Meditation on death: an effective means of achieving and safeguarding sincerity
Receb Said Yıldırım
Today we will read a part from the Epistle on Sincerity [from Risale-i Nur], which our Ustaz [Bediuzzaman Said Nursi] put a warning before it which says “this epistle must be read at least once in fifteen days.” I will not talk about what is sincerity, what are its principles, or the obstacles that violate the sincerity. I will talk about one of the most effective means of achieving sincerity: the meditation on death.
Before reading that part, however, (since) our Ustaz says thinking about death or remembering death is one of the most effective means of achieving “sincerity,” let’s talk about what is sincerity for a few minutes so that the topic we will cover can be understood thoroughly.
Word meaning of ikhlas, or sincerity, is “cleaning, purifying, refining.” Imagine a honey that is genuine and pure. Sincerity means that the deeds are free and cleaned from all the aims, expectations, or goals and thus leaving only the consent of Allah (swt) in the deeds, making His consent the main and unique purpose. Sincerity is so important that according to many hadiths the deeds without sincerity will not be accepted in the sight of Allah (swt). The deeds with sincerity will meet us as a most acceptable intercessor in the day of judgement and they will intercede for us. At the beginning of the previous epistle, which is also on sincerity, our Ustaz mentions a hadith. Our Prophet (asw) said:
“All men will perish, except the scholars, and all scholars will perish except those who act in accordance with their knowledge, and all of them will perish except the sincere, and even the sincere are in great danger.”
For this reason, our Ustaz says “achieving and safeguarding the sincerity.” I have achieved the sincerity, it is finished! No! “(The important thing is) How it ends, not how it continues,” said our ancestors. Our first duty must be achieving the sincerity and safeguarding it until the end of our life. Our beloved Ustaz says “Sincerity is the spirit of the deed,” while defining it. Look at this beautiful definition. Can there be more brief definition than this? The spirit of the deed is sincerity.
I ask you, if the spirit goes out of this body, will this corpse be useful anymore? Do the eyes see? Does the tongue taste? Does it speak? None of the organs will be useful. So, if the consent of Allah (swt) goes out of the deed, if the sincerity goes out, and if its opposite – favour of people, the pleasure of folk get involved, if hypocrisy enters, showing off enters, then there is no value of that deed in the sight of Allah (swt); those deeds are dead and worthy of burning in the fire. May Allah protect us! In many hadiths of our Master Prophet (asw), it is related that those who seemingly become martyr, devote an entire life to the cause of the Qur’an, is very generous, will be in reality among the first that will be thrown to the Hell. Why? Because they have not aimed at the consent of Allah (swt) in their deeds.
Let me give you the example of Quzman at the Battle of Uhud:
He was a great fighter. He fought against the enemy heroically. The companions said: None served us better today than this man. Upon this the Messenger of Allah (asw) remarked: Verily he is one of the denizens of Fire. The companions did not understand the meaning of the Prophet’s words. They could not understand how it could be so. One of the companions followed Quzman. He watched him wherever he went and whatever he did. Then Quzman was badly injured. Companions gathered around him and said “Congratulations oh Quzman! You will go to Paradise!” Quzman answered, “Why do you congratulate me? My aim is not to be a martyr. I did not even think about maintaining the religion. I fought for my tribe; I fought so that the Qurayshis would not damage the date gardens of Madinah.” Finally he could not stand the pain anymore. He placed the sword on the ground and then pressed himself against the sword and killed himself.
Then the man following him went to the Messenger of Allah said what happened. So the companions understood the meaning of the Prophet’s word.
So, what I want to say, sincerity is such a thing that if there is not sincerity in a deed, no matter how much it is ostentatious or splendid, there is no value at all of that deed in the sight of Allah (swt). For this reason, a small amount of sincere deed is preferred over great amounts of insincere deeds, says our Ustaz. May Allah let us do sincere deeds!
Since that sincerity is so important, how are we going to achieve it? Our Ustaz says:
“O companions of mine in the service of the Qur’an! One of the most effective means of achieving and safeguarding sincerity is ‘meditation on death (rābiṭat al-mawt).’”
There are of course many means of achieving sincerity. But if you ask the most effective one, it is ‘meditation on death,’ [says Ustaz].
