For Muslims, the meaning of life and death is situated within the paradigm of surrender to Allah SWT in order to fulfill the purpose for which we were created — “He who has created death as well as life, so that He might test which of you is best in conduct…” (Qur’an 67:2). We are reminded in the Qur’an that “When their specified time arrives, they cannot delay it for a single hour, nor can they bring it forward…” (Qur’an 16:61).
Given the inevitability of death, and given that we are tested by Allah, how should we position ourselves mentally and emotionally in our lives? Ibn Umar (r) said, “The Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, took me by the shoulder and said, ‘Be in this world as if you were a stranger or a traveler on the road.’” The Prophet (s) has also stated, “In the evening, do not anticipate the morning, and in the morning do not anticipate the evening. Take from your health for your illness and from your life for your death” (Bukhari). A man said, “O Messenger of Allah, which of the believers is best?” The Prophet said, “Those with the best character.” The man said, “Which of the believers is the wisest?” The Prophet said, “Those who remember death often and have best prepared for it with good deeds; those are the wisest” (Sunan Ibn Majah).
We should often reflect about the deep meaning of death and its impact on how we live. If we remember that this life is a preparation for the Day upon which Allah SWT will recompense each soul according to what it has earned, that death is the transition to the next life, and that death could be now or tomorrow, then we will live as if it is our last day of life and the last chance to please Allah SWT and to earn His mercy and forgiveness. That mindset is captured by what the Prophet (s) said about prayer: “…and pray the prayer of a man who does not think he will pray another prayer” (Silsilah al-Sahihah). If we keep the remembrance of death fresh in our minds when we go through our daily lives, we will have greater awareness, surrender, humbleness, dignity, and calm.
It is important to qualify one thing: remembering death is not meant as a depressing or morbid practice. It is meant to keep us focused on the transitory nature of this earthly life, to let go of and not fret the small annoyances, and to treasure each moment as an opportunity to demonstrate our faith Strive to Remove the Veils of the Ego.
In The Alchemy of Happiness, Imam Al-Ghazali writes: “His five senses are like five doors opening on the external world; but, more wonderful than this, his heart has a window which opens on the unseen world of spirits. In the state of sleep, when the avenues of the senses are closed, this window is opened, and man receives impressions from the unseen world and sometimes foreshadowings of the future. His heart is then like a mirror which reflects what is pictured in the Tablet of Fate. But, even in sleep, thoughts of worldly things dull this mirror, so, that the impressions it receives are not clear. After death, however, such thoughts vanish and things are seen in their naked reality, and the saying in the Qur’an is fulfilled: “…We have lifted from you your veil, and keen is your sight today’” (Qur’an 50:22).
The worldly things that dull the mirror of the heart are most often associated with pride and self-aggrandizement, looking for worldly reward; that is, seeking praise from others or desiring wealth and material acquisition. When we desire to aggrandize the self, we feed the ego. Imam Abul Qasim Al-Qushayri, may Allah be pleased with him, said, “The spiritual warrior is he who breaks an idol; and the idol of each person is his [own] ego.”
Turn Knowledge of the Tongue into Knowledge of the Heart
Imam Al-Ghazali says in the above-cited passage that after death all things will be seen “in their naked reality.” While that absolute clarity is consigned only to the hereafter, we can still strive to remove veils of ego that prevent us from seeing things in this life in a way that aligns more with reality. Some of the veils of ego are anger, envy, pride, and greed. Remembering death, we can make effort to remove the veils so that we see and understand life and ourselves and others with more clarity. Some results of that effort include:
• we more and more grasp the principle of cause and effect, especially with regard to our own behaviors
• we understand in a deeper way what matters, what has genuine value, and what has priority
• we make more productive and responsible decisions
• we respond rather than react
• we gravitate to people and experiences which nourish and positively challenge us
• we avoid or remove ourselves from those persons or situations which potentially can harm or debase us
• we refrain from doing foolish, counterproductive, or self-destructive things
Remembering death can benefit us in many ways. Three of those benefits were mentioned at the beginning of this piece, and we can now add a fourth benefit:
1. keep us focused on the transitory nature of this earthly life
2. let go of and not fret the small annoyances
3. treasure each moment as an opportunity to demonstrate our faith
4. help us remove the veils of ego
A good exercise is to make one’s own list and add benefits, and to review it regularly.
Another good exercise is to assess on a daily basis, at the end of the day before going to bed, how well we did in remembering death, both as a motivator and an insight into the meaning and purpose of this life. For example, we can —
• ask ourselves if we remembered death at any point during the day
• ask ourselves if we paused at least one time during the day and reflected on the deep significance of death and its impact on our lives
• ask ourselves if we made effort today to remove the veils of ego
• ask ourselves if remembering death at any point today benefitted us
• ask ourselves if we prepared for death this day with the doing of good deeds
“And be conscious of the Day on which you shall be brought back unto God, whereupon every soul shall be repaid in full for what he has earned, and none shall be wronged” (Qur’an 2:281).