Modern man has been in hell without knowing it and has gloriously misunderstood traditional religious view of it. Bertrand Russell, one of the most respected modern thinkers, rejected theological conception of hell in very strong terms. James Joyce, one of the most important writers of the twentieth century parodied theological conception of eternal hell in his famous autobiographical novel. Most modern writers, philosophers and even theologians, not to speak of ordinary mortals, have faced great difficulties in comprehending religious notion of hell. I think we need to approach the conception of hell from mystical perspective to understand it. In Islam it was Ibn Arabi who provided very comprehensive Sufi view of hell.
Imagine that you were living in a certain place for years and then decided to move to some other place. The new occupant of your house suddenly discovered a huge treasure buried in your compound and you lost the huge fortune. The pain of loss and regret you will feel on coming to know this is akin to the pain of hell which is realization that one has missed the greatest treasure God. God was ours and the greatest joy that we could get in life. But due to our heedlessness (gafala in the Quranic terminology) we don’t care to know God. This is the essence of mystical and Sufi conception of hell. Hell is the fire on our breasts as the Quran says. (aallati tatallial af-ida). What is burnt in hell? Nothing but self-will according to mystics. This is what the Prophet (SAW) meant when he said that as long as there is the smallest grain of pride in one’s heart one can’t enter heaven. Pride is assertion of self- will and Islam is submission of self will. Hell is simply separation from God, the Beloved.
Hell is posthumous as well as in this life. The Prophet (SAW) said that the scorching midday heat is from hell. Whenever we are lost in daydreams, in past regrets and not in the present we are virtually in hell. Whenever we feel anxious, wish fate to have been more kind, advise God to manage things in such a way that our vain desires get fulfilled we are in hell. Those who are not content, who have grudges against neigbours or even enemies and wish to take revenge are not in heaven. In heaven are only peaceful souls admitted. Those who have yet to clear their accounts with other people, who are not yet satisfied for lack of this and that thing, who are worried about their ego and its illusory empire- status, power, possessions are still living in hell. Hell is not a joke. It describes our existential situation. The thunderous descriptions of hell in the Quran can’t be allegorized away into nothing. Pain is terribly real though it need not be physical pain or the fire from firewood or gas stove that God employs to draw us nearer him or chastise us for our transgressions.
Do we deserve heaven or hell? Ask yourself, say the Sufis and mystics of other traditions. Are we still desiring this and that, still madly accumulating possessions, still full of resentment and complaints, still wishing to live and avoid encounter with the blinding reality of death and God, still evaluating things from the perspective of your gain and loss and seeking name, fame and other ego boosting things, still resisting love and talking of only your child, your family, your nation and not of the whole universe as your own self, as object of your love, you prevent your entry to heaven. Illusions and desires are still dragging you back into the dungeon of hell.
But there is no reason for despair. God’s mercy extends even into the heart of hell. The troubles in the world purify us as does hell. Hell has been called as mother according to one interpretation of the word umm used in connection with hell (ummuhu hawiya).
Ibn ‘Arabî ’s views on hell have been widely criticized by his theological critics but it is seldom noted that he is perhaps the most literalist amongst Quranic commentators in matters eschatological. In fact he is best known for respect or adab vis-à-vis revelation. His only distinction lies in applying his notion of mundus imaginalis and suggesting that the traditional descriptions of the hereafter should be understood as comparable to dream imagery. He denies eternity of suffering in hell. He argues, quite ingeniously, that fire will be cooled and hell will become a place of bliss as God’s mercy encompasses all things. It is not everlasting and it is not completely impenetrable to divine mercy. Hell is painful renting asunder of the veil of passions and forgetfulness that keep one away from the vision of the Beloved. It is unveiling of the truth of our deceptions and failures and this lesson in self knowledge can’t but be painful. He interprets hell as separation from the Beloved, from the Reality which is of the substance of Joy. Heaven is the joy of finding oneself or perfection of self and hell failure to be oneself. In his Kitâb al-fâna' fi-l mushâhadah he interprets hell as lack of submission, be it to the explanations of His friends or as an imagined distance between the seeker and God, and so all are in that condition until they follow Him who says "I am your Lord." For him it is the exclusive choice made out of ignorance or short sightedness of certain limited “enjoyments” that veil men from the full awareness of God which ultimately constitute each particular “dwelling” among the many levels of Hell. After lifting of the veil he sees what he considered as his happiness to have been really suffering and potentially purifying punishment (Fusūs). There is no such thing as a sadistic revengeful God. Hell is realization that one has not been true to the theomorphic image in which one is in reality made by God. Reality can’t be subject to sentimental criteria of a humanist who thinks he owes nothing to reality and should be spared the encounter with his own veiled reality. But from Ibn ‘Arabî ’s perspective no such critique is warranted. Modern man who vetoes transcendence is living in a sort of hell or purgatory because he doesn't know what a heaven is like and that it is accessible. Self love is hell and “nothing burns in hell except self will” from the mystical perspective.
