warning: this piece is my own opinion. And while I’ll substantiate is as best as I can, I don’t think anybody knows for sure what happens after death. You may choose to agree with points that I make, and you may disagree; everyone is entitled to their opinion.
what we have so far
Growing up, I was taught in REC that once someone passes away, their soul goes back to God and is cleaned of its sins and returned to another body on Earth. I was taught that our actions throughout our lives contribute to the decision of where our souls go after. If someone is really good, they get reincarnated as an Ismaili. If they’re really bad, they get reincarnated as… I don’t know: grass?
When I started learning about Islam, I learned about heaven (جنّة “jannah” in Arabic) and hell (جهنم “jahannam” in Arabic). Heaven is a garden filled with rivers, fruit, and pretty girls and hell is a pit filled with boiling rivers, and spiky, poisoned fruit (also, no pretty girls). On Judgement Day (يوم الدين “yawm adDin” in Arabic, not the movie), you come back from the dead so God can read a book about your life and decide your fate. Just like any Abrahamic religion: if you’re good, you go to heaven and if you’re bad, you go to hell. But Islam has the added bonus: if you’re good but don’t believe in God, you also go to hell; and if you’re certain kinds of bad, you can still get into heaven.
When I was a teenager, I learned about the concept of annihilation (فناء “fanaa” in Arabic, not the movie). The original, Sufi notion of annihilation involves disconnecting from the physical world entirely and becoming absorbed in the remembrance of God. When it was explained to me, the soul’s merging with God was emphasized, and it was an action that can only take place after death (Sufis have a way of returning from that state). Plato wrote about a similar notion in Phaedo, when Socrates was super excited about his own death: he could finally leave the physical world behind and be absorbed into philosophy.
Finally, as a pretentious English Major, I was introduced to the book Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, but David Eagleman. In the book, Eagleman explores different stories relating to a life after death, but the one that stood out to me starts like:
There are three deaths: the first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.
All these descriptions so far have been places that you “go”. Most of the interpretations that I’ve seen rely on physical bodies in physical places with physical Backstreet Boys. But with the absence of evidence for a physical place (except for that one very convincing hoax), I tend to look at these ideas as metaphorical. I’ve already written about the garden heaven being a metaphor in Ismaili thought, but what about the afterlife itself?
This exploration is built off the notion that God and the soul are not entities separate from the physical world. It’s also built of the Brethren of Purity’s explanation of souls interacting and affecting the body and each other (from Epistle 52a, chapter 6), and the Nasirean concept of the equivalence of “soul” and “rationality” (from Nasirean Ethics, chapter 1).
I came to the realization that the “life” in “life after death” doesn’t have to refer to the person who’s passed away. Instead, it could easily refer to the lives of everyone else, after one dies. While we’re alive, we interact with other people and the world around us, for better or worse. After we pass, there’s still a lasting impact, especially on those who were close to us. And through them, our memory (or the memory of our soul) seems to prolong our life. Eagleman’s story above (although it looks at it from the opposite viewpoint) explores the idea of memory keeping people the dead “alive” through their memories.
Most religious interpretations of the afterlife, associate it with eternity (heaven is referred to as the Garden of Eternity in the Quran). An afterlife of memories has the potential to last for a functional eternity. Even today, we still have memories of people who have made amazing impacts on humanity, like Nelson Mandela and Alexander Hamilton. Additionally, people have the option of preserving their intellect, so that they’re remembered for even longer, like Shakespeare or Anne Frank. These people could potentially be remembered forever. Obviously, this isn’t the case with everyone, but more on that later.
heaven and hell
Another mainstay in interpretations of the afterlife is the idea of judgement, and the punishment or rewards that come with it. Often times, it’s our actions while we’re alive that determined how we spend eternity. In the Islamic interpretation, an angel is appointed to take notes about everything that we do and say in life, then God reads the notes and passes judgement, Ignoring the argument that angels are illiterate and going off the idea that God isn’t a singular being, it wouldn’t make sense that someone is reading a book to deal judgement one at a time. Instead, what if the judgement is passed by aspects of the universe that can already pass judgement?
If our afterlife exists in the memories of the people we leave behind, we’re subject to their judgement. For example, if spend our lives making a positive impact on the world, we’ll most likely be remembered fondly. Jesus spent his short life preaching peace and love and consequently, he’s remembered in a positive light, even by people who don’t accept ascriptions of divinity. On the other hand, Hitler is literally Hitler and is remembered as such. Positive memories of someone that has passed could be considered like heaven, not because it brings joy to the person that passed away, but because it brings joy to the one remembering. Likewise, remembering someone in contempt usually brings anger and other torturous thoughts.
When I learned about annihilation in the Sufi/Ismaili school of thought, I was taught that it was the final stage of death, from which you can’t return. This harkens back to Eagleman’s quote above: the third death is “when your name is spoken for the last time”. Eventually, bodies decay, memories are lost to time, individuality dissolves, and one merges with the universe itself. For example, think about the first people to domesticate crops. We have no idea who they were: their names, their personality, how or why they did what they did, anything about them. But their impact on the world can be found on every farm, in every stomach, and at every McDonald’s. Likewise, I don’t know who my ancestors were going more than three generations back, but without them, I wouldn’t be able to exist. They’re existence, although forgotten is inextricably linked to the universe as we know it, today.
Archeologists and anthropologists like to dig up dead people. But the only thing that they can learn from their digging is how those humans have impacted the world. (I shouldn’t say “only” like it diminishes the amazing work they do). However, they don’t uncover the personalities of people, or the other attributes that philosophers often associate with the soul. For societies that have developed writing or art, they can only reveal what people have chosen to written down. And there’s a vast difference between how people think and feel and how they write. If anything, studying ancient people only solidifies their inextricable connection with the universe.
Just like any religion, Ismailism has a lot of practices and rituals surrounding death. When someone is fatally sick, they often ask for forgiveness from the congregation. This is followed by praying that God forgives the person. But this also can work to change the perception members of the congregation have toward the person, making sure that they’re remembered in a positive light, thus ensuring “paradise” for the memory of the deceased. Also, every month on Moon Night (चाँद रात “chand raat” in Hindi), Ismailis are encouraged to “pray for the souls of the deceased”, hopefully bringing back the memories of those who have passed and allowing them to further their stay in the “abode of heaven”. Often times, Ismailis are also encouraged to remember the names of the Imams and even recite their names in part six of the du’a. And even though many people don’t know about the lives, personalities, or even impacts of each of the Imams, remembering them fondly during times of prayer helps solidify their place in “heaven”.
By the time I was born, it was too late to experience first hand the impact that my grandfather had made on his family and his community. But from the stories he told and from the stories others have told about him have stuck with me. I’ve found a way to remember him in my daily prayers, and now I know that, as long as I’m alive, his memory will stay in paradise. And because of the countless lives and families he was fortunate enough to touch during his lifetime, I know that once his memory fades, he’ll live on as a part of God.
Of course, I’d be remiss to pass over the moral implications of such a world view. But they’re fairly straightforward. While you can choose your decisions based on ideology, or scripture, or guidance from someone else, what matters is around you. If you want to get into heaven, treat the people around you (and the environment around you) well, because they get to decide if you go there. And if you want to stay in heaven (or hell) forever, build something giant that no one can overlook for all time. And if you just want to become one with the universe, do your job well and let your work speak for itself.
“Don’t search for heaven and hell in the future. Both are now present. Whenever we manage to love without expectations, calculations, negotiations, we are indeed in heaven. Whenever we fight, hate, we are in hell.”