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How does Islam Explain Near-Death Experiences?


Question

In the last few decades more research has been done regarding clinical death or near-death experiences. This is referring to the experiences of people who are pronounced clinically dead and are later revived. Some times these people have memories of going down a tunnel, seeing a bright light, seeing dead relatives, religious figures, or heaven, and more rarely the people report a terrifying Hell-like experience.  Usually skeptics say this is a psychological phenomenon caused by lack of oxygen to the brain. But how does one explain such people apparently witnessing events around them, while in a supposedly disembodied state, the details of which would be impossible for them to ascertain in a state of physical clinical death?

People of all different religious and cultural backgrounds seem to have similar experiences. Out of curiousity, I have been reading some of the research done in this field, to see if the experience of Muslims is markedly different. So far I have not found any accounts made by Muslims at all, as it seems most of the research has been done in the west. However, neither have I found anything in the accounts that would correlate with the hadith regarding the torments of the grave, being questioned by the angels, etc. Should we understand these hadith literally? If that is the case, do we take the position, as many fundamentalist Christians do, that all clinical and near-death experiences which do not support a literal interpretation of scripture are a fabrication of the shaytan, made to deceive people and cast doubt on their faith? There are some problems with this explanation, too, but I will leave my question here at this time.

Jazakum Allahu khairan for your excellent website and for the thought you put into your answers.

Ruqaiyyah Al-Muhtadi
United States of America



Question from United States of America
Answer

Near Death Experience (NDE) is a phenomenon that is recently being explored by both science and religion. I am somewhat familiar with this topic and have read a Muslim's account of an NDE, which does not vary much from the typical testimonies I have been exposed to. However, I will attempt to make a clear distinction between NDE's and the Islamic notion of death. I obviously cannot make any scientific remarks regarding this topic; therefore I will refrain from any such comments.

The Islamic concept of death is not merely "clinical". It is the actual completion of a term of life. After the life has expired from a being, the person is no longer with us in this world and can never return. The person cannot be revived from this "death" by any means. In other words, a person who dies, dies till the time that he shall be raised again in the hereafter, he leaves our "living" dimension and enters another. This state of being is not expounded on, yet, we are given an idea that some people will witness their rewards or punishment to come, in their graves; Heaven or Hell. So when you ask if we can take these Ahadith (traditions), regarding experiences during death literally, then I can only answer by saying that the "literality" of it depends on the relativity of existence. To us, in this life, it is an actual experience because that's the only way we can understand it, however, the actual experience "in death" is a spiritual one leaving us with very little to relate to. Clearly, the Islamic perspective is that these incidences do occur before the Day of Judgment for some people.  However, no one may come back to tell about it. 

Whether a near death experience supports or not, the literal or figurative concepts of Islamic doctrine regarding death, there is no reason to take the position that the Shay'tan (Satan) is behind these experiences.  It may be that this is our brain's reaction to traumatic experiences after all. I cannot be sure but I'm only pointing out a possibility. Believing that Satan is behind this occurrence might be an over and undue reaction to take regarding NDE's; and I personally wouldn't advise taking this position.

It is evident that NDE is a phenomenon not yet clearly understood. Besides, it is in no way related to the Islamic concept of death as we presently understand it.  If there is such a thing as being midway between life and death it is not mentioned in Islamic teachings.  NDE references death, and a return from a state between life and death. Islamic doctrine references death as a cut off point from this life and a preparation for the Afterlife and no one may return according to God's Laws.

We would like to extend a warm and sincere appreciation to you for your kind remarks.  May God bestow his Blessings and Mercy upon you and your loved ones.

I hope I have clarified the issue

God knows best

Ronnie Hassan
March 2, 2003




Answer published by Ronnie Hassan