Grief and Religion
By Ruqaiyyah Waris Maqsood
Does a person’s religion make any difference to the way they experience death and grief? It depends on their understanding of religion, even Islam. There are healthy attitudes to religion, and there are unhealthy ones. Unfortunately, while it is certainly a fact that some religious attitudes help the personality to grow, others seriously stunt it.
Unhealthy religion is usually centered on the denial of responsibility. It projects a concept of a God who is capricious and open to manipulation. Believers with this sort of attitude often act rather like spoiled children; they seem to genuinely believe that if they cry loudly enough or long enough they will be able to bring themselves to God’s attention, make Him notice their worthy cause, and perhaps even make Him act differently—in accordance with what they want Him to do. They seem to expect that if they are devoted enough, or chant enough phrases, or do enough pious practices, Allah will produce cosmic results and violate the law and order of the universe just to oblige them.
All their prayers and incantations might seem very pious, but their attitude is really one of subtle shirk (associating other beings/gods with Allah), and certainly one of lack of trust in the will of Allah. God does not need to be told our problems—He knows everything already. He will not have failed to observe that one of His servants is sick, or dying, or bereaved.
But God is not there just to oblige us—no matter how worthy we are, or how desperate our cause. God is not a cosmic errand-boy. He is not standing by, waiting for our ‘orders of the day’—sometimes with the implication that He had better get on with doing what we want Him to do or we will punish Him by rejecting Him. This is a real trivialization of the nature of God, and yet we find so frequently examples of people who lose their ‘faith’ in God because He did not do what they wanted Him to do—He let their loved one die.
It is good for a Muslim to be reminded that no person was more righteous or more loved by Allah than the Prophet Muhammad—and yet there was no miraculous cure for his sickness, and he died, as all humans must die. Remember how his companion `Umar could not bring himself to accept his death, and how Abu Bakr took command by reminding them of the ayah (verse):
[Muhammad is but a messenger; there have been prophets before him, and they all died. Will you now turn back?] (Aal `Imran 3:144)
True religion enables us to take charge of our own lives and accept responsibility in a disciplined way, and this reduces the causes of guilt and sets in motion wise processes necessary for the management of grief.
Some bereaved people feel that they are so helpless to cope with life that they need a special dole of “cosmic kindness” to get them through. Muslims do not need to crawl through life begging for what is already theirs – God’s love and caring concern. They know their duty is towards Him. They have to stand in faith, and accept His will.
While they may not like the results of a molecular process when someone succumbs to disease, or the impersonal results of the law of gravity when a wall falls on an innocent bystander, or the war that follows from the political failures of people over whom we have no control but who can devastate our lives, they would not want to destroy reality by asking God to act in a way that would entail a violation of His nature. We cannot tempt God to do our will. It is important instead to discover how to bring our lives into close accord with His will.
Death seen in terms of a capricious universe with a God who should do our bidding is painful and depressing; death contemplated when we understand the meaning of life in a larger context is seen in a totally different light. It may be that life is as short as a moth’s, or as long as a sequoia tree’s; what matters is not its length but its quality.
Our religious faith should help us find a perspective through which we can evaluate our own feelings.
Healthy religion moves beyond the denial of responsibility, the distortion of reality and the creating of illusions. It puts death in perspective. It helps us to understand the meaning of the pain that comes with some deaths and is absent in others. It under-girds life with an adequate philosophy, emphasizes the reality of life, and the forms of love that continue to sustain life.
Only physical things die; spiritual things already have the dimension of the infinite and eternal and are therefore indestructible.
Death tosses the human being into spiritual turmoil. One of the biggest problems for devout believers is the attitude of so many friends, who—because of their sincere faith in the afterlife—simply do not seem to see that there is a problem in a person’s grief; or if they do see it, they refuse to admit it.
“You are a committed Muslim; your family are committed Muslims. Muslims know there is nothing to fear about death—therefore we can all be quite sure that you will cope wonderfully with your grief and we need not worry about it.”
In reality, the mourner may not be coping very well with his or her grief, but because of the attitude of these pious ‘comforters’ cannot speak up or make it known that help is needed. In fact, religious people who speak like this are quite possibly trying to escape their own emotional involvement, which they find embarrassing or are unable to handle. Everyone feels inadequate, and lacks confidence in what to say for the best to a bereaved person-and in fact, a companionable silence is often preferable to false platitudes.
