Sunday, November 29, 2015

Christian Lange's "Paradise and Hell in Islamic Traditions"

Christian Lange is Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at Utrecht University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Paradise and Hell in Islamic Traditions, and reported the following:
Applying the page 99 test to my book, a cultural history of Paradise and Hell in Islamic Traditions, I find that its 99th page wraps up a discussion about the views on the afterlife held by Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, an 11th-century professor of Islamic law and theology at Baghdad and quite possibly the most famous Muslim scholar of religion of all times. The Islamic afterworld enjoys a reputation among non-Muslims that is not exactly glowing. As I recapitulate in the introduction to the book, there is a long history of polemics against Islam that targets the Muslim paradise in particular. The Islamic otherworld, according to its critics over the course of centuries, is grossly sensualist—there is even sex in it! And the God that presides over it, the same detractors maintain(ed), is excessively lenient and ready to forgive Muslims, even if they’ve sinned; as for non-Muslims, there is only eternal punishment in hell.

Enters al-Ghazali. His contribution consists in resisting easy categorizations of God as either lenient or violent, and also in refuting simplistic materialist interpretations of the afterlife. His is a voice of moderation, and as such he is remembered by Muslims today: as someone who brought the various strands of Muslim thought under the same single fold of a law-abiding, rational and deeply spiritual version of Islam. Al-Ghazali maintains that God is just, which means that people mustn’t think they can shun responsibility for sins. However, God is also kind, which puts moral rigor into perspective; forgiveness is real! And then, the great promise of human life is not material, but spiritual, because the greatest joy in paradise is to see God, a joy that “shall cause one to be quite oblivious of the other pleasures of paradise”.

Al-Ghazali’s middle course is flanked on both sides by literalist, materialistic as well as highly speculative and intellectualist teachings about paradise and hell. All these traditions of thought are examined in my book, which, I dare say, is the most comprehensive study of the topic so far. Yet al-Ghazali remains a central figure, not just because he resolves dogmatic issues but because he is a writer who engages the imagination. And that, after all, is the basis of which paradise and hell have at all times flourished.
Learn more about Paradise and Hell in Islamic Traditions at the Cambridge University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue