From time immemorial, human beings have struggled with existential questions. Is there a God? Where did we come from? What is our purpose in life? What happens after we die? Is there a life after death? And the list goes on. Philosophers past and present have attempted to answer these questions from their own limited understanding of life, but their opposing viewpoints often give rise to more confusion than enlightenment.
As a child, my first awareness of death came at the age of four when my maternal grandfather died of a heart attack. I remember how bewildering it was when the family gathered together on the evening of his collapse, speaking in hushed voices, their faces looking grim and sad in the lamplight. All of a sudden, I was faced with a conundrum that I’d never come across before. And the adults so wrapped up in their grief, couldn’t offer an explanation for what had happened. Yes, I know my grandfather had died but what exactly did that mean? And so, the death of my beloved Nana opened my child-like eyes to the reality of mortality, something I struggled to make sense of long afterward.
Another death that had a profound effect on me was the passing of a fellow student when I was in primary school. She was about eight or nine at the time and I believed she died of some heart condition. Her image is imprinted in my memory to this day, a dark-eyed smiling girl in a green uniform, her hair parted in two braids down her back. I still remember how dazed I was to hear of her death. One day she was there and the next day she was gone. What I found even more distressing was her being laid to rest in the cemetery right behind our school. I used to stare at the tree-covered grounds, perturbed to think of her buried beneath the earth, never to be seen again.
A few years later, my world was shaken again by the death of a dear uncle who was in his twenties. He was hit by a drunk driver one night and his body dragged for some distance down the road. At the time it happened, it was a hit and run accident and it was only later that the culprit was caught and imprisoned. My uncle’s sudden demise devastated our family. I can recall in graphic detail the outpourings of grief and sorrow on the day of his funeral. Ever since then, the sight of a hearse or a coffin would fill me with a nameless dread.
Born into a Muslim family, I was indoctrinated by my parents into the belief system of Islam at a young age. It was mainly rudimentary knowledge and took place over a period of years. I learned to believe in One Supreme Being, Who is All-Seeing, All-Hearing and All-Knowing, and Who is to be worshipped and obeyed. I was also taught that when we die, we’ll either enter Paradise or Hellfire, depending on how we lived our lives. Learning such things at a young age gave me a shallow understanding of faith and I didn’t fully comprehend all the ramifications during those early years.
In my early teens, my days were occupied with school, friends, books, and hobbies. It was a period of discovery of what the world had to offer and partaking of some of the delights. When I finished high school, my mother urged me to attend religious classes. I think she wanted me to have a moral grounding so I wouldn’t fall into bad company or engage in undesirable behavior. At first, I attended classes reluctantly, more to please her than any real desire to further my knowledge. I certainly didn’t wish to whittle away my youth on things which are usually relegated to old age. Getting serious about religion, or so I thought, is only for those who have one foot in the grave. It’s certainly not for teenagers who wanted to taste all that life had to offer before they grow old. So, I continued attending classes half-heartedly, putting in the requisite two hours a week and carrying on with my life as usual during the rest of the time.
Little by little, as I learned more and more, my mindset began to change. The beliefs that I had professed with my tongue took firm root in my heart and I was convinced that Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) was a true Prophet and the Qur’an that was revealed to him, the literal words of God. One of the major reasons for this change of heart was the mortality question. Death disturbed me on so many levels. It continued unabated around me and there was no escaping it. It snatched the old, the young, the male, the female, the near and dear and those from distant lands. From relatives to neighbors, to people in the community, death came with cruel regularity. It was relentless. It was inevitable. It was impossible to elude. The Qur’an warns, “Wherever you may be, death will overtake you, even if you should be within towers of lofty construction.” (4:78).
One death that was especially heartbreaking to me during that time, was the death of a seven-year-old boy who I’d been teaching at the mosque. He had wandered away from home one day and drowned in the river in somewhat hazy circumstances. The sight of his little corpse at the funeral caused my eyes to overflow with tears that day. I couldn’t accept his death as a random and senseless act of fate. Neither could I believe that all our endeavors on earth will end with us as shriveled corpses to be grieved over. I refused to think that death could be utter annihilation and the ultimate end of our existence. To live a few years or decades, only to die seemed pointless. There is so much that would remain unresolved, unclear, unfair and most of all unjust.
My belief that death could not be the final end, took root and grew deep. And with that belief came the certainty of everlasting life in the hereafter, which the Qur’an has expounded in many verses:
“And the life of this world is nothing but play and amusement. But far better is the house in the hereafter for those who are pious. Will you not then understand?” (6:32)
…as compared with the life of the hereafter, the life of this world is nothing but a brief passing enjoyment” (13: 26).
In a Hadith, the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said, “The life of this world compared to the hereafter is as if one of you were to put his finger in the ocean and take it out again, then compare the water that remains on his finger to the water that remains in the ocean.”
So, if our lives on earth are just a passing phase, what’s the point of us being born at all? The Qur’an states, “Blessed be He in Whose hands is Dominion; and He over all things hath Power. He who created Death and Life, that He may try which of you is best in deed, and He is Exalted in Might, Oft-Forgiving.” (67:1). Here then, we see the wisdom why we were given life, only to face death.
By logic, the natural conclusion of any test is judgment and final disposition. The Qur’an has much to say about this:
“Every soul will taste death, and you will be given your full compensation on the Day of Resurrection. So, he who is drawn away from the Fire and admitted to Paradise has attained his desire. And what is the life of this world except for the enjoyment of delusion?” (3:185).
“But those who believe and do deeds of righteousness, We shall admit them to Gardens under which rivers flow (Paradise), abiding therein forever…” (4: 57)
“And whoever believes in Allah and does righteousness – He will remove from him his misdeeds and admit him to gardens beneath which rivers flow, wherein they will abide forever. That is the great attainment. But the ones who disbelieved and denied Our verses – those are the companions of the Fire, abiding eternally therein; and wretched is the destination. (64:9-10)
To those who doubt and deride life after death or heaven and hell, the Qur’an may seem like a book of fantasy. But our mortality cannot be denied and therein lies the rub. Skeptics and scoffers have nothing better to offer other than conjectures and it would be foolish for those who are still searching for answers, to jump on their bandwagons when so much could be at stake.
In my late teens, I embraced my faith more fully. Belief in an afterlife brought purpose, meaning, and inner peace to my life. In possession of divine truth, I could no longer afford to procrastinate, waiting for old age to arrive before I start to earn my Paradise. Death is forever lurking around the bend, waiting to seize its next victim. There is no guarantee that it won’t be me tomorrow. Life has its happy moments, but sorrow, pain, and disappointment will never cease to follow us because we were never meant to have paradise on earth.
I knew that the journey I had embarked upon was not going to be an easy one. Striving for success in the next life meant giving up some novelties in this life. This turned out to be easier than I thought. What gave me the most grief was the negative reactions from some of those around me, including close relatives. Not having much understanding or knowledge of Islam, they couldn’t understand my motivation for wearing Hijab. To this day, it’s still a struggle being a woman wearing a Hijab in this world. But that’s a story for another day.
Many among us are content to live their lives with no concern or anxiety about what happens after death. They take their mortality in stride and are not bothered by it at all. This could be as a result of different religious beliefs or simply ignoring the inevitable. For me, I can never be complacent about mortality when death continues to march on around me. Loved ones, friends, acquaintances, and countless others have gone one by one. And yet death continues to defy our attempts to stave it off despite our cutting-edge technologies. What then is left to look forward to if not the bliss of the next life?
Written by Farah Zaman,
Her blog: //farahzamanauthor.com/