I recently came across some notes of mine from around this time last year. In the midst of the snow storm nicknamed the ‘Beast from the East’ and the heavy white blanket it cast across the UK, I went for a wander and stumbled across a graveyard. The hundreds of granite and marble headstones were half swallowed up by the flawless layer of white and now after the blizzards, only the odd snowflake tumbled down from the heavens, as if a celestial pillow fight had ceased and the last few feathers wafted to earth.
On closer inspection, I was surprised to see the familiar, curvaceously elegant Arabic script engraved and embossed on some of the stones, and realised quickly that a proportion of the graves had Muslim inhabitants. Many of these were also inscribed with ‘Chak 467’ or ‘Chak 236’, meaning ‘Village 467’ or ‘Village 236’. Seeing reference being made to the Pakistani villages that these individuals heralded from in such a context felt bizarre. The fact that these people had been born and raised in the lush or dusty heat of the Indian subcontinent and now lie under the frozen soil of Britain was obvious yet still took me a long time to comprehend. The sun briefly made an appearance and for an instance, the snow glimmered as if made from powdered diamonds, the wind howled and pinched as it struck every surface on its furious journey. I stood, frozen not from the cold but from the realisation of how every day I neglect to remember the only certainty we have in this life. Death.
I stood for a long while reflecting on and praying for the souls who lay beneath the ground. The following hadith came to mind;
Abu Sa’eed Al Khudri narrated; The Prophet SAW passed by a funeral procession near a grave and he asked: ”Whose grave is this?” They (the companions) replied: “It is the grave of so and so from Abyssinia (Ethiopia). Thereupon, the Prophet SAW said: “Laa Ilaaha Illa Allaah, he was driven from Allah’s earth and heaven to his soil from which he was created.” [Albani]
Every soul is buried in the soul from which he was created. These graves I saw contained people who had been fashioned from a portion of clay from England, despite having been born in Pakistan, looking Pakistani and having Pakistani ancestry. I was transfixed by the image in my head of vast numbers of Pakistanis having been created from European soil, unbeknown to them at the time, representing the land in which they would perish. Human migration symbolised by the very flesh we are formed from. There is a door for every single living soul on this earth, waiting to be walked through. An exit from this illusory world, the door that symbolises death. I don’t know when on my journey I will encounter that door. Whether it will be tomorrow, while walking into work, or in 50 years time. I don’t know where geographically that door is located. Close your eyes for a second and picture the earth with millions of these invisible doors, each marked with a name.
We know the tradition relating to when the Angel of Death visited Sulayman AS, and carefully looked at another man who was there at the time. The man noticed this and on finding out it was the Angel of Death, sensed that his soul was to be taken soon. As a result he asked Prophet Sulayman to send him with the wind to China i.e. as far as possible from the Angel and so he was sent. When Sulayman AS next saw the Angel of Death he asked him why he had looked at the man like that. He responded, “I was instructed to take the soul of that man soon in China, and was surprised to see him here rather than there.” The man had wanted to escape death but instead ran towards it as what God predetermines always takes place.
The Angel of Death visits every single one of us every single day. I for one certainly don’t live as if this is a reality.
Imam Ghazali tells us a parable of a man walking in the jungle. A hungry lion began to chase him and the man ran as fast as he could to escape. He noticed a well in front of him and jumped inside, the only hope for escape he could see.
As he was falling inside the well, he grabbed onto the rope and saved himself. He was relieved but on looking down again felt terror as he saw a huge snake at the bottom of the well.
The man then looked up and saw two mice nibbling at the rope, one black and one white. The lion prowled around the well, waiting.
The man’s heart was pounding as he wondered how he could escape from this. Then he noticed a honeycomb in front of him which had sweet honey dripping from it. He stuck his finger into the honey and tasted it. For a split second in its sweetness, he forgot about the lion, the snake and the two mice chewing at the rope.
Imam Ghazali explained that the lion represents the Angel of Death who is always close behind us. The snake symbolises the grave and its punishment. The black mouse and white mouse were like the night and day respectively which are always nibbling away at the fabric our life (the rope). The honey was like this Dunya which with its momentary sweetness distracts us and we forget death and the eternal life.
Sitting in the graveyard and contemplating the ‘dead’ made it evident that in fact, they are far more alive than we are. Their real, eternal lives have begun, whereas we exist in a sort of limbo, a collapsible world that masks us from the realities of existence. They are fully aware of the truth, they can now see it with their naked eyes, while we are limited to our faulty perceptions, veiled from the ‘worlds’ and their content and meaning.
I couldn’t help but wonder whether these were souls who had received their scroll of deeds in their right hand, eternally blissful as they are greeted with peace from their Creator.
If they now lay in utter peace and tranquillity gazing upon the treasures of paradise, or if the day that the Angel came for them signified the onset of horror and punishment. At the end of it all, everything comes down to that moment. Every breath, step, thought, word, glance and action culminate in that ultimate moment of truth. The day you step through the door with your name on it.
Thinking about death inevitably changes how we think about life.
Considering the transient nature of our life in this realm is sobering and should act as a reminder to live each day as it if it were our last, but should also be balanced with wondering at the marvels of the blessings God has granted us in this world. It is also an immense gift, an instant re-aligner when our perspective inevitably steers off course, as well as hope when we lose a loved one, for we know that we will soon join them again. The worries on our minds that seem immense and overwhelming shrink to nothingness when the temporality of life is brought to the fore. If we were consistently conscious of our death, we would be extremely less likely to wrong someone, to lie, to argue over petty matters or allow our egos and desires to rule us.
As Muslims, we have been commanded to remember death frequently. Why not take a walk down to your local graveyard and reflect upon your life? On what you would change if you knew death was imminent. How harsh or soft would your words become? How much would you go out of your way to serve others? How much more focus would you have in your prayers?
May this remembrance be a source of enlightenment and development for us all, and may the day we die be the best day of our lives.
Hiba is an Oxford graduate Physicist/Engineer by academic background and an author by soul. Her first commissioned children's book was published in 2019 by Penguin RandomHouse, and she is working on her first novel. Also a freelance journalist, she has written for The Independent and blogged for HuffPost, alongside having worked as a Physics teacher and Refugee Advocate at The Children's Society. Founder of global ethical brand Kusafiri, you will find her either traveling the world or saving money to travel the world. She loves quantum Physics, planting things and painting in watercolours. She especially loves sweetshops and good grammar.