Various interpretations have been presented regarding human immortality. In this discussion, by immortality we mean the imperishability of humans after death of their body. Impersonal immortality is not the subject of this discussion. An example of impersonal immortality is the representation of immortality through our progeny and descendants. Various psychologists state that mental states such as preference of male children over female children and mental disorders such as discontentment due to lack of children originate from this feeling.
In addition, conviction of the legendary status of one’s name and memory among the living is another type of impersonal immortality. Humans regard endurance of their names, works, and progeny as the endurance of their selves. Some of those that regard humans as entirely corporeal and do not believe in human immortality, sometimes comfort themselves and others by impersonal immortality, yet the chief aspiration of humanity is not this type of immortality.
Because of the differences of opinion regarding the nature of humanity, personal immortality has been portrayed in various manners. Therefore, some portrayals are based upon the existence of the soul and its incorporeality and others, which do not advocate the incorporeal soul, depict human immortality solely in terms of the body. Herein, we have included some renditions that are not based on the existence of the soul:
Those who believe that the human essence is restricted to its material body and that the individual identity is determined through its respective body yet accept human immortality usually explain it as restoration of the dead or reassembly of the decomposed body through divine providence. Hence, we are faced with two opinions. One is the belief that the human body, which constitutes the entire identity of the individual, is annihilated after death and recreated by God at the Resurrection.1
The other is the belief that the human body in composed of both main and subsidiary elements. According to this belief, personal identity is related to the body’s main elements, which are constant throughout life and are not destroyed after death but are disjoined and shall be rejoined at the Resurrection.2
According to these two views, humans lack life until the Resurrection and they gain new life in the true sense of the term when they are resurrected.
This theory pertains to those who believe in the soul’s independence from the body but do not regard it incorporeal. According to this belief, the soul is a subtle body that has no mass or weight but possesses some material qualities such as shape and size. The subtle body exists within the corporeal body throughout one’s worldly life. It departs the body after death and persists thereupon independent of the body.
As per this concept, life of the corporal body is not inherent; rather, it is essentially inanimate and acquires life through association with the subtle body whose life is intrinsic. The body that is continually changing throughout the life of the individual is the corporal anatomy. This anatomy is an excrescence upon the subtle or ethereal body and is shed at the time of death.3 This theory is grounded on contemporary spiritual research.
The common factor in these two theories is that they do not consider the incorporeal soul to be the origin of the identity and do not support an eternal soul. In the discussion on human nature, we have shown that the human constitution cannot be considered solely material and some of humanity’s states and conditions cannot be explained without the existence of a soul. Hence, the inaccuracy of these theories regarding immortality is made obvious.
The ensuing theories regarding immortality are based on the existence of a spiritual and immaterial aspect to humanity.
The first person to explicate and expound this theory was Plato. According to his perspective, the human soul, which belongs to the plane of divine and incorporeal beings, has existed before its body. After its fall, the soul became entangled in the tenebrous world of materiality. The body is only a tool for the soul in worldly life. After the death of the body, the soul returns to its original abode, which is free of material and body. When Socrates was asked how he should be buried, he replied:
“As you please, provided I remain still with you, and do not make my escape elsewhere… as soon as the poison has operated I shall remain no longer here, but be transported to the mansions of the blest…”4
This perspective does not regard corporeal existence to have a share in human immortality. Advocates of this theory explain parapsychological phenomena in diverse manners.
A noteworthy point is that Plato’s theory regarding the existence of the human soul before creation of the material body is accepted among many Moslem mystics and philosophers; even so, the theory that the incorporeal soul is eternally severed from a material body is unacceptable to them.
Regarding severance from the divine plane, Jalāl ad-Dīn Mawlavī declares:
بشنو از نى چون حكايت ميكند از جداييها شكايت ميكند
كـز نيسـتان تا مـرا بُبريدهاند در نفيرم مرد و زن ناليدهاند
Listen to the reed pipe (humanity) as it tells a story;
It complains of separations.
That as I was severed from my true abode;
Men and women wailed of my sorrow.5
In his renowned elegy, Ibn al-Sīnā (Avicenna) states:
“A mighty and self-disciplined dove (the human soul) descended towards you (the natural world) from its lofty heights… I guess it has forgotten the covenants it had pledged in its homeland and the habitats that it was unwilling to leave…”
Of course, these two words can be interpreted differently, so that this passage does not signify the existence of a soul before its body but merely that the soul is a supernatural entity.
