A couple of nights ago, I came across a video on an Islamic charity website. It was about the journey of the soul from the current life and the the afterlife. The video started off very interesting and it was something I appreciated– it was interesting to hear what will happen after I’m dead and being buried, and after. Of course, with death being death, it wasn’t just interesting– it was awing and scary to hear about and watch. But death is reality– we are all going to die– the inevitability of death does not differentiate among people. Though of course, the ways and times in which death comes is different among individuals. As a Muslim who believes in life after death, I want to be prepared. I want to prepare to earn Heaven while preparing to avoid the Hellfire.
A single speaker was giving the talk, and whereas I enjoyed it at first, I really got rubbed the wrong way when he started talking about Hell.
Of course, with Hell being Hell, I wasn’t expecting the information about it to be butterflies and rainbows. I knew that there would be fear and dread. I knew that it wouldn’t be fun.
But what I didn’t expect is the stark picture of hopelessness that the speaker painted.
The speaker described how most people would end up in Hell. How there would be people in Hell who would have to suffer there for eternity. He said that there would even be Muslims in Hell who would never get out. However, there would be Muslims who would be pulled out of Hellfire eventually after being punished and tortured over there.
Now people like Hitler, I could see and be okay with burning in Hell forever. I hope there’s a special place there for rapists and other evil people. But what about good people regardless of their religion who don’t happen to be Muslim?
The speaker didn’t say a word about the many non-Muslims who exist who are extremely good people and are blessings to humanity. Those who have given so much in charity, those who have improved people’s lives through efforts and acts of kindness and selflessness. The speaker didn’t talk about people who never even heard about the message of Islam or the ones who never would have the opportunity to.
Dread and terror consumed me as I stared at the screen. Yes, I knew Hellfire was scary, and I knew that as a Muslim, having the knowledge that I have, there are things I must continue to avoid and things that I must strive toward in order to attain a good afterlife. And I knew that being Muslim doesn’t guarantee someone a ticket to Heaven, that just because someone is a Muslim doesn’t mean that they are a good person, even if Islam teaches them that they’re supposed to be. I knew that both Muslims and non-Muslims would be granted Heaven by God’s mercy because of their good deeds weighing over their bad ones.
But hearing this lecture, I was confused– it as contradicting what I had known to be true.
Was what I “knew” about my faith myths and lies? Were they contradictory to Muslim beliefs? The things that the speaker said about non-Muslims going to Hell sounded so generalized and without exception– it was scary. How could God, as merciful as He is, willingly put so many of the kind non-Muslim people I know into the torture of Hellfire just because they weren’t Muslim? How could He ignore the beggings and pleas of people, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, to forgive them and save them from the Hellfire when He was supposed to be the Most Merciful, the Most Compassionate, the Most Forgiving among other things?
It didn’t make sense. And from the dread and confusion, doubt about my faith crept over me, making me feel distant from my faith.
I felt compelled to practice my faith out of fear, not out of love or comfort.
I could practice my faith because I wanted to avoid negative consequences for myself, but I couldn’t bring myself to like it. And I felt dread for that, too– did that mean I wasn’t a Muslim? Did that mean I was blasphemous? And did that mean that I would go to Hell, along with my loved ones who were non-Muslim? I just couldn’t fathom those thoughts.
I didn’t like what I was hearing, but I couldn’t look away from the screen.
This knowledge was important– it was important for me to know so that I would know how to prevent myself from being thrown in Hell.
Just because I’m a Muslim doesn’t mean I necessarily have to like my faith or its rules. You can accept the truth and still not like it. To me, based on logical and scientific and historical evidence, Islam is a truth that I cannot deny.
So after watching this video, I felt heartbroken. I couldn’t help but believe in something that I not only didn’t agree with, but was starting to dislike. As the speaker moved on from talking about Hell to talking about Heaven and its beauty and the excitement upon entering it, I couldn’t mirror his happiness. Dread still remained. Hope was gone.
Around the end of last year, I walked past a few student buildings and spotted some entertainment. But probably not the kind you would expect.
A man stood far out in front of the buildings, displaying a sign that stated “SIN AWARENESS DAY.” He used a megaphone to shout and yell.
I’ve seen him– and people of whatever group he was in– here before. They came every year to campus. Despite my curiosity, I never stopped to listen to them either because I was rushing to class or because I felt awkward.
This time I let my curiosity win, and I didn’t have any classes to attend for the rest of the day.
There wasn’t a large crowd. I stood far back on the lawn in front of the student building, trying to listen to the conversations and debates between the speaker and some students. The speaker and the rest of his group identified as Christians, though I wasn’t sure whether identified with a specific denomination or not. As the minutes passed, I found myself inching closer, trying to get a better listen, getting more and more curious and invested to hear the answers.
One of the audience members asked a question regarding the value of women in comparison to men in Christianity. The preacher tried to explain that men and women were different by nature, but equal in value. This explanation wasn’t new to me; I’ve heard it plenty in Muslim communities, too.
