The word ‘abada’ has been loosely rendered into English as ‘forever’ or as eternal. In fact by this word a very long and unspecified period (aeons) without a break is implied.
The word ‘abada’ is used 28 times in the Qur’an. In 11 ayaat this word is used as a part of the phrase ‘ Khalidina fiha abada ’ out of which in three ayaat (4: 169, 33: 65 and 72: 23), it is mentioned that those who reject faith and disobey Allah, for them is the fire of Hell, therein they will live for a very long time.. Similarly, in other 8 ayaat (4: 57, 4: 122, 5: 119, 9: 22, 9: 100, 64: 9, 65: 11 and 98: 8), it is mentioned that those who believe in Allah and do deeds of righteousness, will be admitted into gardens (of heaven) to dwell therein for a very long time.
If the popular rendering of the word ‘forever’ is accepted, “we shall have to face the thought of ‘duality’ or a multiplicity of undying units possessing or claiming the quality of co-existence in eternity with God, a thought running counter to the Qur’anic concept of God as also the assertion of the Qur’an that all created objects shall have an end one day. Surely Hell and Heaven enter the list”.
The fact that the transgressors will remain in Hell for ages (and not forever) is made very clear in ayah 78: 23, wherein a different word ‘haqaban’ is used. The root ‘haqaba’ is used for a period of eighty years and it also denotes a very long period of time (ages) or aeons. The same word ‘haqaba’ is also used in the ayah 18:60 where again it denotes a very long period of time.
According to Dr. Mohammad Iqbal, there is no such thing as eternal damnation in Islam. “The word eternity used in certain ayaat relating to Hell is explained by the Qur’an itself to mean only a period of time. (Qur’an78: 23)”.
‘Abada’ is also used in the Qur’an to mean ‘never’ as in 9: 108, 18: 20 and 18: 57. In ayaat 5: 24, 9: 83 and 24: 17, however, the word ‘abada’ is used to mean ‘by no means’, ‘under no circumstances’, ‘not at all’ etc.
From the ayah 24: 4 also it is evident that the word ‘abada’ is not used for an unlimited period. In this ayah there is an injunction that the testimony of those who defame chaste women, should not be accepted (abada) afterwards. In the very next ayah, exception is allowed for those who thereafter repent and reform themselves. Thus the word ‘abada’ cannot be used to mean ‘forever’.