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A Muslim Perspective on Death

Basma Elshayyal's picture

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A Muslim perspective

 

When I first thought about writing this material, I initially imagined combining the material for the concepts of life and death together. Surprisingly enough, there are many instances in classical and contemporary Islamic literature where they are mentioned in the same breath:

 

Do not give your heart to this world, for its example is of an unfaithful bride who has never loved you, even for a night.

 

An interesting thought, but perhaps not such a practical one! Death is seen as the only certain reality in the entire spectrum of human experience with all that precedes it from birth onwards as a 'borrowed space, to be returned upon rest'. Everyone will experience death, regardless of ethnicity, gender or creed: 'Every soul (nafs) shall taste of death; and We try you with evil and good for a testing, then unto Us you shall be returned.' (Qur'an, 21:35)

 

And (humankind) presents for Us an example (i.e. attempting to establish the finality of death) and forgets his [own] creation. He says, 'Who will give life to bones while they are disintegrated?' Say, 'He will give them life who produced them the first time; and He is, of all creation, Knowing.' [It is] He who made you from the green tree, fire, and then from it you ignite. Is not He who created the heavens and the earth Able to create the likes of them? Yes, [it is so]; and He is the Knowing Creator.

 

Qur'an, 36:78-81

 

Particular reference is made to the example of a living organism, namely a tree, providing life, shelter, oxygen, water through transpiration, then fire and warmth as dead wood. By analogy, every stage of creation is beautifully planned and has a precise purpose.

 

And they say, 'There is not but our worldly life; we die and live (i.e. some people die and others live, replacing them) and nothing destroys us except time.' And they have of that no knowledge; they are only assuming. And when Our verses are recited to them as clear evidences, their argument is only that they say, 'Bring [back] our forefathers, if you should be truthful.' Say, 'God causes you to live, then causes you to die; then He will assemble you for the Day of Resurrection, about which there is no doubt.'

 

Qur'an, 45:24-26

 

The verse above is commenting on the profundity of creation and the omnipotence of Allah, contrasting the ease with which He creates and resurrects with humankind's comparative feebleness. It also refers to His omniscience and knowledge of the unseen, again contrasted with humankind's limited knowledge and world-view.

 

Life is a test

 

Muslims believe that no one knows when, how or where they will die; or what precisely the nature of death is, but the important element is to have a constant awareness, as much as possible, of this eventual reality; and to strive towards keeping this in perspective at all times. Therefore, life in its entirety for a Muslim constitutes a 'test' by means of which his or her final destiny is determined. Death is simply the return of the soul to its Creator, Allah; and this inevitability is highlighted on numerous occasions throughout a Muslim's life.

This idea permeates much of Islamic theology and attitudes in general as I hope the examples below will illustrate:

General background information based on various Qur'anic quotes:

 

Death is believed to be exactly like an intense form of sleep, complete with dreams (6:60, 40:46).

The period between death and resurrection passes 'like a night of sleep' (2:259, 6:60, 10:45, 16:21, 18:11-25, 30:55 etc...)

 

However, Muslims are strongly exhorted not to dwell too much on details such as these, or on what will happen to others (A question that is often asked is: 'Will x or y go to heaven or hell?'). Rather we should focus on what we have prepared for the Final Hour:

 

Ask not when, where or how, but rather 'What have I prepared?'

 

Teaching of the Prophet Mohammed pbuh

 

This might be an ideal opportunity for students to reflect and self-evaluate on what they believe is important. Is it tolerance and understanding? Fighting against injustice? Honour? Charity? Prayer? Love? Helping one's neighbours? Upright morality? Kindness to animals? All these are modelled on the prophet's behaviour as mentioned in other essays and ways in which a Muslim may strive to earn the pleasure of Allah.

 

Khalifah or stewardship

 

It might also be useful, when studying this subject, to consider the main concept of khalifah in addition to the Five Pillars. Khalifah is the belief that humanity is placed on this earth and charged with its care and stewardship according to principles of justice, righteousness and morality. Our stewardship will be judged when we finally surrender this trust at the end of our lives. Included in this concept are our own person and the importance of care and preservation of our body. This is considered in terms of things like health, medicine, spiritual fulfilment and development etc.

 

Hajj

 

Of the five pillars, Hajj (pilgrimage) may be used as an example of how constantly a Muslim is reminded of the reality of death as being an inevitable matter. It is not one which should be feared or dwelt on in a morbid fashion to the exclusion of worldly concerns. Throughout Hajj, a male pilgrim wears two pure white, unsewn garments, very similar to what their shroud might look like. It also symbolises equality with the rest of humanity by erasing external representations of things like class, wealth and ethnicity. On Hajj all worship and rituals are carried out in the same language, showing unity of purpose and message. It is the only place and time where gender differences are disregarded (e.g. men and women praying side by side around the Ka'abah and face-veiling forbidden). The most powerfully moving reminder, and one that perhaps the majority of pilgrims find most poignant, is the culmination of Hajj where all stand on the plain of Arafat. This symbolises resurrection and the gathering of humanity to be judged on the Final Day.

 

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