What is Death? – Shaykh Hamza Karamali
In this new series, Remembering Death and the Afterlife, Shaykh Hamza Karamali addresses a topic that does not appeal to our western sensibilities, yet is of great significance to the life of faith.
Allah Most High says in the Qur’an:
Every soul will, without doubt, fully experience death. (3:185, 21:35, and 29:57)
We will all die. You will die, I will die, and everyone that we know – all will die. But what exactly does it mean to die? What is death?
When we die, we stop breathing, our heart stops beating, our brain’s electrical impulses stop, our joints become stiff, our body grows cold, stops moving, and starts to decay. When our body changes like this, we die. But even though these bodily changes always accompany death, none of them is the “full experience of death” that Allah Most High mentions in the Qur’an.
Death and the Experience of It
The ending of breathing accompanies death, but it is not the experience of death itself. The ending of our heartbeat accompanies our deaths, but it is not our experience of death itself. The ending of our brain activity, the stiffening of our joints, and our bodies growing cold all accompany our deaths, but they are not our experience of death.
Bodily changes such as these always accompany our conscious experiences. But when we observe ourselves, we know — clearly, immediately, and without any inference — that these bodily changes are not identical to our conscious experiences.
Our experience of happiness is accompanied by increasing levels of the hormones dopamine and serotonin, but the increased levels of those hormones is not what our happiness is. Our experience of stress is accompanied by increasing levels of the hormone cortisol, but those increased levels of cortisol are not what our stress is.
We are not our bodily changes. We are not our bodies. We are our souls.
Strange Thing, This Soul
Our soul is a strange thing — we cannot see it, touch it, or measure it, but we clearly know that it is there. We know that our happiness, our stress, our hope, our fear, our gratitude, our love, are not our bodily changes, but experiences that take place in our souls, apart from, different from, distinct from the changes in our bodies.
Let’s return now to the question of this post: “What is death?” The answer to this question depends on what happens to our souls — our selves, in other words — when we die. We know that when someone dies, their lungs stop breathing, their hearts stop beating, their brains stop pulsing, their joints become stiff, their bodies grow cold and start decaying.
But we don’t know what happens to their souls because their souls are apart from, different from, distinct from their bodies, and the ones who die are their souls, not their bodies. We don’t know what happens to their souls. We don’t know what happens to them.
Two Logical Possibilities
There are two possibilities. Either they — their souls, in other words — stop existing when their bodily functions stop and they die, or they — their souls, in other words — continue to exist, persisting beyond their bodies into another kind of life.
There is no scientific evidence for or against either possibility. This not a question that science can answer because no scientist can conduct any repeatable experiment to tell us what someone experiences when they die. A repeatable experiment to find out what really happens when someone dies would look something like this.
Take a hundred people. Let them die. Then ask them what happened. The problem, as you can see, is that once they die, they no longer speak to us. They cannot tell us what happened. When a scientist or a doctor or anyone else claims that death is the end of our existence, they are making a claim in haste and without any evidence to support it.
Death Is A Transition
The Prophet Muhammad, Allah bless him and give him peace, told us that our deaths are a movement from this life into another life, into a life that will last forever, a life in which we will be called to account for our belief and deeds in this life, and that our purpose in this life is to prepare ourselves for that everlasting life.
Those who disbelieved in him turned away, and claimed (in the words of Allah Most High in the Holy Qur’an) that, “It [i.e., life] is nothing more than this life of ours in this world, living and dying, nothing destroying us except the passage of time.” (Sura al Jathiya 45:24) Allah Most High explained also in the words of the Holy Qur’an that those who make such a claim “have no genuine knowledge of that at all: they are merely surmising.” (Sura al Jathiya 45:24) The claim that our deaths are the end of our existence is an empty claim, unsupported by any evidence at all.
When the Prophet Muhammad, Allah bless him and give him peace, on the other hand, told us that our deaths are a movement from this life into another life, he had evidence for what he said. Allah Most High confirmed his genuine messengerhood with dozens of physical miracles during his lifetime. With the miracle of the Qur’an — its linguistic miracle, its scientific miracle, and its accurate prediction of future events.
The Prophet’s knowledge, Allah bless him and give him peace, of the scriptures of the Jews and Christians, his vast knowledge of how to organize societies, how to trade, how to judge, and how to govern, all in spite of his being unlettered, his sublime character, selflessness, is all abundant evidence that the revelations that he conveyed could only have been from Allah Most High.
The Door to Everlasting Life
When the Prophet Muhammad, Allah bless him and give him peace, tells us about death, he is telling us what Allah Most High, the one who makes us live and makes us die, told him. Allah Most High told us through him that death is something that we “fully experience” and a “full experience” is only possible if we continue to exist as we die. In subsequent episodes of this series, I will relate and explain many other Qur’anic verses and prophetic hadiths that describe what happens after we die.
The upshot of those verses and hadiths, in the words of ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-’Aziz, Allah Most High have mercy on him, is that: “You were created forever [and when you die you don’t stop existing] but are moved from one abode into another abode.”
Death is not nonexistence. Death is not annihilation. Death is the interruption of your soul’s connection with your body. Death is a change of your soul’s state. Death is a movement of your soul from one abode into another abode.
The purpose of your living a life that ends with death is for you to lift your gaze beyond this transient life into the next everlasting one, for you to avoid the foolish mistake of living for a world that you will leave behind you when we pass through the door of your death into your everlasting life.
If Allah Most High gives me life until the next post, I will, if He wills, explain that further.
This post is taken from the first episode of the podcast series: Remembering Death and the Afterlife with Shaykh Hamza Karamali.