Qur’an on Reincarnation

In chapter 23 of the Qur’an, surat al-Mu’minun, a people after Noah ﷺ are mentioned who denied the resurrection and according to ibn Kathir believed in reincarnation.

Ibn Kathir states in commenting on Surat Yasin verse 36:31:

Do they not see how many of the generations We have destroyed before them? Verily, they will not return to them. (36:31)

meaning, `do you not learn a lesson from those whom Allah destroyed before you of those who disbelieved in the Messengers? They came to this world only once, and will not return to it.’

It is not as many of those ignorant and immoral people claim that
إِنْ هِيَ إِلاَّ حَيَاتُنَا الدُّنْيَا نَمُوتُ وَنَحْيَا
(“There is nothing but our life of this world! We die and we live!”) (23:37). This was the belief in the cycle of reincarnation; in their ignorance they believed that they would come back to this world as they had been before. But Allah refuted their false belief and said:
أَلَمْ يَرَوْا كَمْ أَهْلَكْنَا قَبْلَهُم مِّنْ الْقُرُونِ أَنَّهُمْ إِلَيْهِمْ لَا يَرْجِعُونَ
(Do they not see how many of the generations We have destroyed before them Verily, they will not return to them). (36:31)

Below is the story referenced from chapter 23 in the Qur’an:

Then We raised another generation after them (Noah & the ark),
and sent to them a messenger from among themselves, ˹declaring,˺ “Worship Allah. You have no god other than Him. Will you not then fear ˹Him˺?”
But the chiefs of his people—who disbelieved, denied the meeting ˹with Allah˺ in the Hereafter, and were spoiled by the worldly luxuries We had provided for them—said:
“This is only a human like you. He eats what you eat, and drinks what you drink.
And if you obey a human like yourselves, then you would certainly be losers.
Does he promise you that once you are dead and reduced to dust and bones, you will be brought forth?
Impossible, simply impossible is what you are promised!
It is only the life of this world, we die and we live and we will not be resurrected.
He is no more than a man who has fabricated a lie about Allah, and we will never believe in him.”
The messenger prayed, “My Lord! Help me, because they have denied ˹me˺.”
Allah responded, “Soon they will be truly regretful.”
Then the blast overtook them with justice, and We reduced them to rubble. So away with the wrongdoing people!
Then We raised other generations after them.

After this comes the story of Moses ﷺ and Aaron ﷺ. The word ثم is used here which seems to indicate a timeline. So some time between the prophets Noah ﷺ and Moses ﷺ there was a nation who believed in reincarnation. This indeed puts the ancient Indus civilization right in that timeline, or perhaps other ancient Indian civilizations. Though the Rigveda doesn’t seem to mention it. Yet the Rigveda was only written around 300 BC, so how do we know how accurately it lines up with the Indus civilization’s religious views or the original vedic beliefs a whole millennium before that? We have no proof that it was accurately preserved, or records of what changed. It’s all lost to history. But something else is interesting here.

Origin of Reincarnation in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism

The concept of reincarnation is first explained in the Chandogya Upanishad. A young Brahman man named Shvetaketu returns home from his studies claiming to have learned Vedic knowledge, including Upanishad stuff about doctrine of the soul (atman). His childhood friend asks him about the afterlife, which he says wasn’t part of his curriculum.

From here we can note that the core doctrine of the Upanishads is not rooted in a view of the afterlife, so early meditation doesn’t necessarily hinge on breaking the cycle of rebirths, though it is quite apparent in Buddhism and among modern Hindus. Rather it was about “the isolation (Kaivalya) of consciousness from its field of objects in which it is mostly entangled, regardless of what happens to the conscious subject before birth or after death.”

Then when they ask Shvetaketu’s father and even he doesn’t know about the afterlife, they ask the king. He turns out to know and have known all along, and teaches them the concept of reincarnation for the first time in Vedic literature and perhaps all of the known writings of mankind. He says this belief is the secret of the Kshatriyas’ power and a common belief among them, the 2nd Hindu caste of warriors, meaning they draw their courage from it. No wonder the concept is so central in the traditions of Mahavira Jina and Siddartha Gautama, the founders of Jainism and Buddhism, both Kshatriyas.

Now it’s peculiar how the Qur’an says the chiefs are the ones who said this to their people, that “we die and live and will not be resurrected” and “it’s only the life of this world.” And in the Chandogya Upanishad it is the king who teaches Shvetaketu this concept of reincarnation.

It could just be a coincidence, and the two are talking about different things. Perhaps, perhaps not. Either way, the Qur’an refutes this concept entirely. There is only one life on Earth. We are here to be tested. Then we are resurrected on the Day of Judgement and we are judged. Then Heaven or Hell. And we will never die again.

الله أعلم

Sheikh Abdul Hakim Murad

More Reading

Does the Rig-Veda Mention Reincarnation or not ? Part 1

The Indic Religions and the Vedas


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