On Death: A Personal Reflection

Alfatihah. A dear uncle, Hj. Abu Bakar bin Abdul Aziz, has passed away peacefully recently on the very blessed day of 17 Ramadhan 1435H. May Allah forgive him and raise his rank among the rightly guided, make his grave spacious and illuminate it for him inshaAllah. I visited him last month when he was still recuperating from an open heart surgery he had many weeks before. I have a great respect for Almarhum, a particularly humble and learned man and someone who had made great impact on the lives of so many people. He will be fondly remembered for his keen interest in the traditional Islāmic learning, and his untiring effort to get us involved in many of the family gathering events as well as the study sessions led by scholars with impeccable credentials.

Together with many other distinguished personalities, Almarhum Hj. Abu Bakar had been instrumental in the founding and development of AlJenderami, an established and well-respected madrasah which has its founder and teacher, Tuan Guru Hj. Mohd Hafidz Hj. Selamat as the mudir. Almarhum was among the most senior, loyal and trusted of Tuan Guru’s disciples.

On the day of my uncle’s passing, and only recently we meet another shock over the recent MH17 tragedy, I was powerfully reminded yet again of death, and of the Judgment Day. I was reminded that regardless of whether we are religious, most of us, in our last weeks, will give ourselves the greatest performance review, the act of self-criticism, self-inventory, or muhasabah.

In the words of many of our scholars, this act of self criticism and self-inventory should certainly be counted among our moments of progress; it is a moment when we impartially sit as judges over ourselves and check our yearnings and inclinations, our instincts and motivations in life. It is a moment when we as believers appoint, out of our conviction, a ‘police officer’ to watch over ourselves, an ‘investigator’ to probe us, and a ‘judge’ to condemn or acquit us. In this way we progress from the state of “the soul that incites to evil” to the state of “the self- reproaching soul” which reproaches its owner when we plunge into sin, or fall short of expectation.

Imam Ghazali wrote in his famous Letter to a Disciple. Islāmic Texts Society, Cambridge UK, 2005: “O disciple, how many nights have you spent rehearsing your learning, reading books, and depriving yourself of sleep? I do not know what the motive was in this–if it was winning the goods of the world, the allure of its vanities, getting its honours, and vainglory to the debit of your associates and peers, woe to you and woe again! But if your aim in it was the revival of the Prophet’s Law (God bless him and give him peace), the cultivation of our character and breaking the ‘soul that inciteth to evil,’ blessing upon you and blessing again!”

Steve Jobs had admitted in his Stanford University commencement speech that death is a potent catalyst for life-altering change: “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.”

But let us be reminded of one thing. For the promise of death to shape our lives, we can’t do as some people did, which was to lead a largely unexamined life and then, in their last year, conduct a post-mortem on their life’s journey. By then it’s too late to change for the better. Instead of a post-mortem at the end of life, what’s needed is a self-criticism in the here and now. This is the true meaning of muhasabah. Caliph ‘Umar Ibn Al-Khattab, may Allah the Almighty be pleased with him, said: “Call yourselves to account before you are called to account.” Hj. Abu Bakar, was as consistent in his muhasabah as he was in his love for knowledge and humility.

Years ago, when I watched my mother and, later, my father die, I realized that death informs life. If I die at the same age as my mother, who died at the age of 47, I have about 8 years left to make a difference in the world, and yet stay humble, always make death as a reminder to conduct continuous muhasabah and persevere in the pursuit of knowledge for Allah’s sake. When it comes to stripping away all of what’s unnecessary in life and homing in on what’s really central, there’s nothing like acknowledging the promise of death, which is the beginning of our journey to the hereafter.

Куала-Лумпур│27 Ramadhan 1435

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