Understanding Death: Qur’anic Guidance on Life and Positive Living (2 of 2)

Understanding Death-Qur’anic Guidance on Life and Positive Living (2 of 2)

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 aquida of Islam, is that, contrary to prevailing materialistic human perception, this life is not the only life, not in fact even the real life—it is only a short, temporary stay whose purpose is to test the human soul. The right attitude towards this life is to treat it with a seriousness and urgency that one treats a test with. But this ‘Life as a Test’ is not merely like the petty tests and examinations humans invent to determine success in aspects of human endeavor. This real test of life itself is distinguished by two aspects: it will determine not a limited benefit or loss, but ETERNAL bliss or torment; and, as if that were not enough, it will end ABRUPTLY, without any notice.

According to the Final Message of Allah, for humans to treat this life properly and prepare for the eternal afterlife, and to do so as much as ‘eternity’ deserves to be prepared for, knowing this fact of death and afterlife, to remind and be reminded of it all the time, to plan for it and fret about it, is the only right attitude towards life:

And remind, for the reminder surly benefits the believers. [51:55]

The Deception and the Liberation

A chapter of the Quran called Al-Infitar (the Explosion), asks the million-dollar question: O mankind, what has deceived you concerning your Lord, the Generous? [82:6]

Suppose we put aside, all for a moment, all the differences among humans—racial, linguistic, color, national, ethnic, even religious differences—and just look at humans, all humans. We will find something deeply sad about the human condition. For most of the time in its career, the humanity has shown itself to be remarkably weak-minded, forgetful, heedless of its true success, hasty and impatient, and most of all, gullible and susceptible to age old tricks of its Chief Deceiver—the Satan. The Quran frequently bewails human heedlessness:

O mankind, what has deceived you concerning your Lord, the Generous? [82:6]

Indeed, We offered the Trust to the heavens and the earth and the mountains; and they declined to bear it and feared it; but man [undertook to] bear it. Indeed, he was unjust and ignorant. [33:72]

Man was created of haste [i.e., impatience] … [21:37]

Truly man was created very impatient: fretful when any calamity touches him, and miserly when any good touches him. [70:19-21]

And this description is true throughout the time. Just imagine how the humans have treated the messengers and prophets of Allah: for the most part, with neglect, rejection, and ridicule:

And no sign from the sings of Allah came but that they turned away from it. [6:4]

A story is told of a Muslim sage, who, sitting and supplicating to Allah in the sanctuary of the Ka‘bah, would periodically cry out “O human!” and fall unconscious. When he would regain consciousness, he would again weep and supplicate until he screamed “O human!” and passed out again. A curious onlooker later asked him about this, and the sage explained that he was most terrified at that moment not by his sins, not by the punishment of Allah, and not by the fear of the Day of Resurrection—he simply thought about the state of humans around him and found it scarier than all the above. How completely, how incessantly, how confidently, how sadly deceived and self-deceiving the humans are. Indeed, reflecting on human folly is enough to leave any knower of truth breathless. Our beloved Prophet almost wasted his life worrying about this human folly:

Then perhaps you would kill yourself through grief over them [O Muhammad], if they do not believe in this message. [18:6]

It is a sign of general human folly that the success of our beloved Prophet Muhammad the mercy for the world, was an exception to this rule of rejection. Our Prophet’s Companions have been a unique generation in the entire human history as told to us in the Quran to have accepted Allah’s message in large enough numbers to establish its power on earth without any extra-ordinary miracles or supernatural destruction of the enemy. This very success of the early Muslims, a most extraordinary feat in human history, is a witness to the fact that exceptions are possible. Consider the verses in the Surat of Al-Ma‘arij again:

Truly man was created very impatient: fretful when any calamity touches him, and miserly when any good touches him. [70:19-21]

But there is an exception, the next thirteen verses go on to detail the characteristics of such exceptional humans:

Except those who perform salah.

