The Beginning of Regret for Unbelievers: Death
Every self will taste death. We test you with both good and evil as a trial. And you will be returned to Us. (Surat al-Anbiya, 35)
Death is considered to be an end and a final destruction by those who do not believe in the hereafter. This is a flawed perception however because death is not an end but a beginning. For believers, it is the beginning of a perfect, eternal paradise that is free from all evil and flaws. For unbelievers on the other hand, it is a transition to a life in hell, where a great penalty is suffered.
Those who comprehend this reality live a pleasant end in the world when death meets them and a pleasant beginning in the hereafter. These two occur simultaneously. Unbelievers, on the other hand, encounter the irrecoverable regret of disregarding this reality, of which they had been previously informed. They suffer this regret at every moment for as long as Allah wills and never find respite from it.
Although death is not a subject of profound thought for most people, it is an unavoidable end. That is because Allah creates death as the definite end of this life. So far, not a single person has avoided death. No one's property, wealth, career, or close friends have provided salvation from death. Certainly everyone will meet death. Allah relates this fact in many verses in the Qur'an:
Wherever you are, death will catch up with you, even if you are in impregnable fortresses. (Surat an-Nisa, 78)
Say: "Death, from which you are fleeing, will certainly catch up with you. Then you will be returned to the Knower of the Unseen and the Visible and He will inform you about what you did." (Surat al-Jumu'a, 8)
Allah will not give anyone more time, once their time has come. Allah is aware of what you do. (Surat al-Munafiqun, 11)
So, does avoiding contemplation over death and the life after death save one from facing this reality?
Surely the answer to this question is "No". Since man is desperate against death, the most rational thing to do is to constantly contemplate upon death and to get prepared for the hereafter, as the Prophet Muhammad (saas) said "Ponder on death a lot. Allah opens the heart of that person who thinks about death a lot and makes death easy for him." (Narrated by Abu Huraira)
Those who neglect thinking about the hereafter whilst being distracted by this fleeting worldly life are taken by surprise by death. Those saying "While we are young, we can make the most of our lives and think about death in the latter years of our lives" grasp that they will never have such an opportunity. That is because death is predestined by Allah. A person may well die before he grows old. In this case, solely making future plans and postponing the fulfillment of Allah's commands will only lead to dreadful regret.
Those who spend their lives distant from Allah and who only repent when they realize they are close to death will experience such regret. Yet repentance which arises from the fear of death and which doesn't bear sincere intention to correct and purify one's self may not be acceptable by Allah. Openly being in favor of this life despite the existence of death, such people desperately strive to save themselves only when they realize death is very near. This however brings no benefit. Allah knows their insincerity, because Allah is closer to man than his jugular vein. He knows what is inside of man, including his most inner thoughts and deepest secrets. Allah informs us in the Qur'an that He will not accept repentance based on the fear of death at the very last moment:
There is no repentance for people who persist in doing evil until death comes to them and who then say, "Now I repent," nor for people who die as an unbeliever. We have prepared for them a painful punishment. (Surat an-Nisa, 18)
It is stated in many verses that when another opportunity is granted, these insincere people soon resume their ungrateful attitude:
If only you could see when they are standing before the Fire and saying, "Oh! If only we could be sent back again, we would not deny the Signs of our Lord and we would be among the believers." No, it is simply that what they were concealing before has been shown to them; and if they were sent back they would merely return to what they were forbidden to do. Truly they are liars. (Surat al-An'am, 27-28)
For this reason, it would be erroneous to have a rationale based on the thought "I will repent when the appropriate time comes." This kind of thinking will not save one from the torment in hell. So if one does not want to suffer an eternal grievous penalty after death, he should live for a purpose, knowing that he will absolutely meet Allah and have to give an account of his actions.
The Regret of Unbelievers at the Moment of Death
Throughout their lives, people are reminded many times of the existence of the Garden and the Fire and that they have to get prepared for the afterlife. Yet unbelievers turn a deaf ear to these reminders. Upon facing death, one of the main sources of their regret is the fact that they have led themselves to their own destruction. Nobody forced them; they, by their own will, chose this dreadful end for themselves.
By the moment of death unbelievers start to suffer from grief. The dreadful fear felt at the time of death is the initial grief of this torment, which Allah illustrates in the Qur'an as follows:
... And one leg is entwined with the other: that Day he will be driven to your Lord. He neither affirmed the truth nor did he pray, but rather denied the truth and turned away and then went off to his family, swaggering. It is coming closer to you and closer. Then closer to you and closer still. (Surat al-Qiyama, 29-35)
Yet, one needs to keep in mind that only unbelievers suffer from this fear. Believers spend all their lives working to gain the good pleasure and love of Allah. For this reason, they are full of hope.
Unbelievers, on the other hand, experience great belated regret when death overpowers them. Nevertheless, this regret by no means keeps them safe from the punishment because it is too late. In the Qur'an, it is stated that at the moment of death, the souls of unbelievers are taken with a great suffering and difficulty.
