Life after Death:
A story for the ignorant masses or the destiny of us all?
There is a great deal of cynicism amongst people in Western communities about the notion of the afterlife. This springs from the abuse of religion by the powers of oppression over the centuries.
Keep quiet here about injustice and be rewarded after death
Abuse of the church's claim to hold the keys of heaven, based upon a statement in the Gospel according to Matthew (16:18-20), meant that its religious power was used as a weapon to preserve the privilege and power of ruling elites for many centuries. The horrors of feudal serfdom, of cruel government and of crushing poverty next to conspicuous wealth, were given legitimacy by the weaving together of religious and state power. Even the religious and lay nobility were woven together into the ruling class. To this day the English House of Lords includes the Anglican bishops as well as the lay dukes, barons and other social remnants of the past. The Anglican bishops, notoriously, were amongst the strongest opponents of the abolition of slavery in the House of Lords.
Whenever the burden became too great for the common people and they rose in ideological or physical rebellion against this deification of oppression, they were charged with heresy and burnt alive, or declared infidels and crusades were launched against them. The war of genocide against the Cathars in southern France was one of the worst examples of the latter. Church control of education meant that history was indeed written by the victors and such rebels were vilified for the proper indoctrination of the next generation.
A pie in the sky when you die
The ordinary people were told that there could not be justice in this world and that they should look to heaven, where their poverty and patience in suffering here would be rewarded by God. By the late 1800s this had degenerated into the ditty "You'll get a pie in the sky when you die", sung by cynics in the socialist movement, who wanted to create a materialist, God-free utopia on earth, to replace the nightmare of oppression which was the real world at that time.
The roots of this discrediting of preaching and teaching about the afterlife date back many centuries. It comes from the combination of official Christianity with the oppressive state.
The teachings of Jesus (a), became confused with the religion created by Paul of Tarsus, over the years following the two destructions of Jerusalem, in 70 CE and 136 CE, and the exile of the original Community of the Gospel. We can see the seeds of endorsement of State oppression in his Letter to the Romans, written at a time when followers of the Law and the Gospel were being killed by being burnt alive or fed to beasts at circus entertainments by the Roman authorities, :
"You must all obey the governing authorities. Since all government comes from God, the civil authorities were appointed by God, and so anyone who resists authority is rebelling against God's decision, and such an act is bound to be punished. Good behaviour is not afraid of magistrates; only criminals have anything to fear.....The State is there to serve God for your benefit."
This state worship intensified when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire at the time of Constantine. The emperor, instead of being diminished in status and power, became God's representative on earth, protector of Truth. Disobedience to his rule became heresy, punishable in this world and the next.
Such abuse of divine revelation and religious authority continued over the centuries until the intellectual and social revolution which accompanied the rise of European nation states and national economies. The Protestant Revolt against Rome from the 1500s, followed by the intellectual revolt against Christianity itself in the late 1700s and throughout the 1800s, which accompanied the rise of the new religion of scientific materialism, was seen as one of revolt against the darkness of outdated, oppressive, religion and a coming of humanity into the pure light of reason and science. Demands for social justice and freedom of expression and inquiry were in the main, forced into confrontation with false dogmas of religion. The very notion of the 'Enlightenment', which is the foundation of modern Western thought, is based upon this identification of 'religion' with ignorance and oppression.
Anger about the misuse of religion for worldly oppression encouraged eighteenth century fighters for human rights, well intentioned men like Thomas Paine, to use the errors about basic science in the Bible to develop a claim that God was just an invention of crafty rulers. The famous claim of Karl Marx that 'religion is the opium of the people', a drug to dull them into insensitivity about justice and their basic rights, was not an outrageous one to many nineteenth century thinkers. In many respects, it reflected the truth of the contemporary situation.
Muslims who have not been subjected to the Western style of education which, in all of its forms, espouses the ideals of the 'Enlightenment', may not be aware of this cultural baggage accompanying the concept of life after death in many Western communities.
Life after death not seen as a confidence trick in Islamic teaching
To Muslims, the pathway to God-consciousness, to taqwa' , is the pathway shown by the prophets and messengers of God . It is not a pathway mixed up with the false teachings of those who have worldly motives and selfish political objectives. Any Muslim who could read has always understood that the message of all the Prophets of God, is for justice, for respect for the rights of all creation and of course, the laying out of the 'sirat al-mustaqeem', the pathway to that closeness to Allah which is the highest possible goal of the human being. Reading is itself an important religious duty, for all must have access to knowledge. The ignorant worshipper is not equal to one who knows.
