Understanding the Hereafter

Those huge masses of ice, which we know as icebergs, found floating in the seas of the North and South poles, number amongst the most deceptive and, therefore, most dangerous phenomena to be found in nature. Their deceptiveness lies in the fact that no matter how huge, or wonderful in configuration, what we see of them amounts to only one tenth of their enormous bulk. What lies below the surface of the ocean, spreading far and beyond the visible penmeter, poses tremendous hazards to the unwary. In some ways, our lives are like those floating mountains of ice. The part we spend in this world — about a hundred years, or less — is like the part of the iceberg which is visible above the surface. We can see it, touch it, feel it. We can take its measure and deal with it effectively. But the part which comes after death is like the submerged part — vast, unfathomable and fraught with peril. It is something which defies the imagination, but which we must nevertheless try to comprehend, for that is the part of human life which God has decreed should be eternal and, as such, ineluctable.

We are all familiar with the facts of our origin and the course which life takes from the womb until death. But at the end of our lifespan, whether it terminates in youth or in old age, our familiarity with the nature of things comes to an end. It has been surmised that death means total and final annihilation. But this is not so. Death is simply a means of consigning us to a new womb, to the womb of the universe itself. From that point, we are ushered into another world: the Hereafter. While the present, physical world as we know it has a finite time-frame, the Hereafter stretches away from us into infinity. We fondly imagine that there is some parallel between the pleasures and pains of this world and those of the next, but, in truth, nothing that we can experience in this world will ever match the extremes of agony and bliss of life after death. Those who merit punishment in the Hereafter will be condemned to suffer the most horrific pain for all time to come. But those who merit God’s blessings in the Hereafter shall know the most wonderful joy and contentment.

It is because life in this world is intended to be a testing-ground that the world of the Hereafter remains beyond our reach. But all around us, we have innumerable signs which can help us, by analogy, to understand and appreciate the nature of the world to come. Imagine a room which ostensibly consists of four walls, furniture, a few material objects and some human occupants. To all outward appearances, that is what the room adds up to. But the moment we switch on the TV set, we are introduced to a hitherto unsuspected world of colour, movement, and highly vocal human activity. This world, with its scenery and very alive human beings had existed all along. It had only needed the flip of a switch to make us aware of it. Similarly, our terrestrial existence is made up of a world within a world. The world we know is concrete, visible, audible, tangible. The ‘other’ world, the world within it, or rather, beyond it, is not however, one which can be apprehended through any of the normal human senses; no switch can be turned on to make us understand what it is really like. Only death can do this for us. And when we reopen our eyes after death we find that what had formerly been impalpable, and quite beyond human comprehension is now a stark, overwhelming reality. It is then that we grasp what had hitherto existed, but remained invisible.

Once we have become clear in our minds that the after-life truly exists, we realize that the sole aim of our earthly existence should be to strive for success in the life to come, for, unlike the present ephemeral world, the Hereafter is eternal and real. What we understand by suffering and solace in this world cannot be compared with the suffering and solace of the Hereafter.

Many individuals lead immoral, even criminal existences because they feel that we are free to do as we please in this world. Freedom we do have, but it exists only so that God may distinguish between the good and the evil, and determine who deserves a place of honour and dignity in the Hereafter and who should be condemned to eternal disgrace. While there is nothing to prevent the good and the evil from living cheek by jowl in this world, they will be separated in the Hereafter like the wheat from the chaff and will be judged according to their record in this life. Some will be condemned to an eternal Hell of pain and distress, while others will be blessed with eternal bliss and pleasure. Each will get his deserts.

Now let us look at the Hereafter from another point of view. I once had occasion to visit a senior official, and as we sat on the lawns of his palatial bungalow, he suddenly exclaimed, “Maulana Sahib, you don’t know how bad our life is! Tomorrow I have to be at the airport before sunrise to welcome a foreign dignitary, and not only shall I have to deprive myself of sleep, but I shall have to welcome him with smiles — and that in spite of the fact that he is somebody I despise!” This simple anecdote shows there are two sides to the lives of those in high office. On the one hand, they enjoy power and prestige and the many perquisites that go with them, while, on the other hand, there is a side to their lives which is far from being enviable. If you look deep into some of these ‘great’ men, you will discover that they achieve their high positions because they persuade themselves to be content with triviality. If, outwardly, they lead glamorous existences, it is because, privately, they stoop to hypocrisy, sycophancy, opportunism and unscrupulousness. This double life is the price they pay to bolster their own self-interest. In this respect, many are simply following the trends of the time. Every ‘great’ men has two sides to his life — one all brilliance and glitter, the other all dark and soulless. The power and glamour which he achieves in his life has something animal-like about it when he agrees to kill what is human in himself.

Just as there are two sides to every life in this world, there are two aspects of every act in relation to this world and the Hereafter. One aspect of each act is our acceptance of its as what it is seen to be in this world. The other aspect is what results from this act in terms of the Hereafter. Imam Ahmad narrates that the Caliph Umar once said: ‘No drink of milk or honey is better than swallowing one’s anger.’ In actuality, to swallow, or overcome one’s anger is an extremely bitter experience, but in the Hereafter the result of doing so is sweeter by far than milk and honey. Today we reap the worldly fruits of our actions! tomorrow, in the Hereafter, we shall have to face up the results of our deeds and misdeeds. Today, we can see only one aspect of our actions — that of immediate pleasure or gain — but the Day of Resurrection will place us in a position to see much more. Just as a person standing on top of wall can look down on both sides, so shall we be able to see both aspects of the truth. Not only shall we watch our entire history unreel before us like a film, but we shall witness the consequences of our own worldly actions. ‘Then,’ as the Quran says, ‘shall each soul know what it has sent forward (to the Hereafter) and what it has kept back (in the world behind)’ (82:5). Whatever was done for worldly reasons will be left behind, unconsidered. Only those actions which were carried out with the Hereafter in mind will benefit us in the life to come.

Two men once brought a case before the Prophet for judgment. One had misappropriated the other’s land, but because of certain legal quirks, it was difficult to pass a verdict against him. After due consideration, the Prophet warned him: If the court gives a verdict in your favour, think of it as being fire and brimstone which you have been awarded’. The piece of land might, in terms of this world, have been a prized possession, but in the perspective of the Hereafter it would assume the terrible properties of fire and brimstone. The Prophet said —with justice—‘Summer heat is a small part of the heat of Hell!’

These two sides of human deeds have been beautifully described through allegories and symbols in the Hadith of the Miraj (The Prophet’s journey to the Heavens) when the Prophet reached Sidrah al Muntaha (the lote tree at the end of the Seventh Heaven), ‘he saw four rivers: two flowing inward and two flowing outward. It was explained to him by the Angel Gabriel that the two inward-flowing were rivers of Paradise and the outward-flowing were the Nile and the Euphrates.

By analogy, the present world and the Hereafter are two sides of the same event. The worldly side is trivial and temporary, while the Hereafter side is substantive and permanent. It is to the latter side that we must face up after death. Here one has complete freedom to live out one’s worldly existence as one wills; in the life-to-come, one will have no choice about the future course of one’s life. One will either be raised to eternal glory, or cast down into the pit of everlasting Hell.