This article comprises the following sections: i. Definition, Usage, Etymology; ii. The Estuarine Barzakh. iii. Figurative Barzakhs; iv. The Pre-Resurrection Afterlife; v. The Bliss or Punishment of the Grave; vi. The Life of Martyrs and Prophets in Barzakh; vii. The Hearing of the Dead; viii. Bibliography.
Definition, Usage, Etymology
The Arabic noun barzakh is a quadriliteral faʿlal form used three times in the Qurʾān to denote a barrier (ḥājiz, maḥbas), twice in the sense of the space where seas and rivers meet—And it is He Who has let loose the two seas: this, sweet and thirst-quenching; that, saltish and bitter; and has placed between the two a barrier (barzakh) and a great partition complete (ḥijran maḥjūran) (Q 25:53, cf. Q 55:20), including the senses of dry land (yabas) and natural boundary (tukhūm)—and once in the sense of the other-worldly barrier between the living and the dead: and behind them (i.e., the dead) is a barrier until the day when they are raised (Q 23:100): “Everything that is between two things is a barzakh, and what lies between this world and the next is a barzakh” (Abū ʿUbayda, Majāz, sub Q 25:53; Ibn Qutayba, Gharīb, sub Q 23:100; Ibn Abī Ḥātim, Tafsīr, sub Q 25:53).
The Qurʾān also uses the term ḥājiz in the first sense of estuary above: Or, Who has made the earth a fixed abode, and placed rivers in the folds thereof, and placed firm hills therein, and has set a barrier (ḥājizan) between the two seas? Is there any deity beside Allah? Nay, but most of them know not! (Q 27:61). In the second sense barzakh has also been defined metonymically as “the grave” (al-Sijistānī, Gharīb; Abū Ḥayyān, Tuḥfa, both sub b-r-z-kh) and translated as “life of/in the grave,” “isthmus-life,” and “interlife.” Accordingly, it is said that the barzakh is “an invisible barrier” (ḥājiz khafīy) (al-Farrāʾ, Maʿānī, sub Q 23:100; cf. Azharī, Tahdhīb and Ibn Manẓūr, Lisān). Barzakh therefore is a major theme connected to death and Resurrection, reward and punishment, and the states and types of humanity connected therewith, which the Prophet—upon him blessings and peace—described at length in hadiths. It has been glossed as the forty-year pause between the first two trumpet-blasts that initiate the Resurrection (Ibn ʿAṭiyya, Muḥarrar, sub Q 20:98-102; Rāzī, Tafsīr, sub Q 17:52; and Qurṭubī, Tafsīr, sub Q 23:100).
The word barzakh is not found in the Prophetic Sunna, but ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib and Ibn Masʿūd—Allah be well-pleased with them—reportedly used it: the former to refer to an “interval passage” of the Qurʾān he skipped (aswā barzakhan), reciting what came before and after it in the prayer; the latter in the plural, in the expression “these are the intervals of faith” (tilka barāzikh al-īmān), to refer to the believers’ struggles against satanic whisperings—that is, “what lies between the beginning and the end of īmān” (see Belief) (Abū ʿUbayd, Gharīb and Ibn al-Athīr, Nihāya; cf. al-Ḥakīm al-Tirmidhī, al-Nuskha, Aṣl 221). These and other meanings were summed up by al-Fayrūzābādī (729-817/1329-1415) in his trove of exegetical insights:
Insight into barzakh: It is the barrier between two things. It sometimes [means] the power of Allah itself, and sometimes something existing through the power of Allah (tāratan qudrat Allāh wa-tāratan bi-qudrat Allāh). Barzakh lasts from the time of death to Resurrection. Whoever dies enters it. The barāzikh of faith are what lies between its beginning and its end. Barzakh after Resurrection is the barrier between a human being and the attainment of the highest homes in the hereafter. That is the allusion to the steep ascent (al-ʿaqaba) in the verse Yet he has not conquered the steep ascent (Q 90:11). That steep ascent presents impediments to states unreachable by those other than the righteous.
Barzakh is listed under the quadriliteral entry b-r-z-kh in the lexicons (Jawharī, Ṣiḥāḥ; Ibn Durayd, Jamhara; Fayrūzābādī, Qāmūs; Ibn Manẓūr, Lisān; Zabīdī, Tāj) but was suggested to originate from the root b-r-z, meaning “to emerge prominently,” to which a euphonic consonantal kh suffix was added. “Barzakh is a barrier between two things, as if there were a prominent emersion (barāz) between the two, that is, a vast stretch of land; then any barrier became [known as] a barzakh” (Ibn Fāris, Maqāyīs 1:333, Bāb min al-rubāʿī ākhar). The lexicographers deem it an Arabic word, and it is not mentioned in the manuals on Arabicized words such as al-Jawāliqī’s (465-540/ca.1073-ca.1145) monumental al-Muʿarrab, al-Suyūṭī’s (849-911/1445-ca.1505) al-Mutawakkilī, or al-Khafājī’s (d. 1069/ca.1659) Shifāʾ al-ʿalīl—which relegates any claimed etymological connection with the Persian noun farsakh (a unit of distance) to the realm of speculation.
