There is well-known dictum that scholars of ethics and gnosis remind us, regarding those who have gone into the slumber of negligence and need to wake up. The Holy Prophet (peace be upon him and his progeny) is reported to have said: “People are asleep; when they die, they would wake up.” Scholars believe this tradition can allude to two different levels of death:
(a) Forceful Death (Al-mawt al-idhtirari), which tears off the veils of the reality of our thoughts, beliefs, way of life and actions. Hence when we are forcefully transported to Barzakh, which is the higher realm of existence, we wake up from our deep slumber of negligence and realize how unthankful we had been in the current, lower realm of existence.
(b) Volitional Death (Al-mawt al-ikhtiyari), which comes about after we clear ourselves from the sins we have committed, and untie the knot of attachment of this world. Great saints such as Ayatollah Haddaad Musawi (a contemporary of Allama Tabatabai) is said to have attained such a station after maintaining extreme endurance, vis-à-vis the predicaments of his personal life. This is known as khal al badan (stripping of the body from the soul).
We have the potential within us to envision beyond this world and see our stations in Barzakh even before our souls are taken by the Angel of Death. A very interesting anecdote is narrated about Allama Tabatabai while he was busy engaged in the remembrance of Allah in the Mosque of Kufa in Iraq. His mentor in Gnosis (Irfan), Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Qadhi Tabatabai, warned him from paying any attention to whatever comes about while he is busy in his remembrance of Allah. Allama is reported to have said that once while he was immersed in the remembrance of Allah (Dhikr Allah) in the Mosque of Kufa, he suddenly saw a beautiful heavenly damsel (hour al-‘in) appear before him with a cup of heavenly wine. Observing the instructions of his mentor, he paid no attention to her. So she appeared to him from the other side and persistently requested Allama to accept her offer, but the latter did not pay attention to her again. Allama writes in his personal memoirs that due to his inattention, she was so frustrated that he can still remember her state. This scenario obviously was not in the present realm of al-Dunya, for Houris are damsels of Paradise and hence do not have material existence. In reality, Allama was visioning what was beyond this world. Analysts believe that what he saw was perhaps the result of his own dhikr, which in our traditions can be the cause of the creation of such rewards. What his mentor, however, had said was very important and meaningful, because attending to the All Beloved is loftier than attending to the result of one’s own actions (hour al-‘in). Furthermore, it is due to the remembrance of the Only Beloved that made a loving Houri magnetized to Allama Tabatabai, frustrating her when he paid no attention to her. Indeed, according to a beautiful dictum of a great saint, “If Paradise is sweet, the Creator of Paradise is even sweeter.”
A small wonder it is that Allama Tabatabai would advise his students to recite the famous supplication of Imam al-Baqir (peace be upon him) during the predawn moments of the month of Ramadhan, where there is no mention of the enjoyments of Paradise: Allahumma inni as’aluka min Bahaa’ika bi abhaahu wa kullu bahaa’ika bahiyy (“O Allah, I ask You that brilliance of Yours which is the most brilliant, and every brilliance of Yours is the most brilliant…”) There is only mention of Allah and His Attributes. And that is why the human being has been created. He does not live to be a happy animal; he lives to soar to the station of a perfect human being, who exemplifies the qualities of his Lord.