By Dr. Eren Tatari
Although we all know that we will die (tomorrow or in 60 years), most of us go through something called the mid-life crisis. We start to realize that life is coming to an end and that this world is not our eternal abode. An Arabic saying goes: “Whatever is in the future, is indeed very near.” As long as it is on the way, it will come. For those of us who are still fairly young, 10-20 years later our own mid-life crisis will come for sure. The countdown begun the day we were born. So how important is it for us to believe in the afterlife? Without believing in the afterlife, this life becomes like hell or like living a lie.
As we get older, we tend to seek solitude in loneliness. We realize that no one is a real friend. Not because they are vicious but because they are dying and leaving us, and we are to leave them too. We cannot hold on to them even if we wanted to. They cannot satisfy our needs. If I am dying, even if my father wants to save me, he simply cannot. The ones we were once connected to and loved have already died. I am not only referring to other people: my childhood is gone; everything we were once attached to is gone, including our toys, money, career, prestige, etc. The pain of separation is in every moment of our lives since we are constantly experiencing it. Not only is the moment of death separation from this world but as far as yesterday’s life is concerned, I have already experienced a separation.
To recognize and ponder upon this continuous and inescapable separation is important. How we tend to forget about the reality of life by ignoring the inevitability of separation is remarkable. Yesterday is gone, and there is no way to retrieve it. However, we are constantly told by pop-culture not to think about yesterday in order to avoid the sorrow, and to think about the bright future and make happy plans, etc. We always have a new plan: enjoy your life, get a career, walk up the steps of life, and enjoy your retirement, etc. What comes then? Death for sure! Yet we do not want to talk about it. Every moment we are being separated from the last moment; this is supposed to remind us that we are temporary beings in this life. We are actually experiencing death in every moment.
Upon the death of our loved ones, we do not cry only because of their passing away. Yes, it is hard to bear that they are gone. The real sorrow though is due to the reminder that I will die as well. It is a reality of the soul that it does not want to experience death, if death is understood as the end of life. The unbearable feeling when someone dies serves a purpose since it makes us understand that we are not created for a limited life. My rejection of a non-eternal life is a proof that there is eternal existence. We learn all we know from experience. Even our imagination is based on things we experienced. Nothing we have seen is eternal. So where did we learn something called eternity? Where did we get the feeling of yearning for eternity? Who taught us this feeling?
When we think of eternity, we associate all the beautiful things we see in this world with it. One of God’s Divine Attributes is the Eternally Beautiful One (Al-Jameel). Everything in this universe comes from the source that is Eternally Beautiful. This yearning for eternity is an evidence of afterlife. Hence, when we read the scripture talking about afterlife, we relate to it immediately. It confirms our feelings. This is why the Qur’an says: “We have given you evidences in yourselves.” This is one of the evidences about God and afterlife that God has placed in our beings to confirm the truth. We cannot see afterlife here, yet we can rationally deduce it and feel it with our other faculties.
The One who created us is the Most-Wise and the Most-Compassionate. This world was created to show us the Creator’s Attributes. As such, we do not see a single act of creation without wisdom and mercy. If we are invited to a house, and the owner has prepared for us nice food, comfortable space and all that we need and enjoy, would we conclude that the owner is a bad person? We have all the evidence in the universe that He is Wise, Merciful, knows our needs and desires, and He provides them. As we get old, the burden of life gets heavier and heavier. We feel our weakness and poverty more than ever. So the Creator is telling us that He is preparing for us a world free of burden.
We must tell our self. Who brought us here? Whoever brought us here has prepared everything for us. We are sure because we experience them. As soon as we are born, mother’s breasts are full of nutritious milk for us. We have no power to ask for it, to claim it, yet it is ready. We are showered by our parents’ compassion. If they ignore us (by using their partial-freewill and covering their mirror not to reflect God’s Attributes such as the All-Compassionate), other people see us and cannot help but show compassion to us. We need more compassion when we are most weak as a baby or an elderly person. In a way, God shows us that he is the One who gave us the best treatment as a baby, and He is the one who will take us from here. He turns us into a baby (in need of help) again as we get older, and then takes us back again out of compassion. Why are we happy when He brings us here, but rebel when the same One takes us?
