(Draft Article) On the Punishment of the Hellfire, Verse 4.56, and Pain Sensors in the Skin

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By the MuslimAnswers.net Team

بِسْمِ اللَّـهِ الرَّحْمَـٰنِ الرَّحِيم

Statement: Dr. Naik claims that no one knew that skin has pain sensors and everyone used to think that pain is sensed by brain. That is rubbish. The truth is the reverse. The function of brain in sensing pain is a recent discovery. Pain was felt where pain was applied. In the old days people thought the function of brain is to cool down the body like a radiator and heart is the thinking organ.

Answer: Before we start, we will only concentrate on the issue of the pain sensors in the skin. The matters related to the heart as a thinking organ, or whether the brain was considered by the Islamic religion to be a cooling radiator may be discussed in a future junction if Allah wills. [To be honest, we know that this position of the “cooling brain” was held by Aristotle, but it is difficult for us to say that this was also an Islamic position, simply due to the fact that there is no material either in the Qur’an or in the Ahadeeth explicitly stating such a thing. So we will probably not write a separate article on this matter, since it seems to be a claim hurriedly transposed onto Islam for which there is no explicit basis.]

Now, we believe the objection is related to the following excerpt from Dr. Naik’s works, under the Heading “Pain Receptors Present in the Skin”:

It was thought that the sense of feeling and pain was only dependent on the brain. Recent discoveries prove that there are pain receptors present in the skin without which a person would not be able to feel pain. When a doctor examines a patient suffering from burn injuries, he verifies the degree of burns by a pinprick. If the patient feels pain, the doctor is happy, because it indicates that the burns are superficial and the pain receptors are intact. On the other hand if the patient does not feel any pain, it indicates that it is a deep burn and the pain receptors have been destroyed. The Qur’aan gives an indication of the existence of pain receptors in the following verse: “Those who reject Our signs, We shall soon Cast into the Fire; As often as their skins Are roasted through, We shall change them For fresh skins, That they may taste The Penalty: for Allah Is Exalted in Power, Wise.” [Al-Qur’aan 4:56].”[1] 

First of all, perhaps the declaration by Dr. Naik in saying that pain was thought to be only dependent on the brain was inaccurate. However, even if we were to take the Qur’an’s declaration in this Verse as something that could obviously have been deduced through common sense and straightforward perception, it would not be something of blame, since what we could say is that the Qur’an has made a correct statement albeit without any connection to modern science.

If we were again to look into the contemporary traditional interpretations regarding this Verse, we see that there is a mixing between the more classical sayings related from the early Islamic generations and the findings of modern medicine. For example, we read in Ma’ariful Qur’an:

Explaining the highly apocalyptic statement كُلَّمَا نَضِجَتْ جُلُودُهُم بَدَّلْنَاهُمْ in verse 56, Sayyidna Mu’adh (Radhia Allahu Anhu) says that as soon as their skin is burnt out it will be replaced – and this will be with such speed that the skin will be replaced a hundred times in one moment.

Sayyidna Hasan al-Basri says:

“The fire will eat them everyday seventy thousand times. When it would have eaten them up, they will be commanded: ‘Return’. So, they shall return to be as they were.” (al-Baihaqi, as quoted by Mazhari)[2]

Obviously, from the above and from many other primary texts of Islam, we know that the physiology of the human being will be drastically changed in the Hereafter, and these sayings are one of the pointers showing that the situation as we are familiar with in this world will definitely not remain the same in the life to come. Of course, this may only be taken at most as an indication only that there are pain receptors in the skins of people in this very world, but the link is not so strong so as to state anything definitely on the basis of these sayings alone.

We also see from other interpretations that the relationship between this Verse and the truths of the Resurrection are highlighted, as in the exegesis of Ibn ‘Ashur (RA), where he mentions that:    

The word (نضجت) [Nadijat] means to reach the end of something. Thus, it is said that the griller has ‘Nadijat’ (become well-cooked) when it reaches the limit of grilling, and it is said: The food is ‘Nadijat’ when it reaches the limit of cooking.

Thus, the meaning is: Every time their skins are burned, and there is no life or sense of feeling left in them, We will change them, that is, replace a skin other than it, and change is (contextually) required here, just as it appears in Surah al-Baqara: “Would ye exchange…that which is lower”.

Thus, His saying: “for other (than) that” is a confirmation for what is pointed to by the action of change….

And His saying: “so that they may taste the punishment” is an explanation of “We will change (their)” because the skin is the organ through which the sensation of punishment reaches the individual soul, based on the common (way) in the Creation of Allah the Exalted, otherwise the skin would not be changed after its burning when the punishment of the Hellfire reaches the soul.

