The three existential questions asked again and again, in various forms and permutations, over the centuries are:
Where did we come from?
Why were we created?
Where will we go after death?
All three have been answered in great detail in Islam. However, for the purpose of this brief paper, the last of these will be discussed. Death has been called many things, among them is the popular title of “the great leveler”. What this means is that the way a person lived in this world, their status, occupation, wealth, reputation, family connections, children, authority, poverty, vulnerability, health, weakness, and all these categories which together form our identity- will all ultimately be leveled, or made equal in the grave. Sure, some people may get a grand farewell, some people may be buried with riches or laid to rest in an expensive coffin laced with satin and silk. However, once the grave closes in, a person is all alone.
Correct Islamic belief teaches us that this is not the end of life. Rather, it is the essential stage for entering the afterlife. What happens to the body and soul of a dead person is not visible to the human eye. It is instead part of our belief in the unseen, and cannot be doubted as its basis is in the Quran and the hadees.
Once in the grave, a person’s soul is taken to heaven by the angels who extracted the soul at the time of death. A person whose deeds merit heaven, his or her soul will be taken up to the third heaven, they will be told that they have been successful on account of their deeds, and have earned the right to heaven. They will be congratulated by a multitude of angels and their name will be entered into a register of the inhabitants of paradise, called Illiyuun. The victorious soul will then be carried ceremoniously back to the grave, and returned to the body. The body will be anointed in perfume and clothed in fine clothes. The grave will be expanded and lit up brightly.
At this point, two angels, called Munkar and Nakeer will enter the grave. They will be very stern in their manner and their appearance will be fearsome. They will have teeth like the horns of a bull and they will come ripping the grave open. They will question the dead person and ask these three questions which will be asked of everyone who has died:
Who is your God?
Who is your prophet?
What is your religion?
The answers to these questions are straightforward: Allah, Mohammed (peace be upon him- or the prophet of the time when the person was alive), and Islam respectively. When a person answers Munkar and Nakeer correctly, two windows will be opened in the grave. One will show the sight of hell with all its punishment and suffering. The other will show the eternal blessings of heaven. The first window will be closed, and the person will be told they have redeemed themselves from hellfire due to their deeds. They will be told to sleep a peaceful sleep until the day of judgment when they will enter paradise. A companion with a pleasing countenance will be sent to the grave, to be with its occupant until resurrection. The person will be told that this companion is the representation of the good deeds done by the person in life, which accompany them to the grave.
The matter of the unsuccessful soul, however, is altogether different from the above account. When the grave closes in over such a person, their soul is taken up to heaven but the doors of heaven are closed upon it and it is unceremoniously thrown back into the grave. The angels are commanded to enter the person’s name into Sijjiin, the register of those who will inhabit hell. The grave is made dark and tightened over the body. When Munkar and Nakeer enter the grave and ask the three questions, the person will not be able to answer them. The two windows showing paradise and hell will be opened, but the sight of paradise will be closed, and the person told that they have forfeited the right to paradise on account of their deeds. An ugly, fearsome companion will be ordered to remain with the unsuccessful person until the day of resurrection, and these are the represented deeds the person committed in the world. Such a person will be clothed in fire and made to lie on a bed of fire until resurrection.
These are brief details of what will happen to a person after death. When we have this knowledge, specific parts of the Quran alert us to live a life which will enable us to be registered in the book of Illiyuun and to earn a place in paradise:
Competition in [worldly] increase diverts you
Until you visit the graveyards.
No! You are going to know.
Then, no! You are going to know.
No! If you only knew with knowledge of certainty…
You will surely see the hellfire.
Then you will surely see it with the eye of certainty.
Then you will surely be asked that Day about pleasure. (The Quran, Chapter 102).