In the Name of God, the Most Compassionate, the Dispenser of Grace
Reflections on Death and the Afterlife
The topic for my khutbah today was prompted by the passing away of my dear father exactly five jumu’ahs ago. Since then I have been afflicted by a deep sense of loss and have been reflecting more deeply on the meaning of death and the afterlife.
In today’s khutbah I would like to share with you some of my reflections on how we as believers in a Compassionate and Gracious God, should view death and the afterlife.
It might be expedient to begin with a Qur’anic narrative which I have shared in previous khuttab.
According to the Glorious Qur’an, human beings are susceptible to two key moral or spiritual weaknesses. The first is that human beings aspire to be sinless and second, human beings do not like to confront death. These two human tendencies to seek infallibility and immortality are powerfully illustrated in the Qur'anic narrative of our ancestral parents,
Adam and Hawwa (peace be upon both of them) in surah al-`Araf, chapter, 7 Verses 19-23. In these verses God instructs Adam and Hawwa (pbut) to enjoy whatever they desired from the Garden of Eden with only one restriction. God warns our ancestral parents to stay away from one particular tree. They successfully complied with this command until Satan according to the Qur’an was able to beguile them with the following whisperings:
وَقَالَ مَا نَهَاكُمَا رَبُّكُمَا عَنْ هَذِهِ الشَّجَرَةِ إِلَّا أَنْ تَكُونَا مَلَكَيْنِ أَوْ تَكُونَا مِنَ الْخَالِدِينَ
He (Satan) said: Your Lord has forbidden you from approaching this tree to prevent you from becoming angels and immortal beings (Q19:23)
So by deceit Satan lured them with the promise of infallibility and immortality. In other words, Adam and Hawwa (pbut) disobeyed Allah’s command because they believed that if they were to become like angels they would live sinless, flawless lives and moreover live forever. Here our ancestral parents displayed two pervasive human weaknesses that we have inherited, which is to aspire to be infallible and sinless like angels and to live everlasting lives. After realizing their transgression and recognizing their human frailty, Adam and Hawwa (pbut) repented with the following supplication: "Our Lord! We have wronged our own souls: if you forgive us not and bestow not upon us your mercy we shall certainly be lost."
From the above verses from the Glorious Qur’an we can conclude that the conscientious Muslim is not one who believes or claims to live a sinless life but rather one who is fully aware of his/her human frailty and constantly acknowledges it by turning to God, the Most Merciful and Pardoner, for forgiveness. Secondly, from these verses of the Qur’an we learn that human beings should not aspire towards immortality but rather know that death is an inevitable reality and that all humans are fellow travelers on a journey towards eternal life in the hereafter.
Thus the fundamental Muslim belief in al-akhirah is one of the core and central teachings in Islam. In other words death is not the end but a gateway to eternal life. The Muslim perspective is that we not only have a physical body, but are endowed at birth by God with something we call the ‘ruh’, or soul. This is described in the Qur’an in surah al-Sajdah, chapter 32, verse 39 as follows:
وَنَفَخَ فِيهِ مِنْ رُوحِهِ
God breathed into the human being of His Spirit (Q32:9)
From the above verse we learn that every human being, Muslim or non-Muslim, is endowed with this “ruh” or divine breath. When we die, it is the ‘ruh’ or soul that gets separated from the physical body, and returns to God. So death is not the end, it is the gateway to eternal life. It is when the soul returns to its destiny, if you will. The Islamic attitude to death is a positive one. Death is not the end but merely a transition from one stage of existence to an eternal state of existence known as al-akhirah (28:77, 29:64, and 33:29). Death is to be viewed as a test and therefore we should strive to harness it in order to achieve falah (salvation). Such a perspective on death as a test is most eloquently articulated in the first two verses of surah-al-Mulk, chapter 67: verses 1-2, popularly known as “Tabarak”. In these well known verses God, the Sublime, proclaims the following:
تَبَارَكَ الَّذِي بِيَدِهِ الْمُلْكُ وَهُوَ عَلَى كُلِّ شَيْءٍ قَدِير
ٌ الَّذِي خَلَقَ الْمَوْتَ وَالْحَيَاةَ لِيَبْلُوَكُمْ أَيُّكُمْ أَحْسَنُ عَمَلًا وَهُوَ الْعَزِيزُ
Blessed is He in whose hand is all power and authority;
And He has power over all things.