The Estuarine Barzakh
In the marine sense, barzakh has received a variety of interpretations summed up by Ibn ʿAṭiyya (d. ca.542/1147) in his commentary on the verse And it is He who has let loose the two seas... (Q 25:53):
People have given discrepant explanations of this verse. Ibn ʿAbbās (3bh-68/619-688) said, “He means the sea of clouds and the sea that is on the earth, and the wording of the verse was arranged accordingly.” Mujāhid (d. 104/722) said: “The freshwater sea is the water of the rivers that pour into the salt sea. Its pouring into it is its being let loose. The barrier and the partition are a wall of which Allah [alone] knows, invisible to human beings.” Al-Zajjāj (d. 311/923) said the same. According to another group, the meaning of let loose is “He made one perdure inside the other”, while according to Ibn ʿAbbās it means “He left one on top of the other.” There are other such views that are more or less connected to part of the wording of the verse. My own view of the verse is that its purport is to warn us of the power of Allah and how consummately He creates things, in that He has let forth sweet waters in abundance in the earth in the form of rivers, springs, and wells, putting bitter waters next to them and vice-versa. Thus you can see the sea with sweet waters embracing it on both its shores, and you can see sweet water inside islands and the like with bitter salt waters embracing them... and by the two seas He means all [bodies of] sweet water and all [those of] salt water.
Muḥarrar, sub Q 25:53
Thus, as the space where seas and rivers meet, barzakh in Q 25:53 and 55:20 and ḥājiz in Q 27:61 denote estuaries, the sea inlets where the saline tide meets the freshwater current without the two intermingling (see Rivers and Springs).
It has also been suggested that, in keeping with the Qurʾān’s use of the unqualified term two seas (baḥrayn) in Sūrat al-Raḥmān (Q 55:20), barzakh also refers to the invisible divides between large bodies of salt water such as the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, or the fourteen seas of the East Indian Archipelago, each neighboring body of water keeping its own characteristics of temperature, salinity, and density, without imposing it on the other (Ṭayyāra, Mawsūʿa p. 212-215; cf. International Hydrographic Organization, Limits of Oceans and Seas).
In addition to the geo-physical understanding of the barzakh phenomenon, al-Rāzī (543-606/1148-1209) saw the water barzakh as a symbol for the dam between a human being’s higher and lower selves that leads—if unbroken—to the extraction of pearls and coral:
The believer, also, [has] two seas in his heart: the sea of faith and wisdom, and the sea of tyranny and lust. He (Allah), with the success that He [alone] grants, has placed between the two of them a barrier so that one will not ruin the other. One of the wise said, commenting on His saying He let loose the two seas that meet with a barrier between them they do not break (Q 55:19-20): “When the barrier is not broken, From them emerge pearl and coral (Q 55:22). Thus, when there is no transgression in the heart, religion and faith emerge with gratitude.”
Tafsīr, sub Q 27:61
Ibn ʿĀshūr (d. 1339/1973) gave another allegorization (tafsīr ishārī) of the water barzakh as:
an allegory (tamthīl) of the state of the call to Islam in Makka at the time (i.e., when Sūrat al-Furqān (Q 25) was revealed), with the intermixing of the believers with the pagans, (...) faith being represented by the sweet and thirst-quenching and paganism by the saltish and bitter (Q 25:53). Just as Allah Most High has set a barrier between the two seas, preserving the sweet one from being tainted by the bitter one, similarly, He has put a block between the Muslims and the pagans so that the latter cannot spread their unbelief among the Muslims. There is in this a boost for the Muslims, telling them that Allah shall bar the harm of the pagans from coming their way just as He said They will not harm you save a trifling hurt (Q 3:111); there is also an oblique reference (taʿrīḍ kināʾī) to the fact that Allah helps this Religion lest paganism taint it.
Tafsīr, sub Q 25:53
The Pre-Resurrection Afterlife
In the sense of the barrier between the dead and the living, barzakh is an intermediary state or “interlife” between this world and the next which each individual enters at the time of death and does not exit until the Day of Resurrection, as explicitly stated in the verse until the day when they are raised (cf. al-Farrāʾ, Maʿānī, sub Q 23:100). The adverb then, according to al-Nūrsī (1293-1379/1876-1960), in the verse of Sūrat al-Baqara that states then He brings you back to life (Q 2:28), “alludes to the mediation of the world of barzakh, the dimension of wonders” (Ishārāt). It is that mediation which is alluded to in the words and all that is in between in the verse Unto Him belongs all that is before us and all that is behind us and all that is in between (Q 19:64)—that is, the past ages before us, what happens both here and hereafter after we are gone, and the barzakh in between (Qurṭubī, Tafsīr, sub Q 19:64). Its modalities, like all the articles of eschatology, the unseen, and the afterlife, can only be known through revelation (see Manifest and Hidden). The Prophet, blessings and peace upon him, described it as “the first of the homes of the Hereafter” (Tirmidhī, Zuhd, bāb, hadith classed ḥasan gharīb; Ibn Mājah, Zuhd, dhikr al-qabr), although strictly speaking such a dimension is, in the words of al-Shaʿbī (19-103/640-721), “neither of this world nor of the next” (Naḥḥās, Iʿrāb, sub Q 23:100). Moreover, the terminus ad quem expressed in the verse “does not mean that they will return on the Day of Resurrection; it is only meant to convey utter hopelessness on the confirmed basis that there is no return on the Day of Resurrection other than to the next life” (Rāzī, Tafsīr, sub Q 23:100).