“Yes, just as it is ‘[delusional] long-term hopes’ that damage sincerity and drive one to ostentation and to this world, it is ‘meditation on death’ that arouses one’s distaste for ostentation and makes one to win unto sincerity.”
As the imam of the age, and mujaddid, our beloved Ustaz is also the doctor of the age, the teacher of the age, the master of the age. He diagnoses the illnesses of the Muslims of the age and then writes a prescription from the Qur’an and the Sunnah.
Look what he said: “it is ‘[delusional] long-term hopes’ that damage sincerity and drive one to ostentation and to this world.” That is, long-term hopes, plans, aims, projects for the world… This, making long-term plans for the world, preparing a future for children, for grandchildren etc, drives us to the world, and as we are driven to the world, we draw away from the Hereafter; and this results in insincerity. However, “it is ‘meditation on death’ that arouses one’s distaste for ostentation and makes one to win unto sincerity.” Thinking about the death, having a connection with it, not forgetting it… Our Ustaz explains what is ‘meditation on death,’:
“That is to say, it is to rid one of the intrigues of the lower self [by causing one] to remember one’s death and to recall the fact that this world is transient.”
This is the ‘meditation of death.’ I am going to die one day. Only me? No, this huge earth I live in is going to die at the time of Doomsday, too. So, there is consideration, reading, contemplation, thought. A person who meditates on death thinks about his hereafter. A person who does not meditates on death busies himself with the world too much. Our beloved Prophet (asw) informs us that the love of the world is the beginning of the mistakes. So, ‘meditation on death’ is this; making contact and connecting with death.
One day our Prophet (asw) drew a few lines and said, “This is (man’s) hope, and this is the instant of his death, and while he is in this state (of hope), the nearer line (death) comes to Him.”
The more the wishes and hopes for the world, the more the endeavour and work for the world. That is, insincere deeds, hypocrisy, ostentation, struggle for achieving a position or a property, greed etc. All will be active.
“Yes – the Sufis and people of reality have taken the meditation on death as a foundation of their spiritual journeying, by means of the lesson they have taken from verses in the Wise Qur’an the likes of “كل نفس ذائقة الموت”Every soul will taste death. (Qur’an: Āli-‘Imrān, 3:185) and “انك میت وانهم میتون” You will certainly die, and they will certainly die. (Qur’an: al-Zumar, 39:30) and by means of that meditation, they have eliminated the delusion that [this world] will extend on endlessly, which is the origin of [delusional] long-term hopes.”
Let’s dwell on here a bit. Our Ustaz made a unique observation. First he generalized: all the Sufis and people of reality made these two verses of the Qur’an their guide. What does our Lord, our Creator say in the first verse? “كل نفس ذائقة الموت” “Every soul will taste death.” Here, there is mischief and illusion coming from the nafs (self). The death is the truth. For whom? For others! The death is the truth; it is a truth for the sick. The death is the truth; it is a truth for the old. The nafs gives us such mischief. You are young, healthy, this, and that! It always associates death with others. We cannot associate it with ourselves. We never associate the truth of death for ourselves. The verse says “every soul.” It doesn’t say “every sick,” or “every old.” Every soul, young or old, living being or inanimate, thing, every “thing” that have been created will taste death. There is no escape for any of us. The reality of death is as obvious as the reality of life in this universe. Because there is the mark of “transient” on all of us; for we are creatures. That is, just as we have been honoured with the life, we will also taste death. Every one of us. This is the first verse.
The second verse: “انك میت وانهم میتون” “You will certainly die, and they will certainly die.”
So, all the people of tariqah and reality, and paths made these two verses their guide. If you’ll pardon the expression, they have worn glasses for the eyes of their mind, one verse is written on one glass and the other written on the other glass. They have looked at the universe, the events and everything with the perspective of death.
Let’s think about it! Can someone who constantly thinks about death, who makes connection with it, easily commit a sin? The death is on your mind, but you commit a grave sin. (This is not possible.) At that moment the death reminds us the accounting and the torment in the hereafter. It reminds us our responsibilities, our Master, our Creator, the accounting and the torment or the reward at the end. For this reason, the meditation on death is very important. The one who remembers death, is saved from the love of world, and starts to seriously work for his hereafter, says our Ustaz.
