The Journey Up
It is impossible for anyone to escape asking himself the question: “Where do I go next?”
Every time a man witnesses death, the question decks up to dance for a while before him. He pushes it hastily back to the lower deck. The upper deck is for life’s activities, its worries, its pains, its joys and, of course, for the dance of the atheists and the libertines. But, dance or no dance, thoughts of death cannot be drowned in the seas.
It may be asked, even of those who say “life is not worth living,” why is it that they do not want to die? Is there a pact of coexistence between the question planted deep in the soul and the answer that also seems to be lodged deep in the soul?
When Sulayman b. `Abd al Malik (d. 99 AH), the Umayyad Caliph, visited Madinah, he inquired whether any Companion of the Prophet was still alive, and whether he could meet him. Abu Hazim was the man identified, and brought to him. During the long exchange of thoughts he asked the same old, tiresome question: “Why do we fear death, Abu Hazim?”
Abu Hazim gave him the same old, tiresome answer, “Because you have built this world and destroyed your Hereafter, and hate to shift from a beautified world to a ruined one.”
Sulayman was not much bemused. He had known the answer anyway. But, typical of the humans, characterized as those who persist in error, he persisted: “What kind of returning will ours be to the Hereafter?”
Abu Hazim answered: “For those who did well in this world it will be like someone returning to his home and family. As for him who did evil, it will be like a runaway slave being brought back to his master.”
Sulayman had been quite familiar with the answer too. Perhaps he wanted to hear something new, something that would push the deck-dancer into the sea. Something that would not remind him whose slave he was.
Man toys with his self, plays with his life, burns his soul with wine and sex, music and dance, will persist with his own strong will, and yet define his life in the best of moods as, “not worthy of living.”
When he becomes an animal, he is a BB: a bizarre beast. The BB can say that life is not worthy of living, because he has the temerity to look straight into the face of truth and say, “This is falsehood.” BB can be a shepherd who, after having his flock grazed a land, will migrate to richer fields, go around the globe, come back after thousands of years and say, at gun point, “get out, this is my and my flock’s field, I was once here.” And rest of the bizarre beasts of the world (they are one tribe) bray and bark, “He has a point.”
But Bilal did not belong to the BB’s tribe. At his death-bed, and witnessing his pain, when his wife uttered: “O misery,” Bilal would open his eyes from his delirium and say: “Rather. Oh joy! Tomorrow I shall meet the beloved: the Prophet and his Companions.”
Bilal knew where he was going. He was no runaway slave. He knew that dance and music are escapades for those who do not like the occasional visitor’s dance on the upper deck. The Revelation offers some clue about why man asks “OK. But when will that Day of questioning be?”
“But rather, man wishes to commit corruptions in the days to come. So he asks, ‘When will this Day of Judgment be?’” (75: 5-6)
He asks ‘when’ because he knows they do not have an answer. But is the answer to ‘when’ more important, or what it means to him is more significant?
“He asks, ‘When will be the Day of Judgment?’” (75: 6)
Think. If you persist, then, how will you greet it when it actually happens?
To be in the trail: when that which had kept coming as a reminder, announces that it is not going to be pushed to the lower deck this time; instead, has come at this odd moment to pound the truth upon you that the ship has anchored, and you must depart to your destination – when that happens, then the bizarre bull who could bull-doze any who came between him and his “career,” is now a lamb. The Qur’an depicts that moment:
“Nay! When (the soul) reaches the throat, and it is said, ‘Is there a healer around?’” (75: 26-29)
That’s the time when the truth dawns in full glare. It fills the horizon. When he guesses it is time to go, then it is that:
“He cries out, ‘My Lord. Return me to what I have left behind, that I attempt deeds good’” (24: 99).
It seems he is a bit late. Hadn’t he, when asked to go slow on his wine and dance, said in reply, “There is time for everything.” So, when he says, “Let me back,” he is answered:
“Never. That is only a word he is issuing.” (23: 99)
He had always asked, “When will be the Day of Judgment?” – in derision, in disbelief, and in a polite way to say, “Please don’t bother me.”
The will is now broken, the defiance is knocked out. Raised up again, his only thought is, guess what?
“When sights are glared, the moon is eclipsed, the sun and the moon brought together, the Day man will ask, ‘Is there an escape?’” (75: 7-10)
Escape? Isn’t this the end of the escapists? Wasn’t he running away from truth, into glitteringly dark alleys? Now, the inner darkness has taken a visible, physical form, and he cries out in dismay:
“My Lord, why have you raised me blind?” (20: 125)
You were blind to the Truth. Today is the Day of Truth:
“That’s how. Our signs came to you but you forgot all about them. That is how, you will be forgotten today.” (20: 126)
It is not that, nobody cares for you. You are simply forgotten. You don’t belong to the New World.
