Remembering death opens your eyes and gives an urgent and intense meaning to every moment of your life. It can make you lead a remarkable life that will elevate you to the high ranks of the muqarrabun, those nearest to Allah, in the afterlife.
I am 30 years old, and when I look back at my past, I don’t remember much. Or may be I am 70, and have led a long, eventful life, made money and squandered it, had children who now have their own. Or may be I am just 15, and I am glancing through this article only half-heartedly, thinking without doubt that I will not die for another 100 years. I don’t have to think about it now any way. Whoever I am,surprisingly, there is something remarkably similar about ‘me’, whether I am a youthful 15 year old or an almost senile grandpa in my seventies, I don’t like to and don’t want to think about death—and I have similar excuses for not doing so. In this, I am a human being, just any human being.Whether I call myself ‘I’, or ana, or man, or mayn—in whatever language or culture—I don’t like to think about the end of this ‘I’.
Yet, there is only one thing that is doubtless and certain and imminent about my life, and that is, death.Whether I am an atheist who believes this life to be a mere meaningless accident or a devout believer in the Unseen, I know I will die. My death is so certain that the Book of Allah gives it a name, ‘certainty’—simply and without qualification: And worship your Lord until ‘that which is certain’ comes to you. [Surat Al-Hijr, 15:99]
For most of us, there is another remarkable commonality, regardless of who and how old we are. Many images, feelings, and events lurk in our memory, but if we sift through and select only those that really mattered, those events and scenes of our past that we really had wanted to be a part of, and would now own with pride and without shame or regret, we will find that they are surprisingly few. If I were to sew together, as in a digital clip, only such noble, remarkable and memorable deeds or events of my life, I doubt I could pull out more than a few days worth of existence through my entire life. Or may be not even a few days.
This article invites you, me, and each one of us, to pause and think about this; and think truly, deeply, honestly. Can you recall the acts, the deeds, the feelings, the days, the nights and the moments, that you would want to own before Allah on the Day of Judgment? Acts that you would be able to call good, remarkable, charitable, noble, and meaningful—acts that will tip the balance in your favor?
I find my own account regrettable. What do you get for an answer? The only exception to this generally regrettable port folio, the Noble Book of Allah tells us, is that of those people who lived their lives with its end in sight. Those who knew, and remembered frequently, they were going to die and meet their Lord one day.Those who, as the Quran puts it, Give what they give with their hearts full of fear that they will one day return to their Lord. [Surat Al-Mu’minun, 23:60]
By living a life with the end in our minds, it is possible for us to live a meaningful life that we will be proud of in the eternal afterlife. This is precisely why the Quran, the Final Message of Allah, places so much emphasis on remembering death and visualizing the Last Day.
Our Creator and the one who will gather us back on the Day of Resurrection tells us in His Final Book of a conversation that will take place between humans, any two humans perhaps, about this past life:
The Day when the Trumpet will be sounded: that Day,We shall gather the sinful, blear-eyed (with terror). In whispers will they consult each other (recalling their life), You lived your life not longer than ten (Days).
But 10 days will be too much, way too much, for an estimate of this life. And the wiser one among them will respond,
We know best what they will say, when their leader most eminent in conduct will say, ‘[Oh no, not 10 days,] you lived not longer than a day!’ [Surat Ta Ha, 20:102-4]
Allah has spoken the truth.
No matter who I am, I will find on the day I really wake up that I had lived this life for a day at best. I am born at the crack of dawn. I am small, weak and irritable, but demanding—I only know what I want. And Allah provides for me those who clean and feed me. I am too young to think about death at this point, but it often takes over and ends my budding life any way.
It’s bright morning, and I am an adolescent: curious, uncertain, a little scared to step into the real life, but all the same, I am not prepared to think about the end of life. Nonetheless, death knows no time, and it often comes to me any way.
But may be I have been spared by death and have made it into the full blossom of my life. It is noon, I am young and strong, ambitious and headstrong—I sin and blunder and often with impunity. Death is the last thing on my mind—at times, I think I can conquer even it. At no time of the day am I more conceited and wrong about death, and life, of course. The Book of Allah comments on my conceit:
We have certainly created man into hardship. Does he think that never will anyone overcome him? (Boastfully,) he says,‘I have spent wealth in abundance!’ Does he think that no one has seen him?’ [Surat Al-Balad, 90:4-6]
Yet, I often die while young and strong.
In the afternoon, I am at the peak of my life—I am wise and strong, and with unprecedented responsibilities. If I am lucky to have a reflective heart, I look back at my life often, and feel that the best is already over, and there lurks in my heart a deep regret for the chasm that often exists between what I had wanted to do and what I have done; between what I wanted to be and what I have become. But mostly, I just carry on, without reflection. I am a bit more realistic about life now—but nonetheless not any more prepared to meet it. My daily responsibilities and worries often leave no room for reflection and contemplation about life, not to mention death. Still, death often ends all my ambitions and responsibilities without any prior notice.
In the evening and then the night, I am tired and exhausted, even ill and wrinkled, going back to the state of weakness, dependence and irascibility of my childhood. Allah reminds me of my state,
He whom we bring unto old age,We reverse him in creation (making him go back to weakness after strength). Have you then no sense? [Surat Yasin, 36:68]
Of course, not nearly as cute and hope-giving to my caretakers as I was as a baby, I often get a cold shoulder. Had I been wiser than I am as a human, I would now finally prepare to welcome death, mend my affairs for the sake of the afterlife, and end my lust for more—more power and glory, more wealth and splendor, and more and more life. Knowing full well, of course, but only in the back of my head, that that is not to be: life must now end. But yet, until the very moment of death, even after suffering heart attacks and unnamed chronic illnesses, I refuse to wake up to the reality. Even when I don’t have the power to sin, I have the desire to. And reform and retraction is the hardest now than ever. My habits and character, my likes and dislikes, my skills and aptitude, have all long been deeply entrenched in me—to change them is harder and harder. If I lied and cheated for wealth, power and pleasure in my youth, now I do it out of habit—I almost cannot help it. If death had not already plucked the flower of my being in the spring of my life, now the autumn is near, and I am a dried leaf bound to fall at any moment.
There is a short chapter in the Quran that every Muslim child memorizes and repeats that delivers this message in a few earth shaking words:
By the Time. The human is ever in a state of loss. Except those who have believed and done righteous deeds, and enjoined the truth and enjoined patience (for its sake). [Surat Al-‘Asr, 103:1-3]
Where Are You Headed?
The Final Message of Allah began, in the early phase of prophecy in Makkah, by establishing the foundation of the right attitude towards life. At the heart of this foundation, later known as the aqueeda of Islam, is that, …. To be continued in Part 2