The Hellfire

Surah 22 (Al-Hajj/The Pilgrimage): 19-22

19. These two adversaries have become engrossed in contention about their Lord.  For the unbelievers garments of fire shall be cut out, and scalding water shall be poured over their heads,

20. Melting all that is in their bellies and their skin.

21. In addition, there will be whips of iron for them.

22. Whenever, in their anguish, they try to get out, they are returned there, and will be told: ‘Taste the torment of fire!’


Hell (called in the Qur’an ‘jahannan’, a Hebrew term for Hell used by Jesus in the gospels and derived from the valley of Gehena outside Jerusalem) is described as a prison, {17.8}, of endless torment that is almost always associated with fire or boiling liquid. Particularly gruesome descriptions are found at {4.55-57}, {14.49-50}, {36.63-67}, {40.70-72}, {56.90-94} and {67.7}.


Occupants will be burned or broiled in multiple different types of fire including ‘al-jahim’ (the ‘fierce fire’, {26.91}), ‘latha’ (‘a fire that burns to the skull’, {70.15-16}), ‘hutamah’ (sometimes called the ‘crushing fire’, that towers over ‘backbiters’ in {104.4-7}) and ‘saqar’ (an ‘unsparing’, ‘blackening fire’, {74.27-29 & 42} 〈10.〉, see also {26.91}): an inferno that is so intense that ‘its fuel is men and stones’, {2.24}.


Within this fiery world, the damned will be led around on their knees, {19.68}, fettered and yoked, {69.30-32}, and clad in ‘garments made of pitch’, {14.50}, or fire, {22.19} (produced above). God explains how He maintains the pain level:

{4.56} As often as their skins are consumed, We shall replace them with other skins that they may taste the punishment.


Their only food shall be ‘a vile thorn’, {88.6-7} the fruit of the zaqum tree that ‘emerges in the depth of the hellfire, its spathes … as the heads of satans’, {37.66-67}, and ‘oozing pus’, {14.16}, (which may be the same substance as ‘ghislin’ mentioned in {69.36} the translation of which is uncertain); their only drink shall be a boiling liquid that ‘tears apart their bowels’, {47.15}.


As with the descriptions of the Gardens of Paradise in 〈99.〉, so with the descriptions of the Hellfire, the attention to such practical matters as what inhabitants of the realms shall wear and consume and how they spend their days, serves to emphasise that the descriptions are intended to be understood literally – and to tempt or horrify accordingly.


Although other verses depict a judgment in which some are consigned to the Hellfire whilst others are admitted to Paradise, one passage, {19.68-72}, suggests that all people, those who will ultimately be saved and the permanently damned, will be sent to Hell to atone for their sins, from whence God will pluck out the reverent, leaving the wrongdoers to eternal torment.


The same hadith that describes the Bridge of Sirat as ‘as thin as a hair and as sharp as a sword’, gives one particularly macabre account of what to expect should one fail to make it to the other side:

(Muhammad asked:) ‘Have you seen the thorns of Sa’dan?’ The people answered ‘Yes’.

He said: ‘These hooks will be like the thorns of Sa’dan, but nobody except Allah knows their greatness in size and these will entangle the people according to their deeds. Some of them will fall and stay in Hell forever; others will receive punishment and will get out of Hell.

Allah intends mercy on whomever He likes amongst the people of Hell. He will order the angels to take out of Hell those who worshipped none but Him alone.

The angels will take (believers) out by recognizing them from the traces of prostrations [the zabiba: hardened skin on the forehead from repeatedly touching it to the ground, see {48.29}] for Allah has forbidden the Hellfire to eat away those traces. So they will come out of the Fire, which will eat away from the whole of the human body except the marks of the prostrations.

At that time they will come out of the Fire as mere skeletons. The Water of Life will be poured on them and as a result they will grow like the seeds growing on the bank of flowing water.


Such a purging is also hinted at in {2.80} and {3.24}: ‘They say ‘The Fire will touch us save for days numbered’,’ – although these verses are cagey about confirming or denying whether this belief is correct.


Hell is said to be entered by seven entrances:

{15.44} Seven gates (hell) has, and for each gate is appointed a separate portion of them.

which is generally understood to represent seven levels of suffering for different categories of sinner. Some interpret the promise of particular punishments, that are in represented by the words ’gayyah’ (literally ‘error’) or ‘wayl’ (‘woe’) for those who neglect their prayers, {19.59}, {107.4-6}, forge revelations, {2.79} or are ‘slandering backbiters’, {104.1}, as two specific valleys in hell, (into the latter of which, it is said, one might fall for forty years without reaching the bottom) and where one then encounters additional punishment, above and beyond the usual torture. If so, this may well also be the final abode of hypocrites, about whom we are told:

{4.145} Surely (they) will be in the lowest depths of the Fire, and thou wilt not find for them any helper.