What are Ismaili Views on the Afterlife, Paradise, and Hell?
The Qur'anic vision of the hereafter is not a binary one where there is either Paradise or Hellfire. There are at least 5 different afterlife scenarios that a human being could experience. It should also be noted that according to Islamic philosophers like Ibn Sina and Nasir al-Din Tusi, Ismaili philosophers, and Sunni Sufi and Shi'a mystical thinkers, there is an Imaginal World in between the Physical World and the Spiritual World (read about the Imaginal World here). Human souls have to pass through the Imaginal World after death in order to enter into the Spiritual World. This concept of the Imaginal World is affirmed by numerous Muslim thinkers, Sunni and Shi'a, and is covered by the scholar Henry Corbin in his book Spiritual Body and Celestial Earth.
“Death is the passage of the soul from the sensible world to the imaginal world (‘alam al-mithali). The imaginal world is an isthmus (barzakh) between the sensible world and the spiritual world…. Unlike the World of Spirits which is constituted of simple and luminous beings which are separate from matter and the World of Bodies which is constituted of compound and tenebrous beings which are immersed in matter; the imaginal world is constituted of ‘suspended’ forms or images.”
– Zailan Morris, (Revelation, Intellectual Intutiion and Reason, 107)
What happens after the death of the physical body is that the human soul continues to exist in an Imaginal body, and this Imaginal body journeys to the Imaginal World where it experiences the consequences of everything the person thought and did during earthly life. The Imaginal body is made up of images from one's thoughts and deeds, and the form of the imaginal body depends on one's virtues. Virtuous people have a beautiful imaginal body and sinful people have an ugly imaginal body. In the Imaginal World, which is the first stage of the Afterlife, people's true spiritual nature – whether virtuous and good or sinful and corrupt – is revealed openly to themselves and to others. The Qur'an confirms the existence of human souls after death as existing in "imaginal" (mithali) bodies:
“We have decreed death to be your common lot, and We are not to be frustrated from changing your likenesses (amthal) and creating you in (forms) that ye know not.”
– Holy Qur’an 56:60
Nasir al-Din Tusi, the Shia Ismaili Muslim philosopher of Alamut explains:
"When the soul departs from the body, it retains a kind of imaginal body (hay’ati az khayal), [bearing the] forms of whatever the imaginal soul (nafs-i khayali) knew or did. Likewise, reward and punishment are determined for the human soul in proportion to that [imaginal body], and the imaginal soul reminds it of this reward and punishment. The identity of human souls in the Hereafter (akhirat) is determined by this, because in this [earthly] world human beings are spiritual beings clothed in corporeal bodies, while in the next they are corporeal beings clothed in spirituality."
– Nasir al-Din Tusi, (The Paradise of Submission, 34)
Below is a brief summary of at least FIVE afterlife scenarios according to the Qur'an:
1. Entrance directly into Paradise (in the Spiritual World)
Paradise is a spiritual station where one has spiritual vision ( didar) of the Light of God. Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah says in his farman that: “Where there is didar, there is Paradise.” In his Memoirs the Imam also says "For the chosen, there is eternal life and the spiritual felicity of the Divine Vision.”
“In the Qur’anic wisdom, the topic which is selected to indicate all the spiritual pleasures of Paradise, is the vision (didar, liqa) of God. Whatever may be the nature and reality of the vision of God, it contains within it Paradise with all its favours and delights. And wherever in the Qur’an, Paradise is described and praised, it is an allegorical explanation of the vision of God or the Divine manifestations. This explanation should not arouse fear in someone about the existence of Paradise, rather he should be assured that Paradise and all of its bounties are there, but in an intellectual and luminous form, not in a material and physical form, because there everything, every bounty and every pleasure is tinted in the Divine colour. Or, in other words, Paradise is the abode of the diverse manifestations of the absolute Light.”
- Allamah Nasir al-Din Hunzai, (True Vision: Haqiqi Didar, 6-7)
The greatest souls, after physical death, will enter Paradise directly and pass over the Imaginal World. Remember that entering Paradise is not some arbitrary decision of God, but depends on the spiritual capacity of the soul in developing its faculties to behold the Divine vision ( didar).
“Nor will they there Taste Death, except the first Death; and He will preserve Them from the Penalty Of the Blazing Fire.”
– Holy Qur’an 44:56
"And the Foremost (al-sabiqun) will be Foremost: These will be those Nearest to God. In Gardens of Bliss.”
– Holy Qur’an 56:14
2. People of the Heights given assurance of Paradise (higher Imaginal World)
There is another group of souls who, after death, do not directly enter Paradise but require some further maturity and perfection before they can enter; they are almost there. These souls are granted entrance into the higher levels of the Imaginal World - known as Hurqalya. In the higher regions of the Imaginal World, human souls undertake the final preparation required to enter the real Paradise.
The Qur'an refers to these as the People of the Heights below:
"Between them shall be a veil, and on the Heights will be Men who would know every one by his marks: they will call out to the Companions of the Garden, ‘peace on you’: they will not have entered, but they will have an assurance.”
– Holy Qur’an 7:46
“The Heights seem to correspond to the top of the Mountain of Purgatory from which, in Dante’s Divine Comedy, the purified souls enter Paradise... We are told no more about those waiting on the Heights but the necessity for this waiting place can easily be deducted from what is said about Paradise itself. The Quran makes it abundantly clear that among the greatest joys of the hereafter is the company of Blessed Spirits. To enter Paradise is a tremendous responsibility: each Spirit must be a source of wonderment and delight to the other Spirits. Therefore, each must grow to perfection before entering, that is, he or she must grow to Sainthood.”
