What are the benefits of thinking about death? How did the Companions contemplate death? How should we prepare for death?
The Prophet –upon him blessings and peace- used to command a frequent remembrance of death, discouraging us against being lost in worldly affairs. He would say, “A cause for wonder is he who only strives for the deceitful life of the world, despite having belief in the life of eternity.” (Qudai, Shihab’ul-Akhbar, n. 383)
The thought of the impending time of complete separation from the world, after which one will be left face to face with what he or she had done in life, good and bad, and receive her or his rewards or punishment in full, distances one from sin and temptation, and brings one closer to deeds of goodness. Contemplating ones death, in other words, is a means to gaining greater conscience, straightening up one’s life and working towards bettering one’s condition in the life of eternity. The Prophet –upon him blessings and peace- says:
“Remember death frequently; for remembrance of death purifies one from sins and renders him indifferent to the world. If you think of death while rich, it will protect you from the disasters of wealth. If you think of it when poor, it will enable you to become satisfied with your life.” (Suyuti, Jami’us-Saghir, I, 47)
Again, encouraging the remembrance of death, the Prophet –upon him blessings and peace- said:
“I had forbidden you from visiting graves. But now you may, for visiting graves will remind you of the Hereafter.” (Tirmidhi, Janaiz, 60; Muslim, Janaiz, 106)
“Remember death and the decaying of bodies and bones after death. He who desires the Hereafter deserts the dazzle of the world.” (Tirmidhi, Qiyamah, 24)
“Allah loves he who often remembers death.” (Haythami, X, 325)
“Who is the cleverest Believer?” a Companion once asked the Prophet –upon him blessings and peace-, who replied:
“He who frequently remembers death and prepares for what’s to come in the best possible way…It is they who are truly clever.” (Ibn Majah, Zuhd, 31)
The Companions’ Contemplation of Death
Abu Bakr –Allah be well-pleased with him- once said during a sermon:
“Where are the handsome, the beautiful, who were once admired by everyone? Where are the young, gallant men of self-importance? Where are those kings who surrounded the grandiose towns they set up with high walls? Where are the invincible heroes of the battlefields? Time has eaten them away and made them level with earth. They have all been buried in the darkness of their graves. Hasten to come to your senses before it is too late and start preparing for beyond death! Save yourselves, save yourselves!” (Ibn’ul-Jawzi, Zamm’ul-Hawa, p. 668; Nadrat’un-Naim, III, 960)
Aisha –Allah be well-pleased with her- explains:
“I once thought of hellfire and began to cry. Seeing me in tears, the Messenger of Allah –blessings and peace upon him- asked, ‘What is wrong, Aisha?’
‘I was reminded of hellfire, so I cried’, I replied. ‘Will you prophets remember your family members on the Day of Judgment?’ I then asked.
‘There are three places where nobody will remember anyone. Before finding out whether the scale of deeds (mizan) will weigh in heavy or light; before knowing from which way the book of deeds will come, from the left, right or from behind, up until saying, ‘Here; read my book’ (al-Haqqa, 19); and when the Bridge of Sirat is set up, suspended above Hellfire. On both sides of the bridge, there are many hooks and hard thorns. With them, Allah catches whom He wills from among creation and throws them into Hellfire. A person cannot think of anyone else until he finds out whether he will be spared from these hooks or not.” (Hakim, IV, 622/8722)
Usayd ibn Khudayr –Allah be well-pleased with him-, of the most virtuous Companions, used to repeatedly say:
‘Had I been able to always sustain the state of mind that overtook me in either one of these three moments, I surely would have been Paradise bound: While reading the Quran or listening to someone read it, listening to the talks of the Messenger of Allah –upon him blessings and peace- and upon seeing a funeral. Yes indeed…whenever I see a funeral, I feel like it is me experiencing the things the deceased is going through, taken to where the deceased is being taken.” (Hakim, III, 326/5260)
The Benefits of Reflecting on Death
As stated in the hadith “Death is sufficient advice”, there are many lessons awaiting the thinking mind in the phenomenon of death.
