Purification of the Heart: Antipathy Toward Death (part 24)

Continuing our Ramadaan series, this post continues the book entitled “Purification of the Heart: Signs, Symptoms and Cures of the Spiritual Diseases of the Heart”Shaykh Hamza Yusuf Hanson‘s translation and commentary of Imam Muḥammad Mawlūd’s didactic poem “Matharat al-Qulub” (purification of the heart). The Imam was a 19th century Mauritanian scholar. For notes on the copyright status of the book, as well as links to purchase your own copy, please see the introductory post of the series.

Antipathy Toward Death


Antipathy towards death is when one flees from it and becomes annoyed when it is even mentioned—

As if he is completely ignorant of [God’s statement that] each soul shall taste death.

This is reckoned to be among the diseases of the heart. So be content with what God, the Exalted, has decreed.

But if one detests [death] not for its own sake, nor for the loss of pleasures that it entails,

But rather out of fear of being cut off from preparing for the Day of Judgment by obeying God more, [then it is not blameworthy].

Also, if one completely entrusts his affair to his Master, whatever He wills, either causing him to drop dead or giving him respite, it contents him.

Both of these attitudes towards death are commendable and praiseworthy. [Either way], disliking the reality of death in no way distances you from its proximity.

The one who constantly remembers death is ennobled with contentment, with his heart’s activities directed toward obedience,

And with prompt repentance [when wrongs occur]. The one who is heedless of death is afflicted with the opposite of all three.

Definition and Treatment

Antipathy towards death is considered a disease of the heart. It refers to strong aversion to death to the point that its mere mention causes consternation. Such a person, Imam Mawlūd says, is in denial of the reality. God says, “Every soul shall taste death” (QUR’AN, 3:185); “Say, the death from which you flee will overtake you. Thereafter, you will return to the Knower of the seen and unseen.

He will then inform you of all that you had been doing” (QUR’AN , 62:8). None of this suggests that one should leap into the throes of death. It merely disparages the ethic of chasing after the fleeting things of this world while rebuffing the imminence of death and what comes thereafter. Nowadays, death is usually considered a morbid topic that is uncouth to discuss. And when it is discussed, it is often turned into some deadline before which people are supposed to squeeze in all their life’s pleasures. The Muslim’s view should be completely different. To speak about death is to speak about life and the urgency to live a faithful and wholesome life before death overtakes us.

Shaykh Ibn al-Ḥabīb said, “In death there are a thousand reposes for the Muslim. As long as you are in this world, there is not a cell in your body that does not experience pain and disease. Once you are out of this world, all of that ends.” For the believer, there is comfort in death, for the believer is taken from an abode of difficulty and trial to one of peace and unfathomable freedom. In Islam, the mourning period is short and should not be prolonged. The irony of extending the mourning period is that doing so is rooted in excessive love of dunyā (the world). The more one covets this world, the greater the sense of loss when a loved one dies.

Everyone experiences the loss of a loved one. When the Prophet  lost his son Ibrāhīm, he wept but also praised God, the source of life and death. People who have strong faith in God and in the afterlife tend to handle death well and also handle calamities and tribulations well. Maurice Bucaille, the well-known French physician, said that what attracted his interest in Islam was how North Africans in France faced death. As a physician exposed to disease and death, he observed many of his own countrymen not knowing how to die or to handle death.

The fear of death is natural. One reflexively protects himself from it. When angels in the form of human beings visited Prophet Abraham , he offered them food. When he saw that they did not reach for the food, he grew fearful. Scholars say that Abraham thought they had come to take his life. The Prophet  encouraged believers to desire a long life for two reasons: to make up for past iniquities or to increase good deeds.

The one who remembers death is ennobled by certain characteristics, which include contentment and a lack of covetousness. The Prophet  said, “Contentment is a treasure that is never exhausted.” He also prayed, “O God, provide for my family with what suffices them, and grant them contentment with it.” The wealthy soul is one that is content. This contentment is not the kind that originates from stupidity or not knowing any better. It is contentment that is informed by knowledge and by reflection on death and its meaning.

Second, the remembrance of death gives one energy to achieve good deeds: “Wealth and sons are the ornaments of the life of this world, while enduring righteous deeds are better with your Lord in reward and better in hope” (QUR’AN , 18:46). Third, remembrance of death engenders seeking repentance when one slips or errs. Penitence rectifies wrong action, and that is the gift of remembering death. When one lives with this realization, he or she becomes prompt in seeking God’s forgiveness. Those who are heedless of death often have no compunction in doing wrong, since death is not a factor in their lives. They often carelessly view the Day of Judgment as some distant event hardly worth worrying about or some ancient notion formed in a primordial epoch of human development.

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