In Part 1, we noted how life and death are decreed by our Creator and how —after one’s allotted lifespan on earth— a person returns to his point of origin, which is Allah, Al– B a d î ‘ (the Primal Origin of all creations). The Quran and Hadith give us much information to prepare us for both life and death. Death is the natural end point for all living things. At death our souls enter, irreversibly, into another state of existence, awaiting a just and generous assessment of how we have handled our gift of life on earth. Trust in our Creator and following His Guidance lead us to a blissful reward in the Hereafter, and vice versa.
Life, Death and the Soul:
Death is characterized by separation of the body from the soul. In order for us to be able to understand death, we can study the phenomenon of sleep, aptly called “the minor death.” In both death and sleep, the soul leaves the body: quitting the body permanently in death, while in sleep returning to the body upon awakening —except in the case of those who are supposed to die in sleep.
It is Allah Who takes away the souls [of people] at the time of their death; and [the souls of] those that die not [yet], [He also takes them] during their sleep. Those (souls) for which He has ordained death, He keeps, and the others He sends [back to their bodies] for a time appointed… [Sûrah Al-Zumar, 39:42]
In death all biological functions of the body come to a stop, while in sleep biological functions are suppressed, but the essential biological functions are preserved. Sleep is meant for rest, comfort, and restoration of life:
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And We have made your sleep as a thing for rest, and We have made the night as a covering (through its darkness), and We have made the day for livelihood. [Sûrah Al-Naba, 78:9-11]
Death is an entity that replaces life in a dying person; like life, death is a test for the dead and a warning for the living:
…[He] who created death and life to test you [as to] which of you is best in deed. And He is the Exalted in Might, the Forgiving. [Sûrah Al-Mulk, 67:2]
The test for the dying and then dead person is regarding the state of his faith and the deeds done during his lifetime. It starts with the very onset of the stupor of death, extends through the phase of interrogation in the grave, to be followed eventually by trial on the Day of Judgment:
Every soul will taste death, and you will be given your [full] compensation only [later] on the Day of Resurrection. So, the one who is drawn away from the Fire and has been admitted to Paradise has attained [his desire]. And what is the life of this world except the enjoyment of delusion! [Sûrah Âl-‘Imrân, 3:185]
The anticipation of death should serve as a warning that this earthly life is temporary. Every created entity –including the angels, jinn, the prophets, and the messengers– must die. It is only AllahSWT who is Everliving:
Verily you (O MuhammadSAW) will die, and verily they (too) will die. Then, on the Day of Resurrection, you will settle your disputes in the presence of your Lord. [Sûrah Al-Zumar, 39:30-31]
Whatsoever is in (the earth) will perish. And the Face of your Lord full of Majesty and Honor will remain forever. [Sûrah Ar-Rahman, 55:26-27]
In death, everyone leaves all material things behind, including family and wealth; it is only his deeds that shall go with him.
Anas RA reported:
The Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said: “Three (things) follow a dead person: Members of his family, his property and his deeds. Two of them return; and one remains with him. The people and his wealth return; his deeds remain with him”. (Riyâḍ Al-Ṣalihîn, 460)
Unpredictability of Death
One’s moment of death is unpredictable. Knowledge of the time and place of death, like the extent of one’s earthly sustenance, belong to the realm of Qaḍa (Decree).
…No person knows what he will earn tomorrow, and no person knows in what land he will die. Verily, Allah is All-Knower, All-Aware (of things) [Sûrah Al-Luqman, 31:34]
No expert can ever predict the time and place of death of any person with certainty, nor what would be his lifetime’s sustenance. Even the most accurate statistical probability about death could be wrong: A person whose death seems imminent might yet be resuscitated and live, while an otherwise healthy individual can die suddenly, without warning. Knowledge of birth and death belongs to the One Who created us and controls our timeline.
The moment-to-moment continuation of life depends on the uninterrupted sequence of breathing and heartbeat, controlled by an autonomous system, set in motion by AllahSWT, and continuing to function under His control. He can interrupt that critical balance at any time according to His Decree:
“There is no heart that is not between two fingers of the Most Merciful. If He wills, He guides it; and if He wills, He sends it astray.” (Sunan Ibn Majah 199)
Death is always a sudden and an imperceptible event, resulting from cardiopulmonary arrest, sudden even though it could be after a period of long suffering:
And follow the best of what was revealed to you from your Lord before the punishment comes upon you suddenly, caught unawares. [Sûrah Al-Zumar, 39:55]
The onset is characterized by the state of stupor.
