Paradise in Muslim Literature

Aga Khan Library and Ismaili Special Collections Unit Exhibition

31 October 2021 – 31 May 2022

Inspired by Making Paradise exhibition the ‘Paradise in Muslim Literature’ exhibition brings together a collection of titles from both Aga Khan Library and Ismaili Special Collections Unit (The Institute of Ismaili Studies) as a way of sharing specific narrative around the subject of Paradise.

In the first instance, this exhibition is presented online as a way of enabling global audiences to access and engage with the work of Aga Khan Library (AKL) and Ismaili Special Collections Unit (ISCU). It offers the opportunity to examine selected titles from both collections that inspire focused thought around the subject of Paradise. It is also an opportunity to share a collaborative exhibition for the first time with audiences who may not otherwise engage with our work. The exhibition is made up of three chosen titles from AKL and ISCU, with images of key pages opened that reveal the connection to the subject and curatorial notation on why they have been selected.

The chosen titles from ISCU bring to our attention three titles that provide both visual and conceptual presentation of Paradise in Islam. These works address themes related to the concept of Paradise that may not always seem directly related to the concept, but in the literary tradition of Islamic world in general and Persian literature in particular they are featured in various forms. These themes include spiritual experience of union with the divine which is the mystical interpretation of Paradise in Sufi literature. The “Mi‘raj”, Prophet Muhammad’s experience of ascension to Heaven is a theme that has repeatedly inspired literary and intellectual productions among Muslim authors.

The items on display from the AKL include an often quoted verse from the Quran, the Muslim Holy Scripture, as well as selections from two poetic works, Mantiq al-Tayr (conference of birds) of Farid al-Din Attar (ca. 1142–1220) and Bal-e Jibril (TRANSLATION) of Muhammad Iqbal. While the chosen verse gives us a glimpse of the description of paradise in the Quran, the selections from other two works enlighten our understanding of the metaphorical and allegorical usage of the concept in Muslim poetic literature.

The Quran mentions the notion of paradise in hundreds of verses and uses many words to describe it. However, the basic element for the concept is Jannah (literally means Garden).

“Allah has promised the believers, both men and women, Gardens under which rivers flow, to stay there forever, and splendid homes in the Gardens of Eternity, and—above all—the pleasure of Allah. That is ˹truly˺ the ultimate triumph.” (Q 9:72).

In Islam, paradise is the final or eternal abode for a believer. For a believer life is a journey and the ultimate reward for a life well-lived is meeting with the Supreme Master and achieving the eternal bliss. Modelled on the night journey of prophet Muhamad, the famous Persian Sufi poet, Farid al-Din Attar in his masterpiece, Mantiq al-Tayr (conference of the birds) tells the story of the journey of the soul’s ascent to God through the allegory of birds in search of their Supreme Master.

The poem “Mulla aur Bahisht” or “Priest and the Heaven”, from Bal-i Jibril by the 19th century South Asian poet philosopher Sir Muhammad Iqbal, on the other hand, uses the notion to target the priest or the “religious establishment”. Iqbal complains to God (Allah) and says he (the priest) does not deserve the high place (paradise). He would not appreciate the blessings of Jannah (paradise). He only knows creating divisions and spreading hatred.