What is the contemplation of death in islam?
When the human being reflects deeply with the eye of their heart on the traces of Divine power displayed in their own selves and in the universe, they are obliged to think about what their worldly lives are for and how they are best spent. In the rapidly alternating days and nights, the weeks, months, seasons and years, the new that becomes old and the spectacular palaces turn into ruins. The faces in the mirror that change over time and greying of our hair should all serve as sufficient reminders for us as to where we are headed. For this reason, it is death that most merits our contemplation.
Because all of us, without exception, will one day be forced to yield to the Divine injunction, “Every self will taste death…” (Al-Anbiya’, 21:35) and pass through death’s passage.
Death, the most absolute truth we know about our future, is in a sense like a single night between the day of the world and the next day of the next world. So, the world is a fleeting day and death is a temporary night and the next life the morning awakening onto the eternal reality.
The following sermon by Quss ibn Sa’ida, delivered at the Great Fair of ‘Uqaz in Mecca in the pre-Islamic era of Jahiliyya, is a stern warning and poignant mirror of belief in Divine Oneness and Unity:
Come, pay heed and take lesson!
One who lives, dies. One who dies is lost forever. What will be, will be. Rain falls forth, grass grows, children are born and take the place of their mothers and fathers. Then they all go to ruin. All these events continue without cessation, one following the other.
Now heed my words! There are signs in the skies and lessons in the earth.
The earth a bed spread out, the sky a lofty canopy. The stars move, the seas abide. Those who come to the world do not remain. Those who die do not return. Do they remain there because they are satisfied, or are they detained or asleep?
Beware of heedlessness! Everything is passing. Only Allah is everlasting. He is One and has no partner or rival. He alone deserves to be worshipped. He begets not, nor is He begotten.
There are many instances for us to take heed in those that went before.
O tribe of Iyad! Where are your fathers and forefathers? What about ‘Ad and Thamud who built lofty palaces and dwellings of stone? What of the Pharaoh and Nimrod, who in their vainglory proclaimed to their people, ‘I am your Supreme Lord!’
This place crushed them in its mill, turning them into dust. Even their bones rotted away. Their dwellings were destroyed and deserted. Dogs now occupy their habitations. Do not become heedless like them! Do not follow in their footsteps! Everything is transient. Only Allah is eternal.
Once you enter the river of death, you cannot come out of it. All people, young and old, are dying. Surely I too will go where they have gone.” (Bayhaqi, Kitab al-Zuhd, II, 264; Ibn Kathir, al-Bidaya, II, 234-241; Haythami, IX, 418)
In fact, in presenting as an example the falling asleep of bodies wearied from the various occupations of the day, Allah reminds His servants each and every day of death’s reality. As mentioned in a Qur’anic verse:
“It is He who takes you back to Himself at night, while knowing the things you perpetrate by day, and then wakes you up again, so that a specified term may be fulfilled. Then you will be returned to Him. Then you will be informed about what you did.” (Al-An’am, 6:60)
When addressing the tribe of Quraysh in the early days of his public proclamation of the message of Islam, the Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) alluded to this truth in the following words:
“…You will die just as you fall asleep and will be raised to life just as you wake from sleep. You will certainly be raised from your graves and be brought to account before Allah for all of your actions. You will be rewarded for all the good that you did and punished with a terrible punishment for your evil. Both the Garden and the Fire are eternal.” (See Baladhurl, Ansab al-Ashraf, I, 118; Ibn al-Athir, al-Kamil, II, 61; Halabi, Insan al-‘Uyun, I, 459)
Therefore, we should not live this fleeting life saying, like the unbelievers, “What is there but our life in this world? We die and we live and we will not be raised up again!” (Al-Muminun, 23:37), enslaved to our lower desires and oblivious of the next life.
In accordance with the truth, “He who created death and life to test which of you is best in action. He is the Almighty, the Ever-Forgiving.” (Al-Mulk, 67:2), we should live in the way Allah wants of us, in line with the Qur’anic and Prophetic guidance.
The Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) commanded Tariq ibn ‘Abdullah (may Allah be pleased with him):
“Tariq! Prepare for death before it seizes you!” We too must take on this counsel.
The Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) encouraged his community on numerous occasions to engage in the contemplation of death – the undeniable, inevitable reality facing all human beings:
“Remember death and the rotting of the body and the bones after death. Whoever seeks the next life will abandon the adornments of this worldly life.” (Tirmidhi, Qiyama, 24/2458)
The companions (may Allah be pleased with them) who were raised directly under the prophetic instruction and teaching, attained such heightened spiritual sensitivity with regards to remembrance of death that everything they saw reminded them of the grave, the Day of Judgement, the Reckoning and of punishment in the next world to come.
One of the great figures of the generation of the Successors (al-Tabi’in), Abu Wa’il, (may Allah be pleased with him), relates:
“Once we set out with ‘Abdullah ibn Mas’ud (may Allah be well pleased with him). Al-Rabi’ ibn Khaytham (Allah have mercy on him) was with us. We passed by the workshop of a blacksmith when Abdullah ibn Mas’ud stopped to watch the iron in the fire. Al-Rabi’ looked at the fire also and almost passed out. Then ‘Abdullah ibn Mas’ud left. We reached a baker’s oven. When Abdullah ibn Mas’ud (may Allah be well pleased with him) saw the fire blazing in the furnace, he recited these Qur’anic verses:
‘When it sees them coming from a long way off, they will hear it seething and rasping. When they are flung into a narrow place in it, shackled together in chains, they cry out there for destruction!” (Al-Furqan, 25:12-13).
