Some introductory points that explain the likeness of life and death in the eyes of Ali (‘a) are presented here.
In this introductory discussion we consider it necessary to mention two principles which, although short, are of considerable importance.
1. Correct and complete understanding of a specific reality is possible to an academician or a philosopher only when the concept opposite to it is examined in clear terms. The famous age old saying, ‘Things can be recognized through their opposites’ is valid in all our knowledge and understanding. Rather, it can be said that the epistemologically scientific and philosophical value of this principle has increased and today it is introduced as one the indisputable laws of knowing things through their opposites. On the basis of the law mentioned above, understanding of the issue of death is connected to our understanding of the reality of life. It is true, of course, that a summary understanding of an issue can be obtained without study of its opposite.
2. The extent of general acceptance and agreement on a certain topic or law in science or philosophy is related to whether the proof provided in this regard is a definite proof or a reliable roof or just a probable proof. Any issue in science or philosophy that is proved or established to a high degree acquires complete and universal acceptance. Similarly, if a certain issue reaches partial or limited clarity based on certain assumptions and theories, then only to the extent it is clear, it reaches acceptance. For example, today the issue that water is a compound made up of hydrogen and oxygen is a formally recognized fact such that the acceptance of this issue can be put at 100%. While, on the other hand there are many other issues that are not universally accepted and their general acceptance can be put for example at around 5%.
Now that these two principles are clarified we can say that: The issue of death from the aspect of our understanding of it in the domain of science and philosophy is one of those issues which, for two reasons, is not a universally accepted matter such that its acceptance can be put at 100%.
The first reason is that the complete reality of life itself is unknown and therefore as a result the reality of death also remains obscure. To explain this matter more it is necessary for us to look into the phenomenon of life and its reality.
As a result of the efforts carried out in various fields of biology during the last century many branches of knowledge have opened for human beings. This has made available more than ten theories about the phenomenon of life for scholars and philosophers to study. It can be said that these different opinions and studies each have a different perspective in mind.
We all are aware that the powerful laws of mechanics have had a profound effect on the thinking of the scholars of our time. As a result, they have tried to explain even physiological phenomena with the help of a few simple laws of mechanics.
Although it is true that in cases where the result is related to natural factors, this view has attained success and noticeable acceptance. It is said the quality of a certain cell brings about a specific phenomenon. For instance, colloidal particles in isolation have a certain behavior and in colonies behave differently. To a certain extent our knowledge within these limits about different phenomena release us from fancy in relation to the question of life. However, a more important point (the answer for which human thought has long been in search) is: Does this amount of clarity fulfill all our true scientific and philosophical aspirations about the reality and phenomenon of life?
If we assume that our current understanding about the reality of life is enough, then why would people, such as Henri Bergson1, consider the reality of life with long and extensive philosophical formulations and due to weariness resulting from these considerations at times busy themselves with poetry? Specification of the matters of life, its activities and properties, is similar to determination of matters related to the functioning of the brain. Of course, no one denies that the brain is made up of different types of neurons and specific tissues linked in a complex and precise manner.
Similarly, it is known that memory, imagination, resolve, and thinking have definite physical centers in the body. Even with all the insight we have gained, it is not possible to explain the psychological apparatus definitively using mechanical laws of physiology. Even if we agree hypothetically that the matter of life consists of colloidal particles, how can we explain the instinct of reproduction, emotions and so many similar things with reference to these particles?! We consider the brain to be the center of memory, but the thousands of images of contradictory events that gather in a physical center throughout life cannot be explained using laws of physiology and understanding the parts of the system and we cannot even say that physiologists have been neglectful of this issue; rather, like scholars of psychology they have also realized that the tangible materials of life, such as cells, generate non-material entities. However, they appease themselves by referring to this well-known statement, “Attributes of living beings are qualitative attributes that are generated by quantitative attributes” and they satisfy themselves with this explanation.
We also believe that the puzzle of life will be solved forever when this vague philosophical statement is converted into a precise statement like the statements of mathematics and physics. Even though this statement is only mentioned in books of physiology, unfortunately it still asserts a vague philosophical claim.
At any rate if we want to give an example of this intricate issue, we must call to mind a picture of a landscape such that parts of this composite (made up of fragments) are individual material objects like a river, lush green trees, meadows, etc. but the combination of these quantifiable fragments produce a state and a qualitative attribute of pleasantness in us. This quality and state lacks the ability of any quantitative comparison and cannot be explained using physical laws.