Ibn ʿAbd al-Salām (577-660/ca.1181-1262) in his description of the states of the afterlife gives the following summation of the condition of barzakh:
There shall be no just nor wicked man, and no believer nor unbeliever who shall not behold, in the barzakh, their future station (manzil) every morning and every evening, whether they are to be a dweller in Hellfire or a dweller in Paradise. Moreover, the bliss specific to the barzakh is based on nobility of works and their abundance; and its specific punishment is based on transgressions and their abundance. There are four stations: the first is in the wombs of mothers; the second, in the lower world; the third, in the barzakh until mortal remains are reassembled and the dead are resurrected; and the fourth in the abode of permanency, without end. Nay, the dwellers of Paradise shall be in bliss for all eternity without death, and the dwellers of Hellfire shall be in punishment for all eternity without death.
Bayān aḥwāl al-nās p. 36-37
Death, furthermore, has been termed “the Minor Resurrection” or qiyāma ṣughrā (cf. Ṭabarī, Tafsīr, sub Q 75:1; Naysābūrī, Gharāʾib, sub Q 81:14; Ghazālī, Iḥyāʾ, al-Ṣabr wal-shukr, bayān ḥaqīqat al-ṣabr wa-maʿnāh). This appellation was implied more than once by the Prophet himself in the way he replied whenever asked about the time of the Day of Resurrection: he would look at the youngest person present and say “If he lives, he will not reach a hoary age before your Hour comes (qāmat sāʿatukum)” (Muslim, Fitan, qurb al-sāʿa; Bukhārī, Riqāq, sakarāt al-mawt). Thus, death is a personal pre-Judgment Day because it spells bliss or punishment in anticipation of their everlasting permanency in the hereafter. This momentous reality is implied in several verses that presuppose two stages of requital, one immediate in barzakh and one deferred until Paradise or Hell:
Allah confirms those who believe with a firm saying in the life of the world and in the Hereafter (Q 14:27). The Prophet said: “This verse was revealed concerning punishment in the grave” (Bukhārī, Janāʾiz, mā jāʾ fī ʿadhāb al-qabr; Muslim, Janna wa-ṣifat naʿīmihā, ʿarḍ maqʿad al-mayyit);
If you could but see, when the wrongdoers are in the overwhelming pangs of death, while the angels extend their hands [striking them], saying: Discharge your souls! Today you are awarded the punishment of humiliation (Q 6:93);
The Fire: they are exposed to it morning and evening, and the Day the Hour rises [it will be said], “Make the People of Firʿawn enter the severest punishment” (Q 40:46). Al-Bukhārī cited the above two verses in his Ṣaḥīḥ under the chapter-title “What has been conveyed regarding punishment in the grave” (Janāʾiz, mā jāʾ fī ʿadhāb al-qabr);
We will punish them twice, then they will be returned to a great punishment (Q 9:101), the first punishment being in the grave and the second in Hellfire according to the commentaries (Tafsīrs of Ṭabarī, Ibn Abī Ḥātim, Baghawī, Ibn ʿAṭiyya, Rāzī, Qurṭubī, and others);
And verily We make them taste the lower punishment before the greater (Q 32:21);
And verily, for those who do wrong there is a punishment beyond that (Q 52:47), which along with the previous verse some of the Successors (Tābiʿīn) understood to refer to punishment in the grave (Ṭabarī, Rāzī, Qurṭubī, and others, sub Q 32:21 and 52:47; al-Ājurrī, al-Sharīʿa 3:1283-1284 §854-855).
The Bliss or Punishment of the Grave
Barzakh is a higher level of existence beyond the confines and finitudes of material existence including the grave dug in the ground wherein we deposit the earthly remains of the deceased. Regardless of the means of death, and whether or not the physical body is buried or lost, all enter this state, whereupon starts another kind of life in which the virtuous are admitted to ʿilliyyīn (Q 83:18-28) while the wicked are assigned to sijjīn (Q 83:7-17, among other verses).
