Islamic Wisdom

To Be "Alive" and To Be "Dead”


Many of us think that as long as a man's heart beats, and the nerves are active and he walks about, he is alive. When can he be said to be dead? When the physician listens to his heart and declares that it has stopped functioning.

This is to some extent true, but this kind of life is not a really human life; it is his biological life. In this respect he has a common bond with animals. A dog, too, has a heart, nerves, veins (in which blood flows), organs and limbs. So what is the difference between a human being alive and an animal being alive?

A little reflection on this issue reveals that a human being has another kind of life, as well. According to the Qur'an, a man's heart, nerves and limbs may be active, but he may be 'dead'.

The Qur'an refers to people as dead and alive, and then says that Quran affects those who show a trace of life, while it has no effect on the dead ones. What is meant by being dead or alive? The Qur'an says that whoever is born comes into the world with a divine-endowed nature, which seeks truth. But in some people this light of inquiry is extinguished, and thus they "die," though they are biologically alive.

The Qur'an gives another example and says that those who show a trace of life blossom forth in spirit when they assimilate the Qur'an, since they become susceptible to the same, like a land prepared for the growth of plants and trees.

The Qur'an says:

"Is he who was dead and We revived him (through the Qur'an) and gave him a light by which he walks among people, like one who remains in utter darkness and without access to the world beyond him?..."(Quran, 6:123)

Another verse of the Qur'an in which the people are divided into two groups of "dead" and "alive", Qur’an says:

"O 'Believers! Obey God and His Messenger when He calls you to that which gives you life, and know that God comes in between man and his 'heart' and that He it is to Whom you will be gathered." (The Qur'an, 8:24)

How explicitly and beautifully it exhorts to the effect that God and the Prophet invite us to accept Islam for its life-giving quality, since it will revive us.

Islam speaks persistently of life, and says the Prophet has brought "life" for you. You are dead now but you do not know it. Come and submit to this spiritual physician to see how he offers you life.

What does life mean? It means clear-sightedness and ability. The difference between life and death lies in these two. The greater the measure of these two, the livelier is life. Why do we call God alive? Does it mean having a beating heart and blood flow? This meaning does not apply to God; in His case heart and blood do not exist.

Does life mean breathing and letting breath in and out? No, this is not the meaning of life. These are conditions of life for us, not life itself. Life itself is awareness and ability, we call God alive because He represents Absolute Wisdom and Ability, and because an excellent human life reflects qualities of His Essence, including kindness, mercy, compassion and beneficence. Islam, too, promotes wisdom and ability in actual practice, as it did for many centuries. Therefore, when human thought does not reflect the divine-endowed wisdom and ability, and instead, leads only to aggravation of ignorance and inactivity, it no longer represents Islam.

Islam is the religion of life which is incompatible with ignorance and inability. You can accept this as a general criterion of understanding Islam. It is important to note that Islam considers ‘action’ as an element of life. Islam tries in its teachings to predicate human destiny on action, so as to make man rely on his own will. Islam says that your unhappiness is the result of your own misdeeds.

A human being must rely on his own conduct and personal initiative. What is more explicit than the phrase of the Quran which says: "There is not for man save what he strives for." (53:39). No doubt, it involves human dynamism, alertness, insight and ability.

Today, educators try hard to awaken the sense of self-reliance in man, and rightly do so. The kind of self-reliance that Islam awakens in man is that it puts an end to the hope of relying on everything outside him except God, and if there is a hope it must be centered on oneself. Similarly every connection with other things or persons is through action. You cannot be connected with the Prophet (s.a.w.a.f.) or Imam Ali (a.s.) or the latter's chaste Fatima (a.s.) except through deeds.

There is an anecdote from the life of the Holy Prophet (s.a.w.a.f.), so fine and meaningful, and peerless in the biography of all human beings. It is amazing how a man in a desert, such as that of the Prophet's could act in an extraordinarily thoughtful manner.

The Prophet in one of his travels with his companions ordered the caravan to stop and dismount. Then he dismounted and started walking in a certain direction. Soon he returned, and his companions supposed that he was looking for a suitable place for camping before he could decide about moving to another spot.

They saw him approach his camel, take a knee-band from the sack, tie the camel's knees and walk on as before. They wondered why the Prophet (s.a.w.a.f.) had walked so far and back for such a trifling task, and asked him why he did not order them to do it. The Prophet said: "Never seek help from others even for a small piece of work. Try to do it yourself."

If the Prophet (s.a.w.a.f.) had said this from the pulpit it would not have had such a deep effect, but he said it when it was combined with action. The purpose of this story is to show that one of the principles of Islamic teachings which revives Islamic thought is ‘action’ and reliance on action.

The dynamic concept of reliance on God has an ethical and educational meaning in Islam. The Qur'an conveys an extraordinarily harmonious and heroic sense in endorsing absolute adherence to, and trust in. God. The Qur'an brings man into action and removes all fear from him. It teaches us not to fear, but rely on God and go ahead. It instructs us to tell the truth without fearing any might of an enemy.

When you seek to find this kind of reliance in the minds and hearts of people today, you see that it is absent or dead. Even so some people take it wrongly and try to justify their laziness and inactivity. When they want to be idle, and tend to neglect their duty, they resort to "reliance on God," and use it in a sense quite the reverse of what the Qur'an teaches.





The following sources are used to prepare the above article.

1. Murtda Mutahhari, Reviving Islamic Ethos