What is the life of the grave? What happens in the grave after burial?
The intermediate realm refers to the life of the grave that begins with a person’s death and which will continue until the resurrection. This truth is expressed in the Qur’an as follows:
“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 they are merely words he utters. Before them there is an interspace until the Day they are raised up.” (Al-Muminun, 23:99-100)
However long human beings live in this world, they will, when they reach last of their numbered breaths, assuredly be a traveller to this intermediate realm. The only worldly thing they will be able to take with them on this journey will be a few metres of burial shroud.
Hence, the shroud, which is the last garment of this fleeting life, will one day most certainly enwrap all people, as will death, setting its seal on all transient transactions, pleasures, attractions and beguiling glitters. As a result, the body of the human being will return to the earth out of which it was created.
The body is a covering for the spirit. On the Day of Resurrection on which all people will be raised back life, this spirit will be clothed with a new body. The nature of this body will manifest itself according to the spiritual level obtained while in the world.
Mawlana Jalaladin Rumi (may Allah have mercy on him) illustrates this truth in a vivid manner:
“Reduce the sweets and delicacies with which you feed your body. For one who nourishes the body excessively falls prey to its desires and faces eventual disgrace and ruin.”
“Give the soul spiritual sustenance. Let there be mature thought, subtle understanding, and spiritual sustenance, so that the soul goes to its destination safe and sound.”
Just as the signs indicating whether one’s eternal life will be bliss or tribulation begin to show at the last breath, the life of the grave, which is first of the stops along the journey to the final eternal abode, constitutes the second most important stage in this journey.
Hani’, the freed slave of ‘Uthman (may Allah be well pleased with both of them) reported:
When ‘Uthman (may Allah be well pleased with him) stood by a grave, he would weep until his beard was wet. He was once asked:
“You remember the Garden and the Fire but you do not weep, yet you weep because of this?”
‘Uthman (may Allah be well pleased with him) replied:
“I have heard the Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) say:
“Surely, the grave is the first stage of the stages of the Next World, so if one is saved from troubles in it, whatever follows will be easier than it. But if one is not saved from it, then whatever follows will be harder and more severe.” And the Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) said: “I have not seen any sight more terrifying or gruelling than it.” (Tirmidhi, Zuhd, 5/2308; Ahmad, I, 63-64)
The deceased person in the grave is, in a sense, like a person drowning in the sea and frantically calling out for help. They await prayer from their parents, siblings, their loved ones and friends. If indeed they do receive prayer, this is more precious and pleasing to them than all the world and its contents.
Thus, when a believer goes to the cemetery, they should first offer greetings to the people of the grave, offer prayers of forgiveness for them, recite as much Qur’an as they like and reflect upon the fact that they will one day be exactly like them. The great Sufi Hatim al-Asam says:
“One who visits a graveyard without offering prayers for the deceased and without contemplating their own end has betrayed both their own self and those buried there.”
Muslim scholar Sufyan ibn ‘Uyayna (may Allah have mercy on him) says:
“The need that the dead have for prayer is greater than that of the living for food and drink.”
Allah Almighty rewards the people of the grave abundantly as a result of the prayers of those in the world. The best gift that the living can send to the dead is to pray for their forgiveness and to give alms and charity on their behalf.
According the belief of the Ahl al-Sunna (people of the prophet example), the deceased possess consciousness and can hear and feel. They benefit from and are pleased with good works and are tormented and grieved by acts of vice and wickedness. In other words, a person dies with their body, not their soul.
Sent as a mercy to all the worlds, the Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) says in one prophetic narration:
“My life is a great good for you: you bring up new matters and new matters are clarified up for you. My death is a great good for you also; your actions will be presented to me and if I see good, I shall praise Allah, and if I see evil I shall ask His forgiveness for you.” (Haythami, IX, 24)
Similarly, the Messenger (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) calls out to us in the Farewell Sermon:
“So, make not my face overcast by sinning.”
In other words, as members of his community, our every deed is presented to the Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and grant him peace). All our greetings of peace and salutations are conveyed to him.
