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The question of life after death has always agitated the minds of people belonging to all religions and all ages alike. There is also the atheistic view which totally denies the possibility of life after death. The religions which believe in life after death can be divided into two categories.
1. Those which believe in the reincarnation of the soul of a dead person into a new human or animal form of existence.
2. Those which believe in an otherworldly state of existence after death.
The atheistic view is outside the domain of this discussion. As far as Islamic doctrine is concerned, Islam belongs to that category of religions which totally rejects all possibilities of reincarnation in any form. But those who believe in some otherworldly form of spiritual or carnal existence are divided among themselves on so many planes. Within each religion the understanding differs. Hence, with reference to the views held by the followers of various religions, no belief can be attributed to them without fear of contradiction.
In Islam itself there are different views held by different sects or Muslim scholars. The general understanding tends to perceive the otherworldly form as very similar to the carnal one here on earth. The concept of heaven and hell consequently present a material image rather than a spiritual image of things to be. Heaven is presented, according to their concept, as an immeasurably large garden literally abounding in beautiful trees casting eternal shadows under which rivers will flow. The rivers would be of milk and honey. The garden will be fruit bearing and all man may desire of fruits would be his at his command. The meat would be that of birds of all sorts; it is only for one to wish which meat he particularly craves. Female companions of exceeding beauty and refinement would be provided to the pious men, with no limit imposed on the number, which will be decided according to their capacity. As many as they can cope with will be theirs. What would they do? How would they relate with each other? Will they bear children or lead a barren life of enjoyment? These are all the moot questions. The enjoyment, as it is conceived, is intensely sensual. No work to be performed, no labour to be wasted, no effort to be made. A perfect life (if such life can be called perfect) of complete and total indolence, with the option of overeating and over-drinking, because also wine will be flowing close to the rivers of milk and honey. No fear of dyspepsia or intoxication! Reclining on heavenly cushions of silk and brocade, they will while their time away in eternal bliss — but what an eternal bliss!
In Islam, there are others who categorically reject this naive understanding of the Quranic references to heaven, and prove with many a reference to verses of the Holy Quran that what it describes is just metaphorical imagery which has no carnality about it. In fact the Holy Quran makes it amply clear that the form of existence of the life to come will be so different from all known forms of life here on earth, that it is beyond human imagination even to have the slightest glimpse of the otherworldly realities.
We will raise you into a form of which you have not the slightest knowledge. Surah Al-Waqiah (Ch. 56: V.62)
This is the categorical statement of the Quran on the subject. In recent times, the founder of the Ahmadiyya Community, Hadrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (as) of Qadian, presented this view of spiritual existence as against carnal existence in his unique and outstanding treatise entitled ‘The Philosophy of the Teachings of Islam”. All views propounded in the book are well documented with Quranic references and traditions of the Holy Founder of Islam. A brief account is reproduced here.
According to his profound study, the life in the hereafter would not be material. Instead, it would be of a spiritual nature of which we can only visualise certain aspects. We cannot determine precisely how things will take shape. One of the salient features of his vision of the hereafter concerns the soul giving birth to another rarer entity, which would occupy the same position in relation to the soul as the soul occupies in relation to our carnal existence here on earth. This birth of a soul from within the soul will be related to the sort of life that we have lived here on earth. If our lives here are spent in submission to the will of God and in accordance with His commands, our tastes gradually become cultured and attuned to enjoying spiritual pleasures as against carnal pleasures. Within the soul a sort of embryonic soul begins to take shape. New faculties are born and new tastes are acquired, in which those accustomed to carnal pleasures find no enjoyment. These new types of refined human beings can find the content of their heart. Sacrifice instead of the usurpation of others’ rights becomes enjoyable. Forgiveness takes the upper hand of revenge, and love with no selfish motive is born like a second nature, replacing all relationships that have ulterior motives. Thus, one can say a new soul within the soul is in the offing.
