Striking the balance between this life and the next: An Islamic perspective

Atif Rashid, UK

Belief in the Hereafter is a fundamental religious tenet that is often derided by atheists, who say believers should place more emphasis on this life as there is no proof of another.

In her 2015 book Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now, the outspoken anti-Islam critic Ayaan Hirsi Ali claimed that one of the things that needs to change is that “Muslims need to start assigning a higher value to the rewards of this life than those in the hereafter.”

A 2021 report by the Pew Research Center found that 73% of the US adults believe in the concept of Paradise and 39% even believe that atheists can also go to Heaven. Of those surveyed, 92% of Christians believed in Heaven. So, the question of belief in the Hereafter isn’t something limited to Muslims or Islamic teachings.

Religion has always taught that our goal is to attain the blessings of the Hereafter. What then of this life? Is there any space to enjoy the good things of this world, or does spiritual merit decrease the more we enjoy life? And do we need to prioritise this life more, as Hirsi Ali suggests?

In numerous places, the Holy Quran says the life of this world is not only fleeting and temporary, but its pleasures are little and short-lived.

“Would you be contented with the present life in preference to the Hereafter? But the enjoyment of the present life is but little, as compared with the Hereafter.” (Surah at-Taubah, Ch.9: V.38)

“Say, ‘The benefit of this world is little and the Hereafter will be better for him who fears God; and you shall not be wronged a whit.’” (Surah an-Nisa, Ch.4: V.78)

“Let not the moving about of the disbelievers in the land deceive thee. It is a small and brief advantage, then Hell shall be their abode. What an evil place of rest!” (Surah aal-e-Imran, Ch.3: V.197-198)

It’s not just the Holy Quran that proclaims this. The Bible says:

“Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

This passage from John 12:25 has echoes of a hadith by the Prophet Muhammadsa wherein he said:

“The world is a prison for the believer and a paradise for the disbeliever.” (Sahih Muslim, Kitab az-zuhdi wa r-riqaqa’q)

The Torah shares these sentiments:

“Man, born of woman, short of days and full of fear.” (Job, Chapter 14) Likewise, the Holy Prophetsa is reported to have said that this life is like a drop in the ocean compared to the next. 

All religions teach the purpose of life is to prepare for the hereafter, which will be everlasting. And the actions and deeds we do here on earth, directly affect the quality of life we’ll have in the next world. This compels religious people to take this life more seriously than disbelievers, who have no fear of accountability, or hope for any reward or recompense for their actions. 

The Holy Quran not only tells us that the next life is better, it also reveals an eternal truth; time here is short.

“And on the day when He will gather them together, it will appear to them as though they had not tarried in the world save for an hour of a day.” (Surah Yunus, Ch.10: V.46)

“And on the day when the Hour shall arrive the guilty will swear that they tarried not save an hour — thus were they turned away from the right path.” (Surah Rum, Ch.30: V.56)

“On the day when they see that with which they are threatened, it will appear to them as though they had not tarried save for an hour of a day.” (Surah al-Ahqaf, Ch.46: V.36)

The feeling that time moves faster as we grow older is a concept that scientists have tried to make sense of. In a 2005 study by psychologists at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, participants over 40 years old said they felt time moved steadily in their childhood but sped up through their teens and into adulthood. Time really does fly. One explanation is that the brain saves new experiences into its memory, not existing or familiar ones.

If you have ever been on vacation to a new destination and come back feeling like you have been there for months when you only went for one week, you can understand this phenomenon.

As children, we have many new experiences and moments of learning, so time seems to go slower. However, as we age and look back on our lives, our experiences become normal and routine. So, when you’re a 5-year-old, your few interactions and activities make up 100% of your experience, memory and time. One year is 20% of a 5-year-old’s life. But when you’re 50 years old, your childhood experiences as a five-year-old only make up 10% of your time, so it seems like a shorter period of time. One year becomes a mere 2% of your time. In the next life, all our actions and experiences will have happened in the distant past, so it’ll seem as though it was an extremely short period of time.

The concept of time will not even exist the way we understand it now. If the next life is an eternity, then 70-80 years of this life really will seem like barely one hour.

Another clue from the Holy Quran is to look at it from the perspective of God Almighty Himself. It states:

“And verily, a day with thy Lord is as a thousand years of your reckoning.” (Surah al-Hajj, Ch.22: V.48)

God is outside the bounds of time and space, while we are limited by these constraints. So naturally, in the eternal hereafter, a whole lifetime on earth will seem extremely short.

Another verse tells us that in the next life, “the one possessing the best way of life among them will say, ‘You have tarried only a day.’” (Surah Ta Ha, Ch.20: V.105)

Time does fly when you are having fun, but in hardships, it seems like an eternity. This verse gives a glimpse of what disbelievers will go through when overtaken by Divine punishment. Their time living in ease, luxury and comfort will seem like but a day. It’ll be over before they know it.

When religion constantly tells us that the life of this world is short and with little benefit, it is merely a statement of fact. Islam teaches us to live in reality and not delude ourselves into thinking that we are here forever so that we become comfortable. The commandments against materialism and overindulgence make more sense.

