What is Death? Does the Spirit Die?
All human beings have an intrinsic feeling of eternity, and so feel imprisoned in the narrow confines of the material world and yearn for eternity. Whoever can hear our conscious nature will hear it pronouncing eternity over and over again. If we were given the whole universe, we would still hunger for the eternal life for which we were created. This natural inclination toward eternal happiness comes from an objective reality: the existence of eternal life and our desire for it.
The spirit uses the body as an instrument, and thus governs and controls all parts of it in a comprehensive manner. When the appointed hour of death comes, any illness or failure in the body’s functions is an invitation to the Angel of Death (the Archangel Azra’il). In actuality, God causes people to die. However, so that people should not complain about Him, which might seem disagreeable to many, God uses Azra’il, upon him be peace, to take the souls of those who are to die. He also uses illness or other calamities as another veil between Azra’il and death so that people should not criticize the Archangel.
Since all angels are created from light, Azra’il can be present and assume any form in innumerable places at once and do many simultaneous things perfectly. Like the sun giving heat and light to all things in the world at the same time, and being present through its images in innumerable transparent objects, Azra’il can take millions of souls at the same moment with great ease.
However, Archangels like Gabriel, Michael, and Azra’il, upon them be peace, have subordinates that resemble them and are supervised by them. When good, righteous people die, some angels come to them with smiles and radiant faces. They are followed by Azra’il and his subordinates charged with taking the souls of the good, or one of Azra’il’s subordinates. The Qur’anic verses: By those who pluck out violently; by those who draw out gently (79:1-2), indicate that those angels who take the souls of the righteous differ from those who take the souls of the wicked. The latter are plucked out violently, and have sour, frightened faces at death.
To those who believe and live righteous lives are greeted with opened windows from the places reserved for them in Paradise. Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace and blessings, stated that the souls of the righteous are drawn out as gently as the flowing of water from a pitcher. Better than that, martyrs do not feel death’s agony and do not know that they are dead. Instead, they consider themselves to be transferred into a better world and enjoy perfect happiness. Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace and blessings, told Jabir ibn ‘Abd Allah ibn ‘Amr, who was martyred at the Battle of Uhud:
Do you know how God welcomed your father? He welcomed him in such an indescribable manner that neither eyes have seen it nor ears heard it, nor minds conceived of it. Your father said: “O God, let me return to the world so that I can explain to those left behind how pleasant martyrdom is.” God replied: “There is no return. Life is lived only once. However, I will inform them of your circumstances,” and He revealed: Never think of those slain in the way of God to be dead; rather they are alive and are provided in the Presence of their Lord. (3:169)
Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace and blessings, the most advanced in worshipping God, advised prescribed prayers while he was dying. So did ‘Umar, the second Caliph, may God be pleased with him. Khalid ibn Walid was one of the few invincible generals of world history. Just before his death, he asked those beside him to bring his sword and horse. People like ‘Uthman (the third Caliph), ‘Ali (the fourth Caliph), Hamza, and Mus’ab ibn ‘Umayr dedicated themselves to the cause of Islam and died as martyrs. Those who lead lives of dissipation die while frequenting drinking or gambling tables or houses of prostitution.
For those who believe and do righteous deeds, death is not something to be feared. Although death seems to bring decomposition, extinguish life, and destroy pleasure, in fact it represents a Divine discharge from the heavy duties of worldly life. It is no more than a change of residence, a transferal of the body, an invitation to and the beginning of everlasting life. As the world is continually enlivened through acts of creation and predetermination, so is it continually stripped of life through other cycles of creation, determination, and wisdom. The dying of plants, the simplest level of life, proves itself a work of Divine artistry, like their living, but one that is more perfect and better designed. This is so because death leads to a more perfect life. When a fruit’s seed dies in the soil, it seems to decompose and rot away. But in reality, it undergoes a perfect chemical process, passes through predetermined states of re-formation, and ultimately grows again into an elaborate, new tree. So a seed’s death is really the beginning of a new tree, a new, more perfect and elaborate life.
Since the death of fruits and vegetables and meat in our stomachs causes us to rise to the degree of human life, in this sense their deaths can be regarded as more perfect than their lives. Since the dying of plants is so perfect and serves so great a purpose, our deaths, given that we are the highest form of life, must be much more perfect and serve a still greater purpose. Once we have gone underground, we certainly will be brought into eternal life.
Death releases us from the hardships of worldly life, which is a turbulent, suffocating, narrow dungeon of space that gradually becomes harder through old age and affliction, and admits us to the infinitely wide circle of the Eternal, Beloved One’s mercy. There, we may enjoy the everlasting company of our beloved ones and the consolation of a happy, eternal life.
This article has been adapted from Risale- i Nur Collection.