The torture of the grave Islam and the afterlife
By Leor Halevi
Friday, May 4, 2007
COLLEGE STATION, Texas:
Hardly a week goes by without front-page news of Muslims dying somewhere in the world in a violent way. Despite all the media attention, there is little understanding among non-Muslims of Islamic views of death and the afterlife.
Everyone knows, of course, that after death martyrs go straight to the Garden of Eden, where they recline on couches, savor meats and fruits and enjoy the company of dark-eyed houris while listening to the sound of flowing rivers.
But what happens to the vast majority of Muslims, those who do not die as martyrs?
According to Islamic doctrine, between the moment of death and the burial ceremony, the spirit of a deceased Muslim takes a quick journey to Heaven and Hell, where it beholds visions of the bliss and torture awaiting humanity at the end of days.
By the time corpse handlers are ready to wash the body, the spirit returns to earth to observe the preparations for burial and to accompany the procession toward the cemetery. But then, before earth is piled upon the freshly dug grave, an unusual reunion takes place: The spirit returns to dwell within the body.
In the grave, the deceased Muslim - this composite of spirit and corpse - encounters two terrifying angels, Munkar and Nakir, recognized by their bluish faces, their huge teeth and their wild hair.
These angels carry out a trial to probe the soundness of a Muslim's faith. If the dead Muslim answers their questions convincingly and if he has no sin on record, then the grave is transformed into a luxurious space that makes bearable the long wait until the final judgment.
But if a Muslim's faith is imperfect or if he has sinned during life by, for example, failing repeatedly to undertake purity rituals before prayer, then the grave is transformed into an oppressive, constricting space.
The earth begins to weigh down heavily upon the sentient corpse, until the rib cage collapses; worms begin to nibble away at the flesh, causing horrible pain.
This torture does not continue indefinitely. It occurs intermittently and ends at the very latest with the resurrection - when God may well forgive Muslims who have endured the punishment.
Surely this violence sounds medieval. Belief in "the torture of the grave" indeed stretches way back in history. It appears in eighth-century epitaphs and in early Islamic traditions, which elevated this belief to the status of dogma.
But pious Muslims today continue to adhere to this belief. In invocations, funeral prayers, sermons, and popular literature, Muslims are frequently reminded to heed this punishment.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that many of them take it seriously. The psychologist Ahmed M. Abdel-Khalek, who has studied anxieties about death among Arab youth, has found that preoccupation with the torture of the grave remains acute.
The Egyptians and Kuwaitis he polled worried about this torture more than they feared losing a dear relative or succumbing to a serious, fatal disease.
Recently, an Islamist Web site posted a picture of an 18-year-old man exhumed by the order of his father. Only three hours had passed since his burial, but already his corpse appeared aged and bruised. Scientists, according to the story, affirmed that this was caused by the torture of the grave; and the father explained that his son had been a sinner.
Many Muslims commenting on the picture took it as a sign from God to stop sinning and as a reminder to pray assiduously for relief from the punishment of the tomb. Several doubted the reality of the picture, prompting the author of the Web site to remove the posting and to apologize for it. But even a skeptic who challenged the "scientific" evidence professed in this public forum his belief in the reality of the torture of the grave.
Muslims can escape the torture of the grave by dying as martyrs. In Islam the category of martyr does not belong exclusively to those who die fighting in God's path. According to Islamic tradition, Muslims who die in a fire, by drowning, in the collapse of a building or in some other way involving great physical suffering merit the rank of martyrs in the afterlife.
This means that immediately after death, their spirits do not return to dwell within mutilated or burned corpses. Instead they enter the Garden of Eden, where they receive new bodies, perfectly reformed, so as to enjoy the rewards of martyrdom until the resurrection. Those who have lost a relative in a violent and shocking death - in the bombings in Baghdad, for instance - may find some consolation in this belief.
Leor Halevi, a professor of history at Texas A&M University, is the author of "Muhammad's Grave: Death Rites and the Making of Islamic Society."
Please report any
broken links to
Copyright © 1988-2012 irfi.org. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer