Home Deliberation Death, An Old Friend

Death, An Old Friend

Death is, for obvious reasons, all around us. It always is ever-present, but the last year has sharpened the visibility of it, and its ability to make its way into our homes and lives with more alarming frequency.


In Khurram Murad’s Dying and Living for the Will of Allah, or his last wasiyyah (will), he writes a deeply reflective, affectionate and instructional letter to his wife and children, and his grandchildren, about his impending death. He tells them, “Remember well that you are destined to meet Him. The invitation for that may come at any time. Your whole life is nothing but a preparation for this Meeting… The more you keep that Meeting in mind, the greater would be the enthusiasm with which you shall prepare for it; and the greater is your preparation for meeting Allah, the better will be your chances for eternal salvation.” This remembrance is often lacking in our hearts; we fear death more than ever. While fearing death is natural, learning to embrace its inevitability is a part of training one’s spiritual self, relevant even more so in a month like Ramadan.

The idea of ‘health’ as we understand it in today’s discourse is far divorced from this mature conceptualisation by Khurram Murad – instead, we square up to death and ageing as if in a duel, bolstered by anti-ageing products and the material possessions that we keep gathering and refusing to spend for the public good. Similarly, in the event that any of our loved ones or acquaintances open their heart to us in the eagerness to talk about death – we dismiss the conversation, their fears, anxieties or even their reasoned planning for what must be done after they inevitably leave, as if the conversation is too uncomfortable or unnecessary for us to process. But Islamic tradition teaches otherwise – “And to Him you shall return” (al-Baqarah 2:245), “And unto Him is your destiny” (al-Mā’idah 5:18). Psychological well-being is also displayed in the ability to process difficult emotions or feelings – the approach to mortality being one of them.

Death is, for obvious reasons, all around us. It always is ever-present, but the last year has sharpened the visibility of it, and its ability to make its way into our homes and lives with more alarming frequency. Many of us have lost our friends and family, and many others have themselves experienced serious illness and are still suffering from the long-term effects of it. The added stigma of disease and illness also marks the current pandemic, along with increased isolation, loneliness and disconnection from society at large, and the feeling of community which used to offer comfort in moments of difficulty.

In her recent essay, Sri Lankan writer Adilah Ismail writes about the politics and suffering of those Muslims in the country who were forcibly cremated in the name of public health and safety during the COVID-19 pandemic, despite scientific evidence disproving the need for cremation and allowing for burials of COVID-19 positive patients in almost all other countries. The right to mourn, grieve and pray over one’s loved ones, and to send them on their final journey back to their Creator is seen as regressive, backward and in violation of modern scientific norms. Many people dismissed the concerns of those who protested the forced cremations – ‘how does it even matter’, they ask, once the person is gone and merely the body remains?

Adilah writes about the death and cremation of a 20-day old baby, Shaykh Fa: “I imagine there was love poured into this 20-day old infant to prepare him for his life. There would have been arrangements made in anticipation of his birth – baby shirts sewn; eau de cologne, baby lotions, a cot and nappies procured; harried medical check-ups in the midst of a pandemic and curfews”. We know his father was a three-wheeler driver and his livelihood may have been disrupted with the curfews. The baby was named Shaykh Fa – a hybrid of his parents’ names and his six-year-old sister, Shifka. More love”.

How does it matter, as skeptical people ask? Love – poured into the lives of the living, is also poured into the moments after they die. It is embodied in the janaza (Islamic funeral prayer), which people join even if they did not know the person in question intimately; in the ritual washing and draping of the body, and the simplicity of the belief that one leaves with nothing of the material world, but only the weight of their actions and deeds. Similar practices exist in all faith systems of the world, and even with the acceptance that the person they knew is gone, there is a need that is implicitly understood – the need to bid farewell with dignity, a process that also ensures that the family of the loved alone does not mourn alone. Like the simple act, cutting across religious practices, of sending food to the house in mourning; death, in its intrinsic loneliness, is also a social reality. for those left behind.

To die alone, as many do, with no one to hold in their last moments, is a fear that people realised as an outcome of the pandemic. But for others, it has long been a reality – the homeless; the aged, abandoned by their families, and those rejected by society have always faced this immense fear. How we treat death, and the dying, tells us a great deal about the state of our societies.

Loss, grief, absence – all intimately tied together, deeply affect our health, and mental health in particular. Healthcare, illness and death is mediated, in addition, by the restricting and exclusionary structures of social inequality: who gets to access healthcare which gives them a better shot at survival; the caste structure of our society which often does not even allow access to healthcare, or at the end of it all, dignified burial or funerals for those from marginalised communities; and the immense violence of a society which allows its members to die due to hunger and poverty, while wealth continues to be concentrated (and multiply) in the hands of a few. In this context, it is inevitable to feel bitter, even angry about the politics of life and death. The injustice of it all can crack even the most ardent and patient of people. But one must walk the tightrope of ensuring justice while maintain sabr – not passive abdication, but dignified perseverance. As Khurram Murad concludes, “Repentance and yearning, and yearning and repentance: this is the total harvest of life.” The total of harvest of life – what good will we leave behind?

Like the parents of Shaykh Fa, many others too now have gaping absences in their lives where they once held their children, siblings, or parents. In this moment, one must reflect upon the need to process, or understand death and illness. What remains, after us? Abu Qatadah reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “The best of what a man leaves behind are three: a righteous child who supplicates for him, ongoing charity, the reward of which reaches him, and knowledge that is acted upon after him.” Source: Sunan Ibn Mājah 23

This is a direct indication that not only should we inculcate the principles of righteousness, being generous with charity and the pursuit of lawful knowledge in ourselves, but also in those we might leave behind, such as our children and spouses. Even in our families, we are often not able to spend adequate time discussing these things, caught up with the day-to-day hassles and tensions of survival, or the exhausting nature of our work. Suddenly accosted as we often are, by the never-ceasing visitations of loss, grief and shock is but a reality.

But for a believer, while death may not be easy, there are some lessons for us in history to engage with the difficulty of facing it. In a touching dedication of her book The Lives of Muhammad, author Kecia Ali writes: “This book is dedicated to my children Saadia and Tariq, and to the memory of their sister Shaira (1996–2012). The standard biographies of Muhammad recount that seven of his eight children died during his lifetime. None of the miracles traditional sources ascribe to him impresses me more than his having survived such loss.”