Just as a word of advice, our Prophet (asw) said, “Die before you die,” and “Call yourself to account, before you are called to account.” If I die today, am I ready to account? Yes we are not afraid of death as the people of belief. Our lesson today is not the reality of death. Our beloved Ustaz explains it in various places. That the death is not nonexistence, not the end, not a separation, on the contrary it is the beginning of an eternal, luminous life, coming together with the loved ones, a gate, a bridge, a ticked that takes us to eternal life and etc. This is not our lesson. (Our lesson is) How often do we remember the death? I ask this first to my own self. Am I ready to account? In return for all the blessings we are given, Allah (swt) will call us to account about obligatory prayers, fasting, serving His religion, thanking for His blessings. How much are we ready? So we are not afraid of death, but we are afraid of the accounting after it. We will be called to account in detail. Where have we used and spent the things we possessed? Where have we spent our life? There is account for everything in the hereafter.
So, the people of tariqah and reality made these two verses their guide and they have eliminated the delusion that [this world] will extend on endlessly, which is the origin of [delusional] long-term hopes. This is really interesting. I studied veterinary medicine at the university. It is same in normal medicine. When someone comes to the doctor, we all go to the doctor, the first question of the doctor is “What is the problem?” And the people say, “I have a headache, I feel sick, my head’s a little dizzy, I have a fever.” All of these are symptoms. These are signs that tell about an illness. The doctor treats the patient, draws blood, and finally he names the illness. He diagnoses and starts the treatment.
Today, there is an illness called “long-term hopes.” What is this? The people of belief unfortunately make long-term plans about worldly life as if they will always be in this world, and so they work day and life for this world. And they neglect the hereafter. These are all symptoms of an illness. There is an illness in the body. There is a problem in the heart. There are the signs of that illness. The name of that illness is “[delusional] long-term hopes” says our Ustaz. What does it mean? It is the illness of the illusion that a person thinks that he will stay in the world for eternity. This is what I understand. The person is in an illusion and supposes that he will stay here for eternity. He always associates death with others. When you go out from here, you will see that the lake down the hill is still there, many buildings are same for years, streets are same, and mountains are same. There is permanentness, so to say. They don’t remind us the death very much. So we think that, due to this monotony- the sun rises every morning and sets every evening, for instance- we, too, will stay like that. The death will not knock on our door. I will be forgotten (by death). I will stay. The death is always true for others. The sick, the old, and others. However, we are all the addressee. Yes, there is a desire of living forever in the human. Allah (swt) has given it to us. But this emotion is given to us for the Hereafter, and to gain the Hereafter. Because the eternal realm is the Hereafter. It is written “transient, perishable” on the earth with huge capital letters, so to say. As our Ustaz says in Al Mathnavi al Nuriyya, when we look at a nice melon, that melon speaks to us and says ‘Eat me.’ It invites us with its appearance, colour, smell, and taste. It is clear that it has been created to be eaten. When you look at the wings of a bird, (you see that) they have been given to fly; not given to swim in the sea; they have been made proper to the air. When you look at the claws of a lion, it is clear that they have not been given to write or draw; they have been given to hunt its prey, to protect itself. They are all proper to their nature or creation. When you look at the nature or creation of the human, (you see that) he has been created for eternity. We always want the most perfect, the most beautiful, and permanent of all the things. The world does not satisfy us.
This room, masjid, is, let’s say, 500 m2. Let’s assume that this is an aquarium. And there is just one tiny ‘black-striped pipefish;’ a one-centimetre long fish. How much bigger is this aquarium? Millions times bigger. And this fish swims in here. It swims to one direction, but bumps into the wall. It swims to other direction, but it bumps into the wall. It swims to another direction, yet again it bumps into another wall. If that fish had a consciousness, and we contacted it and asked “Are you pleased with your place,” it would say “Please let me out of this prison. I have been created to swim in the rivers, lakes, seas. My abilities are not for this place which is like a small box. They are for endless seas and oceans. Its nature rejects this place.
