The end of physical life, be that of our loved ones and even of our selves, is not a pleasant thought. It is a frightening reality that cannot be escaped. At best, it can only be delayed. It is an emotionally draining experience for the survivors of a deceased loved one. It is our intention here to share a summary of Islamic teachings on death, and its aftermath. This is by no means intended to be a comprehensive review of all the texts, nor does this writer claim to be mistake free in his understanding and perceptions of this most sensitive issue.
The ceasing of one existence in exchange for another
The physical body we have and enjoy will at some point cease to exist. The end is determined by God, in his infinite wisdom, and it happens only when it is appropriate for the deceased as well as for family/society surrounding that person[s]. The Qur'an says that it cannot be delayed or advanced, and will eventually catch up with us [Q 4:11, 40:68].
With the end of the physical existence in this material world, another one opens up. Known by many names throughout all cultures, this reality is called the Akhirah ["afterlife"] by Muslims, and indeed this is a designation given throughout the Qur'an. The physical body will not be making that journey into the Akhirah, rather it is the eternal, true essence [Nafs] of the individual that will experience the Akhirah.
The Nafs is the lasting component of the person. As mentioned earlier, it is really eternal. In this regards, it is important to make the following connections that can only be found in the Qur'an, the scripture given to the Prophet Muhammad, Allah's final Prophet and messenger to all mankind, the deliver of "all truth". The Qur'an commands Muslims in the following manner;
"And when afflicted with a calamity, believers say 'surely, we belong to Allah, and to him is our return."[Qur'an 2:156]
In Arabic, the sentence is Inna Lillaahi wa Inna Ilayhi Raaji'oon. This sentence has come to be recited even when losing an item such as keys and when annoyed. Yet, here we are concerned about the Qur'anic command to recite this, to recall this fact, when receiving or thinking about the death of someone else. Why should we recite this statement? Because it serves as a reminder to the survivor[s] that the deceased is in the presence of God, the possession of God. Such knowledge is important because according to the Qur'an:
"What is in your possession will vanish, and what is with Allah is lasting [Baaq]." [Qur'an 16:96]
Thus, while the physical host of the Nafs eventually deteriorates, the Nafs itself, the container of all that made that person unique, the good and the bad, the personality and the jokes, are all "preserved" in the Divine presence. This reminder should give solace and strength to the deceased, and we hope that when it is our turn to expire, we remember these Quranic assertions as well. God knows all the actions, beliefs, attitudes of all in his dominion.
The fate of the Nafs
While some faiths believe in reincarnation or in the migration of souls, Islam views each and every single NAFS as unique, in the same way fingerprints are, and has only one turn in this world.
It is the actions, morals etc..that play the greatest part in determining the fate of the Nafs. To use a scriptural analogy, if the 'scale of deeds' weigh in the best direction, then that person will have quite a pleasant fate, in what we call heaven or paradise. The one whose life has been spent in selfish pursuits, with no consideration for ethics and morals, with little in the form of good deeds to be placed on that scale, then their destination will not be the same as those whose scale weighs very heavy in the good deeds.
Then, he whose balance (of good deeds) will be (found) heavy,
Will be in a Life of good pleasure and satisfaction.
But he whose balance (of good deeds) will be (found) light - Will have his home in a (bottomless ) Pit.
And what will explain to thee what this is? (It is) a Fire blazing fiercely!
Descriptions of Heaven and Hell are figurative
The Qur'an repeatedly uses the phraseMathal ["expression", "parable", "similitude"] when describing the soul's fate in Jannah [paradise] or Jahannam [Hell]. References can be found in 2:25-26, 13:35 and very clearly in 47:15.
Moreover, when one thinks about it, the descriptions of paradise as having rivers, houses, springs, are all things we have to work for in this world. God uses such language to describe realities that we have not faced in this world. The same can be said of Hell, universally seen as a blazing fire. A fire is prepared, kindled, by the striking of rocks in the correct manner, by matches or fuel etc...! It is also 'earned'!
Perhaps heaven and hell are descriptions of soul perceptions, "projections" directed by Divine will due to the actions of the said soul.
Theology as a basis for heaven and hell
It should be noted here that the famous John 3:16 text of the Christian text, which basically assigns all non Christians to perdition, has no equivalent in the Qur'an. God created the Muslims and the Non-Muslims, and the Qur'an makes it clear that he cares for and nourishes all, including the Non-Muslims. Indeed, this fact is recited daily [Alhamdulillaahi Rabbil 'aal ameenin prayers.
The Qur'an tells us [ see 2:62, 5:69] that certain non-Muslim religious communities are essentially destined for his good graces. The reason is simple..their basic actions constitute the foundation needed for building a place in Jannah. The above referenced texts assert those prerequisites are belief and good deeds.
Now, it should be noted that this does not mean that the theology held by Christians or Jews are seen as correct according to the Qur'an. It only shows Divine mercy and justice, even in the midst of ideological errors. As I type this article, I am wearing a white shirt, but what if someone mistakenly says its black? Well, I can correct them, but even if they refuse the correction, should I hate that person? Would that be reasonable?
Returning to the criterion for God's paradise for a moment, the Qur'an also says “[God swears ] By the time, surely, humans are in consistent loss, except those who believe, do righteous works, and enjoin mutual [calling to] truth, and mutual [reminders of ] patience: [103:1-3]"
We hope to be among those whose scale is full of good deeds, of faith in Allah, receiving mercy and guidance always. Ameen!