– Martin Lings, (A Return to the Spirit, 72)
3. Further Purification of minor faults in the Imaginal World and eventual entrance into Paradise
Most people - the average person perhaps - after death will require further purification and spiritual growth before entering Paradise. Such souls first journey in the Imaginal World where further learning and purification takes place so that their character deficiencies are gradually wiped out.
“According to Mulla Sadra, very few human souls attain perfection in this life and become a part of the intelligible world. For the majority of the souls which are imperfect, their return to God, necessitates their existence and purgation in the intermediate imaginal world with its Paradise and Hell before they are able to ascend to the spiritual world.”
– Zailan Morris, (Revelation, Intellectual Intuition and Reason, 194)
“…And those who believe in God and work righteousness,- He will remove from them their ills, and He will admit them to Gardens beneath which Rivers flow, to dwell therein for ever: that will be the Supreme Achievement.”
– Holy Qur’an 64:9
“What awaits the vast majority of those who are saved between their death and their entry into Paradise? The Qur’anic answer is: If ye avoid the great sins, ye are forbidden, We will wipe out your faults and cause you to enter with a noble entry (4:31). ‘Wipe out’ means bring to nothing. Purification is necessary, and therefore, Purgatory is in the nature of things.”
– Martin Lings, (A Return to the Spirit, 70)
4. Transmigration in which the human soul, due to its failure to live up to human character traits, takes on the form of an animal in the Imaginal World.
Those who lived in this world dominated by their animal qualities will go to the Imaginal World and experience it in the form of an animal. This need not be taken literally but the general meaning is that human qualities of the soul will be concealed by the animal qualities that that person lived up to in earthly life. The farmans of Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah hint towards this:
"On dying, if you again became dogs, what is gained in it?...Your virtuous deeds (amal) are for your benefit, and that benefit is there for you in the life hereafter. Whatever the type of deed (amal) you do, you will become as such."
The Sufi mystics and thinkers also describe this process - called transmigration which is different from reincarnation. Transmigration takes place in the Imaginal World called barzakh, not the physical world:
“The bodies of the undeveloped souls, the souls that have committed sins, deteriorate at the time of death and are not reassembled as before. In order to survive physically, they create a material body for themselves by externalizing their inner psychic states in the form of a body in the World of the Images. Thus a human soul that is guilty of committing a sin will imagine itself as an animal.”
– Muhammad Kamal, (Mulla Sadra’s Transcendent Philosophy, 82)
“Al-Qunawi, among others, states that man will assume corporeal shape in the barzakh according to the character that dominated over him in this world. Thus, ‘if concupiscence dominated, he will appear in the form of a pig, and if irascibility dominated, he will appear as a dog.’… Mulla Sadra holds that the very essences of human souls will diverge in the hereafter and that they will become many species, falling into four main genera (corresponding to al-Ghazzali’s pig, dog, devil, and wise man).”
– William Chittick, (Islamic Spirituality: Foundations, 403)
5. Hellfire – a state of pain, regret, confusion and existential instability in the lowest regions of the Imaginal World:
Hell is the lowest level of the Imaginal World. Hell is a state of complete confusion, uncertainty, instability, and anxiety. Hell is not a punishment inflicted by God. Hell is a state of being veiled from God, being diseased and sick spiritually, caused by the human soul's own self-harm and harm committed to others (which results in self-harm). Only the truly sick, ignorant, and arrogant souls will have to experience Hell. A common expression to describe Hell from mystics is that Fire (nar) of Hell is merely what the Light (nur) of God feels like when a sick, diseased, and deformed human soul experiences it. In other words, the entire experience and state of Hell is subjective and depends entirely on the level of purity and knowledge of the human soul.
“For the condemned there is Hell, where they will be consumed with regret for not having known how to merit the grace and the blessing of Divine mercy.”
– Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah, (Memoirs of the Aga Khan, 177)
“…those most unfortunate ones, who will enter the Great Fire, in which they will then neither die nor live.”
– Holy Qur’an 87:11-13
“They are left in contradicting situations which, in this world, are opposite to each other. For example: existence and non-existence, death and life, knowledge and ignorance, power and weakness, pleasure and pain, happiness and misery. This is for the reason that they are left to themselves and on their own they cannot rescue themselves… Consequently, they will commute between the two sides of the hot wind and the excessive cold of Hell, and are alternatively punished by each one of them.”
– Nasir al-Din Tusi, (Aghaz wa Anjam, ‘Shi’i Interpretations of Islam’, 64)
According to the Qur'an, Hell is not eternal. It is a long period, but it is not absolutely eternal. One can leave Hell due to God's mercy or at the end of the great cycle when Hell itself will cool off and its inhabitants will eventually reach Paradise:
“Those who are wretched shall be in the Fire: There will be for them therein (nothing but) the heaving of sighs and sobs: They will dwell therein for all the time that the heavens and the earth endure, except as thy Lord willeth: for thy Lord is the (sure) accomplisher of what He planneth.”
– Holy Quran 11:106
"A tradition states that on the Day of Resurrection Hell will roar [like a lion] and hiss [like a dragon]. Then the Prophet, may the peace of God be upon him and his progeny, will come, take a bowl of water, recite Bismi’llahi’r-rahmani’r-raḥīm, blow on the water and pour it on Hell. The fire of Hell will instantly subside and its voice will be humbled...He will lower his cloak into Hell so that the sinners of his community may be brought out. Hell will have no power to stop the blowing of the Prophet and [the lowering of] his cloak."
– Sayyedna Nasir-i Khusraw, (Wajh-i Din, Discourse 14)