Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) said “The world is a prison for a believer and paradise for a non-believer”. This means that for a Muslim, one who submits his or her “nafs” or desires wholly to Allah to please Him, the world is full of restrictions and limitation. Everything in Islam is subject to checks and balances. If one has money, zakah or obligatory charity is due upon it, if one has rights , there are counterbalancing responsibilities. If there is freedom of choice, that choice is restricted by the criteria of halal (permissible) and haram (non-permissible). Every relationship a person has, be it biological, through marriage or even with neighbors, is subject to strict guidelines. There is no random or wanton freedom to do what one pleases in any aspect of life. Every thought and action, sin and virtue is being recorded to be weighed against one another on the day of judgment.
Just as a prison places restrictions on choice, freedom, movement, eating and drinking, routines and an individual’s wants, Islam expects people to exist within a framework of rules and regulations. There is no tangible or physical prison, but the metaphor of a prison is appropriate because a Muslim lives as a prisoner. A prisoner obviously awaits freedom. A Muslim lives in the worldly prison hoping and expecting reward from his Creator, for living in self-denial and following the rules which have been set by Allah. Such a person expects the greatest reward of jannah promised to those who have patiently endured the trials and hardships of the world. The inhabitants of jannah will never endure any hardship, pain or suffering. They will experience eternal joy, contentment, gratification, fulfillment and indulgence. Their austere and restricted worldly life will seem like a very insignificant price to pay for attaining jannah, and for being close to their creator.
However, for those who believe that the life of the world is all there is, there is obviously no reason for them to restrict themselves in any way. They are able to enjoy every pleasure at their disposal, use their wealth for themselves, follow their desires and live to enjoy life to the fullest. Without the thought of an afterlife or the criterion of halal-haram, the only checks and balances are those imposed by contemporary society, if they adhere to the society’s rules. There is no internal locus of control. The treatment of people, selfless sharing of money, being upright and steadfast, are all subject to relativism. What may be regarded as morally good in one society or at a particular time may be morally lax in another society or at a different point in time. Without a constant and unchanging standard, an individual can live in a self-created utopia. While such a person can enjoy his or her worldly life or possessions, they cannot expect the eternal reward of jannah.