Introduction to Islam

by Dr. Zahid Aziz

Life after Death

“We have ordained death among you, and We are not to be overcome, so that We may change your state and make you grow into what you know not.” (The Holy Quran, 56:60–61)

“O soul who is at rest, return to thy Lord, well-pleased (with Him), well-pleasing (Him). So enter among My servants, and enter My garden.” (The Holy Quran, 89:27–30)

“It (hell) is the fire kindled by Allah which rises over the hearts.” (The Holy Quran, 104:5–6)

What does Islam teach about life after death?

It teaches that a human being not only has a body, but also has a ‘spirit’ given to him or her by God. The spirit is the seed from which a higher form of life grows within man, higher than physical life, just as the body has developed from a small ‘seed’. Just as in the world around us higher forms of life evolve from lower ones, similarly from the life of the individual in this world is evolved his higher ‘spiritual’ life. During his life, man’s deeds shape and mould his spirit, for better or worse, according to his deeds. When a person dies, the physical body is finished, but the spirit remains, as he or she had moulded it by their deeds when alive. That is the life after death.

How is the spirit shaped during our life here?

Just as our physical actions and habits affect the body and leave their impressions upon it, so does the good or evil of our deeds affect the spirit and leave an impression upon it. Sometimes we can even feel something of the effect of a good or bad deed upon us. If we nourish the spirit through prayer to God and, with the strength we get from this, do good and righteous deeds, the spirit will develop and grow properly. But if the spirit is neglected, and bad deeds are done, it suffers harm. It is as if God has given each person a piece of soft clay. It is then up to the individual to shape it into something beautiful or ugly by his deeds.

Is man rewarded after death for his good deeds and punished for the bad ones?

As has been said above, good deeds benefit the spirit and evil deeds harm it. This effect upon the spirit is what constitutes the reward or punishment for one’s deeds. In this life, we can occasionally feel this effect, but only very faintly and vaguely. After death, when only the spirit is left, bearing all the impressions of deeds done throughout life, the effects of those deeds will be felt clearly and vividly. It is this which is the reward for good deeds and suffering for evil deeds.

What are heaven and hell?

Heaven and hell are not actual places somewhere in the universe, but really our inner conditions or the condition of the spirit resulting from our deeds. Heaven and hell begin in this life within a person’s heart. The feelings of bliss and contentment at doing good is the heaven in one’s heart. And the guilt, shame and greed felt by an evil doer is the hell of the heart. After death, the heaven or hell that developed in the heart is unfolded before us and becomes the world in which we live, and we live in it not with the physical body of this life but the ‘spiritual’ body made from our deeds.

The Holy Quran mentions many blessings and comforts in paradise and many painful punishments in hell. What is the nature of these?

The exact nature of these things cannot be known in this world because they are in an entirely different world where our ideas of space, time, feelings, etc., do not apply. But to describe them to us, physical terms have to be used such as “gardens and rivers” in paradise, and the “fire” of hell, to give an idea of what they feel like.

However, all these things of the next world actually begin in one’s heart in this world. For instance, the “fruits” of paradise are really the fruits of good deeds that a person starts tasting in his heart in this life, and the “fire” of hell is the same fire of low desires and greed that burns in a person’s heart here. In the next world, all these feelings are unfolded and manifest themselves as comforts of paradise or miseries of hell.

What is the Day of Judgment according to Islam?

Just as the life of an individual has an end, and the life of a nation has an end, so does the life of this entire physical world have an end. That is the ‘Day of Judgment’, which will bring the spiritual world into full manifestation, in place of the present physical one. As said above, immediately upon death a person begins to feel an awakening to the higher life, made from his deeds in the present life. But this is only a partial realization. It is on the Day of Judgment that everyone is fully awakened and raised to the higher, spiritual life. It is called the Day of Judgment because each person shall then become fully conscious of the effects of his deeds in this life, and have a ‘body’ (so to speak) made out of his or her own deeds.

Is there any other significant point about paradise and hell disclosed by Islam?

Yes. It is that the life after death is actually the starting-point of further progress for man. Those in paradise are advancing to higher and higher stages in knowledge and perfection of faith. Hell is meant to purify those in it of the effects of their bad deeds, and so make them fit for further advancement. Its punishment is, therefore, not everlasting.

Do Muslims believe in re­incarnation, that is, after death a person may be re­born in this world for another life here, and in this way have several lives on earth?

No, Islam teaches continuous progress of the soul and so it cannot return to this world after death of the body. The theory of re­incarnation teaches that if a person is born in poor or miserable circumstances, or is suffering from some disability or disadvantage, this is a punishment for him for bad deeds done in his former life; and if anyone is prosperous, healthy, and of a ‘high’ family, that is his reward for good deeds done in his former life. If one believes this, it would mean that we should treat the poor, the destitute, and the suffering as if they deserve their misfortunes, and have no sympathy for them because they are only getting their just punishment; and we should have high regard for the rich and the comfortable because they are receiving their reward for past good deeds. Such an attitude would be inhuman and against the basic teachings of Islam.

Islam teaches that each person is born with a pure soul, without any burden to bear from a past life, and that both those people who seem to be facing hardship in this world and those who appear to be enjoying comforts are in a state of ‘trial’ to see how they behave under those circumstances. These are not punishments or rewards. In God’s eyes the best person is he or she who acquits himself best in the conditions they meet.

What is the significance of the Muslim belief in life after death?

Firstly, it encourages man to do good and restrains him from doing evil. This is because he realizes that a good deed will always bring him benefit, even if it may not be obvious at the time; and he knows that an evil deed, even if no one at all sees him do it, will have to be answered for, and will have adverse consequences, in the next life if not immediately in this one.

Secondly, it teaches man to look at the inner worth of himself and of others, rather than the outward appearance (be it wealth, position, beauty, or education). This is because he knows that it is the inner part of man which is the real thing, and which survives forever, while the outward possessions are certainly lost at death, and often even before then.