Below is an adapted excerpt from Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires by Juan Cole. Copyright © 2018. Available from Nation Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc. This and the image of the cover are reproduced by kind permission of the author and publishers.
The Companions of the Right Hand, the second group of good but perhaps not beatific people, are a “crowd of ancients and of moderns.” That is, there are more contemporaries of the Prophet in this group. The Event (56:90-91) promises, “And if they are among the companions of the right hand, then they will be greeted, ‘Peace be to you,’ by the companions of the right hand.” They will dress up in fine silk and exotic brocade as though Asian royalty. Any lingering rancor or grudges in their hearts for others will be removed, and they will all become siblings. Concord is so central to the Qur’an’s view of the afterlife that it names heaven for it, saying, “God summons all to the Abode of Peace.” The association of peace with heaven is also made in the New Testament. In Luke 19:38, when Jesus approached the Mount of Olives after entering Jerusalem riding on a donkey, the crowds are said to have shouted, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”
The chapter of Y.S. 36:52-58 represents paradise as having levels, with enjoyment the most basic, then above that a stage in which you recline on couches facing your spouse, followed by a plane on which you savor luscious fruit. The pinnacle of paradise, however, comes at the fourth stage, when the voice of God addresses you with “Peace!” Many readers will immediately think of the Paradiso of Dante Alighieri, which imagines heaven as nine levels. The Qur’an positions peace at the apex of the delights of heaven.
These images have a moral purpose. The Meccan sanctuary on earth dimly reflects the spectral asylum of the next world. The comportment of the Vanguard and the Companions of the Right Hand, the Qur’an implies, exemplifies ideal behavior to be mirrored as well as possible even in this world. Middle Platonism, the “spiritual commonwealth” of late antiquity, held that the spiritual is real and the material earth only participates in the archetypes of the other world. In the classical rhetorical tradition that was all around Muhmmad when he journeyed north every year, the aim of a speaker was to use vivid, energetic language that brought the thing described to life before the eyes of the audience, making them feel as though they were witnesses to it. It was not enough, however, simply to describe. The speaker sought to whip up hearers emotionally by appealing to their imagination. The Qur’an uses these literary devices in making paradise present to the believers.
Likewise, Christian sermonizers urged believers to keep the prospect of joining the concourse of heaven in mind. Cyril of Jerusalem (313-386) preached, “Even now, I beseech you, lift up the eye of your understanding: imagine the angelic choirs, and God, the Lord of all sitting, and his Only-begotten Son sitting with him on his right hand, and the Spirit with them present . . .”
© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2018. All rights reserved.