He who created death as well as life,
So that He might put you to a test (and thus show) which of you is best in conduct (Q67:1-2)
We learn from the above verse of the Qur’an that on this earthly journey, all human beings are fellow travelers towards eternal life. Each one of us is therefore accountable for moral choices. We are expected to nourish the soul – to develop it through worshipping God, through prayers, through righteous acts and spreading goodwill on earth. This life is as important as the afterlife; it has consequence for the hereafter. Our status in the afterlife depends, by the Grace of God, on the good we do in this life.
We would do well therefore to constantly remember the following prophetic tradition (hadith) of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) narrated by the companion Abdullah ibn `Umar and recorded in the hadith collections of Imam Bukhari and Imam Muslim:
(( كن في الدنيا كأنك غريب، أو عابر سبيل ))
Be in the world as if you are a stranger or a wayfarer passing through
In the midst of my deep grief, I console myself with the abiding memories I have of my father who had been blessed with 84 years of life. I derive comfort from the many memories of his kindness and generosity towards his family and the compassion he showed to people regarded by many as social miscreants. So-called social misfits were often attracted to my father who was often seen giving them comfort and encouraging them not to give up hope of transforming their lives. Once, he was so frustrated with the number of young people in Salt River who were becoming addicted to drugs that he decided to confront one of the older leaders. He questioned him as to why he was misleading those much younger than himself, and asked him when he was going to stop and change his life. The addict challenged him by saying that he was addicted to drugs in the same way that my father was addicted to smoking cigarettes. My father was so moved by his challenge that he decided to immediately stop smoking cigarettes, and he never did after that. That was almost 30 years ago.
My father unfortunately did not have the opportunity to complete his schooling and became a tailor. He was determined to provide his four sons with an education which he had been denied and so he worked hard to educate his children. When my youngest brother graduated from high school, my father said that he had now achieved his modest goal of getting all of his children to finish their schooling. Alhamdulillah, we super-ceded his modest expectations by continuing into higher education, and it made him extremely proud of us.Yet despite our formal academic education and higher learning, my father still had much to teach us.
Once, my father asked me whether I knew that, unlike the Judeo-Christian tradition, Islam has 12 commandments. He then proceeded to ask me if I knew which were the two additional commandments of Islam. I confessed my ignorance. He said that one of his teachers had taught it to him. “Commandment number eleven”, he said, “was that that thou shalt not kill your children for fear of poverty. God provides for them and for you. Commandment number twelve was that, when you make a promise, always fulfill that promise because God will hold you accountable for unfulfilled promises you make to others”. Then he went on to say, “Now, you promised me that you would visit me last night but you never came. You should never do that again because I was looking forward to see you”. I was remorseful and profoundly moved. It was a lesson that left an indelible impact on me. I subsequently went to investigate these two additional commandments and found them in two places in the Glorious Qur’an in surah al-An`am, chapter 6, verses 151-153 and surah al-Isra', chapter 17 verse 23-39. In the latter verses, Allah the Sublime proclaims:
وَأَوْفُوا بِالْعَهْدِ إِنَّ الْعَهْدَ كَانَ مَسْئُولًا
Fulfill all your promises for you will be asked about them on the Day of Judgment (Q17:35)
When I left for my annual teaching in the US in January my father was already gravely ill, but he told me to go and promised me that he would wait for me and see me again during my university break in March. And by the Mercy of Allah, he kept that promise. When I left the second time, ten days later and greeted him, he did not make the same promise, in fact he said nothing. While it saddened me at the time, I console myself now, knowing that he did not want to make a promise he was not sure he could keep.
My father like all of us had his human frailties, but he was also a great human being and the best father we could ever have wanted. In my grief, I am comforted by the thought that his many acts of kindness, generosity, compassion and words of wisdom that he shared, will ease his path in al-akhira. I console myself in the certain knowledge that a good man’s earthly sojourn has come to an end but, God-willing, he is in agood place in the hereafter.
To honour the memory of our father, my brothers and I will today be dedicating a masjid kursi – a chair of teaching and learning – as a sadaqa jariya to the Claremont Main Road Masjid. The chair was constructed by a master craftsman in Cairo. It is our hope and prayer that this gesture will inspire others to also honour the memory of their deceased parents through sadaqa jariya contributions to this masjid and other masajid.
Please join me in making a special du`a (supplication) for my father’s and all of our deceased parent’s repose in the hereafter:
Our Lord! Pardon us and our parents
and Be kind and bestow Thy mercy upon our parents
as they cherished, nurtured and sustained us in childhood
Our Lord, Pardon them, Have Mercy on their souls
And grant them salvation in the hereafter. Amin.