“And the agony of death comes with the Truth; that is what you used to flee from!” [Qur’an, 50:19]
Death is the separation of the soul from the body, and we all know that it is inevitable. It is the event which marks our transition from this world into the Hereafter. Whenever `Uthman (may Allah be well pleased with him) used to stand over a grave, he used to weep until his beard became soaked. Someone said to him, “Heaven and Hell are mentioned, and you do not weep, and [yet] the grave is mentioned, and you weep, [how is this] ?” He said, “I heard the Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) say : The grave is the first stage of the Hereafter. So, if he is saved from it, that which is after it will be easier, whereas if he is not saved from it, then that which is after it will be more severe.” (Narrated by Tirmidhi)
Belief in the events following death is an integral part of the Islamic doctrine. Although the existence of the Hereafter is rationally admissible, the exact details of it can only be acquired through communication from the Creator, for these events fall in the realm of the Unseen.
As we have already mentioned, death is the separation of the soul from the body. The precise nature of the soul is beyond our comprehension. The Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) was asked about the soul twice; once in Makkah by the Quraysh (as Narrated by Ahmad), and once in Medina by the Jews (as Narrated by Bukhari and Muslim). On the authority of `Abdullah ibn Mas`ud (may Allah be well pleased with him) : He said : [Once,] while I was walking with the Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) in a garden, and he was leaning on a palm-branch, some Jews passed by. Some of them said, “Ask him about the soul.” Others said, “Don’t ask him [in case he tells you something you will dislike to hear].” But [eventually] they asked him about the soul. They said, “O Muhammad, what is the soul?” He continued leaning on the palm- branch [and did not reply immediately]. I asserted that he must be receiving inspiration [and so I stayed put]. Then, [when the inspiration had descended] he said, “They ask you about the soul. Say : the soul is of my Lord’s decree, and you have been given only a little knowledge.” [Qur’an, 17:85] (Narrated by Ahmad and Bukhari)
The human soul differs from that of animals in that it is accountable. However, the souls of those who turn away from the truth, shun guidance and persist in satisfying their base lusts, become lower in status. They are no better than animals, and Allah has cautioned us against such behavior : “Recite to them the account of he to whom We gave Our signs, but he extricated himself from them, and Satan caused him to follow him, so that he became one of the misguided. And, if We had willed, We would have elevated him by means of them, but he clung to the earth and followed his desires. Therefore, his likeness is the likeness of the dog; if you prompt him, he lolls out his tongue, but if you leave him, he [still] lolls out his tongue.” [Qur’an, 7:175- 176]
Departure from this world
“Until, when death comes to one of them, he says, ‘My Lord! Send me back, in order that I might work righteousness in that which I have left [behind]!’ By no means! It is only a word which he says. And behind them is a barrier until the day when they will be raised up. [Qur’an, 23:99-100] This verse makes it quite clear that there is no returning to this world after death, nor is there any reprieve. “Allah does not reprieve any soul when its [appointed] term has come.” [(63) Al-Munafiqoon, 11]
Angels descend upon the good believers at the time of death, and give them glad tidings of Heaven. “Those who say, ‘Our Lord is Allah,’ and then remain upright, angels descend upon them, [saying], ‘Fear not, nor grieve, and receive glad tidings of the Garden which you had been promised. We are you friends and protectors in this world and in the Hereafter.'” [(41) Fussilat, 30] Angels also come to the disbelievers, but rather than comforting them, they beat them. “If only you could see when the angels receive the disbelievers, striking their faces and their backs, and [saying] : Taste the punishment of the Inferno! That is because of what your own hands prepared, and Allah is not at all unjust to [His] servants.” [(8) Al-Anfaal, 50]
The extraction of the soul occurs either gently or roughly, depending on the person’s worldly conduct. Then, the soul is clothed and perfumed, either pleasantly or unpleasantly, again depending on the person’s belief. The angels carry the soul upwards, towards the seventh heaven. The gates of the heavens open for believing souls, and Allah manifests Himself to them before they are returned to their graves. On the other hand, “Those who deny Our signs and remain arrogant before them, the gates of the sky do not open for them.” [(7) Al-A`raaf, 40] The disbeliever’s soul is therefore cast back to the earth in disgrace. “And whoever associates others with Allah, it is as if he has fallen from the sky, and is seized by the birds, or dropped by the wind in a distant place.” [(22) Al-Hajj, 31]
The Life of the Grave
After this upward excursion, the soul is returned to the body in the grave, and this marks the start of what is often called the Life of the Grave. The return of the soul to the body is not to the same extent as it was during the worldly life; rather, it is only to a small extent, the soul’s presence being even less than that during sleep. The primary purpose of this is to allow the dead person to respond to the Questioning of the Grave. The Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) said, “When a servant is laid in his grave and his friends have turned away from him and he hears the footfalls of their sandals, two angels come to him, sit him upright, and ask him, ‘What used you to say about this man Muhammad?’ The believer will answer, ‘I testify that he is the slave of Allah and His Messenger’, and it will be said, ‘Look at your place in Hell, Allah has changed it for a place in Heaven’, and he will behold both of them. As for the hypocrite or the disbeliever, he will [also] be asked, ‘What used you to say about this man?’ but he will reply, ‘I do not know; I [merely] used to say what people said.’ He will be told, ‘You did not know, nor did you follow [one who knew],’ and [then] he will be struck a blow with iron hammers, whereupon he will cry out with a scream which is heard by [all] those around him, other than humans and jinn.” (Narrated by Bukhari.) Other narrations add that these angels are named Munkar and Nakeer, and their appearance is very terrifying. They ask three questions in all, the first two being “Who is your Lord?” and “What is your religion?”, and the third being about the Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace), as mentioned in the narration above. “Allah fortifies the believers with the strengthening word” [(14) Ibrahim, 27], allowing them to answer the questions correctly, and then they sleep peacefully and pleasantly until the Day of Judgement. Sinful Muslims and disbelievers, however, are liable to be punished during this time.
