The project

The aim of the 4-year project, The Here and the Hereafter in Islamic Traditions, was to assess the extent to which Islamic traditions favour or reject a view of human existence as directed toward the otherworld, and thereby to write a fuller, more nuanced history of the Muslim otherworld (paradise and hell in particular, but also notions of the world of image [ʿālam al-mithāl], the barzakh, etc.) than currently exists. In particular, the project’s researchers studied the power that the eschatological imagination has exerted on Muslim lives from the inception of Islam in the 7thcentury CE until today. They did so by examining a variety of intellectual traditions, not just the ‘high tradition’ of Islamic theology and jurisprudence, but also mystical, philosophical, artistic and ‘popular’ expressions, thereby avoiding a monolithic, essentialising account of Islam’s attitude toward the hereafter.

This endeavor was prompted by two basic observations. First, as some have argued, the relationship between this world (dunya) and the otherworld (akhira) is as important to Islam as the mind/body dualism is to the intellectual history of the West. Second, no sustained analysis has been made in modern Islamic Studies to reflect on the dunya/akhira relationship and on the boundary that separates the two. The project represents the first comprehensive and systematic attempt in this direction.

To the extent that one can meaningfully speak of a general Muslim attitude toward the otherworld, this attitude is informed by the absence of original sin in Islam. According to the Qur’an, Adam and Eve were expelled from paradise, but received God’s full forgiveness (20:122-3). They did not pass on any essential, inherited human depravity to their descendants; rather, as the Qur’an says, ‘every soul bears only its own burden’ (6:164). In a sense, then, in the Islamic view, paradise was never lost. This seems reflected in the fact that in many Islamic religious traditions – theology and law, philosophy, mysticism (Sufism), art and the popular imagination – one finds a remarkably close nexus between the two realms of dunya and akhira. Not only are the ‘world of the seen’ and the ‘world of the hidden’ (Qur’an 6:73) widely believed to coexist in time and in space, but they are also imagined to mix freely. The otherworld can break into the here-and-now suddenly and unexpectedly. As a saying attributed to the Prophet of Islam has it, ‘paradise and hell are closer to you than the strap of your sandal’. One finds reflections of this sense of the interpenetration of dunya and akhira in a great variety of intellectual and imaginative traditions in Islam.

This remarkable phenomenon of the disappearing boundary between this world and the otherworld did not fail to rouse the interest and even irritation of Muslim thinkers, both modern and premodern. In Muslim theology, there have been strong tendencies to argue against erosion of the boundary between the two worlds of the ‘seen’ and the ‘hidden’. When dealing with the history of paradise and hell in Islam, one therefore moves between the two poles of immanent and transcendent conceptualisations. At the one end of the spectrum, one is witness to a perennial desire to commune with the Divine, to bridge the abyss toward the otherworld, a promised realm in which all material and spiritual potentialities are realised and lived to the full. At the other end, one encounters the firm conviction that the absolute otherness of all things divine must not be compromised.

The Here and the Hereafter in Islamic Traditions investigated this spectrum of attitudes both synchronically across the discourses and traditions of Islam and diachronically in time. To achieve this, the Muslim paradise and hell were studied in terms of: (1) the eschatological imagination (in hadith literature in particular); (2) material culture and the arts; (3) theology and law; (4) mysticism and philosophy; and (5) modern and contemporary visions of the hereafter.

Funded by a Starting grant from the European Research Council and hosted by the University of Utrecht, the project was designed and led by prof. dr. Christian Lange, Professor of Arabic and Islam Studies at the University of Utrecht’s Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies. One senior research fellow and three doctoral researchers were affiliated with the project.