By Maulana Wahiduddin Khan for New Age Islam
20 November 2017
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!
News of Promotion
Once, I met a man, who excitedly told me that he had received a promotion. “I’ll get a higher salary now! I’ll be able to live in a bigger house! I’ll be given a bigger car! Earlier, I was given a rail-pass, to travel by train, but now, I’ll get tickets to travel by air!” he exclaimed.
Hearing this man, I thought to myself, “This is just what’s going to happen in the Hereafter. Heaven can be described in the terminology of this world. Entry into Heaven is like receiving a promotion. People whose record in this imperfect world is good will be promoted and admitted into the perfect world of the Hereafter—that is, Heaven.”
This situation demands that we live in this world with great caution and alertness. We should gauge everything from the point of view of whether it will help or hinder us in gaining admission to Paradise. If your mind becomes alert in this way, you will become your own inspector. You will continuously guard and inspect your thoughts, your words, your behaviour—your every action. You will act in line with this advice of the Caliph Umar: “Weigh your actions before they are weighed.”(Kanz al-Ummal: 44203)
Like news of promotion, calling people to God is also a sort of news. If someone discovers Truth, it is a billion times bigger thing than receiving a job promotion. Such a person will not be able to keep his discovery to himself and not share it with others. The discovery of the Truth automatically makes one want to invite others to it, too. If someone claims that he has found Truth but does not tell others about it, it is evidence that his claim is false.
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