Of Death and Consequences

Religious Muslims in many nations are finding their sacred rituals of mourning disrupted.

The historian Leor Halevi.

By George Yancy

This month’s conversation in our series on how various religious traditions deal with death is with Leor Halevi, a historian of Islam, and a professor of history and law at Vanderbilt University. His work explores the interrelationship between religious laws and social practices in both medieval and modern contexts. His books include “Muhammad’s Grave: Death Rites and the Making of Islamic Society” and “Modern Things on Trial: Islam’s Global and Material Reformation in the Age of Rida, 1865-1935.” This interview was conducted by email and edited. The previous interviews in this series can be found here.

— George Yancy

George Yancy: Before we get into the core of our discussion on death in the Islamic faith, would you explain some of the differences between Islam and the other two Abrahamic religions, Christianity and Judaism?

Leor Halevi: Like Judaism and Christianity, Islam is a religion that has been fundamentally concerned with divine justice, human salvation and the end of time. It is centered around the belief that there is but one god, Allah, who is considered the eternal creator of the universe and the omnipotent force behind human history from the creation of the first man to the final day. Allah communicated with a long line of prophets, beginning with Adam and ending with Muhammad. His revelations to the last prophet were collected in the Quran, which presents itself as confirming the Torah and the Gospels. It is not surprising, therefore, that there are many similarities between the scriptures of these three religions.

There are also intriguing differences. Abraham, the father of Ishmael, is revered as a patriarch, prophet and traveler in Islam, Christianity and Judaism. But only in the Quran does he appear as the recipient of scrolls that revealed the rewards of the afterlife. And only in the Quran does he travel all the way to Mecca, where he raises the foundations of God’s house.

As for Jesus, the Quran calls him the son of Mary and venerates him as the messiah, but firmly denies his divinity and challenges the belief that he died on the cross. A parable in the Gospels suggests that he will return to earth for the judgment of the nations. The Quran also assigns him a critical role in the last judgment, but specifies that he will testify against possessors of scriptures known as the People of the Book.

Some of these alternative doctrines and stories might well have circulated among Jewish or Christian communities in Late Antiquity, but they cannot be found in either the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament. The differences matter if salvation depends on having faith in the right book.

Yancy: I assume that for Islam, we were all created as finite and therefore must die. How does Islam conceptualize the inevitability of death?

Halevi: The Quran assures us that every death, even an apparently senseless, unexpected death, springs from God’s incomprehensible wisdom and providential design. God has predetermined every misfortune, having inscribed it in a book before its occurrence, and thus fixed in advance the exact term of every creature’s life span. This sense of finitude only concerns the end of life as we know it on earth. If Muslims believe in the immortality of the soul and in the resurrection of the body, then they conceive of death as a transition to a different mode of existence whereby fragments of the self exist indefinitely or for as long as God sustains the existence of heaven and hell.

Yancy: What does Islam teach us about what happens at the very moment that we die? I ask this question because I’ve heard that the soul is questioned by two angels.

Halevi: This angelic visit happens right after the interment ceremony, which takes place as soon as possible after the last breath. Two terrifying angels, whose names are Munkar and Nakir, visit the deceased. In “Muhammad’s Grave,” I described them as “black or bluish, with long, wild, curly hair, lightning eyes, frighteningly large molars, and glowing iron staffs.” And I explained that their role is to conduct an “inquisition” to determine the dead person’s confession of faith.

Yancy: What does Islam teach about the afterlife? For example, where do our souls go? Is there a place of eternal peace or eternal damnation?

Halevi: The soul’s destination between death and the resurrection depends on a number of factors. Its detachment from a physical body is temporary, for in Islamic thought a dead person, like a living person, needs both a body and a soul to be fully constituted. Humans enjoy or suffer some sort of material existence in the afterlife; they have a range of sensory experiences.

Before the resurrection, they will either be confined to the grave or dwell in heaven or hell. The spirit of an ordinary Muslim takes a quick cosmic tour in the time between death and burial. It is then reunited with its own body inside the grave, where it must remain until the blowing of the trumpet. In this place, the dead person is able to hear the living visiting the grave site and feel pain. For the few who earn it, the grave itself is miraculously transformed into a bearable abode. Others, those who committed venial sins, undergo an intermittent purgatorial punishment known as the “torture of the grave.”

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Prophets, martyrs, Muslims who committed crimes against God and irredeemable disbelievers fare either incomparably better or far, far worse. Martyrs, for instance, are admitted into Paradise right after death. But instead of dwelling there in their mutilated or bloodied bodies, they acquire new forms, maybe assuming the shape of white or green birds that have the capacity to eat fruit.

For the final judgment, God assembles the jinn, the animals and humankind in a gathering place identified with Jerusalem. There, every creature has to stand, naked and uncircumcised, before God. In the trial, prophets and body parts such as eyes and tongues bear witness against individuals, and God decides where to send them. Throngs of unbelievers are then marched through the gates of hell to occupy — for all eternity, or so the divines usually maintained — one or another space between the netherworld’s prison and the upper layers of earth. Those with a chance of salvation need to cross a narrow, slippery bridge. If they do not fall down into a lake of fire, then they rise to heaven to enjoy, somewhere below God’s throne, never-ending sensual and spiritual delights.

Yancy: What kind of life must we live, according to Islam, to be with Allah after we die?

Halevi: The answer depends on whom you ask to speak for Islam and in what context.

A theologian might leave you in the dark but clarify that the goal is not the fusion of a human self with the divine being, but rather a dazzling vision of God.

