Heaven Is Not a Zip Code

Thursday, November 27, 2014 - 6:15am

Heaven Is Not a Zip Code

What if we have gotten Heaven all wrong?

Many Christians, Muslims, and some Buddhists imagine a heavenly place as an eternal reward for the faithful. While this place is often described as a garden of serenity and tranquility, we often see many faithful arguing about who can and cannot have access to this place in ways that are in no way serene and tranquil. Not only do we argue about the place, we also argue about who can get in, and who is locked out.

What if we have it all wrong?

Some mystics have actually dared to ponder that. They realize that it is not about heaven as a place, but about a heavenly state of being, a state of the heart.

One of these mystics, a famous 8th-century Iraqi lover of God, Rabia, is remembered as having gone through a city in the middle of the bright day with a lit torch in one hand and a bucket of water in the other. It’s a paradoxical image, this woman who combines the two opposites (water and fire). The puzzled people of the city asked Rabia what she was doing. Rabia responded that with the lit torch she was going to burn down heaven, and with the bucket of water she was going to quench the fires of hell — so that people would have no reason left to worship a god other than God.

There have always been, and remain, a few who are in it not for the garden, but for the Gardner; not for heaven, but for the Lord of Heaven.

How do we get back to looking beyond salvation, getting into Heaven, and arguing over who can (and cannot) get into Heaven, and reflecting more about being in a heavenly state here and now, already in union with the Divine Beloved?

One mystic who did so was the great, incomparable Rumi. Rumi, the great master of love poetry, was also a deep lover of the Qur’an. In fact, he called his masterpiece (the Masnavi) the “Unveiler of the Qur’an” (kashshaf al-Qur’an), an erotic metaphor that compares the scripture to a beautiful veiled bride. The bride of scripture has to be unveiled (kashf) before a love-union can take place.

In his masterpiece, Rumi offers a brilliant reading of the Qur’an, in which he imagines heaven to be not a “place” that we enter, but nothing short of a state of being taken inside the heart of another fellow human being. He focuses on a beautiful passage of the scripture in which God addresses the tranquil souls of those who are about to enter Paradise:

O soul at peace!
Return to your Lord,
You well-pleased with God,
God well-pleased with You.
Enter in my servants
And enter My heavenly garden


It’s a simple and beautiful passage, often recited in funerals to offer a prayer that the departed will be among those who are pleasing to God, God-pleased-with-them, and will enter the heavenly garden (Jannat).

There is the beautiful reciprocity of a humanity reaching a state of joy and tranquility with God: we’re pleased with God, God’s pleased with us. This state is characterized by pleasure.

The magical mystical twist, the “Rumi take,” comes in a brilliant mystical reading of the simple Arabic preposition “in” contained in the phrase, “Enter in my servants and enter My heavenly garden.” Yes, it really does depend on what definition of “in” (Arabic, fi) is.

Most people read the verse as “Enter in, my servants.” In other words: Come on in, y’all… and enter God’s Heavenly garden.

Rumi reads the same verse literally: “Enter in my servants, and enter my Garden.” As in “Enter into my servants, and you’ve entered my Garden.” Enter inside my servants, and you’re already in Heaven.

In Rumi’s poetry, there are dozens of references to “come on in,” “come inside,” and many of them harken back to this beautiful interpretation.

Heaven is not a place. Heaven is to be found inside the hearts of those who are already at peace with God. When one of these souls loves us and takes us inside their hearts, we are taken into a heavenly state.

Heaven is not a place. Heaven is not a zip code. Heaven is a not a place with walls and pearly gates. No guardians to keep us in, or out. We ourselves are the guardians keeping ourselves out of that heavenly state.

Heaven is about a state of peaceful tranquility. If and when we achieve it, including here and now, we are already in the Garden.

We alone can reach this state, yet we do not reach it alone. It is possible that we cannot reach it alone. We reach it when we take in other human beings into our hearts’ inner paradise, and when others take us in to their hearts.

There’s a beautiful tale of a man who went to see a sage. The sage lived on top of a hard-to-get-to mountain. When the man climbed the mountain, he saw the sage sitting in meditation, in a blissful state of serenity. He approached the sage and asked: “What is hell?”

The sage looked at the man, still huffing and puffing from the climb, and said, “Why would I reveal such secrets to someone as fat, ugly, and immature as you?”

