“Every third thought shall be my grave.”
Act V, Scene 1
It is said that in ancient Rome, there were slaves who would accompany military generals in parades when they came home to celebrate their victory in battle. Their job was to whisper into the generals’ ears, “Memento mori” — “Remember that you will die”. It was a way to keep them grounded, to not let their hubris consume them.
And when you think about it, the Qur’an, or especially the surah (chapters) that we are encouraged to read on a daily basis (such as Surah Yaseen, Surah Al-Mulk, and Surah Al-Waqiah), are really meditations on death. They remind us of our true destination, which is the Afterlife, and that this life is merely a transit.
Rather than being morbid or depressing, remembering death drives you to lead a purposeful life, to make every moment count.
You know, when I’m driving with a friend, I always like to play a game of questions for us to know each other even better. We’d pick random questions like, “What’s your greatest achievement?” or “If you could be any animal, what would it be?”, and we’d take turns answering them.
One time I was with a friend who has a chronic illness, and the question that I picked was, “What do you do tell yourself every day?”.
I started by giving my answer, “Well, every day I tell myself that today is my only day. It could very well be my last. So it helps me think about and do things that truly matter, and just do my best to just enjoy the moment.”
My friend, who would often have a hard time simply getting out of bed, said, “I tell myself that all the pain I’m going through — they’re not going to last forever. I’d rather be hurting this much in this life, rather than in the Afterlife.”
I smiled and got teary-eyed at that answer, because as our Prophet (pbuh) promised — with every bit of pain or difficulty that we go through, Allah forgives our sins and rewards us, as long as we are patient. (Hadith verified by Bukhari)
It made me think about how beautiful it actually is to be thinking about death — how it gives us strength and patience to deal with life’s challenges, and how it puts everything in perspective.
Syeikh Hamza Yusuf recently shared about a dinner he had with the renowned novelist Paulo Coelho. Coelho, who has written famously inspirational stories such as The Alchemist, asked him, “What do you think our purpose of living is?”. Syeikh Hamza Yusuf replied, “As Muslims, we believe that our purpose of life here is to prepare for death.” Coelho, though, had a hard time grasping such a belief.
The thing is, when you believe in nothing but this life, everything seems dark and despondent. It would seem like there is no end to suffering, like there really is no light at the end of the tunnel.
“The root of Western civilization is tragedy,” as Syeikh Hamza Yusuf once said. “If you look at the major masterpieces of Western literature, they’re all tragic. They have horrible endings. Everybody dies.”
“That’s not the Muslim view,” he added. “Our stories in the Qur’an, they’re all good endings.” Good people win, good deeds are never left unrewarded, and that no matter how gloomy or dark things may seem in this life, they won’t stay that way forever. At some point, they will change and Allah will give you something way better, whether in this life or in the Afterlife.
Especially since we’re now heading towards the end of Ramadan and searching for Laylatul-Qadr (the night of power), where it is better than a thousand months (Qur’an 97:3) — it’s a great opportunity for us to work on being closer to Allah and finding our balance in this life.
To end this article, allow me to finish with a brilliant parable by Imam Ghazali.
A man is walking around in a jungle, when a lion suddenly chases after him. He runs as fast as he possibly could and finds a well that he could escape into. It is his only hope for safety, it seems.
As he jumps into the well, he holds onto a rope. He feels relieved as he is still alive, only to panic again when he sees that there is a giant snake at the bottom of the well. Things are getting worse now, as he looks up to find two mice, one black and one white, nibbling on the rope.
Yet, even in the midst of great panic, he notices a honeycomb right in front of him. He dips his finger into it and licks the honey off of his finger. For a tiny moment when he indulges in the honey’s sweetness, he has forgotten about the lion, the mice, and the snake at the bottom of the well.
As Imam Ghazali explained, the lion is the Angel of Death, who is always behind us. The snake symbolizes the grave. The black mouse is the night, and the white mouse is the day, nibbling away at our very lifeline. The honey is the Dunya, as its short-lived sweetness makes us forget about our real destination, and that every day we are inching closer and closer to our death.
Remember death, so that we could live more purposeful lives. Remember death, so that we could see our lives more clearly. Remember death, so we that we could make the most out of every opportunity to do good.