Surprise follows surprise. He is handed over his book of Records by his left hand. He knows what it means, and what his Record contains. Now he is in despair:
“O that I should not have been given my Record; and that I had not known what reckoning was. O that it was the end (of the whole affair). My wealth has availed me not. My power is gone.” (69: 25-29)
Yet, more surprises. He hears orders issued concerning him:
“Seize him and shackle him. Then into the depth of Fire fling him. And, there, into a chain of seventy cubits length, insert him.” (69: 30-32)
Orders are carried out:
“When they are cast therein (into the Hell), they will hear it drawing in its breath as it boils. It would all but burst asunder in rage. Every time a group is cast into it, its keepers ask, ‘Had not come to you a warner?’ They will reply, ‘Yes indeed, a warner had in fact come to us. But we cried lies and we said, “Allah has not sent down anything. You are only in a great misguidance.”’ (67: 7-11)
He could divorce his wife because the breakfast was not done on time, or fling away a cup of tea because it was not done to his taste. When his wife protests, “Look, I don’t deserve this treatment,” he answers, “And I don’t deserve this kind of tea.” He is a man of taste.
Let us see what this man of taste is delivered with as his meal?
“Surely, Zaqqum tree (shall be) the food of the habitual sinner; like molten brass bubbling in the bellies, as boiling (water) bubbles.” (44: 43-46)
How noble is the dinner served to this noble man?
“Seize him and drag him into midst of the blazing fire. Then pour down over his head torment of the boiling water. Taste, you are indeed the mighty, the noble.” (44: 47-49)
And what brought him here? Well, it is the same old habit of looking into the face of Truth and saying, “This is falsehood,” the same confirmed habit of a life in which neither the Lord has His rights nor His creation.
Except the companions of the right hand; in gardens, inquiring each other about the criminals: ‘What thrust you into Hell?’ They reply, ‘We were not of those who Prayed; and not of those who fed the poor; but indulged along with those who indulged; and denied the Day of Reckoning – until death came upon us.” (74: 39-46)
So, we are back at the start: death. Man forgets death; but death does not forget him. When he finds himself in a home he laid the groundwork for, he declares his belief in death:
“Our Lord, You gave us death twice, quickened us twice, we admit our sins; so, is there a way out now?” (40: 11)
The answer is:
“Indeed, We brought you the Truth, but most of you had a distaste for the Truth.” (43: 78)
Those who disliked to be reminded of death would now beg for it from the Guardian-Angel:
“O Malik, let your Lord deal us death.’ He will reply, “You will remain there forever.” (43: 77)
Remain in this torture? Perhaps yes. But, why not appeal for some reduction?
“Those in the Fire will ask the keepers of Hell, ‘Pray to your Lord please. Let him lessen our torture for a day.’ They will ask, ‘Hadn’t your Messengers come to you with clear signs?’ They will say, ‘Of course.’ They (the keepers) will reply, ‘Then, Pray (to Him yourselves).’” (40: 49-50)
They will next address the God, they had never addressed before in the earthly life,
“O our Lord! We have seen and heard. So send us back so that we can attempt righteous deeds, we are now believers.” (32: 12)
He will answer,
“Taste then because you had put back the thoughts of this day’s meeting. We have also forgotten you. Taste the everlasting punishment for what you were doing.” (32: 14)
They will make another appeal:
“O our Lord! Defer us to a near term. We shall respond to Your call and follow the Messengers.” (14: 44)
They will be told (14: 44),
“Were you not the ones who swore aforetime that you will not have to move (from the world to the Hereafter)?”
They will make another appeal,
“O our Lord! Remove us (from here) so that we can do righteous deeds, other than what we were doing.” (35: 37)
He will answer,
“Did we not lengthen your life therein, that he might remember who wished to remember; and a warner came to you, so, taste (the punishment), there is no helper for the wrongdoers.” (35: 37)
They will plead,
“O our Lord! Our wretchedness got the better of us. We were a misguided people.” (23: 106)
It will be said,
“Remain despised therein, and do not speak to Me (any further).” (23: 108)
Don’t talk to Me again!
Hope has hit a wall: a wall of Fire. Thereafter, they will never address Him again, but only howl and bark at each other. A lid will be laid over their heads and sealed:
“It is a fire lit by God; leaping right into their hearts; vaulted over them; in towering columns.” (104: 7-10)
The curtain is down. The dance is over.
A grim story ends on a grim note.
Let’s go back to Sulayman and Abu Hazim. Sulayman asked: “And where is Allah’s mercy?”
The reply was not unfamiliar:
“Allah’s mercy is close to the righteous.” (7: 56)