Sunni scholarship presented two views. Whilst the majority of scholars argued 'both body and soul experience punishment or bliss, a group of distinguished scholars argue this only applies to the soul and not the body.
Only the Soul – Not the Body
Ibn Hazm (Dhahiri jurist, d. 456 A.H), Ibn al-Jawzi (Hanbali jurist and commentator, d. 597 A.H), Ibn 'Aqeel (outstanding Hanbali jurist, d. 694 A.H.) and some others are the main advocates of this claim.
Ibn Hazm said:
فِتْنَةُ الْقَبْرِ وَعَذَابُهُ وَالْمَسْأَلَةُ إِنَّمَا هِي لِلرُّوحِ فَقَطْ بَعْدَ فِرَاقِهِ لِلْجَسَدِ .
"The fitnah (trial), punishment and questioning are for the soul only after it leaves the body." (Al-Fasl fi al-Milal wa an-Nihal, Vol., pp. 117)
Ibn Hazm evidence this claim as following (Al-Fasl fi al-Milal wa an-Nihal, Vol. 4, pp. 117-120):
قَالُوا رَبَّنَا أَمَتَّنَا اثْنَتَيْنِ وَأَحْيَيْتَنَا اثْنَتَيْنِ فَاعْتَرَفْنَا بِذُنُوبِنَا فَهَلْ إِلَىٰ خُرُوجٍ مِّن سَبِيلٍ
"They will say, 'Our Lord, You made us lifeless twice and gave us life twice, and we have confessed our sins. So is there any exit?'" (Qur'an 40:11)
Ibn Hazm argued the two lives are birth in this world and resurrection on the Day of Judgement, whilst the two deaths are the one happens before birth (where humans were in nihility) and one happens after worldly life. Thus if there is a life for bodies in the grave, the verse would be 'You made us lifeless three times and gave us life three times.'
اللَّهُ يَتَوَفَّى الْأَنفُسَ حِينَ مَوْتِهَا وَالَّتِي لَمْ تَمُتْ فِي مَنَامِهَا فَيُمْسِكُ الَّتِي قَضَى عَلَيْهَا الْمَوْتَ وَيُرْسِلُ الْأُخْرَى إِلَى أَجَلٍ مُسَمًّى
"Allah takes the souls at the time of their death, and those that do not die (He takes) during their sleep. Then He keeps those for which He has decreed death and releases the others for a specified term." (Qur'an 39:42)
Ibn Hazm states the "specified term" (أجل مسمى) is the Day of Resurrection. Therefore, Allah only re-issues life to bodies only at the resurrection.
Allah also says:
وَمَا أَنْتَ بمُسْمِعِ مَنْ فِي الْقُبُورِ
"you cannot make those in the graves hear." (Qur'an 35:22)
The verse suggests lifelessness to the inhabitants of the grave.
Ibn Hazm argues the Prophet (saw) saw in al-Isra' wa al-Mi'raj (the night journey to Jerusalem and heaven) the Prophets (as) in the mosque as well as in the heaven, and disobedient people punished in a place other than their graves. (Sahih al-Bukhari 7517 and 3887)
The Prophet (saw) after the battle of Badr (2 A.H.) spoke to the dead disbelievers and rebuked them. The companions said, "O Messenger of Allah, are you calling out to people who have turned into rotten corpses?" The Prophet (saw) replied:
مَا أَنْتُمْ بِأَسْمَعَ لِمَا أَقُولُ مِنْهُمْ وَلَكِنَّهُمْ لاَ يَسْتَطِيعُونَ أَنْ يُجِيبُوا
"You do not hear what I say any better than they do, but they cannot answer." (Sunan an-Nasa'i 2075)
Ibn Hazm claims the Prophet confirmed their understanding of rotting corpses however he (saw) clarified their souls hear better than the living people do.
