Oftentimes when spiritual texts refer to “levels” of an afterlife, each level represents another layer of reward or suffering, as is in the case in the Hebrew Sheol or the Mesopotamian Land of No Return. The Qur'an famously refers to “seven heavens,” but these levels do not appear to refer to different layers of reward. In fact, the Qur'an doesn't delve into the reasoning behind this specific number. Instead, it leaves the nature of heaven open to interpretation.
In the Qur'an
No less than 10 Surahs in the Qur'an refer to the “seven heavens.” Oftentimes, the Islamic holy book refers to these seven heavens as layers, such as in Surah Fussilat, which describes Allah's creation of the heavens: “So He ordained them seven heavens in two periods, and revealed in every heaven its affair; and we adorned the lower heaven with brilliant stars.” Surah Nuh, which contains the line, “Do you not consider how Allah has created seven heavens in layers,” re-affirms the idea of a multi-leveled heaven.
A Figure of Speech
The Ahlul Bayt Digital Islamic Library Project points out that in Arabic, Persian and Urdu languages, numbers sometimes refer to a general sense of plenty rather than a specific quantity. Even in western languages, people often use figures of speech such as “I tried calling 50 times,” where the number 50 is not meant to be taken literally. By this interpretation, the term “seven heavens” simply refers to plentiful or abundant heavens rather than seven specific levels or layers.
The Ahlul Bayt Digital Islamic Library Project also presents an alternate interpretation of the “seven heavens,” this time a more literal take. “Seven heavens” may refer to different atmospheric layers that surround the earth, or it may refer to universes, galaxies or other celestial realms beyond our known Milky Way. Via this interpretation, the starry “lower heaven,” sometimes translated as the “nearest heaven,” described in Surah Fussilat refers to our known galaxy, leaving the six other heavenly realms a mystery.
A Spiritual Interpretation
The varying levels of the Islamic heaven may be interpreted as spiritual closeness to Allah, rather than physical divisions of a celestial body. Writing for the Islamic nonprofit group Muslim Voices, Rosemary Pennington says “the levels of heaven represent closeness to God -- the higher the level the closer to the understanding of Allah.” Pennington goes on to stress the unknowable nature of the Islamic heaven, which makes a strong case for leaving the “seven heavens” open to interpretation.
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