1. Death - The Veil of Heedlessness
Man is intrinsically selfish; he is extremely sensitive about issues linked to his own interests. Ironically, he displays indifference towards death, which ought to be a matter of paramount concern. In the Qur'an, this state of mind peculiar to "those who do not hold firmly to Faith" is defined by Allah in one word: "heedlessness".
The meaning of heedlessness is a deficiency in full comprehension of facts owing to a blurring of awareness or even total unawareness and the resultant failure to arrive at sound judgments and give pertinent responses. An example of this is given in the following verse:
Mankind's Reckoning has drawn very close to them, yet they heedlessly turn away. (Surat al-Anbiya': 1)
People feel certain that one who is afflicted by a fatal or incurable disease will die. Yet, no less than this patient, these people who harbor such feelings of certainty, too, will die. That this will happen some time in the future or very soon does not change this fact. Often, heedlessness obscures this truth. Maybe death will come upon him long before it comes upon that person with a fatal disease.
Family members grieve over patients on their deathbeds. Yet, hardly ever do they grieve over themselves, who will definitely die one day. However, given the certainty of the event, the response should not vary depending on whether it occurs shortly or at some far-off time.
If, in the face of death, grief is the correct response to give, then everyone should immediately start grieving for himself or for another, before the time of death comes. Or, he should overcome his heedlessness and strive to have a deeper understanding of death.
To this end, being acquainted with the reasons for heedlessness will be useful.
Causes for Heedlessness
— A Lack of Sagacity: Some people are not accustomed to thinking over serious issues. Making heedlessness a way of living, they do not think about death. Trivial issues, already "congesting" their minds, do not allow them to give serious thought to grave issues. Thus, they spend their lives drifting in the daily flow of events. Meanwhile, at the death of somebody, or when the conversation turns to the subject of death, they derive comfort from blurted phrases and simply avoid the subject.
— The Complexity and Vividness of Life: Life flows very fast and it is alluringly vivid. In the absence of exceptional mental effort, man is likely to take no notice of death, which may overcome him sooner or later. This is true especially for people who do not comprehend destiny, putting trust in Allah and submission to Him. From the moment these people become conscious of themselves, they strive to ensure a good living. Such people constantly chase after new plans, interests and objectives and do not ponder on death. And one day, they unpredictably and therefore with no preparation, face the reality of death. But then it is too late for them.
— The Deception of Population Increase: One of the reasons for heedlessness is the recurrence of births. The population of the world keeps increasing; it never shrinks. Once dragged into the spiral of life, however, man may, because of misconceptions, believe in alluring yet utterly false notions like "births replace deaths", thereby maintaining an equilibrium of population. Such a rationale makes conditions ripe for the formation of a heedless outlook upon death. However, if from now on, no more births ever occurred around the world, we would still witness deaths one after another and, as a result, a shrinking world population. Then the horror of death would start to be felt. Man would see the disappearance of the people surrounding him one by one and would realize that the inevitable end would likewise afflict him. Years pass by, but still every day, those still alive go to sleep in a state of anxiety over whether the next day it would be their turn. Never do they fail to remember death, not for one second.
Ironically, the actual situation is no different from the aforementioned example. New-borns have no effect whatsoever on the ones destined to die. This is only a psychological misconception. The inhabitants of the world who lived 150 years ago are not around today. The following generations did not save them from death. Likewise, 100 years from now, those currently living, with a few exceptions, will not be alive. That is because the world is not a permanent place for man.
Methods of Self - Deception
About from the reasons which make us disregard death and plunge into heedlessness, there are also certain defense mechanisms which people employ to deceive themselves. A few of these mechanisms are mentioned below.
— Postponing thinking about death to the latter years of life: People generally take it for granted that they will live until their mid-sixties or seventies. This explains why generally young and middle-aged people employ this defense mechanism. With such calculations in mind, they postpone thinking about such issues to the latter years of their lives. The latter years of life are inescapably the time when one cannot get the best out of life and this period is thought by many people to be the most appropriate phase in which to think sedulously about death and become prepared for the next life. This also brings spiritual relief, since it provides a sense of doing something for the hereafter.