The difference between the conversion of quantity into quality in the natural world in the above example is that the main source of the qualitative attribute that is present in nature is related to our feelings, while in the reality of life, regardless of the reflection of nature on our feelings, a certain phenomenon called a qualitative attribute exists in itself in that living creature. In other words, in living beings the instinct of survival and reproduction, emotions and feelings, and resolve or will-power in higher beings like humans, and the faculty of imagination, the sense of beauty, thinking, and choice are qualitative attributes that have an independent external reality.
Keeping in mind all that has been said and acknowledging the fact that the matter of life is something that produces phenomena that are not quantifiable, the view of biologists and especially physiologists and zoologists who say, ‘The limits of this discussion do not pass beyond events of life and stop just at giving explanations about the perceptible events’ has been proven. As a result, our scientific and philosophical descriptions are insufficient to explain the reality and philosophy of life.
Even though we are living in the second half of the twentieth century if we recall the words of poets with philosophical temperaments, we see that, like them, we have also not solved the basic questions about life. Abul ‘Ala says:
That in which perplexed are the people
Is creation of life from a lifeless matter.
Now let us assume that we have understood the reality and origin of life and no part of its reality remains obscure for us. As a result, we would understand death as well and this can be expressed in a simple mathematical expression: Death is subtraction (or absence) of life. Afterwards, however, we are faced with an even more perplexing question about the mysteries and events after death. This issue requires a more detailed discussion which we present in the coming pages.
Any intellectual who has studied the contradictory views about death would certainly be confused and perhaps even terrified. It can be said that these people are justified in having these feelings because it is very natural for a person to lose his senses when he visualizes the strong and terrible embarrassment of life before the frightening visage of death. As we pointed out in our previous discussions, intellectuals have failed to explain the reality of death on the basis of laws of physiology. Consequently, nowadays they resort to unrelated and jumbled philosophical arguments to explain the reality of death. It is evident that all their extensive scientific knowledge has failed to fulfill the aspirations of the instinct of curiosity and now they have assumed the responsibility of solving this puzzle of life through use of poetry!
It is a general rule that if an issue of scientific and philosophical inquiry is not analyzed using the senses and the intellect, people will draw a picture of the issue based on guesswork and in accordance with their own thoughts. Until today not even a single person from all of humanity has returned to life through conventional means after having passed completely through this mysterious forest of death so that he could describe the reality for us in simple language. For this reason, this reality manifests itself in an extremely repulsive and terrifying form to those who consider death itself to be the last destination for humanity.
Contrary to this, in the eyes of people who are aware of the reality of life and they have carefully studied its different aspects, death is a passageway. It is the beginning of the harvest season whose seeds were planted in the farm of life and for whose cultivation they had endeavored patiently. For such people death manifests itself in a beautiful and pleasant form. Based on the same clear reasoning, the resting place after death, the grave, for the first group of people who consider death to be the end of life is like a dark pit that, with a fiery whip, has set out towards him whereas for the second group the same grave takes the form of an honorable resting place and a place of immense peace.
This reality is perceived by all—young and old—by means of the conscience and the untainted God-given nature. It is up to us to express this reality in the form of philosophical expressions and moral admonitions or in the form of poetry.
Another has said:
“Live thou such that when your time arrives and you are summoned to a caravan whose number cannot be counted and which faces a mysterious realm ahead and when every person will settle in his own place in the silent valley of death, you do not become a servant who faces a terrible destiny but you become someone who with firm steps and high morale moves towards his eternal resting place and spreads his gown on the earth and at that moment goes under it and covers his eyes for a pleasant sleep full of beautiful dreams and in that glorious resting place waits for the meeting of the Last Day.”
Maurice Maeterlinck2 and some other intellectuals with great interest have taken up pens and filled many pages in order to depict the reality of death. Unfortunately, the people who have read these pages have not seen anything substantial written about the reality of death itself but whatever is reflected in these writings is related to issues before death or after death. If we liken death to a corridor and the life before death to a street and events after death to a courtyard then these people have ignored the corridor in order to reach the courtyard from the street. How true it is that a person who has never seen a Phoenix portrays it according to his own imagination.
We do not intend to say that issues related to before death and after death are not important. Rather on the contrary both these issues occupy extraordinary importance and, as we will mention, the mystery of what takes place after death is more important than death itself. However, what we intend to say is that even though these intellectuals have claimed to have described death, they have actually not succeeded in doing so.