... If you could only see the wrongdoers in the throes of death when the angels are stretching out their hands, saying, "Disgorge your own selves! Today you will be repaid with the punishment of humiliation for saying something other than the truth about Allah, and being arrogant about His Signs." (Surat al-An'am, 93)
How will it be when the angels take them in death, beating their faces and their backs? (Surah Muhammad, 27)
It is surely unlikely to fully comprehend what unbelievers experience at the time of death. However, Allah depicts this situation so that man can contemplate and avoid meeting such an end. The angels of death, as the verses suggest, will take the souls of unbelievers whilst smiting their faces and their backs. By that moment, unbelievers will suffer physical pain accompanied by a deep regret since they will know they have no opportunity to return back.
At the moment of death, man experiences what befalls him with a very open conscious. This is the beginning of his eternal life. Death is only a transitional phase; it is actually the departure of soul from the flesh.
Due to the torment they suffer at the time of death, unbelievers grasp that they will be subjected to a great penalty that will last for all eternity -- unless Allah wills otherwise. Those who lived all their lives distant from the religion of Allah start to earnestly implore Allah's forgiveness and safety. They plead to be sent back to the world, to do good deeds and to make up for what they have lost. But their wishes aren't acceptable because they were "given a life long enough so that they would receive admonition" as Allah maintains in the verse. They were given glad tidings of the gardens of paradise and also warned against the fire of hell, but they willfully turned away from all these truths. Allah states in the Qur'an that they will again tend to denial upon another opportunity:
When death comes to one of them, he says, "My Lord, send me back again, so that perhaps I may act rightly regarding the things I failed to do!" No indeed! It is just words he utters... (Surat al-Muminun, 99-100)
Unbelievers knowingly did not prostrate before Allah, nor fulfill His orders, nor conform to the sublime morality. Allah says in the Qur'an that at the time of death, they wouldn't even be able to simply prostrate:
On the Day when legs are bared and they are called on to prostrate, they will not be able to do so. Their eyes will be downcast, darkened by debasement; for they were called on to prostrate when they were in full possession of their faculties. (Surat al-Qalam, 42-43)
There is another point that adds to the regret of people who, at the moment of death, comprehend that Allah's promises are all true. Believers, to whom unbelievers did not trust and take seriously in the world and even of whom they made fun, suffer none of the grief unbelievers go through on that day. They are eternally rewarded with the best of rewards because they spent all their lives sincerely to attain the consent of Allah. Unlike unbelievers, their souls are drawn out "gently" without any pain. (Surat an-Naziat: 2) As Allah describes in the verse, the angels greet the believers and give the good news of the Garden.
... Those the angels take in a virtuous state. They say, "Peace be upon you! Enter the Garden for what you did." (Surat an-Nahl, 32)
This is another mental torment for the unbelievers. They were also offered the very same opportunities given to the believers in this world. Yet, they willingly traded the eternal blessings of the Garden for the short-lived worldly benefits. Although they were reminded that the world is merely a place of testing for man and the real abode is the hereafter, they feigned ignorance about it. Therefore they didn't engage in good deeds to attain paradise. Yet, living by the morals of the Qur'an and being a sincere believer is possible for everyone only by one's committed intention. Pondering upon all these adds to the regret of unbelievers.
In one verse Allah says: Or do those who perpetrate evil deeds suppose that We will make them like those who have faith and do right actions, so that their lives and deaths will be the same? How bad their judgment is! (Surat al-Jathiyya: 21) In other words, every soul will be rewarded appropriately, the good with glad tidings and the evil with wrathful punishment.
Furthermore the fear of knowing that hell is prepared for them will intensify the regret felt by unbelievers. Until then they have only experienced the suffering of the removal of their souls. This suffering however makes them aware of their impending doom.
This regret of unbelievers beginning with death will last as long as Allah wills. Every passing moment, hour, and day, they will remain in this everlasting penalty and they will not be saved from regret.
However, it is in the hands of man not to suffer such great regret. Waiting to encounter death is not necessarily the way to have a grasp of the reality of the death and beyond. For believers, the promise of Allah is enough. After death, the justice of Allah certainly prevails; unbelievers are punished with fire and believers are rewarded with the gardens of paradise.
So, the wisest thing for a person to do who has not met death yet would be to seek refuge in Allah and to hope for His forgiveness. In addition, one needs to attentively explore the Qur'an, the only guide to the true path for humanity, and the sunnah of the Prophet (saas) to attain a thorough understanding of it and live by what they are commanded. Rather than avoidance from the thought of death, man will benefit from pondering over its reality and closeness and acting accordingly.
The one who turns towards Allah earns the consent of Allah both in this world and in the hereafter and enters the Garden, well pleased with our Lord and our Lord well pleased with him. Allah gives the believers the good news of this in the Qur'an:
O self at rest and at peace, return to your Lord, well-pleasing and well-pleased! Enter among My slaves! Enter My Garden. (Surat al-Fajr, 27-30)
The way to be saved from regret and win eternal bliss is to reflect on death and the hereafter and comply with the way of Allah, the Creator of man.