Monday, 20 June 2011

Man's Situation in the Intermediate Realm - Light of Islam

Man's Situation in the
Intermediate Realm




Sayyid Mujtaba Musavi

The present existence of an intermediate realm and of
separate destinations there for the virtuous and the
wicked is a well-founded religious belief. There can be
no doubt that after death the spirits of men the only
element within them that is truly essential are
transferred to the vast expanse of the non-material

Just as the spirit appears in man's body and material
form after it has been fashioned to completion, the
spirit retains its attachment to the body as long as the
body retains the capacity for a harmonious relation with
the spirit. Once this capacity vanishes as a result of
external factors so that the union of spirit and body is
sundered, the spirit separates from the body and pursues
its existence under a different order and set of

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 resurrection.

A further change then brings about the transformation
of the intermediate realm, and man enters the plain of
resurrection, the next stage in his journey toward God.

A limit or boundary separating two things is called barzakh
in Arabic, which explains why the intermediate realm that
separates the temporary and evanescent 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 Qur'an says: "The intermediate realm
extends from now until the time of resurrection"

In the same connection, the Qur'an describes the state
of the martyrs after their 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"

The verse refers, of course, to willingness to defend
the sanctity of Islam and the Qur'an, to the virtue of
heroically resisting the unbelievers and atheists even to
the point of attaining martyrdom. This is the highest
point the believer can reach: the desire to sacrifice
himself for the sake of his pure goals and thereby to
join the caravan of martyrs.

He regards it as a great duty to guard God's religion
and to strive for the implementation of the commands of
the Qur'an, and he therefore exerts great effort to
secure the security and survival of the religion of God.
Such a protector of the true faith must necessarily begin
by purifying himself and avoiding all kinds of pollution
by sin and disobedience to God. It is only then that he
may properly return his soul the loftiest trust which he
has been given to God, its true owner, while fighting for
the sake of His religion. He will then receive the reward
of life everlasting in the company of God's chosen elite.

The Qur'an says:

"God has bought the properties and souls of
the believers in exchange for paradise. They are to
strive in the path of God, destroying the enemies of
religion or themselves being killed. This is a firm
promise of God, binding upon Him, contained in the Torah,
the Gospels and the Qur'an, and who is more faithful to
his promises than God? O believers, rejoice in this
transaction, for it truly guarantees great

The Qur'an also draws attention to the punishment
being suffered before the occurrence of resurrection by
those bound for hellfire:

"Hellfire has already encompassed the

After death, the spirits of the virtuous will rejoice
in liberation 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 or 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; it is not accompanied by
the broken and suffering countenance of old age.

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 have made obedience to
divine command their guiding principle in this world that
they shall enjoy the company and fellowship of God's
chosen elite.

The companionship of those upon whom God has bestowed
His blessings in full measure is indeed a source of great
pride for the virtuous.

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!"

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 commensurate with
their own ranks and degrees of closeness to God. Not
everyone will enjoy an equal share, in just the same way
that not everyone attains the same degree of ascent.

* * * * *

One of the companions of Imam al-Sadiq, upon whom be
peace, relates that he once posed him the following

"O descendant of God's Messenger! When the true
believer finds himself on 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 the other
preceptors 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 tranquillity 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 earned thereby 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 could be more desirable for the believer
at that moment than for his soul to take flight and
receive all that it has been promised."[1] 


The Painful State of the Impure

The spirits of the impure are meanwhile caught up in
terrible darkness and gloom. Overwhelmed by misery and
disaster, they mourn their lives of sin. Realizing that
neither their relatives nor the material wealth they
accumulated can do anything to deliver them, they torment
themselves in their wretchedness.

Still more terrible than their fate is that of cruel,
vicious and arrogant tyrants. The sighs and laments of
their oppressed victims are like so many daggers plunged
in their hearts. The specter of those whom they have
wronged assaults them mercilessly with constant blame and
reproach, augmenting constantly the pain and misery they

The vision of these spectacles of terror is like a
tormenting flame consuming the heart of the criminal.

The Qur'an depicts the catastrophic destiny of
aggressive tyrants as follows:

"They will be brought to hellfire every
morning and evening, and the descendants of Pharaoh will
be punished most severely"

They will then recall vividly the repeated warnings of
the prophets and men of religion who told them of the
disasters that awaited them. They will begin to blame
themselves for not following the commands of the prophets
and not heeding their kindly advice, for had they done
so, they would not have cast themselves into perdition.

