Life after death: What happens when we die?

Jalees Ahmad, Al Hakam
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Questions on life after death have stirred the thoughts of individuals across generations. Though there exists an atheistic perspective that outright rejects the notion of an afterlife, for adherents of major religions, the belief in life after death is essential. While those who reject this notion may not subscribe to any specific faith or may identify as irreligious, this article does not address them directly. Instead, it aims to explore life after death, the significance of barzakh, and answer when exactly does the life of the Hereafter begin from an Islamic perspective.

Let it be clear that from time immemorial humankind has had a longing for the afterlife. Those who know that this life is not the end, tend to live a life of more contentment and peace rather than those who assume that this life is all there is. Imam al-Ghazalirh very eloquently said, “The reason of the human spirit seeking to return to that upper world is that its origin was from thence, and that it is of angelic nature.” (The Alchemy of Happiness, Martino Fine Books, p. 55)

Concept of life after death

Life does not begin in the womb, nor does it end in the grave.

Life after death is a concept believed by all Muslims. It is the ultimate glad tidings of being reunited with our loved ones who have passed on; it is the meeting of the pious people we read about and them meeting with us; it is knowing that those who do good deeds shall meet those whom God has praised and exalted in His Holy Book; it is the mulaqat or union of the people of the present with those of the past. It is being presented before Allah Almighty, and meeting our True Creator.

Death can be a difficult thing for our minds to overcome. When we lose someone, they are out of sight but not out of heart or mind. The only thing that veils us from them is our memory of them.

The Holy Quran states, “Every soul shall taste of death”. (Surah al-Anbiya’, Ch.21: V.36) For a believer, nobody said this world would be easy, nor that it’s our final abode. The cards dealt here don’t determine our entire existence. Life is merely a passage; our ultimate destination lies ahead. We are souls inhabiting bodies, not the other way around. Our soul lives on, taking a new form in the afterlife suitable for its continuation. This brief outlook on life accompanies us as we transition toward death.

What is barzakh?

In Islam, barzakh is the transitional state between earthly life and the afterlife, occurring after death and lasting until the Day of Resurrection. It signifies a barrier, an obstacle, or something that stands between two things, serving as a divide or separation; specifically, it denotes the period between death and the Day of Resurrection.

To further deepen our understanding, we read about three phases in the Holy Quran:

“And peace was on him the day he was born, and the day he died, and peace there will be on him the day he will be raised up to life again.” (Surah Maryam, Ch.19: V.16)

This verse highlights three distinct phases in our existence. Initially, it spans from birth to death. Following this, the transitional phase, known as barzakh in Arabic, marks the period beyond death where moral accountability ceases, extending until the final reckoning. Lastly, the Quran terms the ultimate phase as “The Day of Resurrection,” representing the moment when divine glory is fully unveiled.

Thus, barzakh – also known as alam-e-barzakh – is the second phase of our existence. In light of this, Hazrat Ahmadas has described: 

“The second is the intermediate state which is called barzakh. In Arabic idiom barzakh is something which is situated between two other things. As that state will be between the first creation and the resurrection it is called barzakh. This expression has always been employed for the intermediate state. Thus it comprehends a great hidden testimony in support of the existence of the intermediate state.” (The Philosophy of the Teachings of Islam [Islami Usul Kifalasafi], p. 143)

In barzakh, there is no return to Earth

Some may have pondered the possibility of returning to Earth with their earthly bodies while in barzakh. Perhaps you’ve come across articles or documentaries circulating online, recounting the experiences of individuals who claim to have returned from the afterlife. However, given that the Day of Resurrection has yet to take place, the question remains: Can a person truly come back to this world?

Answering this, the Holy Quran puts it very plainly in this passage where it discusses the state of individuals at the moment of death and their wish to return to the worldly life to do good deeds:

“Until, when death comes to one of them, he says entreating, ‘My Lord, send me back, that I may do righteous deeds in the life that I have left behind.’ Never, it is but a word that he utters. And behind them is a barrier until the day when they shall be raised again.” (Surah al-Mu’minun, Ch.23: V.100-101)

Explaining this verse, it has been mentioned in various tafasir that the one seeking to act righteously, states that they desire to return so that they may bear witness to the declaration: There is no god but God, hoping it may rectify the shortcomings in their past. Yet, Allah states otherwise, mentioning there will be no return. The plea holds no merit, merely a futile utterance. A barrier lies, barring their return until the Day of Resurrection, beyond which there is no reversal. (Tafsir Hazrat Masih-e-Maud, Vol 6, p.79; Tafsir-e-Kabir, [2023] Vol.8, p. 397; Tafsir al-Jalalayn, Surah al-Mu’minun, Ch.23: V.100)

On a similar note, we read that Hazrat Anasra ibn Malik reported that Allah’s Messengersa said that on the Day of Resurrection, the non-believers will be asked: “If you were to possess gold filling the entire earth, would you like to secure your freedom by paying it?” They would respond, “Yes.” Then it will be said to them, “Something simpler than this was demanded from you, but you paid no attention to it.” (Sahih Muslim, Kitab sifati l-qiyamati wa l-jannatii wa n-nar, Hadith 2805c)

Thus, emphasising that barzakh is the formidable barrier between this world and the next.