Far from marking the end of human life, death and the grave therefore inaugurate another stage of life wherein one experiences either bliss or punishment as a preamble to eternal life, after a potentially harrowing interrogation by two angels named Munkar and Nakīr. The Prophet—upon him blessings and peace—abundantly sought refuge from the punishment of the grave in or before the end of every prayer. Al-Bukhārī narrated it from five Companions—Allah be well-pleased with them: ʿĀʾisha, Ibnat Khālid b. Saʿīd b. al-ʿĀṣ, and Abū Hurayra (Janāʾiz, mā jāʾ fī ʿadhāb al-qabr); and Saʿd b. Abī Waqqāṣ and Anas (Jihād, mā yutaʿawwadh min al-jubn). Muslim added five more in his Ṣaḥīḥ: Ibn ʿAbbās (Masājid, mā yustaʿādh minh); ʿAwf b. Mālik (Janāʾiz, al-duʿāʾ lil-mayyit); Zayd b. Arqam and Ibn Masʿūd (Dhikr wal-duʿāʾ, al-taʿawwudh); and Zayd b. Thābit (Janna wa-ṣifat naʿīmihā, ʿarḍ maqʿad al-mayyit). Al-Tirmidhī added yet five more in his Sunan: Abū Bakra (Daʿawāt, mā jāʾ fī ʿaqd al-tasbīḥ bil-yad; hadith classed ḥasan gharīb); ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib (Daʿawāt, minh; hadith classed gharīb); and Abū Ayyūb, Jābir b. ʿAbd Allāh, and Abū Saʿīd al-Khudrī (Janāʾiz, mā jāʾ fī ʿadhāb al-qabr).
The Prophet—upon him blessings and peace—also said:
The believer in his grave is in a lush garden and his grave is expanded to seventy arm-spans for him with a light shining upon him like the full moon. But he who turns away from remembrance of Me, his will be a distressful life, and We shall bring him blind to the assembly on the Day of Resurrection (Q 20:124). Do you know that about which this verse was revealed? [It is] the punishment of the unbeliever in his grave.
Abū Yaʿlā, Musnad 11:521 §6644; a fair chain of narrators according to Haythamī, Majmaʿ 3:55; cf. Ṭabarī, Tafsīr, sub Q 20:124; al-Ājurrī, al-Sharīʿa 3:1273 §840, al-taṣdīq wal-īmān bi-ʿadhāb al-qabr; Ibn Ḥibbān, Ṣaḥīḥ 7:392-393 §3122; al-Bayhaqī, Ithbāt p. 62 §68; discussed by Ibn al-Qayyim, Miftāḥ dār al-saʿāda 1:206
The grave is either a grove among the groves of Paradise or a pit among the pits of Hell.
Tirmidhī, Ṣifat al-qiyāma wal-raqāʾiq, minh, hadith classed gharīb; al-Bayhaqī, Ithbāt
p. 55 §50
The latter statement was incorporated verbatim into al-Ṭaḥāwī’s (229-321/ca.843-933) Exposition of the Credal Doctrine of the People of the Sunna and the Congregation According to the School of the Jurists of the Community—Abū Ḥanīfa al-Nuʿmān b. Thābit al-Kūfī, Abū Yūsuf Yaʿqūb b. Ibrāhīm al-Anṣārī, and Abū ʿAbd Allāh Muḥammad b. al-Ḥasan al-Shaybānī, more famously known as the ʿAqīda Ṭaḥāwiyya.
In a famous long hadith (sound-chained according to al-Bayhaqī, Shuʿab 1:610-612 §390, and Abū ʿAwāna as quoted by Ibn Ḥajar, al-Jawāb p. 40) narrated from al-Barāʾ b. ʿĀzib, the Prophet—upon him blessings and peace—also mentioned that one’s works become embodied in either an attractive or a repulsive being that will also share the dead person’s space in the grave after the latter’s interrogation, and address the dead person with the words: “I am your good deeds” or “I am your bad deeds” (Aḥmad 30:499-505 §18534, Musnad al-Kūfiyyīn). This encounter is described by Ibn al-ʿArabī (d. 638/1241) as “an experience of supraformal realities or meanings, for, in the isthmus after death, ‘Meanings become embodied and manifested in shapes and sizes, so they take on forms’ (Futūḥāt 2:195.30)” (Chittick, Imaginal Worlds p. 100).