It is here that we realize the academic and philosophical value of this brief statement of the unrivaled champion of life and death, Ali (‘a):
“How many days did I spend in searching for the secret of this matter, but Allah did not allow save its concealment Alas! It is a treasured knowledge.”3
The example of Epicurus4 and Epicures5 is that of a beautician who prepares the bride for the groom but he himself is deprived of any benefit from her. He presented death in a beautiful appearance to provide mental relief to the children of Adam from fear and apprehension during the last moments of their lives.
Epicurus said: Why do you fear death?
Fear of death is childish because, as long as you have feelings, there is no death and when death arrives, there are no feelings. Epicurus with these words, which very likely were said by him to open the way of escape from the sense of responsibility and pain of carrying out duties, reminds us of a child in the darkness of night that has tightly put his fingers in his ears while he is reciting these couplets:
Or if we want to speak a bit more seriously we should have a look at a clearer example. This statement of Epicurus is indicative of the pleasure seeking and play of a child that nowadays fifty and sixty year old people in both the East and the West are carrying out. However, this pleasure seeking is not in accordance with the demands of their human nature. It only helps them to postpone the autumn of old age but that too only for a limited period of time. This empty excuse at times is so cold and out of place that when they themselves pay attention to the reality of it they feel ashamed and disgraced. I do not really know, but it seems very unlikely that a person can be found who has settled the puzzle of death and what happens after death using the words of Epicurus and if such a person was to be found in history this philosophical
statement of Epicurus would have become a proven formula.
If we reflect a little about the state of Epicurus we will understand that perhaps this is how he reached this conclusion: Epicures the philosopher with a peaceful mind was having a walk in a garden. Nature full of life with its trees, flowers, animals and human beings was smiling at him and his eyes, his ears, his heart and all his faculties were engaged in performing their respective duties. Suddenly this expression surfaced in his talented mind, “That which the eyes see is a dream like the water flowing in the stream” and thus the most mysterious puzzle of human thought was solved forever!!
Do you know of any sensible person who says that feelings and death can gather in one place? Which intelligent person says that motion and stillness can come together? So that in answer to this foolish statement we would say: No, motion and stillness cannot come together.
However, the name Epicurus is counted amongst philosophers. It is hard to believe that this obvious and evident statement was made by him without any motive or reason. If we carefully think about the philosophical method of Epicurus and Epicureanism it appears to us that, like others, Epicurus was anxious and tormented by the sight of this vast universe winking at everyone through the crevices of the wall of death. (Which lionhearted man is not humbled by the sight of death? Which courageous person does not throb at the thought of apparent breaking of the string of life or the possibility of its continuation after passing through the corridor of death?) He only had two ways to redress this puzzle of death.
1. Intelligent acceptance which was chosen by the nations of the world through their adherence to the leaders of spirituality (the Prophets).
2. Disregarding this issue and consoling himself with the aforesaid expressions when death is mentioned or reassuring himself while thinking about death and the events after death which torment the conscience of every intellectual.
Epicurus chooses the second solution and does not consider the belief in life after death to be necessary. That which appears stranger than the words of Epicurus are the words of some of the so-called philosophers who say things like: Why do you trouble your mind to understand the reality of death?! All its secrets can be described in one short sentence: Life is the connection of soul and body and death is the separation of the soul from the body.
As if someone denied this concept and if this self-evident statement would not have come to the rescue, the puzzle of death would have remained unsolved forever! In answer to these kinds of claims it is enough that we say: Generally speaking, the first stage while analysing the issue of death would be to comprehend the reality of life and the soul. Unfortunately, the meanings of these concepts today have been lost in confusing terminologies and ideas.
In any case, whether the children of Adam take this issue seriously or not, two issues of extraordinary importance
related to death have occupied the minds and senses of the people of knowledge and understanding:
1. Chaos of death, and
2. Confusion after death
Any part of the body that has life will always try its best to protect its life. Wounds, injuries, illnesses, even if present for only a short period of time, are not in consonance with the demands of life. Therefore, at the time of conflict between a live body part and a wound, injury or illness the soul—or the ‘I’ or the ‘nervous system’—is in pain and torment and that part becomes a source of feeling pain for the entire structure of life. This pain can go on to the extent that, at times, the ill person wishes for death and seeks to end his life. Here we all are faced with a dilemma: When death is playing with all the outer and inner parts and one by one severs all the strings of life, does the dying person not feel any pain or torment?!
