After an individual dies and is laid to rest in his grave, what happens? Is the soul taken? Is the person in limbo till the Day of Judgment?
The Qur’an, in Surah Ghaafir 40: 46, has mentioned the fate that Pharaoh and his followers are faced with after their death, as a consequence of rejecting the message of Moses (pbuh). The Qur’an says that they are all continually shown their ultimate destiny in hellfire and on the Day of Judgment they shall all be thrown in it. A number of narratives ascribed to the Prophet (pbuh) mention a similar fate for those who rejected him and, thereby, failed to cleanse and purify themselves in the life of this world.
It is quite obvious from the referred verse of the Qur’an that this torturous situation for the dead is spiritual, not physical in nature. Moreover, it is not even necessary that the dead be faced with this situation only inside their graves. On the contrary, it seems more likely that their souls are put to rest somewhere in God’s vast creation and these souls experience this situation. Unfortunately, we do not have any information regarding the whereabouts of the place where the souls are put to rest after death.
Looking at the narratives ascribed to the Prophet (pbuh), in the light of the referred verse of the Qur’an, it seems that `Azaab e Qabar (i.e. punishment of the grave) actually refers to the same kind of torturous situation that the rejecters’ souls are faced with after their death.
On the basis of the referred verse of the Qur’an and the narratives ascribed to the Prophet (pbuh), one may derive that every person has to go through this situation. Each rejecting soul experiences a torturous situation, while each pious soul is shown the great blessings that it shall be bestowed with on the Day of Judgment. But this derivation entails a slight problem. A person may ask that if God is to pass His judgment regarding the blessed and the doomed on the Day of Judgment then how can the two experience their respective destinies before such judgment is passed. In other words it may be said that if blessings and tortures shall start immediately after the death of an individual then it implies that the decision regarding the ultimate destiny of the individual preceded the Day of Judgment.
This question prompts us to take a second closer look at the referred verse of the Qur’an and the narratives ascribed to the Prophet (pbuh). In both these instances (i.e. in the verse of the Qur’an as well as the narratives ascribed to the Prophet) we find that it is primarily the direct addressees of either Moses (pbuh) or Mohammed (pbuh) whose fate is being mentioned.
According to the Qur’an, both Mohammad (pbuh) and Moses (pbuh) were not only Prophets (Nabis) but also Messengers (Rasu’l) of God. The Qur’an tells us that when God sends His messenger in a people, the polytheists among these people are not allowed to live on God’s earth if they reject the messenger. It tells us that these people are given time in which to make up their minds and to present all their objections against the messenger (Rasu’l). It tells us that all their objections are answered and all the doubts in their minds are removed by the Almighty Himself. It tells us that a time comes when – the All-knowing and the All-wise – God decides that these people have been given adequate time and that they are now absolutely clear regarding the truthfulness of the messenger. It tells us that because of this clarity, these people are not left with any excuse for rejecting the messenger. It tells us that because these people are now left with no excuse for rejecting the messenger, thus if they persist in their rejection, then the Almighty directs His messenger to migrate from the area and the polytheists among the rejecters are, subsequently, annihilated.
According to the Qur’an, the decision regarding the fate of the direct addressees of a messenger (Rasu’l) of Allah is not postponed till the Day of Judgment. Their fate is decided during the life of this world and thus, their punishment begins with their death.
In the light of this explanation and also in the light of the words of the narratives ascribed to the Prophet (pbuh), it seems that the narratives regarding `Azaab e Qabar (punishment of the grave) are specific to the direct addressees of Mohammad (pbuh), the messenger of Allah. These narratives are specific for those people whose fate was decided during the life of this world and whose final decision was not left pending till the Day of Judgment. This would, in fact, mean that the punishment and the reward of the clear rejecters and the clear believers respectively, shall not be left pending till the Day of Judgment, but would be initiated immediately after their deaths. This immediate initiation of their reward and punishment is what has been termed as the punishment or reward of the grave. As far as those who were neither clearly among the firm and true believers nor among the rejecters, they shall get their respective decisions on the Day of Judgment, following which, their punishment or reward shall be initiated.
If my understanding is correct, then it follows that people who were neither clearly among the firm and true believers nor among the rejecters shall probably be in a state of limbo till the Day of Judgment. On the Day of Judgment their fate shall be decided and then shall they be sent to their respective destinies.
June 29, 1999