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.

On Death and Dying, by Ustadh Salman Younas

With the current year drawing to a close, social media has come alight repeatedly with news of the passing of yet another celebrity. Ustadh Salman Younas shares some personal thoughts on an inevitable journey all of us will embark upon: death.

I have seen many people in my wider circle of friends/acquaintances express how death has seemed so much closer to us this year than previous ones. We have witnessed the passing of many a parent, teacher, sibling, friend, and child. Some of us directly suffered these losses; others suffered through seeing these losses endured by people they knew, such as friends; yet, other losses were so global and impactful that all of us were effected by them.
I was never particularly fearful of death until my daughter was born. After her birth, the fear kicked in. It was in most ways a worldly fear. I wanted to see my little one take her first steps, speak her first words, start school, become a rebellious teenager, go to college, and have a family. I wanted to live to see my child grow.
This all changed after my father passed away. I remember standing with some of my close friends after a Quran recital telling them about how the birth of my daughter led to an increased fear of death on my part. But my attitude had changed now. I knew my father had moved into another room that was out of my sight. But I was no longer afraid to have the door to that room opened for me because I knew that he would be there. It was the first time in a long time that I was not afraid to leave the room my daughter was in for the room my father had gone too.
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The Fear Factor

This taught me an important lesson. We often understand death in negative terms: we will be questioned, there is a thing called Hell, God will take us to account for everything, and so forth. The motivating factor in death for many is the fear factor. This is important, of course. Yet, the passing of my father taught me that it is also a motivator because of a love factor, a love and desire for reunion.
This was the perspective of Fatima (God be well-pleased with her). When the Prophet (blessings and peace be upon him) was in his final illness “he said something secretly to Fatima and she wept. Then he said something secretly to her and she laughed.” [Bukhari] When asked later why she wept, she said it was because the Prophet (blessings and peace be upon him) was moving to the next life. But when asked what made her smile, it was because she was told that she would join him in Paradise.
This was the perspective of the Prophet (blessings and peace be upon him). In one of his final sermons, he mentioned how “God had given a slave the choice between immortality in this world or meeting his Lord, and he had chosen to meet his Lord.” He was speaking about himself. His last words according to A’isha were, “to the highest Companion!” He had chosen to move on and unite with God. [Bukhari]

A Beautiful Union

To all of my brothers and sisters who have lost someone, to those saddened by separation, and to those still grieving, do not forget the union that death brings. A union with a merciful and compassionate Lord. A union with a most beautiful and perfect Prophet who will not cease pleading to God until each and every one of his followers is in Paradise with him.
Remember that your loved ones from this community wait for you, and that you have the opportunity to be with them in a place where time has ceased, where there will be no separation, nor grief, nor sadness, nor pain. It is a place where all of you can be together in utter bliss, love, and happiness.
This is the hope and trust we place in our Lord. This is why we worship and engage in righteousness: so we can reunite with those whom we love – God, His Prophet, our parents, children, siblings, friends, and others. So, do not despair, do not lose sight of the bigger picture, and make your life a road to reunion.
We ask God to renuite us in the eternal garden with those we love in the company of our Prophet (blessings upon him) and all the righteous.

Muslim Convert: Is Islam Just an Arabian Faith?

Yusuf, a Hindu from the UK, lost a beloved uncle in tragic circumstances at the young age of 15. This led him to contemplate the impermanence of life. He started reading about other faiths and their beliefs about death and the Hereafter.

His little understanding of Islam Muslim convertgarnered through stories in the Reader’s Digest led him to believe Islam was violent, oppressive and an Arabian religion. But in the Quran, he found the opposite.Muslim convert

Still, he was a Brahmin Hindu; he could never be Muslim. However, that’s not what his heart was telling him. He converted to Islam at the age of 15 years old and found that he had finally come home. Watch on to learn more about Yusuf’s conversion to Islam.

Resources for Seekers

How Not to be Afraid of Death

Death is never a subject we discuss frequently. In fact, most of us are so afraid of death that we don’t like to even think about it, explains Shaykh Ramzy Ajem.

In this video, watch Shaykh Ramzy recall an encounter he had in the Edwards Gardens with Shaykh Abdullah El-Haddad and why it should be anything but a morbid dread for us Muslims in the modern era.

Cover photo by Simon Sees

Resources for Seekers

What Is Some Prophetic Guidance on Remembering Death?

Answered by Shaykh Faraz Rabbani

Question: I was wondering what the guidance of the Messenger of Allah (peace & blessings be upon him) was with respect to remembering death. Please share some of his teachings.

Answer: Assalamualaykum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh,

I pray this finds you in the best of health and spirits. This is a very good question, MashaAllah. We would recommend that you refer to Chapter 65. Chapter of Imam Nawawi’s Gardens of the Righteous (Riyad al-Salihin): On remembering death and constraining expectation.