All these projections regarding the development of the soul are inferences drawn from various verses of the Holy Quran, yet the exact nature of future events cannot be precisely determined. One can only say that something along these lines would take place, the details of which lie beyond the reach of human understanding. There are certain aspects of the new life which need to be discussed. The concept of hell and heaven in Islam is completely different from the normally held view. Hell and heaven are not two different places occupying separate time and space. According to the Holy Quran, the heaven covers the entire universe. ‘Where would be hell then?’ enquired some of the companions of the Holy Prophet. ‘At the same place’, was the answer, ‘but you do not have the faculty to understand their coexistence.’ That is to say in ordinary human terms, they may seem to occupy the same time-space, but in reality because they belong to different dimensions, so they will coexist without interfering and inter-relating with each other.
But what is the meaning of heavenly bliss, the tortures of the fire of hell? In answer to this question, the Promised Messiah (as) has illustrated the issue in the following terms: If a man is almost dying of thirst, and is otherwise healthy, cool water can provide him such deeply satisfying pleasure as cannot be derived from the ordinary experience of drinking water, or even the most delicious drink of his choice. If a man is thirsty and hungry as well, and he needs an immediate source of energy, a chilled bunch of grapes can provide him with such deep satisfaction as is not experienced by the same in ordinary circumstances. But the pre-requisite for these pleasures is good health. Now visualise a very sick man, who is nauseating and trying to vomit whatever liquid is left in him, and is at the verge of death through dehydration. Offer him a glass of cool water, or a chilled bunch of grapes, then not to mention his accepting them, a mere glance of them would create a state of revulsion and absolute abhorrence in him.
In illustrations like these, the Promised Messiah (as) made it clear that hell and heaven are only issues of relativity. A healthy soul which has acquired the taste for good things, when brought into close proximity of the objects of its choice, will draw even greater pleasure than before. All that a healthy spiritual man was craving was nearness to God and His attributes and to imitate divine virtues. In heaven, such a healthy soul would begin to see and conceive and feel the nearness of the attributes of God like never before. They, according to the Promised Messiah, would not remain merely spiritual values, but would acquire ethereal forms and shapes, which the newly born heavenly spirit would enjoy with the help of the erstwhile soul, which would function as the body. That again would be a matter of relativity. The converse will be true of hell, in the sense that an unhealthy soul would create an unhealthy body for the new soul of the hereafter. And the same factors which provide pleasure to the healthy soul would provide torture and deep suffering for this unhealthy entity.
When we refer to mind or soul in comparison to our carnal body, there is a vast difference in the nature of their existence, which is almost inconceivable. Every part of the body is alive and is throbbing with life, not only in material terms but also in awareness. Every particle of the human body is gifted with some sort of awareness. Scientists try to express that awareness in terms of electronic pulses, but that is a very crude way of describing the overall awareness of the conscious and subconscious mind and the immune system and other independent functions of the human body, which still lie far beyond our power of comprehension.
So what is that awareness? How can it be defined and explained — that Ultimate ‘I’ in every living thing. Can we refer to it as ego in psychological terms? But never has a psychologist succeeded in defining the ego. It is that something which in religious terms is described as the soul. There is no way we can measure the distance between the soul and the carnal body. In terms of rarity, the soul even in our crudest perception, is so rare and ultra-refined that in no way can it be likened to the body that it occupies. Now try to conceive the scenario of the birth of a soul within the soul over a period of billions of years. At the end of a long day, we find a soul within a soul, which would have the same comparison in terms of rarity as a human soul here on earth has with the human body. Something similar to this will take place, and in relative terms, the future existence of life would also have two states combined into one entity. In relative terms, one state would be like body and the other like soul. In comparison to our bodies, our soul would appear like a body to the newly evolved essence of existence.
In short, each individual creates his own hell or his own heaven, and in accordance with his own state each heaven differs from the other person’s heaven, and each hell differs from the other person’s hell, though apparently they occupy the same space and time in otherworldly dimensions.