As we shall explain in the Qur’anic section, return of the soul without any material body at the Resurrection is not accepted by the Noble Qur’an. Therefore, even though various Muslim philosophers such as Ibn al-Sīnā (Avicenna) reached an impasse in attempting to prove the reattachment of the soul to a corporeal body, they would accept spiritual-material resurrection because of their faith in divine revelation. This acceptance signifies the clarity of the Qur’an in depicting the presence of a body in the afterworld, such that Muslim philosophers, who prefer divine revelation and utilize reason to explicate religious statements, regarded material presence in the afterlife a certainty. Humanity does not have a short-term relationship with the body; rather, the body is an integral part of the reality of humankind. If it is such that neither the body nor the soul can be disregarded in the nature of humanity, the interpretation of Ibn al-Sīnā must be challenged as to how it can be possible that there is no body in the span between this life and the next while there is a soul and human individual.
According to this tenet, which is advocated by most Indian religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, only few humans continue their existence with an incorporal soul after death while most return to worldly life in a new form and body in successive cycles. This regenerative cycle of life and death continues without interruption until individuals are successful in purifying their respective souls of material restrictions, which is the only way to realize freedom from this unending cycle. Persons that cannot purify their souls shall perpetually remain in the cycle of corporal and worldly life.
There is a difference of opinion among advocates of this belief in whether the soul necessarily enters human bodies or may also enter animal bodies after disjunction of the soul and prior body. At any rate, the law that determines the manner of rebirth and causes transmigration of the soul into a superior or inferior body is called Karma. Karma determines the future life of each human.
This law states that our deeds, speech, and beliefs dictate our future fate and the connection between one’s current and subsequent body is justified in this manner. In their rebirth, the soul enters a body corresponding to the habits and ethical characteristics of the individual’s previous life. This is why religions that support this concept prohibit consuming meat and harassing animals. After death, evil humans are reincarnated within human fetuses that possess inferior social statuses or in weak or lowly bodies as the consequence of their deeds.
According to the concept of metempsychosis, persons who free themselves of the continuous cycle of rebirth shall live on in an absolute spiritual state and as long as they remain in the regenerative cycle, they endure spiritual-physical punishment.6
Proponents of this concept have presented many philosophic, dialectic [kalāmī], and empiric rationales. However, not only are these rationales unjustified but there are grounds that show the absence of demonstrability and invalidity of the doctrine of metempsychosis.
In the first place, one must ask, how can the sameness of a person at time A and time B be demonstrated? Each of us lives through stages whose material and psychological qualities differ; nevertheless, links called memories connect these stages to each other. The existence of memories validates the individual unity of a person. However, how can the concept of metempsychosis show the sameness of the soul in the two periods of A and B?
If the criterion is persistence of memories, in nearly all instances the individual has no recollection of previous existences. If the criterion is material persistence, again this is not applicable in metempsychosis because according to this concept, the individual is sometimes reincarnated as a woman, sometimes as a man, and sometimes as an animal.
If the criterion is similarity of psychological tendencies, the duality of individual X and individual Y who live at the same time cannot be justified. In other words, the problem is how much similarity in mental attributes demonstrates the sameness of two individuals.7 Consequently, the persistence of an individual identity in two time periods is not possible.
In the second place, the doctrine of metempsychosis is fundamentally fallacious because as we have stated in our analysis of the nature of death, death is traveling beyond the natural world not mere detachment of the body and soul. Accordingly, we cannot accept that the soul can be incarnated within a new body after disjuncture from its previous body and persist in the natural world. To state matters differently, in their essential evolution, humans pass through various stages—one of which is the stage of corporal attachment—and reach a state in which they no longer need the mundane world. Therefore, this doctrine is like the return of an adult to childhood or return from perfection to fault which is not acceptable.
In addition, the relationship of every soul with its body is unique. Thus, there cannot be a relationship between a soul and another body.
Various divine verses and narrations [riwāyat] of the Immaculates (‘a) do affirm the transformation of some humans into animal forms. Some of these verses state that God damns some people and they turn into apes or pigs. Additionally, various narrations state that some people shall be resurrected with faces much uglier than the faces of apes and pigs.
These statements do not affirm this doctrine of reincarnation since the issue of resurrection in the Hereafter is essentially different from the concept of metempsychosis, which is the return of the soul to the natural world after its disassociation from its previous body. Therefore, statements regarding manifestation of individuals in the afterworld in bodies that are formed of their worldly beliefs and actions—in other words, the manifestation of the reality of each human in the Hereafter—is unrelated to the concept of metempsychosis. The two main reasons for this are as follows:
The supposed bodies that the concept of metempsychosis speaks of are not truly related to each other; however, the body that is the manifestation of actions is a body that has directly resulted from the self and its volitional beliefs and actions.
