I believe that the message of the Qu’ran to the believer is at its core one of the fear of hell. The Qu’ran is full of exhortations warning of hell fire for a range of sins. The Muslim can have no confidence that when he comes before the throne of God and has his deeds weighed on the scales of justice they will be found in the right. The believer may just as likely be plunged into hell for the weight of his evil deeds as no one can atone for them. These existential uncertainties combined with repeated warnings against those who go astray are at the heart of the fear-based motivation taught in the Qu’ran.
There is a sharp and constant duality in the Qu’ran between heaven and hell, bliss and torment. Virtually every Sura contains praise for the Qu’ran, a recounting of a past people who disbelieved a past apostle, directions to see God’s hand in nature, and stern warnings to all unbelievers of the painful doom that awaits them. It is true that Scriptures like the Bible have equally compelling descriptions of hell and eternal punishment, but one can sit and read the Bible for vast stretches without encountering hell or what will happen to those who will end up there. But in the Qu’ran hell is almost omnipresent, the flames licking out from page after page, the warnings drummed into the brain again and again. Paradise is mentioned almost as an afterthought to the torture which will befall those not rightly guided in eternity. Even those who have put their trust in Allah and his apostle Muhammad will have to undergo a weighing of their every deed on a scale which will determine their eternal fate. “Those whose good deeds weigh heavy in the scales shall triumph, but those whose deeds are light shall forfeit their souls and abide in Hell forever. The fire will scorch their faces and they will writhe in agony” (Qu’ran 23.102-104).
The punishment awaiting the unbeliever is not left to the imagination. For example the reader is told of unbelievers, “On that day you shall see the guilty bound with chains, their garments pitch, and their faces covered with flames” (Qu’ran 14.49-50). Of those who oppose God’s message it is said, “Hell will stretch behind them, and putrid water shall he drink: he will sip, but scarcely swallow. Death will assail him from every side, yet he shall not die. Harrowing torment awaits him” (Qu’ran 14.16-17). The details go on: “Garments of fire have been prepared for the unbelievers. Scalding water shall be poured upon their heads, melting their skins and that which is in their bellies. They shall be lashed with rods of iron” (Qu’ran 22.19-20).
In the face of a “revelation” that was completely new to pagans, Jews, and Christians alike the Qu’ran reserves many threats for those who fail to accept it. I believe these threats are the means by which Muhammad preserved the community of those who made the leap and embraced his new message. Perhaps their hearts would waver, perhaps they would doubt if what the prophet was saying was really from God, perhaps the pressure from their relatives to return to the old ways would weigh on them. But to counter all these countervailing currents, God himself speaking through Muhammad warns the new community not to spurn his words. Indeed, the greatest punishments await those who deny the veracity of the Qu’ran. “On that day those who disbelieved and disobeyed the Apostle will wish that they were leveled with the dust; they shall hide nothing from God” (Qu’ran 4.40). I believe this same pressure weighs on the modern Muslim who might be tempted to forsake her faith for any other path. The modern apostate who denies the Qu’ran is in the same position as were the pagan Arabs or the Jews of Medina who scoffed at it over a thousand years ago: they will burn in hell. There is no middle way, one must either commit to believing the message wholeheartedly or perish.
It can be fairly stated that many of the passages of hell are contrasted with the vision of paradise as flowing streams in gardens, an eternal bliss for the believer. Indeed this vision of paradise is often cited in our time as a motivation for jihadi martyrs. Perhaps the Qu’ranic vision could be compared to the carrot and stick approach, offering blessings for the obedient and eternal torture for the unbelievers. And the Sufis of course have reacted to the fearful view of God by positing a relationship of ecstatic love as an alternative. But it should be noted that the Sufi movement is a reaction, and what it is reacting against is the notion of a malevolent God who casts the majority into hell based on arbitrary predestination. Despite the promises of grace and the reward for good deeds how can one be certain of obtaining paradise? No one can begin to remember all their deeds, so what if the bad outweigh the good? And indeed some teach that neglecting prayer or other sins may doom the Muslim. The militant Sheikh Abu Hamza Al-Masri speaking in London said:
Why are there so many martyrs among us? Because we are a nation graced with Allah’s mercy. Because with every Shahid Allah saves seventy of his family members who were destined to go to the fires of hell. This is a nation graced with Allah’s mercy. Many are the members of our families who are destined to go to hell for neglecting their prayers, for abandoning religion or for committing forbidden acts and they need the intercession of those Shahids and the intercession of those who know the Koran by heart. (MEMRI.org)
The Qu’ran is a spoken warning, with the threat of punishment either implied or stated. “This is a warning to mankind. Let them take heed and know that He is but one God. Let the wise bear this in mind” (Qu’ran 14.52). An ominous date with destiny will come to all who deny God and his apostle. Anyone who takes the message of the book seriously must live in anxiety over whether or not God will accept their life and their works or will find them lacking. This sense of dread based on the warnings of the book is what guards the faithful from straying too far from the path.