Nevertheless, it is evident that making such long-term and inconclusive plans makes no sense for one whose next breath is not even guaranteed. Every day he sees many people of his age or even younger ones dying. Obituaries constitute a considerable part of daily newspapers. Every hour, television channels report news of deaths. Often man witnesses the death of people surrounding him. Yet, little does he think that people around him will also witness his own death or read about it in the newspaper. On the other hand, even if he lives for a very long time, nothing will change in his life, since his mentality will remain the same. Until he is actually facing death, he just postpones thinking about death.
— Making the assumption that one will "serve one's sentence" in hell only for a certain period: This view, which is prevalent in society, is inaccurate. In no part of the Qur'an do we find any reference to "serving one's sentence" in hell for some time and then being forgiven, unless Allah wills so. Quite the contrary, in all relevant verses, there is specific mention of the separation of believers and unbelievers on the Day of Judgments. Again we know from the Qur'an that believers will remain in paradise for all eternity, while unbelievers will be cast into hell, where they will suffer everlasting torment:
They say, 'The Fire will only touch us for a number of days.' Say, 'Have you made a contract with Allah—then Allah will not break His contract—or are you rather saying about Allah what you do not know? 'No indeed! Those who accumulate bad actions and are surrounded by their mistakes, are the Companions of the Fire, remaining in it timelessly, forever. Whereas those who believe and do right actions, such people are the Companions of the Garden, remaining in it timelessly, forever. (Surat al-Baqara: 80-82)
In another verse Allah reveals thus:
That is because they say, The Fire will only touch us for a number of days.' Their inventions have deluded them in their religion. (Surah Al 'Imran: 24)
Hell is a place of unimaginable torment. Hell is the place where the attributes of Allah, al-Jabbar (The Compeller) and al-Qahhar (The Subduer) are manifested to the utmost degree. The torment in hell is incomparable to any pain in the world. A person who cannot endure even a burn on his finger saying he can readily undergo such torture is merely demonstrating weak-mindedness. Furthermore, a person who does not feel terrified by the Wrath of Allah fails to give Allah due esteem. Such a person is entirely deprived of wisdom.
— Thinking "I already deserve paradise": There is also a group who assume themselves to be the people of paradise. Engaging in some minor deeds they assume to be good deeds and avoiding some wicked deeds, they think they will go to heaven. Steeped in superstition and mouthing heresies which they associate with religion, these people actually adhere to a faith completely divorced from that of the Qur'an. They present themselves as true believers. However, according to the verses in the Qur'an as such people ascribe partners to Allah, they are not true believers.:
Give them this parable. Once there were two men. To one of them We gave two vineyards surrounded by date-palms, with some cultivated land in between. Both gardens yielded their crops and did not suffer any loss, and We made a river flow right through the middle of them. He was a man of wealth and property and he said to his companion, while conversing with him, 'I have more wealth than you and more people under me.' He entered his garden and wronged himself by saying, 'I do not think that this will ever end. I do not think the Hour of Doom will ever come. But if I should be sent back to my Lord, I will definitely get something better in return.' His companion, with whom he was conversing, said to him, 'Do you then disbelieve in Him Who created you from dust, then from a drop of sperm, and then formed you as a man? He is, however, Allah, my Lord, and I will not associate anyone with my Lord. (Surat al-Kahf: 32-38)
With the words, "But if I should be sent back to my Lord", the garden owner expresses his lack of sound faith in Allah and the hereafter and consequently reveals that he is an idolater who harbors doubts. Meanwhile, he claims that he is a superior believer. Moreover, he feels no doubts that Allah will reward him with paradise. This false belief is very common among people.
These people, deep inside, know that they are entirely fraudulent, yet once they are questioned about it, they try to prove their innocence. They claim that observing the commandments of religion is not so important. Furthermore, they try to clear themselves, claiming that the seemingly religious people they see around them are immoral and dishonest. They try to prove that they are "good people" by stating that they do not mean any harm to anyone. They state that they do not hesitate to give money to beggars, that they have been serving honestly in public service for years and these are the things that make a sincere Muslim. In an endeavor to base their distorted religion on some kind of rationale, they subscribe to certain fallacies. This is actually typical of their insincerity. To legitimize their own life, they seek refuge in slogans like: "The best form of worship is to work" or "what matters is sincerity of heart." In the Qur'an, it is revealed that this is just "inventing lies against Allah" and it merits the punishment of eternal hell. In the Qur'an, Allah describes the situation of such people as follows:
What is the matter with you?
