Understanding the Meaning of Sura 7: The Purgatory (Al-A‘arãf)

Sura 7 of the Quran is entitled الأعراف (Al-A‘arãf) and is translated as The Purgatory. When we look up the meaning of Purgatory in the dictionary, we get the following definitions:

  1. (in Roman Catholic doctrine) a place or state of suffering inhabited by the souls of sinners who are expiating their sins before going to heaven.
  2. having the quality of cleansing or purifying.

The word purgatory comes from the  late Latin purgatorius meaning  ‘purifying’, from the verb purgare for the meaning ‘purge’.

Upon further analysis from the Quran we see that Purgatory is a state some people will fall on the Day of Judgment that is neither Heaven or Hell. The Quran informs us that these individuals in Purgatory on the Day of Judgement will recognize each group by their looks.

[7:44] The dwellers of Paradise will call the dwellers of Hell: “We have found our Lord’s promise to be the truth, have you found your Lord’s promise to be the truth?” They will say, “Yes.” An announcer between them will announce: “GOD’s condemnation has befallen the transgressors;

[7:45] “who repel from the path of GOD, and strive to make it crooked, and, with regard to the Hereafter, they are disbelievers.”

[7:46] A barrier separates them, while the Purgatory is occupied by people who recognize each side by their looks. They will call the dwellers of Paradise: “Peace be upon you.” They did not enter (Paradise) through wishful thinking.

[7:47] When they turn their eyes towards the dwellers of Hell, they will say, “Our Lord, do not put us with these wicked people.”

[7:48] The dwellers of the Purgatory will call on people they recognize by their looks, saying, “Your great numbers did not avail you in any way, nor did your arrogance.

[7:49] “Are those the people you swore that GOD will never touch them with mercy?” (The people in the Purgatory will then be told,) “Enter Paradise; you have nothing to fear, nor will you grieve.”

From the footnote by Dr. Rashad Khalifa for this verse states:

“*7:46-49 Initially, there will be 4 places: (1) the High Heaven, (2) the Lower Heaven, (3) the Purgatory, and (4) Hell. The Purgatory will be annexed into the Lower Heaven.

When we look at the Arabic of the word for Purgatory we see that the word is الأعراف (Al-A‘arãf) comes from the root ع ر ف which in the Quran generally is used to derive one of two meanings:

  1. To be equitable, kind, or righteous in a universally understood manner (2:178,180; 3:104,110; 4:5,6,8…)
  2. To be recognized

Actually the root ع ر ف is used twice in the verse about Purgatory as listed above in both 7:46 and 7:48.

[7:46] A barrier separates them, while the Purgatory (الْأَعْرَافِ) is occupied by people who recognize (يَعْرِفُونَ) each side by their looks. They will call the dwellers of Paradise: “Peace be upon you.” They did not enter (Paradise) through wishful thinking.

[7:48] The dwellers of the Purgatory (الْأَعْرَافِ) will call on people they recognize (يَعْرِفُونَ) by their looks, saying, “Your great numbers did not avail you in any way, nor did your arrogance.

This tells us that every human instinctively understands the difference between good and evil and each of us on the Day of Judgement will be able to recognize the righteous from the unrighteous, as this is part of God’s universal design for every human.

One verse that further clarifies this point is 60:12.

[60:12] O you prophet, when the believing women (who abandoned the disbelievers) to seek asylum with you pledge to you that they will not set up any idols besides GOD, nor steal, nor commit adultery, nor kill their children, nor fabricate any falsehood, nor disobey your righteous orders, you shall accept their pledge, and pray to GOD to forgive them. GOD is Forgiver, Most Merciful.

The Arabic expression for “righteous orders” in this verse is مَعْرُوفٍ which means: something that is universally recognized as good and righteous. My understanding from this is that if the prophet gave an order to someone and that individual did not recognize the order as righteous then they were not to follow it, not because they are to disobey the prophet’s orders, but because they must have misunderstood the order.

We see this further explained in the publication of “Quran, Hadith and Islam” written by Rashad Khalifa

http://www.masjidtucson.org/publications/books/qhi/qhi.html

Another interesting location we see the root ع ر ف used is in 2:198 for the name of Mount Arafat (عَرَفَاتٍ), where during Hajj we implore God for guiding us and for forgiveness.

[2:198] You commit no error by seeking provisions from your Lord (through commerce). When you file from ‘Arafaat (عَرَفَاتٍ), you shall commemorate GOD at the Sacred Location (of Muzdalifah). You shall commemorate Him for guiding you; before this, you had gone astray. [2:199] You shall file together, with the rest of the people who file, and ask GOD for forgiveness. GOD is Forgiver, Most Merciful.

God willing, by seeking God’s forgiveness and guidance in this world it will spare us the agony of Hell in the Hereafter.

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