What is death and what does the spirit do after death?
Man has an inborn feeling for eternity. Confined within this transient, material world, he always yearns for eternity. Whoever listens to the voice of man’s inner nature will hear it pronouncing eternity over and over again. If a man were given the whole universe, it would not compensate him for that ‘hunger’ for the eternal life for which he was created. This natural inclination of man toward eternal happiness comes from the objective reality and existence of an eternal life and man’s desire for it.
The body is an instrument of the spirit which governs and controls all its members down to cells and more minute particles of the cells.
When its appointed hour comes, illness or failure in the body’s functions is like an invitation to the Angel of Death, called in Islamic tradition Azra’il. Essentially it is God Himself Who makes people to die. However, in order that people should be saved from complaining against Him because of death, an event that seems to many people disagreeable, God uses the Archangel Azra’il, upon him be peace, as a between Himself and the taking of souls. Also, He puts illnesses or some calamities as another veil between Azra’il and death so that people should be saved from complaining against the Archangel for death.
Since Azra’il, like all angels, was created from light, he can be present and take on form in numberless places at the same time, and his engagement in a particular task does not prevent him from carrying out many other tasks at the same moment. Like the sun giving heat and light to all things in the world at the same time and being present through its images in innumerable transparent objects, the Archangel Azra’il can take millions of souls at the same moment without one hindering the other. Each of the Archangels, upon them be peace, has subordinates of his kind resembling him and supervised by him. At the time of the death of a good, righteous individual, first, some angels come to him with smiling, radiant faces and they are followed by either Azra’il himself or Azra’il and his subordinates who are charged with taking the souls of the good, or by only a subordinate of Azra’il. The Qur’anic verses, By those who pluck out violently; by those who draw out gently (al-Na’zi’at, 79.1-2), indicate that the angels who take the souls of the righteous are different from those who take the souls of the wicked. The souls of the wicked, who have an embittered, frightened face at death, are plucked out violently.
To those who have believed and lived righteous lives are opened windows from their places in Paradise. The Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace and blessings, stated that the souls of the righteous are drawn out as gently as the flowing of water from a pitcher. Better than that, martyrs do not feel the agonies of death and do not know themselves to be dead; instead, they consider themselves to be transferred to a better world and enjoy perfect happiness.
The Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace and blessings told Jabir the son of ‘Abd Allah ibn ‘Amr, who was martyred at the Battle of Uhud:
Do you know how God welcomed your father? He welcomed him in such an indescribable manner that neither eyes have seen it, nor ears heard it, nor minds conceived of it. Your father said: ‘O God, return me to the world so that I will explain to those left behind how pleasant martyrdom is.’ God replied: There is no longer return. Life is lived only once. However, I’ll inform them of the circumstances you are in’, and He revealed: Never think of those slain in the way of God to be dead; rather they are alive and are provided in the Presence of their Lord. (Al- Imran, 3.169)
One dies how one lives. That is, one who has lived a good, righteous life, dies a happy death, while another one who lives a wicked life dies a wicked death.
The Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace and blessings, the most advanced in worshipping God, advised prescribed prayers during the agonies of his death. So did ‘Umar, the second Caliph, may God be pleased with him. Khalid ibn Walid was one of the few invincible generals of world history. Just before his death, he asked those beside him to fetch him his sword and horse. Those, like ‘Uthman, Ali, Hamza and Mus’ab ibn ‘Umayr and many others, dedicated themselves to the cause of Islam, they died martyrs. Whereas those who live a dissipated life give their last breaths either at a drinking or gambling able or in a house of prostitution.
For those who believe and do righteous deeds, death is not something to be feared. Although, in appearance, it is decomposition and extinction of the light of life and its pleasures, in fact it is a discharge from the heavy duties of the worldly life. It is a changing of residence and transferring of the body, as well as an invitation to, and the beginning of, the everlasting life. As the world is continually enlivened through acts of creation and predetermination on the one hand, so, on the other, it is continually being stripped of life through other cycles of creation, determination and wisdom. The dying of plants, the simplest level of life, proves itself a work of Divine artistry, like their living, but more perfect and. better designed. When the stone of a fruit, its seed, dies under the ground, it seems to decompose and rot away into the soil. But in fact it undergoes a perfect chemical process, passes through predetermined states of re-formation and ultimately grows again into an elaborate, new tree. That is, the death of a seed is the beginning of a new tree, a new, more perfect and elaborate life.
