Life after death: The Islamic perspective
by Ibn Anwar
Death comes to us all. If there is one fact that no human being in human history can deny is that every man since the dawn of creation is absolutely subject to death. The Holy Qur’an emphatically reminds us of this inescapable truth in Surah al-Ankabut(29), verse 57:
كل نفس ذائقة الموت ثم إليناترجعون
“Every soul shall taste death: In the end to Us shall you be brought back.”
*The same reminder is repeated in Surah al-Imran(3), verse 185
No king or pauper can hide from the inevitable clutches of death:
اينماتكونوا يدرككم الموت ولوكنتم فى بروج مشيدة
“Wherever you are, death will come to you, even if you are in towers built up strong and high”(Surah Al-Nisa’(4), verse 78)
The exact time and hour of our demise is Allah’s prerogative as the Qur’an says in Surah al-Imran(3), verse 145:
… وماكان لنفس أن تموت إلا بإذن الله
“Nor can a soul die except by Allah’s permission…”
However, before we die every single one of us experiences life on earth. Life and death come in one package. Because life and death are inseparable opposites like the yin and yang symbol the former has a direct bearing on the latter. In Islamic doctrine the state of death and life after death that every individual will experience is directly affected by his or her way of living (deeds and misdeeds; good and bad choices) whilst on earth. This brings us to the question, “Why do we live?”
In answering this age old question ( i.e. what is the purpose of life?) the Qur’an says in no uncertain terms that we have been made to serve Him.
وما خلقت الجن والْإنس إلَّا ليعبدون
“I have not created the jinn and mankind except to serve Me.” (Al-Dhariyat(51), verse 56)
Serving God entails following His commandments and avoiding His prohibitions, that is, to do good and avoid evil. This life is but a temporary station in which we are to try our level best to generate as much good as possible and shun misdeeds. The Qur’an says:
… الذى خلق الموت والحيوة ليبلوكم أيكم أحسن عملاً
“He who created death and life, that He may try which of you is best in deed…”(Surah Al-Mulk(67), verse 2)
The Prophet s.a.w. is recorded to have said:
كن فى الدنيا كأنك غريب اوعابر سبيل وعد نفسك فى اهل القبور
“Be in this world as though you are a foreigner or passerby on a road and count yourself as a member of the grave.”(Bukhari, Ahmad, Tirmidhi and Ibn Majah)
Reward and punishment for our deeds gained on earth will take place in two different realms after death, but of a surety God will judge us for what we did when we were on earth.
فمن يعمل مثقال ذرة خيرا يره وميعمل مثقال ذرة شرا يره
“Then shall anyone who has done an atom’s weight of good see it! And anyone who has done an atom’s weight of evil, shall see it.”(Al-Zalzalah(99), verses 7-8)
The above refers to the final judgment after the resurrection which is also related in Surah Al-Anbiya’(21), verse 47, but before that comes the realm of the grave or ‘alam barzakh.
The realm of the grave is the realm between our world and the final judgment(hereafter). It is rightly called barzakh which literally means a barrier as it is the transit realm from this world to the hereafter. Like the earth it is also temporary, but it is an unseen reality in which good things or bad things will be experienced by the dead depending on his belief and deeds. Before that however, one must taste death. What happens at the moment of death?
The Qur’an says that the angelof death(identified as Izrail in hadith) is responsible at the behest of Allah to take away souls that are due to die.
