Life and the Universe pose certain questions to the thinking individual, and how he answers them depends largely on his pattern of thinking. What, in the first place, establishes this pattern? It is quite simply, the urge to worship. But to worship whom, or what?
A man either worships God, or some entity other than God. His whole way of thinking is then governed by his choice. All his trust and devotion are cantered in that Being or thing: that is what becomes the most important force in his life for his actions flow from his faith and his urge to worship. That, in effect, is what makes up his religion.
If different people were asked what the topic of the greatest relevance for mankind was today, they would all give different answers. Some would say the spread of nuclear weapons; some would say too high a birth-rate all over the world, while others might say that the most important of all was the production of wealth and the giving of fair shares to all. These widely differing opinions show that people in general do not properly recognize what they themselves are. If they did, they would all argue that what affects man most is his ignorance of his own nature, and his refusal to accept the fact that one day he must die, and, more terrible, be called to account before his Maker. If we could only accept this reality, we would think less of the present world and more of the Afterlife.
Today, most people do believe in God and in the Afterworld. It is not as if they deny these things; yet their actions do not conform to their beliefs. In practice, all people are concerned about is getting on in life.
If you stand in a busy shopping centre during the evening rush-hour you will soon become aware of what it is that people are rushing towards; they are rushing towards the satisfaction of their own desires. One need only look at them, and listen to them, to understand that buying and selling, acquiring objects or money, are what give them the greatest joy in life. The happiness or sadness we see in their faces is directly connected with success or failure in the fulfilment of material ambitions.
No one cares about tomorrow. Everyone wants his share of the good things of life right this minute, and even being accepted and liked by other people would appear to depend on the type and amount of one’s possessions.
What is the one reality that everyone has to acknowledge? The obvious and unanimous answer to this is death. Death is a reality to which everyone, big or small, great or humble, has to reconcile himself. Everyone realizes that death can overtake one at any moment, but whenever this thought takes shape, people think only of what will happen to their children after they die, and what domestic and financial arrangements they should make for them. So much of their time is spent in safeguarding their children’s interests in this life, that they make no efforts to ensure themselves for the life beyond the grave. They do not appear able to project their minds beyond the point of death. They behave as if only their children will survive them; as if they themselves will be non-existent and will, therefore, have nothing to prepare for.
People behave as if they are totally unaware of the fact that there is a life after death, whereas, in fact, the real life only commences after death. If they could only realize that when they enter the grave, it is not just to be buried, but to be ushered into another world, their concern would be more for their own fate than for their children’s future. Even those who expect to find a life after death more consequential than the present one, do little to prepare themselves for it. This goes both for the religious-minded and the agnostics.
There are two factors which arouse doubts about life after death. Firstly, on dying, all human beings turn into dust, and all traces of their bodies eventually disappear. Once this has happened how can they possibly be revived? Secondly, we cannot actually see the life after death. And if no one has ever seen it, how can we be certain that it exists? How can we know that when we die, that life will be there for us to step into? Let us look at both these objections in turn.
“When I am dead, will I then be raised up again?” This question may arise in a vague kind of way in the minds of even those who do not have any strong beliefs in life after death as a reality. But the fact remains that very few people give their direct attention to this question. The plain fact that tomorrow’s life is not the subject of eager and willing enquiry is surely a sign that people have conscious or subconscious doubts as to its existence.
If, however, we give serious thought to this reality, it ceases to be difficult to understand. God – wishing to put us to the test – has not told us in detail the secrets of life after death. But He has scattered His signs throughout the world, and it is then for us to mark them, think earnestly about them, and in this way find a true picture of the essence of all things. This universe is, indeed, a mirror in which we can gaze upon the image of the next world.
It is well known that human beings pass from a prior state to their present state. Man takes shape from a substance which, form-less, grows inside the mother’s womb until a fully-fledged human being develops, ready to enter the outside world. This process of change, which turns an invisible, un-feeling, value-less substance into a six foot tall human being, is an every day event, so why should there be any difficulty in understanding how the tiny particles of our bodies, after being scattered in the ground, will once again take on a human form?
