وَقِنَا عَذَابَ النَّارِ
And save us from the punishment of the fire.
(Sūrat al-Baqarah, No 2, Āyat 201)
Many supplications of believers in the Quran include a plea for safety from the punishment of the fire. The fire signifies the anger and displeasure of God. Being put in the Fire is a humiliation for a believer and a cause of great emotional and spiritual pain that goes beyond the physical pain. Thus, the Quran is replete with verses that seek protection from the fire, such as: Our Lord, You have not created this in vain! Glory be to You! Save us from the punishment of the Fire. Our Lord, whoever that You make enter the Fire will surely have been disgraced by You and the wrongdoers will have no helpers (Q 3:191-192).
The supplications of the month of Ramadan also include frequent pleas for safety from the fire. Every day we have been supplicating after the obligatory prayers: O One who favors, and none favors You, favor me by saving me from the fire. And in another supplication: And when You gather the people of the earlier and later periods on the Day of Judgement, have mercy on us, write for us a protection from the fire, do not confine us to Hell, and try us not with Your punishment and disgrace.
People wonder how they can reconcile the concept of kind and loving God with the punishment of the fire. Although God does not need our worship and our sins and disobedience do not hurt Him, He has set up a program for training and perfecting the human soul. This program, implemented by Prophets of God, includes Heaven and Hell as outcomes for the human being to choose from. Without incentives and deterrents, the program would not be successful. Justice also demands that those who submit and obey be treated differently from those who reject God.
The anger of Allah ‘azza wa-jall is a manifestation of His mercy. Allah (swt) does not change states such that He is angry at one time and merciful at another. He is all mercy and that mercy is shown in various ways, interpreted by human beings according to their understandings. When talking about the attributes of God, human beings compare them to human attributes. Mercy and anger in a human being involves change of state while this is not true for Allah. Human emotional states are also dependent on external factors and fulfill certain inner needs while God is independent of any factors and has no needs to be fulfilled.
Another point to consider is that the pain of punishment is a natural consequence of our deeds. Just like when someone is warned that overeating will result in a stomachache. If the person still overeats, the pain of the stomachache is a necessary consequence of the action of overeating. The two go together, part of a system of cause and effect put into place for optimal functioning of the body. Similarly, what we call punishment of the hereafter is a direct result of the system put into place for the optimal functioning of the soul. It is what happens to the soul when we pollute it with evil, it goes together with the deed. But the effects of that pollution only become clearer and tangible in the other world when our inner senses are fully awake. So, for example the Quran talks about fire as a result of cheating an orphan: Indeed those who consume the property of orphans wrongfully, only ingest fire into their bellies, and soon they will enter the Blaze (Q 4:10). The fire is an effect on the soul, a consequence of the cheating, but will be felt and realized in the hereafter.
God saves us from such effects on the soul by giving us laws to follow. Safety from the fire can be attained by faith and submission; through obedience to His laws and a conscious awareness of the need to act as a responsible servant of God. Among the reasons given by the people of Hell for being there are: We were not among those who prayed. Nor did we feed the poor. We used to indulge in vain talk with others, and we used to deny the Day of Judgment (Q 74:43-46).
When mistakes are made and human beings slip from the strait of obedience, there is still a way to be safe from the punishment. The soul is in control of Allah, and He can erase the effects of sins. Repenting and seeking forgiveness of Allah are the most effective ways to seek protection. He says: But Allah will not punish them while you are in their midst, nor will Allah punish them while they plead for forgiveness (Q 8:33). He invites us to seek forgiveness: Will they not repent to Allah and plead to Him for forgiveness? Yet Allah is all-forgiving, all-merciful (Q 5:74).
Use these last few days of the holy month to intensify istighfār and the seeking of protection from the fire. As the Prophet (s) said in his sermon welcoming Holy Ramadan: It is only the unfortunate who is deprived of Allah’s forgiveness during this great month.