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Muslims and the Certainty of Death
Whereas non-Muslims in the west may joke that there are only two things we can count on--death and taxes, Muslims, as a rule, do not joke about such serious matters lest such levity invite a premature occurrence. But as to its universal and unavoidable reality, there is no doubt, for in the Scripture of Islam death is called “the certain.” The Qur’an says: “And serve thy Lord until there come unto thee the hour that is certain” (Surah 15:99).
Whereas non-Muslims in the West may joke that there are only two things we can count on–death and taxes, Muslims, as a rule, do not joke about death lest it lead to a premature occurrence. Nevertheless, Muslims agree that death is a universal and unavoidable reality. There is no doubt, for in the Quran, death is called the certain: “And serve thy Lord until there come unto thee the hour that is certain” (Surah 15:99). The certainty of judgment and the inevitable encounter of punishment or paradise may lead Muslims to be somewhat fatalistic in the face of death. For often in fatal road accidents, Muslims will conclude that it is, after all, the will of Allah and therefore lawsuits by relatives of victims may be gradually dropped. Muslims recognize that they must submit to what God has ordained, for the Qur’an says, “Every man’s fate we have fastened around his neck”; and, “… to Thee is the end of all journeys” (Surahs 17:13; 2:285).
And yet, if death is certain, what comes after death for Muslims is filled with uncertainty and anxiety. Islamic views of salvation do not include any assurance of forgiveness. Therefore, many Muslims resort to folk practices to deal with the fear of the unknown. The exception to this uncertainty is for those who die fighting in a holy war. The Qur’an says Jihad receives the highest reward and is the surest way to paradise if the “fighter” dies: “Think not of those who are slain in Allah’s way as dead …they live … in the presence of their Lord (Surah 3:169). “… To him who fighteth in the cause of Allah … soon shall we [God] give him a reward” (Surah 4:74).
It would seem that some Muslims are understandably worried about their own future because of a Hadith where Muhammad names members of his own family and says he cannot save them from Allah following the death (Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 6:294). Pointedly, if Muhammad could not guarantee the salvation of his own relatives, how can he guarantee the salvation of Muslims today? Finally, Muhammad was not confident that he himself would make it to heaven after his own death: “Do good deeds properly, sincerely and moderately, and receive good news because one’s good deeds will not make him enter Paradise.” They asked, “Even you, O Allah’s Apostle?” Muhammad replied, “Even I, unless and until Allah bestows His pardon and His Mercy on me” (Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 8:474).
Accordingly, in The Unseen Face of Islam, Bill Musk describes the unorthodox measures taken by a Muslim family to prepare their beloved father, Muhammad, dying of tuberculosis, for the great unknown. They burned incense in the bedroom to ward off evil jinn, placed a small Qur’an under his pillow and would not allow anyone polluted to come near. They hired a hafiz (one who had memorized the Qur’an) to recite portions of the holy book. Each night they sprinkled Zamzam (taken from the well outside the Ka’aba) water on his head. The elderly Muhammad himself called on saints and prophets when awakened by pain and made sure he would be facing Mecca in the final moments. Facing Mecca, site of the Holy Ka’aba, is of great importance. For all Muslims, it is the direction to face when praying, but they may also feel it is the direction a man must face when making love to his wife. The reason is that the Ka’aba is a major source of baraka (blessing or spiritual force).
Even the Prophet Muhammad faced death with great fear and uncertainty. Al-Ghazali, the greatest of all Muslim theologians who died in A.D. 1111, describes the horror that came upon the Arabian Prophet as the hour drew near:
But despite this, his affliction was great when the agony of death came, and his groaning plain. His disquiet became compounded, and his voice was raised in moaning. His color changed, sweat appeared on his brow… Astonishing it is that we draw no lesson from him, despite our uncertainty regarding what we shall encounter… Instead we must be confident that we shall all come to Hell, and then none shall then escape therefrom save the Godfearing. Thus we are certain of coming to it, but only conjecture when we think of thence emerging.¹
Terrors of the Last Day
Several Islamic traditions describe the terror that will be faced on the Day of Resurrection:
“The people will be gathered barefooted, naked, and uncircumcised.” I said, “O Allah’s Apostle! Will the men and the women look at each other?” He said, “The situation will be too hard for them to pay attention to that” (Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 8:534).
