Death: The sum total of life or part of a journey?

Author: Alia Hogben

image4What is death? Does it mark the sum total of an individual’s life on this earth, or is it one part of the continuing journey of the soul?

For some there is no such thing as the soul or that essence which continues beyond the death of the physical body. For others, such as Muslim Sufis, the body and its wonderful senses, including our humanity, is but a garment for a while. We discard this garment and our journey leads us back to God’s presence.

Sufism is the mystical dimension of Islam, and its intent is to actively seek divine love through direct personal experiences of God. Sufis believe that we should love God without the fear of hell or heaven.

Some have described this life as a bridge: We don’t know where we were before we journeyed on this bridge, and we don’t know what transpires after the bridge ends, except that we do continue. Perhaps Rumi, the Muslim mystic, is right when he says,

“There is a field somewhere beyond all doubts and wrong doing. I will meet you there.”

He adds, “It is your road and yours alone. Others may walk with you, but no one can walk it for you.” And about death, “I did not come here of my own accord, and I cannot leave that way. Whoever brought me here will have to take me home.”

It is not only Muslim Sufis but also other mystics who taught about the meaning of life. One of the images of the relationship between God and God’s creation is of the ocean and the return of the individual self to this ocean which symbolizes God.

The Indian Kabir said, “All know that the drop merges into the ocean, but few know that the ocean merges into the drop.”

Ali, the fourth Khalifah and son in law of the Prophet Mohammad, advised that we should keep death in mind as if this is the final day of your life, while at the same time live as if you have a thousand years more to live.

The English poet, John Donne, wrote about death.

“Death be not proud, though some have called thee mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so…one short sleep past, we wake eternally and death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.”

I love the imagery of Emily Dickinson’s poem,

“Because I could not stop for Death,

He kindly stopped for me.

The carriage held but just Ourselves – and Immortality…

We paused before a House that seemed

A swelling of the ground –

The roof was scarcely visible

The Cornice – in the ground.

Since then – tis Centuries – and yet

Feels shorter than the Day

I first surmised the Horses’ Heads

Were towards Eternity.”

For Muslims, our hope for ourselves is what the Quran says of death, “O tranquil self! Return to your Lord well pleased and pleasing! Enter among My servants and enter My garden.”

Shall we follow Rumi’s advice as to how to live?

“Be like the sun for grace and mercy. Be like the night to cover the faults of others. Be like running water for generosity. Be like death for rage and anger. Be like the earth for modesty. Appear as you are, be as you appear.”

It is not easy to remember this advice, as we get caught in the maelstrom of daily life and its demands, but nevertheless it is essential to pause ever so often to be guided by such a perspective.

For some of us we are given time to prepare for the departure of death, but for others it comes so suddenly that it startles the one who dies and those who are left behind.

We have to find ways to cope with an ending here in our own lives, and to grapple with blessings and regrets as we walk along the bridge, without the company of the one who has journeyed on.

We have to come to an understanding of the meaning of life, ours and theirs, and the difficult question remains as to what it was all about. What is the value; the memories and the legacy each of us leaves behind?

One can but hope that,

“There is a field somewhere beyond all doubts and wrong doing. I will meet you there.”