قل يتوفكم ملك الموت الذى وكل بكم ثم إلى ربكم ترجعون
“Say:”The Angel of Death, put in charge of you, will take your souls: then shall you be brought back to your Lord.” (Al-Sajdah(32), verse 11)
The experience of death when the soul is taken by Izrail is described by the Prophet s.a.w. in the following narration from Al-Bara’ Ibn Azib:
“If an unbelieving servant is more concerned with the worldly life than he is about the other life, tarfaced angels descend from the sky. These angels, who are carrying bad smelling fragrance, sit near proximity to the dying unbeliever. Then the Angel of Death descends and places himself near the head of the unbeliever. The Angel of Death says: ‘O bad soul! Come out to Allah’s curse and anger.’ The Prophet s.a.w. said: The soul disperses in the dying person’s body. The Angel of Death grabs the soul like a sufud(a piece of metal stuck in wet wool). The Angel of Death takes the soul without letting it stay in his hands even for a moment. Then the angels put a rough garment that smells bad on the deceased’s soul. The soul comes out having a very bad smell.” The Qur’an describes the pangs of the soul extraction of the unbeliever in a several places e.g. 8:50-51 and 47:27-28. The good believer on the other hand experiences a soothing extraction:
“If the believing servant refrains from coveting material things in his temporal life and desires the hereafter, white-faced angels descends from the sky. Their faces shine as brightly as the sun. They carry with them funeral garb and hanut(fragrance) from Heaven. They sit in near proximity to the dying person. The Angel of Death comes and sits near the dying person’s head, saying: O good soul, come out to Allah’s mercy and forgiveness. The Prophet s.a.w. said, ‘The soul comes out like a drop of water pouring out. Then the Angel takes the soul, without letting it stand in his hand; he releases it like a blink. The other angels take the soul and clothe it in funeral garb and hanut. From the soul comes the best smell, one resembling the best musk found on earth.” (Ahmad H. Sakr, Life, Death and the Life After, p. 45-46)
The ease that righteous believers experience during the extraction phase is described in various places in the Qur’an such as in al-Waqi’ah:88-89)
The Prophet s.a.w. used to pray for husnul khatimah and not su’ul khatimah i.e. a good ending and not a bad ending:
اللهم إني أسألك حسن الخاتمة وأعوذبك من سوءالخاتمة
*The time of death is not negotiable as the Qur’an says in Surah al-A’raf(7), verse 34.
Does the soul or the body taste death? The answer of Ahl Sunnah Wal Jama’ah as mentioned by Ibn Qayyim is that the body experiences death whilst the death that the soul goes through is the extraction process mentioned earlier i.e. the separation from the physical body.
The realm of the grave/isthmus(‘alam qubr/barzakh)
ثم أما ته فأقبره
“Then he causes him to die, and puts him in his grave.”(‘Abasa(80), verse 21)
ومن ورآءهم برزخ إلى يوم يبعثون…
“Before them is a partition till the day they are raised up.”(Suraj al-mu’minun(23), verse 100)
In the grave or ‘alam barzakh(isthmus) the dead will undergo some trials. Most prominently is that he will be asked three questions namely:
من ربك؟ .1
(Who is your Lord?)
(What is your religion?)
ماكنت تقول في هذا الجل محمد؟.3
(What did you say about this man Muhammad?)
*The last question appears solitarily in Sahih Bukhari related by Qatadah through Anas Bin Malik(it is also related by others including Ibn Majah and Al-Baihaqi), but Abu Dawud records ahadith containing all three questions together with some slight variation in wording in the third question. Three groups of people will not be able to answer the question namely the munafiq(hypocrite), the kafir(disbeliever) and the murtad(apostate) and for that they will be rebuked and punished. The successful are the righteous believers who will testify that there is no God except Allah and Muhammad is His messenger. Upon answering successfully the angels will say to them:
نم كنومة العروس الذي لا يوقظه إلا احب أهله إليه
“Go to sleep like a bride that is not awoken except by his beloved kinsmen.”(Al-Tirmidhi; Kitab Al-Haqa’iq wa al-daqa’iq)
Does the punishment in the grave happen to the soul or the body? According to Ibn Qayyim Al-Jawzi in his Kitab Al-Ruh the agreed upon position in Ahl Sunnah Wal Jama’ah is that both will experience it. Ibn Qayyim Al-Jawzi talks about seven different categories or states of being that the deceased will experience and Hujjatul Islam Imam Al-Ghazali discusses four periodic stages in Al-Durra al-fakhira fi kashf ‘ulum al-akhira in the barzakh. Can the dead hear and are they aware of the living? Yes, they can hear and they are aware. This is variously proven by several Qur’anic verses and numerous accounts in hadith. Ibn taimiyya was asked if the dead are aware of the living who visit them. Ibn taimiyya replied : “There is no doubt that they are aware of the living that visit them.” And Ibn Taymiyyah quoted the following Hadith in his support: “The proof of dead awareness comes from two Sahih Books of Bukhari and Muslim in which Rasool Allah (alayhi salaat wa salaam) said that when people have buried a dead person and leave for home, the dead can hear the thumps of sandaled feet of those who leave.” (Ibn Taimiyyah, Majma al-Fatawa, vol. 24, page 362 )
The Special life of Muhammad s.a.w. in the barzakh
الأنبياء أحياء في قبورهم يصلون
“The Prophets are alive in their graves worshipping.”(Anas ibn Malik in the Musnad of Abu Ya’la, 6:147)
The Prophet’s shafa’ah is available to the believers even now.