Excess love of the passing pleasures of the world, and desire for fame and fortune are symptoms of spiritual disease. Envy, conceit, hypocrisy and lust are nothing but products of the love of the world. One of the most decisive remedies in protecting oneself from such malicious habits and spiritual shortcomings lies in the contemplation of death, the grave and events of the Afterlife.
Defeating the ego, becoming free of its damaging dominance and thereby purging the love of the world from the heart is the main objective of tasawwuf. Contemplation of death has therefore been an implemented method in many a tariqah, where the disciple spares five to ten minutes during his daily wird to reflect on death.
The Ottoman tendency to establish graveyards in town centers, by roads and in the courtyards of mosques, was only to provide an incentive for contemplating death. A Western traveler who picked up on this could not help but say, “Turks live with their dead.”
Preparing for the Hereafter by frequently remembering death and brushing aside the desires of the ego will help one avoid the agonizing remorse that may come with the final breath. The Almighty informs that a person, who during the throes of death suddenly comes to his senses as if waking up from a dream, is bound to plea, in deep remorse:
“My Lord! Why did You not respite me to a near term, so that I should have given alms and been among the doers of good deeds?” (al-Munafiqun, 10)
To avoid going through this tragic ordeal of remorse, we therefore need to open our eyes while we still have the time and begin to prepare for the impending life of eternity before the opportunity is forever lost.
Hasan Basri –Allah have mercy on his soul- had attended a funeral. Following the burial, he asked the man next to him:
“Do you think this person is right now wishing to return to the world to increase his good deeds, prayers and repentance over his sins?”
“Of course he is” assuredly replied the man.
“Then what is stopping us from thinking like him?” responded Hasan Basri. (Ibn’ul-Jawzi, al-Hasan’ul-Basri)
Preparing for the Tremor of Death
Hasan Basri –Allah have mercy on him- says:
“There are two nights and two days, the likes of which have never before been seen or heard. The first of these nights is the first night you spend in the grave with the dead. You had never before stayed with them. The second of these nights is the night whose morning breaks with the Hereafter. A day without a night is then to begin. As for the days, the first is when an emissary of Allah comes and tells you whether He is pleased with you or not, whether you are destined for Paradise or for Hell. The second day is when you shall receive your book of deeds, from your right or left, and then be taken to the presence of Allah.” (See, Ibn’ul-Jawzi, az-Zahr’ul-Fatih, p. 25; Abu’l-Faraj Abdurrahman, Ahwal’ul-Qubur, p. 154)
Death is the greatest tribulation for man, the most terrible trial; but even worse than death is to live oblivious to death, to put it completely out of the mind and to fail to offer appropriate deeds for its preparation. Intelligent is the one who prepares for death before it comes knocking and cleans his or her soul of immorality.
Sheik Sadi says:
“You will become earth in the end, brother; so before you do, seek to become humble like earth.”
Omar –Allah be well-pleased with him- has said:
“Call yourselves to account before you are called to account. Adorn yourselves with righteous deeds before the greatest tribunal! The tribunal in the Hereafter of one who used to call himself to account during life, will surely be comfortable.” (Tirmidhi, Qiyamah, 25/2459)
As our mortal bodies are placed in the grave, our children and wealth will remain behind. Only our deeds will accompany us as we lay buried in the depth of earth. There, our bodies will turn to soil, together with our shrouds, leaving nothing behind but our good deeds.
Imam Ghazzali –Allah have mercy on his soul- says:
“Only three things remain with a person at the moment of death.
