Living Fully, Dying Well: An Islamic Perspective

By Kathy Keary

Part 19. The full series is here: The Contemplative Spirit of Islam.

Life is filled with uncertainty with the ultimate mystery being death and the hereafter. It’s a topic that we frequently skirt around as if we will be exempt from it. We have been warned to have our affairs in order because death can come like a “thief in the night.”

I imagine that most of us hope that on that day we will find God to be at the center of our lives and that we are in a right relationship with everyone. That begs the question: why do we allow divisions and drama to take a hold of us? Why is endeavoring to clothe ourselves in righteousness not more of a priority? The Qur’ān instructs: “Be mindful of God with all due mindfulness and do not allow death to overtake you before you have surrendered yourselves to God.”

Jamal Rahman, a Muslim Sufi minister, asserts that death can be a profound teacher. The spiritual practices of the Prophet Muhammad included visiting graveyards and meditating on his own death. Rahman instructs:

Visiting cemeteries may not be your chosen method, but we all should find a way to remember that our days are numbered and our opportunities for spiritual growth in this lifetime are finite. Mindfulness of death gives us the courage to remove our masks and discover our authentic self (Out of Darkness, 102).

Rahman states that the real reason we shy away from thoughts of death is not because we are afraid of dying but that we are afraid of failing to live fully. Sufis are proponents of visiting the terminally ill, attending funerals, and taking part in rituals that honor the dead as a means to “not only help us overcome our fear of death, but also heighten our awareness of the transitory nature of life so that we may live our remaining years with greater clarity and intention.”

Rahman elaborates on this point: “When imbued with the consciousness of our inevitable death, we realize at a heart level that time is precious and we no longer want to waste energy enmeshed in trivialities and distractions.” In the words of the poet, Tagore: “We spend our days and nights stringing and unstringing our instruments, but the song we came here to sing remains unsung.”

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Muslims believe that each day we experience a mini-death when our souls ascend into God’s loving embrace while we sleep. When we wake up, God returns our souls to our physical form for a specified term.

We can all attest to experiences of death that we endure in this lifetime, for example the death of hopes and dreams, the ending of a relationship, the loss of a job, or the loss of a loved one. Rahman explains that allowing ourselves to experience the myriad of emotions that arise following a loss is a beautiful spiritual practice. “The sages say that the more our sad feelings carve into our being, the more joy we can contain.” It’s not recommended that we seek out feelings of sadness but that we not avoid them when they arise (Gems, 204).

Sages refer to death as one’s wedding with eternity. Our souls long for God, and death is the ultimate surrender. Sufis attribute the diminished sight and bent posture of the aged to the soul grieving for a reunion with their Maker of whom they have been separated for so long. There is great rejoicing in heaven when the soul returns to God for all eternity:

Oh serene soul!
Return to your Sustainer
pleased and pleasing in His sight.
Join my righteous servants
And enter my paradise (Qur’ān 89:27-30) (Out of Darkness, 103).

Rumi romanticized the joy experienced by those who surrender to God at the end of life here on earth: “A love-sick nightingale among owls, you caught the scent of roses and flew to the Rosegarden” (Out of Darkness, 104).

Rahman offers sound advice for all travelers on the journey home. Periodically, meditate on our own death keeping in mind Muhammad’s insight: “It is better to blush in this world than in the next.” What can we do to purify our hearts, reconcile with others, and engage in righteous deeds? Muhammad offered this wisdom: “When you were born, everyone was smiling but you were crying. Live such a life that when you depart, everyone is weeping but you are smiling” (Out of Darkness, 109).

Stay tuned for our next article where we will explore Islam’s teachings on the afterlife.

References

Rahman, Jamal; Elias, Kathleen Schmitt; and Redding, Ann Holmes. Out of Darkness Into Light: Spiritual Guidance in the Quran with Reflections from Christian and Jewish Sources. Harrisburg, New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2009.

Rahman, Jamal. Spiritual Gems of Islam: Insights and Practices from the Qur’an, Hadith, Rumi and Muslin Teaching Stories to Enlighten the Heart and Mind. USA: Skylight Path Publishing, 2013.

Kathy Keary, a Precious Blood Companion and spiritual director, holds a Master’s Degree in Theological Studies and is a graduate of the Atchison Benedictines Sophia Center’s Souljourners Program, an intense study of spirituality and spiritual direction. Kathy believes that the Divine is present and active in all of life and encourages others to be awakened to the God in all including the divine within. She enjoys accompanying others on their journey to wholeness discovering the person they were created to be.

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