Nelson Mandela to hell? by amina wadud

Amina Wadud 2 I am Muslim, by choice, practice and vocation

As I am transiting back into America from Asia, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela made his final transition from our collective human lives to the next dominion. (I mention my transition only to apologize for not continuing with the third installment on Vipassana; sometimes real life—or death –gets in the way).

Instead, I want to say a few words about the man President Obama referred to as “the last great hero of the 20th Century.” First the personal glimpse: I got to shake hands with Mandela when he included Malaysia among those countries he visited upon release from a 27 year prison term. It was 1991 and I felt the wind of change. In a small country like Malaysia it’s easier to get up close and personal with a national guest of this stature. No big deal (but I did tell my friends I wouldn’t wash my hand for a week!).

The beginnings of my own deep considerations about gender in Islam were under way at this same time and in fact got their biggest boost when I visited South Africa for the first time. The whole nation was marking 100 days in the Mandela presidency. Every fiber in the air sparkled with the intensity of change. I became friends with South African Muslims who had struggled side by side with comrades from all races and religions in the movement to tumble apartheid. Sometimes they’d had to stand against conservative members of their own Muslim community to form such alliances.

The phrase, “gender jihad”–which bridges Islamic terminology for struggle, resistance and justice was first articulated by South African Muslims (as was “economic jihad” in concert with the racial struggle against apartheid). Theirs was also the nascent movement for inclusion for persons of diverse sexual orientations. This radical intersectionality of oppressions and move towards inclusiveness is enshrined in the S.A. Constitution: “The state may not unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone on one or more grounds including race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, color, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth.”

Here was the first time I had even thought about a woman as imam when I accepted an invitation to give a sermon at a Friday service in Capetown. It was 1994, and there was no turning back. As a black American woman of African origins, to be in South Africa at that particular time exploded my view of the world into a kaleidoscope of possibilities that would never again return to mono-chrome.

So I was struck hard by the return of Mandela to the Beloved. I had no patience with certain Muslim “scholars” who asserted that while Mr. Mandela was a great man, because he was not a Muslim he must be considered an unbeliever/ kafir, and thus destined for hell (yes, people actually said this!). In Malaysia, a general fatwa was issued saying it was haram (an act of grievous sinfulness) to even say “Rest in Peace” over any person who was not Muslim.

There were of course several responses to such, especially as far as the specific man, Tata (Father) Madiba (a title of high esteem for a member in his tribe). Most simply ignored it, and continued to mourn his death and celebrate his life. Some, including Dr. Tariq Ramadan, gave a general apologetic speech about tolerance. With the reminder that none of us knows our final abode, so we should remain humble.

A friend of mine responded to a similar accusation in the Netherlands by reviewing the lengthy Islamic intellectual tradition about the nature of belief. None of us know our final abode, but we should know this: “islam” is not merely an ethnicity, a history, cultures, a set of practices, peoples and dogmas. It is described in the Qur’an as the highest order of the entire universe. All of nature is Muslim. All of nature “surrenders” to the beauty and harmony of the universe. When some say, Islam means peace, they refer to the peace of living in accordance to the highest order of the universe.

The highest order of the universe is al-Haqq (absolute Truth). Thus, to be a believer, one must stand up for Truth…no matter the consequences. It is abundantly clear that Truth must be wedded to Justice, that attribute which is an obligation upon God/Allah and which today we understand cannot exist without equality. Thus, the primary characteristic of a believer is to stand for truth, justice and equality making Mr. Mandela the most stellar Believer. For even when his persecution (in the form of imprisonment) was over, he embraced his jailers as only equals before the constitution of the New South Africa. The Islamic paradigm of belief requires an affirmation of the harmony and unity of all things, but especially between human beings. “Thus the rejection of tyranny is by itself a reflection of belief”. Belief exemplifies the highest order of human decency without which no religion can survive.

