The holy month of Ramadan is a time of deep reflection for Muslims worldwide. Over the 30 days of Ramadan, Imam Sohaib Sultan of Princeton University will offer contemplative pieces on contemporary issues drawing from the wisdoms of the Qur’an – the sacred scripture that Muslims revere as the words of God and God’s final revelation to humanity. The Qur’an is at the heart of Muslim faith, ethics, and civilization. These short pieces are meant to inspire thought and conversation.
One of the most difficult experiences that we as human beings experience in our lives is the pain of losing someone near and dear to us. This separation, either through our own departing or the departing of our loved ones, is as inevitable as it is saddening. The Qur’an states in no unclear terms, “Every soul tastes death” and “We shall try you with something of…loss” (3:185 and 2:155).
The separation that death causes, no matter how we look at it, brings great grief to the heart. The Prophet Muhammad would often console people when they experienced loss and would encourage them to bear patiently and would give them glad tidings of the hereafter. The Prophet himself experienced a lot of loss of loved ones in his own lifetime. He was orphaned at a young age. His greatest supporters in his uncle and his first wife passed away in the same year. He lost many companions in battles and war. And, the Prophet buried five of his six children with his own hands — only one of his daughters, Lady Fatima, living longer than he by six months. When one of the Prophet’s two sons passed away in his own arms as a child, the Prophet was inconsolable as tears rolled down from his eyes. Some of the companions with him were taken aback, thinking that crying was not consistent with bearing loss patiently. But, the Prophet reminded them that these were “tears of compassion” and that God has compassion for those who have compassion.
To have patience in times of loss does not mean that we do not grieve; it means, that we do not lose faith in God and in our own capacity to endure. Patience means that we understand all blessings are a gift from God and must, eventually, return to God — just as we too, one day, must return to the Source of Life. The Qur’an says that those who are patient say upon experiencing loss, “Truly, from God we come and, truly, to God is our return” (2:156).
From the perspective of a believer, the painful separation from our loved ones, is ultimately a temporary separation. The Prophet would visit the graveyard often and would say aloud, “Peace be upon you, O inhabitants of the graves, believers and Muslims. Verily we will, God-willing, join you [in the near future]. I ask God for well-being for us and for you.” The Prophet assured his companions about the hereafter saying, “You will be with those whom you love.”
No matter how long we live or experience life with our loved ones, it can feel so short. The memories of a lifetime can feel like just a few fleeting moments. The Islamic tradition says that when the Angel of Death comes to take the human soul and asks, “How long were you on earth,” the soul replies, “A day or two.” In the Islamic ritual tradition, when a child is born the Call to Prayer (known as the adhan in Arabic) is gently chanted in his or her right ear, but this adhan is not followed by prayer. When a person dies, there is a funeral prayer but no adhan. Muslim sages point out that, in reality, the adhan at birth suffices for the funeral prayer at death — for that is how short life truly is.
In the Islamic spiritual and ethical tradition, there is great virtue attached to visiting those who are dying. It is said that the Angels of Mercy surround a person from the time that they set foot on their journey to visit the dying till the time they leave after visiting. To be there as a source of comfort and compassion to the dying and their family is in and of itself a blessed deed. As a chaplain, I have been called at times to be with the dying. It is one of the deepest, most profound human experiences to see the breath of life slowly journeying out of the human body into another realm.
These moments cause deep reflection on the life that is lived and how to make it all meaningful. The Prophet Muhammad taught that when we go into the grave, everything we worked so hard for — wealth, children, and so on — leave us behind. But, there are three things that accompany us into the grave and continue to bless the soul: beneficial knowledge that we leave behind for others to benefit from after we leave this world; sustainable charity that continues to help people well after our lifetime; and, children — whether our own or others — who pray for us after death. These are some valuable prescriptions for living a meaningful life.
In an often-cited line of poetry, Mawlana Rumi — the 13th century poet and philosopher — says that the lives of the righteous can be summarized as such: When they are born, they come out of their mother’s wombs crying while everyone around them is happy. When they die, they go into their graves happy while everyone around them is crying. When the Prophet’s great companion and scholar, Salman al-Farsi, passed away people said they felt the heavens and earth weep for his loss.
Today, many precious souls are leaving the world through violence and war. We feel the skies crying and the earth shaking at their loss.
In these final nights of Ramadan it is especially appropriate to pray for those who have passed away — those we know and those whom we do not know. And, it is a blessed time to honor their memory by committing to an act of charity in their names. May all who have passed away in the years past find rejoice in their returning to God, and may all who are experiencing the painful loss of a loved one find strength and patience through prayer, Amen.