By Sancheet Hoque
What is death? Simply one can say it is when life ceases to exist, but that definition is not satisfactory for many. Most people want to know how does it feel to be dead. Is it an experience similar to life, but with its own conditions? There is no way to understand it fully because the people who experience death are no longer with us. According to the Quran, there is life after death and a series of events occur after it. It is considered the true life. Let’s dive into the Quran and sunnah to learn more about the nature of death itself and its significance for people living now.
Feeling of Death
˹It is˺ Allah ˹Who˺ calls back the souls ˹of people˺ upon their death as well as ˹the souls˺ of the living during their sleep. Then He keeps those for whom He has ordained death, and releases the others until ˹their˺ appointed time. Surely in this are signs for people who reflect. [39:42]
In this verse from Surah Az-Zumar (The Troops), Allah relays to the readers the nature of souls during death and sleep. This is important because there is a parallel in that the soul of a human is not present during death or sleep. The difference is that Allah keeps the soul when he has decided that person’s time is up, whereas he returns it to the sleeping person to wake him/her. This is further compounded by the duas that Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) made when he woke up in the morning and when he went to bed at night:
Duas after Waking
All praise is for Allah who gave us life after having taken it from us and unto Him is the resurrection. [Sahih Bukhari Book 80 Dua 21]
Praise is to Allah Who gave strength to my body and returned my soul to me and permitted me to remember Him. [Jamiat Tirmidhi Book 48 Dua 32]
Duas before Sleeping
In Your name O Allah, I live and die. [Sahih Bukhari Book 80 Dua 21]
O Allah, verily You have created my soul and You shall take its life, to You belong its life and death. If You should keep my soul alive then protect it, and if You should take its life then forgive it. O Allah, I ask You to grant me good health. [Sahih Muslim Book 48 Dua 81]
All of these invocations allude that during sleep, people die temporarily due to Allah holding one’s soul in his hand and returning it afterwards. Due to this, we can say that death is a similar experience to that of sleep. When humans sleep, they are not aware of how much time has passed since they lose that faculty. Sleep is also the only time humans can have dreams in which there are three types: Dreams from Allah, Thought Dreams, and Dreams from Satan. The topic of dreams is very rich which would require a separate discussion. The main idea is that sleep taps into a more spiritual state, a blessing in itself! Not only do people dream, but they also move around in their sleep and have other physical changes. This is to show that sleep is not a static state.
So if death is similar to sleep, do we wake up after we die? According to the Quran, there is indeed a time when everyone will wake up. But let’s talk about a period before then which Allah refers to as the Barzakh (barrier):
When death approaches any of them, they cry, “My Lord! Let me go back, so I may do good in what I left behind.” Never! It is only a ˹useless˺ appeal they make. And there is a barrier behind them until the Day they are resurrected. [23:99-100]
Before the day we wake up after death or the Day of Judgment, some changes and experiences happen while people are in the grave. It is the waiting period that the soul enters before they wake up. It is similar to us experiencing sleep (such as dreaming, moving around, etc.), except that this experience will depend on how one was in the time they were alive and will not be a physical one. It is also much more serious as it is considered a trial as angels will question the person.
The Three Questions in the Grave
“Who is your Lord?
What is your religion?
And, what was that man who was appointed to you?”
[The believer] will reply: “My Lord is Allaah The Almighty; my religion is Islam and the man sent to me was the Messenger of Allaah.”
They will ask: “How do you know this?”
He will respond: “I read the Book of Allaah, believed in it and accepted it as the truth.”
Then, a caller will proclaim from the heaven: “My servant has spoken the truth; so spread out a heavenly bed for him and open a door for him to Paradise, in order that some of its air and perfume will reach him.”
His grave will then be widened for him as far as the eye can see. Subsequently, his good deeds will appear to him in the shape of a bright-faced, elegantly-clothed and well-scented man, and he will bring him glad tidings that will please him and tell him that this is the day he was promised.
Upon hearing this, the deceased will say, “O my Lord! Make the Hour come [fast]; make [it] arrive, so that I may return to my family and property.” [Ahmad]
The disbeliever’s experience is as follows:
He will reply: “Huh, huh! I do not know.” Then, a caller will call out from heaven: “My servant has lied, so prepare a bed of fire for him, and open a door for him to Hell, so that some of its heat and poisonous wind will come to him.” The dead person’s grave will then be compressed, so that his ribs will be crushed together. Then, his evil deeds will appear to him in the shape of an ill-dressed and foul-smelling man, who will bring him bad news, which will grieve him; he will then be told that this is the day he was promised. Upon hearing that, the person [in the grave] will say: “My Lord! Do not make [the final] Hour come.” [Ahmad]
If one performed many good deeds, their waiting period will be blissful, whereas if one performed sinful deeds, then they will experience punishment. Keep in mind this is all before heaven and hell, and before people are raised back up. This means that although the dead person cannot change his/her state, people that are alive can ask for forgiveness and perform good deeds on their behalf. Also if one has left a deed that lasts on Earth before death such as donating a Quran to the masjid that people use regularly, their burdens could be reduced by Allah’s will.
At this point, the people who have left this world are experiencing the Barzakh, while other people are alive. There will be a point in time where everyone will be in the Barzakh experiencing it until the appointed time for the Day of Judgement. This is right after the angel Israfel will blow the trumpet which signals the destruction of this world:
The Trumpet will be blown and all those in the heavens and all those on the earth will fall dead, except those Allah wills ˹to spare˺. Then it will be blown again and they will rise up at once, looking on ˹in anticipation˺. [39:68]
Angel Israfel will blow the trumpet for a second time to resurrect everyone from their grave! Reading this revelation shows how much death is similar to sleep. The trumpet is almost like an alarm clock except for all of the creation. After the people rise, the Day of Judgment will take place which is when Allah will judge people for the deeds they have committed while they were alive on Earth. All secrets come out on this day which can be very frightening if a person has something to hide. The people that Allah is displeased with will be punished no matter what:
Indeed, those who disbelieve – if they should have all that is in the earth and the like of it with it by which to ransom themselves from the punishment of the Day of Resurrection, it will not be accepted from them, and for them is a painful punishment. [5:36]
There is also the opposite side in which those who were righteous on Earth will definitely obtain the best of rewards:
Allah will say, ‘ This is the Day when the truthful will benefit from their truthfulness.’ For them are gardens [in Paradise] beneath which rivers flow, wherein they will abide forever, Allah being pleased with them, and they with Him. That is the great attainment. [5:119]
The idea of death is fearful to many because it is an unknown experience. When a person understands death for what it is, they can use it as a motivation as they know that it’s a chance to obtain rewards for all the good deeds one performs on Earth. Valuing death allows a person to value life which in turn will help that person live a more meaningful existence. Embrace death as we will all come to experience it. Since we know it’s coming, why not prepare for it? Let’s make the best of this life and the best of this Ramadan!
Khutbah: How Are You Spending Your Time?
Course: Quran & Self-Improvement
What do you think? Share your reflections below!
Ahmed BaHammam, Qur’anic insights into sleep, National Library of Medicine, July 2012
The Holy Quran, quran.com