The man turned red in anger, and uttered some nasty words to the sage. The sage took a deep breath and said to the man, “Feel the heat rising from inside you. That heat, that anger, that resentment — that is hell.”

The man understood what the sage had done. He sat down next to the sage, and took in a deep breath. He felt the breath enter in his heart center, and come out of the heart center. His complexion changed. His heart’s beating slowed down to a tranquil state. The sage put his hand on the man’s arm, looked at him with the glance of compassion, and said, “This feeling of tranquility, this calm, this peace, my friend, this is heaven.”

What if we can cultivate an awareness of heaven not as a place that we must go to somewhere after death, but rather as a state of having a tranquil heart that we can — and must — achieve here and now?

What if what we are meant to do is not to get into heaven but to get heaven into us?


Share Post

Shortened URL


Omid Safi

is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Thursday.

He is Director of Duke University's Islamic Studies Center. He is the past Chair for the Study of Islam, and the current Chair for Islamic Mysticism Group at the American Academy of Religion. In 2009, he was recognized by the University of North Carolina for mentoring minority students in 2009, and won the Sitterson Teaching Award for Professor of the Year in April of 2010.

Omid is the editor of the volume Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism, which offered an understanding of Islam rooted in social justice, gender equality, and religious and ethnic pluralism. His works Politics of Knowledge in Premodern Islam, dealing with medieval Islamic history and politics, and Voices of Islam: Voices of Change were published 2006. His last book, Memories of Muhammad, deals with the biography and legacy of the Prophet Muhammad. He has forthcoming volumes on the famed mystic Rumi, contemporary Islamic debates in Iran, and American Islam.

Omid has been among the most frequently sought speakers on Islam in popular media, appearing in The New York Times, Newsweek, Washington Post, PBS, NPR, NBC, CNN and other international media. He leads an educational tour every summer to Turkey, to study the rich multiple religious traditions there. The trip is open to everyone, from every country. More information at Illuminated Tours.

Share Your Reflection



Thank you for this beautiful piece. Heavenly to hear these words and meditate upon their meaning, and to know it within ourselves.

This piece calls to mind a quatrain attributable to Khayyam (with a little help from the Victorian Edward Fitzgerald): "I sent my Soul through the Invisible, some letter of the After-life to spell: and by and my Soul return'd to me, and answer'd, 'I myself am Heav'n and Hell.'" 5th edition, (1889), number 66. Poet and mystic William Blake would have agreed: 'he who kisses the joy as it flies lives in eternity's sunrise.'

Wow, I've always wondered how to word my thoughts on religion vs. spirituality.......you've achieved that for me....thank you

I remember how delighted and awed I was, 7-8 years ago, to discover this truth in my Christian Bible, "...the kingdom of God is within you." (Luke 17:21) - and how dismayed I was to then discover, when sharing it with others who had been studying much longer than I had, that they had no knowledge of this. I had never heard it preached from the pulpit either. I am delighted today to learn of the similarity to Rumi's take on the Qur-an. This is a beautiful article. I hope people of all faiths read it.

I believe his premise is correct.

Thank you for your insightful and inspiring words.

Yes. Thank you. And if we teach our children from a very young age that this is a purposeful endeavor they can effect, they will grow up with a sense of personal control over their own contentment. They won't look to the outside for happiness and their tolerance for life's challenges will be high.

My coming into this world was through the womb of my mother. A concrete, incarnated, phsyical, sacred place was necessary for my becoming. Could I have imagined such a new, physical life awaited me outside the womb while I was gestating in it? Envisioning heaven solely as a state of mind and heart, as beautiful as this can be, still leaves my heart in abstract restlessness. In the matter of heaven, I am as a baby seeking the face of its mother.." at last bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh", a living reality inclusive of the body.

