On Life and Death
In the Name of Allah, the Most Kind, the Kindest
بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
Take advantage of your life before your death advised Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. And how might one do that? According to Hazrat Inayat Khan, the teaching of the Prophet is to realize in one’s lifetime what death means. Life and death are inseparable brothers. “Neither can exist without the other: the Creator wears both these two masks,” as per a Hausa tale from West Africa. Likewise, the Quran Sharif says: “God brings forth the living from the dead, and brings forth the dead from the living; and God enlivens the earth after its death: and so will you be brought forth” (30:19).
As the leaves fall around us to decompose in the earth, as critters go into hibernation and cease to stir, as life slows down from the chill in the air, we witness a type of death everywhere. Sleep itself is considered a small death. Monday was Mawlid al-Nabi, the birth of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. Tradition affirms that he is alive in the grave. Since “death is the real birth of the soul” (Gayan). It’s a transmutation rather than a source of lamentation.
On the battlefield, Sri Krishna advises Arjuna that “The wise grieve neither for the living nor for the dead. There has never been a time when you and I and the kings gathered here have not existed, nor will there be a time when we will cease to exist. As the same person inhabits the body through childhood, youth, and old age, so too at the time of death he attains another body” (The Bhagavad Gita).
When we commemorate a birth, we rejoice in life. It is far more difficult to avoid feeling the sting of death. Everything seems so grave. Life has left the body, leaving it cold and grey. How are we supposed to see beyond this tragic loss and not grieve? Rumi prepared his devotees for his passing by instructing them on how to cope:
Do not stand at my grave and weep,
I am not there, I do not sleep.
I am in a thousand winds that blow,
I am the softly falling snow.
I am the gentle showers of rain,
I am the fields of ripening grain.
I am in the morning hush,
I am in the graceful rush
Of beautiful birds in circling flight,
I am the star shine of the night.
I am in the flowers that bloom,
I am in a quiet room.
I am in the birds that sing,
I am in each lovely thing.
Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there. I do not die.
(Trans. Mary Elizabeth Frye)
Rumi’s words echo the Quranic refrain: put your trust in Allah and take solace in Nature. Rumi is encouraging us not to lament. But most of the prophets and sages observed a period of mourning after someone they loved died. They also recommended visiting graves to offer special prayers for the deceased. The Prophet ﷺ said, “When a person dies, his deeds end except for three: an ongoing charity, beneficial knowledge, and a righteous child who prays for him.”
These are two different approaches to coping with the loss of life. Another is to adopt the perspective that “the life everlasting is hidden in the heart of death,” as Hazrat Inayat Khan observed. Winter is coming, soon to be accompanied by a new spring. Nature is healing, as are prayers. Death and life are masks, which the Creator wears. “Verily, to God we belong and onto Him is our return (2:156).”
May we look more deeply at the world around us, may we take advantage of our life before our death, may we seek solace in Faith and Nature, and love one another with every breath.
From one needy of your dua,
PS. What does death mean to you? And how do you take advantage of life?