The Final Abodes

After reading Qur’anic depictions of the Day of Judgement through the eyes of gender justice, Wadud moves on to the two, final destinations of humankind: namely, Heaven and Hell. Like the Final Day, she comments, portrayals of Hell in the Qur’an are remarkably gender neutral, as it is described in very general terms as being a place of severe punishment and utter despair.[1] [2] As a result, her hermeneutical engagement with Hell is minimal. While Wadud does not compare the Qur’an’s portrayal of Hell with other Islamic texts—an understandable omission given her express disciplinary interest in scripture—it is important to note that the Qur’an’s gender-neutral discourse on Hell is at loggerheads with the hadith literature, in which descriptions of divine punishment are acutely gendered. The following prophetic report, found in the hadith collection of Sahih Bukhari, relates the story of Prophet Muhammad having a vision of Hell and seeing that it was filled mostly with women:

The Prophet said: ‘Hell was revealed to me, and I perceived that the majority of its occupants are women who are ungrateful.’ He was asked: ‘Are they ungrateful to God?’ ‘They are ungrateful to their husbands,’ he replied. ‘And they are ungrateful for any kindness shown them and if you have been kind to any one of them for a time and then she sees something that she does not like in you, she will then say, “I have never received anything from you!”’[3]

The authenticity of such hadith reports are, of course, hotly disputed amongst Muslims, and female scholars have problematized the reliability of numerous, misogynistic hadith reports. The Moroccan feminist Fatima Mernissi, for example, has shown how the companion Abu Hurayra—a key transmitter of anti-women hadith reports and who was introduced earlier on in this chapter—was considered a highly unreliable source by the first Muslims, in particular Ayesha, a wife of the Prophet.[4]

In her treatment of the final abodes, Wadud directs far more attention to Heaven, which, unlike Hell, is portrayed in scripture in starkly gendered terms. She commences her analysis by arguing that, because the Qur’an was revealed in a specific historical context, we need to make sense of its depictions of heavenly pleasure in light of this time and place. For instance, the recurring description of Paradise as a place of ‘gardens with rivers flowing beneath’ should not be taken literally, as such a portrayal is much more meaningful, as Wadud puts it, for ‘someone living in an arid desert environment than, perhaps, for someone living in the tropics of Malaysia.’[5] What is necessary, then, is to extract the underlying message embedded within this metaphorical language: essentially, that Paradise is a place of unbound pleasure and eternal comfort. In a similar vein, descriptions of sexual pleasure, too, need to be interpreted through the framework of historical criticism. The huri, referring to an erotic, light-skinned virgin woman with a vigorous sex-drive, has become a pervasive image of Paradise amongst Muslim men and is mentioned four times in the text,[6] specifically in Q. 44:54, 52:20, 55:70-6, and 56:17-24. But this portrayal of the huri, argues Wadud, should not be taken literally. Rather, it ought to be read in terms of the prevailing understandings of beauty at the time:

The specific depiction here of the companions of Paradise demonstrates the Qur’an’s familiarity with the dreams and desires of those Arabs. The Qur’an offers the huri as an incentive to aspire after truth. It is impossible to believe that the Qur’an intends white women with large eyes to represent a single universal description of beauty for all humankind.115

More significantly, she observes, references to the huri only appear in the Meccan chapters,116 or those chapters that were revealed in the earliest days of Islam before the Muslims fled to Medina (622) in order to escape persecution. There was a direct, hermeneutical link, therefore, between the androcentric sexuality of the Meccan chapters and the dire state of gender relations in Meccan society, which was overwhelmingly patriarchal.[7] However, with the creation of a new society in Medina marked by relatively more egalitarian relations between women and men, continues Wadud, the Qur’an made a critical shift in its portrayals of pleasure in the Hereafter, abandoning the term huri altogether and adopting the gender-neutral azwaj (the plural of zawj, meaning partner or spouse).[8] She gives the following Medinan verse by way of example:

Say: ‘Shall I tell you of (things) even better (than the pleasures of this world)? With the Sustainer are gardens with rivers flowing beneath for those who keep from evil and follow the straight path, where they will remain forever with purified spouses (azwajun mutahharatun) and blessings of God.’[9] (Q. 3:15)

Countering patriarchal readings of this verse, in particular the interpretation that azwaj (spouses) refers to the pleasures of polygamy awaiting righteous men, Wadud underscores the grammatical fact that the usage of the plural azwaj here corresponds to the plural noun that precedes it—‘those who keep from evil’—and, therefore, hardly constitutes textual proof of polygamy in Paradise.[10] To put it another way: just as the beginning of humankind’s journey, in which man and woman were created from a single soul, was marked by a relationship of duality, so too will its end, when the righteous believer will be paired with her/his companion.

  • [1] Esack, Qur’an, Liberation, and Pluralism, 82-3.
  • [2] Wadud, Qur’an and Woman, 52.
  • [3] Nicholas Awde ed., Women in Islam: An Anthology from the Qur’an andHadiths (New York: Hippocrene Books, 2005), 36.
  • [4] Mernissi, 78. 2 Wadud, Qur’an and Woman, 52.
  • [5] 114 Esack, The Qur’an: A User’s Guide, 164.
  • [6] 115 Wadud, Qur’an and Woman, 55. 116 Ibid, 54-5.
  • [7] Ibid. 2 Ibid, 55.
  • [8] 119 Wadud also cites a number of other passages, such as Q. 2:25, 4:57, and36:54-6. Though this does not problematize Wadud’s argument of a general shiftfrom the Qur’anic usage of huri to azwaj with the Muslim migration to Medina,especially given the number of Medinan verses that corroborate this claim, it isworthwhile noting that the chapter in which the last citation is listed here—Surat
  • [9] Yasin (Chapter 36)—was actually revealed in the Meccan period.
  • [10] Ibid, 57.
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