“The people will sweat so profusely on the Day of Resurrection that their sweat will sink seventy cubits deep into the earth, and it will rise up till it reaches the people’s mouths and ears” (Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 8:539).
Yet, the most terrible moment of that day may be when each person is handed a book of deeds done on earth, and these are then weighed upon a scale. The final obstacle is a bridge to be crossed–for al-Ghazali–the most frightful of all. He referred to it as “The Traverse” for it stretched over hell and was “sharper than a sword and thinner than a hair.” The saved would cross over and enter the gates of paradise but the damned would slip off and be caught by the “angels of hell with their hooks and grapples.”
Some verses in the Qur’an give a strong impression that no one, including Muslims, will escape hell: “And for this did He create them: and the Word of thy Lord shall be fulfilled: “I will fill hell with jinns [spirits] and men all together” (Surah 11:119). And, “Not one of you but will pass over it; this is with thy Lord, a decree which must be accomplished” (Surah 19:71).
Moreover, there is no doubt among Muslims that it might not be a literal fire. The Qur’anic descriptions are vivid: It will be a place of horrible torture, suffering and misery. Sinners will “wear fire” and having nothing but boiling water to drink. Their “garments will be pitch” and they will have yokes around their necks. It will be a place of ambush with a bar in front of them and a bar behind them (Surahs 14:48-52; 44:48; 36:8-9; 6:70; 10:8; 18:29; 78:21-30).
The Hadith is even more graphic in describing the misery and suffering of the hell-fire:
“I heard the Prophet saying, ‘The least punished person of the hellfire on the Day of Resurrection will be a man under whose arch of the feet two smoldering embers will be placed, because of which his brain will boil just like Al-Mirajal (copper vessel) is boiling with water” (Sahih al- Bukhari, Vol. 8:567).
In his book on Islamic traditions, Phil Parshall helps us understand the significance of boiling brains:
Boiling brains are mentioned in a number of Hadith. It is as though the slightest heat to be applied to the lower part of the body will work up to the brain and cause it to boil. If this torture is prescribed for “the least punished person,” one can only imagine what is meted out as greater punishment.²
In contrast to the scene depicted above, the picture of heaven for Muslims is totally different from that which would have been experienced in the context of Arabia. The Qur’an tells us that “The Garden” has unpolluted water, unspoiled milk, clear honey and excellent wine. It is somewhat surprising to note that although abstinence from wine helps gain admission to heaven it will be enjoyed to the full once access is achieved (Surah 83:25).
It also talks about houris (Maidens of Paradise) who are on hand with “beautiful, big and lustrous eyes” and with “swelling breasts.” There are, needless to say, several Qur’anic references to illustrate that this means physical relationships between Muslim men and these heavenly beauties.³
Again, the Hadith details eternal rewards for the faithful Muslims following death. All this must have dazzled the imaginations of the desert dwellers who knew nothing but heat, dust and deprivation:
Narrated Abu Huraira: Allah’s Apostle said, “The first group (of people) who will enter Paradise will be (glittering) like the moon when it is full. They will not spit or blow their noses or relieve nature. Their utensils will be of gold and their combs of gold and silver; in their censers the aloe wood will be used, and their sweat will smell like musk. Every one of them will have two wives; the marrow of the bones of the wives’ legs will be seen through the flesh out of excessive beauty. They (i.e. the people of Paradise) will neither have differences nor hatred amongst themselves; their hearts will be as if one heart and they will be glorifying Allah in the morning and in the evening” (Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 4:468).
*This is the third article in a four-part series on Islam and Eschatology by Dr. Warren Larson. Begin with article one here.
For more on Muslim eschatology, see Mark Anderson’s article, Muslim Views of Heaven.
1 Al-Ghazali: The Remembrance of Death and the Afterlife (Book XL of the Religious Sciences), translated with an introduction and notes by T. J. Winter. Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 1995, p. 58. Apparently, these are non-Muslims and therefore unbelievers, for they are uncircumcised.
2 Phil Parshall, Inside the Community: Understanding Muslims through their Traditions. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1994, pp. 139-141. Other punishments meted out according to various sins include the following: molten lead poured into the ears, dragging one’s intestines behind him, or being hit with an iron hammer between the ears.
3 Phipps lists some of these in Muhammad and Jesus: A Comparison of the Prophets and Their Teachings: 44:54; 52:20; 55:72-76; 56:34-37; 78:33.