Is Islamic Hell a Disproportionate Punishment?

Is Islamic Hell a Disproportionate Punishment?

There are those who would argue that the punishment of everlasting hell is disproportional to the crime of kufr (disbelief). They would argue that kuffar only lived for a finite amount of time and engaged in their kufr in a finite time frame. Similarly, they would argue that this temporary crime of kufr only has temporary effects or consequences. They would say: it’s not like kufr has caused God to be angry for all of eternity. They would also say, “whatever happened to the eye for an eye, and tooth for a tooth rule”? If unrepentant and inexcusable kufr is a crime against God, then shouldn’t the kafir suffer no more than how much “God has suffered?”

Okay, a number of responses.

First of all, the “eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth” rule is one that applies to human beings. It’s not universally applicable across all ontological kinds of nature. So, let’s say a human being commits animal abuse and damages the eye or breaks the arm of a dog or a cat. Most of us do not say that the human being in question is therefore deserving of having his arm broken. Now, I know that there are some who are overly passionate about animal rights who might insist that animals and human beings should be treated equally, but the vast majority of people don’t see it that way, and so I’m not going to spend time arguing why human beings and animals aren’t equal.

The fact of the matter is that it is far from being obvious and intuitive that the “eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth” rule is one that applies between all different ontological beings. And so if that is the case, then God, as a divine ontological being that has an essence not shared by humans, is not obviously subjected to the “eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth” rule along with human beings as well. The one making that claim needs to offer evidence for that.

Secondly, regarding the claim that kufr only has temporary effects because it was a crime committed during a finite period of time, I’d like to say to the one raising this objection: how do you know that? How do you know? First of all, common sense tells us that the effects of actions could last much longer than the duration in which those actions were perpetrated. A straightforward example is rape. It can take a person a few minutes to rape somebody, but the scars and emotional pain and hurt that follow those horrendous few minutes would continue to affect the victim for much longer than a few minutes.

Similarly, when it comes to inexcusable and unrepentant kufr, how do you know that the effects of this kufr aren’t everlasting in the sense that Allah سبحانه وتعالى will forever be angry at that crime? How do you know that? Who are you to say what God can be angry about for a limited or unlimited amount of time? What if Allah’s anger at unrepentant unjustified Shirk is so intense that it never dissipates, and as a result of this perpetual unrelenting divine wrath, the punishment would likewise be interminable for causing this endless anger. How do you know that this cannot be the case? Can you prove it? Have you considered that maybe your moral sensibilities are too feeble to fully grasp and appreciate just how serious a crime like Shirk committed against someone as infinitely great as Allah truly is?

However, some would insist that God’s judgments must at least resonate with us as human beings though; otherwise, how could we appreciate His Justice? And that’s fine, but that doesn’t mean that all of Allah’s judgments must resonate with us instantly. Sometimes contemplation, sound reasoning, and detachment

from previously held beliefs and presuppositions are required in order to acquire a sound understanding and appreciation of God’s judgments. And that’s what we are trying to do as we contemplate about this subject.

Thirdly, it’s important to consider not only the magnitude of the crime of Shirk but also consider the maximal worth and status of the one only God who has been offended against. Allah (وتعالى سبحانه) is maximally perfect or infinitely perfect in a qualitative sense. When we say that Allah is maximally perfect, we mean to say that He is maximally quintessential in all His attributes. He is maximally perfect in His generosity, mercy, justice, power, knowledge, supremacy, etc. And that utmost magnificence of His attributes makes Him one with an infinitely qualitative status.

Building upon that, we could argue that guilt is proportional to the moral worth or status of the offended side. In other words, the severity of a crime is not only determined by how bad the crime itself is but also determined by who is being offended. So, for example, animal abuse is not at the same level of severity as human abuse. Why not? Well, because the moral worth or status or dignity of the human being is at a higher level than that of the animal. And so, the crime committed against the human being would be worse even if the same exact crime were committed against the animal.