حياتي خير لكم, تحدثون ويحدث لكم, ووفاتي خير لكم تعرض علي أعمالكم ما رأيت من خير حمدت الله, وما رأيت من شر استغفرت لكم
” My life is a great good for you, you will relate about me and it will be related to you, and my death is a great good for you, your actions will be presented to me, and if I see goodness I will praise Allah , and if I see evil I will ask forgiveness of Him for you.”
This sahih hadith has been narrated from Ibn Mas’ud from Muhammad s.a.w. by Al-Bazzar in his Musnad(1:397) with a chain declared sound by Imam Al-Suyuti in Manahil Al-Safa (pg.31, #8), Ibn Hajar Al-Haytami in Majma’ Al-Zawa’id (9:24 #91), Al-Iraqi in Tarh al-Tathrib (3:297), Al-Munawi in Fayd Al-Qadir (3:401), Al-Khafaji and Al-Qari in Sharh Al-Shifa’ (1:102) and others.
We are commanded to send our salawat to the Prophet s.a.w. who will hear it and answer it. The commandment to send our salawat upon Muhammad s.a.w. is found in Surah Al-Ahzab(33), verse 56. Allah will bless those who do so ten times every time as the hadith in Sahih Muslim relates:
من صلى علي صلاة صلى الله عليه بها عشرا
“Whoever sends his prayer upon me, Allah will bless him ten times.”
The Day of Assembly/Judgment Day
The eschatological doctrine in Islam is that everything will perish(Surah Al-Rahman(55), verses 26-27; Surah Al-Zumar(39), verse 68) except Allah, the Creator. The Angel charged with the responsibility of ending and resurrecting all life will do so by blowing a horned trumpet three times. In a hadith related by Abu Hurayrah in Al-Tabarani’s Al-Matulat the events are summarised as follows:
قلت يا رسول الله وما الصور؟ قال: القرن, قلت: اي شئ هو؟ قال: عظم ان عظم دارة فيه كعرض السماء والارض فينفخ فيه ثلاث نخات الاولى نفخة الفزع, والثانية نفخة الصفق, والثالثة نفخة القيام لرب العالمين
“I asked: ‘What is the trumpet, Oh Messenger of Allah?’ He said: ‘The horn.’. I asked: What kind of horn is it? He answered: Very big the size of which stretched from the heaven to the earth. Thus, he(Israfil) will blow it three times. The first frightens(as a signal Surah Al-Naml, verse 87); the second causes death; the third resurrects for the Lord of the universe.”
