Death: A Life-Giving Force
Issue 86 November 2011
It is said that the Prophet Abraham lived until he was 175 years old. He had acquired the honorific title of ‘the friend of God’. There is a tradition that the Angel of Death, Azraeel, appeared to him and said he had been commanded by God to take his soul. Abraham—forever questioning—told the angel, “Go back to God and ask Him if I am His friend, how is it that He wants to take my soul.” Azraeel had never been faced with this situation before, and reported back to God, who replied, “Go back to Abraham and ask him if he is My friend, why does he hesitate to meet Me.”
Most of us fear death. It is an unknown destination, and in our modern, sanitised societies, death is often an unseen. It is certainly a taboo in social discussions. Which is why the speech by Steve Jobs to the graduates of Stanford University in 2005 was so remarkable. “No one wants to die,” he said. “Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it.” He gave the speech a short time after his diagnosis for pancreatic cancer. In the face of death he celebrated it, “Death is very likely the single best invention of life. It is life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.” Death is something we all must face. As the Qur’an reminds us, “Wherever you are death will find you, even if you are in towers built strong and high.” (4:78) Despite that, we are all exceptionally good at filtering out this hard and stark reality; any discussion of it as a positive impetus is at odds with our normal experience.
To talk about death seems morbid. When we contemplate the death of loved ones, sadness overcomes us. When we contemplate our own deaths—if we do—fear overcomes us. However, there is another way to perceive death, and that is to see it as a means for improving life. Jobs reflected, “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked.”
When Jobs died, six years after making that speech, his words were read with a new poignancy and profundity, even by those who never normally have conversations about their own mortality. When you think that death is the reality for all of us, it is strange that our modern societies avoid discussion on the topic. We spend much time on how to avoid death, “Quit smoking, and add years to your life,” “Exercise, and you will live three years longer,” “Eat vegetarian to increase life expectancy.” We may do all these things, and still we will meet with death. So what do we do in preparation for that eventuality? We look after our bodies, but what about our souls? Our spiritual nature is actually the predominant reality. It is our spiritual selves that will continue to live, transcending this mortal world. So, how much time do we give to that inner dimension?
One hears stories of people who, through prayer, meditation or trials of life, have undergone a ‘spiritual experience.’ Many of us that care about such matters may personally hope for such an event to confirm our faith, and help us on our own spiritual journey. But there is a different way to look at this matter. Instead of the focus on us as human beings searching for a spiritual experience, let us recognise that we are spiritual beings undergoing a human experience. This human experience will come to an end; thus our focus has to be on making the our spiritual dimension strong, on making sure the soul is fit, healthy and contented, ready for its next journey. “O soul that has attained to peace! Return thou to thy Sustainer, well-pleased and pleasing Him.” (Qur’an, 89:27-28)
Our bodies are all suffering from a terminal disease by virtue of us being human. “Your time is limited,” Jobs told the ambitious Stanford students, “So don’t waste it living someone else’s life.” Thoughts of death can give us momentum, and instil purpose into our lives. Rather than fearing death, death should make us fearless in living life. We should get on with the business of living, enjoying the beauty and wonder of this time-bound, physical reality. But in knowing that, “Every soul will taste of death,” as the Qur’an reminds, the question has to be, “How can we utilise that knowledge to give impetus to our lives, and at the same time prepare our souls for the next life?”