Some others have said: It is true that at the time of death there is conflict between motion and stillness and without doubt change from motion to stillness brings pain, but the duration of this pain is short and it is limited to few minutes or hours. I have not seen this sentence attributed to Epicurus, but it is not out of place if said to complete the words of Epicurus. It appears that this false optimism is a result of lack of reflection about this issue. Those who believe in this statement have imagined that feelings and perceptions of a person who is trapped in the powerful claws of death are the same as the perceptions of a vital and active person who in the hour of pleasure-seeking with a calm mind can assign a specific meaning for a minute, an hour, a day or a month. It is obvious that this is not the case because due to the approach of death the perceptions and senses of a person are deranged and the limitations of time no longer apply and time takes an incalculable extension. You and I who are watching the stormy events of death from a distance imagine that this person has crossed the corridor of death in an interval of few minutes or an hour.
It would not be out of place if we mention what the scholars of physiology say in this regard. At the time of death particular kinds of movements and vibrations coupled with electric currents are generated in the neurons of the brain. In this situation different kinds of fluctuations are observed in the brain. These fluctuations indicate that the memory is revealing the different events that this dying person had done during his lifetime.
It is very likely that these words of Imam Ali (‘a) are also indicate this phenomenon:
“He (the dying person) then thinks over how he wasted his life and in what (activities) he passed his time.”7
Coming together of thousands of events in a span of few minutes is incompatible with our ordinary measurements of time. This is the first issue (that of death) that has always engaged human thought.
All human beings more or the less without exception face these questions: Will this life full of vigour and vitality one day turn into a terrifying calm and silence? Will this silence extend eternally? Or like this present life which was preceded by absolute silence, will a new eternal life begin after the end of this life?
Even though eternal silence is out of the question, death presents a very poetic and amazing appearance. Yes, the grave is a strange place. Identities and distinctions are obliterated and destroyed in such a manner that in a handful of earth we can observe the just heart of Socrates alongside the reckless head of the oppressive Genghis Khan and we can see the bones of Jamshid and Alexander mixed with the bones of others. How can a person engrossed in the pleasures of life with drunken eyes, rosy cheeks and delicate body while ruling over millions of people imagine that a day will come when the same sun and the same moon and the same stars would all be busy illuminating others without having the slightest concern and his drunken eyes, rosy cheeks and delicate body would have turned into a handful of dust?! Afterwards also a thorny bush would grow over this dust and thereafter a farmer would uproot the thorns and bushes and this man would turn into earth that will be a place where plants will grow. This turning of humans into dust creates a pitiful sight for onlookers although at the same time it is place of feasting for worms, ants and writhing snakes below the ground.
It is certain that the destiny of this person enamoured of life does not end here because that farmer is in search of a free watchman to look after his plantations. So he cruelly empties the contents of this skull and inserts a stick through one the holes of the eyes or the nose and erects a scarecrow in his farm. Here this eventful skull is busy doing two things. Firstly, it is guarding the farm and, secondly, it is looking at the vast expanse of nature which, along with the stars, has witnessed the events of the past.
This is the eventful journey that all people set out for with the caravan of time. Throughout the centuries and ages this swift vehicle of time has carried each one of the children of Adam from enthusiastic young men and women to old men and women with bent backs, from the simple-minded to clever people, from the weak to the powerful, from ordinary people to philosophers, learned men and Prophets and has put them under the earth which becomes their resting place till eternity.
If the children of Adam had certainty that the issue of ending of life and their destiny would finish here, it would not be so much a source of worry and discomfort. Because certainly everyone is going to face these events in the future while saying:
However, despite all this humans admit defeat against two questions and express their inability to answer them. The first of these questions is: Despite so many consolations offered by the deniers of metaphysical realities, why do people still fear the severing of the cord of life?!
And the second question: What clear proofs exist to support the claim that the reality of human beings is confined between being a foetus and reaching the dreadful valley of death?!
If there are any clear proofs, why are they not explained for all so that everyone can attain tranquillity and no one has to have any apprehension about death?!
How suitable it would have been if, when these intellectuals wished to offer temporary consolations as philosophical discussions and prevent people - in their own opinion - from thinking about the gravity of death and what comes after, they came to themselves and pondered this issue with more care and in a more useful manner and would have shown the children of Adam a logical and safe path.