No matter how big the world is, it is small for human in reality. Because it is sorrowful; it is transient and temporary. So the human makes a mistake and use that desire of eternity for this world. He starts to think that he will stay in the world eternally. So he only makes plans for the worldly matters. This is the symptom of the illness.
What destroys this delusion (of the human) is the reality of death. Wait a second; I do not have any guarantee at all whether I will be alive in the next minute. I am transient. I am going to die. How can I make such long-term plans assuming that I will never die?
I will tell you a really interesting thing. Sayyidina Abu Bakr (ra) and Sayyidina Omar (ra) have a conversation together. Abu Bakr (ra) asks, “Oh Omar! How do you perform your prayers? With what kind of consciousness?” Omar (ra) replies, “Oh Abu Bakr! I perform my every prayer as if it is my last prayer.” (We have just performed the isha’ prayer here. If we had known that it was our last prayer- Angel Azrail (as) was at the door and said ‘Perform your prayer and I will take your souls.”- how would we perform our prayer? I ask this to myself and everyone. Would that prayer finish at all? We would [probably] still be performing it. [Maybe] We would even combine it with the fajr. Would we think about the world? Our family, house, belongings, money etc? [No!] Because we would not have any guarantee to reach them. The moment the prayer finished, our tie with the world would finish.) Omar (ra) says that he performs his every prayer like that. Abu Bakr (ra) says, “Oh Omar! How much “[delusional] long-term hopes” have you got?” He does not like that prayer. Then Omar (ra) asks, “Oh Abu Bakr! How do you perform your prayers?” Abu Bakr (ra) replies, “In every rakat [unit] of the prayer I think about whether I will be alive the next rakat, so I pray every rakat with this consciousness.” Loot at this standard! He acts in every rakat according to death. There is no guarantee to be alive in the next rakat, let’s give its due. For this reason, they [the companions] have become like the stars. They are high.
What I want to say is that the more we are aware of the reality of death, the more we do sincere deeds. The moment we forget the death, the moment we forget our Lord, the world starts to pull us to itself. The more it pulls us, the more we dive into it. Then there comes excuses, pretexts. Let me finish this thing, let me solve this matter, let me do this and that and etc. We postpone [religious duties] again and again. Then finally we realize that there is no life time left.
They asked Sayyidina Abu Bakr (ra), “Oh Abu Bakr! What is Islam? Please tell us.” It’s very interesting; the companions (ra) ask this. They ask what Islam is. In fact, they are the founders of Islam. Abu Bakr (ra) answers that Islam is like a house, its colon is the prayer, its ceiling is the fasting; and he continues. Finally he says, “Beware! Its base is ikhlas (sincerity).” The foundation of the building of Islam is sincerity. If that sincerity does not exist, the things on it are not accepted; prayer is not accepted, fasting is not accepted, zakat is not accepted, none of the worships is accepted. So the thing that helps us build that foundation is ‘meditation of death.’
In a narration it is said: I am astonished at the man. He goes to a bazaar for shopping. However, his own shroud has come to one of the shops he goes shopping. (A few days later something terrible will happen to him. His family and friends will buy that shroud and bury him with it. His own shroud is there.) But he is busy with shopping unaware of death and hereafter. I am astonished at the situation of this man.
It is really astonishing. May Allah protect us!
Today, over one hundred thousand people die each day in the world. They all together say “The death is reality.” They are from our kind. What about other kinds? How many animals die per day? How many plants die per day? It is numberless. The reality of death is everywhere. While driving in summer sometimes we see that hundreds of insects hit our windshield glass and die at that moment. It happens right in front of us. Someone who looks at it with the perspective of faith sees the Divine Name ‘the Causer of Death.’ He sees the reality of death. It says to us that we will die, too. Such a person takes lesson from this. However, a person who does not look at it with this perspective thinks them as dirt and just cleans them with the wiper.
Our Prophet (asw) tells us to visit the graveyards. Our Ustaz used to go to the graveyards by himself. These are all for contemplation. There are some things that give benefit to us [when we visit graveyards].
“They hypothetically visualise and imagine themselves dead, envisage themselves being washed and placed into the grave, and think about this over and over again; as a result, the evil-commanding self becomes influenced by this imagining and visualisation.”
