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The Islamic conception of hell is similar to the Christian conception of hell: Muslim hell is called Jahannam and it is a place of fire and torture. Deceased sinners enter through one of seven gates, according to the nature of their sins, and are given clothing made of fire (which sounds like it would be hard to dry-clean). The souls are mercilessly burned until they become black like charcoal. Nineteen angels oversee the administration of fire-based torture.
But Jahannam does have a special garden feature lacking from Christian hell. In the middle of the fiery realm is a great malevolent tree named Zaqqum with roots that snake down into the raging fires beneath the world. Zaqqum has fruits which are shaped like devil’s heads. The hungry spirits trapped in hell eat these fruits, which are the only foodstuff to be had, but the fruits only intensify the suffering of the damned. The Quran directly mentions the pain caused by eating Zaqqum’s fruit:
[44.43] Indeed, the tree of zaqqum
[44.44] Is food for the sinful.
[44.45] Like murky oil, it boils within bellies
[44.46] Like the boiling of scalding water.
Other references compare eating the fruit of Zuqqum to swallowing boiling brass, or relate how consuming the fruit is so painful that it causes the eaters’ faces to fall off!
There are no known allusions to Zuqqum before Mohammed. The concept originated with his revelations. Since the writing of the Quran, a number of thorny, poisonous, or bitter trees from Muslim lands have derived their common name from Zuqqum the great misery tree of Jahannam which feeds directly on the fires of hell.
In medieval art, hell was frequently portrayed as the flaming gullet of a terrible monster. This image of the literal mouth of hell never exactly appears as such in the bible and it has been speculated that the iconography derives from pre-Christian pagan mythology. Perhaps the poisonous all-devouring maw of the Fenris wolf was transformed into the flames of damnation due to the words of early Christian proselytizers (who sometimes incorporated pre-existing ideas into their teachings). Since the imagery originated in England first before becoming standard throughout Western Europe, it has been posited that the hellmouth concept originated in the Danelaw—the Norse settlements of England.
Whatever its origin, the picture of tiny naked sinners imprisoned and tormented inside of a huge merciless hellmouth is one of the most vivid images from gothic art. The images which I have embedded in this blog post all came from a single book of hours which was created in Utrecht, around 1440. The prayer book was once a treasured possession of Catherine of Cleves, who was the wife of Henry, Duke of Guise. The Duke, a powerful and important nobleman was assassinated on the orders of Henry III during the War of the Three Henrys. Catherine never forgave the French monarch and it is believed her support was instrumental to the king’s own death at the hands of a crazed assassin-monk. It is interesting to imagine her eyes running over the burning sinners as she plotted the death of kings and fed fuel into the fires of the religious wars of France.
The book was divided up in the nineteenth century, but, through good fortune (and thanks to large sums of money trading hands) it is now completely in the possession of the Morgan Library and Museum. Going to the fine online site allows one to examine the book in great detail and gain many insights into day-to-day life in the fifteenth century (and get a taste of the larger zeitgeist).