Saturday, March 17, 2012

A hedonistic paradise?

That was my attempt at a witty title. As you can tell from the rest of my posts, I usually give really, really boring, descriptive, plainclothes titles. But I thought I'd be a little humorous today. :)

This morning the Dutchman and I were reading and discussing about about wine in paradise (47:15). He was quite puzzled why something forbidden (wine) would be found in heaven. So I thought I'd do a little exploration of the metaphors of paradise and hell in the Qur'an, and why wine might be used as a incentive to get there.

The Arabic word for what is usually translated as wine is khimar. Khimar appears together with maysir twice -- gambling, games of chance, and other ways of getting money without having worked for it (the root ya-sin-ra also appears 40+ more times as 'easy') -- as things that have both benefits and detriment to society (2:219, 5:90), but that there is more detriment than benefit (2:219) and should therefore be avoided (5:90). These detriments are enmity and hatred, caused by selfish desires produced when we choose to take part in these activities, and also the loss of consciousness about God when we consume intoxicants such as alcohol and drugs (5:91).

In two other verses khimar is used in a neutral way, as part of a story about two prisoners (12:36-41). It is also used once to refer to women drawing their coverings over their chests so that they will be recognised and not be harassed (24:31), but this is another issue for another post. :)

And then a description of Paradise includes a river of khimar, amongst other rivers of water, milk and honey (47:15). Why would something that is considered detrimental for us be found in heaven? Before we start thinking that heaven is a place of debauchery as a reward for all our hard work here, let me say that such a conception of heaven is too simple, and suits only our base desires.

Clingendael


I really like how Shabbir Ahmed's work on analysing the corpus of the Qur'an has produced a beautiful interpretation of the verses that describe heaven and hell, an interpretation that is more suited to the nature of the human being as a vicegerent, not desireless like angels nor merely instinctual like animals.

Both can be states of the self that begin here in this life. We build our own paradise/hell on earth through striving to make the world a better place. That includes ridding the world of injustice, helping especially the marginalised, and making sure that everyone has space to live well. We then inherit this state when we die.

Paradise/hell is also the state of our own self. Paradise can be when we strive for our self to progress, and hell is when we live only to survive and there is no meaning in our lives. Thus these descriptions of paradise/hell are more than literal, but we can only understand them at our current level of human understanding.

The khimar found in paradise is then, not simply the wine/alcohol that we know, but a drink that does not have the detriment of hangovers and the loss of the conscious mind. We are given descriptions of heaven as containing fine food, drink, clothes, companions and places of repose. But most importantly, heaven is where we have the forgiveness of God. In 47:15 we are asked if the description of heaven is the same as that of hell -- we are told to use our reason.

Everything in paradise is good -- and infinitely multiply that meaning of good beyond what we can understand now. I once saw a Christian video giving the metaphor of paradise/hell being more than our five senses. For example, the part of the electromagnetic spectrum is only visible to our eyes from 390 to 750 nanometres, but perhaps in heaven we can see even more wavelengths!

Keukenhof

There are richer meanings: heaven is not simply a place of debauched living after suffering on earth, it is something we work towards now and then inherit it later.

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