In the course of the Battle of Badr, some of the
leaders of Quraysh were killed and their bodies were
thrown in a pit. After the victory of the Muslim army,
the Most Noble Messenger, peace and blessings be upon him
and his family, leaned over the edge of the pit and
addressed them as follows:

"We have attained all that God promised us; are
you now convinced of the truth of God's promises?"

Some of the companions then said: "O Messenger of
God, you are talking to the dead, to bodies that have
been thrown into a pit; do they understand anything of
what you say?"

The Prophet answered them: "They hear more
clearly than you do."[2]

One of the companions of the Commander of the
Faithful, upon whom be peace, said:

"Once I left Kufa in the company of the Imam. He
stopped in the cemetery at Wadi al-Salam, standing there
like someone about to address a gathering. I remained
there standing with the Imam until I grew tired and sat
down. Another long time passed, and I grew tired of
sitting. So I stood up again and remained standing until
once again I grew tired and sat down. Finally, I arose
once more, and said to the Commander of the Faithful: `I
fear for you, seeing you standing so long; rest a
little.' I then spread out my cloak on the ground for the
Imam to sit down. 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."[3]

From this narrative it can be deduced that the spirit
does not entirely sever its relations with the body. It
is true that after the death and the cutting of the link
between the spirit and the body, the spirit leaves for a
different realm. However, on account of the union that
existed between them in this world, some weak connection
persists, in the form of a certain affinity. On account
of this affinity and its former union with the body, the
spirit is oriented toward the remains of the body in way
that it is not oriented to anything else.

Islam has laid down certain instructions relating to
the body after death. The reason for them is the
continuing affinity of the spirit for the body and the
trials and turmoil the spirit encounters in the
unfamiliar realm of the barzakh, governed as it is by new
principles and criteria.

In the intermediate realm men 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
dealings and relations of the pious with each other are
based on familiarity, intimacy, and pure love, and thus
anticipate the states of paradise. By contrast, the
relations of the unbelievers with each other will
inevitably partake of the character of hellfire; mutual
enmity, disgust and envy will prevail among them.

It is self-evident that since all things will be
determined in the intermediate realm by the particular
laws and criteria that prevail there, the companionship
and conversation of the blessed and the damned, as well
as the enjoyment of divine bounties by the former and the
experience of punishment by the latter, will also be
marked by the characteristics of that realm.

Although the bodies of men in the intermediate realm
will in general resemble the bodily form they had in this
world, certain differences will also be apparent, because
every quality and attribute will take on an external form
commensurate with its inner nature. Thus the spiritual
light or darkness found within individuals will become
clearly visible in their faces.

Ibrahim b. Ishaq recounts that he asked Imam al-Sadiq,
Upon whom be peace: "Where are the souls of the
believers?" He answered: "The spirits of the
believers are lodged in paradise, where they are given to
eat and to drink. They see and visit each other, and they
say, `O Lord, bring about 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 to drink its drink. They see each other and meet
each other and they say, `O God, do not bring about
resurrection lest that which You promised us be

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, upon whom be peace. 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.'"[5]

Those living in the intermediate realm 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 the
intermediate realm.

The situation of people in the intermediate realm
naturally differs from one person to the next. In a
sense, everyone there has his own world, the nature of
which is determined by the conduct he exhibited in this
world; not all the dwellers in the intermediate realm can
communicate uniformly with this world and its people. The
degree to which an individual may have awareness of the
material 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 particular
circumstances of the intermediate realm 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 sinful, their
communication with the world serves simply to increase
their regret and torment.

Imam al-Sadiq, upon whom be peace, says:

"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 from him.

"Among the believers are those for whom Friday is
a day of visiting, and there also those the balance of
whose deeds permits them to see them."[6] 

Someone relates that he asked the Commander of the
Faithful, upon whom be peace, whether the dead are able
to visit their relatives. He answered that they are,
whereupon the questioner asked: "When and how
often?" He answered: "Every week, every month,
or every year, depending of spiritual rank and

The Qur'an speaks in the following terms of the
constant torment and punishment that are administered to
the evil and corrupt in the intermediate realm:

"They are brought to the fire every morning
and evening, and the descendants of the Pharaoh shall be
brought forth on the day of resurrection with the
severest torment"

It is obvious that this verse must refer to the
intermediate realm, not to resurrection, for after
resurrection there will be neither morning nor evening.