This is Ustadha Ayesha Bewley’s translation of that chapter:

Allah Almighty says, “Every self will taste death. You will be paid your wages in full on the Day of Rising. Anyone who is distanced from the Fire and admitted to the Garden, has triumphed. The life of this world is only the enjoyment of delusion,” (3:185) and the Almighty says, “No self knows what it will earn tomorrow and no self knows in what land it will die.” (W31:33; H31:34) The Almighty says, “When their specified time arrives, they cannot delay it for a single hour nor can they bring it forward,” (16:61) and the Almighty says, “O you who believe! Do not let your wealth or children divert you from the remembrance of Allah. Whoever does that is lost. Give from what We have provided for you before death comes to one of you and he says, ‘O Lord, if only you would give me a little more time so that I can give sadaqa and be one of the righteous.’ Allah will not give anyone more time, once their time has come. Allah is aware of everything you do.” (63:9-11) The Almighty says, “Until, when death comes to one of them, he says, ‘My Lord, send me back again. so that perhaps I may act rightly regarding the things I failed to do!’ No indeed! It is just words he utters. Before them there is an interspace until the day they are raised up. Then when the Trumpet is blown, that Day there will be no family ties between them, they will not be able to question one another. Those whose scales are heavy, they are the successful. Those whose scales are light, they are the losers of their selves, remaining in Hell timelessly, forever. The Fire will sear their faces making them grimace horribly in it, their lips drawn back from their teeth. ‘Were My Signs not recited to you and did you not deny them?'” to His words, “‘How many years did you tarry on the earth?’ They will say, ‘We tarried for a day or part of a day. Ask those able to count!’ He will say, ‘You only tarried for a little while if you did but know! Did you suppose that We created you for amusement and that you would not return to Us?'” (W23:100-116; H23:99-115) The Almighty says, “Has the time not arrived for the hearts of those who believe to yield to the remembrance of Allah and to the Truth He has sent down, and not to be like those who were given the Book before for whom the time seemed over long so that their hearts became hard. Many of them are degenerate.” (W57:15; H57:16)

574. Ibn ‘Umar said, “The Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, took me by the shoulder and said, ‘Be in this world as if you were a stranger or a traveller on the road.”
Ibn ‘Umar used to say, “In the evening, do not anticipate the morning, and in the morning do not anticipate the evening. Take from your health for your illness and from your life for your death.”

575. Ibn ‘Umar reported that the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, said, “It is not right for a Muslim man who has anything to bequeath to spend two nights without having a written will in his possession.” [Agreed upon. This is the variant in al-Bukhari]

In a variant of Muslim, “To spend three nights.” Ibn ‘Umar said, “Not a night has passed since I heard the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, say that without my having had my will with me.”

576. Anas said, “The Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, drew some lines and said, ‘This is man and this is end of his lifespan. That is how he is when this nearest line comes upon him.” [al-Bukhari]

577. Ibn Mas’ud said, “The Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, drew lines making a square and then drew a line in the middle which extended beyond it. He drew some small lines up to this middle line from the side within the square and said, ‘This is man, and this is end of his lifespan which encircles him – or by which he is encircled – and this which goes beyond it is his hope and these small lines are things that happen. If this one misses him, that one gets him, and if that one misses him, this one gets him.'” [al-Bukhari] This is its form:


578. Abu Hurayra reported the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, said, “Race to good actions as fast as you can. What are you waiting for except delayed poverty, oppressive wealth, debilitating illness, dottering senility, a swift death or the Dajjal? Or are you waiting for an unseen evil, or the Last Hour? The Last Hour will be most bitter and terrible.” [at-Tirmidhi]

579. Abu Hurayra reported that the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, said, “Remember frequently the thing that cuts off pleasures,” i.e. death.” [at-Tirmidhi]

580. Ubayy ibn Ka’b said, “When a third of the night had passed, the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, stood up and said, ‘O people! Remember Allah! The first blast has come and it will be followed by the second blast. Death has come with all that it involves. Death has come with all that it involves.’ I said, ‘O Messenger of Allah, I do a lot of prayer on you. How much prayer should I allot for you?’ He said, ‘However much you like.’ I said, ‘A quarter?’ He said, ‘However much you like, but if you do more, it will be better for you.’ I said, ‘A half?’ He said, ‘However much you like, but if you do more, it will be better for you.’ I said, ‘Two-thirds?’ He said, ‘However much you like, but if you do more, it will be better for you.’ I said, ‘I will allot all my prayer for you.’ He said, ‘Then you will be spared from worry and forgiven your wrong action.'” [at-Tirmidhi]

Please see also:

Death & Dying: Spiritual Dimensions – Shaykh Ramzy Ajem

Death & Dying: The Importance of Remembering Death & Being Ready for It – Habib Hussein as-Saqqaf

Faraz Rabbani

Photo: Ahron de Leeuw

The Realities of Death and Dying – SeekersHub Toronto’s Seminar with Shaykh Faraz Rabbani, Shaykh Ramzey Ajem, and Habib Hussein al Saqqaf

Death. Dying. Bereavement. Afterlife. Not subjects we particularly want to think about. But sometimes, it’s the things we are most avoiding, that are, in reality, the closest to us.

