Heaven is a concept not a reality because we cannot even conceive it. This is why when we attempt to reify it through the Qur’anic description, we tend most of the times to picture it according to our “earthly” desires and pleasures. In this way, especially because the interpretation of the Holy Qur’an is mostly male-dominated, Heaven turns into a bachelor’s dream in which no bodily indulgence is denied. It is nauseating how much literature is dedicated to defending this point of view and justifying it.
Sadly, it is not even limited to fundamentalists or terrorists who assume that they are escaping their miserable life to a sensual Heaven, but it is also a belief that the majority of Muslims adamantly defend fearing that “God forbid” Heaven would be only an abiding bliss where we can enjoy the grace of God!
Among Heaven’s most controversial “pleasures” is definitely “al-hoor al-ein”, which is usually understood and translated as “beautiful maidens” or “women with beautiful eyes” although its literal meaning is “those with lustrous and beautiful eyes”, which is a description that could fit men and women as Dr. Haifa Ezzi argued in her book, Zad.
She argues that “Al-Hoor Al-Ein” were specified as females only in one Surat out of the four Suras where they were mentioned in the Holy Qur’an without any indication of sexual activity. She was attacked viciously by men for speculating that women might have male “Hoor Ein” as well. Those with a patriarchal perception of interpreting the Holy Qur’an could not fathom her argument that our worldly “pleasures” do not necessarily apply in Heaven meaning that sexuality as we know it might not have a place in the afterlife in the first place, especially since there will be no need for procreation anymore.
We find that people have grown more spiritual as they have climbed up the evolution ladder.
Thus, if we consider going to Heaven after death and resurrection as the last step of evolution, one could argue that we might be transformed into more “advanced” beings possibly more dominated by our spiritual side rather than being enslaved by our physical needs.
If those who speak of the “pleasures” of Heaven contemplate the Qur’anic description of Heaven as well as the adjectives associated with it, they will find that the words “pleasure” and “enjoyment” were always associated with this life to indicate that “enjoying pleasures” is short-lasting and not once were they mentioned to describe Heaven.
On the other hand, Heaven was described with more spiritual adjectives and long-lasting emotional states, such as “bliss”, “abiding”, “haven”, “peace”, “mercy”, “happiness” and “delight”. As is mentioned in the Holy Qur’an, Heaven is where God will remove all “ill-feeling” from our hearts (7:43), where we “shall have no fear” nor shall we grieve (7:49), and the greatest reward would be to see God and enjoy his love and mercy.
If this seems too dull or disappointing for some, then they are hoping for a different Heaven and for the wrong reasons and sometimes even going about it the wrong way. Perceiving Heaven the way God truly described it can only bring to our hearts peace and love and cannot possibly motivate terrorists to kill others assuming that they will go there when all that they have done was to instil fear in the hearts of people and bring grievance into this world.