Man’s situation in the Barzakh
The existence of an intermediate realm between death and the Day of Judgment is a well founded religious belief. There can be no doubt that after death the spirits of men are transferred to the vast expanse of the non-material world. There are separate destinations for the virtuous and the wicked after death.
Once the spirit separates from the body, it pursues its existence under a different order and set of conditions. What we mean by this order is the intermediate realm, the first stage reached by man after his migration from the world. He pauses there in the course of his journey to the meeting with God. He enters a realm with its own specific characteristics and properties, remaining there until the coming of the Resurrection.
A limit or boundary separating two things is called Barzakh in Arabic. That is why the intermediate realm that separates the temporary and transient life of this world, from the eternal life of the Hereafter is also called Barzakh. Life there is characterized by the liberation of the spirit from the fetters of the material body. The spirit is no longer harassed by passion and instinct, and thanks to the absence of time and space, the horizons of man’s vision are vastly enlarged. In just the same way that there is no question of time or space in the world of dreams, in the intermediate realm too, man can observe and examine everything in a single instant.
The Holy Qur’an says:
The intermediate realm extends from now until the time of Resurrection (23:100)
In the same connection, the Qur’an describes the state of martyrs after death:
Do not imagine those who have been killed in God’s path to be dead; rather they are alive and receive sustenance in the presence of their Lord. (3:169)
After death, the spirits of the virtuous will rejoice in freedom from the constricting cage of this world. They will delight in their ability to roam freely through the infinite. Life on the earthly plane is concerned only with the limited amount of matter that is visible on the surface of the earth. By contrast, the spirits of the virtuous know no limitation of space and time as they continue their upward ascent. Each in accordance with its rank, advances joyfully to its specific station and degree, and everywhere it enjoys unhindered access. The eyes of the blessed witness pure and uncontaminated sources of eternal beauty in comparison with which the beauties of this world are slight and inconsequential.
The spirit is no longer subject to the limits imposed on it by a weary, heavy body. Nothing exists here for the righteous servants of God except beauty, luminosity, love, familiarity, and affection, and pure, sincere friendship with the servants and friends of God. The Qur’an promises those who made obedience to the Divine command that they shall enjoy the company and fellowship of God’s chosen elite.
This is the promise contained in the Qur’an:
Those who obey the commands of God and His messenger shall be resurrected together with, and enjoy the company of, those upon whom God has bestowed His kindness and favor in full measure – the Prophets, the sincere devotees, the martyrs and the righteous. What noble and precious companions they are! (4:64)
It should be remarked, of course, that enjoying the company of God’s chosen elite does not imply equality with them in terms of spiritual station and degree. While being in close contact with them, the virtuous will enjoy God’s favor and blessings to an extent in accordance with their own ranks and degrees of closeness to God. Not everyone will enjoy an equal share.
The moment of Death
One of the companions of Imam al-Sadiq(a) relates that he once asked him:
“O descendant of God’s Messenger! When the true believer finds himself in the threshold of death, is he grieved by the taking of his soul?
The Imam answered:
“Never! When the messenger of death comes to take his spirit, he is at first distraught. But then the angel consoles him and says: O friend of God, do not distress yourself. I swear by the Lord who sent Muhammad as His Messenger, that we will treat you more kindly and gently than your father. Open your eyes and look at us.
Then the Messenger of God and other leaders of religion will appear before him, and the angel entrusted with the task of taking his soul will say to him: This is the Prophet and the leaders of religion who will be your friends and companions.
He will then open his eyes partly and hear God calling him as follows:
O soul that has found tranquility in the protection of Muhammad and his pure family, now return to your Lord. You have accepted as truth the authority of the imams, and because of this you are now happy. Be certain that you have also thereby earned the pleasure of your Lord. Come now and be the companion of My chosen elite, and take up the abode that has been prepared for you in paradise everlasting.
Nothing can be more desirable for the believer at that moment than for his soul to take flight and receive all that it has been promised.”
