Modern medicine whispers to us something we prefer not to admit that we like hearing. Softly it soothes our fears by implying that death is unnatural. Death as unnatural has become a truism in our culture that does not need a proof. It does not fit with our image of our worth, and thus is a tragedy at best, a travesty at worst. To conquer death is part of modern medicine’s mission, although no one would admit to this. Of course it is ironic that in the age of biology, where death is understood as part of the life cycle, we secretly, or unconsciously, believe in an immortality not to be attained in an afterlife or a different bodily form, but rather in this life, with our own bodies that we already possess. Like the character in Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure,” we hold that a lived life, no matter how badly it is lived, is better than any death. This “kneaded knot,” as the human flesh is called, should not cease to be the beauty that it is.
While modern biology has enshrined death as part of the cycle of life, our perception of our place in history makes it an affront to our sensibilities. Thus, death is hardly allowed any space in our world. Not that we do not know that it is coming, but we act as if it will never come. The very form in which we have shaped our existence now presupposes its absence. In this sense, we are at a unique moment in human history: death might be everywhere, but it is always something that happens to others who are not as careful as we have been so far. Collectively, we insist on structuring our lives as if death has no bearing on it. Death, in this sense, is not even a metaphysical problem any more.
The pagans of Arabia knew that human beings are tragic because they die. To be heroic was one way of overwhelming death, if only for a brief moment. There was also the option of salvific religions and their promise of an eternal life in faith. All the same, whether they were pagan or followers of a salvific religion, human beings shaped their lives as if death were always present. As such, death overwhelmed the world of those who belonged to any pre-modern society. We, the post-Enlightenment human beings, could not be more different from them on this point. Life to us is not infused with the overwhelming presence of death, and so death does not cast a shadow over our lives. Life no longer reminds us of death. None of us would echo the words of Purcell’s “Funeral Mass for Queen Ann” and declare that in the midst of life we are in death. In the midst of life we are in life.
Thus, to speak about death and life after death as presented in an old text, a pre-modern text – and here it is the Qur’an that I would like to examine – is to try and imagine a world in which the reality of death was the only certitude and the only predictable element in human life. This is almost impossible for us to envision, for death in this form does not exist for us. To us, death is always an accident having no independence or reality. Ontologically, death does not exist, for it is no more than the result of a germ, a car accident, or aging mitochondria. If only we fiddle enough with the gene responsible for aging, we will have life eternal. If only we had enough antioxidants in our cells! As such, we do not concede a place to death; however, we all seem to die despite ourselves.
It is thus inescapable that when we speak of death and the afterlife as the ancients spoke of them, we often sound absurd, as absurd as talking about devils and demons as if they were real. The only way to speak sensibly of death and life after death as such is to treat them as historical topics instead of ontological realities. To come face to face with how the ancients saw death is invariably amusing to us, as we are amused when we admire the pyramids and the mummies. Had the ancient Egyptians known what we know, they would not have lived their lives so absurdly.
But an historical investigation can only take us so far. Perhaps we ought to add another dimension in an attempt to situate ourselves in their place. A good place to start a dialogue with the ancients is to admit the similarity between our predicament and theirs. Thus despite the apparent differences in our attitudes to death, there is a shared predicament that makes us both alike. We deal with death by denying its existence; they dealt with it by making it the only constant. It is not that we are any more rational than they were or that we have solved the riddle, for modern medicine is not helping us any more than mummification helped them. Yet we are not willing to give up antibiotics any more than they were willing to give up mummification. The inequities they visited upon their corpses in order to mummify them are matched with our willingness to let the knife of the plastic surgeon visit our living bodies.
This difference is not one of superiority, for our presumed correct understanding of what death is has not reconciled us to it, just as their faulty understanding of death did not mean that they were less able to enjoy life and its beauty. Our faith is pinned on modern medicine and its promises; theirs was based on mummification or any other salvific promise and the power inherent therein to ensure a resurrection of the body. In many ways we have conquered religion by making all of its promises real and visible in this life.