Those who remain constant in their salah;

And those in whose wealth there is a known right;

For the beggar who asks, and for the unlucky who has lost his property and wealth, (and his means of living has been straitened);

And those who believe in the Day of Recompense;

And those who fear the torment of their Lord;

Verily! The torment of their Lord is that before which none can feel secure;

And those who guard their chastity (i.e., private parts from illegal sexual acts).

Except with their wives and the (women slaves and captives) whom their right hands possess, for (then) they are not to be blamed;

But whosoever seeks beyond that, then it is those who are transgressors.

And those who keep their trusts and covenants;

And those who stand firm in their testimonies;

And those who guard their salah well;

Such shall dwell in the Gardens (i.e., Paradise) honored. [70:22-35]

In brief, these verses list five main characteristics of such people, and those are that they:

  1. offer regular salah, this being the most important, and appears
    thrice,
  2. give charity,
  3. believe in the afterlife and fear their Lord’s displeasure,
  4. are chaste,
  5. keep their word and speak the truth.

In this verse, three kinds of things, each in a different dimension of life, have been specified as characterizing those who are an exemption from the general state of folly that humanity suffers from. In rituals, there are the regular salah and charity; in the area of personal and social virtues and discipline; there are chastity and speaking the truth; and in the area of belief and attitude; there is belief in the afterlife and the fear of their Lord’s displeasure.

The awareness of death for a Muslim encapsulates in a most immediate and powerful way the belief in the afterlife and reminds him or her of Allah most inevitably. In fact, I wonder if there would be recognition of Allah and general inclination to virtue in human societies, even to the meager extent that there is, if it were not for the irresistible spectacle of death. The human, ignorant, heedless and hasty as he is, is forced to ask the big questions and look past his petty life, perhaps only because of death.

Regret

Reflecting on our lives, we are bound to find dark spots that will, or ought to, agonize us. It will be hard to remember them all—they only leave a mark on the heart by darkening and hardening it, but often don’t leave more than a trace in our minds: The day Allah will raise them up all and inform them of their deeds: He counted them, and they had for-gotten—And Allah is witness to all things. [58:6]

They say diagnosis is half the cure. Recognizing and feeling true regret over those sins, mistakes and lost opportunities is the beginning of cure. On the other hand, those who feel self-sufficient and well-pleased now and are heedless of their errors await a rude awakening:

Say: ‘Shall We inform you who are the greatest losers as to [their] deeds? [They are] those whose efforts have been wasted in this life, while they reckon that they are doing well. They are those who deny the Signs of their Lord and their meeting with Him (in the Hereafter): vain will be their works, nor shall We, on the Day of Judgment, give them any weight.’ [18:103-105]

Those who are fortunate enough to reflect periodically on their life often regret the lost years of their life—lost in vain pursuits and heedlessness. But what do we, or ought we to, worry about and regret? For most of us—at least those comfortably settled in a luxurious life and are fashionably religious—our regrets are not about terrible crimes, murder or banditry or embezzlement and the like. True, we don’t kill people, but we kill time and resources. It is a different matter that the carelessness of the rich and the comfortable may compel many a poor and desperate some-where else to kill for food or resources. We don’t embezzle money—at least so I hope. But we embezzle our energy and the energy of those around us in vain disputes and tensions, thus killing hopes for better and healthier Muslim ummah and the world. So just because our book is clear of gory crimes, and that our shortcomings are much more comfortable and fashionable, does not mean we are not responsible in one way or another for the world being the horrendous place that it is.

Since Allah requires of us an all-inclusive submission to be successful after death, our failures whether in the field of community, economy or politics, all reflect on our spiritual life. And to live a life with death in mind means we must all mend our affairs in all those fields. There is no getting away in Islam by short-cut tricks such as paying charity with one hand and dealing in unlawful business with the other. Or making the Fajr Salah before going to sell alcohol and pornographic magazines in our stores.

But even if we imagine a typical Muslim, not involved in any outrageous sins, we will find much to regret. Chiefly because in the modern world the mainstream culture in any country, West or East, is so far from Allah and flowing away from Him and success in the afterlife, that in order to not be swept away, everyone must put up extraordinary struggle.