Hell is the Friend's taunt to a soul that failed to see its lofty station. It is unveiling of the truth of our deceptions and failures and this lesson in self knowledge can’t be but painful. Man is born to be perfected as his heavenly father is perfect. But if he remains adamant to be a creature of dust as Satan saw him and doesn’t rise above angels he is clearly in manifest loss. And hell is simply a painful realization that a great prize has been missed. It is turning away from the light of truth and beauty towards which messengers called men. And if one chooses darkness, ugliness and filth out of one's own free will God still wants to help by showing the soul its true station and its missed opportunity. Seeing the face of the Beloved is such bliss that failure to see it on account of our passions and attachments to the objects of desire is to be in hell. If there were no pleasures of heaven and no beatific vision there would be no hell either. We as children of God are entitled to immortality, to the great bliss of being consumed by God’s Infinitude and if we deny our rightful inheritance we are in a loss and consciousness of that loss is hell. In posthumous life things are seen as they are without veils which prevent their true vision in this world. For Ibn ‘Arabî hell is thus not externally imposed by a capricious vindictive being but simply chosen by a soul in accordance with what it has been in the world. The souls themselves in accordance with their deeds or karma opt for hell as that has been their reality, their station and their achievement. Swedenborg famously saw souls dragging themselves to hell in his vision of the otherworld. God has an irrevocable argument against men on the Day of Judgment. We will be our own judges as our own organs give testimony. A correct understanding of traditional conception of hell would dissolve most of the objections that have been raised against theodicy. If we closely reflect on the Islamic conception of God and His attributes, His ninety-nine names for a consistent understanding of hell it becomes clear that the popular perception of hell is grossly incorrect and any view of it must be consistent with the understanding of other divine Names. God is the Compassionate, the Merciful, the Peace, the Protector, the Just, the Gentle, the Forgiving, the Guardian, the Watcher, the Wise, the Witness, the Loving, the Friend, the Noble, the Pardoner, the Light, the Guide (these are translations of some of these ninety-nine names). A consistent understanding of these Names is possible only through esoteric hermeneutics at the metaphysical plane rather than the theological plane. Ibn ‘Arabî has provided such a reading.
Ibn ‘Arabî's foregrounding of the in-between realm – the realm between the world of spirits and the world of bodies or between the intelligible and the sensible realms which he called mundus imaginalis (‘âlam al-khayâl) was one of several factors that prevented Islamic philosophy from falling into the trap of a mind/body dichotomy or a dualistic worldview as Chittick notes. It accounts for angelic and demonic apparitions, visionary experience, and other nonphysical phenomena that philosophers typically explain away. It helps understand bodily resurrection and other eschatological data found in scriptures.
As opposed to every romantic and dualistic understanding of love, Ibn Arabi envisions love as lying at the centre of reality as is the case in Plato, world mystical traditions and in fact in all religions. Love and self-denial go hand in hand. The denial of the self is the cornerstone of all religions. This allows the higher self, the Spirit, the Inner man in us to take reigns and the triad of values, Goodness, Beauty, Truth are then realized and life becomes transformed from its otherwise alienated, fragmentary, fear ridden, sorrowful, restless state to Life Divine, which is integrated, blissful life that radiates peace and love. The attributes of divinity are appropriated by the traveler on the path. Religions build on this transformed vision of life and worship God as Love, Beauty, Goodness and whatever beautiful names or aspects that there are. Mystics of diverse hues agree that there are two selves, one illusory or limiting and the other real, knowing which one knows everything. Love has been traditionally one of the chief means of approaching the great King and Ibn ‘Arabî has unreservedly, unqualifyingly advocated the path of love. So the end that he seeks through it can’t be essentially different from what other travelers on the path seek. Self transcendence achieved through love is the crux of Akbarian vision as it is of the esoteric religion and wisdom traditions of the world.
We have a choice – to surrender our self will to God and love unconditionally (have we ever loved unconditionally? If yes, for those moments we have tasted something of heaven) or to be in hell. Most people, unfortunately, choose the latter option. Surely mankind is in manifest loss and most people drive themselves to hell as the Quran says. Drugs, gossip, most modern day entertainments are means to forget our serious business of knowing God. We are in hell and continuously seek one or the other distraction to relax so that the realization of pain subsides.