Understanding the Prophet’s Life (peace be upon him)
Glimpses of the Unseen
“The (members) of the first group to get into Paradise would have their faces as bright as full moon during the night, and the next to this group would have their faces as bright as the shining stars in the sky, and every person would have two wives and the marrow of their shanks would glimmer beneath the flesh and there would be none without a wife in Paradise.” [Muslim]
Though they championed vigorously the Hadiths describing the pleasures and agonies of Heaven and Hell, Sunni scholars admitted that not even the clear texts of the Quran and Hadiths could convey any immediate understanding of these unseen realms. What the ulama insisted on was that believers affirm the truth of what God and the Prophet had revealed about the world to come. Its actual nature could never really be known in this life. Ultimately, the ulama admitted to an agnosticism about the actual nature of the “Gardens under which rivers flow.”
At one point after Muhammad’s death, a group of men and women in Medina came to the Companion Abu Hurayra to resolve a debate: would there be more women in Heaven or more men? Abu Hurayra replied that there would be more women, citing as his evidence the above Hadith that each man in Heaven would have two wives. In subsequent centuries, many prominent ulama would uphold this same opinion, such as the Cordoban judge Qadi Iyad and the Damascus madrasa professor Nawawi. Another school of thought hesitated on the point due to another Hadith considered supremely reliable in which the Prophet said that the majority of the people of Heaven were the poor, while the majority of the people in Hellfire were women. This was not a hard problem to solve, explained Qadi Iyad: “What emerges from all of this is that women are the majority of humankind.” Hence they can be the majorities in both abodes. Ibn Hajar responded to a more serious flaw in the position that more women entered Heaven than men. In another authentic Hadith, the Prophet states that “I gazed into the Garden and saw that the least group of its inhabitants was women.” Ibn Hajar offers an explanation. It might well be that one of the narrators of this Hadith allowed his own understanding to shape what he transmitted. He might have assumed that the above Hadith stating that the majority of the people in Hellfire are women meant that women must be the minority in Heaven. Of course, he replies, if women are the majority of the human race, then “their greater number in Hellfire does not necessarily exclude their greater number in Heaven.” In a sense, it was overly ambitious to demand concrete answers to such questions.
How could minds that know only the earthly world parse descriptions that were no more than crutches for imagining an unknowable realm? Only through metaphor could scripture constrained by human language and its lexicon of imagery convey glimpses of the unseen. Sunni discussions of the Afterlife thus frequently quote a report of God declaring, ‘I have prepared for my righteous servants what no eye has seen nor any ear heard nor what has ever occurred to a mortal heart,’ and their affirmations of the ultimate truth of Heavenly rewards might end with the Companion Ibn Abbas’ agnostic admission that “There is nothing common between this world and the Afterlife but words.”
Whether martyrs received exactly seventy-two huris, or if the same reward awaited even the meanest believer, Hujjat Al-Islam explained that the Afterlife held countless echelons of reward and punishment to suit perfectly each person’s faith and the deeds they did in life.
In this light it is easier to make sense of the seventy-thousand-winged bird into which a prayer for the Prophet would transmute according to the (baseless) Hadith in The Signs of the Good. In a famous commentary on the biography of the Prophet, the twelfth-century Andalusian scholar Suhayli offered an important clarification about the scriptural description of angels and their wings. In the context of otherworldly beings, features like wings cannot be understood literally. “They are not what comes first to one’s mind as the wings of a bird with feathers.” Instead they are metaphors for grandeur and ennoblement by God, “angelic features that cannot be understood except by seeing them face to face.” “How could they be like the wings of birds when no bird has been seen with three wings, or four, let alone six hundred, as Gabriel is described as having. So this demonstrates that they are features whose modality cannot be grasped by the mind,” Suhayli concluded. “No report [from the Prophet] appeared clarifying them. We are required to believe in them, but exercising our thought by speculating about their nature is of no use. At any rate, we are all close to seeing them in person.”
“Misquoting Muhammad” – Jonathan A.C. Brown, pp. 244-246