By Maulana Wahiduddin Khan for New Age Islam
29 April 2017
According to a news report, the British reality TV star Jade Goody was diagnosed with cancer. The report went on to say that “she has started planning for her funeral”, adding that she wanted “people to cry over” her. “Most people plan their weddings. But I am planning my funeral”, Goody explained.
Jade Goody wasat the peak of her profession when, suddenly, in August 2008, she was told that she was suffering from cervical cancer. She then cancelled her professional plans for the future and decided to prepare for her death.
This same story is that of every other human being, too. People are busy celebrating this or that event, but they die before they can do all this, leaving this world forever and reaching the next one. Hence, what every person ought to do is recognize that his pre-death phase of life is only a temporary journey and put all his attention on preparing for the never-ending post-death phase of life.
People celebrate their birthdays, even though every birth anniversary is actually an announcement that one’s life has been reduced by an entire year. Given this, what people really should do on their birthdays is to remember their impending death, because while there is no guarantee that their next birth anniversary will arrive, their death certainly will.
Wise is he who remembers this greatest reality—the reality of death.
What is Death?
Death is to leap from the known world into an unknown one. It is to leave ‘one’s own’ world and enter ‘someone else’s’.
How utterly astounding this happening is! And yet man’s heedlessness is so utterly strange that even though he sees people dying all around him, he does not get astounded by it! Every person’s death is a loud announcement to other people, calling out to them: “The fate that befell me will befall you, too!” But, yet, people remain completely unmindful of their impending death, of the day when, in a state of utter helplessness, they will have to give themselves up to the angels. Death is a reminder of that day that all of us will face one day. Death’s assault is an entirely one-sided affair. It is a contest between power and powerlessness. In this affair, man can do nothing at all but accept the decision of the other party in complete helplessness. He must unilaterally accept his defeat.
Death is a dividing line between the two phases of our life—the pre-death phase and the post-death phase. Death takes man from this present world into the next one. It is a journey from having power to being completely powerless. It is to have finished one’s examination and enter the phase where one faces the examination’s results.
In the pre-death phase of his life, man does not accept Truth. Death arrives in order to make him completely helpless and compel him to bow down before Truth. It comes so that one who did not accept Truth while he had freewill in this world may be compelled to bow before it in the Hereafter.
While in this world man does not bother to utter even a few words in support of Truth. But when death arrives he will want to use all the words in the dictionary in support of it! At that time, however, there will be no one to hear his words. Today, man behaves arrogantly, but when death overtakes him, he will become humble. But at that time there will be no one to value his humility!
If you look up the dictionary, it defines death as ‘The permanent cessation of life’.
This dictionary definition of death presents a negative picture of death. It seems to suggest that man is born as a complete being, and that after being alive for a limited period of time he comes to a complete end, being completely extinguished once and for all. According to this definition, all our desires and abilities, and even our very being, completely cease with death.
Islam presents a different understanding of death. According to Islam, death is not the end of life. Rather, it marks the beginning of the second phase of life.
Islam teaches that man has been created as an eternal being and then his lifespan has been divided into two phases: the pre-death phase, and the post-death phase. Our pre-death phase is our preparatory phase, while our post-death phase is when we continuously receive and experience the results of whatever preparation we may have made in the pre-death phase of our lives.
According to this Divine Creation Plan, we must understand the pre-death phase of our lives as a preparatory period and spend it in suitably preparing ourselves for our eternal life in the post-death phase. This is because the post-death phase is not a phase for action, but, rather, for reaping the results of our actions of the pre-death phase.
Death is actually an announcement about life, which declares: “Whatever you need to do, do it today, because tomorrow is not the day to do it!”
Awareness of Death
All of us know that every creature that takes birth in this world dies after a limited period of time. Strangely, though, despite this, very few of us ever think about our own impending death. People witness other people’s deaths, but with regard to their own, they are totally heedless.
Why is this so?
The discovery by scientists of the DNA may provide a clue to this question.
Modern scientific research shows that the human body contains around 100 trillion living cells. There is invisible DNA inside the nucleus of each cell. A person’s DNA contains an immense amount of information, in the form of a code, about him. This information is so vast that it is said that one human DNA molecule contains enough information to fill a million-page encyclopedia!
All information about a human being is contained inside the DNA—but with just one exception, and that is, death. DNA’s very list of contents is bereft of the concept of death. The concept of death is not present in human consciousness. This is why while a person sees other people dying, he never thinks about his own death. But it is this that is man’s test. One’s death happens not in accordance with the programming of one’s DNA, but, instead, directly in accordance with Divine decision.