Similarly, seeing that God is a being who is infinitely more worthy and dignified and greater than any other being, then the level of severity of a crime committed against God shouldn’t be equalized with that committed against a human being. And as a result, the assessment of the seriousness of a crime committed against God shouldn’t be subjected to human conceptions of justice that we are ordinarily accustomed to.

Now, people who advocate against the notion of everlasting punishment in hell raise some objections against this reasoning, which I laid out. The argument that I just laid out is commonly known in the literature as “The Status Principle.”

One argument that they pose is that those classical theologians and philosophers who originally promoted The Status Principle argument were affected by the feudal societies in which they lived. So basically, they lived at a time where it was the norm to believe that a crime committed against the king, or even a noble, was more serious than a crime committed against peasants or anyone in a lower social-economic class and had a “lower status.” But, today, we’ve grown out of this kind of way of thinking. We are now more “egalitarian,” and we don’t make such distinctions anymore, as we view all human life to be equal.

However, in response to that, I’d say that what I’ve already said is not affected by this in any way. I did not say that because there are certain human lives more worthy than other human lives, that we could then deduce from this that God is greater in status. No, rather, I said that different ontological natures are different from one another compared to each other. Humans are more worthy than animals, and animals are more worthy than plants, etc. And since God is not a human being, and is a unique being due to His unique divine essence, and is not like any of His creation (لیس كمثله شيء), it was thus contended that God’s status is at a different level than human beings. So, whether you believe all human beings are equal in worth or not makes no difference to this argument.

Secondly, and I don’t want to spend any considerable amount of time on this, as this is a separate subject. But, I’d argue that it’s not even that rationally obvious that all human lives are of equal worth. Imagine a prophet of God was murdered. And then imagine that a criminal on death row who was fairly sentenced by a court of law to be executed was killed by another prisoner just 5 minutes before he was going to get executed. The prophet who was murdered is a human being. The murdered death row inmate was a human being. Are both of their lives truly equal in every sense in this case? Are both murders equally horrid and morally blameworthy? Keeping religious beliefs aside, I’d argue that it’s not that rationally obvious that these two acts of murder are equally bad. Also, for some of you advanced tullab al-‘ilm listening to this lecture, you also know very well that in the books of fiqh we read how different laws of qisas could be effectuated with a major component being considered the status and other demographic features of the victim.

Also, one should bear in mind that believing that human lives are not equal doesn’t necessitate that we mandate laws that treat human beings differently in those areas. Sometimes the moral worth of different human beings may be interlinked with their inner state that is not visible and apparent to us. Thus, to issue laws primarily based on factors invisible to us is not something so straightforward and advisable. But again, I don’t wish to get into all that, as it’s not relevant to the success of The Status Principle argument. But just some food for thought.

Another objection that is raised against The Status Principle is that God is not infinite in a quantitative mathematical sense. You can’t quantify God mathematically, and if that’s the case, why are you Muslims going about quantifying the punishment of hell so that it lasts for an endless number of sequential years into the never-ending future?

But again, no one said that Allah سبحانه وتعالى is being quantified. Those who say He’s infinite simply mean that He’s infinite in a qualitative sense. Infinitude in the quantitative sense is in reference to notions such as limitlessness, unboundedness, immeasurability, etc. However, infinitude in a qualitative sense entails absoluteness, wholeness, completeness, independence, perfection, etc. So when we say that God’s attributes are infinite, we mean that they are wholesome and complete in their utmost and maximal perfection. الكمال المطلق. Not that God’s attributes are being quantified sequentially and endlessly, but rather that God’s perfection is ultimate in that there can be no being that is conceivably greater in terms of its properties.

So when we say that Allah is infinitely great, merciful, majestic, powerful, etc. We simply mean that no being can ever conceivably be greater than Allah in terms of these attributes. When we say that Allah is infinite in His power, we mean that He can do anything logically possible. When we say that He’s infinite in His goodness, we mean that He is completely good, and there’s no shred of an evil trait in Him, etc.