In another Prophetic narration, it is stated that our deeds are also presented to believing family members and loved ones who have passed away:
“Your actions are presented to your close relatives and kinsfolk from among the deceased. If your actions are good, they are pleased by them, but if they are other than that, they ask Allah saying, ‘Our Lord, do not cause them to die until You guide them like You have guided us.'” (Ahmad, III, 164; Tabarani, Kabir, IV, 129/3887)
As we have seen, the grave is the first point of great deprivation and suffering for those who wasted their lives in pursuit of base pleasures. In contrast, it is the first stage of eternal bliss for those who spend their lives engaged in the spiritual struggle prescribed in the Qur’an and the prophetic practice.
A funeral procession once passed before the Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and grant him peace). Indicating the deceased, he asked, “Relieved or relieving?”
The people asked, “O the Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) what is relieved and relieving?”
The Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) replied:
“A believer is relieved of the toils of this world and its harm and goes to the mercy of Allah, while the people, lands, trees and animals are relieved of the evil person.” (Bukhari, Riqaq, 42)
Interrogation in the Grave
Every human being subjected to trial in this world will assuredly be questioned in the grave, after their numbered breaths have transpired. Even those people who were not placed in a grave, who drowned or who perished in the wilderness, will ultimately reach the intermediate realm and face interrogation.
The Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) has said:
“When the believer is made to sit up in their grave, the angels will come to them and they will testify that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah. This is the state indicated in Allah’s words, “Allah makes those who believe firm with the Firm Word in this life and the Next World. But Allah misguides the wrongdoers. Allah does whatever He wills.” (Ibrahim14:27) (Bukhari, Jana’iz 87, Tafsir 14/2)
‘Uthman (may Allah be well pleased with him) narrated that whenever the Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) buried the dead, he used to stand by their grave and say:
“Seek forgiveness for your brother and his Allah for his deliverance, for he is now being questioned (by the interrogating angels).” (Abu Dawud, Jana’iz, 69)
The human being suffers great distress and anxiety in matters that are unknown to them. One such matter which grieves them is undoubtedly the life of the grave. This is because human beings are unaware of what happens underneath the ground. However, the Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) has given us detailed information concerning the grave, which he says is either a garden from among the gardens of the Garden, or a pit from among the pits of Hell.
To this end, Asma bint Abi Bakr (may Allah be well pleased with her) said:
“The Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) once began delivering a sermon and described the trials that face a person in the grave. When he described the state of the grave in such detail, the Muslims began crying out aloud.” (Bukhari, Jana’iz, 87)
The following prophetic statements are among the traditions in which the Messenger speaks of the grave:
It is related from Anas (may Allah be well pleased with him) said that the Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) said:
“When a slave is placed in his grave and his companions depart from him and he hears the sound of their footsteps, two angels come to him and make him sit up and say to him, ‘What do you say about this man, Muhammad (may Allah bless him and grant him peace)?’
As for the believer, he says: ‘I bear witness that he is Allah’s slave and His Messenger.’
It will be said to him, ‘Look at your place in the Fire. Allah has replaced it for you with a place in the Garden.’ Then he will see both places.
An unbeliever or hypocrite will say, ‘I do not know. I used to say what everyone else said.’
He will be told, ‘You neither understood nor followed the guidance of those who had understanding.’
Then he will be struck between the ears with an iron hammer and will cry out with a cry which is heard by everything near him except human beings and jinn.” (Bukhari, Jana’iz, 68, 87; Muslim, Janna, 70; Abu Dawud, Jana’iz, 78/3231; Nasa’i, Jana’iz, 110; Tirmidhi, Jana’iz, 70/1071)
In another narration, these angels are described as having eyes which are jet-black and sky-blue, and as having the names Munkar and Nakir.
Yet another prophetic narration describes the Messenger of Allah, upon him be peace and blessings, as having said:
“The deceased person is placed in the grave. The righteous person is made to sit up in their grave with no fear or distress.
Then it is said to him, ‘What religion did you follow?’
He says, ‘Islam.’
It is said to him, ‘Who is this man?’
He says, ‘Muhammad, the Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) He brought us clear signs from Allah and we believed in him.’