The successive bodies in the concept of metempsychosis are natural bodies; however, the body that is the manifestation of actions is not natural.
According to Jalāl ad-Dīn Mawlavī:
So the resurrection of the envious on the Day of Judgment;
Shall doubtless be in the form of wolves.
The resurrection of the avaricious carrion-eating scoundrel;
Shall be in the form of a pig on the Day of Reckoning.
Fornicators shall have stinking private parts;
Alcohol-drinkers shall have foul-smelling mouths.
The character that is predominant within your being;
Must necessarily be the basis for your constitution at Resurrection.
One moment a wolf will spring from humanity;
The next, a second Joseph shining as the moon.8
The third view regarding immortality is based on segregation of the afterworld into the two planes of Barzakh and Qiyāmat (which literally means the rise). According to this view, which has been extracted from the Qur’an and traditions, in this world humans are an amalgam of soul [nafs] and corporal body. At the time of death, their intellectual attachment is temporarily severed. The soul persists in a plane called Barzakh and the body is decomposed and diffused through the natural order of the world. Ultimately, at Qīyāmat the bodies are recollected, the souls regain intellectual attachment with their respective bodies, and thus humans, that is, amalgams of body and soul, enter the afterlife.
Adherents of this ideology are not like-minded on the question of the attachment of soul and body in the plane of Barzakh. In the theory of unincorporated soul, we have stated that some Muslim intellectuals regard the human soul without a body in the plane of Barzakh. However, others regard the soul attached to an ideal body [badan al-mithālī] that is similar to the material body of the individual. Of course, the properties of these two bodies are very different from each other. Additionally, this ideal body is unlike the subtle or ethereal body discussed previously.
In any event, according to this theory, because humans are an amalgam of body and soul and have partial material perceptions, there is a body corresponding with the plane of Barzakh in the essence of every human. At the time of natural death, the soul and its attached ideal body enters the plane of Barzakh. Mawlavī says:
For the soul, the unity of God is more pleasurable;
Other than its apparent form, it has other hands and feet.
These hands and feet can be seen in dreams and divine union;
Deem it true, do not regard it as an exaggeration.
It is your bodiless self that has a body;
So fear not of the withdrawal of the soul from your body.9
In Qīyāmat, the soul will have a corporal body, but not with the precepts and requisites of the worldly body; instead, by reaching perfection the material body becomes congruent with the afterworld, which is the world of perpetuity and lack of deterioration. We shall return to this issue in later discussions.
Among the previously stated perspectives, other than the theories of metempsychosis and subtle body, which have some supporters among Muslim intellectuals, the preceding perspective is more proportionate with Islamic anthropological principles and the Qur’an and traditions.
Literally, Barzakh means the barrier or boundary between two things. In eschatological discussions, it is the gap between the end of worldly life (i.e. death) and the commencement of Qīyāmat. As we have indicated, the segregation of life after death into Barzakh and Qīyāmat is one of the teachings of the prophets and divine scriptures and philosophers, who have speculated upon eschatological issues, have utilized these sources. According to this tenet, humans experience three disparate lives: Natural life, Barzakh life, and Ākhirat10 Life. Accordingly, it is clear that the eternal life spoken of by divine religions is the Ākhirat Life, which begins after the initial stages of Qīyāmat.
Many Qur’anic verses attest to the existence of the span of Barzakh:
﴿حَتّىٰ اذا جاء اَحَدَهُمُ الموتُ قالَ ربِّ ارجِعُون. لَعَلِّي اَعمَلُ صالحا فيما تَرَكتُ، كَلّا اِنَّها كَلِمَةٌ هو قائِلُها و مِن وَرائِهِم برزخٌ الى يومِ يُبعَثُون﴾
“Until, when death comes unto one of them, he says, ‘My Lord! Return me! Surely I shall act righteously in that which I have forsook.’ Never! It is just a word he speaks and behind them is an intermission (Barzakh) till the day they shall be resurrected.”11
According to this verse, it seems that returning to the world is not possible after true death. Moreover, between the end of worldly life and the Day of Judgment or Qīyāmat there is an intermission called Barzakh.
﴿قالوا ربّنا اَمَتَّنا اثنَتَينِ و اَحْيَيتَنا اثنَتَينِ فاعْتَرَفْنا بِذُنُوبِنا فَهَل إِلىٰ خُرُوجٍ مِّن سَبيل﴾
“They shall say, ‘Our Lord! You have caused us two deaths and have given us two lives. We confess to our sins, now, is there any escape route [from Hell]?”12
This verse reveals two issues:
That which was also revealed from the first verse, that is, there is an interval, called Barzakh, between death and afterlife.
