Where are They? Those who pass away in Islam?

Without any doubt, observing a body which has been badly mutilated has a serious psychological toll on a person. This topic is far more difficult to discuss than the previous ones, especially since the initial issues pertained to the blessings and treatment a righteous believer will receive after their death. But once discussing death, one can never ignore the point about how fragile the human body is.

This is especially the case if the body has undergone horrific damage through a car accident, or been badly mistreated through mutilation, for instance. One cannot imagine the difficulties and pains that the Muslims experienced in the aftermath of the Battle of Uḥud. Without any doubt, Uḥud was a very unique experience for the Muslims, as they never experienced a conflict like that in their history. For instance, the way the chief of the martyrs (sayyid al-shuhadā’) Ḥamzah h was killed and mutilated was absolutely gruesome.

In the aftermath of this battle, the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم comforted the devastated believers by sharing with them the following good news: “When your brothers were killed, Allah put their souls in the bodies of green birds.” He further mentioned that their souls—which are now situated in the bodies of these birds—freely fly over the rivers of Paradise ( Jannah), and eat from its blessed fruits. They also nestle themselves inside lamps of gold under the shade of Allah’s Throne.

One cannot imagine how pleasant and satisfying their experience in the other world must be. Not only do they enjoy the eminent rank of being from among the martyrs of Uḥud (shuhadā’ Uḥud), but they are also now blessed with this incredible state of existence, where they have the freedom to go wherever they wish in Paradise.

What even further beautifies this spectacle is that they are honoured with the presence of Ḥamzah, the chief of the martyrs. While enjoying the sweetness of Allah’s reward, as well as resting and marvelling at the incredible existence they found themselves in, they actually asked: “Who is going to tell our brothers that we are alive in Paradise?”

They wanted their fellow Muslims to know the pleasant and blessed state they found themselves in. Furthermore, it was important for their brothers to know about their salvation so that they would maintain a steadfast posture in battles and not be discouraged from continuing to strive in the path of Allah. Lastly, the people of Madinah were in a sorrowful state in the battle’s aftermath, and there were large gatherings where the mourners were wailing over the dead bodies of their loved ones.

These martyrs were aware of the sorrow of their community, and wanted to alleviate their pain by conveying to them the blissful state they were in. However, the main question was: how would they be able to inform their community of their current state? Allah informed the martyrs that He Himself would undertake this task by saying:

“I will tell them on your behalf.”

Essentially, Allah b informed the martyrs that He would let the Companions know about their current state. He did this by revealing this verse from Sūrah Āl ʿImrān:

“Never think of those martyred in the cause of Allah as dead. In fact, they are alive with their Lord, well provided for—rejoicing in Allah’s bounties and being delighted for those yet to join them. There will be no fear for them, nor will they grieve.”

Some scholars mention that for this Qur’ānic passage, fear (khawf) is a reference to anything which comes prospectively while grieving, i.e. that which is left behind. In a similar verse, Allah describes how the angels will comfort the believing people—may Allah make us among them—when they proceed to take their souls at the point of death:
“Do not fear, nor grieve.”

If one adopts the explanation alluded to above, the angels mean by this statement: “Do not be afraid of what is to come, and do not grieve over that which you have left behind.” One simply cannot cease reflecting over the wonderful state of the martyrs. It makes great sense to begin this discussion with the martyrs, since they enjoy an incredible state of existence.

They have their souls inside the bodies of green birds, which are, without any doubt, different from the birds of this world. They are already in a state of bliss, and find themselves in a delightful dimension which represents a form of Paradise, but not its entire totality. During this state they are nestled under the throne of Allah in these splendid golden lamps. These facts provide us some crucial context to the events that revolved around the death of the eminent Companion Saʿd ibn Muʿādh. When Saʿd passed away, the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم said:

“The Throne of the Most Merciful shook upon the death of Saʿd ibn Muʿādh.”

The scholars explained this ḥadīth by noting that this shaking did not occur due to trauma or fear. It is incorrect to deduce from this report that this event occurred because the death of Saʿd ibn Muʿādh h somehow disturbed the equilibrium of the universe and the state of overall existence. Nor can one say it was like the tree which the Prophet used to give his sermon (khuṭbah) close to, which cried when he left it and used a pulpit instead. Instead, this event was an expression of joy that the soul of Saʿd h was going to return to its Lord.