Since the death of fruits and vegetables and animal flesh in the stomach of man causes them to rise to the degree of human life, their death in this sense can be regarded as more perfect than their lives. Since the dying of plants, which are the simplest level of life, is so perfect and serves so great a purpose, the dying of human beings, who are the highest level of life, must be much more perfect and serve a still greater purpose: man, having gone underground, will certainly be brought into an eternal life.
Death discharges man from the hardships of worldly life, which is a turbulent, suffocating, narrow dungeon of space which gradually becomes more difficult through old age and afflictions, and admits him into the infinitely wide circle of the mercy of the Eternal, Beloved One, where he may enjoy the everlasting company of his loved ones and the consolation of a happy, eternal life.
Following death, the spirit is taken to the Presence of God. If it led a good, virtuous life in the world and achieved refinement, the angels charged with taking it to the Presence of God wrap it in a piece of cloth made of satin and take it, through heavens and all inner dimensions of existence, to the Presence of God. While going through the heavens, angels welcome it in every mansion or station it passes by and ask: ‘Whose spirit is this? How beautiful a spirit it is!’ The angels conveying it introduce it with the most beautiful titles by which it was called while in the world and answer: ‘This is the spirit of that one who, for example, prayed, fasted, gave alms and bore all kinds of hardship for God’s sake.’ Finally, God Almighty welcomes it and then orders the angels: Take this back to the grave where its body is buried, so that it should answer the questions of Munkar and Nakir, the interrogating angels.’
The spirit of an evil one is treated with disdain everywhere it passes and thrown back to the grave from the Presence of God Almighty.
Whatever evil happens to a man in the world is because of his sins. If a man is a sincere believer and cannot always hold himself back from sinful acts, God, out of mercy for him, allows some misfortunes to strike him so that he may be purified of his sins. God may also subject him to great agonies of death either to forgive him those of his sins still unpardoned or to promote him to higher (spiritual) ranks, but takes his spirit very gently. If, despite all the misfortunes which befell him in the world and the agonies of death he suffered, such a person has still some sins unforgiven, he suffers some sort of punishment in the grave and is freed from the punishment of Hell. In addition, since the grave is the first station on the journeying toward eternal life where everyone will meet the reward of what he did in the world, as a preliminary interrogation, everyone is questioned in the grave by two angels for their worldly deeds. And almost everyone, except the Prophets, is subjected to some suffering.
As is recorded in reliable books, ‘Abbas, the uncle of the Prophet, upon him be peace and blessings, desired very much to see ‘Umar, the second Caliph, in his dream after ‘Umar’s death. However, he was able to see him only six months later and then asked him: ‘Where were you until now? ‘Umar answered: ‘Do not ask me that! I have only just been able to finish giving the reckoning (of my life).’
Sad ibn Mu’adh was among the greatest of the Prophet’s Companions, may God be pleased with them all. When he died, the Archangel Gabriel, upon him be peace, told God’s Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings: ‘The Divine Throne trembled because of the death of Sa’d, O God’s Messenger!’ Innumerable angels took part in his funeral. However, after Sa’d, may God be pleased with him, was buried, the Messenger spoke in amazement: ‘Glory be to God! What (will happen to others) if the grave squeezes Sa’d?’
In the grave, everyone is questioned by two angels called, in the Islamic tradition, Munkar and Nakir. They ask such questions as:
‘Who is your Lord? Who is your Prophet? What is your religion?’ If a man was a believer while in the world, that is, if he believed in God and the Prophet, upon him be peace and blessings, and if he chose the true religion, he can answer the questions of the angels. Otherwise, he cannot. The questions continue with those concerning his deeds in the world.
The relation between the spirit and its body differs according to the worlds in which they are. While in this world the spirit is confined within the ‘prison of the body. If the evil-commanding self and bodily desires dominate over the spirit, this will inevitably result in the deterioration of the spirit and the final doom of the person. If, by contrast, the spirit can discipline the evil-commanding self through belief, worship and good conduct, and free itself from servitude to bodily desires, it is refined, acquires purity and is furnished with laudable qualities. This will bring happiness to the spirit in both worlds.