Humans are alive and aware in the recess of Barzakh, not annihilated and silent.
According to this verse, after unbelievers realize two deaths and two lives after their worldly lives, they attest to their faith and confess their sins in order to be delivered from retribution. The story of the two deaths and two lives is thus: at the end of their worldly lives, God causes the death of humans and introduces them into the life of Barzakh. At the end of Barzakh life, again He causes the death of humans and accords them with new eternal life. Therefore, there is life in Barzakh because otherwise two deaths cannot come about.
One might state that by accepting Barzakh life, each individual would have three lives (worldly life, Barzakh life, and later life in the hereafter). That which frees unbelievers of doubt and brings about their conviction are two resurrections in Barzakh and Qīyāmat.13 Their worldly life did not cause conviction within them because in their earthly life they denied life after death:
﴿إِِنَّ هٰؤُلآءِ لَيَقولون. إِنْ هيَ إِلّا مَوتَتُنا الأُولىٰ وَ ما نَحنُ بِمُنشَرين﴾
“Surely these [unbelievers] say: There is nothing but our first death and we shall not be revived.”14
The following verse signifies that the Qur’an regards death as transferal from one type of life to another:
﴿و لا تقولوا لمَن يُقتَل في سبيل اللهِ امواتٌ، بل احياءٌ و لكن لا تشعرون﴾
“And do not call those who have died in the way of Allah dead; rather, they are alive but you do not realize.”15
This verse is a short but clear report of the Barzakh life of the martyrs [shuhadā’] of God because the life of martyrs only differs in the manner of their Barzakh life not its reality. Since the terms “do not call…dead” and “you do not realize” are addressed to the faithful, one cannot say that the meaning of this verse is that martyrs are alive at Qīyāmat because this fact was already evident and accepted by the faithful.
Visualizing life in Barzakh without allowing for an immaterial aspect in humans is difficult. This is because after death, the material body decomposes and alters into constituent elements that can no longer be called a human body. Furthermore, according to the verse “Allah completely retracts souls at the time of their deaths and also souls that have not died, in their sleep. So, He holds souls upon which He has decreed death and returns the rest until an appointed end…”16 essentially, the buried material body has no soul. Therefore, life and retribution in Barzakh cannot be attributed to such a body. On the other hand, if humans are merely soul, which according to philosophers can only perceive general and intangible truths, how can it perceive the material punishments and rewards of Barzakh, which are mentioned in the Qur’an and Hadith? Thus, some Muslim philosophers regard humans in Barzakh as possessing an ideal body that corresponds with the plane of Barzakh and which has been derived from the individual’s actions and beliefs, that is, the person’s volitional identity.
In this world, our earthly bodies are attached to our souls. By abandoning its corporeal body our soul enters the plane of Barzakh with a body similar in appearance to its material body. Moreover, various Hadith state that when God withdraws the soul, He gives it a form similar to its worldly form such that an acquaintance that sees the individual will recognize him or her. The perception of bodily forms in dreams, helps in understanding the Barzakh body. Even though this body possesses geometric dimensions and corporal qualities such as color, it is devoid of materiality and its qualities including mass and weight.
Advocates of the ideal body are not in agreement regarding the manner of its genesis. According to one perspective, this ideal body is created independently and after severance of the soul’s bond with its material body, and then it unites with its ideal body. Another view states that the ideal body is not a detached reality from the soul but an existential facet of the soul that appears after death.
According to logical and traditional rationales for the incorporeality of the soul, the fact that the soul endures after death and is present in the plane of Barzakh and the Ākhirat is indisputable. Various Qur’anic verses describe nonmaterial rewards in Ākhirat that can only be attributed to the existence of the soul in Ākhirat. For example, in Sūrah Tawbah it is stated:
“Allah has promised faithful men and women gardens underneath [the trees of] which rivers flow, therein to dwell forever, and also pure abodes in perpetual paradises and greater [than all these] is the satisfaction of Allah. That is the great triumph.”17
Apparently, in this verse, the Noble Qur’an places the satisfaction and gratification of God against the material pleasures of the faithful and regards it greater than these pleasures. It is clear that it is a pleasure that is realized not with the material body but with the human intellect and soul. Therefore, there is no doubt that Islam agrees with the spiritual immortality of humans. However, the discussion does not end here because there are many verses that indicate the material presence of humans in Ākhirat.