The Trance before Reaching the Gate
When the unpredictable becomes reality, the dying person falls into a type of trance, called the stupor of death: The mind becomes confused, vision is blurred, hearing is shielded, and the skin is numb. He moves in agony, gasps for air, waits for the next heartbeat. The stupor is brief, but a devastating event! He appears intoxicated, but it is not a normal state of intoxication; rather it is the state of stupor, a harbinger of death:
And the intoxication of death will bring the truth; that is what you were trying to avoid. [Sûrah Qâf, 50:19]
In this state of trance, the individual is moving away from the world he loved to a world completely unknown to him. The mystery of the unseen world starts to become visible with the descent of angels from the heavens. The descent of the angels—previously unseen but now visible— becomes apparent only to those who have finished their timeline and the time of respite:
…And they say: “Why has not an angel been sent down to him?” Had we sent down an angel, the matter would have been judged at once, and no respite would be granted to them. [Sûrah Al-An‘am, 6:8]
At this point, the angels are closer to him than anyone else is, and he can neither ignore nor run away from them:
…when the soul at death reaches the throat and you are at that time looking on, and Our angels are nearer to him than you are, but you do not see! [Sûrah Al-Wâqiyah, 56:83-85]
The angels stretch out their hands and ask him to give up his soul: helpless, with silent tongue and open eyes, he unwillingly complies. At the end, everything falls into silence; his eyes roll back and stare into the open space with astonishment as he sees that which he has never seen before—something that was snatched out, wrapped up, and forcibly taken away from him:
And if you could but see when the wrongdoers are in the overwhelming pangs of death while the angels extend their hands, [saying], “Discharge your souls! Today you will be awarded the punishment of [extreme] humiliation for what you used to say against Allah other than the truth and [in that] you were scornful toward His verses.” [Sûrah Al-An‘âm, 6:93]
What is taken away from the dying person is his soul – his ‘life partner,’ the one whom he has lived with, whom he struggled with, and whom he has complied with. Like everyone else, he had never seen his soul before; but now at the last minute he is able to see it, and in astonishment he watches it leaving:
RasulAllahSAW said: “When the soul is taken away, the sight follows it.” (Saḥîḥ Muslim 921a)
Thus, the body and soul separate, and they return respectively to where each one came from: the angels take the soul, and the family disposes of the body. Regardless of the means of disposal —burying, burning, casting into the ocean, even scattering of ashes — the ultimate return is to the earth from where it came:
Thereof (the earth) We created you, and into it We will return you, and from it We shall bring you out once again. [Sûrah Tâ Hâ, 20:55]
At the arrival of the Angel of Death, the angels who record the individual’s deeds, the (Kiraman Katibin) stop writing; there are to be no more additions or amendments to the scroll of records. Man’s actions, responsibilities, and opportunities have come to an end. The accompanying angel will carry his ‘record book’ and, later on, will present it to the resurrected individual when the Judgment begins.
From a philosophical point of view, our ‘probationary period,’ the earthly sojourn, has come to an end; our lease in this earthly body has expired and is not renewable; we must vacate and pass through the one-way-gate. This is a Decree, and not a choice. Everybody must leave at his appointed time; no way to go back; no room for dispute about the lease. Any dispute on other subjects will be settled on the Day of Resurrection:
It is He who has created all of you from a single person: Here is a place of habitation [upon the earth] and a repository [in it] … [Sûrah Al-An’am, 6:98]
Indeed, you (Muhammad) are to die, and indeed, they are to die. Then indeed you all, on the Day of Resurrection, before your Lord, will settle your disputes. [Sûrah Al-Zumar, 39:30-31]
The leader of the angels of death is called ‘Ajazîl’ or ‘the Angel of Death.’ There is no place where one is able to escape from death; the entire world is too small a place for any creation to hide from him. Whoever and wherever we are, he will find us with our appointed decree of death:
Say, “Indeed, the death from which you flee – indeed, it will meet you. Then you will be returned to the Knower of the unseen and the witnessed, and He will inform you about what you used to do.” [Sûrah Al-Jumu‘ah, 62:8]
To be continued in Part 3…