Imam Ali (a) talks to the dead
One of the companions of Imam Ali (a) narrates:
Once I left Kufa in the company of the Imam. He stopped at the cemetery at Wadi-us-salam, standing there like someone about to address a gathering. I remained there standing with the Imam until I grew tired and sat down. A long time passed and I grew tired of sitting. So I stood up again. Finally I said to the Imam, “I fear for you, seeing you standing for so long; rest a little.” I then spread out my cloak on the ground for the Imam to sit. He said: O Habba! I am standing here engaged in conversation with the believers.” I then asked him “Do they also engage in conversation with each other?” “Yes” he said. “Once the veil is lifted you will see them gathered in circles conversing with each other.” I said: “Are you speaking of their bodies or their spirits?” “Their spirits” he answered.
From this narrative it can be deduced that the spirit does not entirely sever its relations with the body. The spirit does leave for a different realm, but because of its attachment to the body some weak connection persists. On account of this it is oriented towards the remains of its body. That is why Islam has laid down certain instructions relating to the body after death.
In the intermediate realm, human beings encounter each other in bodily forms specific to that realm. The pure and virtuous are gathered together in groups, determined by their spiritual rank and degree. The unbelievers and the evil also find themselves in each other’s company. The degree and relations of the pious with each other are based on familiarity, intimacy and pure love. The companionship and conversation of the people in Barzakh will be marked by the characteristics of that realm.
Although the bodies of people in Barzakh will in general resemble the bodily form they had in this world, certain differences will also be apparent. Every quality and attribute will take on an external form in accordance with its inner nature. The spiritual light or darkness found within individuals will become clearly visible in their faces.
Ibrahim bin Ishaq recounts that he asked Imam al-Sadiq(a) “Where are the souls of the believers?” He answered, “The spirits of believers are lodged in paradise where they are given to eat and drink. They see and visit each other, and they say, O Lord, bring out resurrection so that what You have promised us may be fulfilled.”
Ibrahim next asked, “Where are the spirits of the unbelievers?’ He answered, “Their place is in the fire, where they are compelled to eat the food of the fire and drink its drink. They see each other and meet each other and say, O God do not bring about resurrection lest that which You promised us be fulfilled.”
Abu Basir relates that the question of the spirits of the believers and the Godfearing was once being discussed in the presence of Imam al-Sadiq(a). The Imam said, “The spirits of the believers meet each other.” I asked: “Do they indeed meet each other?” He replied, “Yes, and they talk to each other and recognize each other. When you see someone there you will say, This is so-and-so.”
Those living in Barzakh can even establish contact with the material world and its inhabitants. By virtue of the inner capacities they developed and the deeds they performed while still in the world, they can acquire information of a general kind about their relatives and friends to the degree that is permitted by the special circumstances of Barzakh.
The situation of the people in Barzakh naturally differs from one person to the next. In a sense, everyone there has his own world. Not all the dwellers in Barzakh can communicate uniformly with this world and its people. The degree to which an individual may have awareness of this world and communicate with it depends on the spiritual rank and degree of development he has attained. Those who worship and fear God have, therefore, better and more extensive capacity for gaining awareness of the material world. Within the limits set by the circumstances of Barzakh, and depending on God’s permission, they can be present wherever they wish, simply through willing it and turning themselves in the proper direction. As for the errant and the sinful, their communication with the world serves simply to increase their regret and torment.
Imam al-Sadiq (a) has said:
The believer visits his dear ones and relatives, and he sees what he loves, while whatever he dislikes is concealed from him. The unbeliever also visits his dear ones and relatives, but he sees what he hates and dislikes, while whatever he loves is concealed form him.
Among the believers are those for whom Friday is a day of visiting.
Someone relates that he asked Imam Ali (a) whether the dead were able to visit their relatives. He answered that they are, whereupon the questioner asked: “When and how often?” The Imam answered: “Every week, every month, or every year, depending on spiritual rank and capacity.”
The degree of life possessed by those in Barzakh is, in some sense, fuller than the life of this world. This is what is suggested by the Hadith: People are asleep, when they die they will wake up. When a person goes to sleep, his senses and perceptions are weakened, he can almost be said to be half-alive. When he awakens he regains a full measure of life. Likewise, the degree of life man enjoys in this world is less than what awaits him in Barzakh.
In reality then, Barazakh represents a small portion of the reward or punishment that man will receive after resurrection. It is like a window through one can glimpse the ultimate outcome of his affair.
Source: The above article has been extracted from Lesson Sixteen – Man’s Situation in the intermediate realm – from the book Resurrection, Judgment and the Hereafter, by Sayyid Mujtaba Musawi Lari.