Criticism of paradise and its rewards

  • Some enduring misconceptions
Some of the more spiritual souls among us are often critical of paradise and its rewards. The general criticism targets the very concepts of reward and punishment. Good deeds should be done for their own sake, and without expectation of rewards (or fear of punishments), it points out. More particularly, it is alleged that Islam, when it promises pretty companions to believers in paradise, reflects and encourages an animalistic outlook. Let’s take up the two objections one by one, before attending to some unfinished business from a previous article.
Regarding the first criticism, one may wax eloquent about the desirability of altruism in human affairs all one wants. But there’s no running away from the fact that the human record in this regard is less than exemplary. The fact that our worldly affairs are almost entirely based on rewards and punishments speaks volumes for what motivates the vast majority of humankind. Public-spiritedness and basic-decency are, and will always remain, very desirable (and important) human characteristics, but they are no replacement for laws; whether they are man-made laws or Divine ones.
The second allegation (that of encouraging an animalistic outlook) was addressed most comprehensively by Gary Miller. The reason that the reward of beautiful companions sounds animalistic to people (he pointed out) reflects a basic difference between Islam and many other religious outlooks. That is, most religions tell you that the world is evil; it’s out to trap you; and therefore, to be successful you must escape it. Islam, on the other hand, says that while there are many bad things in the world – things that will hurt you – the world itself is not evil. As far as the Muslim is concerned then, what he knows and recognises as a good thing here is something like what will be a good thing in the next life. The Quran says that when in paradise he will eat a piece of fruit he will say that it reminds him of what he used to eat – only it would obviously be so much better. So, what he is familiar with now is something like what he will get in the next life, whether it’s fruit or companionship or sitting under a shade tree with his feet in a stream.
So, if you want to establish the truth, you must keep telling the truth and you will ultimately reach your goal
Unlike many other religious systems, Islam stresses that what you want must not be different from how you get it. Your goal and your method must be the same kinds of things. That ends never justify the means. So, if you want to establish the truth, you must keep telling the truth and you will ultimately reach your goal. One of the rewards of paradise (according to the Quran) is that you won’t hear anybody talking nonsense there. If you want to make yourself eligible for that reward, you need to put a stop to silly talk here and now. By the same token, the just punishment for a lifetime of malignant gossip and scheming is to be confined in an atmosphere of rampant double-dealing and intrigue.
When I wrote some weeks ago on the allegations of sexism in Islam, in anticipation of the current piece I had deferred addressing an aspect of the rewards of paradise that often attracts allegations of sexism. That while believing men have been promised beautiful women, the believing women have been promised no such reward. Those who are anxious on this account need not fret any more. For a closer look at the relevant verses of the Quran collectively will make it abundantly clear that it’s talking about mates (spouses) suitably chosen for all the believers. That would include men as well as women. [See e.g. 2:25, 3:15, 4:57.]
Some well-meaning apologists try to make the Quran more palatable for the politically-correct 21st century by resorting to the familiar defense of claiming that the word companion has been used metaphorically. This touches on another debate about the explicit and implicit verses of the Quran (muhkamaat and mutashaabihaat, to use the Quranic terminology), which I propose to take up on another occasion. Suffice it to say here that companionship is metaphorical only in the same sense as the eating of the fruit in paradise is. Which when somebody eats, he will say that it’s something like what he used to eat. So, it won’t be identical to the fruit as he knew it, but reminiscent of it. The same goes for the companions. They would be familiar to those who know what companionship is like; but then again so much better – in a way that we can’t possibly imagine now.
Islam has always proved to be too materialistic for those who consider themselves ultra-spiritual. One of the reasons for this is that they can find in the Quran, only a handful of verses apart, instructions about prayers and instructions about using the toilet. They nod in approval at the former; but are puzzled – nay, horrified – at what’s the latter doing in a holy book. That’s because the Quran treats life in its entirety, without making artificial distinctions that our spiritual friends are accustomed to make so readily and so thoughtlessly.