The Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) taught us not to long for death. But when calamities strike, they can blow the wind out of us, making us forget the purpose of our existence, and, sometimes, making us long for death so that they might end. Hamza unpacks the words of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) to explain why this is a mistake and how we should correct it.
We will all, one day, be on the verge of our deaths, staring at the end of our lives, the end of our choices, the end of our actions. We will only take with us what we did before that time. There will be no going back, and there will be nothing more left to do. Or will there, in fact, be something left for us to do? Shaykh Hamza Karamali explains.
How Should We Live? How should we live? Allah Most High tells us, saying, “O you who have believed”—ya ayyuha alladheena aamanu—“fear Allah continuously”—ittaqu allah haqqa tuqatihi—“and never, ever die unless you are in a state of wholehearted submission.”—wa la tamutunna illa wa antum muslimun. (Qur’an, 3:102) This verse tells us that we should live with continuous fear of Allah Most High, the overwhelmingly powerful creator and master of every atom in the universe. Now, if you don’t know who Allah is, living in continuous fear of Him will sound miserable. You might think that living in continuous fear of Allah Most High is like living in continuous fear of some powerful and ruthless dictator (may Allah Most High preserve our freedoms and protect us from all kinds of subjugation). Living in continuous fear of a powerful and ruthless dictator is, indeed, miserable. When you sleep, you fear assassination; when you eat, you fear poisoning; when you leave your hiding-place, you fear imprisonment; when you use your cell-phone, you fear being tapped; when you talk to an acquaintance, you fear being betrayed—your continuous fear prevents you from being able to enjoy anything. You live in misery. But living in continuous fear of Allah Most High is not like that because Allah Most High is not a powerful and ruthless dictator. Clear your heart. Hit “delete” on all thoughts of powerful and ruthless dictators. And listen carefully to understand who Allah Most High is and what He means when He tells us to live in continuous fear of Him. The Arabic word for the fear of Allah is taqwa. What this word actually means is not “feeling scared of something”; what it actually means is, “protecting yourself”. The opening verse of this episode uses the Arabic expression, ittaqu allah. This is frequently translated as, “fear Allah”, but what it really means is, “protect yourselves from Allah”. Now, someone might protect themselves from another human being by lifting weights, training in martial arts, hiring bodyguards, or seeking refuge in a safer country. But that is not how they would protect themselves from Allah Most High. How could they?—no matter how strong their muscles, no matter how skillful their martial arts, no matter how numerous their bodyguards, no matter which country they might flee to, nothing in the universe can protect them from Allah Most High. How could it?—He is the one who created it, and were it not for Him, it wouldn’t even exist. So if nothing in the universe can protect us from Allah, then what does He mean when He commands us to protect ourselves from Him? What or who is there that can possibly protect us from Him?—No one but Allah Most High Himself. The Holy Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) used to supplicate, “O Allah! I seek refuge in Your pleasure from Your anger, in well-being that You give from the punishment that You send, and I seek refuge in You from You.” (Muslim: 486) When someone wants to protect themselves from a ruthless dictator, they run away from him. When someone wants to protect themselves from Allah, they run to Him. They run away from the ruthless dictator because he is out to get them. They run to Allah because He wants to forgive them. Fear of a ruthless dictator drives one to hate him. Fear of Allah drives one to love Him. Fear of a ruthless dictator is misery. Fear of Allah is joy. Let’s return to the opening verse of this episode. Allah Most High says, “O you who have believed, fear Allah continuously, and never, ever die unless you are in a state of wholehearted submission.” (Qur’an, 3:102) This verse tells us how we should live—we should live in continuous fear of Allah Most High. What does that mean? It means that, out of fear of His anger, we should take the means to His pleasure; out of fear of His punishment, we should take the means to His blessing; out of fear of Him, we should take the means to Him. And we should do that continuously so that, if death suddenly comes, it finds us in a state of wholehearted submission to Him. That is how we should live, and that is how we should die For more podcasts by SeekersHub, visit seekershub.org/podcasts