Every individual that one sees walking around is, in fact, an accumulation of countless atoms which had previously been dispersed throughout the earth and atmosphere in unknown dimensions. These atoms, brought together to form one meaningful, sensate pattern, and then took the shape of a human being capable of thought, feeling and movement. The same process will be repeated in reverse order when we die. The particles which had made up our body will be diffused in the earth, the water, the air, and later, at God’s command, they will be reassembled and again take the shape of a human being. What is so extraordinary about a happening which so constantly repeats itself?
Even in the world of matter, there are clear signs of the revival of life. Every year, in the rainy season, vegetation flourishes and greenery spreads in all directions. But when this season is over, the sun dries everything up. It is as if it had passed the death sentence on all seasonally growing things. A plain where flowers had formerly bloomed now seems a barren waste. But when the rains come again, that very same vegetation will be revived by the water pouring down from the heavens, and the dried-up plain will again become a meadow. In this very same way, man will be brought back to life after his death.
Let’s look at the matter from another angle. If doubts occur concerning life after death, it is because what we imagine is based on what happens in our present physical existence. We consider the solid, moving body that we can see to be the essential human being, and wonder how something which takes this shape can be re-made and raised up again once it has rotted away and mingled with the earth. We observe that when death strikes, the once articulate human being falls forever silent; the once mobile human being comes to a standstill. In fact, all his faculties cease to function. Shortly afterwards, he is buried, cremated or thrown into a river depending upon the customs of the people concerned. A few days later, the body is reduced to tiny particles and mingles with the earth or water in such a way as to be no longer detectable by normal human vision. We witness this process every so often, yet find it hard to understand how once alive human beings, who now have no physical substance to them, can be revived in any manner whatsoever.
What we fail to appreciate is that the word ‘man’ refers not to any such bodily form, but rather to the soul which inhabits the body. As far as the physical frame is concerned, we know that it is made up of tiny units called living cells. The position of the cells in our bodies is like that of the bricks in a building. The bricks (or cells) of our bodies, are continuously being destroyed in the course of our daily lives and we compensate for this loss by taking in food. This food, once digested, produces a variety of different types of cells which make up for any physical deficiency. The human body is thus undergoing a constant process of erosion and change. Old cells are destroyed and new ones take their place. Your present physique is an entirely new one. If all the parts of your body which were discarded over the last ten years were to be gathered together again, another human being exactly resembling yourself could be put together. If you are a hundred years old, then ten of “You” could be formed. But even if they looked exactly like you, they would just be lifeless lumps of flesh, for “You” do not dwell in them. “You” have cast off these old bodies and moulded yourself into a new frame.
So the drama of construction and destruction is constantly being enacted within you, without there being any apparent change in you. The entity which you call ‘yourself’ remains as it has always been. Supposing you had entered into a contract with someone ten years ago: “You” would continue to honour this contract, because “You” had committed yourself to it, although your previous frame is now non-existent. The hands which signed the contract and the tongue which testified to it are no longer parts of your body. Nevertheless, “You” still exist, and “You” acknowledge the fact that this ten-year old agreement was contracted by “You” and that “You” will continue to abide by it. This is that internal human being at work which, far from altering along with body-changes, survives countless transformations intact.
This proves that the expression, “homo sapiens”, far from being a label attached to a certain physical form which ceases to exist after death, in fact denotes a separate entity which remains intact even after the scattering of the different elements of the body. The fact that the body alters, whereas the soul does not, is conclusive proof of the transitional nature of the body and the eternal nature of the soul.
If life were simply “elements arranging themselves in order”, then it ought to follow that so long as this order endured, life should continue to survive, and conversely, it should be possible for scientists to create life by causing elements to accumulate in a particular way. Quite obviously both these propositions are false.
Let us take the first proposition. Consider the corpse of a man who has died of heart failure. All its elements are still arranged in the same order as they were a few minutes beforehand, no significant changes having taken place. But those elements are now lifeless. The corpse is still an “orderly elemental manifestation”, but the soul which once inhabited it has now departed. This shows that the organization of elemental matter neither creates nor sustains life. We all know that it is not just those who have been torn limb from limb in accidents who die. People of all ages and in all states of health regularly pass away, and it frequently happens that doctors cannot say – particularly in the case of strokes, heart failure etc. – why a patient should have died at that particular point in time. It so often happens that a man is perfectly healthy one day and is dead the next. Life, we must concede, is a separate entity from the body.