1) Purity of the heart, that is a heart purified of the dirt of the world. Allah states:
‘He will indeed be successful who purifies it…’ (as-Shams, 9)
2) Familiarity with the remembrance of Allah, glory unto Him, who says:
‘…Now surely by Allah’s remembrance are the hearts set at rest.’ (ar-Rad, 28)
3) Love of Allah, glory unto Him. Again, He declares:
‘Say: If you love Allah, then follow me; Allah will then love you and forgive your faults. And Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.’ (Al-i Imran, 31)
Purifying the heart is possible only through marifah, knowing Allah, glory unto Him, in the heart. Marifah, in turn, is acquired through being constantly occupied in dhikr and contemplation. These three qualities are thus saviors.” (Ruh’ul-Bayan, XI, 274)
If a person is able to make adequate preparation for ‘tomorrow’, death starts to assume a beautiful shape; he soon finds himself no longer afraid of it.
Bishr ibn Harith –Allah have mercy on him- in fact asserts, “What a wonderful station the grave is for he who obeys Allah.”
Similar words of wisdom come from Mawlana Rumi -Allah have mercy on him:
“The color of death, son, is in the eye of the beholder. To those who hate death without sparing a thought that it is death that unites one with the Lord and are hostile to it, death appears as a terrifying enemy. To the friends of death, death comes as a friend.
O the soul who flees in dread from death! If you want to hear the truth of the matter, you are not really afraid of death; you are but afraid of yourself.
For it is not the face of death that you behold in the mirror in horror; it is your own ugly face. Your spirit is like a tree. Death is a leaf on that tree. And every leaf belongs to the species of the tree it stems from…”
In short, our death and experiences of the grave, set to continue until Resurrection, will take shape according to the way we lived and the deeds we offered. It is for that reason that Allah, glory unto Him, explains to us the gist of both the life of the world and that of eternity on numerous occasions in the Holy Quran. Encouraging us to consider how the world will ultimately come to an end in due course, He urges us to remain aloof from its dazzle and deceit. He wants us to consciously turn instead to the life eternal, a life approaching by the minute that shall never cease.
It is therefore necessary for a person to sincerely repent from all of ones sins before death and make amends for his or her shortcomings in complying with the commands and prohibitions of the Almighty. Again, he must restore the rights to all those whose rights he may have infringed on; that is, before breathing his last, he must seek the pardon of people he may have verbally or physically assaulted, slandered, backbitten or acted with malicious intent, and be cleared of all personal debts, be they physical or spiritual.
An ignorant person may rejoice over having infringed on the rights of others; he may misread his corruption for joy. But there is simply no telling how bottomless his remorse will be on the day when the scales of justice are set and it is said to him, “You are a helpless, low and deprived man in ruin. Here, you may no longer restore any rights or seek the forgiveness of anyone.”
As his death approached, Abdulmalik ibn Marwan, the Umayyad Caliph, saw a launderer in the outskirts of Damascus wrapping the clothes around his hand and thrashing them against a washing rock. Heaving an agonizing sigh upon suddenly remembering the terrifying tribunal of the Hereafter, the Caliph lamented:
“If only I too was a launderer! If only I earned my daily feed with my hands and did not have any say in worldly affairs!” (Ghazzali, Ihya, VI, 114)
Together with preparing for the tremor of death, it is also essential not to lose hope in the mercy of Allah, glory unto Him.
Uqba al-Bazzar recounts:
“Viewing a funeral procession, a Bedouin standing next to me, who was looking on at the coffin, commented, ‘Congratulations…you have all the joy in the world!’
‘Why are you congratulating him?’ I asked.
‘How can I not congratulate a person being taken into custody by an Eternally Generous Custodian, whose treatment of His guests is splendid and mercy boundless!’
It was as if I had never before heard words so beautiful.” (Abu’l-Faraj, Abdurrahman, Ahwal’ul-Qubur, p. 155)
 See, Tirmidhi, Zuhd, 4; Nasâî, Janaiz, 3.
 Haythami, Majmau’z-Zawâid, Beirut1988, X, 308.
 The Commission, Nadratu’n-Naîm, III, 963; Abu’l-Faraj Abdurrahman, Ahwâlu’l-Qubûr, p. 155.
Source: Osman Nuri Topbaş, Contemplation in Islam, Erkam Public.