Roads to Paradise

Eschatology and Concepts of the Hereafter in Islam (Two-Volume Set)

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Editor(s): 
Sebastian Günther, Todd Lawson, Christian Mauder
Islamic History and Civilization
  • Boston, MA: 
    Brill
    , December
     2016.
     1493 pages.
     $475.00.
     E-Book.
    ISBN
    9789004333130.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

There is a famous prophetic report referred to as the Hadith of Gabriel in which the narrator claims that Muhammad once conversed with that angel in front of witnesses. Gabriel asked the Prophet, “What is faith?” and Muhammad replied, “Faith is to believe in God, his angels, his scriptures, his messengers, the last day, and the measuring out of its good and evil.” Of these six objects, which seek to define the whole contents of Islamic faith, two are eschatological. Thus, according to this report, one third of Islam regards belief in the world to come.

It should be no surprise then that a collection of studies aiming to cover Islamic eschatology is monumental. Sebastian Günther, Todd Lawson, and Christian Mauder, the editors of Roads to Paradise: Eschatology and Concepts of the Hereafter in Islam, note that, “together with the unique oneness and omnipotence of God, concern with the afterlife is a—if not the—central religious preoccupation of Islam.” While this may strike some readers as an exaggeration, we must remember that, from its Qurʾanic origins, Islam has given a unique prioritization to eschatology.

Comparatively, the afterlife of the ancient Hebrews is famously inconsequential. And the Christian scripture, while strongly oriented to the “end of days,” usually discusses the matter in deliberately mysterious language. But the Qurʾan not only addresses the maʿād (“the return”) and the sāʿa (the eschaton, literally “the hour”) in almost every sūra, its language is frank, colorful, and clear. Every turn of the Islamic scripture speaks of paradise and hellfire, the scales and the judgment, or of the trumpet blasts and records opened. This Qurʾanic drama of the eschaton ripples out into the many manifestations of Islam in the present, demanding explanation that no one scholar could possibly be qualified to provide.

Roads to Paradise—while not an encyclopedia of Islamic eschatology—is certainly the most comprehensive overview of this topic in existence. The result of an eponymous conference at the University of Göttingen in 2009, this collection touches upon that Islamic preoccupation with eschatology from Late Antiquity to the present, and in a number of settings. This book contains fifty-four independent studies over two volumes. That scale precludes discussion of each individual study in this short review. However, some notes on the overview of the collection, and some of its many contributions are as follows.

Naturally enough, the first contributions are on Qurʾanic eschatology, beginning with an overview of that topic by Muhammad Abdel Haleem. This is followed by a guide to reading the late antique paradisal imagery and language in sūra 55 by Angelika Neuwirth Lawson on the Qurʾan as apocalypticism, and an open-ended approach to Qurʾanic martyrdom via the later exegetes by Asma Afsaruddin. Although not included in the chapter on the Qurʾan, special note should be given here to Sidney Griffith’s masterful reintroduction of the Qurʾan to the Syriac Christian “teaching-songs” of Ephraem the Syrian regarding paradisal virgins.

Leading into the classical period, Günther recounts the rapturous experiences in the biographical materials of the Prophet, and the significance of eschatological colors in al-Ghazālī. Andrew Lane gives an overview of how rationalist Qurʾanic exegetes like al-Zamakhsharī explain scriptural eschatology. An especially fascinating study of heavenly and infernal foods is then provided by Ailin Qian. Another piece of particular note is Christian Lange’s on the tradition that paradise has eight gates, which he explores by introducing the lens of “mythology” as a means for discussing Islamic visions of paradise. Niall Christie gives us a discourse on ʿAlī ibn Ṭahir al-Sulamī’s sermonizing on heaven and hell in the wake of the First Crusade. A useful overview of paradise, as discussed by the classical philosophers al-Kindī, al-Fārābī, Avicenna, and Ibn Bājja, is given by the late Michael Marmura, along with two chapters on Mullā Ṣadrā by Hermann Landolt and Mohammad Rustom.

These technical and philosophical selections are then followed by the sections of Roads to Paradise that are the most approachable to the non-specialist. The first of these chapters is on the direct experience of the hereafter by the mystics—an unfortunately short selection of only three essays. After these overviews are a variety of studies on Islamic minority groups and opinions. Orkhan Mir-Kasimov’s discussion of paradise in Ḥurūfī Islam and Mohammad Hassan Khalil’s overview of reincarnation in Islam are both insightful approaches to so-called heterodox stances.

Where Roads to Paradise truly shines though is in its final sections on the Islamic humanities, material sciences, and modernities. These include essays on the eschatologies of Islamic littérateurs, craftspeople, and natural scientists. Of note is Samar Attar’s new introduction to the perennial question of how Andalusian Islamic literatures impacted the Comedy of Dante, that supposedly-quintessential Western epic. Ingrid Heymeyer’s overview of the heavens in Islamic astronomy should prove useful to researchers across several sub-disciplines. Turkish eschatological literature, based on the work of Said Nursi and as explained by Martin Riexinger, is also an interesting case for the constant re-envisioning of Islamic eschatology.

As one would expect, the essays comprising Roads to Paradise vary in quality, expected audience, and applicability to other researchers. But they are, on the whole, readable and could prove useful to those interested in Islam, or eschatology more generally. Another critique that is also to be expected and that is perhaps unavoidable is that the topic of Islamic eschatology is indeed vast and multifaceted, as the editors themselves have said, and therefore these volumes are doomed to overlook whole swaths of Islamic history and thought. As Roads to Paradise is already 1,500 pages long, we cannot rightfully ask for more even though the book itself begs us to see how much more there is.

About the Reviewer(s): 

George Archer is assistant professor of religious studies at Iowa State University.

Date of Review: 
August 22, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Sebastian Günther is professor and chair of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Göttingen. Germany. He has published extensively on the intellectual history of Islam, including Representations and Visions of Homeland in Modern Arabic Literature (co-ed., Hildesheim 2016) and Ideas, Images, and Methods of Portrayal: Insights into Classical Arabic Literature and Islam (ed., Leiden 2005).

Todd Lawson is professor emeritus of Islamic Thought at the University of Toronto. He has published widely on Quranic exegesis, mysticism, Shi‘ism, and Quranic literary problems. Recent publications include articles such as Friendship, Illumination and the Water of Life (2016), Joycean Modernism in a 19th century Qur’an commentary (2015), The Qur’an and Epic (2014) and the monograph Gnostic Apocalypse in Islam (London 2012).

Christian Mauder is a Ph.D. student at the Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies of the University of Göttingen, Germany. He has published several studies on the intellectual, cultural and religious history of Mamluk and Ottoman Egypt, including the monograph Gelehrte Krieger: Die Mamluken als Träger arabischsprachiger Bildung (Hildesheim 2012).

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