As for the second proposition – the creation of a live human being in a laboratory – scientists are the first to admit that this is a sheer impossibility. They say this, although the body’s chemical formula and atomic structure are well-known. Its carbon is the same as in charcoal, its oxygen and hydrogen the same as in water and its nitrogen the same as in the atmosphere. It has never been true to say that a live human being is just a specific collection of ordinary atoms which have been arranged in an extraordinary way. Man may be made up of certain known material particles, but we are still not in a position to create life by just combining those particles in a particular way. The body of a live human being is not just a collection of lifeless atoms. It is something quite other than this. It is a combination of atoms plus life. After death, this collection of atoms does not disappear from view. It is still there for everyone to see. It is life itself which departs for another world.
Clearly, life is not something which can be completely annihilated. Once we understand that it is something having eternal properties, we can appreciate how rational, and also how natural the ‘life-after-death’ theory is. Facts are simply crying out that life does not consist merely of what can be seen of the human body prior to death. There must also be a life after death. If the human intellect accepts the passing nature of this world, the possessor of that intellect must be a being who survives it. When we die, we do not pass into oblivion. We retire to reside in another world – the Hereafter. The present world is nothing but the briefest of interludes in our never-ending life-span.
Think for a moment what this other world must be like. God’s Prophet has made it known to mankind that heaven and hell both exist there, and that everyone who dies must eventually find his eternal abode in one or the other. Those who are obedient to God in this world, always behaving in a virtuous fashion, will be rewarded with a place in paradise, while those who are evil and rebellious in their attitude towards God will be cast into the Fire to be tormented forever and ever.
It is important to understand that human actions fall into one of two categories. The first comprises every day, routine matters in which there is no need to label actions right or wrong. It also includes purely accidental happenings, which, likewise, cannot be labelled right or wrong, because of there being no human will or intention behind them. The second category, however, is very different in nature because it covers a wide range of actions, the rights and wrongs of which must be taken seriously into consideration before being carried out. This is known as the ethical category.
Imagine walking along a mountain road with ledges of rock projecting above your head. Suddenly a piece of rock detaches itself, falls on you and injures you. Do you strike the mountainside and bear a grudge against it? Of course not. The stone falling down and hurting you was purely a matter of chance. But suppose a man picks up a stone and throws it at you with the clear intention of injuring you. Won’t you then become enraged and feel like throwing stones back at him? You would be quite right in feeling that he should be punished, because what he did was intentional. Here, it is not just a question of some accidental happening, but of right and wrong action, good and bad intentions, in a word – of ethics.
The examples chosen to clarify this point are of a very simple nature, in that the result of the action can immediately be seen, and, in the second case, one can judge immediately that the assailant was in the wrong. But, in life, there are much more complex situations where wrongdoing is not immediately apparent, and the culprits may go scot-free for long periods, or never be brought to book at all. Obviously, they should be condemned by their fellow men or be punished by a court of law. But sometimes evil deeds are not seen to be such, or the wrong-doers are so clever as to escape punishment, or there simply may not be the means to inflict a suitable punishment. Crimes are often repeated for just such reasons. But the evil-doer should not be too ready to congratulate himself on the success of his schemes, or on his ability to evade the law – or the censure of society, for it is exactly this type of action that he will be called to account for by his Creator on the Day of Judgment. Everyone, no matter the walk of life he hails from, will be required to stand before his Maker on that fateful day, and lay bare his entire life before Him. Judged by those of his actions which fall into the ethical category, where principles and right action are of supreme importance, he will either be ushered into paradise, or cast down into the flaming pits of hell. If all this has been kept hidden from him in this world, it is because it is God’s intention to put man to the test.
It is in the Afterworld that man will be faced with the full consequences of his deeds, depending upon how right or wrong they were. Every action has certain consequences for the doer; every situation that he creates causes a favourable or unfavourable reaction. In deciding upon the course he takes, for good or for evil, he himself forges his own destiny.
(This group of edited introductory articles to Islam are taken from Mawlana Wahiduddin Khan’s book “Islam As It Is”)