As a result of these introductory discussions it is now possible for us to understand how life and death were alike for Ali (‘a). Rather, if we reflect a bit more about life from the viewpoint of Ali (‘a) we may be able to fathom the pleasure that Ali (‘a) felt when he welcomed death at the time he realized his death was imminent.
Here you will read some of the astonishing statements made by this unrivaled champion of life and the death.
1. By Allah, whether I proceed towards death or death advances towards me, I fear it not.8
2. By the Worshiped One, death has not proffered me anything new that is distasteful.9
3. By Allah, the son of Abu Talib is more intimate with death than an infant with the breast of its mother.10
4. When he was inflicted with the deadly blow that led to his death he said, ‘By the Lord of the Ka’ba, I have achieved salvation.’11
As Ali (‘a) said: “By Allah, whether I proceed towards death or death advances towards me, I fear it not.” Yes, when a lifeless canvas is being painted by an expert artist, it does not make a difference whether the brush is extended towards it or it is extended towards the brush. Ali (‘a), this complete example of the path of the leaders of Monotheism, surrendered himself like a lifeless canvass under the hand of the painter of life and death, and it did not make any difference to him whether death came to him or he went towards death. Certainly Ali (‘a) had no worry or apprehension about death or the confusion that follows death. Death did not hold anything new that he did not already know about.
Without doubt for a person who has understood the reality of life with all its implications and details and, as a result, nothing remains unknown to him about death, what new thing can death reveal to such a person?!
Again, a general principle that applies to human knowledge and is accepted by all is that it is possible to understand a reality by studying its opposite. Rather, if we desire complete understanding of an issue we should know it’s opposite comprehensively.
If we impartially reflect about the entire life of Ali (‘a), taking into account all its dimensions, this would serve as the most convincing proof for the claims made by him.
Faultfinders and criticizers in all times—before his Caliphate, after his Caliphate and even in the period when the oppressors were trying to hide their faults and disgraces—could not prove through proper evidence regarding any particular issue or certain social event that Ali (‘a) took a step following his desires or committed a mistake.
Who can deservingly reach this lofty station in this world full of intrigue and wonder? Can one possibly say that Ali (‘a) had not understood the meaning of life correctly!?
Yes, Ali (‘a) had understood the meaning of life correctly and this caused him not to have even the least fear of death. This fact can also be explained in other words which would be in accordance with the capacity of our intellect.
This man, Ali (‘a), was alert in the presence of the intoxicated. He was thinking about the society among others who were drowning in selfishness and individualism. He considered that the financial portion and identity of every individual in society was related to one’s labour and efforts and achievement of results. He was vigilant in an environment where conflict between survival of the fittest and trampling the rights of the weak had taken away basic human values from the people. Does such a man who is aware while in such a detestable society not feel death every moment?! This is why Ali does not have any apprehension of the turmoil of death and the events after death.
Again he says, “By Allah, the son of Abu Talib is more intimate with death than an infant with the breast of its mother.”
Rare are claims similar to this claim which is supported by evidence; rather, most such claims do not go beyond mere rhetoric. History, which has fabricated many false events and conveyed them to mankind as truth—this disgraceful history with all its prejudices and baseless disputes— could not deny the sincerity of this apple of Abraham’s eye in his love for God.
More than fourteen hundred years have passed; however, history has repeatedly announced to us: Ali feared neither death nor the events that would follow death.
One can see that Ali (‘a) did not exaggerate his claim about his love for God by taking his claim in one hand and the history of his life in the other and comparing the two. Why should Ali, this friend of Allah, not have the desire to meet his beloved and hasten to His lofty presence? Ask the Divine Book (the Qur’an) and it will also tell you that a true lover desires meeting with his beloved.
قُلْ يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ هَادُوا إِنْ زَعَمْتُمْ أَنَّكُمْ أَوْلِيَاءُ لِلَّهِ مِنْ دُونِ النَّاسِ فَتَمَنَّوُا الْمَوْتَ إِنْ كُنْتُمْ صَادِقِينَ
Say: O you who are Jews, if you think that you are the favorites of Allah to the exclusion of other people, then invoke death if you are truthful. (Surah al-Jumu’a, 62:6).
Why should death not be sweeter to Ali (‘a) than mother’s milk to an infant?! He did not desire the life of this world the way an infant desires his mother’s milk. Ali (‘a), as a result of his sound intellect and God-given nature, perceived that death is the opening of the doors of eternal life.
