The Department of Philosophy, Sophia College, Mumbai had organized an inter-faith programme on 18-19 December 2012 and had invited professors and intellectuals from different faiths to make presentations on certain problems one of which was concept of eternity of life and I was requested to speak on it. It is desire of human being to be eternal and it is quite disturbing to think that human beings will be but for a short period on earth and then die.

Even Iqbal, the noted poet-philosopher was disturbed by this thought and expresses it in different ways in his poetry. His poem on the death of his mother whom he loved intensely is quite moving. One thing I would like to make quite clear right at the beginning that according to the Qur’an nothing is eternal in our universe. Everything that is born will perish one day. The Qur’an gives vivid description of destruction of this universe while describing the Day of Judgment (qiyamat)

See, for example, the verses from Chapter 77 from 8 onwards:

“When stars are made to disappear,

And when the heaven is rent asunder,

And when mountains are carried away as dust…

There are several such verses in Qur’an which clearly tell us that the whole universe will be destroyed and reduced to dust one day, the day appointed by Allah. And our earth is but smaller than a tiny dot in this universe and human beings are smaller than this tiny dot. How they can desire of eternity and yet we humans do. It deeply disturbs us that we would be but for few years here and then disappear.

The Islamic literature (and so in other religious traditions) is full of sayings that this world is nothing but dar-e-fani i.e. a home which will perish or it has also been called sara’i (a Turkish word meaning abode) which in Urdu means a temporary house. Thus it is abundantly clear that human beings are here on this earth for a temporary period. But this is not easily acceptable as we always think of eternal existence.

Thus arose the idea of life hereafter what Qur’an calls akhirah. The word aakhir means something that comes after and since life on this earth is transitory it will be eternal in the world hereafter which is quite comforting to us. We are exhorted again and again that those who perform good deeds (‘amal salih) here on this earth would be rewarded eternally in the world hereafter. Thus though this world is transitory the world hereafter is not. And Qur’an describes life in Jannah (life in the world hereafter) also quite vividly and also of those who perform bad deeds and earn jahim or jahannam for themselves.

Thus in chapter 85 of Qur’an and in several other places we find detailed description of life in the world to come. Here in this world we do and get paid for it in the other world. Here the question arises if this whole universe is but to perish one day how eternal our life in hereafter would be. The scientists also agree that this universe will not last eternally in the sense that it will never be destroyed.

So we are again stuck with dilemma – eternity and yet not eternity. Thus it appears both from Qur’an as well as from science that all that eternity means is a very very long period of existence though it may not be permanent. Existence of universe may be in terms of billions of light years but yet it has to come to an end. Thus all we can say is that this period of existence will be as good as eternal.

Also, some believers take literally what is written in Qur’an and some believers take it in allegorical sense. Qur’an, and for that matter, all religious scriptures use language at different intellectual levels – simple and direct as well as allegorically and symbolically. The Qur’an was addressed to entire humanity which included illiterate Bedouins as well as men and women of high intellectual caliber.

Also, the religious scriptures have to address external problems – pertaining to pout there and those pertaining to inner human life what Sufis refer to ‘alam-e-kabir (the whole universe out there) and ‘alam-e-saghir (the universe within human being). In Universe out there also there are certain things which require simple and direct language and certain things which cannot be so easily described and is meant for people of advanced intellect.

The ordinary believers are advised not to bother about such verses as that would lead to further problems. These are called Mutashabihat (i.e. with more than one meaning). The Qur’anic language is highly inclusive language in every sense of the word as it is meant to guide everyone from an illiterate peasant to an urbanite intellectual – philosophers included. It is not an easy task. No language can serve the purpose without causing serious problems of comprehension. What is easy to understand for an illiterate peasant is too simplistic for philosophers.

Thus Sufis and Isma’ilis so interpreted Qur’an that it had two sets of meanings: open and direct meaning meant for ordinary people and hidden meaning called ta’wil meant for those with highly developed intellect. This, to an extent solved the problem of communication but also created complexities and differences which are difficult to reconcile. Sufis and Isma’ilis themselves are divided in so many schools.

Thus there are differences about the description of jannah and jahannam. Some believers, as pointed out take them literally and believe that pleasures of jannah will be enjoyed by believers literally and physically and eternally and in jahannam tortures heat and other punishments will have to be suffered physically and for an eternity.

And those who believe in hidden meaning of Qur’an believe that this description of jannah and jahannam may not be taken literally but allegorically. Jannah and jahannam is not out there but here within us, not in alam-e-kabir but in alam-e-saghir. Even Iqbal hints at that and some ulama also refer to some verses from Qur’an and maintain that it is here on this earth itself.

Well, paradise be on earth or in the world hereafter the question is does eternity mean living permanently? There can be multiple meanings of eternity itself. Also, one can argue human body perishes after death and it is the soul which survives and soul does not need physical space and the very concept of eternity acquires new meaning. But again the inclusive language of Qur’an can mean different things to different people.

For the overwhelming number of simple believers eternity means living eternally in physical sense in the world hereafter, if not here in this world. Any other concept would shake them to the core. The rational philosophers on the other hand, would laugh it off as mere blind belief as human body without life perishes in no time and death is the final end of life.

If philosophers or rationalists are right then what about evil being punished and good being rewarded? Will Ravana and Yazid go unpunished and those who laid down their lives for good causes not rewarded? We will come to this question little later. Let us deal with the interesting concept of life and death among the Sufis. Sufis use interesting simile for life. This universe is a vast ocean and human life is nothing but habab (bubble) and death is nothing but bursting of this bubble and merging with the vast ocean.