Barzakh: Compound of ‘barra’ and ‘zakhkha’

It should be remembered that barzakh is more than just a barrier. It is the state where the mortal condition dissolves, separating the body and soul, rendering the soul unable to perform deeds as it did through its connection with the body.

Hazrat Ahmadas delves deeper and explained:

Barzakh is an Arabic word which is compounded of Barra and Zakhkha, which means that the manner of earning through action has ended and has fallen into a hidden state. Barzakh is a state in which the mortal condition of man is dissolved and the soul and the body are separated. The body is buried in a pit and the soul also falls into a sort of pit which is indicated by the expression Zakhkha, because it is no longer able to earn good or evil which it could only do through its relationship with the body.” (The Philosophy of the Teachings of Islam, pp. 143-144)

Being questioned in the grave

Concerning Allah’s statement: “Allah strengthens the believers with the word that is firmly established, [both] in the present life and in the Hereafter” (Surah Ibrahim, Ch.14: V.28), Prophet Muhammadsa stated that this is with regard to “the grave, when the questions are posed: ‘Who is your Lord? What is your religion? And who is your Prophet?’” (Jami‘ at-Tirmidhi, Kitab tafsiri l-qur’ani ‘an rasulillahsa, Hadith 3120)

When the believer answer these question, the angels who had come to ask these questions will respond by saying, “‘We anticipated you would say that.’”

Their grave then expands and is illuminated for them. The person then asks, “Can I go back to my family and inform them?” The angels respond by instructing them to sleep like a newlywed, only awakened by the dearest member of their family. (Mishkat al-Masabih, Kitab al-iman, Hadith 130; Jami‘ at-Tirmidhi, Kitab al-jana’iz ‘an rasulillahsa, Hadith 1071)

Abu Hurairahra narrated that the Prophet Muhammadsa said: “The foremost matter for which a person will be held accountable is their salat (prayer). If it is complete, then all is well. Otherwise, Allah will say: ‘See if My servant has performed any voluntary prayers.’ If such prayers are found, they will compensate for the obligatory ones.” (Sunan an-Nasa’i, Kitab as-salat, Hadith 467)

In another hadith, it is then said that the person’s place of paradise will be shown to them. (Sahih al-Bukhari, Kitab al-jana’iz, Hadith 1338) The righteous and God-fearing servants of God shall be kept far away from Hell. “The Great Terror will not grieve them, and the angels will meet them, saying, ‘This is your day which you were promised.’” (Surah al-Anbiya’, Ch.21: V.104)

When do we meet our deeds?

Here, on earth, even an “atom’s weight of good” (Surah az-Zilzal, Ch.99: V.8) is weighty in the Eyes of Allah. However, in the hereafter, even if one offered all the wealth on Earth and more to save themselves from the Day of Judgement’s punishment, it would not suffice. (Surah al-Ma’idah, Ch.5: V.37)

We know that when we leave this world, we will not be able to take any possessions with us. You must leave behind your prized possessions. Leave behind the car you worked so hard to purchase and maintain, or the house you strived to pay off. Nothing comes with us. It’s not like a parking lot where one conveniently parks, retrieves groceries, and resumes their journey. No. Everything that you love will be left behind. So why not love that which you can take with you? Why not love the good deeds you do and make it a habit of doing good solely and sincerely out of love for God?

The Holy Prophetsa said that when a person is taken to their grave, three things accompany them:

أَهْلُهُ وَمَالُهُ وَعَمَلُهُ

Meaning that their relatives, their belongings, and their deeds follow them. Prophet Muhammadsa continued by saying that the relatives and belongings return, while their deeds stay with them. (Sahih al-Bukhari, Kitab ar-riqaq, Hadith 6514)

According to the narration of Hazrat Abdullah ibn Amrra, the Holy Prophetsa stated that fasting and the Quran will plead on behalf of the servant. Fasting will appeal, “O my Lord, I restrained him from food and other desires during the day, so permit me to intercede for him.” Similarly, the Quran will plead, “I prevented him from sleep at night, so permit me to intercede for him.” Eventually, both fasting and the Quran will be granted permission to intercede. (Mishkat al-Masabih, Kitab as-sawm, Hadith 1963)

