Rashid explains ‘God consciousness,’ Muslim traditions give meaning to death

Rachael Le Goubin | Staff Photographer
Hussein Rashid delivers his Interfaith Lecture Thursday in the Hall of Philosophy. His lecture, titled “Embracing Death to Live Life,” examined the influence of Islam on the views toward life and death.

Hussein Rashid said death has power because people don’t understand it. Certain Muslim traditions, though, try to give death meaning.

Rashid discussed these traditions and the three stages of death — life before death, death and life after death — in his 2 p.m. Interfaith Lecture Thursday at the Hall of Philosophy, “Embracing Death to Live Life.” Week Nine’s Interfaith Lecture theme is “From Here to Hereafter: Facing Death with Hope and Courage.”

“To say we are living and then we are dead is too simple an equation,” Rashid said. “The way we perceive death deeply informs the way we live, and the way that we live deeply informs the way that we imagine what happens during and after death.”

In life before death, Rashid said, the transition from sickness to death is more complicated in Islamic culture, especially with illness and diseases that infringe one’s quality of life.

It’s common for doctors and family members to agree that when a person is brain dead or stuck in a permanent vegetative state, despite technically being alive, it’s morally correct to pull the plug, Rashid said.

In Muslim tradition, he said it’s the family or community that gets to decide whether or not a person’s health is affecting his or her well-being, and it can apply to less clearly defined medical situations.

“Chronic conditions are a bit more of a difficult case. Well-managed diabetes, for example, would not be something that would impact the quality of life,” he said. “But a seizure disorder that was getting progressively worse might trigger such a conversation.”

The quality of a person’s life is also important when thinking about the day-to-day activities a person does to give their life meaning. Muslims can infer a transactional approach to life, Rashid said. Performing good deeds in this life bring good deeds to the person in the next life, while engaging in negative behavior will bring similar feats to the person later.

“Do A and you will receive A,” he said. “The Quran hints at this mechanism in several places.”

The intention behind the actions are equally important, Rashid said. One can’t simply do good deeds to get something for him or herself in return — they should be acting out of love for God.

“While forms of actions may not change, the impotence and guiding principles — the unseen aspect of it — can be transformative for the individual performing those actions,” he said.

Rashid described this way of always thinking with a love of God in mind as “God consciousness.”

To discuss death in Muslim tradition, Rashid examined the Hajj — a yearly, three-day pilgrimage to Mecca — and a belief that one should die before death.

During the Hajj, Rashid said people don two white cloths representing purity. They are also eerily reminiscent of Muslim burial shrouds.

He quoted Ali Shariati, a Persian thinker who witnessed the Hajj: “The pilgrim witnesses his own dead body and visits his own grave. The scene is like the day of judgment.”

This is in line with the belief that one is spiritually reborn on the Hajj, Rashid said.

Another Muslim belief in the Shia and Sufi traditions is that all people have an intimate relationship with God, stemming from pre-creation. The goal is to reach that level of closeness again, but Rashid said that can’t be done if one is a part of the physical world.

“Because we are in this world we are aware of our own self, and so this is what the expression to die before dying means — we must lose our self, our ego, and move beyond what we are,” he said.

This state can be achieved in ways such as Sufi meditation, he said.

Rashid concluded his speech by examining life after death.

He used the idea of God consciousness and destroying the ego to explain how the divine can be found on Earth in nexuses of heaven.

“Those who are able to get rid of their ego and make room for God in themselves become [friends of God],” he said.

These people are given a higher status, and, Rashid said, “because of their close connection to the divine, at the places where they are buried the border between heaven and Earth is also believed to be thin.”   

Rashid said these places — spread throughout the Islamic world and called mazars — are filled with blessings and become shared spaces for all people, regardless of faith.

In the Shia Ismaili tradition, Rashid said there is a belief in spiritual resurrection which can be achieved if someone works for it and continues to always be God conscious.   

No matter what stage of death one is partaking in, Rashid said God should always be at the center of Muslim tradition. Only through this love for God can one enhance their quality of life, and then their quality of life after death.