If there is only one thing that’s certain about life, it is that it comes to an end. And this question of what is it that happens after death is a question that has intrigued us human beings since the beginning of time.
We can look at the journey of a deceased human being, when left to natural causes, at two levels. At the physiological level, the transformation that occurs is one that we can witness so we see that the heart stops beating, the lungs stop breathing, and the body is starved of blood and oxygen. This termination of blood flow to the outer extremes of the body leads to the impalement of the skin. Then with the oxygen cut off, cells begin to breathe anaerobically for a time, producing the lactic acid which causes the stiffening of the corpse’s muscles. Then, as the cells begin to decompose, the stiffening wanes, the temperature drops and the flesh begins to rot – until all that is left is dried-out bones.
The journey that the soul takes after death is very different in that it cannot be witnessed, nor can it be gauged through scientific inquiry or experimentation. It is simply beyond human capacity to do that. This is where within our Islamic tradition as well as other traditions, the concept of a Hereafter comes in – a life beyond death, resurrection, and a Day of Reckoning all of which falls under what we refer to as ‘ilmul ghayb or knowledge of the unseen. The only way in which man can come to know anything of the unseen world is through divine revelation.
And with Allah are the keys of the unseen, none knows them but He.
Generally speaking, if you ask anyone to define death, you would be told that death essentially is the absence of life. However, if you look through the Quran:
Tabarak allazi biyadihil mulku wa howa ‘ala kulli shay’in qadeer. Allazee khalaqal mawta wal hayata liyabluwakum ayyukum ahsanu ‘amala.
Blessed is the one who has in his hands the dominion and he has power over all things. The One Who has created death and life to test you and try you to see which of you is best in deed.
So we see that Allah (SWT) mentions that He has created death, which is very interesting because again, the general perception of people is that death does not have an in independent existence, rather death is non-existence of life. There is a prophetic tradition, in which Rasulullah (SAW) said that on the Day of Judgment, death would be personified. It would be brought in form of a ram and slaughtered.
Rasulullah (SAW) has advised us to reflect upon death as a means of staying focused on our journey to Allah (SWT). In one tradition, he said:
Aktharu min zikri haazimil lazzaat
Frequently remember death, the destroyer of pleasures.
There are certain benefits that are ascribed to the remembrance of death. Atta ibn Rabah (RA), who was a tabi’i and amongst the students of ibn Abbas (RA) says that there are three benefits of remembering death:
1. Ta’jeelut Taubah
You would hasten the repentance. If we are always thinking about death, we would be naturally thinking about the Hereafter and consequently, we would prepare for it. Because there is not guarantee for the amount of time that is available to us. I may be standing before you one moment and may very well drop dead the next.
2. Ar-rida bi-qaleel
To be content with less. So whatever Allah (SWT) would give us, we would be happy with it. We would be satisfied and pleased because we know that this is a temporary residence, this is not where we belong, therefore we wouldn’t give it that much of concern and attention. So whatever Allah (SWT) gives us, Alhamdolillah.
Kullu man alayhaa faan
All that dwells upon the earth is perishing
This concept of fanaa is very important because if we are able to internalize it our perspective on this world and all that it has to offer, completely changes. A scholar was once asked by a newly appointed king for advice and the scholar said:
Law daamat li ghayrik lamma wasalat ilayk
If the power had lasted with the person before you it would not have reached you.
You are here because someone else is gone, voted out of office, or their term is over, or they died. That’s why it has come to you. And as it did not last with the person before you, it would not last forever with you. That is fanaa.
Kullu ni’matin manqoosa
Nothing of the pleasure of this duniya is complete.
There is nothing of the blessings that we enjoy except that we experience its deterioration, health, we fall ill; wealth, we experience financial crisis; families, we experience all kinds of issues. Al-Mustafa (SAW), he buried all his children in his lifetime except for Fatima (RA). He buried with his own hands. That is why the ulama say that if Allah were to make everything perfect in this world, then how would people have thought about the hereafter?
Kullu ni’matin manqoosa
Every pleasure would eventually diminish in duniya
3. La yushahih ahlud-duniya fi duniyahum
We would not compete with the people of this world over this world.
Fa yurithuhu zaalika tumaneenatan fil-qalb
And that would cause you to have tranquility in your heart.
What makes people anxious is competing over material things. Because nothing can really satisfy these desires of human beings as Rasulullah (SAW) has said that if the son of Adam has a valley of gold, he would request another one and nothing would satisfy his greed except dirt. So when we go back to the dirt, that would close or terminate all of those desires. So the person who is always thinking about death will not fight over this world realizing that it’s temporary and not worth fighting for.
Ta’ammaltu fi amrin naas min ‘arabin wa min ‘ajabin min sagheerin wa kabeer dhakarin wa untha faqeerin wa ghanee fawajadtu annahum qadijtama’u ‘alaa tarkil ham. Fa maa wajadtu an ja’ala daf’il hammi minat tafakkuri fi amril aakhirah
I have pondered upon the affairs of humanity, be their Arabs or non-Arabs, young or old, male or female, rich or poor, I found that they all had one thing in common; that they all agreed in ridding themselves of anxiety. I have not found a better cure for anxiety than reflecting upon the matters of the Hereafter.
Because at that point everything becomes so insignificant compared to what is awaiting for a person on the Day of Judgment.
When a person is dying, they go through this period of time before death called ihtizaar, and this is a stage in between where a person is going through the change from duniya to akhirah.
