The Journey Continues: Barzakh and Beyond
A few weeks ago, we drew attention to some of the occurrences that each of us will encounter during the first stage of life after death – life inside the grave. This article seeks to shed light on the second stage, known as Barzakh (the intermediate period). Imam Ja’far as-Sadiq (peace be upon him) has said about this phase: “I swear by Allah, I do not fear for you except in Barzakh.” (Mizan al-Hikma)
What is Barzakh?
Ayatollah Dastghaib Shirazi explains the literal meaning of Barzakh to be a veil or a “curtain” which lies between two things, preventing them from meeting each other. In the context of the different phases of life, Barzakh is the state of existence between the life of this world and the Hereafter; the “curtain” which Allah has placed between the two worlds. Imam Sadiq has explained it as being a period beginning from death until the Day of Judgment (Bihar al-Anwar); indeed, as mentioned in the Holy Qur’an itself, before us is a barrier (Barzakh) until the Day we are raised (23:100). This verse is a clear indication that man certainly has a life after death, but before the Day of Judgment. The exact nature of this life and what it will entail, we do not know, but our Imams have enlightened us of it to some degree through their various Hadiths.
The Allegorical (Misaali) World
As Ayatollah Shirazi explains, if a baby in the womb of its mother were to be told there is a very vast world beyond its present station which is nothing in comparison to where it is now, it wouldn’t be able to understand or comprehend it. Similarly, we too are unable to comprehend this other world which is veiled from our eyes as it is beyond our physical senses.
The period of Barzakh is called the Allegorical World, because its shape and form is like that of our present world, but is distinct in its substance and matter. Thus our bodies will also be allegorical (Misaali) in that they will physically appear just as they do in this world, yet they will be independent of matter. To help us understand this, our scholars have given the example of dreams; when we see a deceased person in a dream, it is only the worldly allegorical body that we see, as the body and matter actually lie in the grave.
The allegorical body has been described to be transparent, more pleasant and lighter than air and will face no barriers as our bodies do in this material world. For example, the eyes will be able to see anything from anywhere at any time (regardless of whether something is on one side of a wall or the other), and as they (or any other body part) are not composed of matter, they will not suffer nor deteriorate until the Day of Judgment. Shaikh Abbas Qummi has explained in Manazil-e-Akhira that philosophers and thinkers compare this body to the image in a mirror, only with two differences: the worldly, allegorical body in Barzakh is firm, free and independent of the mirror, and it is also intelligent, wise, and understanding as opposed to the image in the mirror.
The Pleasures of Barzakh
The pleasures we derive in this world in comparison to those in the state of Barzakh are like one drop in the entire ocean. The tastes of fruits and sweets are immeasurable compared to what we experience here. Ayatollah Shirazi states “if only a part of the face of a heavenly Houri becomes unveiled, it will dazzle the eyes of the whole world; if the entire beauty of that fairy is revealed, it will outwit the shining of the sun.” No doubt, absolute beauty lies in Barzakh, and about this world Allah has said in the Holy Qur’an, “Surely We have made whatever is on the earth an embellishment for it, so that we may try them (as to) which of them is best in deeds.” (18:7) As believers, we need to make sure not to allow these embellishments to lure us in, and instead strive to attain the real pleasures and real beauty that lie only in Barzakh and beyond.
Shaikh Abbas Qummi states: “One of the peculiarities of Barzakh is that it is eternal and permanent. None of the things of this world are immortal. Youth is overshadowed by the darkness of old age. Until the time the morsel of food remains in the mouth, a person derives pleasure and taste, and then it disappears. Flowers turn dry after a period, and hence nothing remains eternal. But Barzakh and its pleasures are eternal because it is not made up of matter or elements like other things, and hence do not cease to exist.”
The Punishment of Barzakh
We must bear in mind that along with the pleasures of Barzakh, the calamities too are eternal and utterly intense. If we were to truly realize the degree of torture and suffering felt there, the problems we face in this world would seem to be nothing in comparison.
It is narrated that the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him and his progeny) said: “Before the proclamation of Prophethood whilst grazing the cattle one day, I suddenly saw that the cattle stopped grazing and looked frightened. I wondered as to what was the reason for such a change, because nothing unusual had happened at that time. When Jibra’il came with the Revelation I asked him the reason for this change. He answered, ‘O Prophet of Allah! When the people who are being punished in Barzakh scream with anguish and pain, their voices are not heard by human beings and jinns, but animals can hear them and hence become tense with shock.'” (Bihar al-Anwar)
The Valley of Punishment (Wadi-e-Barhoot)
The Valley of Punishment (Wadi-e-Barhoot) is situated in the barren lands of a deserted valley in Yemen, which is devoid of food or water. This is the dwelling place of the evil spirits who are made to stay there during Barzakh and taste severe chastisement.
The Valley of Peace (Wadi-us-Salaam)
It is related in traditions that whenever a believer dies, his spirit is taken to the Valley of Peace (Wadi-us-Salaam) in Najaf near the grave of Imam Ali (peace be upon him). In another tradition, Najaf is described as an assembling place for the high-honored and blessed Angels, and has been said to be an exhibition of the higher world. Indeed physical burial in Najaf has extraordinary benefits, but damned is he who has been blessed with this while his soul is in torture in Wadi-e-Barhoot. Ayatollah Shirazi has therefore highlighted the importance of attaining spiritual nearness to the Commander of the Faithful – regardless of one’s physical distance from Najaf – through knowledge and actions.
