Answered by Ustadh Shuaib Ally
Question: Asalamualaikum Wa Rahmatullahi Wa Barakatuhu,
I know that remembering death is beneficial but how does one remember death? Is it simply by thinking about it?
Answer: Assalaamu ‘alaykum wa rahmatullah,
The Importance of Remembering Death
It is important for people to consider their mortality by thinking of and remembering death, because doing so allows one to distance themselves from this temporal existence and turn towards the hereafter.
Conversely, neglecting the reality of death causes one to immerse themselves in the pleasures of this life. The Qur’an reminds: Every soul is certain to taste death: We test you all through the bad and the good, and to Us you will all return (21:35). The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: Frequently remember what ends all pleasure! (Tirmidhi).
The Importance of Preparing for Death
It is likewise important to prepare oneself for death, because of its certainty and proximity.
The Qur’an says: Believers, do not let your wealth and your children distract you from remembering Allah: those who do so will be the ones who lose. Give out of what We have provided for you, before death comes to one of you and he says, ‘My Lord, if You would only reprieve me for a little while, I would give in charity and become one of the righteous.’ Allah does not reprieve a soul when its turn comes: Allah is fully aware of what you do (63:9-11).
The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: An intelligent person takes himself to account and works for what follows death (Tirmidhi).
Al-Ghazali on How to Remember Death
Imam al-Ghazali, in his Ihya’, includes a section on how to accomplish the foregoing:
An Explanation of the Manner of Bringing about the Recollection of Death to one’s Heart:
Know that death is horrible, its importance significant. People’s neglect of it is due to not thinking about and remembering it. Even those who do remember it, don’t do so with an unoccupied heart, but rather with one that has been occupied with the worldly desires, such that the remembrance of death does not actually affect their hearts.
The correct manner of remembering death is for a servant to empty their hearts of everything except for remembering the death that is before them. This is similar to the manner in which a person, who wants to travel to a desert, or to embark upon a nautical voyage, cannot think of anything else. When the remembrance of death actually touches their hearts, and makes an impression upon them, their happiness and pleasure with respect to this world diminishes, and their hearts break.
The most effective manner of bringing about this change is for them to frequently call to mind their peers and contemporaries, those who have passed away before them. They should reflect on their deaths, as well as their decomposition below the earth. They should remember how they looked in their former positions and circumstances, and consider how the earth has now effaced their external beauty; how their limbs have become dispersed in their graves; how they left their wives widows, their children orphans! How they have lost their wealth; how their mosques and their gatherings have become empty of their presence; how all traces of them have been erased!
To the extent that people remember others and call to minds their circumstances and how they died; imagine their forms; remember their activities; how they used to move about; the way they planned their lives and its continuation; their neglect ofdeath; how they were deceived by the facilitated means of life; their reliance on strength and youth; how they inclined toward slaughter and amusement; their neglect of the quick death and destruction that lay before them; how they used to move about, while their feet and joints have now rotted away; how they used to speak, while worms have now devoured their tongues; how they used to laugh, while dirt has now eaten away their teeth; how they used to plan for themselves what they hadn’t actually needed for another ten years, when all that lay between themand death was a mere month; they were ignorant of what had been decreed for them, until death came to them at a time they have not expected; the angel’s form was revealed to them; the call rang in their ears, Heaven or Hell! At that point, a person can engage in self-reflection, and see that they are like them, and that their neglectfulness is similar to theirs, and that their end shall be one.
Abu al-Darda’ (may Allah be pleased with him) said: When you think about the deceased, count yourself amongst them. Ibn Mas’ud (may Allah be pleased with him) said: A happy person is one who can derive lessons from the situation of others. Umar ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz said: Don’t you see that every day you prepare a traveller, by morning and night, to Allah (Mighty and Sublime is He), placing him in a hole in the earth? He has made dust his pillow, left behind his loved ones, and cut himself off from the means of this life!
Continuously thinking about this and similar thoughts, as well as going to graveyards and seeing sick people, renews the heart’s remembrance of death, until it takes control of it and is constantly at the forefront of one’s mind. At this point, one will be nearly ready for death, and will leave aside the world of delusion. Lacking this, remembrance with the mere superficial aspects of the heart, and the saliva of the tongue, will be of little benefit in warning and alerting oneself.
No matter how pleased one’s heart may become with something of this world, one should immediately remember that they must at some point part ways with it. Ibn Muti’ one day looked at his house and was pleased by its splendour. He then began to cry, saying: By Allah, were it not for death, I would be overjoyed with you! Were it not for what we are headed towards, the narrowness of graves, we would be contented with this world! He then began to cry intensely till his voice rose loudly.
Sources: Ihya’ ‘Ulum al-Din; Dalil al-Falihin; al-Adhkar