To better relate to this, imagine you’re in a room with another person who is sleeping and that person then wakes up suddenly in a state of shock and mentions that he or she saw this nasty dream. Now if you had a chance to look at that person’s face moments before they woke up and shared their dream with you, you would never have thought that this person is actually going through all that. What you would see is a person who is resting and is at peace yet in those very moments that very person is in fact experiencing the pain that he or she experienced while seeing that dream. In the same manner, when a person dies, that person may appear to be in peace but that person is actually experiencing bliss or otherwise depending on what that person spent his life doing.
For the disbeliever and evil doer Allah says:
Wa lauw tara iz yatawaffawna lazeena kafarul malaikatu yadriboona wojoohahum wa adbaarhum wa zooqu azabal hareeq. Zaalika bima qaddamat aydeekum wa annalaha laysa bizallamil lilabeed.
And if you could see when the angels take away the souls of those who disbelieve, they smite their faces and their backs saying face the punishment of the blazing fire, this is because of that which your hands had forwarded and verily Allah is not unjust to His slaves.
During this stage, even for the believer there could be some anxiety so Allah provides comfort to the believer glad tidings.
Innalzeena qalu rabbunallahu thummas taqaamu …
Verily those who say our Lord is Allah and then they stay firm, on them the angels would descend saying fear not nor grieve but receive the glad tidings of paradise which you have been promised.
Abdullah ibn Imam Ahmed narrated that his father while on his death bed and in the state of naza’ said Laa ba’th laa ba’th (not yet, not yet), which left him concerned. When Imam Ahmed regained consciousness and Abdullah asked him why he said that, Imam Ahmed replied that Shaitan was standing right next to me biting on his fingers saying O Ahmed you have slipped out of my hand so I was telling him no not yet not yet, not until I die.
So Shaitan was clearly upset that Imam Ahmed had slipped his hands. And Subhanallah this is the life of believers that we continue to struggle against Shaitan until we die because he would never give up.
Imam ibn Taymiyyah has said that the reason this happens is that this is the last chance that Shaitan has with you, so if he misses you in the last moment, he’ll never have a chance with you again. That is why Shaitan puts great emphasis and gives special attention to the last moment of our lives. So if we put a criteria to ourselves and think about it, if we are losing to Shaitan now when the battle is easy what would happen to us when we approach our death when things get tough. These are the fitan and that’s why we say in our Salah:
Allahumma inna na’oozu bika min fitnatil mahyaya wal mamaat
We seek refuge in you from the fitnah of life and death. This is the fitnah of death.
And as our scholars mention that we don’t expect that Allah would allow anyone who spent their life on the straight path to be misled during the time of their death. But we should always pray to Allah seeking His help and guidance.
Man maata a’la shaiyin bu’itha a’laiyh
Whoever dies on something would be resurrected on it
If you die in hajj in ihram making talbiyyah Rasulullah said you would be resurrected reciting the talbiyyah. If you die as a martyr on the battlefield Rasulullah said you would come out on Qiyamah with your wounds bleeding. That is why the most important stage of our life is the khawateem.
Wa fil ardi aayatul lil muqineen
Surely in this earth are signs for those seeking yaqeen
How many of us have witnessed death of a loved one in the last 5 years and been to the graveyard to attend the burial? We’ve put dust on them.
Minha khalaqnaakum wa fiha nu’eedukum wa minha nukhrijukum taaratan ukhraa
From the earth did We create you and into it shall We return you and from it shall We bring you out once again
So we see a person who is healthy, wealthy, walking around us, interacting with us turn into dust.
Wa fil ardi aayatul lil muqineen
If one sees aakhirah then the duniya becomes eclipsed. It doesn’t seem bright anymore because fanaa comes on it.
One of the companions from the ansaar who was dying in Uhud, Rasulullah (SAW) asked about him. So the companions went around and found him at the last moment of his life. So he was told that Rasulullah (SAW) is asking about you. Kayfa tajiduk? How are you feeling? He said: Inni ajidu reehal jannah. Tell the prophet, I smell paradise.
When Billal (RA) was dying, his wife said “Waa karbaah” What a calamity. Qaala laa karba ba’dal yawm. There is no difficulty after this day. Nalqal ahibbah muhammadan wa sahbah. Tomorrow I meet my beloved, Muhammad (SAW) and his companions.
Syeda Fatima (RA), during the last days of the Prophet, he once whispered something in her ears and she started to cry. He called her back and whispered in her ear again and she laughed. The first time he told her that he’ll be dying soon. The second time he told her that you will be the first one from my family to join me. The scholars said, Subhan Allah, what kind of a lady was she? When he told her about his own death, she cried. When he told her about her death, she laughed.
Ibn Ataa Illah As-Sikandari said:
Law ashraqa laka nooral yaqeen, lara-aytal aakhirah aqrabu ilayka man tarha ilayha…
Were the lights of certitude to shine you would find the hereafter so near that you could not move towards it and you would see that the eclipse of extinction have come over the beauties of the world.
The Quran continues to remind us about the aakhirah because it is one of the most denied things. Even some people who claim that they are Muslims they do not have certainty about aakhirah.
Yaqeen of aakhirah doesn’t mean we do not enjoy duniya but we need to put things in the right perspective.
Once Rasulullah (SAW) was given some nice clothes, which he wore and then delivered a khutbah. Later while the prophet was among his companions, the companions started to touch that garment. Rasulullah (SAW) said ata’jaboon min haazih?, Are you amazed by these clothes? And they said ya Rasulullah, this is so soft and nice. Qaala waAllahi inna manadila Saad ibn Muaz fil jannah afdalu min haazih. He said by Allah the handkerchief of Saad ibn Muaz in paradise is better than the clothes I’m wearing. He brought them back to what? Al-Aakhirah. Don’t let the duniya be in your heart.
Allahumma ya zaljalali wal ikraam, ij’al ahsana a’maalina khawatimaha wa khaira ayyamina yawma nalqaak.