The Destroyer of Pleasures: A Reflection on Death Culture

Aaminah Y.

Through the ages, society has exhausted every means by which it can comprehend death, from theology to thanatology, renaissance art to greek philosophy. Yet for many, death still remains one of life’s greatest mysteries. Modernity has altered our relationship with death, dividing attitudes between pure tragedy and indifference, both far removed from the sunnah of our beloved Rasool ﷺ. We rush to unpack the geopolitical underpinnings of fatal attacks, and engage in coronavirus conspiracies to assuage our skepticism of the government, undermining the very real loss of human life. 

In Huxley’s Brave New World, the Savage loses his mother and is overcome with sorrow, yet instead of sympathy, he is met with a crowd ogling at the deceased indifferently and nurses worried that such a solemn display of emotion could undo the ‘death conditioning’ they as a society had worked so hard on. This is an apt description of our relationship with death today. 

The speed at which news travels across the globe significantly increases our knowledge of all things happening at all times. Brutality and death become common knowledge, high frequency alerts and graphic images are instantaneously plastered all over the news and social media – leading to the desensitisation of death and suffering, and contributing to a death conditioning of our own. From Syria and Yemen to Mali and Burma, the news of death no longer evokes a shock to the system. Victims become the subjects of research and op-eds before prayers. The people are seen as dead even when living, thus eliciting limited sympathy from us.  

We live in a death denying culture, busying ourselves with life so we can ignore the inevitability of dying. Worshipping gluttony and hedonism, society occupies itself with the consumption of various poisons, dishonouring the amanah (trust) that is our body. It is self inflicted and deliberate; we willingly contribute to our destruction and it is seemingly acceptable.

Yet the coronavirus pandemic has truly brought death to many of our doosteps. Despite boasting of wealth and progression, two of the richest countries in the Anglosphere are split between an underfunded failing healthcare system struggling to provide adequate care, and money making megacorporations bleeding the sick dry in their most vulnerable moments. With coronavirus regulations implemented in interest of the economy rather than sustaining life, capitalism reigns supreme as thousands lose loved ones.

As Muslims, we must scrutinise our death culture; we must examine how we remember death and fine tune the etiquette of mourning, ensuring that we maintain compassion in the sea of inhumanity. Conforming to the Islamic ethics of death and disease, the hospital was once a sanctuary. If it could not provide a cure, it would provide care unconditionally, alleviating both pain and stress. From medication to meditation, the end of life was valued as a time for closeness to Allah, repentance and family. This is a spirit we must embody when confronted with the inevitability of passing.

Destined to Die

And worship your Lord until there comes to you the certainty (death)

Al-Qur’an 15:99

The sobering truths of eschatology provide an underpinning to the devotional life, for nothing is better in evoking a change in oneself than the remembrance of death. It brings with it an aversion to this world, and becomes a means of deliverance. To the believer, death is much less of a mystery: rather, it is one of the few certainties in life. Allah in his benevolence has granted us knowledge of the eschatological and guidance to navigate the dunya. Our Beloved ﷺ was not spared from the trial of death, and yet astonishingly, we draw no lesson from his example. It should shock us into submission, yet we plan elaborately for the future and live as if we are indestructible, as if we will not have to stand in front of our Lord on the day of Reckoning and face His judgement.

Despite equipping mankind with the intricate details of death, we have still fallen into the same jahiliyya as the pre-Islamic communities, who were so disillusioned by the dunya that they could not see anything beyond. They lacked faith and confidence in the akhirah and feared death as the ultimate end, indulging themselves in the luxuries of this life, prisoners of their desires. 

أَفَلَمْ يَسِيرُوا۟ فِى ٱلْأَرْضِ فَيَنظُرُوا۟ كَيْفَ كَانَ عَـٰقِبَةُ ٱلَّذِينَ مِن قَبْلِهِمْ ۚ كَانُوٓا۟ أَكْثَرَ مِنْهُمْ وَأَشَدَّ قُوَّةًۭ وَءَاثَارًۭا فِى ٱلْأَرْضِ فَمَآ أَغْنَىٰ عَنْهُم مَّاكَانُوا۟ يَكْسِبُونَ

Have they not travelled through the land and seen how those who lived before them met their end? They were more numerous than them, stronger than them, and made a more impressive mark on the land, yet what they achieved was of no use to them at all.

Al-Qur’an 40:82

This haunting passage from Surah Ghafir highlights the futility of life in this world if one remains heedless of death and the hereafter. Death is the greatest leveller, for powerful people have existed before us, accomplished feats that placed them at the top of the world and earned them the riches of all the lands, and perished all the same. In the words of Shakespeare, “we eat in life, and we are eaten in death”. 