A successful person is one who creates anti-programming thinking within himself, that is, who is able to think about death even though he has not been programmed in this manner. He discovers the reality of death and plans for his life accordingly.
On Death’s Doorstep
We think we are living life, but the fact of the matter is that each one of us is actually standing on death’s doorstep. When we have no idea when death will overtake us, every moment of ours is a possible moment of death. Every step we take is a step that takes us towards death. Life for us is the experience of today. Today is life’s day. Tomorrow may be death’s day.
Death is a journey from a known world to an unknown one. We travel every day—sometimes, for a short distance, at other times, over a long distance. Sometimes, we travel within a country. On occasion, we might travel to another country. All these journeys are travels from one known place to another. We are so familiar with such journeys that we do not think that it is something serious at all.
But the journey of death is very different from this. The journey of death is a journey from a known world into an unknown one. Undoubtedly, this is something of utterly serious importance for each one of us. But because of our conditioning, we do not feel the seriousness of this issue. We are so used to the sort of travelling that we routinely do in this world that we are not able to grasp the gravity of the journey of death. Because of this, death seems very remote for us, not something that can happen at any moment.
Our thinking is deeply shaped by our conditioning. This is the greatest cause for man’s insensitivity. To realise the utter seriousness of death, we need to come out of our conditioning. We need to move beyond our familiar ways of thinking. Only then can we understand the reality of death, which is the most serious thing that is bound to happen with every single one of us, some day or the other.
News of Death
There was a man who was around 75 years old. At one time, his health was good, but then he kept falling sick. This sickness was actually an announcement of his impending death. Yet, he thought that his sickness was simply something that needed to be cured. And so, he began consulting one doctor after another and making trips to various hospitals. When, in this way, he exhausted all his money, he took a loan, which he used for an expensive treatment for himself. But that, too, did not help him regain his health, and after a few years of illness, he died.
This is the story of not just one particular person, but, rather, of almost all of us.
The onset of old age is an announcement that one’s death has drawn near. After this, when a person starts falling sick, his sickness comes as a means to shake him up. Old age and the weakness and the ailments that accompany it always come in order to shake up a person and make him alert, so that he can prepare himself for death before it actually arrives. They come so that people can reflect on what happens after death, and then, accordingly, plan how to lead the remaining portion of their lives.
But man does not take lesson from these experiences. Old age and sickness give him the news of his impending death, but instead of thinking about death, all he thinks about is curing his ailments! He runs after doctors and hospitals, so much so that he dies a death of hopelessness and despair! What he gets as a result of all of this is death, not renewed good health!
This is an everyday reality that all of us are familiar with, but yet we do not learn lessons from it. In this regard, each one of us plays blind, only to wait for death to open our eyes. But then, needless to say, none of us can open our eyes in this world when death overtakes us!
On Death’s Border
On 2nd February 2003, the headlines of newspapers across the world announced the disintegration of the US space-shuttle Columbia. It was about to land on Earth after a journey of 16 days. It was travelling from a height of 200,000 feet and at a speed of 19,000 kilometres an hour when, suddenly, it lost contact with ground control and exploded into smithereens. There were seven people on board, all of whom died.
This news was published in a New Delhi-based newspaper under the title Just 16 minutes from home…
When I read this news report, I thought that this is precisely what the final fate of all human beings is in this world. Everyone builds his own dream home, where he wants to lead a happy life, but he is just ‘16 minutes’ from this home when suddenly death arrives. Without even entering this home he is summoned into the court of the Hereafter.
One of the people on board Columbia was a woman called Kalpana Chawla, who was of Indian origin. The whole of India was eagerly awaiting her return to Earth. Some of her relatives and friends had travelled to America to congratulate her on her arrival. Had she got back safely, she would have encountered a hero’s welcome. But death came as a barrier in between and turned what might have been a joyous occasion into a tragedy.
This was a personal experience for Kalpana Chawla, and a lesson for others. Only those who can see their own image in this event can truly understand its significance and learn the lessons that it contains.
Experience of Death
Once, the well-known tennis player Martina Navratilova consulted a doctor. After examining her, the doctor said that she had developed lung cancer and that the cancer was in its final stages. “It was such a shock for me,” Navratilova said. “It was my 9/11.”