The Qur'an similarly says of the blessed:

"Provision shall be brought to them every
morning and evening"

This verse also contains mention of morning and
evening, the reference being probably to the morning and
evening of the intermediate realm which follow upon the
morning and evening of this world. It cannot refer to
paradise, because the Qur'an says:

"There (in paradise) they shall not see the
sun nor experience severe cold"

"The people of paradise shall have on that day
a better abode and the fairest of places for repose"

In the second of these two verses, the word maqil
which we have translated as "place of repose"
is of particular interest because it refers to a nap
taken before noon. It is true that sleep in the
intermediate realm cannot resemble exactly sleep in this
world, but it is nonetheless different from what will
prevail after resurrection, namely eternal wakefulness.
This is indeed one reason why people are described as qiyam
"awake" or "alert" on the day of

The degree of life possessed by those in the
intermediate realm is, in some sense, fuller than the
life of this world, which may be what is suggested by
this tradition: "People are asleep, and when they
die they wake up."[8] 

This refers to the fact that 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 which awaits
him in the intermediate realm; when he is transferred to
that realm, his degree of life is enhanced.

al-Ghazali says:

"When we are asleep we witness a world in which
we do not imagine that we are asleep. This particular
state is only a part of the total scheme of our life, the
totality being represented by our waking state, and
indeed, as soon as we wake up, we realize that our state
while asleep represented only a part of our life, not the

"This being the case, why should our present life
not be like a period spent asleep in relation to the
hereafter? Our firm belief that our present life in this
world is equivalent to life as such is just like the
supposition of the sleeper.

"When we wake up, we say that we understand we
were sleeping and dreaming; whatever we experienced had
no reality. By this we mean that our sleep was only part
of the greater reality which is constituted by our waking
state, for sleep is in itself a reality. Likewise, the
life of this world is real in and of itself, but compared
with the more expansive life that awaits us, it counts as
a dream."[9] 

In the intermediate realm, the spirits of men pursue
their lives according to the different degrees of
consciousness that their belief and awareness have made
possible for them. Since life there is not subject to the
laws of matter, following instead its own particular
criteria, its conditions must naturally be different from
those of our present life. However, since man's
perceptions are much sharpened in the intermediate realm,
the spiritual torment and pleasure which he undergoes
there escape our present powers of description.

The fruit of man's deeds becomes tangible for him in
the intermediate realm. Those who have never had the good
fortune of doing good deeds wish to return to the world
to make up for their past. The Qur'an says:

"Spend in the path of God a part of the
sustenance We have bestowed on you, before death
overtakes you. Then the sinner will say, `O Lord, if You
were to grant me a respite and postpone my death a
little, I would certainly do good and become one of The

As for the righteous and pious, they will joyously
exclaim in the intermediate world:

"Would that our relatives and kin knew how God
has forgiven us and bestowed mercy and favor upon


One of the characteristics of the intermediate realm
is that both its pleasures and torments are temporary,
being brought to an end when resurrection begins.

Certain verses of the Qur'an refer to the state of
people intermediate between belief and unbelief i.e.,
those who were deprived by various circumstances or
hardships of the opportunity of learning about Islam or
investigating its truth, or were prevented from migrating
from one land to another.

It is probable that such persons, if they have not
committed any crimes, will be enveloped in God's mercy
and forgiveness on the day of resurrection. In the
intermediate realm, neither will they be punished nor
will they enjoy blessings; they will simply wait for
their destiny to be clarified.

The disquiet they endure will be comparable to that of
prisoners whose case is still under investigation and
whose future is unclear.

The Qur'an says:

"Those who have wronged themselves in this
world will be asked by the angels when they die what they
have done. They will say, `We were weak and oppressed and
unable to move.' Then the angels will ask, `Was God's
earth not wide enough for you to travel in it (so that
you might hasten from the land of ignorance to that of
faith and knowledge) ?' The abode of These evildoers
shall be hellfire; how evil and terrible an abode!
Excepted from this shall be those men, women and children
who were indeed unable to act or to move; they could not
flee and they had no path of escape. It may be that God
will forgive and show mercy to them, for He is Merciful
and Pardoning"

This verse clearly relates to the intermediate realm,
because after resurrection the status and destiny of
everyone is made clear.

* * * * *

In reality, then, the intermediate realm represents a
small portion of the reward or punishment that man will
receive after resurrection; it is like a window through
which one can glimpse the ultimate outcome of his affair.

There are numerous traditions concerning the state of
the Godfearing in the intermediate realm. They state
clearly that although the Godfearing do not yet enter
paradise, a gate to paradise is opened before them
permitting them to glimpse the abode that awaits them and
feel the pleasant breezes that blow there.

Tolstoy, the great Russian author, writes:

O God, it is You alone Who can open a door On the
world of mercy to Your servant who lies buried beneath
the ground.

