Reflections on Grief and Bereavement from an Islamic Perspective (Part I)

It is very hard to speak of human grief because it calls for a lot of nuances and one cannot venture into ‘guessing’ words that give painful events their due. Nevertheless, it is only fitting to say that whenever large-scale catastrophes hit, they submerge the ummā in deep agony.

Loss, in Arabic, is “ faqd”.  Even in the brief pronunciation of this word, one can taste the bitter suddenness which quickly turns into regrets for what could have been (or done), leading one to consider a series of ‘if only’ and ‘what if’  which will only deepen the wounds and keep them raw and tender. 

However, in times of large-scale loss,  we are also reminded that we belong to one ummah.

As members of one ummāh,  the Prophet ﷺ described the ties linking us as tawād (reciprocal exchange of love) and tarāḥum (reciprocal exchange of mercy). It is appropriate for us to engage with upheavals like a body that has been violently shaken, rather than as some people outside of the catastrophe and extending help to ‘others’ who are in pain. That afflicted part of our body is hurt and the rest of the same body is agonising in insomnia and fever.

In the realm of a great shock, we cannot but consider a number of truths:

1. Allah made a deal with the believers

    إِنَّ اللَّهَ اشْتَرَىٰ مِنَ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ أَنْفُسَهُمْ وَأَمْوَالَهُمْ بِأَنَّ لَهُمُ الْجَنَّةَ ۚ“ (سورة التوبة، الآية 111)

    “Truly Allāh has purchased from the believers their souls and their wealth in exchange for the Garden being theirs. ” (al-Tawbah, 9:111)

    This is a statement which is presented in the Quran as a khabar (a piece of news) about something that already happened in the past. It is not a promise or an attempt to comfort someone in pain. It is a divine statement that can better be understood in light of the hadith:

    قال النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم : «إِذَا سَبَقَتْ لِلْعَبْدِ مِنَ اللهِ ‌مَنْزِلَةٌ ‌لَمْ ‌يَبْلُغْهَا بِعَمَلِهِ، ابْتَلَاهُ اللهُ فِي جَسَدِهِ أَوْ فِي مَالِهِ أَوْ فِي وَلَدِهِ، ثُمَّ صَبَّرَهُ حَتَّى يُبْلِغَهُ الْمَنْزِلَةَ الَّتِي سَبَقَتْ لَهُ مِنْهُ» أخرجه الإمام أحمد وأبو داود

    The Prophet ﷺ said: When Allāh initiates the blessing of conferring on a servant a station which the latter has not reached with his deeds (of worship), Allāh gives him tests either in his health or his wealth or his offspring, then provides him with sabr/endurance to sustain the test/turmoil until He has him attain that station which Allāh had destined him to attain.[Imām Ahmad and Abū Dāud]

    The word idhā means ‘if’, but it also has the meaning of ‘when’, which means it is not only a possibility but a recurrent possibility that is open to all of Allāh’s servants. In other words: that is no great matter for Allāh. 

    Now, sabaqat means that Allāh does not need to wait for a servant to deserve and earn a station in order to grant it to him. It is Allāh who initiates the giving and then makes ways for the servant to reach His gift. Not only that, when the ways are challenging, Allāh grants the servant sabr/steadfastness and endurance to weather them and helps him find his way through them to the station which He was the One to bless him in the first place.

    It is true that the testing is from Allāh, but also is the raised station not attained by the servants’ efforts alone and the sabr to attain it through the turmoils. 