1. Some of these verses attest to the existence of the human body on the Day of Judgment. These verses can be divided into various categories:
a. Some verses denote that in the wake of death humans return to the earth and afterwards on the Day of Resurrection, they reemerge from it. For example:
﴿مِنها خَلَقناكم و فيها نُعيدُكُم و منها نُخرِجُكُم تارةً أُخرىٰ﴾
“Out of the earth We created you, into it We shall return you, and We shall withdraw you from it once more.”18
b. Other verses explicitly state that on the Day of Resurrection all humans shall rise from their graves:
﴿وَ نُفِخَ في الصُّورِ فَإِذا هُم مِّنَ الاجداثِ إلى رَبِّهِم يَنسِلُون﴾
“And the Horn shall be blown. Then suddenly they shall emerge from their graves to hasten towards their Lord.”19
It is self-evident that emergence from one’s grave pertains to the human body not soul.
c. Various verses speak of parts of the human body in the Ākhirat. These verses are also clear denotations of corporeal resurrection since it is evident that the immaterial soul does not have body parts:
﴿اليَومَ نَختِمُ على افواهِهِم وَ تُكَلِّمُنا أََيديهِم وَ تَشهَدُ أَرجُلُهُم بِما كانوا يَكسِبون﴾
“Today, We seal their mouths and their hands speak to Us and their feet bear witness to what they have been earning.”20
Fundamentally, the people’s understanding of the Prophet’s (S) enjoinment to immortality was somatic resurrection and the Prophet (S) did not refute this understanding.21
2. In addition to the first genre of verses, which denote the presence of the human body in the Ākhirat, other verses openly speak of bodily rewards and punishments in Ākhirat. Many Qur’anic verses speak of “heavenly gardens”, “pleasant shade”, “varieties of foods and dishes”, “medleys of clothes and adornments”, etc. On the other hand, many verses speak of “burning in the fires of Hell”, “appalling food and drink”, “fiery malodorous clothes”, “deathly winds”, “iron maces”, etc. Each of these denotes a part of the physical rewards or punishments of the inhabitants of Ākhirat. This genre of verses also indicates corporal presence since without a body, perceiving material bounties or chastisements is not possible.22
In light of these accounts, we can conclude that according to Islam, the immortality of human beings is physical/spiritual and that our existential reality, in both material and spiritual aspects, will be completely present in the Hereafter.
We have made it clear that according to Islam, the human resurrection includes both spiritual and corporal aspects. Now, it may be asked: Is our Ākhirat body the same as our earthly body or is it different? In answer, some Muslim scholars support the first possibility and believe that on the Day of Resurrection each person’s earthly body will be restored and reattached to the soul. These scholars maintain that specific verses, such as those that indicate the exodus of humans from their grave,23 distinctly demonstrate the factuality of this opinion. In addition, divine justice demands that the next world’s physical rewards and punishments be delivered upon the same body that was occupied in righteous or immoral deeds.
Other Islamic authorities hold that even though people’s Ākhirat bodies are material—and of clay—it is not necessary that they be the same as their earthly bodies; rather, they are merely similar to their previous bodies in form. In order to prove their theory, these experts make use of various Qur’anic verses that speak of the creation of a “likeness” of each person in the Hereafter:
﴿أَوَ لَيسَ الّذي خَلَقَ السَماواتِ و الأَرضَ بِقادرٍ على أن يَخلُقَ مِثْلَهُم؛ بَلىٰ وَ هُوَ الخَلّاقُ العَلِيمُ﴾
“Is not He who created the heavens and earth able to create the like of them; yes indeed [he can], and He is the Creator (of all), the All-knowing.”24
Naturally, these scholars maintain that there is no contradiction between the material dissimilarity of earthly and otherworldly bodies and the “sameness” of the individual. This dissimilarity does not result in the reunited person at Resurrection being different from the person that existed in the natural world. This is because the identity of an individual pertains to its soul and the person’s soul in the Hereafter is the same soul that was attached to the individual’s physical body in the mundane world.
Meanwhile, various Islamic theologians have taken a different path that more comprehensively illuminates Islamic teachings on this subject. They believe that our otherworldly bodies are perfected versions of our natural bodies and even though they are distinct in their existential perfection, they are individually equivalent to our respective natural bodies.
On this basis, the otherworldly bodies of all individuals are the same as their mundane bodies with the difference that they have left behind the limitations and faults of their natural stage and have become perfect and complete bodies. This is because the Ākhirat is an absolutely perfect world not a revision of the natural world. Hence, Ākhirat bodies are exempt of all diseases and blights and never become old and decrepit. Naturally, this perspective is grounded on specific philosophical principles that are too comprehensive to be discussed in this brief treatise.25