العلي، الكبیر، ( ,is maximally holy, majestic, dignified, honorable, supreme, great سبحانه وتعالى So, since Allah ,that would entail that His status as a moral being is infinite in a qualitative sense ,)العظیم، الجلیل، المجید، الحمید which renders the ultimate crime of Shirk committed against Him to be maximal as well. And that qualitative maximal punishment may very well be a quantitative endless sequence of epochs of suffering

in hell, as it so happens to be most befitting in an infinite qualitative sense. Again, we aren’t arguing that God is infinite in a quantitative sense, but rather that the fitting maximal and infinite qualitative punishment in this specific regard just so happens to be quantifiable in the form of an endless sequence of time in hell into the future.

Another objection states that punishments should only take into account the amount of harm caused to the victim or offended party. And since God cannot be harmed, direct offenses against Him shouldn’t be punished, let alone endlessly.

The problem with that reasoning is that it’s not true. Let’s say you find out that somebody tried to kill you, and you weren’t even aware that he was trying to. His plans to kill you got disrupted by the police, and they arrested him before he was even able to get close to you. You weren’t harmed one bit, neither emotionally, nor physically. Does that mean that the person who tried to kill you doesn’t deserve to be punished? I mean, actually deserves to be punished for his attempt to kill you? Not that he should be locked up merely so that you stay safe, but rather that he deserves to be punished for the intention and the actions he took in his attempt to kill you, despite you not being harmed at all in the entire process? Yes, of course, he deserves to be punished. So to say that punishments should only factor into consideration the amount of harm actually done isn’t correct.

Secondly, saying that Allah cannot be harmed does not mean that He cannot become angry when His rights are being violated in an attempt to undermine His Honor and Majesty. It doesn’t mean that He does not punish those who negligently failed to appropriately exemplify their subservience to Him, even though He is in no need of it. God is a unique case in that one can commit an offense against Him, despite Him never being able to be harmed by that offense. Yet, the fact remains that the offense was committed, and that offense still needs to be accounted for and addressed in the name of justice and fairness.

Another objection that is raised is that it’s presumptuous on our part to assume that God is infinitely greater than human beings. Some critics would object by demanding to know the rational proof for that. Well, before answering that, we could first ask ourselves what properties do humans have, which make them more morally worthy than animals and insects?

Well, there are a number of distinguishing properties that we could consider here. One, for example, is moral excellence. Human beings are moral agents who govern and abide by moral codes. They have the ability to moralize and uphold ethical values and principles. Animals, on the other hand, aren’t moral agents at that sophisticated level.

Another property is cognitive or intellectual ability. We recognize that the ability to rationalize is an inherently worthy and valuable property to have.

Another property to consider is power. Not power in the sense of physical strength, because quite obviously, several animals such as lions and bears could easily overpower human beings individually. However, power here is more to do with effecting change in the world. And that ability is strongly interlinked with and supported by other properties that human beings have, such as knowledge, rationality, etc.

So looking at some of these properties, which we intuitively recognize to be intrinsically valuable, we could see why humankind as an ontological class of being is superior to animals.

Now, one may dispute that these specific properties are the properties that make us superior to animals. That’s fine, but the fact remains that the vast majority of us do recognize that human beings are inherently superior to and more morally worthy in status than animals. And whatever positive properties human beings have that make them superior to animals, then know that God’s positive properties are infinitely greater than human beings. God is infinitely greater than us in moral excellence, knowledge, power, etc.

Also, consider self-sufficiency or independence as a property. It’s hardly deniable that this is a positive attribute to have. Well, Allah سبحانه وتعالى is infinitely self-sufficient. Not only does He not depend on anyone, but all living things depend upon Him for their continued existence and sustenance. Even if a potentially infinite number of things continued to pop into existence, God would remain the object of dependence for them. There is no limit to how much one could depend on Allah سبحانه وتعالى; and thus, there’s this infinitely qualitative trait of dependability that we could also ascribe to Allah سبحانه وتعالى, as He’s القیوم ,الرزاق ,المهیمن, and so on.