The Quran makes the mission of the prophets crystal-clear. The Book and the Balance was brought by apostles so that we may stand forth in justice.
"We sent aforetime our apostles with Clear Signs and sent down with them the Book and the Balance (of Right and Wrong) that men may stand forth in justice; and We sent down Iron in which is (material for) mighty war as well as many benefits for mankind that Allah may test who it is that will help unseen Him and His apostles; for Allah is Full of Strength exalted in Might (and able to enforce His will)."
All believers are exhorted to ensure that justice is firmly supported, even if it is against our own interests.
"O ye who believe! stand out firmly for justice as witnesses to Allah even as against yourselves or your parents or your kin and whether it be (against) rich or poor: for Allah can best protect both. Follow not the lusts (of your hearts) lest ye swerve and if ye distort (justice) or decline to do justice verily Allah is well-acquainted with all that ye do."
The Gospel of Jesus was part of that train of revelation which was sent to guide humankind over the centuries. The Gospel came confirming the path of the Torah and warning those that had gone astray.
"And We caused Jesus, son of Mary, to follow in their footsteps, confirming that which was (revealed) before him, and We bestowed on him the Gospel wherein is guidance and a light, confirming that which was (revealed) before it in the Torah a guidance and an admonition unto those who ward off (evil)."
Examples of the Hadith Qudsi, which tell what God revealed but do not have the same status as the Holy Quran, further elucidate these verses:
"I shall take revenge on the oppressor in this life and the next. I shall take revenge on someone who saw a person being oppressed and was able to help him but did not help him."
(Hadith 96 al-Tabarani from Al-Ithafat al-Saniyyah bi 'l-Ahadith al-Qudsiyyah)
"Allah revealed to David: Tell the tyrants not to remember Me for I remember those who remember Me; and My remembrance of them shall be that I shall curse them."
(Hadith 184 al-Daylami from Al-Ithafat al-Saniyyah bi 'l-Ahadith al-Qudsiyyah)
With such clear strength behind the notion of justice from the Quran and Hadith, teachings which were, and are, traditionally known by the whole Muslim population through sermons and through lessons in the mosques and schools, everyone knows that Allah is not party to oppression. The notion that the concept of the afterlife is just some sort of confidence trick by the powerful to keep the weak in subjection, has never been part of the Islamic culture, for it has been seen as a reason for resistance to oppression rather than as an excuse for submitting to it. Tyrants typically try to suppress the teaching of Islam, rather than use it, for its message of human liberation is too hard for them to handle. In every country in every community, variations of the theme laid down by Nimrod and Pharaoh are still played out.
In Islam there is no clerical class interpreting the Word of God from secret books, declaring this or that to be the Law Eternal, depending upon the needs of those in power. In Islamic teaching there is no mystical body of God here on earth which claims the power to determine what will be bound or loosed in heaven. While there have always been unscrupulous people, as there are right now, who try to twist Islam to suit their needs, they have always been unable to sustain their position for long.
No conflict with reason
We cannot use the excuse that Islam is 'the opium of the people' for its does not work in that way. We cannot argue that teachings about the afterlife are just stories to keep the oppressed contented, for struggle in the path of righteousness is offered again and again as the pathway to salvation. We cannot claim that the Quran has been discredited by science because it has not. It goes hand in hand with science, one strengthening the other. Indeed the lack of conflict between science and reason on one hand and the revelation of the Quran in the other, should make all intelligent creation view the teachings on life in the world to come with great respect.
Rationalists have been able to use centuries of interpolation into the existing copies of the Bible to expose the great gulf which exists between the corpus of known scientific fact and what is written there. They have argued from that basis that because the Bible is weak on known scientific facts, it is likely to be equally unreliable on matters of the spirit.