How Should We Die? Allah Most High answered this question in the Holy Qur’an, saying, “O you who have believed”—ya ayyuha alladheena aamanu—“fear Allah continuously”—ittaqu allah haqqa tuqatihi—“and never, ever die unless you are in a state of wholehearted submission.”—wa la tamutunna illa wa antum muslimun. (Qur’an, 3:102) If you think carefully about the end of this verse for a second—“Never, ever die unless you are in a state of wholehearted submission.”—you will find it strange. Isn’t is it strange that Allah Most High is telling us that if we are not in a state of wholehearted submission, that He is then forbidding us, in the strongest of terms—“Never, ever,” He says—from dying? But what does it mean for Him to forbid us to die? Death is not something we choose. Death is something that He chooses. Death is something that will catch us as even as we run away from it: “Wherever you may be,”—ayna ma takunu—Allah Most High tells us, “Death will catch you,”—yudrikkumul mawt—“even if you be in high, impregnable fortresses.”—wa law kuntum fi burujin mushayyadah. (Qur’an, 4:78) What, then, does it mean for Him to forbid us to die? Traditional scholars of tafsir anticipated our question. They explained that He is not, in fact, forbidding us to die; rather, He is commanding us to have wholehearted submission when we die. It’s like when a teacher exhorts his student, “Don’t pray ‘asr unless your heart is present with Allah Most High.” He is not telling his disciple not to pray ‘asr—How could he? Praying ‘asr is an obligation that we owe to Allah Most High! That is not what he is telling him. What he is telling him is that he must focus his heart on Allah Most High while he prays ‘asr. This is a common rhetorical technique even in English. Think about the expression again: “Don’t pray ‘asr unless your heart is present with Allah Most High.” Can you see that the teacher is telling his student that his standing before his Lord during the ‘asr prayer is such a tremendous thing that it is not fitting for him to do it without focussing his heart on Him? Can you see that the teacher is telling his student that the reason why his heart isn’t focussedon His Lord in the ‘asr prayer is that he doesn’t realize what a tremendous thing it is? The teacher is not forbidding his student from praying ‘asr; he is commanding him realize its tremendous significance and focus his heart on Allah Most High while he prays ‘asr. In the same way, when Allah Most High says, “Never, ever die unless you are in a state of wholehearted submission,” He is telling us that the reason why we don’t have wholehearted submission is that we don’t realize the tremendous significance of death. He is telling us to realize its tremendous significance, to realize that death marks the end of our opportunity to realize the purpose of our lives, and that the reason why someone might not have wholehearted submission when he dies is that he doesn’t realize what a tremendous thing death is. Allah Most High is not forbidding us to die; He is telling us to realize the tremendous significance of our deaths and to have wholehearted submission to Him while we die. Now, I want you to note what the tremendous significance of death is—to realize the purpose of our lives. That takes us back to the previous episode of this podcast, in which I explained that the purpose of death is to give joy to life by turning its difficulties and pleasures into expressions of our humble slavehood to our generous Maker. The significance of dying does not lie in death; the significance of dying lies in the joyful, meaningful, and purpose-driven life that comes before it. That means that this verse is, in reality, not telling us how we should die; it is telling us how we should live. To be more specific, it is telling us how we should live the moment before we die. It is telling us to have wholehearted submission to our Maker at the last point of our lives, as we take our last breath just before we die. Every problem we solve seems to reveal a new problem (smile). Our new problem here is that we don’t know when we will die. The time of our deaths is concealed from us, revealed only to the angels responsible for inscribing our destinies in the Heavenly Preserved Tablet, and to the angels responsible for taking our souls when the appointed time of our death comes. If we don’t know when we will die, how can we fulfill Allah Most High’s command to have wholehearted submission just before we die? The answer to this question lies in the first part of this verse—“O you who have believed, fear Allah continuously.” Fear Allah continuously, in other words, throughout your life. The question of this episode—“How should we die?”—is therefore another way of asking the question, “How should we live?” The answer to that question, along with an examination of the first part of this verse, will be the subject of the next episode. For more podcasts by SeekersHub, visit seekershub.org/podcasts