In a way this simile is highly meaningful and not even unscientific in nature, if rationalists insist on scientific nature. This vast ocean is also part of Allah’s existence which Sufis call wahdat al-wujud, a wonderful concept of unity of everything in this universe, is real existence and very interestingly Ghalib, the noted Urdu poet, laments in one of his verses, as separation from God and had he not existed as human being he would have been part of God’s existence. Thus his existence is a great loss for him.

This bubble when it emerges from this Real Existence, separates from God and hence Sufis call it hijr (separation from the beloved) and death as wisal (i.e. union with beloved) and it is for this reason that Sufis death is called ‘urs (day of wedding) as it is on this day that lover weds the beloved and unites with Him. I think it is one of the unique concept of death and eternity both. Since this universe will exist for trillions of years and since death is nothing but merger or union with real Existence, one never dies but becomes eternity through death.

Well, we are so used to physical concepts of things that our imagination does not go beyond physical and all subtler aspects which are spiritual in nature are avoided. One should not think of life beyond death only in physical sense. The Sufis themselves did not and in other religious traditions too, for example is Upanishads to which Dara Shikoh, the Moghul prince, was greatly attracted, also comes close to this concept.

We would also like to throw some light on question of good and evil and also meaning of life. What do we live for? Are we born just for eating, enjoying life and dying? Even pleasure can be boring beyond a point. Thus hedonism does not take us beyond a point, if at all hedonism be made a goal of life. It falls far short of providing any meaning to our life. And without giving meaning to our life, we cannot make it worth living in spiritual sense.

Material existence is for science to explore and science is doing well in that respect. No philosophy can do better. We know much more about our universe today than any philosopher knew before. And science will continue to explore these dimensions in future too. Science has progressed so much that Bertrand Russell had suggested that philosophers should wind up their business and leave understanding of our universe to scientists.

But it could be certainly philosophers’ and theologians’ business to explore meaning of life. Scientists look out there to understand our universe and we have to look into our inner self to explore meaning of life. This is what Sufis and spiritual gurus have done for centuries. There are, as if two worlds – out there and one within us and the two must be properly integrated within a framework to understand our life better.

We have often separated the two worlds as if they are disconnected and this isolationist approach has created more problems. Religious scriptures in general and Qur’an in particular, adopt integrationist approach to the problem. Only this integrationist approach can provide answer to humanity’s constant quest for meaning of life. Several spiritual giants like Buddha, Christ and Muhammad (PBUH) have contributed very richly to this spiritual quest.

The quest to understand ultimate mystery continues and will continue in future too. However, it is unfortunate that material progress has so preoccupied our present generations that this spiritual quest for ultimate meaning of life has been considerably weakened. Our spiritual quest has to be revitalized in order to enrich our life spiritually. Today we are busy repeating what had been said centuries ago and have hardly contributed new insights into it.

Coming back to our doctrine of eternity it lies in two things: 1) in contributing new spiritual insights and 2) in reconstructing the world in keeping with these new spiritual insights. This is what the Prophet of Islam and his companions did. It was the Prophet who contributed spiritual insights and he, and his companions, busied themselves in reconstructed the world in keeping with these insights.

It is most challenging task to reconstruct the world as the existing establishments are very very powerful and it is these establishments who control the power structure. It requires supreme sacrifice to reconstruct the world, including the sacrifice of ones life. It is sacrificing ones life that one attains eternity, according to Qur’an. Qur’an calls those who sacrificed their lives as shuhada (plural of shahid i.e. witness). They are not dead but living eternally.

When this newly reconstructed society was sought to be sabotaged by Yazid, the son of Muawiyah, Prophet’s grandson Husain came forward and sacrificed his life and lives of those around him and Husain’s name became eternal in the history of Islam and yazid is eternally damned. Yazid is eternally damned by Muslims. It was due to Husain that Islam was revived once again. Thus Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti called him (husain) the very foundation of Islamic kalimah la ilah as without his supreme sacrifice Islam would have been in great danger.

For last 1400 years Husain’s name has become highly respectable and shall remain so in the history of Islam. The great respect with which his name is taken is eternal living in jannah and similarly the way Yazid is cursed is his eternal damnation. Prophet Muhammad’s great spiritual contribution provided meaning to lives of millions of believers as it happened with contribution of other prophets and great spiritual masters.

I would also like to point out that those who contribute to richness of human civilization and culture through their creativity and thoughts in different fields. These great souls achieve eternity through their richness of thought. It is this richness of thought which makes this world liveable for millions of people and makes their lives worthwhile. This spiritual quest and quest for spiritual truth is a must for meaningful human life.

Material comforts yes, as they make life so easy and more enjoyable but would remain empty of all meaning without this spiritual quest, without creativity of human soul, without love and compassion. Love and compassion make our lives much more liveable than even all the comforts provided by technology. Technology often makes us fight and destroy each other while truth, love and compassion brings us closer to each other.

Not that technology and progress of science is not important, it is. But more progress of technology is not enough. Technology is of recent origin; its history is very short but spiritual quest and spiritual values are as old as human civilization itself. One cannot think of eternity of human beings without these values and humanity destroys itself without these values.

In fact philosophers have always searched for the meaning of life but it is really prophets, seers and saints who provided us with it in ordinary people’s language. For example Kabir, an illiterate weaver and saint poet has given us much more than any philosopher could have given us and his name is taken with great respect centuries after his death. If this is not eternity then what is it?

In Qur’an Allah’s name is compassion Rahman and Rahim which shows the emphasis Islam puts on compassion. If all of us practice this value humanity would always flourish and will never be destroyed. Eternity is important not for individual members of our species but also for it collectively as a whole.

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