Someone else asked about divorce. The preacher brushed them off, saying that he wasn’t going to talk to college kids about divorce. But he didn’t fail to mention that marriage was an unbreakable bond between a man and a woman, no matter the circumstance. Of course the topic of abusive marriages came up, to which the guy simply dodged the question. Instead, he deflected from it by starting to talk about LGBTQIA+ folks.
“See that building!?!” The guy pointed toward the student center building in front of us where several club organizations had rooms and meetings. He said something about the LGBTQIA+ sign (to which he referred to just as ‘LGBT’), saying that it was a representation of something evil. That earned some admonishing from the small crowd in front of him (and with good reason). He then proceeded to say that “it’s a miracle that God doesn’t burn this building down” because of the LGBTQIA+ sign.
Yeah. Because that’s supposed to bring people, especially queer people and people with queer loved ones, flocking to his religious ideologies, because who wouldn’t want to embrace a religion and faith that doesn’t embrace them?
Another girl in the crowd admonished the speaker, saying that being gay isn’t a sin. The girl surprised them by saying that she herself was a Christian, and had attended a Christian school when she was younger. That baffled the speaker for a moment before he started shouting about something else.
Sometime later, a dude on a scooter discreetly appeared in with the small audience group and circled around us a bit as his curious gaze glanced at the speaker. He interjected with a smirk, telling the speaker that he heard that “Hell wasn’t that bad. It added some comic relief, to be honest.
The next day, I found out that apparently it was Sin Awareness Day– again!
This time there was an even larger crowd. Whereas the previous day, there had only been may five people including me close to the speaker, with people scattered around minding their own business trying to eat with their friends and do their homework, right now there was a huge crowd with nearly 100 people watching the dude and heckling him. He stood and continued to yell undeterred.
“WHAT IF I WANT TO MARRY A DUDE?” A guy yelled toward the front of the audience. The speaker replied that marriage is only between a man and a woman, and then he went on to categorize gay people as pedophiles. As if there aren’t more than a handful of straight pedophiles, and as if someone’s non-straight sexuality renders them non-straight and interested in pedophilia.
I had gone up and asked the speaker if divorces were allowed in abusive situations (I was actually able to get this question in) and the speaker, like the previous day’s speaker, again said that marriage was between a man and a woman and that divorce wasn’t allowed under any circumstance besides infidelity. Over his shoulder, he nonchalantly and inconsiderately said that the abused person should just go find a shelter.
The same Christian girl from yesterday was back and we turned our amused gazes as we took seats on the lawn with the rest of the audience. Another girl slowly walked over to the group of friends and new people I was sitting with and asked what was going on. I filled her in and she was bemused, taking a seat next to me. She said how she herself was Christian and a leader of a Christian group on campus. She expressed how she believed that the way that the speaker was fear-mongering people to bring them to Christian faith was wrong. She was utterly baffled.
Laced with all of their responses to questions and shouts and rants was fear and the motivation of avoiding God’s wrath. Not unlike the previous day, each speaker was trying to fear monger people into faith.
And not unlike the Islamic lecture I watched a few days ago, God was painted as a source of fear and dread.
Honestly speaking, I don’t think that these speakers are inherently bad people. And I really don’t believe that these people had malintent. I honestly think that being strong in their faith, they were worried about people being punished with Hell and God’s wrath and whatever else they believe in. I know I felt scared listening to the lecture from that Islamic website; I went to sleep rattled and numb. While I wouldn’t even think about fear mongering other Muslims and non-Muslims about Hell to supposedly save them from it, did my fear for others match the same fear that both the Muslim and Christian speakers had for fellow humanity?
While dread settled for my own future and fear for God forbid, being thrown in Hell, I was also extremely concerned about my non-Muslim friends. I don’t want them to go to Hell, especially when they’re such good people. Did God really want them to go to Hell? Did my religion really teach that they were going to?
But I knew better than to take the statements for granted just for the sake of blind faith– especially when the speakers and perspectives were so limited.
The two groups of speakers had one thing in common– they tried to instill faith in people through fear. They primarily painted God as a ruler to fear and to be loved by humans through the motivation of fear.
The Muslim speaker had said that fear wasn’t necessarily a bad thing when it comes to faith, and I don’t disagree with him on that. I believe that fear can bring one closer to God and to want to avoid harmful and sinful things. For instance, I never intend to drink a sip of alcohol because that is explicitly forbidden. Not only that, but there is a prophetic saying that states my prayers won’t be accepted for 40 days if I consume alcohol– that terrifies me and is something that I am very willing to avoid.
But what about fear that is extremely consuming? What about fear of a God whose merciful givings and forgivings of His creation is overshadowed by His wrath and punishments?
That was the kind of God that the Muslim speaker potrayed for me. And it scared me and broke my heart.
After waking up the next day, I did some research on Yaqeen Institute– my favorite online source for information regarding Islam. And I talked with a fellow Muslim friend.
I decided that while some of the information was helpful from the Muslim speaker’s lecture, much of it was extremely flawed in the lack of information that it provided.
He didn’t mention the story of the prostitute whose sins were all forgiven by Allah for feeding water to a thirsty dog that happened to be nearby her. God forgave her, so how could the rules be as rigid as the Muslim speaker described?