What happens to man’s soul between the time of his carnal death and his resurrection on the Day of Judgement? The Holy Prophet (sa) is reported to have said that after our death windows will open up in the grave; for the pious people, windows open from heaven, and for the wicked people they open towards hell. However, if we were to open up a grave, we would not find any windows! So literal acceptance of these words will not convey the true meaning of this subject. It is impossible that the Holy Prophet (sa) should ever misinform us, hence here he had to be speaking metaphorically. Had it not been so, then every time we dig up a grave, we should find windows, either opening into hell, or letting in the fragrant and pleasant air of paradise. But we witness neither of these. So what do the Holy Prophet’s words mean?
The grave is actually an intermediary phase of existence between this life and the life to come. Here, spiritual life will progress gradually through many stages until it reaches its ultimate destiny. Then by the Command of Allah, a trumpet will be blown, and the final spiritual form will come into being. In this interim period, different souls would pass through a semblance of heaven or hell before reaching their final stage of perfection, fit and ready to be raised into a completely transformed entity. The Quran illustrates this concept beautifully:
See how God gives you various shapes in the womb. Surah Al-Imran (Ch. 3: V.7)
Now this subject is related to the subject of the two identical creations mentioned above. Take for example the case of such children as are congenitally ill. They do not suddenly contract illness at the time of delivery, rather they gradually develop into a state of morbidity which is progressive and which starts from the time of their early embryonic stage. Similarly, the soul of a person who is spiritually diseased, in that embryonic stage before its final resurrection on the Day of Judgement, will suffer through a semblance of hell and will remain uneasy in that period of the grave as does an unhealthy child in the womb of its mother. The ways of a healthy child are totally different, even his kicking is appreciated by the mother.
The question that now arises is: Will the soul also progress as does the child in the mother’s womb, and will it pass through all these stages? The answer to this can be found in the very same verse of the Quran: ‘Ma khalakakum wa ma basukum illa ka nafsin wahidin’ — your first creation and your second creation will be identical.
To understand the second creation, we need to understand the way a baby takes shape in a mother’s womb. These forms apparently only take nine months to develop, while in reality the creation of life is spread over billions of years. Going back to the beginning of zoological life, the baby passes through almost all the stages of the evolution of life. From the beginning of the pregnancy, through to its culmination nine months later, the development of the child reflects all the stages of creation. In other words, all the phases of evolution are being repeated in those nine months, one after the other, and at such great speed that it is beyond our imagination. It keeps alive the stages of the system of evolution, and presents a picture of it.
The creation of life underwent a long period of development to reach the form that we witness in nine months. This sheds light on the fact that the period of our first creation was very long, and our second creation will also span a long period. By studying these nine months we can learn something of the billions of years of the history of life, and also about the evolution of souls in the next world. It is perhaps safe to infer that the time from the early origin of life to the ultimate creation of man, would perhaps be needed once again for the development of the soul after the death.
In support of this reasoning, the Quran categorically declares that when the souls are resurrected they will talk to one another, trying to determine how long they tarried on the earth. Some will say, ‘We tarried for a day’ while others will say ‘for even less than a day.’ Allah will then say: ‘No even that is not correct.’ In other words, Allah will say that ‘You tarried on earth for much less than what you estimate.’ In reality, the relationship of one life-span to a small part of the day is more or less the same ratio that the time of the soul’s resurrection will have to its previous entire life. The further away something is, the smaller it appears. Our childhood seems like an experience of just a few seconds. The greater the distance of the stars, the smaller they appear. What Allah is trying to tell us is that we won’t find ourselves being judged the very next day after we die. Instead, judgement will take place in such a distant future that our previous lives will seem like a matter of a few seconds to us, like a small point a long way away.
In short, man’s resurrection is described as a transformation that he cannot envisage and an event that is as certain as his existence here on earth. All these subjects have been explained in detail in the Holy Quran.