Reflections on the Remembrance of Death
Updated: Dec 18, 2019
In Surah Al-Ankabut, Allah ﷻ tells us:
كُلُّ نَفْسٍ ذَآئِقَةُ ٱلْمَوْتِ ۖ ثُمَّ إِلَيْنَا تُرْجَعُونَ
Every soul will taste death. Then to Us will you be returned. (29:57)
After returning to Islam, my mortality and the reality of death would often haunt me. I would imagine myself on my deathbed. Some may find such macabre musings unfavorable, for they certainly possess the effect of striking fear in our hearts. Because of this, when we are too attached to this dunya, we may dangerously dismiss the remembrance of death as an unworthy exercise. But death is in fact a reality about which Allah ﷻ and His Messenger ﷺ have told us we must contemplate. Not only is each passing moment a step closer to our death, but every subsequent minute is no guarantee. Death can come at any time. How sobering!
Abu Huraira reported: The Messenger ﷺ of Allah ﷻ said, “Remember often the destroyer of pleasures.” (Sunan al-Tirmidhī 2307). No doubt, death is the end of all comforts.
Allah ﷻ tells us:
وَجَآءَتْ سَكْرَةُ ٱلْمَوْتِ بِٱلْحَقِّ ۖ ذَٰلِكَ مَا كُنتَ مِنْهُ تَحِيدُ
And the stupor of death will come in truth: "This is what you have been avoiding!" (50:19)
The Hanafi scholar, Alam al-Din once said, “The most sagacious one from among you is he who remembers death the most." (Alam al-Din, no. 333).
Each time I would reflect on my inevitable death, I would be left fearfully wondering whether or not I would be able to respond when Allah's ﷻ angels, Munkar and Nakeer, test my faith. Will I be able to answer with the Truth? Will I be able to utter, لا إله إلا الله محمد رسول الله, the Muslim profession of faith, which I had rejected for so many years? In a well-known hadith, it is narrated that “Allah ﷻ accepts the repentance of the servant so long as his spirit has not arrived at his throat.” (Al-Tirmidhi). Alhamdulilah, He ﷻ bestowed mercy upon me by guiding me back to Islam, indeed back to Him, and allowing me to fulfill the first pillar of Islam before it was too late. Yet, I remained fearful that when my short time on earth comes to an end, I will fail the test in the grave.
This past Sunday night, I stood for tahajjud, the night prayer. When I returned to sleep, I dreamt of death. I can't recall if I have ever had a dream about dying, though I have thought about it many times during my waking moments. In this dream, death came unexpectedly. I was not sick. I was not old. I was going about life when I suddenly found myself involved in a fatal car accident. Worried I would soon forget the details of my dream, I texted my husband after fajr in hopes of preserving the intense memory...
Ismail, I just had a very real and intense dream. I dreamt I was a passenger in a very bad car accident. The driver was drunk and the car careened out of control and all four of us were killed instantaneously (my sister was one of the four, and the other two were former friends of mine). I woke up to go nurse Ali and as I was feeding him, the memory of this dream hit me. I remember that as the car was literally flipping in the air in broad daylight, I had this intense and deep realization that it was my time. I was going to die. At that moment, I gave in, didn't try to save myself, not that I could, but still. I accepted my death. I wasn't scared, nor was I necessarily scared of any pain. My only fear was I knew I was finally going to meet my Creator. At that moment, I closed my eyes and said the shahada. I concentrated intensely on the words, as if my hands were gripping for safety. I was scared that I was going to forget the words. And then I distinctly remember smiling. I was smiling because, you don't know this Ismail, but after coming back to Islam I have always wondered if I would remember the shahada when the angels ask me, who is your Lord?
The dream continued if you can believe that. The aftermath of the car accident was incredible. The four of us were all girls. My sister's torso was detached from the rest of her body, a'outhubillah. But somehow I was the least physically damaged in the accident.
After I had actually died, I was now in barzakh and in the dream it was nothing more than living in a house that felt like a home for the elderly. The atmosphere was one of boredom, strangely. I remember there were nurses there who cared for the dead, for the souls. When I got there, the nurses needed to know from me who they should contact on the other side to let them know that I had passed on. I said, call my husband. And I started crying inconsolably. I had this intense feeling of missing you. The comfort of your presence was now gone. I felt really bad too because I knew that once you realized what had happened, you would be in a lot of pain and I wouldn't be there to console you.
So they called you and after some time you showed up at this home where I was staying. You could not see or hear me but I could see and hear you. You were crying and you said, "Why can't anything I love just stay for once?" before burying your face in your hands. I tried to reach out to touch you but you could not feel me.
The next thing I remember, some time had passed. I'm not sure how long. But you were laid out on a stretcher, utterly depressed, and your hair had grown out of control all over your body. A man was there over you trying to help you as you came to. It was like you had been in a coma for months or even years.
Then I remember you were coming out of your intense sadness and depression, slowly. But you never really fully recovered. You did seem to have this sense that you understood what was going on and that it was all in Allah's hands.
Apart from this being an intense dream for me and making me feel Allah's presence in a different way, when you have the sense that Allah is sending you a message through a dream, which isn't obvious in any way, can you imagine what it must have been like for our prophet who was literally visited by Angel Jibril and who was literally spoken to by Allah Himself!?
Remarkably, we have also been told that “The gift to a believer is death.” (Al-Tirmidhi, Hadith 1609). How can death be a gift, one may wonder? For the thinking mind, death is understood as the great equalizer, the thing which will erase our worldly comforts and make completely irrelevant our material status. All that will remain are our deeds. It is narrated in a well-known hadith: “When a man dies, his good deeds come to an end, except three: Ongoing charity, beneficial knowledge, and a righteous son who will pray for him.” (Sahih Muslim, 3084).
In Surah Al-Hadid, Allah tells us:
ٱعْلَمُوٓا۟ أَنَّمَا ٱلْحَيَوٰةُ ٱلدُّنْيَا لَعِبٌ وَلَهْوٌ وَزِينَةٌ وَتَفَاخُرٌۢ بَيْنَكُمْ وَتَكَاثُرٌ فِى ٱلْأَمْوَٰلِ وَٱلْأَوْلَٰدِ ۖ كَمَثَلِ غَيْثٍ أَعْجَبَ ٱلْكُفَّارَ نَبَاتُهُۥ ثُمَّ يَهِيجُ فَتَرَىٰهُ مُصْفَرًّا ثُمَّ يَكُونُ حُطَٰمًا ۖ وَفِى ٱلْءَاخِرَةِ عَذَابٌ شَدِيدٌ وَمَغْفِرَةٌ مِّنَ ٱللَّهِ وَرِضْوَٰنٌ ۚ وَمَا ٱلْحَيَوٰةُ ٱلدُّنْيَآ إِلَّا مَتَٰعُ ٱلْغُرُورِ
Know that the life of this world is but amusement and diversion and adornment and boasting to one another and competition in increase of wealth and children - like the example of a rain whose [resulting] plant growth pleases the tillers; then it dries and you see it turned yellow; then it becomes [scattered] debris. And in the Hereafter is severe punishment and forgiveness from Allah and approval. And what is the worldly life except the enjoyment of delusion. (57:20)
For the righteously oriented heart, death is understood as the bridge from this life to the next where we will, at long last, meet our Maker ﷻ. It has been narrated: “The most prudent one from among you is he who is the most prepared for it." (Alam al-Din, no. 333). And since we do not know when death will greet us, we must ask ourselves at every waking moment: What have I done thus far to prepare for my death?