Why do we die? A materialist might answer that we die because our body stops working—our breathing, our heartbeat, our brain activity, everything, stops. We saw in the previous episode that this materialist is wrong—we are not our bodies, but our souls, and although our death is accompanied by bodily changes, it is not those bodily changes themselves, but something else related to the soul. Death is the separation of our soul from our body. We die because our soul is separated from our body. But that is not, in fact, what I am asking. When I ask, “Why do we die?” I am not inquiring about the cause of our death; I am inquiring about the purpose of our death. Everything in the universe appears to have some purpose. Another way of saying this is that everything in the universe appears to happen so that something else that comes afterwards can also happen. Allah Most High sends winds to move rain clouds over dry land (Qur’an, 25:48), He sends rain to make plants grow (Qur’an, 25:49-50), and He makes the earth orbit around its axis, the moon around the earth, and the earth around the sun to enable us to tell time by counting days and months (Qur’an, 10:5 and 17:12). He made hemoglobin in our blood cells to carry oxygen from our lungs to the rest of our body. He made chlorophyll in plant cells to absorb light energy from the sun. And so on. When I ask, “Why do we die?” I am asking, “What is the purpose of our death?” Everything in the universe has a purpose. Everything in our bodies has a purpose. It would make sense for our death, too, to have a purpose. What is that purpose? Why do we die? We have all heard someone remark, “You only live once.” The one who makes this remark has to make a choice between being responsible—doing a chore, studying for an exam, putting in extra hours at work, taking care of a father, a mother, or a child—and between doing something he enjoys—playing a game, watching a movie, going on a vacation, any kind of entertainment. What he means by his remark, “You only live once,” is that after he dies, he will stop existing. This life, he is saying, is all that there is. What this entails, he is saying, is that the purpose of his life before death is to maximize his pleasures, that every moment of his life that is spent in something other than the pursuit of pleasure is a wasted opportunity, a foolish choice, and that he should therefore only be “responsible” when that leads to some immediate pleasure, some selfish gain. He might strengthen his conclusion with a second remark, saying, “Life is short.” He is now saying that not only only do you only live once, you only live once for a short time, and the urgency to experience immediate pleasures, to acquire a selfish gain, is even greater. That, according to his point of view, is the purpose of death. We die in order for us to be motivated to experience immediate pleasures, to acquire selfish gains, and to do so with great urgency. That is why we die. He is wrong. But before I explain why, I want you to see that if, as he says, “You only live once,” then the pursuit of pleasure is not, in fact, the purpose of death. The purpose of death, if you only live once, is not make you happy, but make you miserable. Leo Tolstoy captured this well. He wrote in the late nineteenth century that, “If not today, then tomorrow sickness and death will come to everyone, to me, and nothing will remain except the stench and the worms. My deeds, whatever they may be, will be forgotten sooner or later, and I myself will be no more. Why, then, do anything? How can anyone fail to see this and live? That’s what is amazing! It is possible to live only as long as life intoxicates us; once we are sober we cannot help seeing that it is all a delusion, a stupid delusion! Nor is there anything funny or witty about it; it is only cruel and stupid.” — Leo Tolstoy, “A Confession” The urgent pursuit of pleasure and selfish gain is not the purpose of death, but a distraction from death’s depressing reality—that everything we do will be wiped out forever, that all of our dreams will be ruined, that every pleasure, every achievement, every aspiration is a mirage that disappears to reveal the terrifying face of our mortality. And that is the bright side of things. That is how life appears when things go well. When things go wrong, when we fail at work, when our loved ones let us down, when we are assailed by difficulties, we are unable even to distract ourselves with a mirage, we ask, “Why does it always happen to me?” We feel the pain of failure, we feel trapped, we fall into depression, we despair. Now that you see why the one who remarks, “You only live once,” is heading down a path to depression and despair, I will explain why, in addition to being miserable, he is also wrong. He is wrong because his death is not the end of his existence, but the separation of his soul from his body and the continued existence of his soul into another, everlasting abode. This means that his remark—“You only live once.”