This is a way that the people of the tariqah follow. There is meditation on death. And it is done in various ways. But it is in an imaginary style, suppositional way. They imagine their death in future as happening at the moment. They are 35 now, for example. They imagine that they become 60 or 70. They imagine that they get old, and ill. Then they imagine their time of death, and then they die, their death is proclaimed from the minarets, they are washed, shrouded, put in the coffin, their funeral prayer is performed, then they are buried, the angels come and start asking questions and etc. After this meditation, there is no desire for worldly pleasure, no love of the world, or nothing. He feels the reality of death with every fibre of his being. But they do this in an imaginary way.
There are open graves at some Sufi lodges. They enter that grave at certain times. And they start to imagine the death. In this way they find a way to be saved from the mischief and tricks of the lower-self. And by meditation of death they prevent their inclination towards worldly things.
“This meditation has a great many benefits – for the noble tradition teaches this meditation to us, saying, “أكثروا ذكر هادم الذات ” or a wording near to it, that is to say, ‘Remember much [death] – the destroyer of pleasures!’”
In another narration it is said, ‘Remember death a lot. Thinking about death cleans the sins.’ So it must be a worship to think about death that it cleans the sins. Our Prophet (asw) says that the death is enough as an adviser or a preacher. (And he then says strong faith is enough as wealth.) Is there a need for greater advice [warning] than death today? The greatest advice [warning] is the reality of death.
“And since our way is not a Sufi order but a way of reality, we are not compelled to practice this meditation in hypothetical and imaginal form like the members of the orders; and indeed, this is not befitting of the way of reality.”
Our way is the way of reality. We respect those who are in the way of tariqah. The meditation on death is imaginal in their way. However, in the way of reality there is no place for imagination. How does it happen in our way?
“Indeed, it is not a matter of bringing the future to present time by means of reflecting on [one’s] end; rather it is to journey in thought from the present time to the future and to see the future in vision in terms of spiritual reality.”
Dreaming and bringing the future to the present time, and meditating on death; there is no need for that. Is there a reality of death? Yes, there is. Can it happen to us any moment? Yes, it can. That’s it. [We must] keep this in our mind every moment. [We must] Think about and contemplate that last point every time. If you’ll pardon the expression, [we must] feel the breath of Azrail (as) on our neck.
Sayyidina Ali (ra) says, “I am astonished if a person goes to bed without taking ablution, reading surahs Falaq and Nas, and ayat al-kursi.” He actually gives us a lesson. I ask you now: Who wakes us up in the morning after we go to bed and sleep at night? Who wakes us up from the sleep which is called the little brother of death? Our phone? Our alarm clock? The imam of the mosque? Our wife or husband? Who? If Allah does not will [that we get up], we [can] wake up at the last trumpet of Israfil (as) on the Doomsday. That sleep transforms into death. The One Who wakes us up, Who gives us life is Allah (swt). Let’s say that Azrail (as) comes to us in our sleep, but we do not have ablution, maybe we haven’t performed isha’ prayer, we haven’t read the surahs and ayat al-kursi. We are not prepared, that is to say. Sayyidina Ali (ra) actually refers to this situation. It is astonishing. You do not protecting angels, you do not have mercy angels [due to the lack of preparation]. [The issue is] To be ready for death all the time. May Allah help us all achieve this!
There are many young brothers here. You know, when we talk about death, mostly the ill and the old come to the mind. No! The verse in the Qur’an says “every soul.” We ask Allah (swt) to give us a blessed life with worship, and a blessed death. We pray for this. But this is our own wish. What does our Creator want about us? Do we know that? No, we don’t. For this reason, [we must be] ready at any moment. When it is said, “die before you die; call yourself to account, before you are called to account,” this [fact] is referred. There is no limitation here. Not the ill, or the old, or the young. As the poet says, “Yesterday passed, Today I think if there will be tomorrow, I don’t rely on my youth, Are those who die always the old?”
“Yes – man can witness his own funeral, which is the one fruit upon the tree of his short life, without being in need of imagination and conjecture in the first place.
Just as he witnesses his own death through this meditation, – should he wish to journey in thought step by step even further than that – he too witnesses the death of the age; as he continues to think, he even sees the death of this very world itself, and this cleaves open a road to the most perfect sincerity.”