Well? Should Muslims not grieve at all? Should they just accept a terminal illness as God’s will, or a test of faith? What can they expect from God? What should they ask Him for?
It is not wrong to ask questions. Human beings are creatures with minds and rational faculties. If God had wanted automatons with no minds, He would have created us that way. It is all right for us to ask for the reasons; but we cannot demand an answer. Sometimes we get an answer, if God deems it necessary for us to know. At other times we simply have to accept that although there is an answer, God has not given it, and since His dealings with us are always loving and for our ultimate good, we can leave the matter there. This is where faith comes in.
How does Islam affect Muslims? A life free from guilt? Possibly, if they try hard. A life free from the fear of death? Possibly, if they have enough faith. A life that can be lived differently from that of non-believers? True, with God’s help. A life free from sorrow, problems and difficulties? Sadly, no.
[You shall certainly be tried and tested in your possessions and in your personal selves; and you shall certainly hear much that will distress you, from those who received the Book before you, and from those who worship many gods. But if you persevere patiently, and guard against evil-then that will be the determining factor in everything.] (Aal `Imran 3:186)
Being a Muslim does not protect anyone from the reality of suffering. Belief is not some kind of spiritual inoculation which will provide immunity from all that is difficult and painful. We love Allah—but doesn’t He care when we suffer? In times of crisis, it is so easy to feel that He is far away and cannot hear our cries-but this is not so. He is closer than our own neck vein; or, as the Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him) touchingly put it, closer than the neck of our own camel. His love will never desert us or let us down, even in our darkest hour.
It is not wrong to grieve. People who believe in God grieve for all sorts of things, including the callous and hardhearted attitudes some people have towards one another, and at the mess that human rebellion against God has made of His world. People with sympathetic hearts feel human misery deeply; some work to exhaustion to heal the sick and reach out to the needy. To see someone we love suffering makes us unutterably sad, and God knows that. He gave us the feelings in the first place.
But believers should not grieve in the same way as those who have no hope—for God promised His people comfort and strength right into the valley of the shadow of death, and beyond.
[Ibrahim said: ‘0 Lord! Show me how you give life to the dead.’ He said: ‘Do you not believe?’ He said: ‘Yes, but to satisfy my own understanding, (tell me).’ Allah said: ‘Take four birds and tame them to return to you; put one of them on each of four separate hills, then call to them. They will come flying to you with speed.’] (Al-Baqarah 2:260)
When Allah calls us, we will surely ‘come flying’ to Him. Our earthly life is the separation on the hills; when we die, we will be called back to our real home, with Allah.
[So do not lose heart, and do not fall into despair; for you must gain mastery if you are true in faith] (Aal `Imran 3:139)
Many people wonder why, if God is all-powerful and loving, He does not cure our loved ones of cancer, or prevent wars and famines, etc.—either directly through miraculous intervention, or indirectly, perhaps through medical science.
God sometimes works through suffering. Some people are physically healed, others are given the ability to live with the illness and finally to die with trust and hope. Suffering can never be considered enjoyable, but there can be good responses to it. If we can see that neither distress nor death can separate us from the love of God we have a living hope which transcends all the trials of our present situation.
As Muslims, who try to accept God’s will, should we fight the disease, or accept it? Would it be right for a patient to refuse medical treatment on the grounds that it must be God’s will for them to have it? The Muslim answer to that must surely be ‘No’. Such apathy is against the general desire of Allah to see us always working for healing, wholeness and peace. We have a responsibility to care for our bodies as best we can—so we should encourage the patient to seek and take medical advice and co-operate with whatever treatment they think is right and is consistent with Islam; they should move towards full health as positively as they are able.
Human beings are required by Allah to seek medical treatment if it is available. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) himself told us to seek medical treatment; as he put it “Allah has not created an illness without creating a cure for it” (Reported by Muslim). When you take a medicine, you are not acting against the will of Allah; you are cured by Allah’s will, because He has put into that particular medicine the qualities which will enable the human body to overcome a certain disease.
