MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel. This week we're hearing from people about a subject for which there are no hard facts, no confirmation, but a great deal of deeply held belief. What do we think about what comes next?
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SIEGEL: Yesterday, we heard from Reverend Gabriel Salguero, an evangelical Protestant, with some of what he believes about the afterlife. Today: Mufti Asif Umar. He's a Muslim scholar and cleric in St. Louis. Umar is the 29 year old son of immigrants from India. I asked him what he believed, but he made no I-believe statements in response. Mufti Umar told me what Muslims believe. For example: when you die, angels ask you three questions. Questions about your faith, to which there are correct answers.
MUFTI ASIF UMAR: Once these questions are answered in that manner, then they will be shown by those two angels their place in paradise. A door will open inside their grave, and it will be said to them that, yes, you have answered correctly. And this will be the abode that will be prepared for them once the Judgment Day is over.
So the place of the grave will then be a source of comfort to that person. Just as a mother holds her child very close to her, that sense of comfort that the child feels, this is the sense of comfort that a believer will feel inside his or her grave.
SIEGEL: What happens to people who don't answer the three questions as you did?
UMAR: The grave will tighten on them so much and, you know, the ribs will be crushed. So that's, you know, if a person was a disbeliever.
SIEGEL: On Judgment Day how does God decide since most of us commit good deeds and bad deeds? Is there a weighing of our record?
UMAR: You know, there are sayings of the Prophet Muhammad which mention that each person will be asked certain questions, like, how did you spend your life and how did you spend your youth? You know, how did you earn your wealth and how did you spend it?
And, you know, they will have to answer in front of God. And then, at the same time, the different acts will be judged. For example, the first thing that God will judge a person on will be their prayers. Did they pray to God? Did they pray to only one god?
Whatever good deeds the person has versus their bad deeds, we believe that they will be put in a scale. So if the good deeds outweigh the bad deeds, then, you know, they will be considered successful, whereas if the bad deeds outweigh the good deeds, then they will be punished.
SIEGEL: Doesn't God already know the answers?
UMAR: He does know the answers but that just shows how just he is. To make the person comfortable to know that, yes, we were actually judged in the court of God. If a person was punished, for example, in the hellfire without even being judged by God, they may just be throw into the hellfire and they may think that, like, what is this? But God actually judges each and every person. It just magnifies again the description of God, one of his attributes being the just, the most just.
SIEGEL: Everybody gets a fair hearing in this.
UMAR: Yes. Correct.
SIEGEL: If you're sent to the hellfire is that a permanent sentence for eternity or can one escape it?
UMAR: You know, the only sin that Muslims believe is not forgivable by God is the sin of associating partners with him. So, for those who committed many sins in this world, but they still had the belief in one God in their heart, you know, they may face some time in the fire of hell, but eventually we do believe that it is possible to be removed from the hellfire after serving a punishment.
There's actually a saying, again of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, which mentions that the last person to be taken out from the hellfire who has just an atom's weight of belief in their heart, even the lowest of paradise for that last person will be 10 times larger than this world, and its valuables will be 10 times more valuable than everything contained in this world from its beginning until its end. So if that's the lowest paradise, you know, one can just imagine how large the greatest paradise would be.
SIEGEL: There are many non-Muslims who have heard exactly one thing about Muslim expectations of the afterlife, which is that those who die as martyrs enjoy the company of many virgins and paradise after death. Do you believe in that?
UMAR: Anyone who dies as a true martyr in Islam, will, of course, enjoy the pleasures of paradise. And one of the pleasures of paradise is, you know, maidservants, and any type of desire that one wants to fulfill in paradise, one will get to enjoy. And this is what, you know, God has mentioned in the Quran. But again, when we're talking about a martyr, you know, we're not talking about someone who has committed an act against, you know, innocent people.
UMAR: Or any - for example, a suicide bomber. This is not the belief in Islam at all. It's completely against the teachings of Islam.
SIEGEL: Do you believe that in the afterlife we meet up with loved ones from this life?
UMAR: Yes, I do. For those of our loved ones who will be fortunate to be in paradise, you know, if we are fortunate to be in paradise as well, each and every person will be entitled to his or her own paradise. While at the same time, you know, they will be able to meet up with each other and just as in this world how, you know, a group of friends gets together and sits down, has a nice conversation, inhabitants of paradise will be able to get together and have these types of conversations, you know, in their palaces or in their abodes that God has prepared for them.
There's a saying of the Prophet Muhammad that says that the prophet Adam was created at the height of 60 cubits, which is about 90 feet.
SIEGEL: That's very big.
UMAR: Yeah, that's very big. So this will be the appearance of the inhabitants of paradise. They will actually be that height.
SIEGEL: People will be giants, you say.
UMAR: Ninety feet tall.
UMAR: Correct. And there will be an age of peak strength which, you know, they will remain that age for eternity.
SIEGEL: Will there be Cardinals games in paradise to talk about?
UMAR: Again, you know, whatever the soul wishes for and desires in paradise, then that will be there. So if an inhabitant of paradise asked God that, you know, can we have Cardinals games going on here in paradise, then certainly God will, you know...
SIEGEL: Well, you might as well ask for season tickets at that point.
UMAR: Certainly. Anything that you can get, you know, in this world. But, you know, God is basically saying in the Quran that there is a limit to one's imagination and what can think, because in paradise what one will be able to see there is something that no heart can even think of. So you can just imagine...
SIEGEL: But here, Mufti, here there seems to be a contradiction I want you to resolve for me.
SIEGEL: Which is on the one hand you're saying the Quran would say what happens in the afterlife in paradise is beyond imagination. On the other hand, you come away with rather detailed descriptions of it.
UMAR: Yes. I mean, see, in the Quran, God does give some descriptions of paradise. But even by the descriptions, we can't imagine how the certain things that have been described in paradise, how beautiful they are. Or we can't imagine how severe the torment of the hellfire is.
There are certain verses in Quran which describe, you know, torments of the hellfire, and some beautiful descriptions of paradise. But even by those descriptions, we cannot imagine the true beauty of it until one actually sees it.
SIEGEL: Well, Mufti Umar, thank you very much for talking with us.
UMAR: Thank you, Robert.
SIEGEL: Mufti Asif Umar, is the imam and religious affairs director of the Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis. You can join our conversation about the afterlife on Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, or Instagram using the hashtag nprafterlife.
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