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[The Koran’s gleeful anticipations of the suffering of infidels in the afterlife seem to be a product of an intensely zero-sum atmosphere — of the period when Muhammad, a street prophet with a small following in Mecca, was being dismissed and sometimes persecuted by local elites, who probably considered him a threat to the established social order.]
According to one sura [chapter of the Koran], the Meccans treated Muhammad’s ministry as a joke. “The sinners indeed laugh the faithful to scorn: And when they pass by them they wink at one another, And when they return to their own people, they return jesting.”
Another sura describes the reaction of an influential Meccan to Muhammad’s preaching: “Then looked he around him, Then frowned and scowled, Then turned his back and swelled with disdain.”
Sometimes the doubters got disruptive: “The unbelievers say, ‘Hearken not to this Koran, but keep up a talking, that ye may overpower the voice of the reader.’” According to Islamic tradition, Meccan elites were so intent on shutting Muhammad up that they punished his clan not just with an economic boycott but with a marriage boycott.
All of this left Muhammad with a challenge: How do you keep intact a minority religious movement that faces harassment sanctioned by the most powerful people in the city? Fortunately for Muhammad, this wasn’t the first time the Abrahamic god had encountered such a problem. The elements of a solution were already in place.
Some of them came courtesy of a Christian who lived four centuries earlier. Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons near the end of the second century CE, faced circumstances even more dire than Muhammad’s. Christians were a minority in Lyons, and they were being not just persecuted, but sometimes killed. How to keep the faithful on board when staying on board made life so harsh? In part, by painting a lavish picture of rewards in the afterlife. According to Irenaeus, the hereafter would feature lots of grain, delicacies galore, and highly fertile women. Plus: no work, and bodies that never tired anyway. It wasn’t clear what people would do with all this recreational time, but certainly there would be no shortage of wine to drink. “Vines shall grow, each having ten thousand branches, and in each branch ten thousand twigs, and in each true twig ten thousand shoots, and in each one of the shoots ten thousand clusters, and on every one of the clusters ten thousand grapes, and every grape when pressed will give five and twenty metretes of wine.”
The paradise sketched by Irenaeus would be denounced by Christian theologians of an ascetic bent, but not by Muhammad. Like Irenaeus, he faced a steep motivational challenge, and like Irenaeus, he met it by offering his followers ample long-term compensation. After resurrection, these people of the desert could live amid “tall trees clad with fruit, and in extended shade, and by flowing waters.” There would be “couches with linings of brocade” on which you could lie while food was “within easy reach.” There would be “damsels with retiring glances” whom no man “had touched before.” Somehow these dark-eyed beauties would remain “ever virgins, dear to their spouses.” And they would never age—something they had in common with their husbands.
This was half of the incentive structure. The other half was the alternative—the place you would wind up if you weren’t one of Muhammad’s followers. While the faithful were in paradise wearing “silken robes” and “silver bracelets,” the infidels would sport “chains and collars” amid “flaming fire.” If they asked for relief, they would be given “water like molten copper, that shall scald their faces.”
The Koran’s recurring theme of reward and punishment wasn’t just another carrot-and-stick device. The specter of hell—the stick—was frightening, to be sure, but it was more than an instrument of fear. It also appealed to the sense of retributive justice; it assured the Prophet’s followers that the Meccans who now mocked them would someday get their comeuppance. Remember that man who “swelled with disdain” upon seeing the Prophet preach? God “will surely cast him into Hell-fire.” And remember the Meccans who tried to disrupt Koranic recitations? “The Fire! it shall be their eternal abode.”
The social standing of Muhammad’s followers must have made these images all the more gratifying. When you’re not rich and your enemy is, his impending demise acquires a special glow. “He thinketh surely that his wealth shall be with him for ever. Nay! For verily he shall be flung into the Crushing Fire.” Don’t worry, said Muhammad to his followers: “Let them feast and enjoy themselves, and let hope beguile them: but they shall know the truth at last. Many a time will the infidels wish that they had been Muslims.”
This is classic apocalyptic rhetoric. Muhammad is imagining a day when the lowly will be exalted and the powerful humbled, when the last shall be first and the first shall be last. Like Second Isaiah imagining the future suffering of Israel’s enemies, like the author of Revelation envisioning the demise of a repressive Roman emperor, Muhammad is sure of the coming misfortune of his tormentors. The Koran’s retributive vision is no more vividly violent than that of Second Isaiah or of Revelation, but the Koran offers much more of it, pound for pound, than the Bible as a whole.
And that’s not surprising, given that most of the Koran was uttered while Muhammad was in Mecca, trying to hold together a besieged band of followers. Their cohesion depended on believing that the derision they endured would reverse its polarity someday, when the faithful, in paradise at last, “reclining on bridal couches,” would “laugh the infidels to scorn.”