When life is so short-lived, it is only rational not to chase and pine for luxury, wealth and materialistic desires. Having said that, enjoying the good things in life isn’t outright forbidden in Islam. Why else are we taught the prayer:

“Our Lord, grant us good in this world as well as good in the world to come, and protect us from the torment of the Fire.” (Surah al-Baqarah, Ch.2: V.202)

Then the Holy Quran says:

“Say, ‘Who has forbidden the adornment of Allah which He has produced for His servants, and the good things of His providing?’ Say, ‘They are for the believers in the present life and exclusively for them on the Day of Resurrection.’ Thus do We explain the Signs for a people who have knowledge.”  (Surah al-A‘raf, Ch.7: V.33)

Hazrat Ibrahimas prayed for his progeny to have the “fruits” of this life. The word thamarat which is translated as “fruits” also has meanings of wealth, possessions and income:

“And remember when Abraham said, ‘My Lord, make this a town of peace and provide with fruits such of its dwellers as believe in Allah and the Last Day,’ He said, ‘And on him too who believes not will I bestow benefits for a little while; then will I drive him to the punishment of the Fire, and an evil destination it is.’” (Surah al-Baqarah, Ch.2: V.127)

The Promised Messiahas said:

“I do not forbid you to employ material means within moderation; only that you do not become slaves to them like other nations and that you do not forget the God who is the very Provider of these means.” (Noah’s Ark, p. 36)

On another occasion, he said:

The root of virtue is to not exceed in partaking of the lawful pleasures and desires of the world. For example, God Almighty has not forbidden food and drink, but if a man makes it his hobby to consume the same food and drink night and day, then he has given it priority over his faith. The similitude of this is like the horse cart driver when he travels a long distance then after approximately 15 miles he feels the fatigue of the horse and allows it to breathe, stops and feeds it in order to remove its fatigue. Hence, in the same way, the prophets partake of the delights of the world. Prophets not only eat and drink but also partake of the delights of this world. They marry, have children, eat and drink. Prophets also partake in all these things. (Abridged from Malfuzat, Vol. 4, UK, 1985, pp. 374-375 as quoted in

An allegation was levelled against the Promised Messiahas when Hazrat Khalifatul Masih Ira said the Promised Messiahas ate pilau (a traditional Indian rice dish). Hazrat Khalifatul Masih Ira replied: “I have never read anywhere, neither in the Holy Quran or the ahadith, in which it states that it is forbidden for the prophets to eat this. What harm is there if he eats this dish?” (Abridged from Register Riwayat-e-Sahabah, (Unpublished), Vol. 5, p. 48, Narrations of Hazrat Nizamuddinra Taylor as quoted in

Some companions of the Holy Prophetsa once vowed to fast all day, pray all night and keep away from their wives. When the Holy Prophetsa heard of this, he said “I eat good food, wear good clothes, have married and had children, I sleep and also worship. Therefore, you should follow my practice.”

What’s forbidden is to make the pleasures of this life the be-all and end-all of your existence; to make them your ultimate goal and to strive to attain comfort and luxuries.

This is why Allah condemns people who only look to the pleasures of this life:

“And of men there are some who say, ‘Our Lord, grant us good things in this world;’ and such a one shall have no share in the Hereafter.” (Surah al-Baqarah, Ch.2: V.201)

Hazrat Umarra reports that he once entered the room of the Holy Prophetsa and saw the marks on his back from sleeping on a rough mat. He started to weep. The Prophetsa asked what made him weep. Hazrat Umarra replied that Caesar and Khosrau lived among fruits and springs, in comforts and luxuries, while the Messenger of Allah and His chosen one lived like this. The Prophetsa said, “O son of Khattab, are you not pleased that they are for us in the Hereafter and for them in the world?” (Sunan Ibn Majah, Hadith 4153)

The prophet knew better than anyone the small value of this life, so he made a conscious decision to live a meagre and simple life. His philosophy in this regard is summed up in a saying of his: “This world and I are just like a rider who stops to rest beneath the shade of a tree, then goes and leaves it.” (Ibid, Hadith 4109)

Being rich and wealthy is not a crime in Islam, however, it is the misuse of it which is sinful.

“The extravagant are the brothers of Satans”, says the Quran. (Surah Bani Israel, Ch.17: V.28)

If God has given you blessings and riches, it’s no harm to enjoy and benefit from it, as long as you fulfil your dues and give a share to charity. By distributing wealth and not hoarding it, money can stay in constant circulation and is not amassed in a few hands so as to cause extreme levels of inequality that we see today in capitalist societies.

But wealth and success can go one of two ways. It can either take you closer to God or away from Him. The risk always is that it’ll take you away from Him because man forgets God except in the hour of need. “Two favours that many of the people squander are health and free time”, said the Holy Prophetsa. (Jami‘ at-Tirmidhi, Hadith 2304)

You start thinking you have no need of God. This is illustrated in this verse:

“‘Thou didst bestow on them and their fathers the good things of this life until they forgot the admonition and became a ruined people.’” (Surah al-Furqan, Ch.25: V.19)

Many of the companions of the Holy Prophetsa were extremely wealthy. Yet they used their wealth for good. They donated many of their assets and took part in religious obligations, at times donating all that they had. Hazrat Usmanra was one of the wealthiest men in Mecca. Every available luxury was available to him. Hazrat Usmanra was the son-in-law of the Holy Prophetsa and his third Caliph. Had being wealthy and wearing fine clothes been forbidden, would Hazrat Usman have been given these honours, loved by the Prophet and remembered by Muslims till eternity? 

If the good things in this life lead you to the remembrance of God and being grateful to him, then there’s great benefit in enjoying the permissible things of this life, in moderation. After all, is this not what Hazrat Ibrahimas prayed for? He asked Allah to provide his progeny “fruits” so that they might give thanks to God. Of course, this meant spiritual fruits as well, but physical ones are not cancelled out.

“Our Lord, I have settled some of my children in an uncultivable valley near Thy Sacred House — our Lord — that they may observe Prayer. So make men’s hearts incline towards them and provide them with fruits, that they may be thankful.” (Surah Ibrahim, Ch.14: V.38)

If the blessings of life take you closer to God, then you can enjoy the good things of this life, and the pleasure and approval of Allah at the same time. What better deal is there for a believer?

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