Whoever creates life creates death. Life and death are both meaningful. Life and death are both purposefully created. Because of our gaflah (negligence, oblivion), not realizing the reality of our life here, we do not think that the One who brought us here is giving death to us. Yet we mistakenly view death as the lack of something (life). As if I had glasses (life), now I lost them so I do not possess glasses now. However, life is given to us when there was nothing; now it is taken only to be replaced by sunglasses (or some better form of glasses)! We might argue that He does not have to take it away (keep protesting like a child: I want my glasses!). This is our misperception. When someone gives us money, we become immediately happy and exclaim, “What perfect timing! This gift was given when I most needed it.” God’s actions, while I had the glasses, were compassionate and wise. Since birth, we have been constantly showered with blessings. Yet we think of life as our own possession and live as if it was not given to us. We do not heed the Giver. In fact, we cannot even say “I live.” I am made live, I am given this life. Can we claim any of our faculties? We are not even aware of how and when we were given them. So when he is taking back the glasses, I cannot say that God is punishing me. This is a misperception and it is disrespectful to the One who give us the gift and is replacing it with a better gift now! God is still Compassionate and Wise as He was when He blessed us with our life. We do not see anything in creation that is meaningless or lacks wisdom. In Ayatul Kursi (Qur’an, 2:255), it is mentioned that God does not fall asleep even for a split second. Have we seen the universe not functioning properly even for a split second? Any neglect in creation? So we are wrong to interpret the “creation of death” as bad.
Through worship and belief, we make our lives meaningful and get ready to face death. Belief means realizing that whoever brought me here is wise and compassionate. Death is not annihilation. Putting something in my body is active, purpose creation, as is death. Death is a deliberate creation. We need to train our understanding to realize that death is creation. When a baby is born, everyone visiting congratulates the family. The same, however, does not happen when someone dies, because as we discussed earlier, God has created us not to like death for a purpose as well. Our dislike of death and nonexistence causes us to hope for eternity.
There is a very conscious order/design in this world making us realize why we are here. Everything is a message-bearer. It carries a message from the Transcendent One. Belief and worship teaches us God’s Attributes and render us happy about the world to come.
We can talk about many signs/evidences for the existence of the afterlife. The first one is the messengers. In the history of humankind there have always been messengers. They have all given the news of the afterlife; that we will be taken there according to the Creator’s promises. The first prophet was Adam (pbuh). It is beautiful that the first man was a prophet. All of us are descendants of a prophet! The first promise of eternity can be found in scripture and in the prophets’ message. And the second promise of eternity is placed within us: our desire for eternity. Yet, wrong-doers do not want to believe in the afterlife because they do not want to be held accountable for their actions. Evidence of resurrection occurs constantly in this world. Yesterday is gone, today is new. The last minute is gone and this minute is created. Trees die in the fall, but are resurrected in the spring.
Perceiving death as a burden/evil is our mistake. If someone puts his arm around us as a sign of friendship and if we see it as if he is making us carry his arm on our shoulder, this would be our misinterpretation and our loss. Instead of cherishing His friendship, we choose to be angry/sad. The source of burden is in our attitude of arrogance and ignorance. We must acknowledge our reality of being created by the One who is absolutely compassionate.
For example, asking for forgiveness, in a sense, relieving ourselves of arrogance, is a source of happiness. It relaxes us, which is why salam means peace and submission: they are corollaries of each other. Our expectations may not be the same with God’s plans always, so our desires may not come true, because God did not appoint our desires as the engineer of this universe (and thank God for that!). After we confirm (tasdiq) that He is indeed the All-Wise, the All-Compassionate, we submit our mind and desires to the will of God. Asking for forgiveness is itself belief and brings inner-peace, and only someone who submits to God is blessed with the humbleness to ask for forgiveness.
The hope for paradise (i.e. for God’s mercy) contains paradise in itself: this very feeling brings instantaneous inner-peace (i.e. Paradise). If we sincerely believe that God is merciful, we ask for forgiveness and ask for paradise. Paradise is in the seed of belief. Unbelievers, who do not believe in God, are waiting to die and go to nonexistence. This is living hell, here and now. Thus, everyone builds and begins living their paradise and hell in this life. Belief in the compassionate and wise Creator is living paradise, and faith in chaos and meaningless life is a hellish state of mind and heart.
 Dr. Eren Tatari is the author of Surrendering to God: Understanding Islam in the Modern Age (Tughra Publications, December 2012). She is an Assistant Professor at Rollins College, FL focusing on Islam and Muslims in the West.