Upon this, al-Rabi’, (may Allah have mercy on him) fainted. We carried him to his home and ibn Mas’ud (may Allah be pleased with him) waited by his side until after noon, but al-Rabi’ did not regain consciousness. He waited until the evening when al-Rabi’ finally came round.” (Abu ‘Ubayd, Fada’il Qur’an, p. 23)
The scholar ‘Abduhamid Kishk (may Allah have mercy on him) said:
“When one of the companions entered their home, his wives would ask him the following two questions (not about what happened at the market):
- How many verses of the Qur’an were revealed today?
- How many Traditions of Allah’s Messenger have you committed to memory?
When he was to leave his house, his wife would say:
‘Fear Allah. Do not earn a livelihood through unlawful means, for we can patiently endure hunger in this world, but we will not be able to endure the punishment of the Fire in the next world.'” (‘Abd al-Hamid Kishk, Fi Rihab al-Tafsir, I, 26)
In contrast to modern humanity’s desire to live longer and more comfortably, the greatest desire of the generation of the companions of the Messenger of Allah was to make a good transition to the next life with a sound heart and clear conscience.
One day, ‘Abdullah ibn Mas’ud (may Allah be well pleased with him) said addressing his friends from the Successors:
“You fast, offer prayer and strive in doing deeds of righteousness more than the companions of Allah’s Messenger (may Allah bless him and grant him peace). But they were better than you.”
When they asked how this could be, he replied:
“They had less desire for the world and greater longing for the next life than you.” (Hakim, Mustadrak, 4/135)
Muhammad ibn Ka’b al-Qurazi (may Allah have mercy on him) relates:
“I once encountered ‘Umar ibn ‘Abdulaziz in Medina. He was at the time a handsome youth who lived in affluence. I later called on him when he had become a Caliph. After seeking permission to enter I was most surprised at seeing him and stood in astonishment looking at his face. He asked me why I looked at him in this way.
“O Commander of the Faithful,” I said, your complexion is pale, your body worn and your hair grey and wispy. I could not hide my astonishment upon seeing you so altered.”
‘Umar ibn ‘Abdulaziz (may Allah be pleased with him) said in response:
“O Muhammad, who knows what your astonishment would be upon seeing me three days after my being placed in the grave? You would never recognised me and would be even more astonished.
Never mind all this and repeat to me the prophetic narration reported by Ibn ‘Abbas from Allah’s Messenger (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) (Hakim, IV, 300/7706)
The Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) said in one tradition:
“Remember often the destroyer of pleasures.” (Tirmidhi, Zuhd, 4)
One who can engage in constant contemplation of death and who is aware of their being a traveller to the next life, is not fooled by fleeting pleasures and by the playthings of this worldly guesthouse and does not waste their time with them.
When children play on the beach, they build sandcastles, occupy themselves with them for a while, and when they are bored after hours of amusement, they tear them down in a single stroke. Or a wave comes and swallows the castle whole.
Death is like this. Human beings, who make plans and projections for their future and attempt to realise these, suffer sorrow when they remember death. Right in the middle of putting these into action, death destroys everything in a single moment. All that work and toil crumbles, like those sandcastles.
That being the case, what a profound heedlessness it is to give into worldly dreams and aspirations and to live covering up the reality of death!
On the authority of Abu Sa’id al-Khudri (may Allah be well pleased with him) the Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) once drew a square and then drew a line in the middle of it which extended beyond it. He drew some small lines within the square up to this middle line. He then asked his companions:
“Do you know what this means?”
They replied as they always did:
“Allah and His Messenger know best.”
The Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) went on to provide the following explanation:
“This is man and this is the end of his lifespan which encircles him – or by which he is encircled – and this which goes beyond it is his hope and ambition and these small lines are things he faces through life. If this one misses him, that one gets him. If one misses him, another one strikes him.” (Ahmad ibn Hanbal, Musnad, III, 18)
What a petty delusion it is that while death is an inevitable reality, people squander their lives in this world on futile pursuits and preoccupations, as though they will be here forever.
Sufyan al-Thawri (may Allah be pleased with him) points to this universal human oblivion in the following words:
“Were a crier to call out to a crowd gathered: ‘Let all those who can say they will live to nightfall, stand!’ not a single person would be able to stand. All the more surprising is that despite this reality, were he to cry out to the people, ‘Let whosoever has prepared for death stand!’ not a single person would be able to rise from their place still.”
It is stated in a prophetic tradition:
“What an evil slave is the one who fancies himself and becomes vain forgetting the All-Great, the Most High.
What an evil slave is the one who violates the rights of others and tyrannises, forgetting the Compeller, the Most High.
What an evil slave is the one who is heedless and diverted, forgetting about the grave and the trials.
What an evil slave is the one who is extravagant and exceeds the bounds, forgetting his beginnings or his end.” (Tirmidhi, Sifat al-Qiyama, 17)
Attainment of the greatest knowledge for human beings begins with solving the mysteries of death and birth into the eternal world. Who can be more unfortunate than the person whose consciousness and perception cannot penetrate the worldly limits of the cemetery wall?
Our ancestors built their cemeteries within their cities and in front of mosques so that they would constantly reflect upon mortality and lead their worldly lives in accordance with the reality of the next the life. Passers-by to see their own future and reform their own selves, feeling the transience of this current worldly life and never forgetting the looming afterlife. Far from displaying such heedlessness, they would turn their worldly bounties into a means for happiness in the eternal life. They would not be deceived by their youth, their strength and wellbeing and suppose themselves permanent residents of the world, and would thus turn away from futile and useless things. They would make every effort to procure their indispensable capital for the eternal abode, as soon as they possibly could.
 Hakim, Mustadrak, IV, 347/7868.