Grave Punishment is a reality
It is obligatory to believe in grave punishment. The primary Qur’anic evidence for it is:
1- A verse about Pharoah and his disbelieving kin.
“The Fire; they are exposed to it by morning and afternoon. And, on the Day the Hour is established, (it will be said), ‘Enter the Household of Pharoah (into) the severest punishment.” [(40) Ghafir, 46] This verse is quite explicit that the punishment they are receiving is prior to the Day of Judgement, i.e. during the life of the grave.
2- A verse about the fate of wrongdoers at the time of death:
“If you could but see, when the wrongdoers are in the overwhelming pangs of death, while the angels extend their hands [striking them], saying: Discharge your souls! TODAY you are awarded the punishment of [extreme] humiliation …” Q[6:93]
There is also abundant evidence in the authentic sunnah, such as the following hadith : The Prophet passed by two graves, and said about their occupants, “They are being punished for something which was not serious [according to them], but, indeed it was serious. One of them used to spread tales [in order to cause mischief and enmity between people], and the other used not to free himself from [traces of] urine.” Then, he took a fresh palm-leaf stalk, split it in two halves, and implanted one in each grave. He was asked, “O Messenger of Allah! Why have you done that?” He said, “[The punishment] might be lightened for them, as long as [the two stalks] do not dry up.” (Narrated by Bukhari and Muslim. Hafiz Ibn Rajab said, in Ahwal al-Qubur, “This has been narrated from the Prophet with this meaning, through numerous channels, from Abu Bakr, `A’ishah, Abu Hurayrah, Anas, Ibn `Umar, Abu Umamah, and others of the Sahabah.”)
Exceptions from the Punishment
Prophets and martyrs are exempted from grave punishment. The martyr is also exempted from the questioning, because the clashing of swords above his head was a sufficient trial for him. However, everyone other than the prophets is liable to be subjected to a squeezing from the grave on their sides.
“Verily, the grave has a squeezing, and if anyone were to have been saved from it, Sa`d ibn Mu`adh would have been saved from it.” [Ahmad, Bayhaqi, Tabarani]
This squeezing is more gentle for a good believer, and thereafter the grave expands and becomes spacious, but for the disbeliever it is so severe that his ribs interlock.
One can protect oneself from grave punishment (other than the squeezing), by:
– Regular repentance; for in this way one will have few if any outstanding sins.
– Martyrdom; being killed in the battlefield while fighting in the path of Allah (in a just war, that is fought in a legitimate way)
– Dying while guarding the frontline of the Islamic state. (i.e. dying in ribaat).
– Reciting Surah 67 (Al-Mulk) every night. [Tirmidhi, al-Hakim, Bayhaqi, Ibn `Adiyy]
How can we help dead Muslims?
1 – By offering the funeral prayer over their bodies. This is a communal obligation, such that at least someone in the community must perform the prayer over a Muslim who dies, otherwise everyone who was capable of having prayed over him, but did not do so, is sinful.
“If a Muslim dies and forty people who do not associate anything with Allah join the funeral prayers, Allah accepts their intercession for him.” (Narrated by Muslim)
2 – By doing good deeds which can benefit them.
“When the son of Adam dies, his good deeds come to an end, except from three [things] : perennial charity, or a pious child who prays for him, or knowledge by which people benefit after him.” (Narrated by Muslim, Nasa’i, Abu Dawud and Tirmidhi.)
Perennial charity is charity that the person gave (before his death) for some good cause from which people continue to benefit on an ongoing basis, such as money given towards a mosque. Scholars are in in consensus that the dead can benefit from our supplication for them, and from charity given on their behalf, as well as from Hajj and fasting performed on their behalf.