Allah had already prepared for Saʿd’s soul a perfectly nestled golden lamp which it would inhabit. Up to this point the discussion has centred around the souls of the martyrs. However, it is also important to discuss the souls of righteous people and determine where their place will be. At the same time, however, it is important to note that the martyrs occupy a special place in the sight of Allah.

Regarding the ḥadīths which mention the state of the souls in Paradise, some scholars argued that they are specific to the martyrs, while others have stated that they refer to the believers in general. An intermediate camp argued that these reports concern the special believers, among whom the martyrs are the best.

A ḥadīth which relates to this matter is that of the divine night journey (al-Isrā’wa al-Miʿrāj), where the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم ascended to Paradise and met the souls of the Prophets there. But at the same, the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم said:

“I passed by Mūsā while he was praying in his grave.”

The question then is how these reports are to be explained and reconciled. To do so, it is imperative to analyse the ḥadīth which discusses the initial point where the believer enters their grave. In one of the narrations in this matter, the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم described this crucial moment with the following statement:

“Then Allah expands for them their grave.”

In one of the authentic versions of this narration, he specifies the dimensions of this expansion by stating it is:

“…seventy cubits by seventy cubits…”

It is unclear whether this expansion occurs in a tangible and physical manner, or in an indiscernible metaphysical realm only.

This is a matter of disagreement among the scholars. Then, the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم further described the setting of this righteous person’s grave by stating:

“Then [the grave] in which they reside is lit up.”

One here observes an immediate parallel with the duʿā’ that the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم made after the death of Abū Salamah, which consisted of the following words:

“Make his grave spacious for him, and give him light in it.”

While this latter report only mentions the supplication, the former shows the blessed effects of it. The grave expands seventy cubits by seventy yards, and is even blessed with a light. After these transformations in the grave, the deceased person is told the following:

“Now go to sleep.”

This person is blessed and has found their true home. They have just entered a chamber of Paradise, where they will find themselves in a blissful state. Yet, during this state, the angels order him to sleep. In response, the person poses a number of questions, which include:

“Can I go back to my family and inform them?”

This person desires to go back to his family and inform them that he is in a pleasant state, so they will not worry or be concerned about him. It would make them very pleased to find out that their deceased loved one had their grave expanded after passing the test, by successfully answering the three posed queries. They would be even more delighted to know that his grave became an illuminated garden which exudes the scent of Paradise, thanks to their collective duʿā’s and prayers. They would have their faith increased by knowing that the promise of Allah is true. The person eagerly seeks to momentarily return to his family and convey this information and good news. This is obviously an understandable sentiment, since the deceased saw their family members cry for them during the funeral and then had to face the most difficult test ever. In response to his requests, the angels say:

“Sleep like the newlywed person who is only awaken by their most beloved ones.”

In essence, this person’s grave has become—with the permission of Allah—a manifestation of Paradise for them. In fact, the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم mentioned that this person will be shown their actual place in Paradise twice a day, once in the morning and later on in the evening. In contrast, a wicked person’s grave will be a chamber of fire, where they will face a severe punishment in a continuous manner. May Allah protect us all from this latter fate. Allāhumma Āmīn.

A number of tentative conclusions can be derived regarding the nature and location of the souls after death. The Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم has clearly indicated to us that some souls will be placed inside the bodies of green birds. In another narration, he mentioned how he once met Mūsā during the divine nightly ascent, while in another scenario he met him praying by his grave. Yet, in another narration, the expanded dimensions of the grave are mentioned.

These reports can be reconciled by assuming that a person’s soul has a connection with their gravesite specifically and the physical world in general. However, at the same time, a person is no longer restricted to the dimensions of this world, in an analogous way to how the soul is no longer confined to the physical dimensions of the body. While a connection remains with the grave, realities are no longer confined to time and space as they are in the physical world. We ask Allah to allow us to be blessed by having our souls placed in the bodies of green birds which are nestled in gold lamps under His throne. We also ask Him to allow our souls to roam freely in Paradise, where they can enjoy the delights of its rivers and fruits.

Excerpt is from From Those Left Behind by Omar Suleiman