Because I take this great legacy to heart and not just for work or ethics, I share my 4 grandchildren with other grandparents who are Muslim, African-American, Polish Jewish immigrants to Canada, Native American, Christian, Latino, white and even a Grammy award winning musician of dual citizenship. Diversity of race and religion is not optional, it is mandatory in my life. So, my response to the claims that Mandela was going to hell was much simpler: If where he is going is hell…I’d rather join him there than spend an eternity with those Muslim “scholars” who spoke out against him.

 amina wadud is Professor Emerita of Islamic Studies, now traveling the world over seeking  answers to the questions that move many of us through our lives.  Author of Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective and Inside the Gender Jihad, she will blog on her life journey and anything that moves her about Islam, gender and justice, especially as these intersect with the rest of the universe. 

Categories: General, Islam, Loss

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16 replies

  1. I’m with you, there will be a lot of spaces available in some people’s hell.


  2. “Heaven for climate, Hell for company.”- Oscar Wilde


  3. I’m with you, too. Excellent blog. Fortunately, hell is a concept belonging to the standard-brand religions that I don’t believe in. I guess some of those scholars you mention, along with some of the local fundies, would put me there, too. If I got to be anywhere near Nelson Mandela, I’d feel unimaginably honored to be in his presence. I’ve long thought that Mandela and Pete Seeger were the greatest men on the planet. Thanks for writing this blog.


    • Thanks Barbara.

      I think it is standard only for Christianity and Islam. Most religions then do not have it (if we are talking numbers of worship peers)

      Even as a Muslim, however, I do not take it literally. But I do like to play with the notions when it comes to having to think about eternity with some

      My two guys would be Malcolm and Mandela, so we’d have to come visit you and Pete to get the music going.

      Although, you gotta admit Tata could dance!


  4. There’s a hell??? 8-/
    Doesn’t fit with my experience of the Holy One.

    People ask, “Well, what about people who do bad things?
    I think: their punishment is that they never knew the joy of doing good things. And maybe our own entrance into whatever comes after our death will be conditioned by our capacity for forgiveness and compassion.

    You write such interesting posts Amina. Thank you for sharing.


  5. I love that you have so much scholarly knowledge, yet let your heart and your direct connection with the Divine be your guide. I agree that Tata Madiba was a true believer with greater faith and courage than those who would condemn him because of a label.


  6. Amina, how profoundly your thoughts engage the memory of Mandela! Because he taught by example . If we can imagine the courage, the great compassion, the patience and forbearance he must have had, we are all lifted up too.


  7. Interesting one Prof! This reminds of lines in Ahmad Shawki’s Hamziyyat in praise of the Holy Prophet (PBUH)!
    بك يا ابن عبدالله قامت سمحة بالحق من ملل الهدى غراء
    بنيت على التوحيد وهو حقيقة نادى بها سقراط والقدماء
    الاشتراكيونَ أنت إمامُهم لولا دعاوىَ القوم والغُلَوَاءُ
    He likened what the Holy Prophet came to do in the world as what Socrates and others came to do. So would we say Socrates will go to hell? hmmmmm


  8. The right to judge who goes to Paradise/Hell belongs to God alone.

    Quran does say that some things are similitudes/metaphors therefore there is no need to take the concepts of Paradise/Hell literally. However, considering the principles of Justice, Compassion and Mercy….I feel Judgement/punishment/reward fits well. For Justice without compassion/mercy only creates an unforgiving harshness, and (unconditional) compassion/mercy without justice creates chaotic injustice.

    Consider, if your child indulged in bad, unethical, immoral behavior—or worse, malicious, harmful conduct—would you be a good parent if you were to unconditionally excuse, justify, cover-up, and forgive? or would you be a good parent if you guided, scolded and forcefully made clear the consequences of bad/harmful actions? likewise, if humanity only lives by the principles of unconditional compassion/mercy without regard to justice—it would create disharmony and imbalance. However, bad actions do not just effect others—they also cause “moral injury”—that is , they effect our souls. Such souls must be cleansed and mended (made whole)….but this requires the soul to be in a state of repentance—because the humility that comes from such a state opens our hearts to God. To punish—cools the fires of anger and vengeance to those to whom an injustice has been done—–it may also facilitate in healing the pain caused by injustice. Thus it serves to ” mend” the souls of others—but it might also serve to “mend” the soul of the one to whom a moral injury has occurred through his own actions.