A wise teacher, instructing his students to meditate, told them, "The process is like filling a sieve with water." All of the students were confused by this statement. How was it possible to fill a sieve with water? Some thought it meant meditation was very difficult, and others thought it meant they could only expect temporary gains from their practice. Discouraged, they stopped meditating. One student, however, approached the teacher and asked him to explain.
The teacher took the student to the edge of the ocean, gave him a sieve, and told him to try to fill it with water. The student scooped the water into the sieve, but it immediately ran out. The teacher took the sieve from the student and said, "I will show you how." The teacher threw the sieve into the water, where it sank almost immediately. He told the student, "The sieve is full of water now and will stay that way forever. Meditation works the same way. It's not about scooping small amounts of Spirit into your individual life, but about dropping yourself into the ocean of Spirit and merging with that Spirit more and more each day." -unattributed, told by Marci Shimoff

Whereever that story comes from, it is the most beautiful description of meditation I've seen. I could feel the joy of it, sitting here grinning. Thank you.

Perfect! Thank you for sharing this.

Ommid, as usual, wonderfully stated and a gentle reminder to one and all. I agree both states of "fii" are present, and I like the "enter into"...that is my unfolding. Be well.

A lovely piece, my friend. Your wisdom inspires my day!

Thank you . . . This gives me a beautiful and calming feeling in my heart and soul!

so then what happens when we die ?where does our soul go ?

Thanks Linda. I'm wondering the same thing. In particular, does the idea of 'heaven within us' change after death? This was a very provocative read.

Wonderful reflection. Same could be said for Hell, yes. We learn that in theology in jr. high school. And if souls are "SENT" there, then it is more than in your heart,it is larger than a single soul, and it can fill your soul with hate or with love.

Just last week in my adult Sunday class, we had a discussion on this question,the belief I expressed about heaven and hell was similar to this one, and it was difficult for some who have a more of a visual/literal concept of this to comprehend. This article expresses beautifully what I wanted to say and I am going to share it with my class as food for thought. Thank you.

While I think this is a beautiful idea, consistent with Judaic thought(I believe)and a worthy pursuit in a materialistic and rapacious world,I have come to believe/realize that God -as all knowing and compassionate-is ultimate information. Our lves are actions and collections of experiences yha ft are good and bad. This information (our lives)is recalled to God. It becomes part of God. God may recall us if he wishes or no; perhaps resurrection is recalling information of you and being " re-assembled", in a new reality created from all the information collected. I suppose much in the way a 3-D printer renders digital information, so to the Universe is God's expression engine that renders pure thhought (information )

Thank you for this beautiful article. As the holiday of thanksgiving rolls by, and our nation drops in even greater depths of materialism and consumerism, the idea of an inside heaven and hell become even more important. I got to heaven the day I stopped caring about what was on sale and was able to enjoy my day!

"Forests may be gorgeous but there is nothing more alive than a tree that learns how to grow in a cemetery.” 
― Andrea Gibson


A beautiful article. We really need this approach in this age when material luxuries are used to create an artificial heaven in this world, and some think they can get a free pass to heaven by blowing themselves up. Sadly, some people perceive this as a denial of heaven and hell, whereas it is simply a different, deeper understanding. I am reminded of someone asking the blessed Prophet Muhammad, if heaven fills the earth and skies, then where is hell, and he replied: where is the night when the day comes?

Salam va Dorud bar Omid Safi!

Thanks for writing such a beautiful piece and thanks God we have writers and speakers such as you!

Thank you so much for this beautiful piece. A friend shared it on her wall, and I read and was very moved, especially since it is near Christmas. Such a beautiful article to start today off.

Thanks for wonderful words

I really appreciate this reflection, however, I'm left wondering where does this leave those individuals who suffer from depression, mental illness, addiction, etc. Heaven may not be a zip code, but I have to think there is a final destination, perhaps in the loving embrace of the eternal God who takes us in after life has taken its toll, and says, "there, there. It's over. Your home now." Could it be for some, that peace and serenity are not achieved but granted freely and unearned because they are the beloved children of the creator.

The Bahá’í teachings state that there is no such physical place as heaven or hell, and emphasise the eternal journey of the soul towards perfection. They explain that references to “heaven” and “hell” in the Holy Scriptures of other religions are to be understood symbolically, describing states of nearness to and distance from God in this world and in the realms beyond. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá has said that when human beings “become illuminated with the radiance of the sun of reality, and ennobled with all the virtues, they esteem this the greatest reward, and they know it to be the true paradise. In the same way they consider that the spiritual punishment…is to be subjected to the world of nature; to be veiled from God; to be brutal and ignorant; to fall into carnal lusts; to be absorbed in animal frailties; to be characterized with dark qualities…these are the greatest punishments and tortures…"