Death and Afterlife, Islamic Understanding of

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Islamic views of death and the afterlife encompass two broad streams: the individual and the collective or cosmological. The existence of an afterlife for individuals and final judgment of all creation are both central tenets of the faith. The Koran provides the foundation for Muslim views of death, with eschatological imagery leaping out from nearly every page. The Koran is supplemented by hadith, reports of the words and deeds of the prophet Muhammad (c. 570632), as well as by numerous commentaries and treatises. While the specific beliefs and practices surrounding death and the afterlife display significant sectarian and cultural variety, the following account will focus on the most widely shared views.


Death is built into God's plan for his creation. God alone determines and knows the time and manner of each person's death and of Judgment Day. Tradition holds that an angel implants in the womb of each expectant mother a speck of soil from the place where that child is eventually fated to die. While God retains authority over death, he delegates oversight of individual deaths to an angel named Izra'il. Orthodox Sunni theology recognizes God's total omniscience and omnipotence. Thus God appoints not only each person's day of death but also the individual actions for which one is judged. This view is balanced by a recognition of God's infinite justice, a sense that humans choose and deserve their ultimate fate. The apparent paradox is addressed in the complex theological formula of "acquisition" (iktisab ), which holds that while God authors human acts, people "acquire" them as products of free will. This doctrine is buttressed with an appeal to divine mystery, a belief that God's ways are beyond human comprehension. In the end, most Muslims display a firm commitment to both predestination and free will, holding themselves accountable for their deeds while acquiescing to God's power. If intellectually untidy, such a view is emotionally rich and satisfying for many.

Rather than "fear," Muslim sources prefer to counsel the "remembrance" of death, the awareness that it may come at any time, and the need to be always prepared. Al-Muhasibi (c. 781857) advises that

You need only know that death has no hour known to the servant that he might fear that particular time but be secure at other times. If it does not come down at any particular period of life, one cannot be secure from it in childhood or maturity, in youth or in old age. Since it has no particular cause, one cannot be secure from it in health or in illness, in city or in desert, on land or on sea. When he is watchful for death, he hastens to be prepared for it and races to complete good works before the angel of death can reach his spirit. (Sells, pp. 181182)

Death of the Body

A tree is said to stand beneath God's heavenly throne, each leaf bearing the name of an individual, and forty days before death that person's leaf falls from the tree as a signal to the angel of death. As death nears, one should prepare by repenting from sin and reading generally from the Koran, especially sura 36, "Ya sin," and others considered notable for their reflections on death. One should face toward Mecca, as in prayer, and repeat the Shahada (profession of faith): "There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the Messenger of God." This serves as preparation for the questioning of the soul in the grave, and it is auspicious to die with these words on one's lips. For the incapacitated, family or other fellow Muslims should whisper pious invocations in the dying person's ears. The dying are considered particularly susceptible to Satan's temptations, and their faith must be reinforced with pious reminders.

Burial should proceed without delay. No embalming or cremation is allowed; aside from being cleaned, the body is left minimally altered. Muslims do not present the dead for viewing, as has become customary in the West. The washing of the corpse is ritualized, echoing purification for worship; it begins with the face, head, hands, and feet, as in ritual ablution, then extends to the rest of the body, proceeding from the right side to the left and accompanied by the appropriate prayers. (The body of a martyr is considered pure and is not washed.) The private parts are to be covered from sight, with the washing proceeding under the covering. The washing is preferably done by a family member of the same sex or a spouse or parent. Soap and scent may be used, and the washing is repeated three times. The body may be perfumed, and orifices covered with scented cloth. A simple white, seamless cloth shroud (preferably in three sections for men and five for women) is wrapped around the corpse, and at this point it may be laid out at home or in a mosque for the special salat al-janaza (prayer for a funeral). Though the Prophet urged restraint in mourning, wailing for the dead is common, and professional mourners may even be hired. Mourning traditionally consists of three days of ascetic behavior (longer for widows), and may include special observances of grief and remembrance on the fortieth day after the funeral, as well as periodic visits to the grave. The spirits of the dead are said to remain close to the grave between death and Judgment Day, and to gain comfort when they are visited by the living, who themselves benefit from the reminder of death.

After prayers, the body is borne to the burial site, accompanied by a procession of loved ones and other Muslims. A coffin is not required, and if one is used, it should not be ostentatious. A traditional grave is several feet deep with a niche to one side for the body. The body is placed in the grave on its right side, with its head facing Mecca, the niche is sealed with bricks, and the grave is filled with earth. Often the surface of the grave is built up with earth or bricks slightly above ground level. Conservative Muslims hold that graves should be minimally adorned, though many employ a marker bearing the deceased's name and some religious text. Some go much further, the Taj Mahal being an extreme example of the elaborate tombs of the wealthy and powerful. Exceptionally pious individuals or "saints" may be buried in special shrines, typically with a domed roof and a space for gathering near the grave. Such saints are popularly credited with miraculous powers and the ability to mediate between believers and God, powers that only increase upon death and draw pilgrims to saints' tombs seeking aid and blessings. Such practices are historically widespread, yet they have inspired equally widespread criticism. Orthodox Sunni theology recognizes only the prophet Muhammad as a potential intercessor between individuals and God, and conservative Muslims decry the impression of idolatry left by the veneration of saints. Still, such practices persist in many areas as a supplement or alternative to orthodox ritual observances.