Medicine functions by God’s will. This is exactly what `Umar ibn al-Khattab said to Abu `Ubaydah once, when the latter questioned him about his orders concerning quarantine—preventing entry to or departure from an area where plague was widespread. Abu `Ubaydah asked: “Are we trying to escape from the will of Allah?” Umar answered: “Yes, we try to escape from God’s will with God’s will.” This means that if we avoid certain causes of death we nevertheless remain subject to the will of Allah, because avoiding them and preventing them is also part of the will of Allah.
A Muslim will always have to acknowledge that the final outcome is in God’s hands. If we pray du`aa’ (personal prayer requests) for our sick and dying, and for the bereaved, it is never wasted; God always hears us, and something always ‘happens’, even if it not quite what the person has prayed for.
Umm Salamah, the Prophet’s wife (peace be upon both of them), reported the Messenger as saying: “Whenever you visit the sick or the dying, make supplication for good, because the angels say ‘Amen’ to whatever you say.” (Reported by Muslim)
We are human and limited in our understanding. Instead of telling God what we want, we should try to ask God what it is He wants for us, or wants us to do, in each situation.
Sometimes He gives a very clear indication of what it is He wants us to do—through inner conviction, through a verse of the Qur’an, or an insight given through another person. When we are less certain, we can pray for what seems to be the best solution, acknowledging that God’s wisdom is perfect.
We are not specks of dust drifting in space blown by random destiny. We are each of us unique—no two people are alike, not even identical twins. Each one of us is born for a specific reason and purpose, and each one of us will die when we have accomplished whatever it was to be accomplished.
True healing is not necessarily a cure, but a completion of God’s work in body, mind, emotions and spirits.
Death sometimes leads us to question things we had taken for granted before. Does God really exist? Does He love me? How could He let this happen?
God welcomes honest searching. Islam is based on historical fact, not on the speculations of human beings with their limited intellects. Truth stands out clear from error (Al Baqarah 2:256), it will not collapse under investigation. Ask your questions, seek your answers. Ask for the wisdom that will lead you to Him. Search the Qur’an for answers—find out for yourself what it says about the things you are questioning. After having experienced suffering or the grief—pangs of bereavement for yourself you may find yourself coming to a new level of commitment, one that is perhaps truly meaningful for the first time.
But you will have some questions that cannot be answered, because God chooses not to tell us everything. Many, many things will remain a mystery in this world.
Abdullah ibn Mas`ud was once walking with the Prophet when some Jews asked him about the soul. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) stood silent and gave no reply, and Abdullah realized that he was being given a revelation, so he stood quietly beside him. The revelation given was: [They ask you about the soul. Say: “The soul is by the commandment of my Lord, and of knowledge you are given only a little.”] (Al-Israa’ 17:85, Muslim 6712).
God has given us enough information so that the most intellectual person can be satisfied, yet He leaves enough out so that we must all have faith without fully understanding.
Don’t worry; instead, pray, and tell God your needs, and don’t forget to thank Him for His answers and His blessings. If you do this you will experience God’s peace, which is far more wonderful than the human mind can understand.
Don’t waste your time with cries of ‘if only’. Regret is a wasted emotion; it is futile, for we cannot go back and change things around. No amount of self-recrimination can change the past. Of course you have made mistakes—we all do that, and some of these mistakes have heavy consequences. Don’t waste your life in remorse. As long as you did the best you could at the time, that is as much as is expected of you.
Don’t be preoccupied with regret. If you did or said something wrong, confess it to God, and accept His forgiveness. Bring the entire situation before Him, commit it to Him, and leave it there.
True believers have nothing to fear in the gloomiest scenes of life; they have nothing to fear in the valley of death; they have nothing to fear in the grave; they have nothing to fear in the world beyond. For God is with them. They do not go anywhere alone—for God is the Companion, the Guide.
Dying people seem to enter the final valley alone. The friends accompany as far as they can, and then they must give the parting hand. They can cheer the dying ones until they are deaf to all their sounds; they can cheer them with their looks until their eyes become dim and they can see no more; they can cheer them with a fond embrace until they become insensible to every expression of earthly affection, and then they seem to be alone. But dying believers are not alone. God is with them in that valley, and will never leave them. On His promise they can depend, and by that Presence they can be comforted, until they emerge from the gloom into the bright world beyond. All that is needed to dissipate the terrors of that valley is to be able to say “You are with me, O Lord.”
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