Only by admitting the resemblance between us and the ancients could we hope for any empathy on our part for their worldview, and thus the prospect of seeing death through their eyes. Ultimately, no matter how much we analyze their understanding of death in rational terms, we will not understand their world and the hold death had on their imagination unless we also imagine death as a reality.
The Qur’an is, for the benefit of those who have not read it, very much like a stream of consciousness novel – you can open it and read any page, and it immediately hits the ground running. This is because it is not a narrative work, but rather a discourse about God, faith, and the meaning of life. There is thus no one place where death is dealt with exclusively.
Moreover, the Qur’an is constituted of three major protagonists: God, humanity, and the Prophet. Rhetorically, it is structured to presume that God is the speaker and humanity is the object of the revelation. Part of its rhetorical strategy is that God speaks about humanity to humanity. Despite being a text that was mostly composed when Muhammad was in a very weak position and hardly in a place to be triumphant, the Qur’an speaks to humanity triumphantly. Its triumphal tone is based on the presumption that it knows human beings better than they know themselves.
The Qur’an always pretends to win any argument, and its trump card is, invariably, death. Thus death is not just one topic among others; rather, it is an organizing principle. Death renders null and void all human arguments against the irrational assertion of the existence of a universal God. It also renders absurd all human arguments against the worldview entailed by belief in a universal God, insofar as human beings are unable to solve the riddle of death. But the arguments conducted around the topic of death function well, because they rest on the shared assumption of Muhammad and the pagans that death renders human life incomplete and so is a problem in human existence. If the pagans did not share this assumption, then there would have been no point in arguing about it. The Qur’an was not creating a problem and pretending to offer a solution; rather, it was addressing a major issue in pagan Arabia: the impossibility of immortality and the absurdity of life in the presence of death.
The Qur’an thus reminds the pagan Makkans of something they were not disputing but were, nevertheless, not yet willing to accept: every soul shall taste death (29:57). Needless to say, the use of “taste” was not lost on them. Death shall, as it were, be served, and we will have to eat it. In another verse, the sarcasm is even more pointed: death will feel like a drunken stupor, a cup of wine as it were (50:19); those drinking the wine of death will be taunted and asked: “Isn’t this a fate that you strove to avoid?” The Qur’an actually does not mind repeating platitudes and to great dramatic effect, for example, when it reminds Muhammad and his people of death by stating its reality in the plainest language possible, as a simple tautology: “You will die, and they will die” (39:30). There is almost the sense that the mere mention of this fact constitutes a resounding condemnation of human arrogance.
Lest we enjoy the comfort of our precautions against death, the Qur’an also pokes fun at these efforts by declaring that death will overtake us, run as we may, even if we hide in high fortified towers (4:78). Are we building them, thinking we might live eternally (26:129)? Another example of this taunting is how the Qur’an deals with the possibility of Muhammad’s failure as a prophet. Certain of God’s victory in history, the Qur’an was sensitive to Muhammad’s doubts about the prospects of his own success. To assure him, it was eager to dispel his doubts by reminding him that God has the last word in human affairs. The point made to Muhammad was that death will overtake the pagan Makkans after he dies (21:34). No need to worry. Death is God’s triumph, and He will win the day with or without Muhammad. Let me quote here the wording of the Qur’an:
No person before you have We made immortal. If you yourself are
doomed to die, will they live on forever? Every soul shall taste death. We
will prove you all with evil and good. To us you shall return. (21:34)
Some of the Qur’an’s most poetic parts deal with the moment of death. The emphasis here is on the dying person’s solitude. Death makes poignantly clear what the hustle and bustle of life has managed to hide: human beings are solitary creatures, standing alone no matter how surrounded they are by others.When it matters, no one can offer help. No amount of love and wealth can offer us company in death. Death not only cuts others off from us, but cuts us off from others. Surat al-Qiyamah depicts a dying man surrounded by his family. The section opens with a shout of denial – theArabic for “No” – symbolizing the rebuttal to all of the arguments put forward by humanity to deny the truth of the resurrection:
