1,001 Sayings and Deeds of the Prophet
Life in the Grave
Narrated Anas bin Malik:
The Prophet used to say, "O Allah! I seek refuge with You from helplessness, laziness, cowardice and feeble old age; I seek refuge with You from afflictions of life and death and seek refuge with You from the punishment in the grave."
For most of what Islam has to say about life after death, we must look to the sayings (Traditions) of the Prophet Muhammad and his extraordinary insights into what happens after everything fades to black. If you thought the Compassionate’s description of His intentions toward unbelievers and sinners when He gets His hands on them was as bad as it gets, you haven’t read Muhammad’s account of what awaits them when they die. Don’t try to make sense of what you are about to read, and don’t let it give you nightmares.
According to the Traditions, the whole death thing starts innocently enough. Forty days before a person dies, a leaf with the soon-to-be-deceased’s name on it falls from a tree in Paradise just beneath Allah’s throne. ‘Izra’il, the angel of death, picks it up and schedules a pick-up forty days hence. Even believers, Muhammad said, will be taken aback when ‘Izra’il comes a knocking. When he shows up on their doorsteps, even after they have been warned of his coming, they will still ask him: “Who are you?”
Be that as it may, the last person the soon-to-be-departed will see is not the angel of death, but two angels who have been patiently and anonymously recording his or her bad and good deeds. These two angels, in the blink of an eye, will present the soon-to-be-deceased with their lifetime’s list of deeds. With this-was-your-life formalities out of the way, the person’s living, thinking, seeing, able-to-feel-pain soul will sink into the ground where they died—but not before ‘Izra’il has finished extracting it from the still-warm body, drawing it out like rough cotton through the eye sockets.
Like birth, death, in Islamic traditions, is meant to be a painful transition. Satan will offer a believer in Allah’s good books relief from some of the pain caused by ‘Izra’il’s appalling soul-extraction method. On the threshold of Paradise, if the poor tormented soul can’t stand the pain and accepts Satan’s offer for reduced suffering, it’s a U-turn to Hell come Judgement Day. This soul will be sorry it could not stand the pain just a while longer. If the extracted soul is meant to go to Hell, it will be given a glimpse of life in the grave and its final destination on Judgement Day. The horror-struck soul will then briefly escape ‘Izra’il’s grip and fly to heaven, trying all seven doors to the seven levels of heaven only to be turned back by the angels guarding the entrances to Paradise. It will be forced to return to ‘Izra’il, who will then stuff it back into its already-decaying corpse, where the reconstituted soul-body combo will begin its new life in the grave.
The believers who died in Allah’s good graces will be provided a spacious grave complete with curtains and a bed. An unbeliever, or a believer who died while in Allah’s bad books, will be confined to a cramped space with walls constantly closing in on them, making every breath a laboured one.
After the living dead have settled into their zombie-like existence, two black-skinned, blue-eyed angels by the names of Munkar and Nakir will burst into their graves and start questioning the decaying re-mains, which will sit up, as to its religious beliefs for forty days non-stop.
Narrated Al-Bara bin 'Azib:
The Prophet (p.b.u.h) said, "When a faithful believer is made to sit in his grave, then (the angels) come to him and he testifies that none has the right to be worshipped but Allah and Muhammad is Allah's Apostle. And that corresponds to Allah's statement: "Allah will keep firm those who believe with the word that stands firm ... "(14.27).
The point of this questioning is lost on many, as the Koran states that a believer enters Paradise based on a balance of good and bad deeds, or at Allah’s discretion.
The corpse will not only be asked about Allah’s Revelations but also whether it ever spoke ill about Muhammad. If it only said good things about him during its living, breathing life above ground, all is forgiven (or so it would seem).
Prophet Muhammad said, "When a human being is laid in his grave and his companions return and he even hears their footsteps, two angels come to him and make him sit and ask him: 'What did you use to say about this man, Muhammad?'
He will say: 'I testify that he is Allah's slave and His Apostle.'
Then it will be said to him, 'Look at your place in the Hell-Fire. Allah has given you a place in Paradise instead of it.'"
Prophet Muhammad added, "The dead person will see both his places. But a non-believer or a hypocrite will say to the angels, 'I do not know, but I used to say what the people used to say!'
It will be said to him, 'Neither did you know nor did you take the guidance (by reciting the Quran).'
Then he will be hit with an iron hammer between his two ears, and he will cry and that cry will be heard by whatever approaches him except human beings and jinns."
The interrogation over, the occupant of the grave will continue to receive twice-daily visits until Judgement Day from another angel, one who has not come to chat but to open those curtains to a pleasing—or horrifying—view.
Narrated Abdullah bin Umar:
Allah's Apostle said, "When anyone of you dies, he is shown his place both in the morning and in the evening. If he is one of the people of Paradise; he is shown his place in it, and if he is from the people of the Hell-Fire; he is shown his place there-in. Then it is said to him, 'This is your place till Allah resurrect you on the Day of Resurrection.'"
For unbelievers and other sinners, life in the grave will be uncomfortable to the extreme. Muhammad said that “we would faint in terror if we could hear the screams of those being tormented” in their graves. Even a minor sin, or a sin that is only in the mind of the observer, such as an involuntary discharge of urine, can lead to an agonizing life in the grave.
Narrated Ibn Abbas:
Allah's Apostle passed by two graves and said, "Both of them (persons in the grave) are being tortured, and they are not being tortured for a major sin. This one used not to save himself from being soiled with his urine, and the other used to go about with calumnies (among the people to rouse hostilities, e.g., one goes to a person and tells him that so-and-so says about him such-and-such evil things)."
The Prophet then asked for a green leaf of a date-palm tree, split it into two pieces and planted one on each grave and said, "It is hoped that their punishment may be abated till those two pieces of the leaf get dried."
Why dogs sometimes howl for no apparent reason; and, is it possible that it was two little old Jewish ladies who first put the idea of the undead into Muhammad’s head.
Two old ladies from among the Jewish ladies entered upon me and said' "The dead are punished in their graves," but I thought they were telling a lie and did not believe them in the beginning.
When they went away and the Prophet entered upon me, I said, "O Allah's Apostle! Two old ladies" and told him the whole story.
He said, "They told the truth; the dead are really punished, to the extent that all the animals hear (the sound resulting from) their punishment."
Since then I always saw him seeking refuge with Allah from the punishment of the grave in his prayers.
As to the trial, i.e., interrogation, conducted by Munkar and Nakir, this too seems to have come from Jewish folklore. Initially, Muhammad believed that only Jews would be put on trial in their graves. Later, Allah set him straight.
The Holy Prophet (may peace be upon him) entered my house when a jewess was with me and she was saying: Do you know that you would be put to trial in the grave?
The Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) trembled (on hearing this) and said: It is the Jews only who would be put to trial.
A'isha said: We passed some nights and then the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) said: Do you know that it has been revealed to me: You would be put to trial in the grave?
A'isha said: I heard the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) seeking refuge from the torment of the grave after this.
Sahih Muslim 4.1212
For some soft-hearted Islamic scholars this life in the grave was too much even by Allah’s standards and they looked to the Koran for a reason to modify Muhammad’s horrific descriptions. They believe that “barrier” in revelation 23:100 signifies unconsciousness. The interrogation by Munkar and Nakir over, the object of their suspicions, they argue, will sink into blissful unconsciousness until awakened on Judgement Day.
23:99 Yet, when death visits one of them, he says: “Lord bring me back (to the world);
23:100 “That perchance I might act rightly with respect to what I have omitted.” No, it is just a word he is uttering; and behind them is a barrier till the day they are raised from the dead.