Regret of the Company I Kept

The Day that the wrong-doer will bite at his hands, and say, “Oh! Would that I had taken a (straight) path with the Messenger. Ah! Woe is me! Would that I had never taken such a one for a friend! He did lead me astray from the Reminder after it had come to me! And ever is Satan, to man, a traitor! [25:27-29]

Betrayal of those I Loved

The Day that the sky will be like molten brass. And the mountains like wool. No friend will ask after a friend. Not that they will not be shown each other—but the criminal’s desire will be: Would that he could redeem himself from the Penalty of that Day by (sacrificing) his children, his wife and his brother, his kindred who sheltered him, and all, all that is on earth, —so it could deliver him. No! Indeed, it is the Flame [of Hell]. Plucking out (his being) right to the skull! It shall claim all who turned and fled (from truth); and hoarded (wealth) and withheld it. [70:8-17]

How to Open My Eyes?

It was We Who created man, and We know what dark suggestions his soul makes to him: for We are nearer to him than (his) jugular vein. Behold, two (guardian angels) note, sitting on the right and on the left. He utters not a word but there is by him a watcher at hand. And the stupor of death will bring Truth (before his eyes): ‘This was the thing which you were trying to escape!’ And the trumpet shall be blown; that is the day of the threatening. And every soul shall come, with it a driver and a witness. (It will be said) ‘You were heedless of this; now have We removed your veil, and sharp is your sight this Day!’ [50:16-22]

Everyone’s eyes will be sharp “as Iron” that Day. But the fortunate ones will be those who could see that Day every day of their lives here and now, and make most out of it. The following are a few ways and pieces of advice from the words of Allah and His Messenger to help live a meaningful life by keeping the end in sight.

But first, a word of caution.

Remembering the End: An Incentive to Prepare for the Afterlife and Not to Disrespect this Life

The only way to live a faithful life, a life true to the significance Allah gave it, is to live it with an eye on death—that is, death as the door to the ultimate reality. A Muslim’s awareness of death, however, is not fatalism (the attitude of accepting one’s fate in this life without effort because one does not believe in free will) or a cultist obsession with death and disrespect for life. It is rather, a positive and healthy awareness of the reality of death for the sole purpose of preparing for it and the afterlife right here and now.

The wise in any society—known as management gurus and planning pundits in modern parlance—always advise that the best planning starts with thinking about the goal, the end. And if you fail to plan, of course, you plan to fail. To remember death and the afterlife as an incentive to plan and prepare is the attitude demanded by Islam. But to remember death to be paralyzed and hence give up struggle, or to remember death and thus lose respect for this life by either taking one’s own or others’ life is the exact opposite of the Islamic way. This attitude of respect towards human life is unequivocal in the Quran—and not only in the Quran, but all the divine messages sent before us. Allah says,

… We ordained for the Children of Israel that if any one slew a person—unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land—it would be as if he slew the whole people: and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people. Then although there came to them Our messengers with clear signs, yet, even after that, many of them continued to commit excesses in the land. [5:32]

Remember the Terminator of Pleasures (Hadim Al-Ladhaat)

The Messenger of Allah encouraged his followers to remember death, for the unending desires of man cannot be restrained except by it. Abu Hurairah reported that the Prophet said,

Increase the remembrance of the terminator of pleasures. (Tirmidhi)

‘Abdullah ibn ‘Umar narrated that the Messenger of Allah took him by the shoulder and said,

Be in this world as if you were a stranger or a traveler on the road.

He also used to say,

In the evening, do not anticipate the morning, and in the morning do not anticipate the evening. Take from your health for your illness and from your life for your death. (Bukhari)

Ibn Mas‘ud said, “The Prophet drew lines making a square and then drew a line in the middle which extended beyond it. He drew some small lines up to this middle line from the side within the square and said, ‘This is man, and this is the end of his lifespan which encircles him—and this which goes beyond it is his hope and these small lines are things that happen. If this one misses him, that one gets him, and if that one misses him, this one gets him.’” (Bukhari) This hadith tells us that man’s hopes and wishful thinking are always longer than his actual life-pan, and that he remains caught up in, responding to and worrying about trivial things until the end of his life.