Death means freedom from the bondages and darkness of the material realm. Indeed, when a farmer has sown seeds in the appropriate season, has taken care of their cultivation and has not exercised any negligence in carrying out his duty as a farmer, why should such a person not look forward to the day when the harvests will be reaped and why should he not become happy remembering the day when in front of his eyes he sees the accumulation of the fruits of his labour?!?!
Is it not true that life in this world is the sowing season of humanity?! And is it not true that death is the beginning of the harvest season?! Indeed, Ali (‘a) is rightfully justified if he does not fear death and the events after death.
Why should Ali ibn Abi Talib (‘a)—when he received that fatal blow—not welcome death as if for years he had been waiting for this honoured guest, while the weeping of those suffering from the farthest point of the territories under his rule was echoing in his ears and his heart and it had turned life into a dungeon where hands and legs are tied in chains and it is impossible to live in peace.
Life is extremely bitter for a man who is himself a symbol of justice but is forced to observe the occurrence of an anklet being oppressively grabbed from the leg of a woman living in a territory under his rule—even though that woman is not Muslim.
If complete submission to justice and considering property, life, family and power insignificant occupies the same merit that Ali showed through his character, and if fear and apprehension of even a tiny bit of oppression to the rights of others is a virtue just as Ali demonstrated saying, “If you ask me to snatch husk of a grain from the mouth of an ant in exchange for the whole world and whatever is in it, I would certainly not do this”, then certainly it is an undeniable reality that Ali did not fear death or the events that would follow death.
But the shameful history of the undutiful children of Adam announces clearly: Shame on the children of Adam who—when their wars and oppression are witnessed by the skies, the stars, and the whole universe—disgrace humanity. The children of Adam have trampled human values oppressively without any apprehension so much so that even wild beasts are not unbridled to this extent. If such an enemy of humanity knows that killing the enemy by burning him to death is faster and more destructive, will he allow the time to kill them with water?! Certainly Not! If the enemy can be destroyed faster and better by drowning them instead of depriving them of water, there would be no need for arrayal of troops and killing the enemy by the sword.
History has made an exception only for the leaders of monotheism and the true exemplar of their path, the dear son of Abu Talib, from such a rule and convention.
Read the life of Ali (‘a). You will find in it that when Mu’awiyah took control of the river Euphrates in the battle of Siffin, he prevented the forces of Ali (‘a) from coming close to the water in order to defeat the enemy by way of thirst to avoid using their swords and gain a speedy defeat. At this moment an order was issued from Ali (‘a) and with a small attack on the enemy, the Euphrates was recaptured by the forces of Ali. It is evident that the supporters of Ali desired a tit for tat response from Ali (‘a) [wanting to control the water and defeat the enemy by way of thirst like Mu’awiyah’s army], but Ali never sacrificed human values and Islamic principles while fighting wars. Expressing his disapproval of the demands of his supporters, he opened the way to water and invited everyone to benefit from it. Because according to logic of life and the logical way of life of Ali war is for correcting and reforming men not for destroying them. History does not know of a person other than this pious and humble champion and dear son of Abu Talib who held a sword in his hands for fifty years and yet did not spill a single drop of blood unjustly.
History has witnessed the pure life of Ali ibn Abi Talib (‘a) and loudly and clearly tells us that Ali (‘a) neither feared death nor the life after death.
In the logic of Ali ibn Abi Talib (‘a) the only death that every individual and society should fear is the death of conscience and God-given human nature (fitrat). An individual or a society that has hung on to self-worship to such an extent that it considers human values limited to accumulation of wealth and power has certainly hastened towards destruction and extinction. In such an individual or such a society where the conscience and God-given human nature has disappeared, a sense of responsibility is inexistent and human values—which separate humans from wild animals and teach men wisdom, ethics and religion—are replaced with survival of the fittest and trampling of the rights of the weak.
This world is such that above every powerful person there is someone more powerful and over every strong hand there is another one stronger than the first and the weak are destroyed and annihilated by these two. This is the death that everyone fears and in fact this is the death that everyone must fear! But this unique man, Ali (‘a), always reminded people of the importance of carrying out their duties and accepted his own death by surrendering himself before the law (he refused to punish his killer before the crime was committed). Even if Ali himself had not said anything about death, the voice of justice and dutifulness would announce to the people of the world that Ali had neither a fear of death nor of events to come after death.
Is it possible to imagine a person that fears death at the hands of an assassin, but despite knowing the bad intentions of his killer does not accuse him of planning to kill him?! However, it was not possible for Ali (‘a) to ignore the law and use the power he had to cleanse this earth of the criminal Ibn Muljim before he committed his infamous crime.