Out of all these bones lying here, gradually rotting,
Which belong to a king, and which to a beggar? Which
belong to a judge, and which to a soldier? Which belong
to a pious man who has bought heaven for himself, and
which to a sinner, who has been driven away from the
kingdom of heaven? Whatever we see is darkness, visions
and ghosts O God, it is only at the threshold of Your
throne, only in Your heavens that we may find a path
leading to tranquillity and salvation.

On the day that nothing remains of our earthly form
except a pitiful handful of dust and all the brilliance
of our life has been buried in the black earth, it is You
alone Who can open a door on the world of mercy to Your
servant who lies buried beneath the

The first reality that presents itself to man the
moment he dies and embarks on a new life is the voiding
of all the customs, conventions and norms that governed
his worldly life. All outward causation and
instrumentality will come to an end, and man will enter a
realm that is utterly empty of all the varied phenomena
found in this world. All the aims and pursuits he has
followed throughout his life will turn into a mirage.

The Qur'an says:

"If you were to see catastrophic misery of the
oppressors when they are caught in the throes of death!
The angels lift their powerful hands to seize their
souls, telling them: `Give up now your souls. Today you
shall suffer torment and humiliation because you spoke
lyingly of God and refused in arrogance to accept His
signs.' Certainly, you will return to Us, one by one, as
We first created you. You will leave behind all property
and wealth We bestowed on you (this being the cause of
your arrogance), and all the intermediaries and
intercessors you thought you had shall be destroyed and
separated from you."

"If you speak truly when you say there is no
resurrection, why is it that when you stand at the
bedside of the dying, as their souls rise in their
throats, at a time when We are closer to them than you
are (although you do not realize this) Why is it that
then, if everything is indeed in your hands or the hands
of nature, you do not return their souls to their bodies?
If the one who dies is among those who have drawn nigh to
God, their place is in eternal rest and repose. If he is
from among the Companions of the Right, then give glad
tidings that he is safe. If he is from among the deniers
and misguided, then his share shall be the boiling water
and his abode shall be the hellfire. All of this is
truth, concerning which there is no doubt."

Commenting on the part of the verse that refers to "those
who have drawn nigh to God,"
Imam al-Sadiq, upon
whom be peace, says that it refers to the intermediate
realm, while "eternal rest and repose"
refers to paradise.[11] 

Imam al-Sadiq also said: "By God, I fear for you
in the intermediate realm." `Amr b. Yazid then asked
him: "What is the intermediate realm?" He
answered: "The tomb in which you will stay until the
day of resurrection."[12] 

Man puts his trust in two things in this life. First,
the worldly goods of which he imagines himself to be the
owner and which he regards as the means for attaining his
wishes and desires. Second, those persons without whose
help and influence he thinks himself incapable of
fulfilling his needs powerful friends, relatives and the
like. The Qur'an stresses that both of these pass away
and have no ultimate validity. Once man finds himself on
the threshold of death, he is compelled to sever all
material attachments, and with a belated realism that is
forced upon him, he understands the emptiness of
everything in which he had placed his trust.

He even wishes for the impossible to return and warn
his relatives not to do anything which might plunge them
into the same whirlpool of eternal wretchedness as

The Most Noble Messenger, peace and blessings be upon
him and his family, is reported to have said:

"The spirit of the dead will cry out after death:
`O family and offspring! Take care not to be deceived by
the world as it deceived and misled me. I accumulated
wealth, making no distinction between the licit and the
illicit, in the end leaving it behind for others to
enjoy; all that remains for me is misery. Take care to
avoid what has befallen me.'"[13] 

Imam al-Hadi, upon whom be peace, compared the world
to a marketplace when he said: "The world is a
market in which some people profit and others

The Qur'an likewise summons men to engage in a
profitable trade in the market of this world:

"O believers, shall I guide you to a trade
which will free you from painful torment in the
hereafter? Believe in God and His Messenger and struggle
in God's path with your property and your person"

One of the companions of Imam al-Sadiq, upon whom be
peace, said: "I asked the Imam to counsel me. He
answered: `Make provision for your journey, and make
ready the goods that you will need on your voyage. Take
all the necessary measures yourself, and do not instruct
another after the end of your life to send on what you

The Commander of the Faithful, upon whom be peace,

"The world is a transient abode, not a permanent
dwelling. People in this world are of two kinds: those
who have sold themselves, who have deviated from the path
of truth and are advancing toward perdition; and those
who have bought themselves, who have chosen the path of
salvation and liberated themselves."[16]


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