After being created by God, the Angel of Death cried out: "I am death who separates all loved ones! I am death who separates man and woman, husband and wife! I am death who separates daughters from mothers! I am death who separates sons from fathers [and] brother from his brother! I am death who subdues the power of the sons of Adam. I am death who inhabits the graves. Not a creature will remain who does not taste me."

source: Quoted in Jane Idleman Smith and Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad. The Islamic Understanding of Death and Resurrection, p. 35.

When the sun shall be darkened, when the stars shall be thrown down, when the mountains shall be set moving, when the pregnant camels shall be neglected [something no Bedouin would allow], when the savage beasts shall be mustered, when the seas shall be set boiling, when heaven shall be stripped off, when Hell shall be set blazing, when Paradise shall be brought nigh, then shall a soul know what it has produced.

source: Koran 81:114, Arberry's translation.

Individual Resurrection, Judgment, and Afterlife

After death each individual faces initial testing and preliminary judgment (except the martyr, one who dies "in the path of God," who goes straight to heaven [see Koran 2:154]). The Koran says relatively little regarding this time in the grave, called the barzakh (interval), but other genres give much, if not always consistent, detail. Most accounts treat the time in the grave as a foretaste of one's final fate on Judgment Day, and perhaps as a time of purgation of sins so that the deceased is purified and made fit for heaven. Though the exact order of events varies among the sources, the typical account begins with angels visiting the dead and drawing the soul out of the body. Abu alLayth al-Samarqandi (d. 983) describes the worthy soul coming forth "as easily as a drop from a waterskin," whereas for the soul of an unbeliever, "the angel drags it forth like the dragging of an iron spit through moist wool, tearing the veins and sinews" (Peters, pp. 403404). The soul is borne up to the gates of heaven; the faithful soul is carried in perfumed shrouds and admitted into heaven to be greeted by the blessed inhabitants of the seven heavens, perhaps even by God himself, while the unbeliever, carried in rough and reeking rags, is turned away at the gate. Each soul is then returned to the body, whereupon angels interrogate it, asking who is its Lord, din ("religion"), and prophet. The faithful answer correctly, while unbelievers falter and misspeak. Next the dead may be visited by the person's deeds personified in the appropriately pleasant or foul form, while the grave is either cooled by a fragrant comforting breeze or blasted with tormenting smoke and fire. Some hold that these conditions endure until resurrection, others that the dead slip into a form of sleep so that the ages pass in an instant.

Resurrection and Judgment Day

At a time known only to God, all creation will be undone and all people, living and dead, will face final judgment. The Koran vividly describes the apocalyptic physical and social chaos of the end time. As these frightening events unfold, al-Dajjal, the Antichrist, will emerge, promising riches, working miracles, and gathering followers. However, as one hadith relates, "he will have with him what will appear like paradise and fire. But that which he will call paradise will be the Fire" (al-Nawawi, p. 308). This is a time of testing, and those of good faith will see through the deceits of al-Dajjal. Al-Nawawi (12331278) relates that at this time God

will raise the Messiah, [Jesus] the son of Mary, his hands resting on the wings of two angels. He will pursue the Anti-Christ and will encounter him at the gate of Lud [said to be in Palestine, but compare Gen. 10:13] and will slaughter him. The Messiah will then come to people whom God has shielded from the Anti-Christ. He will wipe away the dust from their faces and will inform them about their grades in Paradise. (al-Nawawi, p. 305)

In some accounts Jesus is preceded or accompanied by the Mahdi ("guided one"), a messianic figure who will revive Islam from decline during the end times.

These events will culminate in the sounding of a great horn (Koran 39:68, 69:13), signaling the final extinction (fana' ) of all creation as God alone remains, completing the full reversal of original creation. God then restores the earth, resurrects all human bodies, reunites them with their souls, and presides over their final judgment. Two interwoven sets of images characterize this "reckoning" (hisab ): a written record of each person's deedshanded to the wicked in their left hand, to the righteous in their right handand the balance (mizan ) in which an individual's deeds are weighed, the good against the bad. The Koran attests to both means of accounting, though the exact relation of the two is not clear. Many accounts then proceed to yet another test, in the form of a bridge (sirat ) over the fires of hell (see Koran 36:66 and 37:2324); for the faithful this is wide, while for the wicked it narrows to a knife-edge from which they tumble into perdition. While God's judgment is final, he is depicted as profoundly merciful, permitting Muhammad to intercede on behalf of some sinners, and rescuing from the fires even those with the merest trace of goodness. Some even hold that God will ultimately redeem all the inhabitants of hell, thus treating punishment as purgation rather than eternal fate.