Homer’s Iliad confronts the inevitability of death, as even the most invulnerable of warriors on the battlefield were doomed to die and and their death was a means of humility. Despite their accomplishments, mortal men could not fight their destiny. At the same time it provides comfort to know that, whilst the tyrants kill and oppress and revel in what they think is power and control, this is mere fantasy, for they will all meet their end and face the judgement of He who has absolute control, and He is Most Just.  

We cannot truly know something we have never experienced, but this is a test of tawakkul and accepting that Allah is al-Aleem — the All Knowing. It is a humbling uncertainty — a reminder of our humanity — that we plot and plan, yet Allah is the best of planners. We do not anticipate death, but we await it, for our ending is by His decree, not our wish.

Death Beyond Despair

The greatest of mankind ﷺ dealt with much loss, and even buried six of his seven children in his lifetime. Yet at the death of his son Ibrahim he said: 

The eyes shed tears, and the heart is saddened, but we say only that which pleases our lord[1]

Allah will surely test us “with something of fear and hunger, and a loss of wealth and lives and fruits” but we ourselves choose how to respond to such trials. Do we maintain tawakkul in Allah’s plan, or fall into a pit of perpetual mourning and despair, despite the assurance that there are “glad tidings given to those who patiently persevere, and when afflicted with calamity, they say ‘To God we belong, and to Him we shall return!’’’ [2:155] These were the words uttered by Safiyah, may Allah be pleased with her, after seeing the body of her mutilated brother after the Battle of Uhud, but she would not grieve for Hamza who fought fi sabilillah, for his martyrdom was the decree of the Almighty. Allah does not punish for the shedding of tears or the grief of the heart, but punishes or bestows mercy for the utterances of the tongue at this testing time[2]. It’s heartening to see Muslim patients conscious of this, and make their peace and immerse themselves in the dhikr of Allah at a time so many others are crippled with uncertainty.

The atheist argument against God brings into question His morality for allowing the existence of death and suffering, perpetuating the jaahil perception of death as the ultimate tragedy. Ibn al-Qayyim denied the existence of pure evil, for there is always a dimension of goodness if viewed from another angle[3]. Pain and loss test one’s patience and build resilience. The immediate aftermath of someone’s death shines a light on the fragility of one’s own mortality, providing the perfect opportunity for humility and repentance, pushing us to worship Him. 

In sorrow we must go, but not in despair. Behold! we are not bound forever in the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory – Aragorn. 

The Muslim philosophy of death is almost irreconcilable with the attitudes of modern Western culture, where death is approached with horror and enmity, reflecting more, in the words of Sheikh Abdul Hakim Murad, the ethos of the donkey than the Jesus who rides it. We mourn the dead, for it is a right afforded to us by the Almighty, and it heals us. Yet we acknowledge that it is part of His divine plan and with it comes His mercy and justice.

The loss of a child is a devastating experience, yet the believer is comforted by Allah’s promise that the miscarried fetus will drag its mother into heaven by its umbilical cord[4]. The deceased child will wait for his parents and take hold of their hands or the hem of their garment, and not let go until they enter Jannah together[5].

We mourn the martyrs but do not consider those who are slain in the path of Allah to be dead; nay, they are alive in the presence of their Lord, but we perceive it not [2:154]. Etymologically, “shaheed” (martyr) denotes bearing witness, and the shaheed is he who bears witness even unto death, having detached from the love of the this world for what he believes[6]. Abu Huraira (ra) reported: The Messenger of Allah ﷺ said: “The martyr does not feel the pain of being killed except as one of you feels the pinch of an insect bite”[7].

وَٱتَّقُوا۟ يَوْمًۭا تُرْجَعُونَ فِيهِ إِلَى ٱللَّهِ ۖ ثُمَّ تُوَفَّىٰ كُلُّ نَفْسٍۢ مَّا كَسَبَتْ وَهُمْ لَا يُظْلَمُونَ

Beware of a Day when you will be returned to God: every soul will be paid in full for what it has earned, and no one will be wronged.

Al-Qur’an 2:281

So when you weep for the innocents slaughtered by the missiles of foreign powers, the helpless imprisoned in concentration camps and torture chambers, for children who are collateral damage for what is defended as just violence, rest assured that Allah has not forgotten His people. 

Imam al-Ghazali approaches the various ways in which fear can manifest when the concept of death arises. Those who are engrossed in the dunya fear what they have to lose, too attached to their worldly treasures. Those who lack faith fear the akhirah, for they are destined for eternal nothingness and so together they seldom remember death. 

The penitent beginner fears death, but the aversion to death is not due to the despair of meeting Allah, but rather due to meeting Allah in a less than worthy state. For this reason, they remember death often, hoping it prompts obedience and repentance. Some fear the suffering that we undergo before dying, but Allah has promised the expiation of our sins in return. Those with responsibilities fear for the dependents they’ll leave behind, forgetting Allah is the One who provides. The arrived gnostic, however, remembers death dearly, for it is an opportunity to flee from sin — “a dear friend in a time of poverty”[8].

