Death: The Soul's Departure
Death is a mystery and will always remain so. People often wonder if death is the end, or if there is some world beyond it. The Koran explains that death is not the end, but rather the beginning of eternal life. Death is not only a heart that stops beating; it's the departure of the soul from the body. That soul then enters a realm undetected by humans, but known to Muslims as the realm of the next life.
The great mystery of death can partly be resolved by understanding from the Koran and Sunnah what happens to the soul after it leaves the body. The Angel of Death receives the command from Allah to seize a soul, and arrives where he's due with a few other angels. These angels may appear beautiful and charming for the righteous souls, but may appear in a different, less-pleasant form for a person whose soul is destined for Hell. Once the soul is seized, it is carried off to the Heavens in the company of the angels.
The Angel of Death
Allah created only one angel with the sole duty of seizing the souls of the dead, and that is the Angel of Death. Although he has no name mentioned in the Koran, Muslims know him as Azrael. The Angel of Death seizes the soul of every single person—and possibly creature—that lives on Earth. Even if there was a death every second, the Angel of Death would be right there to seize the soul. He never tires or complains of this never-ending job that he's been doing since the world was created. In his work around the clock, he has diligently collected billions of souls.
Allah says in the Koran that he breathed His spirit into man and gave him life. However, the human soul is a creation of Allah and is as mortal as the body. Either would perish if Allah willed it.
The Angel of Death can only seize a soul by command of Allah. There are no definite records of how Azrael looks, but Muslims say it is unlikely that he is the Reaper that's often depicted in movies. There are claims that the Angel of Death is hideous and enormous with 4,000 wings, some of them the size of the earth itself. In a Hadith of Prophet Muhammad, the Angel of Death is described to be so enormous that he holds Earth between his knees, and with a mere glance, he can locate the next soul to be taken. However, Islamic sources say the angel can appear in any form, as he appeared for Prophet Abraham as a very handsome, very elegantly dressed man.
This angel is an intelligent, thoughtful being. He, too, possesses a soul, created in him by Allah. One Hadith tells of Prophet Muhammad's conversation with Azrael at the deathbed of a close friend. Muhammad asked the angel to be gentle in taking the soul of the man, as he was a righteous believer. The angel replied, “Be calm and do not worry, Muhammad. I am gentle and compassionate to every believer …” Then he said, “By Allah if I wanted to seize the soul of a mosquito I would not be able to do so without Allah's command.”
The Last Breath
It is not only the Angel of Death who is present at the moment of death, but a group of other angels as well. There are two groups of these angels—the Angels of Mercy, and the Angels of Torment. The Angels of Mercy appear for the righteous soul as pleasant, comforting apparitions, while the other group appears for the nonbeliever as terrifying, disturbing apparitions. This information is available to Muslims through Prophet Muhammad's Hadith.
The righteous believers have their souls extracted painlessly. The angels would first greet the person, according to the Koran: “Those whom the angels cause to die (when they are) good. They say: Peace be unto you! Enter the Garden because of what you used to do” (16:32). Having been informed of his destiny in Paradise, the person's soul is seized by the Angel of Death as gently as a hair is pulled out of dough—an analogy courtesy of the Prophet. The Angel of Death then grants the soul of the believer to the Angels of Mercy.
The situation becomes different for an unbelieving wrongdoer whose bad deeds are greater than his good deeds. The Angel of Death descends upon such a nonbeliever in an unpleasant form accompanied by the Angels of Torment, who instill terror in the heart of the wrongdoer with their disturbing appearances and angry glares. Allah says in the Koran: “Whom the angels cause to die while they are wrongdoing themselves. Then will they make full submission saying: We used not to do any wrong. Nay! Surely Allah is Knower of what you used to do” (16:28). The Angel of Death extracts the nonbeliever's soul painfully and grants it to the Angels of Torment.
A soul goes through four stages from the time it is created: first in the mother's womb; then in this world as we know it; then in the next world, which is a realm for souls; and last, in its eternal home in Heaven or Hell. Muslims believe Allah determines when it's time for a soul to move from one stage to the next.
Allah says in the Holy Koran to the soul of the righteous: “You soul at peace! Return to your Lord, content in his good pleasure! Enter among My bondmen! Enter My Garden!” (89:27–28). One of the basic beliefs in Islam is that all souls return to the Creator, just as they were delivered through him.
According to a Hadith, when the Angel of Death hands the righteous soul to the Angels of Mercy, they carry it up and ascend to the Heavens. All the gates of the seven Heavens open up to let the good soul pass through, until the soul reaches the seventh Heaven. There, Allah declares that the soul has been good and forgives its sins. Then the angels fly back down to the body of the dead person and let the soul watch the preparations for burial of the body.
The soul of the wrongdoer is handed to the Angels of Torment, who carry it up to the Heavens. There, the gates of all Heavens are closed to it, and the soul is not permitted to pass through. While it is down by the lowest Heaven, Allah declares the soul evil and tells the angels to carry it down to Earth and leave it in the grave.