Other scholars cited a hadith that more explicitly supports this view. The Prophet (saw) said:
إِنَّمَا نَسَمَةُ الْمُؤْمِنِ طَائِرٌ يَعْلُقُ فِي شَجَرِ الْجَنَّةِ حَتَّى يَرْجِعَ إِلَى جَسَدِهِ يَوْمَ يُبْعَثُ
"The believer's soul is a bird that eats from the trees of Paradise until it will be returned to his body on the Day when he is resurrected." (Ibn Majah 4271, Muatta Malik Hadith 572, Sunan an-Nasa'i 2073)
Regarding the companions, Ibn Umar (ra) saw the body of Ibn al-Zubayr and told his mother Asmaa (ra), the daughter of Abu Bakr, who was sitting beside his body:
هَذِهِ الجُثَثُ لَيْسَتْ بِشَيْءٍ وَأَنَّ الْأَرْوَاحَ عِنْدَ اللهِ
"These corpses are nothing and the souls are with Allah." (Ibn Abi Shaybah, 4716)
It was also narrated Ibn Mas'ud (ra) was asked about the meaning of the above verse "You (Allah) made us lifeless twice and gave us life twice," he replied referring to the verse:
وَكُنتُمْ أَمْوَاتاً فَأَحْيَاكُمْ ثُمَّ يُمِيتُكُمْ ثُمَّ يُحْيِيكُمْ ثُمَّ إِلَيْهِ تُرْجَعُونَ
"you were lifeless and He brought you to life; then He will cause you to die, then He will bring you [back] to life, and then to Him you will be returned." (Qur'an 2:28)
So the three companions (ra) said nothing concerning the life in the grave and Ibn Umar and Asmaa (ra) criticized it.
The narration of Ibn Abbas they argue does not necessarily mean there is no life in the grave; rather he referred to the verse which, as will be clarified later, has nothing to do with life in the grave.
There are no other narrations from the Prophet (saw) or his companions' suggesting otherwise. The hadiths that mention the return of souls to the bodies, Ibn Hazm believes are weak as they were only narrated by al-Minhal ibn Amr who is not trustworthy. There is a narration where the Prophet saw Prophet Moses (as) praying in his grave, but Ibn Hazm argued he must have seen his soul.
The punishment of the grave is attributed to the grave because people generally are buried in graves. There are many who are not buried in a grave, with many whose bodies are supposed to suffer, don't exist, have been cremated or eaten by wild animals or others. If the bodies of the dead are supposed to be punished, then where bodies do not exist, they cannot be punished. For this reason, only the soul experiences punishment or bliss.
Ibn Hazm concludes:
فَعَلَى هَذَا أَنَّ مَوْضِعَ كُلَّ رُوحٍ يُسَمَّى قَبْراً فَتُعَذَّبُ الْأَرْوَاحُ حِينَئِذٍ وَلَا تُسْأَلُ حَيْثُ كَانَتْ.
"In conclusion, the position of each soul is called a qabr (grave). So the souls are tormented there and do not ask where the souls are." (Al-Fasl fi al-Milal wa an-Nihal, Vol., p. 120)
Discussion of the arguments
Scholars who adhere to the alternative view argue the return of life to the body in the grave in a way contrary to our normal experience. They see it as a contingent life, one given for a specific reason, like how Allah gave life to people cited in the Qur'an and in stories of previous nations. Allah narrates a story saying:
أوْ كَالَّذِي مَرَّ عَلَى قَرْيَةٍ وَهِيَ خَاوِيَةٌ عَلَى عُرُوشِهَا قَالَ أَنَّىَ يُحْيِـي هَـَذِهِ اللّهُ بَعْدَ مَوْتِهَا فَأَمَاتَهُ اللّهُ مِئَةَ عَامٍ ثُمَّ بَعَثَه
"Or (consider such an example) as the one who passed by a township which had fallen into ruin. He said, "How will Allah bring this to life after its death?" So Allah caused him to die for a hundred years; then He revived him." (Qur'an 2:259)
For the verse that states two lives and two deaths after which Ibn Hazm said if there is life in the grave, it would be three lives and three deaths. Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali (d. 795 A.H.) said:
وَهَذَا ضَعِيفٌ جِدًّا ، فَإِنَّ حَيَاةَ الْبَرْزَخِ لَيْسَتْ حَيَاةٌ تَامَّةٌ مُسْتَقِلَّةٌ كَحَيَاةِ الدُّنْيَا وَكَالْْحَيَاةِ الْآخِرَةِ بَعْدَ الْبَعْثِ ، وَإِنَّمَا فِيهَا نَوْعُ اِتِّصَالِ الرُّوحِ فِي الْبَدَنِ بِحَيْثُ يَحْصُلُ بِذَلِكً شُعُورُ الْبَدَنِ وَإِحْسَاسٌ بِالنَّعِيمِ وَالْعِذَابِ وَغَيْرِهِمَا ،... وَإِنَّمَا هُوَ شَبِيهٌ بِاِنْفِصالِ رُوحِ النَّائِمِ عَنْهُ ، وَرُجُوعُهُ ا إِلَيهِ ، فَإِنَّ ذَلِكَ يُسَمَّى مَوْتًا وَحَيَاةً .