The Prophet—upon him blessings and peace—notably emphasized (i) the regular reading of Sūrat al-Mulk (Q 67) as a guarantee of future safety in one’s grave (Tirmidhī, Faḍāʾil al-Qurʾān, mā jāʾ fī faḍl Sūrat al-Mulk, hadith classed ḥasan gharīb); (ii) that the most frequent cause for the torment of the grave for Muslims was dereliction in cleansing oneself of urine (Ibn Mājah, Ṭahāra, al-tashdīd fī-l-bawl, through a sound chain; al-Bayhaqī, Ithbāt p. 87 §120-121); and (iii) that the grave-dweller is shown his post-Resurrection position—either in Paradise or in Hell (Bukhārī, Janāʾiz, al-mayyit yuʿraḍ ʿalayh maqʿaduh; Muslim, Janna wa-ṣifat naʿīmihā, ʿarḍ maqʿad al-mayyit min al-janna aw al-nār ʿalayh), which makes him cognizant of both this world and the next. Hundreds of similar narrations illustrating the reality of the bliss and punishment of the grave were gathered in specialized monographs such as the following:
Ibn Abī al-Dunyā’s (208-281/823-894) two lost, partially reconstituted compilations entitled al-Mawt and al-Qubūr;
Ibn Mandah’s (310-395/922-1005) lost al-Rūḥ wal-nafs;
al-Bayhaqī’s (384-458/994-1066) compilation of 240 narrations from the Prophet and the early generations entitled Ithbāt ʿadhāb al-qabr;
ʿAbd al-Ḥaqq al-Ishbīlī’s (510-582/1116-1186) al-ʿĀqiba fī dhikr al-mawt wal-ākhira;
al-Qurṭubī’s (d. 671/1273) three-volume al-Tadhkira fī aḥwāl al-mawtā wa-umūr al-ākhira;
Ibn al-Qayyim’s (691-751/1292-1350) landmark Kitāb al-Rūḥ in which he wrote:
Know that the doctrine of the Predecessors of the Community and its Imams is that the deceased, upon death, is in bliss or punishment, and that that befalls his spirit and his body, and that the spirit persists after the departure from the body in bliss or punishment, and that it is joined to the body at times, and bliss or punishment befalls it together with the spirit. Then, on the day of the Major Resurrection (al-qiyāmat al-kubrā) the spirits are returned to the bodies and rise from their graves to the Lord of the worlds. And the resurrection of the bodies is agreed upon among Muslims, Jews, and Christians. (...) And one ought to know that punishment in the grave is punishment in the barzakh.
al-Rūḥ p. 155, 168, Masʾala 6
Ibn Rajab’s (736-795/ca.1335-1393) Ahwāl al-qubūr wa-aḥwāl ahlihā ilā al-nushūr;
al-Suyūṭī’s al-Fawz al-ʿaẓīm fī liqāʾ al-Karīm and his Sharḥ al-ṣudūr bi-sharḥ ḥāl al-mawtā wal-qubūr, also known as Kitāb al-Barzakh;
Ibn Ṭūlūn’s (880-953/1476-1546) al-Taḥrīr al-murassakh fī aḥwāl al-Barzakh;
Aḥādīth ḥayāt al-Barzakh fī-l-kutub al-tisʿa, by the modern Muḥammad b. Ḥaydar b. Ḥasan, recapitulates all of the above.
The Hadith master Muḥammad b. Jaʿfar al-Kattānī (1274-1341/ca.1858-1923) cited the names of 32 Companions—to which ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz al-Ghumārī (1338-1418/1920-1997) added one more—who related Prophetic hadiths concerning torment or bliss in the grave (Naẓm al-mutanāthir and Itḥāf dhawī al-faḍāʾil, al-Marḍā wal-janāʾiz wa-aḥwāl al-mawtā, ʿadhāb al-qabr wa-naʿīmuh), making this specific issue “mass-transmitted in meaning” (mutawātir maʿnawī) by the criteria al-Suyūṭī defined in Type 30 of Tadrīb al-rāwī. Accordingly, consensus formed over its reality as related by al-Ashʿarī (260-324?/874-936?) in al-Risālat ilā ahl al-Thaghr (ijmāʿ 39), al-Ṭalamankī (339-429/951-1038) in al-Wuṣūl ilā maʿrifat al-uṣūl as cited in Ibn al-Qaṭṭān’s (562-628/1167-1231) Iqnāʿ (1:52 §103), Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr (368-463/979-1071) in al-Istidhkār (7:115 §9878, Ṣalāt al-kusūf, al-ʿamal fī ṣalāt al-kusūf), and al-Nawawī (631-676/1234-1277) in Sharḥ Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim (Janna wa-ṣifat naʿīmihā, ʿarḍ maqʿad al-mayyit min al-janna aw al-nār ʿalayh) who added that it is breached only by “the Khawārij, most of the Muʿtazila, and some of the Murjiʾa.” This appears to be a famous misattribution to the Muʿtazila, as noted by Mughulṭāy (689-762/1290-1361) in his commentary on Ibn Mājah’s Sunan, where he cites the chief Muʿtazili Qāḍī ʿAbd al-Jabbār al-Hamdānī’s (d. 415/1025) characterization of the classical position of the Muʿtazilis as being entirely in accordance with that of the Sunnis (Iʿlām 1:159); and even before him, Ibn Ḥazm (384-456/994-1064) had said that that consensus was breached by the Khawārij but not the Muʿtazila except for Ḍirār b. ʿAmr al-Ghaṭafānī (al-Fiṣal 4:66-67)—a dissent that, at any rate, has made a pseudo-scholarly comeback in our times (cf. al-Natsha, Qirāʾāt fī fikr Ḥizb al-taḥrīr p. 92-99), although the denial of the reality of the punishment of the grave has been said to entail unbelief (kufr) (Fatāwā Hindiyya, Siyar, ix: aḥkām al-murtaddīn, maṭlab fī mūjibāt al-kufr anwāʿ: minhā mā yataʿallaq bi-yawm al-qiyāma).