In another narration, it is said that the Quran will come to its companion when his grave is opened, appearing as a radiant figure, and it will ask: “Do you recognize me?” The individual will reply: “I do not recognize you.” The Quran will then declare: “I am your constant companion, the Quran, who kept you thirsty in the scorching heat of the day and awake during the silent hours of the night, for every tradesman is surpassed by his merchandise, but today you have surpassed every transaction.” The Holy Prophetsa went on to say that a crown of honour will adorn their head. (Musnad Ahmad, Hadith 22950)

Metaphorical interpretation of Prophet Muhammad’s words on the afterlife

The Holy Prophet Muhammadsa is reported to have said that when a person passes away, they will be shown their ultimate abode. If they are destined for Paradise, they will be shown their place therein. If they are destined for Hell, they will be shown their place there. (Sahih al-Bukhari, Kitab bad’i l-khalq, Hadith 3240) And in another narration, it said a window will open through which they will be shown their ultimate abode. (Sunan Ibn Majah, Kitab as-zuhd, Hadith 4268)

With this hadith in mind, taking this literally would not make sense, as we don’t find such windows when graves are opened. Therefore, the Prophetsa must have been speaking metaphorically. Otherwise, we would find windows in every grave, either leading to hell or letting in paradise’s pleasant air, which isn’t the case.

Hazrat Khalifatul Masih IVrh, explained: “The grave is actually an intermediary phase of existence between this life and the life to come. Here, spiritual life will progress gradually through many stages until it reaches its ultimate destiny. Then by the Command of Allah, a trumpet will be blown and the final spiritual form will come into being. In this interim period, different souls would pass through a semblance of heaven or hell before reaching their final stage of perfection, fit and ready to be raised into a completely transformed entity.” (An Elementary Study of Islam, p. 54)

Imam Ghazali has also explained: “The Prophet said that every unbeliever, after death, will be tormented by ninety-nine snakes, each having nine heads. Some simple-minded people have examined the unbelievers’ graves and wondered at failing to see these snakes. They do not understand that these snakes have their abode within the unbeliever’s spirit, and that they existed in him even before he died, for they were his own evil qualities symbolised, such as jealousy, hatred, hypocrisy, pride, deceit, etc., every one of which springs, directly or remotely, from love of the world. Such is the doom of those who, in the words of the Koran, “set their hearts on this world rather than on the next.” If those snakes were merely external they might hope to escape their torment, if it were but for a moment; but, being their own inherent attributes, how can they escape?” (The Alchemy of Happiness, pp. 57-58) And so, he adds, “Every sinner thus carries with him into the world beyond death the instruments of his own punishment.” (Ibid.)

From earthly vessels to spiritual realms

It must be remembered, that we are souls with bodies, not bodies with souls. In this earthly life, our bodies serve as vessels for performing righteous deeds, with the soul as the passenger. Upon death, the soul departs from the body, which is then buried. The soul, in turn, receives a new form based on the deeds performed during its time on earth.

Hazrat Ahmadas explains:

“After that body is bestowed, human faculties are revived as this second body is much finer than the first body. It experiences visions very widely and all the realities of the hereafter become visible to it as they are.” (Kitab-ul-Bariyyah, Ruhani Khazain, Vol. 13, pp. 70-71; Essence of Islam Vol. II, p. 415: For further detail, see: The Philosophy of the Teachings of Islam)

Further expounding on this matter, Hazrat Khalifatul Masih IVrh, upon being asked about life after death, said:

“A new creation will be formed out of the essence of man’s personality which becomes separated (from his body) at the time of his death. That essence will be composed of his views, his thoughts, his attitude, his goodness, his evil, his acts of defiance of the Word of God or his obedience to the Will of God. All these according to the Promised Messiah, continuously make a personality within us. So an entity is born within us which we ourselves create. We create our hell or heaven without realising.” (“Life after Death”

Hazrat Ahmadas also explained:

“A body is necessary for entering Paradise, but it is not necessary that the body be elemental; in fact, a body that is not elemental is required, because the fruits, etc., of Paradise are also not elemental, but rather, are a new creation, so the body will also be a new creation that will be different from the earlier body. It is, however, essential that the believers are given bodies after death.” (Barahin-e-Ahmadiyya Part V, footnote, p. 515)

For a further read, see the tafasir of the Khulafa for verse: “From it have We created you, and into it shall We cause you to return, and from it shall We bring you forth once more.” (Surah Ta Ha, Ch.20: V.56)

When does the life of the hereafter begin?

Amidst the questions surrounding life after death, a prevalent query emerges: when does it truly commence? Do our loved ones anticipate the day of resurrection, and where do they reside in the interim?

