The Meaning and Truth of Death
"Every soul will taste death." (Aal-Imraan 185)
What is death? Is it total annihilation? Or is it simply the severing of the soul from the body? When the soul is separated from the body, what happens to each of them? What happens to man himself, the owner of this transient body and eternal soul? Does his consciousness come to an end when his body dies? Or does his awareness continue to live on in his eternal soul? Do the dead feel enjoyment and pain the way the living do? Can the awareness of a living man whose soul is locked in his body compare with the awareness of a dead man whose soul has been released from his body'?
Naturally the answer to this last question is, No! The living are aware and the dead are aware. But there is a difference and there is no way to compare them. Death is not pure annihilation. It is merely movement from one world to another. When the dead man feels the bliss or punishment of the grave, it does not mean that he is alive in his grave, needing food, clothes and so on. Nor does it mean that his soul permeates all the parts of his body as it did when he was in this world. The soul returns to the body again in a way which is not the same as in this world so that the dead man can be questioned and tested in the grave.
We can get some idea of this by likening death to sleep which is the `lesser death', even though there is of course a natural disparity between the two. In sleep, a man's soul comes out though his nostrils and travels until it comes into the presence of the Lord of the Throne. If the sleeper is in a state of purity, his soul prostrates before its Creator. Then it may encounter the world of dreams or meet with the souls of people who have died, but what it is in fact faced with is a page of Allah's knowledge of the Unseen containing the good or evil He has decreed for this particular human being. If the sleeper is truthful, generous, and pure, and someone who does not concern himself with stupid things during the time he is awake, then when his soul returns to him it conveys to his heart the truth of what Allah, the Great and Majestic, has let him see. When this happens, it is called a 'truthful dream'. In sleep, the soul can also move freely about the world and meet with the souls of people who are still alive and gain knowledge from them. Some of what it learns is true and some false. The false part is the normal dream or the chatter of the soul.
If the sleeper is a liar and likes what is false, his soul still rises to heaven during sleep, moves freely about the world, meets with other souls and learns true information about the Unseen. However while the soul is returning to the body, it meets Shaytan in mid-air and he mixes the true with the false like he does when a person is awake. Then when he wakes up, the person is confused and muddled about what Allah the Mighty and Majestic has let him see and consequently does not understand it, only remembering what Shaytan showed him. Those are confused dreams.
In confirmation of these things, we will mention what Allah the Great has said in the sura, az-Zumar, "Allah takes the souls at the time of their death, and that which has not died, in its sleep. He withholds that against which He has decreed death, but looses the other until a stated term." (az-Zumar 42)
In the sleeping state, the soul does not completely leave the body as it does in the case of death, but remains inside the body not leaving it to move freely through the heavens. We can liken it to a ray or a thread whose end remains connected to the body. The ray of this soul stretches out to the heavens and then returns again to the body when the sleeper wakes up. It is like the rays of the sun. The orb of the sun is in the heaven but its rays are on the earth. The two cases are not exactly the same, but it is a way of making the meaning clearer.
In the case of death, the body remains in the ground while the soul is in the interspace between the two worlds. An `interspace' is something which separates two things: heaven and earth, or this world and the Next World. In other words, it is the period between death and resurrection. The bliss or punishment of the Interspace is not the same as the bliss and punishment of the Next World. It is something that happens between this world and the Next World. Despite the fact that the soul is in the interspace between the two worlds and the body is inside the earth, the two are still connected. Consequently, the bliss or punishment happens to both of them.
We have likened this condition to the sleeping state, but naturally there is a distinction. In sleep, the soul subsists fundamentally in the body. It emerges as something like a ray to the heavens so that the sleeper has a dream in which he feels either happy or miserable. He experiences either bliss or punishment in his sleep.
In death, the soul subsists fundamentally in the Interspace, not in the body. When Allah the Great desires bliss or punishment for the soul, He connects it to the body. It is in Heaven, but at the same time it looks at and is connected to the body in the ground. The soul is diffused in more than one place at the same time. The proof of this is that the Messenger, peace and blessings be upon him, saw Musa, peace and blessing be upon him, on the night of the Night Journey standing in prayer in his grave and he also saw him in the sixth and seventh heavens.
In spite of that, bliss or punishment happen at times to both body and soul simultaneously. At other times, it happens only to the soul. The dead person can lose awareness for a time but then the bliss or punishment continues. That is dependent on the will of Allah the Great and dependent on a man's own actions.
One of the people of earlier times thought that if his body were burned to ashes and then some of the ashes were cast into the sea and some onto dry land on a very windy day, he would be saved from the punishment of the grave. He therefore told his children to do that. However Allah commanded the sea to collect together the ashes that had been thrown into it and the land to do likewise and then said, `Get up!' and the man found himself standing before Allah. Allah questioned him, asking `What made you do what you did?' He replied, `I feared You, my Lord, but You are the one who knows best.' Because of that Allah forgave him.
Doing that could not eliminate the punishment and the bliss of the Grave which affect those parts which no longer exist. If a righteous man were to be buried in a fiery furnace, his portion of bliss would still reach his soul and body and Allah would make the fire cool and peaceful for him. For the wrongdoer, the cool air becomes fire and hot wind. The elements and the matter of the universe obey their Lord, Originator and Creator. He makes them behave in whatever way He wills. None of them are able to do anything except what He wills. Everything obeys His will in humble submission to His decree.