September 30, 2008 was the last day of Ramadan. For Nora Risha, 18-year-old freshmen at Arizona State University, it was the last day on this earth. At approximately 10 o’clock in the evening on October 1, 2008, a drunk driver ran a light, slammed his Nissan into Nora’s van and threw her from the car.
It was the evening of Eid, and Nora spent her final moments in this world. It was the day of celebration, family, gifts; no one expected it would end in tragedy. How many of us woke up on Eid thinking we might never live to see the next morning? How many of us went through our day with that consciousness guiding every action? For Nora, that was the reality. It was a reality one can neither prevent, nor predict–a reality for which we can only prepare.
Nora’s sudden death serves as a reminder of the fallacy of life’s greatest myths. Companies sell it. Celebrities buy it. And ordinary people live their lives believing it. It is the idea that this life is forever. When we feel that this life will never end, we have no reason to prepare for anything beyond it. The practical result of this deception is the maximization of worldly pleasure, manifesting itself through the blind following—and ultimate worship—of one’s lower desires (al-hawa).
In contrast to this type of person is the one who anticipates his meeting with the Creator. Allah says: “And for such as had entertained the fear of standing before their Lord’s (tribunal) and had restrained (their) soul from lower desires, their abode will be the Garden.” (79: 40-41)
It is the anticipation of this meeting with our Creator and ultimate retribution which motivates the soul to struggle against al-hawa and live for a higher purpose. That meeting with our Lord comes with our departure from this life, and that anticipation is the remembrance of death.
By reminding ourselves that this life is not forever, we will strive to prepare for the life that is. Imagine that you are taking a short trip to a nearby city or state. Knowing that you will only be staying a few days, how attached will you get to that city? When you get there, how likely are you to buy a house or start cultivating land for your 3 day stay? The fact is that you realize you are only staying for a short time. So you don’t get distracted with acquiring things that you know you will very soon leave behind.
It is exactly this attitude which the Prophet urged us to have regarding this life. He said “Be in the world like a stranger or a wayfarer.” [Al-Bukhari] And the truth is, after this life is over, looking back, it will seem as though it had only been a day, or part of a day. The Quran tells us: “He (Allah) will say: `What number of years did you stay on earth?’ They will say: `We stayed a day or part of a day. Ask of those who keep account.’ He (Allah) will say: `You stayed not but a little, if you had only known! Did you think that We had created you in play (without any purpose), and that you would not be brought back to Us?”’ (23:112-115)
Keeping in mind this purpose, and the fact that we will be brought back, is not always easy. It may be today, tomorrow, or even 50 years from now. But that departure is a certainty. And when that time comes, many of us will try everything to stop it. Allah says: “(In Falsehood will they be) Until, when death comes to one of them, he says: `My Lord! Send me back. So that I may do good in that which I have left behind!’ No! It is but a word that he speaks; and behind them is a barrier until the Day when they will be resurrected.” (23:99-100)
The Quran also explains: “…When their term comes, neither can they delay nor can they advance it an hour (or a moment).” (16:61) In another verse, Allah warns us: “Wherever ye are, death will find you out, even if ye are in towers built up strong and high!…” (4:78)
When the day comes that Allah takes our souls, this worldly examination will come to a final end, and all we can take with us is our deeds. At that time, there will be only two outcomes: ultimate success or ultimate failure. And while we all strive in this life for what we define as success, it is then that we will realize the true success or failure. Allah says: “Every soul shall have the taste of death: And only on the Day of Judgment shall you be paid your full recompense. Only he who is saved far from the Fire and admitted to the Garden will have succeeded: For the life of this world is but goods and chattels of deception. (3:185)
To break out of this deception one of the close companions of the prophet, Abdullah ibn Umar used to say: “When you survive until the evening, do not expect to live until the morning; and when you survive until the morning, do not expect to live until the evening. [Al-Bukhari] For some this is only a saying that we’ll read today, and forget tomorrow. But for the 18-year-old girl who simply drove her car on October 1, it was the reality that wrote her fate.