After burial, the spirit is kept waiting in the intermediate world, the world between this one and the Hereafter. Although the body decomposes and rots away into earth, its essential particles-called in a hadith ajb al-dhanab, which literally means coccyx-remain unrotted. We do not know whether ajb al-dhanab refers to a man’s genes. Whatever part of the body it is, the spirit continues its relations with the body through it. This part will also serve as a foundation upon which God will re-build or re-create a man on Judgement Day. Whether this part, which is formed of the essential particles or atoms of the body, or all of its other particles that have already mixed into earth, God will make them conducive to eternal life during the events in the course of the final destruction and re-building of the universe and re-construct or re-create man from them on the Day of Resurrection.
The intermediate world is the realm where the spirit feels the ‘breath’ of either the bliss of Paradise or the punishment of Hell. If man led a virtuous life in the world, his good deeds-his prayers, recitations, acts of charity, etc.-will appear to him in the intermediate world in the form of amiable companions. Also, windows will be opened for him onto heavenly scenes and, as stated in a hadith, the grave will be for him like a garden out of the gardens of Paradise. However, as pointed out above, if a man has sins still unpardoned-however virtuous he was -he may suffer some punishment in the intermediate world in order to be purified of all his sins so that he can deserve Paradise after the Resurrection. If, by contrast, a man was an unbeliever and led a wicked life, his unbelief and evil deeds will appear to him in the form of bad companions and vermin of all kinds like scorpions and snakes. Also, scenes of Hell will be shown to him and the grave will be for him like a pit out of the pits of Hell.
As everybody knows, while a man is alive in the world, it is the spirit which both suffers pains and feels joys and happiness. Although the spirit feels pains, in appearance, through the nervous system, and uses this system in its extremely complex acts of communicating with all parts of the body down to each of its cells-it is still a mystery for science what type of an interaction there is between the spirit and the body, including, especially, the brain. Any kind of failure in any part of the body, which causes death, can also be sufficient for the nervous system to stop operating. However, as scientifically established, certain cells of the brain continue to live for some time after death. Scientists have been doing studies on the signals received from the brain through those cells after death. If they succeed in this work and can decipher those signals, it will be useful, especially, in crimonology, in bringing to light the crimes whose authours have remained unknown. The following verses of the Qur’an, which tell us how, during the time of the Prophet Moses, upon him be peace, God revived a slain one, who informed of his killer, suggests this:
When Moses said to his people, ‘God commands you to sacrifice a cow’ ... they sacrificed her, a thing they had scarcely done. And when you killed a living soul, and disputed thereon-God disclosed what you were hiding so We said, ‘Smite him with part of it’; even so He brings to life the dead, and He shows you His signs, that haply you may have understanding. (al-Baqara, 2.67, 72-3)
Since, in fact, it is the spirit which suffers pains and feels happiness, and since the spirit continues its relation with the body (through those essential particles of the body which will remain unrotten) also in the intermediate world, it is meaningless to discuss whether the spirit or the body or both will suffer ‘torments of the grave’. However, as pointed out above, God will rebuild people on the Day of the Resurrection from or with those essential particles of their bodies and they will be ressurrected on the ‘morning’ of the eternal life.
Since the spirit lives the worldly life together with the body and shares all its joys and griefs with it in the world, God will resurrect people both bodily and spiritually. The Ahl al-Sunna wa l-Jama’a are all agreed that the spirit and the body will go to either Paradise or Hell together. God will build bodies in forms peculiar to the Hereafter where everything will be alive:
This life of the world is but a pastime and a game. Lo! the home of the Hereafter, that is life if they but knew. (al-Ankabut, 29.64)
The spirits in the intermediate world will see and hear us provided God allows them to. If God wills, He may permit some saintly people to see and hear them and communicate with them.
After a man dies, his record of deeds is not closed. If he has left behind good, virtuous children or books or institutions from which people continue to benefit or if he has brought up people beneficial to humankind or contributed to their upbringing, his reward will continue to increase. If, by contrast, what has remained of him consists in evil things, then his sins will also continue to be heaped up as long as these continue to be harmful to people.
So, in order to be beneficial to our loved ones who have gone to the other world, we should try to be good heirs to them. By helping the poor, taking part in Islamic services and leading a good, virtuous life and especially by spending, out of the heritage they left, for the promotion of Islam and the good of Muslims in particular and others unharmful to mankind in general, we can cause the increase of their reward.