It is said to him, ‘Have you seen Allah?’
He says, ‘No one is able to see Allah (in the world).’
Then a window looking onto the Fire is opened for him, and he sees its flames, some of them engulfing others.
Then it is said to him, ‘Look at what Allah has saved you from.’
Then a window looking onto the Garden is opened to him, and he looks at its beauty and what is contained in it. It is said to him, ‘This is your place.’ And then it is said to him, ‘You had certainty of faith and you died upon this state of sound belief, so by Allah’s permission, in that state you will be resurrected.'”
As for the evil person, he is made to sit up in his grave in fear and horror and it is said to him, ‘What religion did you follow?’
He says, ‘I do not know.’
It is said to him, ‘Who is this man?’
He says, ‘I used to say what everyone else said.’
Then a window to the Garden is opened to him, and he looks at its beauty and what is contained it. It is said to him, ‘Look at what Allah has taken away from you.’
Then a window to the Fire is opened for him, and he sees its flames, some of them engulfing others. Then it is said to him, ‘This is your place. You lived in doubt; in this state you died and in this state you will be resurrected, by God’s leave.’ (Ibn Majah, Zuhd, 32. See also, Bukhari, Jana’iz, 68, 87; Muslim, Janna, 70)
Another Prophetic narration reveals that the deceased person will be shown his destined place morning and evening – a garden of the Garden, if they are among the people of the Garden and a pit of fire if they are one of the people of the Fire – and that they will be told:
“This is your place until Allah raises you up on the Day of Rising.” (Bukhari, Jana’iz 90)
“…shown their station morning and evening, either in the Fire or in the Garden … until they are resurrected to it.” (Bukhari, Riqaq, 42)
Again, the Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) informs us that people will be tested in the grave concerning their belief and that they will be asked certain questions:
“It was revealed to me that you will be tested in the graves with a trial like – or nearly like – that of the False Messiah (Ad-Dajjal) …” (Bukhari, Wudu’, 37)
As such, The Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) draws attention to the severity and intensity of the questioning in the grave.
Wathilah ibn al-Asqa’ (may Allah be well pleased with him) narrates:
The Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) led us in prayer for the funeral of a Muslim and I heard him supplicate to Allah saying:
“O Allah, so and so, son of so and so, is under Your protection, so guard him from the trial in the grave and the punishment of the Fire. You are true in Your promise and are worthy of praise.
O Allah, forgive him and have mercy on him. You are the Ever-Forgiving, the All-Merciful…” (Abu Dawud, Jana’iz, 56; Ibn Majah, Jana’iz, 23)
A person’s attaining Divine mercy is a great felicity. One of Ma’ruf al-Karkhi’s friends asked him:
“Ma’ruf, what has caused you to perform this much worship?” Ma’ruf was silent. His friend continued:
“Is it the thought of death?”
Ma’ruf al-Karkhi replied:
“No! What is death anyhow?”
“The thought of the grave, perhaps?”
“No,” he again replied. “For what is the grave!”
The friend again continued:
“Fear of the Fire, perhaps, or the hope for the Garden?”
To this, Ma’ruf offered the following magnificent response:
“What of all these things! All these things of which you speak are in the hands of One of such Glory and Grandeur that when you love Him, He will make you forget all these. When you become acquainted with Him, He will protect you from all these things.”
 Ihya, IV, 868.
 al-Suyuti, Sharh al-Sudur, Lebanon 1417, p. 297.
 See Haythami, III, 271; Muhammad Hamidullah, al-Wasa’iq, p. 367.
 See Abu Dawud, Manasik, 96.
 Tirmidhi, Qiyama, 26/2460.
 Although the believer will be questioned in the grave and shown their final place, as indicated in the prophetic Tradition, it is after the Final Hour when they will be called to account for their actions. Every person will then receive the recompense for every atom’s weight of good and evil. In fact, a Qur’anic verse reveals that even Prophets, who have been guaranteed entry into the Garden, will be questioned. See (7:6).
 Babanzâde Ahmed Naîm, İslâm Ahlâkının Esasları, Istanbul: 1963, p. 66.