Abu Hurairah narrated that the Messenger of Allah said,

Race to good actions as fast as you can. What are you waiting for except delayed poverty, oppressive wealth, debilitating illness, incapacitating senility, a swift death or the Dajjal? Or are you waiting for an unseen evil, or the Last Hour? The Last Hour will be most bitter and terrible. (Tirmidhi)

Ubayy ibn Ka‘b said, “When a third of the night had passed, the Messenger of Allah stood up and said,

O people! Remember Allah! The first blast has come and it will be followed by the second blast. Death has come with all its trappings. Death has come with all its trappings. I said, ‘O Messenger of Allah, I do a lot of prayer on you. How much prayer should I allot for you?’ He said, However much you like. I said, ‘A quarter?’ He said, However much you like, but if you do more, it will be better for you. I said, ‘A half?’ He said, However much you like, but if you do more, it will be better for you. I said, ‘Two-thirds?’ He said, However much you like, but if you do more, it will be better for you. I said, ‘I will allot all my prayer for you.’ He said, Then you will be spared from worry and forgiven your sins.” (Tirmidhi)

Has the time not arrived for the hearts of those who believe to yield to the remembrance of Allah and to the Truth He has sent down, and not to be like those who were given the Book before for whom the time seemed over long so that their hearts became hardened? And many of them are degenerate. [57:16]

Visiting Graveyards

As a practical way to remember the truth of this life is to visit graveyard often. The Prophet had initially forbidden his Companions to visit graveyards for the fear that some with weak understanding may consider this an act of worshipping the graves or sanctifying the dead, as has been the case in the folk religions throughout human history. However, when the faith and understanding of his Companions were firmly established, he encouraged them to go to the graveyards and pray for deceased Muslims.

The following beautiful hadith tells us not only the beautiful supplication the Prophet made for the deceased Muslims, but also indicates the Prophet’s love for the Muslims who were to come after him. May Allah include us among those he called his brothers. It has been reported by Abu Hurairah that the Prophet once came to a graveyard and said,

Peace be upon you, O abode of a believing people! We shall certainly join you, if Allah wills. How I long to see my brothers! The Companions said, “O Messenger of Allah, are we not your brothers?” He replied, You are my Companions! As for my brothers, they are those who have not yet appeared. They said, “How will you recognize those of your Community who had not yet appeared (in your time), O Messenger of Allah?” He replied, Suppose a man had horses with shiny white marks on their foreheads and legs: would he not recognize them among other horses which are all black? They said, “Yes, O Messenger of Allah!” He continued, Verily, they (my brothers) shall be coming with shiny bright foreheads and limbs due to their ablutions, and I shall precede them to my Pond. (Muslim)

Attending Funerals

One of the rights of a Muslim over another is that he attends his funeral. Nothing reminds one of death and Allah like the spectacle of dying and funeral of other people.

Abu Hurairah narrated that the Prophet said,

Whoever attends the funeral procession till he offers the funeral salah for it, will get a reward equal to one Qiraat; and whoever accompanies it till burial, will get a reward equal to two Qiraats. It was asked, “What are two Qiraats?” He replied, Like two huge mountains. (Bukhari)

Ibn ‘Umar was a young man when the Prophet died. The following hadith indicates not only the reward of attending a funeral, but the eagerness of the young Companions to attain every single act of merit.

When Ibn ‘Umar was told that Abu Hurairah said, “Whoever accompanies the funeral procession will have a reward equal to one Qiraat,” he said, “Abu Hurairah talks of an enormous reward!” ‘Aishah, the mother of the believers, was asked about this and she confirmed Abu Hurairah’s narration and said, “I heard Allah’s messenger say that.” Regretful is the one who had missed some funerals, Ibn ‘Umar said, “Alas, we have lost numerous Qiraats!” (Bukhari)

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