Our own death is often referred to as “intiqal”, which denotes a transference; it marks the journey of the soul into the next phase. Rather than a cessation, it is seen as the commencement of the next chapter. So when navigating such trials and tragedies, we must make the akhirah our focal point rather than dwell upon the discontinuation of the dunya, for assuredly, the hereafter “is better for you than the first life”. [93:4] 

It is a precious gift to the believer, for it transfers one from a world of disappointment to one of meaning. It should be a means of comfort for those grieving that death brings with it the best of unions — a meeting with the most loving Lord. So rather than protesting against the cruelty of fate or the injustice of loss, we acknowledge Allah’s assurance that this separation is temporary and, by His will, we may be reunited in Paradise.  

A Good Death 

With the secularisation of healthcare, more often than not, final moments are spent in hospital wards, surrounded by sterile strangers and the beeping of machines. This is potentially the paradox of modernity: medical advancement increases the options for treatment, thus patients spend more time in clinical settings. This, on the one hand, honours the sanctity of life yet at the same time allows less time with family, at home and in worship, bringing into question the quality of life. 

Dame Cicely Saunders, a Catholic pioneer of the modern palliative movement, was inspired by the concept of “total pain”. Suffering was generally measured by the somatic injury it caused; however, alongside the physical, there were also emotional, social and spiritual components to be considered that involved spending time with loved ones and addressing spiritual anxieties relating to the end of life[9]. Despite it sounding oxymoronic, a “good death” is one where the individual dies as peacefully as possible, in accordance to their wishes and cultural and religious standards. Muslim communities require an increased public awareness of palliative care and the options available to us, so we can make informed decisions regarding the final moments of our loved ones in allignment with our Islamic values. 

In reviving the Prophetic tradition around death, we should be in the habit of forgiving, and forgiving openly, as it is one of the few ways the dying can attain closure. The Prophet ﷺ gave guidance on how his own funeral should be conducted, yet we treat it as a responsibility to be dealt with by others when we have passed. We should deal with our debts and divide our assets in accordance with Islamic law. 

When a man dies, his good deeds come to an end except three: ongoing charity, beneficial knowledge, and righteous offspring who will pray for him.[10] 

Spend your time on earth investing in your akhirah and building a legacy, so when people think of you, they pray for you. The insistence on remembering death means we need to bring it into our conversations and perceive it outside the realm of discomfort. Healthy, holistic conversations with both children and elders that subvert the jaahil attitude of death as the ultimate end increase tawakkul in Allah and encourage ibaadah

Death Deconditioning?

With limitations on communal activities because of coronavirus, the culture of mourning has been radically altered. Muslim funeral services have adapted to ensure the rights of the deceased are fulfilled alongside the fard kifayah (communal obligation) that is the janazah (funeral) prayer, but we have relied heavily on technology to mourn and pay our respects. 

This should cause us to reflect on our response to the deaths of those whose funerals we cannot attend, and those who may not even receive proper burials. The Sri Lankan authorities have denied the rights of burial to Muslim citizens and force cremation. The bodies of those afflicted by natural disasters are often not recovered and innocents murdered by cold blooded tyrants are not afforded a dignified burial, often burnt or thrown into mass graves unbeknownst to their loved ones. Have we established customs that dignify the deaths of these individuals the same way we mourn our own loved ones? 

From news coverage to social media snippets, we have largely stripped death of its spiritual dimension. The constant bombardment of breaking news feels heavy on the soul. The height of indecency, however, is seeing individuals so brazenly discuss Covid conspiracies at a time when death tolls are at their highest and wounds are still fresh. Though we cannot dismiss the politicisation of death, it is the duty of the Muslim to ensure we do not trivialise tragedies and play into a culture of insensitivity. The Prophet ﷺ was the epitome of compassion, and we are Muslims before anything else. Our faith should be reflected in all of our actions, in our professional lives and even just as casual observers of current affairs. We must see ourselves first and foremost as members of a community with a duty to support one another, not prove our opinion as supreme.

Only when we learn how to die can we truly learn how to live, so remember death often and fulfil the rights of the deceased. “Pray every prayer like a man who is saying farewell” and steer clear of lengthy hopes. Umar Ibn Abd Al Aziz once said:

Remember death abundantly, for if your life is easy it will make it hard, whilst if your life is hard, it will make it easy.

[1]  Sahih Bukhari 1303

[2]Riyad al-Saliheen 235

[3]Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya on Divine Wisdom and the Problem of Evil

[4]Sunan Ibn Majah 1609 

[5]Sahih Muslim 2635

[6]Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad, “Ashura and Karbala” – YouTube

[7]Sunan at-Tirmidhi 2038

[8]Al-Ghazali on the Remembrance of Death and the Afterlife: Book XL of the Revival of the Religious Sciences

[9]Pioneering days of palliative care – St Christopher’s

[10]Sahih Muslim 1631

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