    It is as if Allāh, in all His mercy, and before even being asked, is acting in response to the prayer that the Prophet ﷺ taught his daughter Fatima:

    ”اللهم أصلح لي شأني كله ولا تكلني لنفسي طرفة عين ولا لأحد من خلقك.“ رواه النسائي في “السنن الكبرى”

    “O Allāh make all my matters good and do not entrust me to myself nor to any of your creatures even for the blink of an eye.” (Al-Nassāʾī in al-Sunan al-kubrā)

    This is:

    فَإِنَّ مَعَ الْعُسْرِ يُسْرًا 5 إِنَّ مَعَ الْعُسْرِ يُسْرًا 6“ (سورة الشرح، الآية 5-6)

    For truly with hardship comes ease! 6. Truly with hardship comes ease! (Al-Sharḥ, 94: 5-6)

    Ibn al-Qayyim said:

    إنَّ العبد لا يستغني عن تثبيت الله لهُ طرفةَ عينٍ، فإن لم يثبِّته، زالت سماء إيمانه وأرضه عن مكانهما. (ابن القيم، إعلام الموقعين 1/136)

    ‘The servant is never beyond the need for Allāh to keep him firmly rooted (in his religion and certainty) even for the blink of an eye. If Allāh does not, then the heavens and earth of his belief cease to exist.’ [I’laam al-Muwaqa’een 1/136]

    Allāh does not only inform us of this deal but also tells us to rejoice in the deal, in the great triumph:

    فَاسْتَبْشِرُوا بِبَيْعِكُمُ الَّذِي بَايَعْتُمْ بِهِ ۚ وَذَٰلِكَ هُوَ الْفَوْزُ الْعَظِيمُ(سورة التوبة، الآية 111)

    “So rejoice in the bargain you have made. That indeed is the great triumph.” (al-Tawbah, 9:111)

    2. This worldly life is dār balā’

    It is in the nature of this world to be one made for testing and a transition into eternal life.

    أَفَحَسِبْتُمْ أَنَّمَا خَلَقْنَاكُمْ عَبَثًا وَأَنَّكُمْ إِلَيْنَا لَا تُرْجَعُونَ“ (سورة المؤمنون، الآية 115)

    “Did you suppose, then, that We created you frivolously, and that you would not be returned unto Us?” (Al-Muʾminūn, 23: 115)

    But why should the weak humans be “challenged” in any manner? 

    Maybe to attain a station that is unknown to us and that will be unveiled to us hereafter.

    One might be tempted to say: “Does it have to be in this horrible way!” (AstaghfiruLlah!) But the truth is that we only return to Allāh in the way that Allāh designed for us.

    لَا يُسْأَلُ عَمَّا يَفْعَلُ وَهُمْ يُسْأَلُونَ“ (سورة الأنبياء، الآية 23) 

    “He shall not be questioned about what He does, but they shall be questioned.” (Al-Anbiyāʾ, 21:23) 

    3. The testing is not only in good

    The ways in which we are tested are obvious when they are calamities:

    وَلَنَبْلُوَنَّكُمْ بِشَيْءٍ مِنَ الْخَوْفِ وَالْجُوعِ وَنَقْصٍ مِنَ الْأَمْوَالِ وَالْأَنْفُسِ وَالثَّمَرَاتِ“ (سورة البقرة، الآية 155)

    “And We will indeed test you with something of fear and hunger, and loss of wealth, souls, and fruits”(Al-Baqarah, 2: 155).

    But Allāh tells us that good is also a real trial for us: 

    وَنَبْلُوكُم بِالشَّرِّ وَالْخَيْرِ فِتْنَةً ۖ“ (سورة الأنبياء، الآية 35) 

    “We try you with evil and with good, as a test” (Al-Anbiyāʾ, 21: 35)

    While the testing on the path of grief and bereavement to attain raised stations through sabr, it is on the path of the ‘seemingly’ untested ones to attain raised stations through shukr/thankfulness, because:

    قَلِيلٌ مِنْ عِبَادِي الشَّكُورُ“ (سورة سبأ، الآية 13)

    “…few of My servants are thankful” (Sabaʾ, 34:13) 

    Prophet Suleimān, alayhi salām recognized the testing in a gift:

    قَالَ هَذا مِنْ فَضْلِ رَبِّي لِيَبْلُوَنِي أَأَشْكُرُ أَمْ أَكْفُرُ ۖ وَمَنْ شَكَرَ فَإِنَّمَا يَشْكُرُ لِنَفْسِهِ ۖ وَمَنْ كَفَرَ فَإِنَّ رَبِّي غَنِيٌّ كَرِيمٌ“ (سورة النمل، الآية 40)

    “This is of the Bounty of my Lord, to try me whether I will give thanks or be ungrateful. And whosoever give thanks, he gives thanks only for his own soul; and whosoever is ungrateful, truly my Lord is Self-Sufficient, Generous.” (Al-Naml, 27: 40)

    4. Sabr and remembrance

    In the above verses, those who resort to sabr are those who, in the depth of their misery, are capable of remembering that:

    • We belong to Allāh (not to ourselves)

    ”لِّلَّهِ مَا فِي السَّمَاوَاتِ وَمَا فِي الْأَرْضِ ۗ“ (سورة البقرة، الآية 184)

    “Unto Allāh belongs whatsoever is in the heavens and whatsoever is on the earth” (Al-Baqarah, 2: 184)

    إِنَّا لِلَّهِ“ (سورة البقرة، الآية 156)

    “Truly we are Allāh’s.”(Al-Baqarah, 2: 156).

    • We shall return to Allāh

    وَإِنَّا إِلَيْهِ رَاجِعُونَ“ (سورة البقرة، الآية 156)

    “…and unto Him we return.”(Al-Baqarah, 2: 155-156).

    • Glad tiding are given to those who resort to sabr 

    وَبَشِّرِ الصَّابِرِينَ الَّذِينَ إِذَا أَصَابَتْهُم مُّصِيبَةٌ قَالُوا إِنَّا لِلَّهِ وَإِنَّا إِلَيْهِ رَاجِعُونَ

    “and give glad tidings to the patient— 156 those who, when affliction befalls them, say, “Truly we are Allāh’s, and unto Him we return.”(Al-Baqarah, 2: 155-156).

    It is a remembrance which helps the believer stand firm in his yaqīn/certainty.

    We are also reminded of the All Compelling/الجبّار, one of the Beautiful Names which also has the meaning of Mender; jabara meaning to heal brokenness (like in bones).

    اللهم يا جبار اجبرني

    Oh the One Who mends everything mend me. 

    That is ‘Mend my brokenness’ /compel my scattered pieces to find each other and piece them together again.

    5. Accepting Allāh’s destiny, good and bad?

    قَالَ رَسُولُ الله ﷺ: ”عَجَباً لأمْرِ الْمُؤْمِنِ إِنَّ أَمْرَهُ كُلَّهُ لَهُ خَيْرٌ، وَلَيْسَ ذَلِكَ لأِحَدٍ إِلاَّ للْمُؤْمِن: إِنْ أَصَابَتْهُ سَرَّاءُ شَكَرَ فَكَانَ خَيْراً لَهُ، وَإِنْ أَصَابَتْهُ ضَرَّاءُ صَبَرَ فَكَانَ خيْراً لَهُ.“ (رواه مسلم)

    The Prophet ﷺ said: “Wondrous is the affair of the believer for there is good for him in every matter and this is not the case with anyone except the believer. If he is happy, then he thanks Allāh and thus there is good for him, and if he is harmed, then he shows patience and thus there is good for him.” (Sahih Muslim)

    At the same time, the Prophet ﷺ did not approve of wishing to be tested and taught his companions to supplicate for good in all circumstances:

    ”اللَّهُمَّ آتِنَا فِي الدُّنْيَا حَسَنَةً، وَفِي الآخِرَةِ حَسَنَةً، وَقِنَا عَذَابَ النَّارِ.“.(سنن أبي داوود)

    “O Allāh, give us in this world that which is good and in the next that which is good, and protect us from the punishment of Hell-fire.” (Sunan Abī Dāwud)

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