    On the other hand, there are those among our brothers and sisters in humanity who suffer tremendous trials through no fault of their own. Justice tempered with compassion and mercy requires that they be compensated. So both Paradise(reward) and Hell(punishment) are necessary concepts in understanding the principles of Justice tempered with compassion and mercy…because in the end, for all the souls in creation, our return is to God.

    Surah 21 verse 35
    Every soul shall have a taste of death: and we shall test you by bad and by good by way of trial. To us must you return.

    Surah 39 verse 53
    Say: O my servants who have transgressed against their souls, despair not of the mercy of God: for God forgives all sins; for he is most forgiving, most merciful.

    Surah 2 verse 156-7
    Who say, when afflicted with calamity:”To God we belong and to him is our return”:-

    They are the ones on whom descend blessings and mercy from their Lord and they are the ones that receive guidance.


    • I live in an area with a large Aboriginal population. Their concept of “Justice” is different than our system based on British Law and court system. The goal is not to punish a person, but to correct and restore to the community whenever possible. There is information on-line – for instance at:
      We are using it when possible in our city. It’s a difficult transition because the present system of courts, punishment, guilt, innocence, vengeance, etc., is so much easier.


      • Yes, the Quranic justice system consists of 3 types—restorative justice, retributive justice and deterrent justice….Quranic justice also emphasizes repentence/reform because it is not just concerned with justice between people but also with the soul……(to heal the moral injury)……


  9. Thanks for all your comments! Apologies for not being able to reply to each, I’m getting down to the wire about housing so I bit distracted…


  10. salaams
    I would like to start off by saying that i know you all mean well and that you all have hope for those not on the religion of islam entering heaven,but truth to be told it is no help hoping for something which cannot be.

    The reason i say this is that in islam the basic tenets of belief for a muslim is to exclaim and believe whole heartedly in the shahada and tawheed (monotheism) which reads “i testify that there is non worthy of worship besides allah and muhammad SAW is his last servant and messenger”thus exclaiming that you revoke any other religion that has come before.

    the mere fact that this is such a crucial step in a persons conversion to islam is tantamount to the belief that only by exclaiming this verse and believing in it will one gain entry into paradise.Those who refute and do not acknowledge muhammad SAW as the last and final prophet of allah will unfortunately not gain entry into paradise and ofcourse be regarded as a non muslim.

    “And whoever seeks a religion other than Islam, it will never be accepted of him, and in the Hereafter he will be one of the losers”

    [Aal ‘Imraan 3:85]

    Imam al-Tabari said in his commentary on this verse:

    What Allaah means by that is that whoever looks for a religion other than Islam to follow, Allaah will never accept that from him, “and in the Hereafter he will be one of the losers” meaning, one of those who deprived themselves of their share of the mercy of Allaah.”

    (Tafseer al-Tabari, 3/339)

    The hadeeth is: “By the One in Whose hand is the soul of Muhammad, there is no-one of this ummah, Jew or Christian, who hears of me then dies without believing in that with which I have been sent, but he will be one of the people of Hell.” (Reported by Muslim, may Allaah have mercy on him, in al-Saheeh, 153).

    Allah knows best


  11. Thanks for your redundant comments.

    This is what I address by considering the meaning of certain words. For example 3:85 uses the word “deen” which is NOT “religion” but “way of life..” So actually should read “Who ever chooses a way other then SURRENDER to al-Haqq”, as I said.

    The vast majority of persons who are identified as “Muslim” are born of Muslim parents and have never themselves given (or taken) the opportunity to PROFESS on their own, voluntarily with full maturity what we call Shahadatayn. According to you, these are all condemned too.

    Likewise Abraham, Moses and Jesus whom the Qur’an identifies as muslim although they lived before the Prophet Muhammad, also never took the Shahadatayn.

    They surrender to al-Haqq.


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