How do you reach your judgment?
Will you not pay heed?
Or do you have some clear authority? Bring your Book, then, if you are telling the truth! (Surat as-Saffat: 154-157)
— Double-Standard Rationales: Sometimes when people think about death, they assume they will disappear for all eternity. Such a startling idea makes them develop another defense mechanism; they only give half credence to the fact that "there is an eternal life promised by Allah." Such a conclusion raises some hope in them. When they consider the responsibilities of a believer towards his Creator, they prefer to completely ignore the fact of an eternal life. They comfort themselves thinking: "After all, we shall be reduced to insignificance, decomposing completely in the soil. There is no life after death." Such an assumption represses all fears and concerns, such as giving an account of one's deeds on the Day of Judgment or suffering in hellfire. In both sets of circumstances, they lead their lives in heedlessness until the end of their days.
The Consequence of Heedlessness
In the previous sections, as we have said, as long as one lives, death inevitably calls itself to one's attention. These reminders sometimes prove to be beneficial, prompting man to re-examine his priorities in life and to re-evaluate his outlook in general. But there are other times when the above-mentioned defense mechanisms take over, and with each passing day, the veil of heedlessness before one's eyes becomes thicker.
If unbelievers await death in a tranquil mood and have an irrational feeling of comfort, even when they are intensely aware of its approach in the latter years of their lives, it is because they are completely swathed in this veil. That is because death for them connotes restful and sound sleep, tranquility and calmness, and an eternal relief.
Contrary to what they think, however, Allah, the One Who creates every being from nothing and the One who makes them die and who will give life to all creatures on Judgment Day, promises them eternal regret and grief. They will, too, witness this fact at the moment of death, a time when they assume they will go to an eternal sleep. They realize that death is not total disappearance, but the initial moment of a new world full of anguish. The coming of the angels of death in a terrifying way is the first sign of this great torment:
How will it be when the angels take them in death, beating their faces and their backs? (Surah Muhammad: 27)
At this moment, the pre-death arrogance and insolence of the unbelievers turn into terror, regret, desperation and eternal pain. In the Qur'an, Allah reveals this truth thus:
They say, 'When we have been absorbed into the earth, are we then to be created afresh?' In fact, they deny they will ever meet their Lord. Say: 'The Angel of Death, who has been given charge of you, will carry off your souls, and then you will be sent back to your Lord.' If only you could see the evil-doers hanging their heads in shame before their Lord: 'Our Lord, we have seen and we have heard, so send us back again and we will act rightly. Truly we are now firm believers.' (Surat as-Sajda: 10-12)
There Is No Escape From Death
Death, especially at an early age, seldom comes to mind. Considering this as the end, man even escapes from the thought of it. However, just as physical avoidance provides no cure for death, neither does avoidance of thinking about it. Besides, it is impossible to ignore death. As indicated before, every day, newspapers run headlines about the deaths of so many people. One frequently comes across hearses or pass by cemeteries. Relatives and associates die. Their funerals or visits to offer condolences inevitably bring death to mind. As one witnesses the death of others, and especially the death of beloved ones, he inevitably thinks about his own end.
No matter how strongly the individual resists, wherever he seeks refuge or how he tries to escape, he may actually encounter his own death at any moment. He has no other choice. Ahead of him, there is no other exit. The countdown never stops, not for a moment. Wherever he returns, death meets him there. There is no change in Allah's law. The death catches up the person when his time comes. Allah reveals this truth in the Qur'an as follows:
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)
Wherever you are, death will catch up with you, even if you are in impregnable fortresses. (Surat an-Nisa': 78)
That is why one needs to stop deceiving himself or disregarding facts and strive to earn the good pleasure of Allah during this period predetermined by Him. Only Allah knows when this time will be over.
Our Prophet Muhammad (saas) also said that one of the best ways to prevent one's conscience from hardening, and attain a good character is by frequently remembering death:
Abdullah ibn Umar narrated, "Allah's Messenger (peace be upon him) said, 'These hearts become rusty just as iron does when water affects it.' On being asked what could clear them he replied, 'A great amount of remembrance of death and recitation of the Qur'an.'" (Al-Tirmidhi, 673)