The Life of Martyrs and Prophets in Barzakh
The Qurʾān discourages calling the martyrs (shuhadāʾ) dead, in deference to the magnificence of their reward and the fact that their state is unfathomably superior to that of those described as dead: Count not those who are slain in the way of Allah as dead. Nay, they are alive, with their Lord, and provided for (Q 3:169). This is also true of Prophets and Messengers (q.v.). Al-Bayhaqī says:
After the Prophets die—upon them blessings and peace—their souls are returned back to them and so they are alive, with their Lord (Q 3:169) like the martyrs. Our Prophet saw, on the Night of the Ascension (see Night Journey and Ascension), a number of them. We have compiled a monograph establishing the facts of their life in the grave.
al-Iʿtiqād p. 305
Al-Munāwī (952-1021/1545-1612) says in reference to the life of Prophets in their graves:
This is because they are like martyrs—rather, their lives are higher than that of martyrs, and the latter are alive, with their Lord, and provided for (Q 3:169). The purpose of specifying their being with Allah is to allude to the fact that their life is not visible to us. It is more like the life of the angels. It is likewise with Prophets. That is why the latter are not inherited from, nor can anyone marry their wives after them.
Fayḍ al-qadīr 3:184
Furthermore, Ibn Masʿūd pointed out that the Prophet—upon him blessings and peace—had died as a martyr (Aḥmad, Musnad ʿAbd Allāh b. Masʿūd, 6:115 §3617; ʿAbd al-Razzāq, Muṣannaf 5:269 §9571), as a consequence of being poisoned at Khaybar, as the Prophet himself disclosed (Bukhārī, Maghāzī, maraḍ al-Nabī).
The monograph al-Bayhaqī mentioned authoring, Ḥayāt al-anbiyāʾ baʿda wafātihim, has received several editions as well as an enlightening recapitulation and commentary in al-Zurqānī’s (1055-1122/1645-1710) Sharḥ al-Mawāhib al-lāduniyya (5:382-394). Al-Suyūṭī wrote a similar brief treatise entitled Inbāʾ al-adhkiyāʾ bi-ḥayāt al-anbiyāʾ, which he included in his Ḥāwī lil-Fatāwā (2:147-169). Among the Prophetic proof-texts they adduced are the following:
“I passed, on my Night Journey, by Mūsā at the red dune as he was standing in prayer in his grave” (Muslim, Faḍāʾil, faḍāʾil Mūsā; Nasāʾī, Qiyām al-layl, dhikr ṣalāt Nabī Allāh Mūsā);
“The Prophets are alive in their graves, praying” (Abū Yaʿlā, Musnad 6:147 §3425 with a sound chain of trustworthy narrators according to Ibn Ḥajar in Fatḥ al-bārī, Aḥādīth al-anbiyāʾ, qawl Allāh wa-dhkur fī-l-Kitābi Maryam, and Haythamī, Majmaʿ 8:211; cf. al-Bayhaqī, Ḥayāt p. 15);
“My life is an immense good for you: you bring up new matters and new matters are brought up for you. My death, also, is an immense good for you: your actions will be shown to me; if I see goodness I shall praise Allah and if I see evil I shall ask forgiveness of Him for you” (Bazzār, Musnad 5:308-309 §1925 with a sound chain of trustworthy narrators according to al-ʿIrāqī, Ṭarḥ al-tathrīb 3:297; Haythamī, Majmaʿ 9:24 §91; al-Suyūṭī, al-Khaṣāʾiṣ al-kubrā 2:281; and al-Zurqānī, Sharḥ al-Muwaṭṭaʾ 1:97);
“None greets me but [he should know] that Allah has returned my soul to me so that I may greet him back” (Abū Dāwūd, Manāsik, ziyārat al-qubūr; Aḥmad, Bāqī musnad al-mukthirīn, bāqī al-musnad al-sābiq, 16:477 §10815; both with a sound chain according to al-Nawawī in Riyāḍ al-Ṣāliḥīn, al-Ṣalāt ʿalā al-Nabī, and al-Adhkār, al-Ṣalāt ʿalā Rasūl Allāh; Ibn al-Qayyim, Jalāʾ al-afhām p. 48 §23; Ibn Ḥajar, Fatḥ al-bārī, Aḥādīth al-anbiyāʾ, qawl Allāh wa-dhkur fī-l-Kitābi Maryam; and others). Al-Bayhaqī said: “What is meant—and Allah knows best—is, ‘but that Allah has once and for all returned my soul to me so that I may greet him back’” (Shuʿab al-īmān 6:52 §3864);
