Paradise and Hell in Islamic Traditions

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Christian Lange
Themes in Islamic History
  • New York, NY: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , December
     2015.
     380 pages.
     $29.99.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780521738156.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Paradise and Hell in Islamic Traditions by Christian Lange aims, in its own words, “to provide as full an account of the history of Islamic paradise and hell as is presently possible on the basis of the published and unpublished primary sources, as well as the scholarship produced on the topic in the major modern research languages” (31). The book does much more than this, however: Lange constructs a theoretical paradigm through which to re-conceptualize the relationship of this world (al-dunyā) and the otherworld (al-ākhira)—Lange’s modified translation of what is typically conveyed as “afterworld”—while simultaneously and relatedly charting what Lange terms a “Muslim eschatological imagination.” Additionally, to undertake this particular constellation of tasks is to engage a number of assumptions from both the Western academic community and the perspective of mainstream Sunni theology regarding Islamic eschatological thought.

Lange nuances and qualifies the idea of the otherworld as utterly removed from this world, utilizing theories of comparative religion to exemplify the permeability of the boundaries between earth, paradise, and hell. This slippage between realms is often facilitated by an imaginative capacity. As such, Lange explores the place of imagination in Muslim eschatology to great depth, particularly with regards to the modality of the reality of the otherworld, tracing how the relationship between imagination and reality is tightly bound in eschatological imagery and thought. The resounding argument over the course of Lange’s work is that, from this permeability of boundaries, we can understand that the otherworld does not eclipse this world, but rather layers it with religious meaning; eschatology speaks to the ultimate but not to the temporally final or spatially far-removed.

The relationship between permeability and imagination serves to also challenge ingrained modes of (Western) thinking that undergird scholarship around paradise and hell in Islam. These modes of thinking both color the majority of scholarship so as to suggest a dearth of descriptive eschatology in Islamic thought and posit a spiritual eschatology of Christianity over a carnal eschatology of Islam. In surveying, nuancing, and texturing the conversation around paradise and hell, Lange attempts to disrupt this paradigm. Additionally, Lange intentionally adopts a broad historical perspective, refusing to make a monolith of classical or contemporary Islamic traditions, and engages materials and perspectives beyond the provenance of Sunni traditionalism and didactic theology.

The book is divided in two parts, “Textual Foundations: Narrating the Otherworld” and “Discourses and Practices: Debating the Otherworld.” Part 1 exposes the reader to a number of traditions and descriptions surrounding the otherworld. The first chapter analyzes Qur’anic descriptions of paradise and hell, developing Lange’s argument for the term “otherworld” over “afterworld.” Lange demonstrates that a gradual development of eschatology is found in the Qur’an over the course of the text’s gestation and redaction, resulting in a closer alignment with biblical traditions and a fuller doctrine of the otherworld. Lange posits that the relationship between this world and the otherworld is one of merismos or “simultaneous totality”—this world and the otherworld are to be seen as spatial, less so than temporal, units, and overlapping ones at that. Chapters 2 and 3 chart successive periods of expansion and contraction of eschatological hadith in Sunni literature, and then trace the history of parenetic and popular branches of Sunni narrative eschatology. Chapter 4 undertakes a detailed analysis of four medieval sources with the aim of grasping key principles that shape late medieval traditionist eschatology, highlighting the spectrum of ideas and images involved. Here the reader finds what Lange terms a “morphology of paradise and hell”: descriptions of the flora and fauna in the otherworld, its spatial characteristics, and so forth.

In part 2, Lange discusses the theological, philosophical, and mystical dimensions underpinning the descriptions of the otherworld proffered before. In chapter 5, Lange traces cosmological, soteriological, and ontological traditions of thought around the otherworld in Sunni theology and philosophy. Additionally, this chapter challenges common scholarly perceptions of Sunni eschatological theology, notably that the otherworld is divorced from earthly space and time, that Islamic thought professes a high degree of salvation history, and that the Islamic conception of the otherworld is straightforward and materialistic. Chapters 6 and 7 are surveys of Shi’i and Sufi thought around the otherworld, respectively. Chapter 8 examines how literary representations of paradise and hell are translated into the spatial and material dimension of our world. Lange most importantly argues here that “the mode in which paradise and hell are made to be present in the world is not referential” (245). Rather, they are meant to be taken as present here on earth. Thus, the reader is given a description of locations of paradise or hell on earth, architectural visions of paradise, and ways in which the body is conceived of as a vehicle for crossing the boundaries of this world and the otherworld in ritual contexts. Lange then concludes with a brief discussion of modern continuities and discontinuities that he finds in Islamic discourse around paradise and hell.

Paradise and Hell in Islamic Traditions is a beautifully written and deeply informative work. Form matches function: as Lange argues for the imaginative richness of the Islamic eschatological tradition, the descriptions offered, drawn from a huge variety of sources, reify and emphasize the theoretical point. Furthermore, the work is deeply self-aware: Lange is explicit with regards to aims and methodology, thus preemptively addressing what could be perceived as shortcomings. For example, because this work takes on a number of tremendously wide-reaching projects from its outset, there is little discussion of themes within themes (e.g., gender within discourses of paradise). However, Lange acknowledges that this is the case and makes a routine point to gesture where further and more specialized work is needed. In the opinion of this reviewer, Paradise and Hell in Islamic Traditions is a fine example of thematic work within the discipline of religious studies or Islamic studies: it marries textual work with theory and synthesis, becoming more than merely a survey of themes but remaining grounded in its sources.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Samantha Pellegrino is a graduate student in Islamic Studies at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Date of Review: 
November 14, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Christian LangeUniversiteit Utrecht, The Netherlands - Christian Lange is Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at Utrecht University. He is the author of Justice, Punishment and the Medieval Muslim Imagination (Cambridge, 2012) and the editor of several scholarly volumes, including Locating Hell in Islamic Traditions (2015). From 2011 to 2015, he was Principal Investigator of the European Research Council project, 'The Here and the Hereafter in Islamic Traditions'. He is a member of the Young Academy of the Dutch Royal Academy of Sciences.

Keywords: 

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