If Ali this perfect role model of the path of the leaders of Monotheism feared death, he would not have walked through the streets in the darkness of the night in the same way he walked in the brightness of the day without any weapon and without any guards among the multitude of enemies who desired wealth and power and who saw Ali (‘a) as nothing but an obstacle in their path. This unique exemplar of humanity who had reached the threshold of death many times in order to fulfill his duties had astonished death itself and his death, like his amazing life, cried out to us: Ali neither feared death nor events to come after death!
Certainly this pious courageous man whose garments had so many patches that it made the person who used to patch them feel ashamed, who looked equally upon the strong and the weak in respect to rights and whose sharp sword—despite the fact that it dripped in the blood of the corrupt and was in the foremost ranks of wars and thousands of events where revengefulness might strip away a person’s humanity—never spilled a single drop of blood unjustly. In addition, he made sure food was offered the man that inflicted him with a deadly injury, encouraged his children not to get excessively agitated over the death of their father and, at the time of crossing the corridor of death towards the realm of the afterlife, exchanged a patched garment for a simple shroud, like the clothing of Ihram, and surrendered his body to the earth
and his soul hastened to the presence of his Lord. What apprehension and worry can torment and distress such a man?! By the Glory of Allah I swear that those garments, that sword, that human who has acquired worth through following Ali (‘a), that kind and affectionate heart, and even the killer himself all testify to us that Ali (‘a) did not fear death nor the events that come after death.
The pale-yellow sun was for a few hours abandoning the blue sky and the night was spreading a curtain of darkness on mountains and plains, on green trees, on humble houses and elevated mansions. The stars, as usual, were floating quietly in the vast expanse of the sky and with mysterious smiles on their faces they looked with amazement at the human beings exhausted as a result of the tiresome efforts of the day. The farmers had returned to their humble dwellings and the sounds of the caravans were inclining to silence like the sounds of the members of the caravans themselves. Even captivated lovers were exhausted from wandering in the vast expanse of imagination and had put their heads on cushions to rest.
However, for Ali the veils of darkness of this material world, like always, remained unfurled. The moments of spiritual climax (at the time of death) were near for Ali. Sometimes at night he would busy himself with a careful accounting of his soul or he would spend his time pondering walking in the deserts around Kufa. Sometimes he would wander around the quarters of orphans, widows and the afflicted to see if they had retired to sleep with a relieved heart or sometimes, he would move the walls of the Kufa Mosque to tears through his sorrowful but eager and fervent lamentations.
For a few moments he would close his eyes—that only knew truth—out of pity for his tired body and to avoid becoming saddened by looking at the corrupt.
The eyes and the hearts of all men, animals, and birds would still be engrossed in deep sleep while the vigilant heart of Ali would be soothing his eyes and preparing himself for supplication with his Lord and very soon the eyes of Ali would open again to this world. He would say:
I am now on the path of caravans that have left behind the abode of this world and have taken dwellings in the darkness. O blue sky [that is a canopy over me] full of stars, neither did you shed a single tear on their departure nor did you wait anxiously hoping for their return, but you are rightfully justified in doing so because whatever you have recorded from these people cannot be narrated without embarrassment.
I desire that the future generations not register their corruption in your name. So record on your aged canvas these steps that I am taking towards the presence of the Divine in order that it serves as a proof of your innocence and acquittal and paint on your canvas the scene of the last arrow that I shot in the path of fulfilling my duties.
Alas! The opportunity I had in hand to read the Qur’an, which expounds the reality of humankind, has come to an end. Indeed, I could open but the first page of this book and recite a few lines of it to the children of Adam when suddenly the pages of my life came to an end.
Today even the rare birds in the yard accompanied this traveller to the door to see him off. Not only were the birds that had always been moved to excitement by the breeze of the movement of the patched garments of Ali moved to tears but also the sounds of the last greetings of this world were reaching his ears from every corner of the street. Even the azure sky and the stars—which had witnessed countless events up to this day and were not affected by them in the least—were worried due to their affection for Ali.
Ali was also looking at them with eyes full of glitter and it was as if he was quietly murmuring something under his breath.
It was amazing indeed that the light breeze which could sink even the mountains, the valleys, the jungles and the stars into a deep sleep through its subtle coquettish glances would come proudly towards Ali hoping that its chilling breath could calm the fervent heart of Ali. It would gently pat his exhausted body so that perhaps it might restrain the sun of his eager heart from rising from slumber until daybreak. All this was in vain for did it not know?!
