Thoughts on Hellfire and the Influence of Christianity on Islamic Thought.

Earlier this week I received a very pleasant correspondence from a fellow blogger who was able to glean something useful from this Blog (thank God! I feel like I’m getting carpal tunnel sometimes…). In return, I visited his blog, where in his post he discussed some “issues” with Hell/Hellfire. It is a topic I have been meaning to post. So here it is. I’d advise reading his post first and then the following might be understood in context.

Thank you, Michael! I have had something of a writer’s block for a month or so and this really got my juices flowing.



Thanks for the kind words. It has given me much food for thought. I will leave a few crumbs that feel out my proverbial mouth here for you to also chew on (ok…, I’m laughing now as that seems disgusting that you’d chew on crumbs that fell out my mouth but I won’t edit it anyways!!).

One of the points that you made that gave me something to think about and in truth, has been something I’ve wanted to write a new Post on is this concept of Hell and Damnation. It is very difficult to speak on any for of religion in the English-speaking world without also importing some indelible stamp of Christianity on that dialog. What I am saying, in a sense is, that if one wants to talk about religion, that talk is heavily influenced by the very Christian notion of what does or doesn’t constitute religious thought. So, in my opinion, much of the religious thought from the English-speaking world is conducted by how Christianity (mostly Catholicism and Protestantism) sees religion. Buddhism or Islam is not comprehended in how it functions as a Cosmic-processing system but rather in a more subtle way in which ways its proclivities differ from Christianity as a marker. This should not be understood as a knock against Christianity. Indeed, it should be a note in our collective psyche as to how deeply ingrained Christianity influences our understanding of religion – this especially goes for practitioners of non-Christian faith systems!

Much of Islamic thought from the English-speaking world (meaning both from non-Muslim academics and Muslims alike) tend to fall within these invisible guidelines of religious dialog. My long winded example is Hell/Hellfire. While my aim is not to white wash the Qur’anic take on Hellfire, it is in my opinion that these verses are not meant to solely “frighten” the listener but rather, in keeping with other topics in the Qur’an, they are meant to over-awe the reader/listener. In fact, I believe the notion of God in Islamic thought, from “fundamentalist” to esoteric Sufi thought, is/was originally meant to over-awe. Indeed, through much of my own personal research in pre-Modern Muslim texts, one can find a lot of proof for this understanding (I might even take a stance that this was the original position that God intended with much of the Qur’an but that’s another post). But the influence of modern Catholic/Protestant thought, which does paint a very specific picture of Hell tends to define for us this topic in way that it’s very difficult to approach or have a differing understanding than that which we have culturally absorbed. If one takes the time to read, and read carefully (and perhaps my understanding is heavily influenced by my returning to the original Arabic and its 7th Century linguistic understanding), then one may arrive at an understanding similar to this: shock and awe vs. cringing and fear. Am I making Hell into a fantasy realm? No. It is not my agenda to make a more appealing version of the Qur’an, but rather, it is an understanding that done through trying to step back out of my own cultural milieu and viewing it without tinted glasses.

Thanks, Michael,

And God knows best…

7 Replies to “Thoughts on Hellfire and the Influence of Christianity on Islamic Thought.”

  1. Someone’s made a new friend! Michael seems like a reflective sort – brave enough to step out of his shell and reflect on what usually sends people running in the opposite direction. Braver than me.
    I do know that Muslims have a sense of Hell that differs from the average Christian I’ve met anyway. I’ve never been able to put my finger on why though… But then again it extends to the notion of God too don’t you think? The very notion of who God is, of what religion is, differs in our traditions –
    Do you think we’ll ever be influenced by Christianity’s take on these things, living here in the West?
    You mentioned language…maybe we keep our concepts untainted because we use different words…Allah, Jahanam, etc… Arabic words always encompass more than their English counterparts – Hell vs Jahanam. God vs Allah.

  2. But then again it extends to the notion of God too don’t you think? The very notion of who God is, of what religion is…


    A friend of mine were discussing religion over burgers recently [who is not a Muslim] and one of the things we were chewing on was this whole iconic concept of God here in the English-speaking world [i.e., a white old man with a great big beard reaching out from some clouds] because of the paintings of many of the influential, classical European painters and how they have shaped and influenced [or perhaps their imagery has been co-opted and used for such purposes – maybe – another discussion] that dialog and understanding of God/religion as well.


  3. πŸ˜€

    Hello new friends… and thanks for this wonderful conversation.

    I just wrote a quick response in the comments at my blog, and thought I’d post it here as well.

    Hello Marc, and thanks so much for the thoughtful, thought-provoking reply. I’d be the first to admit that my world-view — whether I’m looking at Islam or anything else — is filtered through the lens of Christianity, being a preacher’s son who grew up in the Presbyterian Church. While I’ve expanded my spiritual investigation substantially since I left the church at age 19 — and have ended up following the Buddha’s teachings on meditation and living — there’s just no escaping my early conditioning, which includes a strong dose of Christian influence.

    That said… I never really went for the hell and hellfire concept. In fact, anything in the teachings that sought to frighten me (to “shock and awe” me, in your words) just went in one ear and out the other. The Sermon on the Mount and other Gospel teachings were where it came down for me, while the Old Testament and Paulian New Testament stuff fell flat.

    As I get older and open up to these old teachings — and as I read through the Qur’an in English translation — I recognize the need to filter what I’m reading through cultural, historical and language lenses. This is a very rich and rewarding process, as I’m able to glean Truth in places I’d previously discounted.

    I wonder if you could go a little more deeply into your belief around hell and hellfire. What does it mean for you, personally? How do you filter the expressions of violence that crop up in the Prophet’s revelation? I know… big questions demanding non-simplified answers… but prescient, nonetheless….

    There are two very earnest comments directly above mine (here and here), so I am doubly thankful for drawing some of my regular readers into this dialog (or multi-log?). Very much needed, all around….

  4. 😯

    Oops… me again… Marc, I realize that you were distinguishing between “shock and awe” and the fearful response that I took from the Biblical expression of hell/hellfire — that what you take from it, in Qur’anic terms, is a sense of overwhelming LARGENESS, something to be held in awe — so my questions to you seem to ignore what you have already expressed. You suggest that, rather than trying to frighten us, the Qur’an is seeking to place us in an awe-inspiring position relating to the Allness of God — and that this doesn’t necessarily mean that “sinners” or “unbelievers” must look forward to a literal eternity in the fires of Hell.

    Is this a correct feedback of what you wrote?

    And if so… well, what a relief!

    If not… well, I’m still curious as to what the hell-hellfire idea means for you in your individual experience of Islam.

    Thanks again for your time….

  5. During my own discoveries I notice the relation between God and worshipper and the difference in that relationship within Christianty and Islam.. Christians and Muslism have different concepts of what is meant to “Fear God” and perhaps that has a reflection on the Hell concept.
    “Only Will. . . ”
    In Arabic, as-zahr [fortune or luck] is also applied to a game of chance which was introduced to Europe inthe MIddle Ages by cursaders returning from the Holy Land. This word ends up being the origin of the english word “Hazard” and seems semi-appropraite for this conversation. The connotation of danger from this games suggests that the player rarely won and was likely to return from the game with less than he came.

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