No, but when it reaches the neck and those around him cry out: “Will no
one save him (will no one bring a cure)?” Do you still doubt that you are
leaving?And all is now futile. Now you will be driven to God, for in this
life he/she neither believed nor prayed. He/She denied the truth and
turned his/her back, went to his/her kinsfolk elated with pride. Well have
you deserved this doom, well have you deserved this doom. Well have
you deserved this doom; too well have you deserved it.” (75:27-35)
The Qur’an repeats four times its victory over the recalcitrant dead man. Death is doom. The dyingman knows it, his family knows it, and the Qur’an knows it. It then turns to interrogate humanity and I quote: “Do human beings think they will be left alone, having no purpose?” (75:36). And then comes the ultimate insult: the Qur’an reminds human beings of their lowly origins: “Were you not a drop of ejaculated semen fashioned into a blood clot? Then God formed and molded you, and made you males or females. Has He no power then to raise the dead to life?” (75:37-40)
The Qur’an is holding on to the pagan’s argument that death renders life meaningless and turning it upside down. Indeed, it argues the very opposite: death, by forcing us to face the question of life’s meaning, points to the solution – death is not an end, but rather a beginning. Life has a purpose, and thus we are not to be left alone. It is not our family who will be our company, but God, and we will have to answer to Him.
Elsewhere, the Qur’an neatly sums up humanity’s condition and history:
The unbelievers say: “This is indeed a strange thing. When we are dead
and turned to dust, are we coming back? Such a return is most improbable.”
Yes, they denied the Truth when it was preached to them, and now
they are perplexed. Were We worn out by the first creation? Yet they are
in doubt about a new creation. We created human beings. We know the
promptings of each one’s soul and are closer to each one than his/her
jugular vein. When the twin keepers receive him/her, the one seated on
his/her right and the other on his/her left, each word he/she utters shall
be noted by a vigilant guardian.And when the agony of death justly takes
him/her, they will say: “This is the fate you endeavored to avoid.And the
Trumpet shall be sounded. Such is the promised Day.” (50:1-17)
In the Qur’an, therefore, death is always tied to life after death, for only life after death renders human life bearable and meaningful and explains the mystery of human existence. The Qur’an sees life as part of a cycle: birth, death, resurrection, and life after death. Thus the cycle of human existence is not terminated at death, as the pagans thought, but continues on to an everlasting life in a post-judgment world of human perfection.
There is a story told about Muhammad trying to convince a fellow tribesman that there will be a resurrection and that the dead shall be brought back to life. The man, fed up with Muhammad’s arguments, fetches a dried human bone, crushes it into a white powder, raises it in the palm of his hand to Muhammad’s face, and asks him: “Is your God going to resurrect this?” And he blows the dust in Muhammad’s face. This story is supposed to explain a section in the Qur’an, which I cite here:
Let not their words grieve you. We have knowledge of all that they conceal
and all that they reveal. Is humanity not aware thatWe created them
from a little germ? Yet is humanity flagrantly contentious. They answer
back with arguments and forget their own creation. They ask: “Who will
give life to rotten bones?” Say: “He who first brought them into being
will give them life again. He has knowledge of every creature, He who
gives you a flame from the green tree, and lo, you light a fire.” (36:76-
The story is most probably apocryphal, but it sums up the Qur’an’s delicate position in arguing for resurrection in the face of refuting physical evidence. Much energy was spent on showing why life after death is a reality, and many of the argumentswere tied to a fundamental Qur’anic outlook: life has to have meaning because God is just. For life to have meaning, God must judge the world; since He is not judging it now, there has to be a Day of Judgment day, which means that there has to be a resurrection. All of these themes are invoked repeatedly, and the argument is hard to disentangle because it is multilayered.