Throughout the ages, mankind viewed death as something gruesome and frightening, something that should be postponed indefinitely or abolished if possible, once for all.
This was because of two reasons. First, death cuts short the life of this world. Second, there was no "proof" about the chance for a new lease of life in a world to come. Death is, as Shakespeare's Hamlet said, "the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns" to tell us their story.
All the same, there was also the belief among religions that death served as a kind of passage to another more important arena of life.
From the Islamic point of view, death is a reality of life, a certainty from which no one is exempt. God says in the Quran what means:
[Every soul shall have a taste of death: and only on the Day of Judgment shall you be paid your full recompense. Only he who is saved from the fire and admitted to the garden will have attained the object (of life): for the life of this world is but goods and chattels of deception.] (Aal `Imran3:185)
As it is mentioned in the verse, there is going to be a Day of Judgment one has to face after death, when each will be paid in full the fruit of what he or she has earned in this life.
Those who sowed evil will reap evil and those who sowed good will reap good. All the allure and glamour of this world would then prove to be of no real worth; what is of enduring value would be provided in that world to come.
From this point of view, death is a necessary transition form this world to another lasting world. That means, death for humans is not a complete cessation of life; but it is a passing from one state of existence to another.
In the life of this world, the body and the soul are not separate except during sleep, when temporarily the soul leaves the body until it returns to it, with God's permission:
[It is God that takes the souls at death; and those that die not (He takes) during their sleep: those on whom He has passed the decree of death, He keeps back (from returning to life), but the rest He sends (to their bodies) for a term appointed. Verily in this are Signs for those who reflect.] (Az-Zumar39:42)
Sleep: Temporary Death
The idea that sleep is a form of temporary death, whereby the soul leaves the body for a time was recognized by people of earlier religions too. Hinduism has the idea that the soul is imprisoned in the body until death liberates it. There is also the suggestion that the soul yearns to be free from the prison-house of the body.
On the other hand, we understand from the Quran that the human being is complete only when he is both body and soul. That is why the purity of both the body and the soul is required in Muslim prayers for instance. Similarly, the rewards or punishments for one's life on earth are to be experienced by the whole human being consisting of the body and soul in the hereafter. For the same reason, there is no question of a Muslim neglecting the needs of the body or even tormenting the body for the sake of the soul.
The human soul came from God, and belongs to the world of the spirit; while the body is made up of clay or slime, and so it belongs to the world of matter. But once united with the body the soul transmutes the body, and a noble creation — a new being — is born deserving of honor even from the angels:
[And lo! Thy Sustainer said unto the angels: "Behold, I am about to create mortal man out of sounding clay, out of dark slime transmuted; and when I have formed him fully and breathed into him of My spirit, fall down before him in prostration!] (Al-Hijr 15:28-29)
While living on earth, the body and soul are kept together as one being by the force of life. When a person dies, the phenomenon of death displaces that person's life. Apparently, life disappears or ceases to exist and the body and soul are separated.
When life ends, the body decays; but the soul is not affected by the end of life, except that it is separated from the body. The soul lives on in the world of spirit, though it is in a state of sleep. Just as it happens during our earthly sleep when the soul leaves the body temporarily; it is then in a state of sleep.
And the body during sleep is still living as life has not left it. But if the soul does not return after its appointed time, life leaves the body and death takes its place; and death is a phenomenon like life, only its function is the opposite of life: that is to say, both life and death are realities created by God with their own functions:
[He Who created Death and Life, that He may try which of you is best in deed: and He is the Exalted in Might, Oft-Forgiving..] (Al-Mulk 67:2)
Our Mission on Earth
The purpose of life as well as death, as mentioned in this verse, is that God wants to subject us to a test: That is to say, the present life as well as the death that comes at the end, is a trial in preparation for the next phase of existence. By this, God wants to separate those who are best in deed from those who are not.
As part of the last rites, Muslims are commanded as to how to treat dead bodies. When a Muslim dies, he or she is washed and wrapped in a clean, white cloth and buried after a funeral prayer. This is a final service Muslims do for their dead. And for the deceased's relatives, it is an opportunity to remember that their own existence here on earth is brief.
So the lesson is: God has sent us to this world with a mission; and we need to fulfill that mission. We should not be entrapped by any foolish notion that this world is for ever; or that there is no life after death.
About persons who deny the possibility of a life after death, God says in the Quran what means:
[And they say, "There is not but our worldly life; we die and live and nothing destroys us except time." And they have of that no knowledge; they are only assuming. And when Our verses are recited to them as clear evidences, their argument is only that they say, "Bring back our forefathers, if you should be truthful." Say, "God causes you to live, then causes you to die; then He will assemble you for the Day of Resurrection, about which there is no doubt," but most of the people do not know.] (Al-Jathiyah 45:24-26)
The above verse makes clear the Islamic worldview that life, death, resurrection and Judgment are all realities from God and we humans have to face them one after another. And on the Day of Judgment we will be asked to account for our beliefs and actions. And then God, the Master of the Day of Judgment will reward us or punish us according to our deserts.
Professor Shahul Hameed is a consultant to the Reading Islam Website. He also held the position of the President of the Kerala Islamic Mission, Calicut, India. He is the author of three books on Islam published in the Malayalam language. His books are on comparative religion, the status of women, and science and human values.