Heaven and Hell

Heaven, sometimes said to have seven levels, is generally described as a lush garden where the faithful reap the rewards of obedience and morality. Its inhabitants revel in "gardens underneath which rivers flow" (Koran 4:57, 22:23, etc.), peaceful serenity, cool shade and breezes, rivers of water, milk, and honey, luscious foods and drink (including nonintoxicating wine), luxurious furnishings and clothing, and so forth. While some interpret these images as metaphorical, envisioning a purely spiritual bliss in the presence of God, most tend toward literalistic and corporeal interpretations, while recognizing that the true reality of heaven is beyond earthly comprehension.

Although the afterlife is generally the same for both men and women, one aspect of heaven appears to have distinctly gendered overtones. The hur, virginal "companions, with beautiful, big and lustrous eyes" (Koran 56:22), are mentioned four times in the Koran (44:54, 52:20, 55:72, and 56:22), though without much detail; post-Koranic sources extrapolate on these accounts. The hur are understood to be rewards for males in heaven, and differ from earthly women in their delicate beauty, purity, and lack of illness, menstruation, and pregnancy. Ordinary Muslim women may also go to heaven, where each is said to have just one husband, usually her earthly husband. Thus the hur appear to join earthly wives as additional heavenly companions for men. However, some commentators see the hur as companions and servants of female believers as well: "Just as the gardens, rivers, milk, honey, fruits, and numerous other things of Paradise are both for men and women, even so are the hur " (Smith and Haddad, p. 167).

Hell, often called simply "the fire" (al-nur ), is depicted in the Koran as a place of unending torment, filled with flame, acrid smoke, boiling waters, and the wails of its unfortunate inhabitants. The damned can gain no comfort: "he is given to drink of oozing pus, the which he gulps, and can scarce swallow, and death comes upon him from every side, yet he cannot die; and still beyond him is a harsh chastisement" (Koran 14:1617, Arberry's translation). Further, "as often as their skins are wholly burned, we shall give them in exchange other skins, that they may taste the chastisement" (Koran 4:56). As noted, however, some Muslims ascribe to God such profound mercy that he ultimately rescues even the most undeserving sinner from these torments.

The vivid imagery of heaven and hell in Muslim sources adds weight to the call to "remember" death. As a late-twentieth-century Muslim author observed,

This clear reality of the future Life is always before the mind and consciousness of the devout Muslim. It is this awareness which keeps the present life, in the midst of the most intense happiness and the deepest pain alike, in perspective: the perspective of a passing, temporary abode in which one has been placed as a test in order to qualify and prepare himself for his future Home. Therefore the Muslim, knowing that God alone controls life and death, and that death may come to him at any time, tries to send on ahead for his future existence such deeds as will merit the pleasure of his Lord, so that he can look forward to it with hope for His mercy and grace. (Haneef, p. 37)

See also Death ; Free Will, Determinism, and Predestination ; Heaven and Hell ; Islam ; Paradise on Earth ; Philosophies: Islamic .


Arberry, Arthur J. The Koran Interpreted. 2 vols. New York: Macmillan, 1955.

Averroës. The Distinguished Jurist's Primer: A Translation of Bidayat al-Mujtahid. Translated by Imran Ahsan Khan Nyazee. 2 vols. Reading, U.K.: Garnet, 1994. A good English-language source for death-related ritual law.

Denny, Frederick Mathewson. An Introduction to Islam. 2nd ed. New York: Macmillan, 1993. Useful treatment of death rituals.

Haneef, Suzanne. What Everyone Should Know about Islam and Muslims. 2nd ed. Chicago: Library of Islam, 1996.

Ibn al-Naqib, Ahmad al-Misri. Reliance of the Traveler: A Classic Manual of Islamic Sacred Law: "Umat al salik." Edited and translated by Nuh Ha Mim Keller. Rev. ed. Beltsville, Md.: Ammana, 1999. Another good English-language source for death-related ritual law.

al-Nawawi. Gardens of the Righteous: Riyadh as-Salihin of Imam Nawawi. Translated by Muhammad Zafrulla Khan. London: Curson, 1975.

Peters, F. E. A Reader on Classical Islam. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994.

Sells, Michael A., trans. and ed. Early Islamic Mysticism. New York: Paulist Press, 1996.

Smith, Jane Idleman, and Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad. The Islamic Understanding of Death and Resurrection. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1981. The definitive scholarly study of the topic.

Paul R. Powers