—is false. You live, you die, and then you live again. You don’t live once; you live twice, and your second life lasts forever. What, then, is the real purpose of death? Remember that what it means for something to have a purpose is that it happens so that something else might happen after it. We can discern the purposes of wind, rain, celestial orbits, hemoglobin, and chlorophyll by observing what they lead to. But we cannot discern the purpose of death by observing what it leads to because we cannot observe—before we die ourselves—what death leads to. For that, we need to turn to the one who made death. We need to turn to Allah Most High. I began the last episode with the words of Allah Most High, “Every soul will, without doubt, fully experience death.” (21:35) Immediately afterwards, Allah Most High explains why He made death. He says, “We are surely testing you with unpleasant and pleasant things and it is to us alone that you will all be returned.” (21:35) Allah Most High makes us die so that the unpleasant and pleasant things in our life before death might test our slavehood to Him. After death, He will make us live a second time, forever, and reward those who showed Him slavehood with everlasting bliss. That is the purpose of death. That is why we die. Let me explain further. When we experience difficulties, those difficulties have a meaning and purpose beyond our death into our everlasting life after death. Allah Most High sends us difficulties to test our slavehood to Him, to see whether or not we live through them as needy and faithful slaves who turn to Him in prayer and repentance, begging Him for help, confessing to Him their weakness and sin, praising His mercy and grace, transforming the pain of their difficulties into the joys of humbling themselves before their generous Maker, and having complete conviction that their patience for the sake of their Maker will lead them to an infinite and everlasting reward in their life after death. When we experience pleasures, those pleasures, too, have a meaning and purpose beyond our deaths into our everlasting life after death. Allah Most High sends us pleasures for the same reason that He sends us difficulties: to test our slavehood to Him, to see whether or not we live through them as needy and faithful slaves who turn to Him in prayer and repentance, confessing their sin, acknowledging that they are undeserving of being given those pleasures, seeing them as sheer favors from Allah Most High, praising him for them, thanking Him for them, savoring the gratitude of receiving the blessing even more than the blessing itself, and having complete conviction that their gratitude will lead them to an increase of that blessing in this life (Allah Most High swears in the Qur’an that he will increase every blessing that we give Him gratitude for (Qur’an, 14:7)) and an infinite and everlasting reward in their life after death. Allah Most High says, “Tremendously exalted and and full of good is the one who has complete and undisputed control over everything—the one who directly runs and governs everything in the universe—and who has complete power to do all things, the one who created death and life in order to test which of you is best in works.” Death is a divine blessing. It makes our lives meaning. It gives us purpose. It helps us do good deeds. It helps us be moral. It gives us joy and hope in Allah Most High through our difficulties. It gives us even greater joy and hope in Him through our pleasures. It helps us be happy. And, if we believe in Him and worship Him, clinging to joy and hope in Allah Most High in our life before death, it gives us His infinite and everlasting reward in our life after death. That is the purpose of death. That is why we die. For more podcasts by SeekersHub, visit seekershub.org/podcasts.
Allah Most High says in the Qur’an, “Every soul will, without doubt, fully experience death.” (3:185, 21:35, 29:57) We will all die. You will die, I will die, and everyone that we all know 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. 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 with 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. 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. 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. 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.” (Qur’an, 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.” (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, 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, when he told us that, he had evidence for what he said. Allah Most High confirmed his genuine messenger hood 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—with 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, and with his sublime character, selflessness, and other abundant evidence that the revelations that he conveyed could only have been from Allah Most High. 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 Quranic verses and prophetic hadiths that describe what happens after we die. The upshot of those verses and hadiths, in the words of ‘Umar b. ‘Abd al-’Aziz (may 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.” (67) 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. (67) 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. For more podcasts by SeekersHub, visit seekershub.org/podcasts.