Navratilova said this because she now began seeing her death as just round the corner. But the stage that comes after death is even more serious than this. Death, in the words of the Quran, is a complete cutting off of ties from this world (2:166). After death, one suddenly reaches another world, which is completely different, in every way, from this present world.
After death, two very serious realities suddenly confront a person—firstly, that now it is not possible for him to go back to his pre-death phase, where he had made a world of his own; and secondly, that in the post-death phase, he cannot make another world for himself. This realisation is enough to make a person understand the gravity of eternal deprivation and loss—and, needless to say, no experience can be more painful than eternal deprivation and eternal loss.
In this present world, if you miss one chance, you get another one, through which you can convert your failure into success. But such is not possible in the Hereafter. In the Hereafter, you cannot get a second chance. No one is going to get another chance in the Hereafter. A first chance, a second chance, a third chance—these are possible only in this present world. It is entirely different in the world of the Hereafter. In the Hereafter, all you will experience is the results of your actions in this world. You are not going to again get a new chance there.
No One Can Triumph Over Death
He had forbidden the word ‘death’ being spoken in his presence. But when he neared the age of 60, he realised that no one has ever triumphed over death!
Franco, the dictator of Spain, died after a long battle with illness. Doctors tried different things in order to try to prolong his life. This issue generated much discussion in medical circles. When all his senses had failed, should doctors have allowed him to die a few weeks in advance? Were the doctors right in doing what they did to seek to enable him to live a little longer? Was it ethically correct to try to artificially prolong a leader’s life? Could life actually be prolonged this way?
Somewhat similar is the story of Louis, King of France, who died some 500 years ago. He wanted to live forever, and he tried everything to make that happen. But at the age of 58 he was stricken with paralysis. It then dawned on him that he would probably not live much longer. No king in his family had ever lived to witness his 60th birthday.
Louis wanted to live in peace and comfort, and so he began staying in a heavily-guarded palace, where very few people were allowed. Well-armed archers were appointed, who were instructed to kill anyone who dared to approach the palace without permission. Some 400 cavalrymen were also engaged in protecting the palace.
Inside the palace, Louis lived a life of great luxury. Beautiful paintings adorned the palace’s walls. Expert musicians entertained the king. There were dogs and birds, which the king was very fond of, kept in cages. But despite all this, Louis’s body was wasting away. He would sit on a chair in a pitiable state, staring into a garden spread out before him.
Even though Louis was now very weak physically, he still ruled his people with an iron hand. He wanted them to know that he was indeed a powerful ruler. What he feared most was some ambitious minister of his overthrowing him and grabbing the throne.
In his old age, Louis began doubting everyone. He even started suspecting his old servants, whom he dismissed and replaced with foreigners. Even the latter he began regularly changing. Fearing that his subjects might forget that he was still alive (since he was no longer able to participate in the affairs of governance), he did everything he could to remind them that he was still around—such as dismissing officers and appointing new men to take their place, or lowering someone’s salary and increasing someone else’s.
But none of this worked.
Louis was fond of hunting. He was also fond of animals. He sent representatives to other parts of Europe to buy horses and dogs, paying for them more than the market-rate. The animals would be delivered to his palace, but because of his ill-health, he could not even see them, nor even speak to the men who had bought the animals for him. Still, he knew that in the whole of Europe there was great discussion happening about these grand purchases of his.
Louis was so desperate to recover his health that he ordered that the word ‘death’ never be uttered in his presence! He paid his personal physician an enormous salary of 10,000 gold crowns a month, something that in those times in Europe even a military officer would never earn after 40 years of service. Louis was willing to give away his entire treasury to anyone who could prolong his life by a single day.
When, in 1483, he was approaching his 60th year, Louis was so ill that he was barely able to lift a morsel of food into his mouth. At that time, an idea hit him. He began distributing thousands of gold coins to churches and religious leaders. He also dispatched three ships to an island to bring back some very large sea-turtles, which, he had been told, possessed life-granting properties. Louis tried every religious means he could to extend his life. A mendicant from Naples was brought to his court in the hope that his prayers would help Louis’ wishes to be granted. But this, too, failed. Yet, Louis so desperately wanted the mendicant to be with him that he ordered the head of his treasury to ensure that this happened, even if he had to empty his entire coffers.
But despite all these efforts, Louis died. His last words, it is said, were, “I am not as ill as you think I am.”
Truly, as Louis was finally forced to realise, no one can triumph over death!
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