As the first snowflakes of the year fell to the street outside the Hub, burying out the autumn leaves that had fallen just days earlier, I was struck by how death always seems to be a morose subject of discussion despite being manifested all around us. Why, then, I wondered, are we still not ready to acknowledge it?

But in the final of the Living Religion seminar series at SeekersHub Toronto, aptly titled Death and Dying, we literally looked death in the face.

Spiritual Dimensions of Death and The AfterLife – Shaykh Ramzy Ajem

“Who here, by a show of hands, is ready for death?” asked Shaykh Ramzy Ajem, the first speaker of the seminar. No one moved.

“No one? Death isn’t a morbid subject; it shouldn’t be like that for a Muslim.” He said. “Death isn’t an end, it’s a beginning. You have a merciful Lord.”

He encouraged us to look at death in a positive light, and look forward to receiving that mercy. In regards to the afterlife, no one will enter Paradise based on his good actions; Paradise is from the mercy of our Lord. He told us that this life could never be a time for us to “collect” good deeds in a basket to be presented to Allah on the Day of Judgement; it is in our neediness of Him, that we attain a knowledge of Him.

He ended by urging us to examine our lives in perspective. “Our lives aren’t just cooking and cleaning, career, spouse. Love what you like, but you’re going to lose it. If your attachments are unbalanced, dying is going to be painful.”

However, if we see things in perspective, and realize that our purpose in life is to know Allah, and nothing more, death will be a pleasure.


The Importance of Remembering Death – Habib Hussein al Saqqaf

The next lecture was a video broadcast from the UAE, where Habib Hussein al-Saqqaf resides and teaches.

“The traveller,” Habib Hussein reminded us, “will not settle until he reaches his destination.” He emphasized that this worldly life is only one of the many stages that a human soul will pass through; that the stage of life is connected to the body, the stage of the barzakh is connected to the soul, and the stage of the afterlife is a perfect connection of both. He referred to death as a liqaa, a meeting.

That liqaa could be a happy one for you, if you loved Allah, His Messenger, and the noble ones. However, if you were attached to evil in your life, your liqaa would be an evil one.

A theme that is echoed throughout Islamic teaching is the idea of the husn al-khatima, the good ending. Habib Hussein encouraged us to seek that good ending proactively and with direction.

“No one is protected from sin,” he said, “but follow a sin with a good deed without delay.” He especially urged us not to wait; a good deed could be as simple as a smile, a kind word, or the act of giving food to another.

Habib Hussein left us with a practical plan to fortify our hearts, saying, “Whatever is in the hearts of men will spill out at the time of death,” and that constant repetition of the shahada, the testification of faith, la ilaha illa-Allah (there is no deity except Allah) cause it to be contained within our hearts, such that those could be our last words at the time of death.

 Practical Guidance for Preparing for Death – Shaykh Faraz Rabbani

Shaykh Faraz, as is his habit, focused on the practical aspects of preparing for death. “At a spiritual level, you’re dying every moment, because you have no inherent existence. You winked into existence, you would wink out if He didn’t sustain you.”

He shared ten ways:

1. Know your realities—Who is your Creator? Who are you? What is life and its purpose?
“One of the most amazing things about our religion,” he said, “is that we don’t just talk about God in the abstract; we know His attributes.”

2. Reflect on death—“Only a fool would believe that something changing is eternal,” he said.

3. Know the rights of Allah over you—your obligations to Him.

4. Know the rights of creation over you—“You have no right to harm God’s creation,” he warned. That could come in the form of physical harm, or something as simple such as gossiping.

22809255903_67e3137f79_b 5. Sense of urgency—that death could come at you any moment.

6. Use the “Death Test”—by asking yourself before any given action, “Is this what I want to die doing?” and during the action, “Is this the best use of my time?”

7. Having a living will—keeping track of your material and spiritual rights over God and others.

8. Keep a clean slate—through regular repentance.

9. Die beloved—with love and thankfulness, faith and trust, and certitude, pleased to meet your Lord.
And lastly, very practically:

10. Ask for a good ending.

Personal Reflection

Granted, death is a heavy subject, and will be so until the time comes when death is no more. However, the seminar had left me feeling hopeful rather than hopeless.

But the words of the ignorant and inexperienced cannot explain clarity. The only way to explain my feelings are contained in the final chapter of the miraculous poem Al-Burda:

“My Lord! Let not my hope on You be overthrown, nor let my credit with You be void of worth. Deal kindly with Your slave in both worlds, for when terrors call to him, his patience is weak.” (trans. Abdul Hakim Murad)

What little is contained in this world, cannot explain everything. What transpired in this world, cannot be the end of the matter. Therefore, death is a passage, not obliviation.

It took me a seminar to realize that.