Also, the change of the skin with the continuity of the self-same soul does not go against justice, because the skin is a medium for the conveyance of punishment, and it is not the (final) goal of the punishment. This is also because it arises from the first skin, in the same manner that the returning of the bodies in the Resurrection after their decay does not mean they are different people other than the ones who deserve reward and punishment. This is because when there was consigning of the souls which acquire the good and bad (deeds) they have become the same (i.e. the latter soul in the Hereafter is the same as the one in this world), particularly when its (the body’s) return will be from the germination of the coccyges, as mentioned in the traditions, for the arising (in this case) will be like the date-palm tree from the seed.[3]  

Then, there are other scholars who bring out certain of the different views on the subject, and based on their knowledge prefer one view over the other. For example, Shaykh at-Tantawi had written (loosely translated as follows):

This saying: “As often as their skins are consumed We shall exchange them for fresh skins” is an elucidation of the severity an eternity of the punishment, that is: every time that their skins are burnt and whatever we have given to them is destroyed, the burned skin will be replaced with a different, non-burned skin.

 So the change in here is a literal, true, material change. This is with the meaning that Allah will create in place of the burned skin another new skin different from the burned one.

And some say that this blessed phrase was a metaphor for the continuing punishment on them. This view was mentioned by Fakhr (ad-Deen) ar-Raazi who said: “It is possible to say: this is a metaphor for eternity and the lack of break. Just as it is said for the one who wants to describe an eternal state: Every time it is finished, it will start. And every time it reaches the end it will have started from the beginning. Thus is the saying: “As often as their skins are consumed We shall exchange them for fresh skins”.

That is, every time that they are roasted, burned, and doomed towards destruction, We will give them new power for life. Thus the intended meaning is the disclosing of the eternity of punishment and the lack of its stoppage.”

But that which we see is that the change in its literal meaning is higher (i.e. the better interpretation), for it is not proper for us to swerve off in the Speech of Allah from the literal to the metaphorical meaning except if there is a pressing need, but there is no need for that (in here), for the changing of the skins is within the Power of Allah the Exalted, and because the meaning mentioned by Imaam ar-Raazi becomes easier when the word in its literal sense. Thus, the word “كل” [Kull- every] points towards the eternity of punishment and the lack of its stoppage.[4]

And because many of those in the early generations had interpreted the Verse with the first signification, as it was related from Ibn ‘Umar that he said: A man recited this Verse in front of ‘Umar, and he (‘Umar) said: Repeat it for me, and he repeated it. Thereupon Mu’adh ibn Jabal said: I have the interpretation of this Verse: (Their) skin will be changed one hundred times every moment. ‘Umar said: Likewise I have heard from the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace.[5]

So we see that other contemporary scholars have stuck to the literal meaning, even while not explicitly mentioning anything about the possible connections between this Verse and the findings of modern science.

However, other scholars who have carried out exegesis of the Qur’an draw the connections a little bit more directly. For example, Shaykh ash-Sha’raawi mentions [loosely translated as follows]:

The Verse in this connection is (translation): “As often as their skins are consumed We shall exchange them for fresh skins”

We have previously explained (the topic of) the skins and the senses before, and the theories regarding the senses –as we know – have been taken up by the materialist scientists, and they wanted to know, how do we sense things? Some of them said: We sense with the brain. But we say to them: There are things that are not directly connected to the brain while we sense them, the evidence being that when anyone comes in front of my eyes and he directs his fingers towards opening my eyes in order to perforate them, it becomes such that his fingers close my eyes; that is, there are things that do not reach the brain, yet they are sensed. And some of the scientists said: The sense of feeling terminates in the spinal cord and through inverse kinematics, then they concluded in that sensory feelings come from the nerve endings spread throughout the skin; with the proof that when you take an injection in the muscles, the injection has a needle, and the pain is akin to the sting of a needle, originating solely due to the piercing of the skin by the needle, and after that there is no more feeling.

Thus, the center of sensory feeling in man is in the nerve endings permeating through the skin, with the evidence that our Lord has elucidated: that whenever the skin is burned there is inhibition of feeling, and thereupon their skins are changed in order to continue the sensation: “As often as their skins are consumed”. That is, they have become totally burned and have become incapacitated from feeling pain, whereupon a new skin will be brought in order for their punishment to be perpetual; for this is what is connected to the conscious soul in order for it to pain. Thus, the Verse (slightly) touches upon a practical scientific topic, for had the Qur’an turned towards straightforwardly (mentioning) the sensory feeling it would have said: O Sons of Adam, the location of feelings with you is in the skin- but they would not have understood anything (from it). But rather it was left (implicitly stated) in order for it (this concept) to mature slowly in the minds (of the people).[6]

So here we have a more direct connection being drawn between the Qur’anic Verse and the findings of modern science. It may be said that the last presentation above is making too much of a connection between science and the Qur’anic Verse, but we only wish to present what is being mentioned by different contemporary scholars of Islam on this issue.

Again, we have to stress that even if we were to suppose that this Verse strictly refers only to what will happen to the Hereafter, and has no connection with the current physiology of mankind and his body, then still there is nothing negative at all about how this Verse presents the matter of the punishment of people in the Hereafter. We only hope that people will take great care in studying the Qur’an from its proper sources, and we pray that Allah guides many to His Path through His final revelation. And through Allah is our success.

[4] What we understand from this is that there is no need to say that the changing of the skins is metaphorical in order to say that the punishment is eternal and will never come to a stop. The use of the word “every” in this Verse already fills this purpose, while we can continue to hold that the changing of the skins in the Hellfire is literal.