And as a result of Allah سبحانه وتعالى being infinitely greater in status than us due to these maximally perfect attributes, He likewise is infinite in terms of His holiness (He is القدوس), infinite in terms of His honor (He is المجید) and is the source of all honor and dignity (He is المعز). And so when the ultimate crime of Shirk is committed against Allah سبحانه وتعالى, the seriousness of the offense must in some way reflect His infinite majestic status. The crime must be considered maximally serious, maximally grievous. The kind of guilt سبحانه وتعالى at play here is maximal in nature as well. And as the infinitely worthy God that He is, Allah would have regard for His own honor, especially when His sole right to be worshipped alone has been violated unjustifiably.

Therefore, the guilt and liability to punishment that is carried with this offense must be of infinite severity in order to proclaim and reaffirm the infinite worth and majesty of Allah سبحانه وتعالى. To commit such a treacherous crime against He who is infinitely dependable is tantamount to an act of infinite ungratefulness and treachery. And to make it known that such offenses against Allah are of a nature incomparable to offenses we are typically familiar with. And since the punishment must be maximal, one possible form of that maximal punishment is everlasting hell.

Now, I’m not going to go as far as saying that the punishment for unrepentant and inexcusable Shirk must be everlasting hell. I’m not going to make that claim. I don’t need to overburden myself trying to prove that. Rather, it only suffices to demonstrate that it’s logically sound and defensible for the punishment to be everlasting hell. I don’t need to argue that everlasting hell is the only adequate punishment that Allah could have used to justly punish people for kufr. All I need to do is show that we could سبحانه وتعالى rationally defend everlasting hell as an adequate punishment for committing kufr. I don’t need to go beyond that.

And I believe that the Status Principle is a logically sound and rationally valid argument demonstrating why at the very least, it’s logically possible for God to mete out everlasting hell as a punishment for the

ultimate crime of Shirk committed against Him. And that’s all that needs to be demonstrated in order to debunk the argument criticizing the notion of everlasting hell as a punishment for disbelief.

Another objection states that you cannot measure the worth of a being simply by looking at its properties. Is a human being who is mentally incapacitated and cannot use his cognitive faculties less worthy of a human being who isn’t? Or how about a baby who still isn’t rational? Is that baby less worthy than a rational and intellectual adult human being whose rational faculties are more developed?

Okay, so this is thinking about this the wrong way. Obviously, there are human beings who are more intelligent than others and more pious and morally upright than others, etc. But, that doesn’t mean that we start measuring the inherent worth of human beings based on this. We only appealed to these properties in order to demonstrate that human beings as an ontological class or as a nature of being are superior as a class of species and are, in essence, superior to animals. And so, any member of that class by virtue of belonging to that ontological class becomes superior in nature by default to any member belonging to an inferior ontological class of being. So a one-day-old human infant is inherently more worthy than a dog who lived for fifteen years with cherished memories with his loving human caretakers. Since human infants are the outcome of the sacred procreative process of human beings that are superior to animals, they by default also inherit and attain that moral worth.

Now, look, there’s nothing stopping anybody from coming along and saying: you know what, I disagree. I don’t think human beings are superior to animals. You can’t appeal to biological features such as the intellect of a certain species and say that this makes them inherently superior to another species. You have no definitive rational proof that human babies are more worthy than cats and dogs who lived with their loving owners for more than a decade, etc. And you know what, on purely rational grounds alone, it’s not that easy to dominate such people intellectually. It’s for this very reason that Allah سبحانه وتعالى has sent down revelation. We can’t definitively know everything that’s right and wrong simply based on our rationality alone.

Again, I’ll repeat myself; the only thing I’ve been trying to demonstrate here is that everlasting hell as a punishment could be rationally defended. That there is no definitive rational argument against it. And as long as the Muslim has good reasons for believing that Islam is true, any speculative argument against the notion of everlasting hell should not prompt Muslims to have doubts about Islam.

[The Rationale of Hell in Islam by Bassam Zawadi, p.26-31]

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