Isra and Mi'raj is the name of the journey of the prophet Muhammad, where he witnessed heaven and hell, describing their structure as well as the punishment and rewards that lay beyond.

Hell and Heaven are divided in different levels. For instance the damned souls are grouped together based on their sins, and punished accordingly.

This structure appears then in Dante's Divine Comedy.

What is the origin of the subdivisions of Heaven and Hell? Where does this idea come from?

  • Dante's Comedy is an allegory, so the levels aren't meant to be taken literally (I don't know enough about Islam, but I'd imagine there it is). In general, though, I'm not aware of any instances where mainstream Catholic/Protestant denominations where there are levels to heaven/hell; see this question on Christianity. There's been at least a positive vs. negative separation in the afterlife since the Egyptians. May 4 '14 at 4:22
  • About the edits, I acknowledge them, but I still maintain that Dante's work is the Comedy, not the Divine Comedy, where the adjective was added by later commentators (Boccaccio, if I remember correctly).
    – astabada
    May 4 '14 at 10:40
  • 1
    Razie's answer prompts me to ask: which heaven and hell do you mean?
    – andy256
    May 4 '14 at 21:46
  • @andy256 I did not specify in the question, because I don't want the answer to be limited to a particular religion/culture. I am interested in anything might have influenced the content of Isra and Mi'raj.
    – astabada
    May 5 '14 at 16:02
  • I don't think that historical sources and methods will help to solve this .
    – MCW
    Jul 6 '15 at 18:02

The subdivisions of heaven and the theme of a vision of an ascent to heaven originate from Jewish mysticism. Different parts of the Talmud come from different times, but this idea is very old.

During the 5th century BCE, when the works of the Tanakh were edited and canonised and the secret knowledge encrypted within the various writings and scrolls ("Megilot"), the knowledge was referred to as Ma'aseh Merkavah (Hebrew: מעשה מרכבה‎)[20] and Ma'aseh B'reshit (Hebrew: מעשה בראשית‎),[21] respectively "the act of the Chariot" and "the act of Creation". Merkavah mysticism alluded to the encrypted knowledge within the book of the prophet Ezekiel describing his vision of the "Divine Chariot".

They also occur in early Christian writings not recorded in the Bible and in other religions of the ancient near East. The Jews often viewed heaven in terms of a temple. God dwelled in the inner most place in the temple and the closer one came to God the more elevated and sacred that place in heaven was.

Here is an excellent source about Temple Motifs in Jewish Myticism

The idea of the celestial ascent is one of the most widespread and long-lasting religious concepts in history. 9 Archaic, nonbiblical ascension myths from Mesopotamia and Egypt date back to the early third millennium B.C. 10 Within the Jewish tradition, this idea can be seen in the writings of Isaiah (eighth century B.C.) and Ezekiel (sixth century B.C.). Related and expanded versions of the ascent to the celestial temple are found in pseudepigraphic Enoch materials dating in their current form to at least the second century B.C., Qumran documents (second century B.C. to first century A.D.), Philo (c. 20 B.C. to A.D. 50), 11 and in numerous other Jewish and Christian apocalyptic and pseudepigraphic writings

A hell with subdivisions and fallen angels as devils is probably first described in the first Book of Enoch. There might be an earlier example, but I'm uncertain. It's dated to the 2nd century BCE.


Zoroastrianism had the concept of good-evil dualism with a Satan-like opposite of God (Ahriman) and hell/heaven concept where the souls of good people / bad people go accordingly. Jewish mysticism was most probably influenced by Zoroastrianism, and Christianity and Islam got it from the Jewish mysticism.


In his second letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul wrote of someone who was taken up to the third heaven. It suggests that readers would know that heaven had levels or that there was more than one heaven (at least three heavens or levels, apparently). The number three also seems to be significant in Hebrew numerology, although my web search on the topic turned up lots of possible meanings.

  • the hierarchy of angels (archangels, thrones, etc) also suggest 'levels' in heaven.
    – Luiz
    Sep 14 '18 at 16:29

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