He talked about the rules dictating whether one went to Heaven or to Hell with such rigidity that it was inaccurate and did not account for the fact that non-Muslims, indeed, are able to go to Heaven. His lecture didn’t consider the circumstances of people who never would hear about the message of Islam because of their predicaments. The speaker failed to mention how God considers everyone’s specific circumstances and struggles, Muslim or not. Thankfully an article of Jonathan Brown’s brought me some extreme relief as it pointed out and explained my previous beliefs that brought me comfort prior to hearing this lecture.
God is the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful, the Most Forgiving. And reading an article by Mohammad Elshinawy, my doubts and anxieties were further qualmed and explained. Hellfire exists for a reason– it serves as a motivator for us to avoid bad deeds and for people to avoid committing injustices against one another. However, there are evil individuals who get away with crimes against humanity in this life and the Hellfire is a way for innocent victims and survivors to get justice in the hereafter.
The speaker in the video explained everything as extremely rigid and in black and white. While he mentioned Laylatul Qadr as an opportunity for us to have our sins wiped away, he made it seem like God’s mercy was extremely limited in general when in reality in accordance to Islamic beliefs, that is far from the fact.
If I were a non-Muslim watching his lecture series, I would immediately be baffled and disgusted. I would wonder why anyone would want to believe in such rigid and exclusive beliefs. I would be totally aversed. I mean, being a Muslim myself, I already felt that way– the only thing holding me back from leaving was the evidence that I mentioned earlier. You don’t have to like the truth to believe in it– I don’t like the fact that there are atrocities happening against humanity around the world, yet I acknowledge that the reality of them are true. God protect the innocent victims of such atrocities.
But thankfully, I was reminded and provided evidence and reasoning that told me that the dreadful things I’ve heard that show God to be lacking of mercy are very far from the truth.
So the answer my my worries is no. No, there isn’t a rule that guarantees that most people will go to Hell. No, God isn’t unforgiving. My non-Muslim friends won’t be thrown in Hellfire for simply not being Muslim— God knows that a person’s character goes beyond their faith affiliation. God gives credit for good and bad deeds to everyone regardless of religion, and all people who do good deeds aren’t exclusively Muslim. Not only that, but with His mercy, God weighs good deeds more than bad deeds. People who have committed what are considered huge sins are forgiven through repentance and good deeds outweighing the bad.
I get that fear can be a good motivator. But fear should never, ever be the only motivator.
Not just through the Muslim speaker from the video, and not just by Muslim religious speakers, I often see fear-mongering and shamefulness being a tactic used to instill piety into people. This isn’t how it should be.
God’s love and mercy should be emphasized. There should be hope alongside dread.
There needs to be a balance.
Loving God shouldn’t be encouraged despite the fear of Him– it should be encouraged alongside the fear. Love could stem from the fear of God, but that love shouldn’t be forced. Because true love can never be forced.
Religion, faith, and worship should be a means of peace and a way for people to alleviate their worldly burdens– not increase it.
It is because of such instilled fear and shame that I believe I often have trouble with my praying salah, intertwined with the struggle of my OCD. It is because of this fear that people are scared to ask questions about their religion despite being fear-mongered to have unwavering faith in it.
The thing is, God wants us to ask and He wants us to learn. Even Islamically, people are urged to seek knowledge.
It’s so important to do your own research. When you only hear a limited set of perspectives and believe them, it is extremely dangerous. If someone stops you from seeking knowledge or debilitates you into dreading the beliefs of your faith, remind yourself that they are not God and that you shouldn’t believe them instantly. No matter how educated and knowledgeable they may be or seem.
Just because someone is educated doesn’t mean that they are intelligent and always right.
Regardless of faith affiliations, religious speakers need to be careful and mindful in the ways that they deliver religious messages. They should deliver in such a way that recognizes God’s compassion and the comfort that He offers and the infinite mercy that He provides instead of discrediting such elements of God’s goodness through the instillation of a focus on fear. Otherwise they’re just going to push people away with a perverted version of the faith. he speakers should find compassion and humanity within themselves as God would want them to instead of condemning the LGBTQIA+ community and other marginalized groups. A homosexual Muslim youth and a transgender Muslim shouldn’t be ostracized and marginalized by speakers who tell them that they should be ashamed of themselves for their identities. How could they be so quick to forget the infinite mercy and of their God Who is the Most Compassionate?
How could I have forgotten it?
I think when the speaker in the video spoke with such confidence and conviction, I was rattled. The way people deliver a speech can be convincing, even if their facts aren’t. Alhamdulillah, I looked for answers beyond him and his limiting spiel that omitted mention of God’s mercy and other goodness.
Insha Allah, there will be more people in Heaven than in Hell, Insha Allah, my friends and loved ones and other good people will be forgiven and placed in Jannah/Heaven, regardless of whether they lived as Muslims in this life.
Because verily, God is the Most Merciful, the Most Forgiving and the Most Compassionate. And He forgives all sins. For religious speakers, many are lacking in that they do not give enough or any attention to God’s goodness.