Why should Ali not seek intimacy with the darkness of the night while he had partaken of the drink of eternity in this darkness?! This night also he performed ablution (wudhu) like any other night and readied himself for the eternal journey ahead. His footsteps today were very different from his steps on other nights.
Today the same brownish garment that he would put on everyday seeking reformation of the society and the people was worn to welcome death. The dark but fragmented clouds were in motion together with the light breeze of the dawn. Dreadful silence continued to prevail over all the creatures. The stupefied pale moon from the steep horizons was casting feeble moonlight full of despair on the forehead of Ali (‘a) as if it was regretful of its actions and as if his killer—who in fact committed this devious crime against all humanity—had also realized that if he desires to raise his oppressive hands—shaking in terror—towards this lion-hearted man, it is possible only when Ali (‘a) is in the presence of the Divine and has submitted himself entirely at the Divine threshold.
On his first day in this world the Holy Ka’ba welcomed him with open arms and in the final hours of his life he was in the prayer niche—the sword struck his head and took his life while he was worshipping his Lord. Each moment of his life between these two places of worship were spent worshipping the One God, whether in the battlefield or in the political arena, whether in the prayer niche or on the seat of power.
The deathbed of Ali taught all those who came to see him in his last moments the true meaning of life and death— not that these people had not seen their dear ones, their relatives or other people die in the battlefield or on the deathbed. More or less all of them had seen the frightening face of death during their lifetimes. However, they had never seen the amazing tranquillity that this man of wisdom, courage, piety and justice showed after receiving that deadly blow to his head.
They watched this great man as his face turned pale like a faded yellow leaf due to the blow that this murderer inflicted upon him with a poisoned sword. They looked at the pale face and withered lips of a man who had not spoken anything in life but the words of reform and eternal bliss. The people who were with him at his death bed have informed us and the book Nahj Al-Balaghah has also informed us that during his last moments and in that dreadful and frightful state he advised them about the importance of Qur’an and emphasized Monotheism. He instructed them to keep their affairs in order and emphasized that they keep away from enmity and reconcile their mutual differences. He reminded them to take care of orphans.12
In between he would utter the phrase
ﻻ ﺍﻟﻪ ﺍﻻ ﺍﷲ
‘There is no God save Allah’
and shake the hearts of all the people gathered around his deathbed or rather the entire creation.
They say that his weary lips were continuously repeating this phrase when he closed his eyes to this world never to open them again and opened them in the world of eternity to begin his true life.
وَسَلَامٌ عَلَيْهِ يَوْمَ وُلِدَ وَيَوْمَ يَمُوتُ وَيَوْمَ يُبْعَثُ حَيًّا
And peace be upon him on the day he was born, and on the day he dies, and on the day he is raised to life. (Surah Maryam, 19:15).
- 1. Henri-Louis Bergson (1859 AD – 1941 AD) was a major French philosopher, influential especially in the first half of the 20th century.
- 2. Maurice Maeterlinck (1862 AD – 1949 AD) was a Belgian playwright, poet and essayist who wrote in French. The main themes in his work are death and the meaning of life.
- 3. Nahj Al-Balagha, Sermon 149, vol. 1, page 544.
- 4. Epicurus (341 BC - 270 BC) was an ancient Greek philosopher and the founder of the school of philosophy called Epicureanism.
- 5. Adherents of Epicureanism are called Epicures. Epicureanism is a system of philosophy based upon the teachings of Epicurus. It says that pleasure is the ultimate goal of human beings, that pleasure and pain are the measures of what is good and bad, that death is the end of the body and the soul and should therefore not be feared, that the Gods do not reward or punish humans.
- 6. Bahram the fifth was a Persian Sassanid emperor. His mention can be found in the poetry of Omar Khayyam.
- 7. Nahj Al-Balagha, Sermon 109, vol. 1, page 416.
- 8. Nahj Al-Balagha, Sermon 55,vol. 1, page 230.
- 9. Nahj Al-Balagha, Will 24, vol. 2, page 304.
- 10. Nahj Al-Balagha, Sermon 5, vol. 1, page 76.
- 11. Ghayatul Maram, vol. 5, page 196.
- 12. Nahj Al-Balagha, Will 47: vol. 2, page 422. These were apieces of advice of Imam Ali (‘a) to his family on the deathbed.