Every single person will perish and be raised alive again to be gathered in a colossal assembly before their Lord and Creator, Allah s.w.t. This is the big yet very long period where all things will be revealed with nothing left untouched. The Day of Gathering prompted by the trumpet blast is mentioned in Surah al-Naba’(78), verse 18. According to a narration from Ibn Mas’ud as recorded by Ibn Abid Dunya, Al-Tabarani and Al-Hakim, the first people to the last people will be gathered by Allah(يجمع الله الاولين والاخرين) to a set time at a place of rising/standing for 40 years with their eyes open waiting for their Lord’s decision. In another narration from Abu Sa’id Al-Khudri relates that the Prophet s.a.w. said that a day during Judgment Day is over 50 000 years (يوم كان مقداره خمسين الف سنة), but for the believers it will be shortened to shorter than performing an obligatory prayer. (Ahmad, Abu Ya’la, Ibn Hibban) If the two narrations are brought together that means that on average many will have to way for approximately 73 0000000 (365 x 40 x 50 000) years until his fate is decided. The situation is compounded further by innumerable types of suffering that the unrighteous will have to endure. Generally, according to a narration in Sahih Muslim the sun will be extremely close to the people till about one mile. They will be sunken with their sweats according to their deeds. In a narration from Umar Bin Shu’ayb who heard tha Prophet s.a.w. saying the arrogant and boastful on earth will be raised like seeds that resemble men that are eaten by worms (الذر في صور الرجال يغشاهم الذلمن) and they will be enveloped by flames and drink from the ashes of hell that is muddy.
As mentioned earlier, the believers will have a better fate. The Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. will act as an intermediary between Allah and the believers. The minimum requirement is that they have to believe with all their heart and mind that there is no God except Allah and Muhammad is His messenger. These are those most fortunate to receive the Prophet’s shafa’ah or intercession:
اسعد الناس بشفاعتي يوم القيامة من قال لاله الا الله خالصا من قلبه او نفسه
A hadith that is often quoted about the people going from one prophet to the other is also from Sahih Bukhari. They will finally reach Muhammad s.a.w. who will be granted by Allah as their intercessor.
According to an agreed upon hadith from Abu Hurayrah who narrated that the Prophet s.a.w. said that seven groups of people will be protected from the heat of the sun mentioned in the hadith cited earlier. They include a just leader, a youth raised in the worship of Allah, a person whose heart is attached with mosques, two individuals who liked each other: stayed friends and departed as friends, a person who was seduced by a beautiful and high ranked woman, but refused due to his fear of Allah, a person who spent money privately that even his left hand did not know and a person whose tears came out of his eyes as soon as the name of Allah was mentioned.
The deeds of all will be put on the scales called mizan as mentioned in Surah Al-Anbiya’(21), verse 47.
ونضع الموازين القسط ليوم القيامة فلا تظلم نفس شيئا وإن كان مثقال حبة من خردل أتينا بها وكفى بنا حاسبين
“We shall set up scales of justice for the Day of Judgment, so that not a soul will be dealt unjustly in the least. And if there be the weight of a mustard seed, We will bring it (to account): and enough are We to take account.” (See also Al-A’raf, verse 8)
If the good deeds outweigh the bad deeds the person will not have much to fear. All of his deeds will be shown to him by Allah from a ‘book of records’ mentioned variously in the Qur’an e.g. (17:13-14; 69:19-21;25-29). Receiving the records in one’s right hand is a good sign whilst receiving it on the left isn’t. Our bodily parts will bear witness to our actions on earth. This is mentioned in several places in the Qur’an as well e.g. 24:24 and 41:20-23.
Mankind will all have to cross a bridge called the siraat that is fixed over hell fire. The bridge is sharper than a sword and finer than a hair span(أحد من السيف وأدق من اشعرة). The first to cross will be Muhammad s.a.w. along with the rest of the Prophets followed by the Ummah of Muhammad s.a.w. and the rest of humanity as mentioned in Sahih Bukhari. The unbelievers will fall into the pits of hell along with the unrighteous Muslims. Unlike the unbelievers however, Muslims who enter hellfire will be released after having served their time for whatever misdeeds carried out that were not forgiven during Judgment. This is the ijma’ or consensus of the ‘ulama or scholars of Ahl Sunnah Wal Jama’ah.