A mystic might tell you that the essential thing is to discipline your body and soul so that you come to experience, if only for a fleeting moment, a taste or foretaste of the divine presence. Among other things, she might teach you to seek a state of personal annihilation or extinction, where you surrender all consciousness of your own self and of your material surroundings to contemplate ecstatically the face of God.

Your local imam might tell you that beyond professing your belief in the oneness of God and venerating Muhammad as the messenger of God, you ought to observe the five pillars of worship and repent for past sins. Paying your debts, giving more in charity than what is mandated and performing extra prayers could only help your chances.

A jihadist in a secret chat room might promise your online persona that no matter how you lived before committing yourself to the cause, if you beg for forgiveness and die as a martyr, you will at the very least gain freedom from the torture of the grave.

As a historian, I refrain from giving religious advice. Muslims have envisioned more than one path to salvation, and their ideals, which we might qualify as Islamic, have changed over time. Remember, for example, that in Late Antiquity and the Early Islamic period, ascetics engaged in prolonged fasts, mortification of the flesh and sexual renunciation for the sake of salvation. This was a compelling path back then. Now it is a memory.

Yancy: If one is not a Muslim, what then? Are there consequences after death for not believing or for not being a believer?

Halevi: Belief in the possible salvation of virtuous atheists and virtuous polytheists would be difficult to justify on the basis of the Muslim tradition.

But there is a variety of opinions about your question among contemporary Muslims who profess to believe in heaven and hell. Exclusive monotheists, those advocating a narrow path toward salvation, say that every non-Muslim who has chosen not to convert to Islam after hearing Muhammad’s message is likely to burn in hell. Exceptions are made for the children of infidels who die before reaching the age of reason and for people who live in a place or time devoid of exposure to the one and only true religion. On the day of judgment, these deprived individuals will be questioned by God, who may decide to admit them into heaven.

What about Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama? Will saints and spiritual leaders also meet a dire end? This is sheer speculation but I imagine that a high percentage of Muslims, if polled about their beliefs, would readily declare that nobody can fathom the depths of Allah’s mercy and that righteous individuals should be saved on account of their good deeds.

In the late 20th century, a few prominent Muslim intellectuals, yearning for a more inclusive and pluralistic approach to religion, drew inspiration from a Quranic verse to argue that Jews and Christians who believe in one God, affirm the doctrine of the last day and do works of righteousness will also enter Paradise.

Yancy: Does Islam teach its believers not to fear death?

Halevi: I am not convinced that it effectively does that. Or that teaching believers to deal with this fear is a central aim. Arguably, many religious narratives about death and the afterlife are supposed to strike dread in our hearts and thus persuade us to believe and do the right thing. Even if a believer arrogantly presumes that God will surely save him, still, he may have to face Munkar and Nakir, contend in the grave with darkness and worms, stand before God for the final judgment and cross al-Sirat, the bridge over the highest level of hell. All of this sounds quite terrifying to me.

Of course, I realize that Sufi parables may suggest otherwise. Like the poet Rumi, who fantasized about dying as a mineral, as a plant and as an animal to be reincarnated into a better life, some Sufi masters imagined dying so vividly and so often that they allegedly lost this fear.

What Islamic narratives do teach believers is not to protest death, especially to accept the death of loved ones with resignation, forbearance and full trust in God’s wisdom and justice.

Yancy: Would you share with us how the dead are to be taken care of, that is, are there specific Islamic burial rituals?

Halevi: Instead of giving you a short and direct answer, I would like to reflect a little on how the current situation, the coronavirus pandemic, is making it difficult or impossible to perform some of these rites. Locally and globally, limits on communal gatherings and social distancing requirements have devastated the bereft, making it so very difficult for them to receive religious consolation for grief and loss.

In every family, in every community, the death of an individual is a crisis. Funeral gatherings cannot repair the tear in the social fabric, but traditional rituals and condolences were designed to send the dead away and help the living cope and mourn. The pandemic has of course disrupted this.

In Muslim cultures, the corpse is normally given a ritual washing and is then wrapped in shrouds and buried in a plot in the earth. Early on during the pandemic, concerns that the cadavers of persons who died from Covid-19 might be infectious led to many adaptations. Funeral homes had to adjust to new requirements and recommendations for minimizing contact with dead bodies. And religious authorities made clear that multiple adjustments were justified by the fear of harm.

In March of 2020, to give one example, an ayatollah from Najaf, Iraq, ruled that instead of thoroughly cleaning a corpse and perfuming it with camphor, undertakers could wear gloves and perform an alternative “dry ablution” with sand or dust. And instead of insisting on the tradition of hasty burials, he ruled that it would be fine, for safety’s sake, to keep corpses in refrigerators for a long while.

In the city of Qom, Iran, the coronavirus reportedly led to the digging of a mass grave. It is not clear how the plots were actually used. But burying several bodies together in a single grave would not violate Islamic law. This extraordinary procedure has long been allowed during epidemics and war. By contrast, burning a human body is regarded as abhorrent and strictly forbidden. For this reason, there was an outcry over Sri Lanka’s mandatory cremation of Muslim victims of the coronavirus.

Every year on the 10th day of the month of Muharram, Shiites gather to lament and remember the martyrdom of al-Husayn ibn Ali, the third Imam and grandson of Muhammad the Prophet. This year Ashura, as the day is known, fell in late August. It is a national holiday in several countries. Ordinarily, millions gather to participate in it. This year, some mourned in crowds, in defiance of government restrictions and clerical advice; others contemplated the tragic past from home and perhaps joined live Zoom programs to experience the day of mourning in a radically new way.

It is far from clear today if, when the pandemic passes, the old ritual order will be restored or reinvented. One way or the other, there will be many tears.

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