“Truly, among your best days is Friday. On it Ādam was created, and on it his soul was taken back, and on it will the final trumpet-blast take place, and on it will the great Thunderstrike (al-ṣaʿqa) take place. Therefore invoke blessings upon me abundantly on that day, for your invocation is shown to me.” They said: “Messenger of Allah, how will our invocation be shown to you after you have turned to dust?” He said: “In truth, Allah Most High has forbidden the earth to consume the bodies of Prophets!” (Nasāʾī, Jumuʿa, ikthār al-ṣalāt ʿalā al-Nabī; Abū Dāwūd, Ṣalāt, faḍl yawm al-Jumuʿa; Ibn Mājah, Iqāmat al-ṣalāt, fī faḍl al-Jumuʿa; Dārimī, Sunan, Ṣalāt, faḍl yawm al-Jumuʿa; Aḥmad 26:84-86 §16162 all with sound chains, cf. analyses by Ibn al-Qayyim, Jalāʾ p. 66-74 §59; Ibn Ḥajar, Fatḥ al-bārī, Aḥādīth al-anbiyāʾ, qawl Allāh wa-dhkur fī-l-Kitābi Maryam; Ibn ʿAllān, Futūḥāt 3:309-313);
“I saw myself in the assembly of the Prophets. There was Mūsā standing in prayer, a tall man with curly hair who resembles the tribesmen of Shanūʾa. There was ʿĪsā b. Maryam standing in prayer; closest to him in resemblance is ʿUrwa b. Masʿūd al-Thaqafī. There was Ibrāhīm standing in prayer. The closest of people in resemblance to him is your Companion”—meaning himself. “Then it was time for prayer, so I led them in prayer” (Muslim, Īmān, dhikr al-Masīḥ Ibn Maryam).
The latter two are among several narrations of the Night Journey and Ascension showing that the barzakh bodies of Prophets are not confined to their graves. Similarly, it is related that Salmān al-Fārisī and Mālik b. Anas said of the souls of the believers, “they are in an earthly barzakh and roam wherever they please” (Ibn Abī al-Dunyā, al-Mawt p. 53 §86; Ibn al-Mubārak, al-Zuhd p. 143-144 §429; Ibn Saʿd, Ṭabaqāt 4:86-87; cf. Ibn Qayyim, al-Rūḥ p. 244, Masʾala 15 and Ibn Rajab, Ahwāl al-qubūr p. 150-151). Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr said: “The souls are on the thresholds of their graves. This is the soundest position—and Allah knows best—because the hadiths to that effect are better and more firmly transmitted than others, and the meaning to me is that they might be found at the thresholds of their grave; not that they never move or part the thresholds of their graves, but as Mālik said” (al-Istidhkār 8:354-355 §11849-11850, Janāʾiz, jāmiʿ al-janāʾiz). This scenario is mentioned among eight other positions by al-Shawkānī (1173-1250/1759-1834) in his brief treatise entitled Baḥth fī mustaqarr arwāḥ al-amwāt. The dissertation Aḥādīth ḥayāt al-Barzakh by the modern Muḥammad b. Ḥaydar b. Ḥasan ends with ten main conclusions, among them that “the soul [of the believer] remains connected with the bodily remains in the grave while its heavenly body (jirm jism) is in heaven (al-samāʾ) after parting with the body, like a sunbeam falling on the ground although originally connected to the sun” (p. 397).
The Hearing of the Dead
The hearing of the dead has been a matter of dispute because of ʿĀʾisha’s—Allah be well-pleased with her—interpretation against it based on the two verses she cited as evidence, Lo! you cannot make the dead hear (Q 27:80) and you cannot make those who are in the graves hear (Q 35:22) (Bukhārī, Maghāzī, qatl Abī Jahl; Muslim, Janāʾiz, al-mayyit yuʿadhdhab bi-bukāʾ ahlih ʿalayh). However, this interpretation on her part has not been sustained, and exegetes have not considered these two verses to refer literally to the deceased but rather to “the unbelievers whose unbelief has caused the death of their hearts” in the words of al-Qurṭubī (Tafsīr, sub Q 35:22; cf. Tafsīrs of Ibn al-Jawzī, Rāzī, Ibn Kathīr, sub Q 35:22; Baghawī, Naysābūrī, Rāzī, and especially Shinqīṭī, sub Q 27:80), just as they are exclusively meant by “the dead” in the verse Only those can accept who hear. As for the dead, Allah will raise them up; then unto Him they will be returned (Q 6:36) by consensus of the exegetes (Shinqīṭī, Aḍwaʾ, sub Q 27:80).
The great exegete Abū Jaʿfar Muḥammad b. Jarīr al-Ṭabarī (224-310/839-ca.922) in his Tahdhīb al-āthār prefaces his compilation of the reports on the description of the afterlife events that follow one’s burial thus:
A large number of the Predecessors among the scholars of the Community said that the dead hear the speech of the living, whence the Prophet’s address to those buried in the well [at Badr] (see Badr). They also said that his words to the Companions, “You certainly do not hear any better than they do,” are the most resplendent exposition of the truth of what we have said: namely, that the dead hear the speech of the living.