"This notion is very weak because the life between death and resurrection (al-Barzakh) is not a complete and independent life similar to the worldly life nor the life after the resurrection. It rather enjoys a kind of connection between the soul and the body for the body to feel the punishment and bliss. It is like the disconnection between the soul and body during sleeping and its return back again which is called life and death (in other hadiths)." (Ibn Rajab, Tafseer al-Quran, Vol. 2, p. 96)
So the life in the grave is contingent and is unlike life after resurrection and life before death. Therefore, they don't find a problem with the above so-called contradicting verses -rather they are two different things.
For the verse: "you cannot make hear those in the graves," The context of the verse is about disbelievers who have a dead heart, not a dead body. The verses say: "Not equal are the blind and the seeing, nor are the shade and the heat, and not equal are the living and the dead. Indeed, Allah causes to hear whom He wills, but you cannot make hear those in the graves. You, (O Muhammad), are not but a warner." (Qur'an 35:19-23)
The context is giving examples of opposite things and ends with "You, (O Muhammad), are not but a warner," referring to this world and it has nothing to do with the grave. There is another similar verse that says:
إِنَّكَ لَا تُسْمِعُ الْمَوْتَى وَلَا تُسْمِعُ الصُّمَّ الدُّعَاء إِذَا وَلَّوْا مُدْبِرِينَ
"Indeed, you will not make the dead hear, nor will you make the deaf hear the call when they have turned their backs retreating." (Qur'an 27:80)
This verse rebukes those who carry a dead heart and don't listen to the message, so the literal meaning is not intended. (Ibn al-Qayim, ar-Ruh, pp. 60-65)
For the hadith: "You do not hear what I say any better than they do, but they cannot answer." It does not necessarily refer to the life in the rotten bodies nor vice versa, rather it has to do with hearing the outsiders. This hadith also supports the notion of 'both body and soul' because in order the Prophet (saw) was talking with the bodies and for them to hear him, they must have some kind of life.
For the hadith: "The believer's soul is a bird that eats from the trees of Paradise until it will be returned to his body on the Day when he is resurrected." Ibn Taymiyyah said the believers enjoy whatever they prefer whether in heaven or on earth. Imam Malik, the founder of the Maliki Madhhab, made a similar statement:
"We have been told (by the companions or their successors) the soul is given permission to go wherever it wants." (Narrated by Abi ad-Dunya)
Ibn Hazm said the narrations citing the return of souls to the body are only narrated by al-Minhal ibn Amr who is not trustworthy. The hadiths, however, were transmitted through more than one narrator other than al-Minhal, including trustworthy narrators such as 'Uday ibn Thabit, Muhammad ibn Uqbah and Mujahid. For example, the Prophet (saw) narrated what happens to the soul when it is elevated to the heavens:
فيَقُولُ الرَّبُّ عَزَّ وَجَلَّ : رُدُّو عَبْدِي إِلَى مَضْجَعِهِ فَإِنَِّي وَعَدّْتُهُمْ أَنَِّي مِنْهَا خَلَقْتُهُمْ وَفِيهَا أُعِيدُهُمْ وَمِنْهَا أُخْرِجُهُمْ تَارَةً أُخْرَى ... فَيَأْتِيهِ مَلَكَانٍ ... فَيُجْلِسَانِّهِ ثُمَّ يُقَالُ لَهُ مَنْ رَبُّكَ ؟
"Allah says, 'return my slave to his bed because I promised them that I created them from it (the earth), into it I will return them and out of it I will return them back.' Then two angels come to him … they will make him sit, then they will ask him: Who is your God?" (Tabari, Tahdhib al-Athar, Vol, 1, p. 174)
Al-Hafidh Abu Na'eem said:
هَذَا الْحَديثُ مُتَّفَقٌ عَلَى عَدَالَةِ نَاقِلِيهِ وَرُوَاتِهِ عَلَى شَرْطَيْ الْبُخَارِيِّ وَمُسْلِمْ
"Scholars agree the narrators of this hadiths are trustworthy. (They even meet the criteria of Bukhari and Muslim)." (Ibn al-Qaym, p. 70)
The hadith refers to the return of the soul to earth and the sitting of the body for questioning. In addition, there are many evidences supporting both soul and body receive punishment or bliss. It is elaborated in this answer, here.
Whilst the adherents of only the soul experiences punishment or bliss in the grave present a number of evidences the majority of scholars opposed this view believing both the body and soul experience these events. And Allah knows best.
al- Itibi, al-Hayah al-Barzakhiyah
Ibn Hazm, Al-Fasl fi al-Milal wa an-Nihal
Ibn al-Qayim, ar-Ruh
Ibn Rajab, Tafseer al-Quran
Tabari, Tahdhib al-Athar
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