This is how it is. There is no need for imagining. The reality is there. What is that reality? All of us have a tree of life. Allah knows how long it will live. Our tree of life will yield a fruit. The name of this fruit is “death.” There is the seed of our eternal life in that fruit. It is not possible to go to that eternal realm without dying. To have a proper life for the hereafter is only possible with our death. We should think. At the end of the day, my life will have a result: first death, then resurrection, and then an eternal life. Just as I am transient and will die, even this century I live in will die. How many centuries have passed and died till today? The life of humanity is about seven thousand years. What about the life of the world? It is even more. That is, many centuries have passed and they all died.
You know, some people say, “Even if I die, let my name survive.” Then they build schools with their names. They build bridges, hospitals etc. They want live by name. But that century will also die. Those buildings will also be demolished after a century. You will be forgotten after that century. Then, even this great earth is going to die. The mark “transient” is written on everything. So, I am transient, the century I live in is transient, the world I live in is transient; then why should I make plans as if I will stay in this world forever. The faculty of ‘eternity’ has been given to me for my hereafter. It has been given for the eternal and spiritual deeds of hereafter; to gain the beauties of the hereafter which are invaluable like diamonds. Our hearts are beating for the eternity in the hereafter; not for the life in this world.
Our dear Ustaz says, “Know that your real life is today.” In the Holy Qur’an, our Creator, our Lord (swt) mentions many concepts of time: moment, minute, hour, day, week, month, century and etc. Which concept of the time is mentioned most in the Qur’an, do you think? The most mentioned concept is “yawm” (day). More than seven hundred times. Day! Our Ustaz says in another place that it is “this moment.”
If we were in a small room with big mirrors on its every wall, it would seem huge. But if took a few steps, we would bump into one of the walls and realize that it was not that big. Similarly, human thinks that he will live so long, but one day he takes a step and hits his head to the coffin; he dies and finds himself in the coffin. That is, although the death is so close to us, we see it far away from ourselves. We postpone it to far away. We always associate it with others. No! We should associate it with ourselves. We must do it while reading these lessons. We are also among the addressee of these realities.
Let’s repeat the words of our Ustaz: One of the most effective means of achieving and safeguarding sincerity is ‘meditation on death (rābiṭat al-mawt).
We must remember death, and act accordingly. May Allah bestow us blessed lives and at the end blessed deaths.
Let me finish my talk with the following narration:
A group of companions (ra) goes to Abdullah ibn Omar (ra). They ask him, “Oh Abdullah, what is the most honourable day, the most honourable month, and the most honourable deed in the sight of Allah (swt)?” He is one of the scholars in the companions. I will keep it short. He answers them: “In the sight of Allah (swt), the most honourable, virtuous day is Friday; the most honourable, virtuous month is Ramadan; the most honourable, virtuous deed is salah (the prayer).” The group leaves him and then meets up with Sayyidina Ali (ra) on the way. They say to him, “Oh Ali, we asked Abdullah ibn Omar what the most honourable day, month, and deed in the sight of Allah is. And he said ‘Friday, Ramadan, and the prayer.’ What about you?” Imam Ali (ra) replies, “You get the same answer from every scholar today. But I will tell you something different today. I will give you a different answer. In the sight of Allah (swt), the most honourable, virtuous month is the one in which a person realizes his mistakes, his faults and his sins, and then repents and turns towards his Lord.”
Let me ask: Don’t we have mistakes? A lot. Don’t we have sins? Don’t we have faults? Yes, we do. So, he says the most honourable month is the one we realize this, repent and turn towards Allah (swt).
“In the sight of Allah (swt), the most honourable day is the one in which a person enters into grave [die] with faith.” Death is the reality. We will certainly die. There is no escape. So if a person has a good end, enters into the grave with faith, there is no more honourable than that day, he says. “The most honourable, virtuous deed is the one done within the consent of Allah and with sincerity even if it is a little deed.”
May Allah keep us sincere and obedient! May He not let us go astray! May He make us real servants to Himself, real ummah to His Beloved (asw), and real students to our Ustazs and Risale-i Nur. May He give us blessed lives spent with service to the religion of Islam, and blessed generations! May He correct our deeds with which He is not pleased! Amin.