Shaikh Abbas Qummi states: “The spirit receives reward or punishment (or both) in the grave. But due to its long relation with the body, the body also feels pain and is affected. For those who say it is of no use to visit the graves as the spirit of the believer is not present there but is in Wadi-us-Salaam, this is not true. Imam Sadiq says: Verily the spirit of the believer is in Wadi-us-Salaam, but it surely keeps an eye on what is happening in the grave. It also looks at the people who have come to visit his grave. Imam compares the spirit to the sun. Even though the sun is not on the earth but is on the sky, the entire earth is illuminated by its light, in the same manner the spirit is in Wadi-us-Salaam but it keeps contact with the body.” (Manazil-e-Akhira)
The Physical Body
Although it is the allegorical body and soul that experiences the rewards or punishments in Barzakh, it is possible for the material, earthly body to also be affected. There have been many incidents where it has been seen that the dead body in the grave does not disintegrate, but remains preserved even many years later. It is written in Rawzat-al-Jannat that a hole had developed in the grave of Shaikh Saduq (may Allah grant him Paradise) due to heavy raining around the year 1238 A.H. When people thought of filling it up, they entered the tomb and found that his body was safe and sound, although his physique was rather bulky. The color of Henna was also traceable on his nails. (Ma’ad)
In contrast, for those belonging to the Hellfire, the punishment of the soul has an effect on the physical body also. Indeed, when Bani Abbas overpowered and destroyed Bani Umayyah and thereafter dug out their graves, it was observed that nothing except some body traces could be seen in the grave of the cursed Yazid (may Allah remove His mercy from him).
Spirits Meeting Worldly Beings
Ayatollah Shirazi has mentioned in his book Ma’ad that the spirits living in Barzakh come to this world to visit their family and friends, and that the frequency of their visits depends on their condition, place of dwelling and on their degree of freedom or captivity. He said that according to a narration, a faithful soul sees nothing except the well-being and pleasing things about his or her near and dear ones, while those things that would cause unhappiness are not shown to his or her soul in Barzakh. However the spirit of a Kafir (disbeliever) sees nothing except bad and painful things about its near and dear ones.
The Scale of Deeds
It is narrated in Manazil-e-Akhira that Shaikh Baha’uddin Ameli once went to visit a wise man who lived near a cemetery in Isfahan. The wise man told Shaikh Bahai: “Some days back I witnessed an astonishing incident, which I would like to tell you. Some persons came here with a dead body, buried it and went away. Suddenly I smelt a fragrance the likeness of which I had never smelt before. I turned towards the left and right to see where it came from. I saw a handsome young man wearing splendid clothes going towards the newly made grave, and then disappearing into it.
“After sometime I smelt a bad odor the likeness of which too I had never smelt before. I saw an ugly dog going towards the grave and disappear in it. My astonishment knew no bounds. I was wondering about what actually was happening, when I saw the young man coming out of the grave in a bad state. His whole body was bruised. He started running away from the grave and I followed him. I stopped him and asked him the reason for running fearfully. The young man replied, ‘I am the dead man’s good deeds, and was commanded to accompany him in his grave. Suddenly the dead man’s evil deeds came in the form of a dog. I tried to keep him away from the dead man, but it bit me and wounded me all over. He made a bad state of me and I could no longer remain in the grave, hence I have come out leaving the dead man to the mercy of his evil deeds.'”
The dead man’s evil deeds were effectively weightier than his good deeds. When Shaikh Bahai heard this incident he told the wise man: “Verily the incident is true, because it is narrated that the deeds (good or bad) which a person performs in his lifetime are given a physical form.”
Beneficial A’maal for Those in Barzakh
It is narrated from Jame’ul Akhbaar that one of the companions of the Holy Prophet heard him saying, “Send gifts to your dead”. Upon asking what gifts could be sent to the deceased, he replied “It is to give alms (Sadaqa) on their behalf or pray for their forgiveness”. The Prophet continued, “On every Friday the spirits of the dead come to the homes and call out: O people of my house! May Allah bless you, have mercy on us. Whatever we have done in this world, we are facing its consequences now, while the fruits of our toil are being enjoyed by others. Favor us by giving on our behalf a dirham, or bread, or clothes, so that Allah may reward you with heavenly attire”.
The Holy Prophet, crying and weeping until he became exhausted, then said, “These are your Muslim brethren who lived a lavish life, and now lie pressed beneath the earth. They now regret their mistakes and weep over the deeds which have become the cause of their affliction. They say, Alas! If only we had spent our wealth in the path of Allah, and not have acted miserly, we would not have to be dependent on you now. We now beg of you to send us some Sadaqa.” (Ma’ad)
It has also been narrated that the Holy Prophet said: “Whatever Sadaqa is given on behalf of the deceased person, the blessed Angels adorn it on an illuminated tray whose light spreads across the seven heavens, and take it to the head of the grave and they say: ‘Peace be on you, O inhabitant of the grave! This gift has been sent to you by your relatives.’ The deceased person takes the tray into his grave, and thereafter the entire grave is illuminated and expands in length.” The Prophet then continued, “Those who favor their departed relatives by giving alms on their behalf, its reward is as big as the mountain of Uhud in the sight of Allah. On the day of Judgment, Allah will give the person shelter under His Throne, when there will be no other shelter except this. Hence this Sadaqa proves useful for the living person as well as the dead one.” (Ma’ad)
Imam Sadiq said that sometimes a dead person is faced with trouble and difficulty when, suddenly, Allah grants him peace and prosperity. It is said unto him: “This is so because your such and such brother in faith has recited prayers on your behalf. A person asked him, ‘Can two dead persons be included in the same prayer?'” The Imam replied: “Yes, you can do so, for verily the dead man becomes happy when this prayer reaches him through you… Perform prayers, fasting, pilgrimage, give alms and do other good deeds on their behalf, for these enter his grave and is also written in his scrolls of deeds (Nam-e A’maal).”