This does not work out when it is the Quran which is used as the reference. The more our knowledge of science increases, the more convinced evidence we acquire of the truth of the Quran. The book by Maurice Bucaille "the Bible, The Quran and Science" (Seghers Paris 1976) illustrates how there is not one verse in the Quran which can be contradicted by modern scientific knowledge. His conclusion is worth repeating:
"In view of the state of knowledge in Muhammad's day, it is inconceivabble that many of the statements in the Quran which are connected with science could have been the work of a man. It is, moreover, perfectly legitimate, not only to regard the Quran as the expression of a Revelation, but also to award it a very special place on account of the guarantee of authenticity it provides and the presence in it of scientific statements which, when studied today, appear as a challenge to human explanation."
To be taken seriously
Given that the Quran, revealed to Muhammad (s) all those centuries ago, stands the test of modern inquiring minds like that of Dr Bucaille, its verses on how we should live our lives and seek the pleasure of Allah also deserve to be taken with the same respect.
We are warned in the Quran that no-one can escape the judgment or justice of Allah. Paradise is real, as the Fire is real. It is our duty to live with this awareness and to pass on the message. We we must resist the pressures of evil in the knowledge that God does not demand of us more than we can bear..
"Every soul will taste of death. And ye will be paid on the Day of Resurrection only that which ye have fairly earned. Whoso is removed from the Fire and is made to enter Paradise, he indeed is triumphant. The life of this world is but comfort of illusion.
"Assuredly ye will be tried in your property and in your persons, and ye will hear much wrong from those who were given the Scripture before you, and from the idolaters. But if ye persevere and ward off (evil), then that is of the steadfast heart of things.
"And (remember) when Allah laid a charge on those who had received the Scripture (He said): Ye are to expound it to mankind and not to hide it. But they flung it behind their backs and bought thereby a little gain. Verily evil is that which they have gained thereby."
To inherit Paradise we must be conscientious about our duties to our fellow human beings, keeping our word, as well as our duty to God, observing prayer.
"Those who faithfully observe their trust and their covenants; And who (strictly) guard their prayers. Those will be the heirs. Who will inherit Paradise: they will dwell therein (forever)."
The way to the Fire looks attractive and the way to Paradise looks hard from our perspective, but we will not, on that final day, be able to claim that we were not warned. One Hadith Qudsi tells us:
When Allah created Paradise and Hell-fire, He sent Gabriel to Paradise, saying: Look at it and at what I have prepared therein for its inhabitants. The Prophet (s) said: So he came to it and looked at it and at what Allah had prepared therein for its inhabitants. The Prophet (s) said: So he returned to Him and said: By your glory, no one hears of it without entering it. So He ordered that it be encompassed by forms of hardship, and He said: Return to it and look at what I have prepared therein for its inhabitants. The Prophet (s) said: So he returned to it and found that it was encompassed by forms of hardship. Then he returned to Him and said: By Your glory, I fear that no one will enter it. He said: Go to Hell-fire and look at it and what I have prepared therein for its inhabitants, and he fount that it was in layers, one above the other. Then he returned to Him and said: By Your glory, no one who hears of it will enter it. So He ordered that it be encompassed by lusts. Then He said: Return to it. And he returned to it and said: By Your glory, I am frightened that no one will escape from entering it.
(Hadith Qudsi 38)
That Paradise is a place of indescribable wonder and beauty is attested by many sources, but even so this beauty is nothing compared to the joy of the presence of Allah.
Shuhaib narrated that the Prophet (s) said: When the people of Heaven enter Heaven, Allah would say: Do you want anything more that I may give? They would say: 'Did You not make our faces shine? Did You not admit us to Paradise? Did You not save us from the Fire? Then the Veil will be removed and behold: there is nothing that they were given which would be dearer to them than looking at their Lord.
(Hadith Qudsi 133 (Muslim))
Such concepts, removed as they are from our material experience, must be accepted with the respect that only a believer has for our Prophet Muhammad and the revelation he was given. No-one has died and come back to tell us about the other side. Prophets themselves try to explain to us, with our weak and self-centred minds, about what awaits us. What we have, in this age of excessive respect for scientific materialism, is the confidence that the Quran, the Miracle of Muhammad, contains signs which have been set there for each generation, to help it to strengthen its faith and to indicate to all intelligent beings that there is truth therein which must be seriously considered.
Those whose hearts have been sealed cannot perceive, those who do not strive to do right cannot understand, but those who actively reach out for Allah, will inshallah, find the way.
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