A believer secures a permanent place in paradise after death. For the holy servants, who spent their lives on earth in worshipping Allah and doing good to His creation, death and entering Paradise occur in the same sequence. This is in accordance with the verse:

قِيۡلَ ادۡخُلِ الۡجَنَّةَ

“It was said [to him], ‘Enter Paradise.’” (Surah Ya Sin, Ch.36: V.27)

وَادۡخُلِيۡ جَنَّتِيۡ

“And enter thou My Garden.” (Surah al-Fajr, Ch.89: V.31)

This denotes that they are admitted to Paradise without delay. (Tauzih-e-Maram, Ruhani Khazain, Vol.3, pp.54-55; Tafsir Hazrat Masih-e-Maud [2016], Vol. 7, p. 3)

One might ask: since the Day of Resurrection is yet to occur, does barzakh denote a period during which the departed remain confined, awaiting to be raised before God on the Day of Judgement?

The Promised Messiahas has answered this, stating: “In the Book of God there are two states mentioned for the recompense of the good and the bad, one of which is the state of Barzakh in which everyone will receive his recompense in a covert manner. The wicked would enter hell immediately on death and the virtuous will find comfort in heaven immediately after death.” (The Philosophy of the Teachings of Islam, pp. 149-150)

Hazrat Ahmadas also explained that the notion that the inhabitants of Paradise are kept at a distance from it until the Day of Judgement, with only martyrs granted entry beforehand, is utterly false. In our belief system, the Prophets are the first to enter Paradise. Could a believer, who loves Allah and His Messengersa, entertain the thought that the Prophet and the righteous would be withheld from Paradise until the Day of Resurrection, while martyrs enter repeatedly and dwell therein eternally?

This belief is baseless, corrupted, and disrespectful. Allah Almighty states in the Holy Quran:

يٰۤاَيَّتُہَا النَّفۡسُ الۡمُطۡمَئِنَّةُ ارۡجِعِيۡۤ اِلٰي رَبِّکِ رَاضِيَةً مَّرۡضِيَّةً فَادۡخُلِيۡ فِيۡ عِبٰدِيۡ وَادۡخُلِيۡ جَنَّتِيۡ

“[And] thou, O soul at peace! Return to thy Lord well pleased [with Him and] He well pleased [with thee]. So enter thou among My chosen servants, And enter thou My Garden.” (Surah al-Fajr, Ch.89: V.28-31; Hamamatul Bushra, Ruhani Khazain, Vol. 7, p. 249)

Further clarifying this matter, Ahmadas writes:

“Thus, the verse, وَادۡخُلِيۡ جَنَّتِيۡ shows clearly that a believer is bestowed a body after death. For this reason, all Imams and Sufis are agreed that the believers who are pious and sinless are invested with a holy and glorious body upon death, through which they enjoy the bounties of Paradise. To reserve Paradise for martyrs alone is an injustice, indeed it is a heresy. Can a true believer utter such an impertinence as to say that the Holy Prophet, may peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, under whose grave Paradise lies, is still outside Paradise, but those who acquired faith and righteousness through him and became martyrs are dwelling in Paradise due to their martyrdom and are eating the fruit of Paradise? The truth is that those who devoted their life to the cause of Almighty God have already become martyrs. So by this token, our Holy Prophet, may peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, is the foremost of martyrs. In as much as this is established, we, too, say that the Messiah was raised to heaven with his body (but with a body that differs from his elemental body), and then he entered among Almighty God’s servants and entered Paradise.” (Barahin-e-Ahmadiyya Part V, [English], pp. 513-518)

Does immediate entry into Paradise contradict the concept of body resurrection?

Naturally, one may ask that if pious souls are admitted into heaven, what happens with the day of resurrection?

Ahmadas even explains this matter. He writes:

“The answer to this is that the belief that the sinless believers enter Paradise without any delay is not of my own making but it is indeed the belief that the Holy Quran has taught. As for the Holy Quran’s other teaching that relates to the resurrection of bodies and the raising of the dead, that is true as well, and we believe in it. The only difference is that this entering into Paradise is in a general sense, and the bodies the believers are given immediately [upon entering Paradise] are still imperfect. But the Day of Resurrection of bodies will be the day of the grand manifestation and on that day, perfect bodies will be granted. The link of the dwellers of Paradise will not be severed from Paradise in any way. They will be in Paradise in a way, and in the presence of God in a way. Are we to think that the martyrs who eat the fruit of Paradise like green sparrows are not to come out of Paradise and present themselves before God?” (Barahin-e-Ahmadiyya Part V [English], footnote, pp. 514-515)

When is the day of resurrection?

Now, after knowing what happens when we die, one may ask: When will the day of resurrection occur? However, instead of pondering on the when, one should inquire about what they have done to prepare for it. Know that it is forthcoming, and the deeds we perform here will shape our life there.

For from the soil we were created, in the soil we are buried, and from it we are resurrected.

For now, as we make our preparations for the hereafter, know that our Lord is Allah, our religion is Islam, and our Messenger is Muhammadsa.

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