Tahdhīb al-āthār 2:491
Al-Ṭabarī narrates fourteen Prophetic hadiths to that effect, then introduces a chapter entitled “Mention of Those of the Predecessors who Asserted the Soundness of Those Reports and Said ‘Truly the Dead hear the Speech of the Living, and Speak, and are Cognizant,’” after which he narrates eleven reports from Abū Hurayra, Ibn Masʿūd, Jābir, and some of the Successors (Tābiʿīn) to that effect. He concludes:
It is therefore obligatory to firmly assert that Allah makes anyone of His creation hear, after their death, whatever He wishes of the speech of living human beings as well as other creatures in any way He wishes, and He makes whomever among them He wishes understand whatever He wishes, and He grants bliss to whomever of them He likes with whatever He likes, and He punishes the unbeliever in his grave and whoever of them deserves punishment in any way He wishes, just as the narrations and reports from the Messenger of Allah state.
Tahdhīb al-āthār 2:518-519
Among the subsequent authorities who positively asserted the reality of the hearing of the dead in their works or legal responses are
Ibn ʿAbd al-Salām in his Fatāwā Mawṣiliyya (p. 100-101);
al-Nawawī in the chapter already cited of his Sharḥ Muslim (Janna wa-ṣifat naʿīmihā, ʿarḍ maqʿad al-mayyit min al-janna aw al-nār ʿalayh);
Ibn al-Qayyim in the opening chapter of his Kitāb al-Rūḥ;
Ibn Ḥajar al-ʿAsqalānī (773-852/1371-1449) in his al-Jawāb al-kāfī ʿan al-suʾāl al-khāfī, in which he replies to twenty-nine questions pertaining to the state of the dead in the graves;
al-Sakhāwī (831-902/1428-1497) in his magisterial treatise on the address to those recently buried (talqīn) entitled al-Īḍāḥ wal-tabyīn bi-masʾalat al-talqīn;
al-Suyūṭī in the opening fatwa of the first part of the responses on Resurrection in his Ḥāwī lil-Fatāwā (2:169-175: Mabḥath al-Maʿād, aḥwāl al-Barzakh, hal yaʿlam al-amwāt bi-ziyārat al-aḥyāʾ wa-hal yasmaʿ al-mayyit kalām al-nās);
the Ḥanafī jurist Muḥammad ʿĀbid al-Sindī al-Anṣārī (ca.1190-1257/1777-1842) in his treatise Ḥawl al-tawassul wal-istighātha (p. 170-181) takes issue with the majority position of his school, according to which the dead can only hear immediately after their burial and before they are questioned by the angels. Indeed, the Prophet—upon him blessings and peace—waited three full days before addressing the dead Makkans in the well of Badr (Bukhārī, Maghāzī, qatl Abū Jahl; Muslim, Janna wa-ṣifat naʿīmihā, ʿarḍ maqʿad al-mayyit). He also mentioned that (i) ʿĀʾisha’s hadith was not based on direct witnessing of the events at Badr but upon reports through intermediaries; (ii) the possibility that she changed her understanding later, since she later addressed her brother ʿAbd al-Raḥmān at his grave a month after he had been buried (Tirmidhī, Janāʾiz, mā jāʾ fī-l-ziyārat lil-qubūr lil-nisāʾ; Bayhaqī, Sunan 4:49).
Al-Nuʿmān b. Maḥmūd al-Ālūsī (1252-1317/1836-1899) authored a book arguing that the dead do not hear entitled al-Āyāt al-bayyināt fī ʿadam samāʿ al-amwāt ʿind al-Ḥanafiyya al-sādāt (recirculated in the 1980s with notes by Muḥammad Nāṣir al-Albānī); and Muḥammad Bashīr al-Sahsawānī (1250-1326/1834-1908)—of the Ahl-e-Hadith movement and author of al-Qawl al-muḥaqqaq al-muḥkam fī ziyārat qabr al-Ḥabīb al-Akram—went so far as to boast that he made a point to perform pilgrimage and not visit the grave of the Prophet in Madina. These and similar tracts prompted noteworthy refutations, among them Tadhkirat al-rāshid bi-radd Tabṣirat al-nāqid by Muḥammad ʿAbd al-Ḥayy al-Laknawī (d. 1304/1887), Ḥayāt al-mawāt fī bayān samāʿ al-amwāt (1305H) by Aḥmad Riḍā Khān al-Baraylawī (1272-1340/1856-1921) in Urdu—in which he quoted hundreds of reports from the Prophet and the early generations as well as the fatwas of Shāh Walī Allāh al-Dihlawī (1114-1176/1702-1762) and his erudite family—and the unpublished Tawḍīḥ al-bayyināt fī samāʿ al-amwāt (1306/1888, mistitled Tarjīḥ al-bayyināt in the Azhar manuscript library catalogue) by the Mufti of Baṣra, ʿAbd al-Wahhāb b. ʿAbd al-Fattāḥ al-Ḥijāzī al-Baghdādī—Allah Most High have mercy on them all.
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