Heaven and Hell
The Qur’an says that the one unforgivable sin is associating partners with Allah.
Allah forgiveth not that partners should be set up with Him; but He forgiveth anything else, to whom He pleaseth; to set up partners with Allah is to devise a sin Most heinous indeed. (Surah Al-Nisa(4), verse 48)
Allah forgiveth not (The sin of) joining other gods with Him; but He forgiveth whom He pleaseth other sins than this: one who joins other gods with Allah, Hath strayed far, far away (from the right). (Surah Al-Nisa’(4), verse 116)
Those who die in the sin of shirk after Islam has been clearly shown to them they will perish forever in hell, but those who repent before their last breath will be saved.
And those who invoke not any other god along with Allah…and whoever does this shall receive the punishment…Except those who repent and believe (in Islâmic Monotheism), and do righteous deeds, for those, Allâh will change their sins into good deeds, and Allâh is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.
And whosoever repents and does righteous good deeds, then verily, he repents towards Allâh with true repentance. (Al-Furqan(25), verses 68, 70-71)
The surest key to eternal bliss is a sincere belief in the Oneness of Allah as the following hadith makes clear:
من كان آخر كلامه , لا اله ال الله , دخل الجنة
“Anyone whose speech ends with ‘there is no god except Allah’ will enter paradise.” (Abu Ya’la from Abi Said)
In short, no believer will be left in hell for eternity(see ‘Umdat Al-Salik, under Khuruj al-muwahideen min al-nar).
*Those who were not fortunate enough to receive and accept or deny the message of Islam will not suffer the same fate as those who blatantly denied Islam. This is the position of the Ahl Sunnah Wal Jama’ah based on the Qur’anic verse:
“And We never punish until We have sent a Messenger (to give warning)”(Al-Isra’(17), verse 15)
What happens in hellfire? The descriptions given in the Qur’an and hadith are innumerable. However, like all the other stages in the afterlife, the state of being of an individual depends on his deeds and belief.
Likewise, the descriptions given of heaven are innumerable. One of the verses of the Qur’an that nicely captures the pleasures of heaven is in Surah al-Zukhruf(43), verse 71 which says that in heaven will be anything that the soul desires.
Are men and women judged with equity and fairness in the hereafter? Yes, they are.
The Qur’an makes in explicit in the following verses:
And whoever does righteous deeds, whether male or female, while being a believer – those will enter Paradise and will not be wronged, [even as much as] the speck on a date seed. (Surah Al-Nisa(4), verse 124)
[It was] so that Allah may punish the hypocrite men and hypocrite women and the men and women who associate others with Him and that Allah may accept repentance from the believing men and believing women. And ever is Allah Forgiving and Merciful. (Surah Al-Ahzab(33), verse 73)
All will judge everyone with fairness and justice:
“And the record [of deeds] will be placed [open], and you will see the criminals fearful of that within it, and they will say, “Oh, woe to us! What is this book that leaves nothing small or great except that it has enumerated it?” And they will find what they did present [before them]. And your Lord does injustice to no one(ولا يظلم ربك أحدا).”(Surah Al-Kahf(18), verse 49)
“On the Day you see the believing men and believing women, their light proceeding before them and on their right, [it will be said], “Your good tidings today are [of] gardens beneath which rivers flow, wherein you will abide eternally.” That is what is the great attainment.” (Al-Hadid(57), verse 12)
سبحان الله والله اعلم
Glory be to Allah and Allah knows best!
The following is a brief list of references for further reading
- Ibn Qayyim Al-Jawzi, Kitab Al-Ruh
- Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali, al-Durra al-fakhira fi kashf ‘ulum al-akhira
- Ahmad H. Sakr, Life, Death and the Life After
- Bahiruddin Mahmood, Doomsday And Life After Death
- Hamid Muhammad Al-Abbadi, Menuju Ke Alam Barzakh
- Jane Idleman Smith & Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad, The Islamic Understanding of Death and Resurrection
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