The Philosophy of Death: Islam, Epicurus and Plato

Listen to: Truth By Balmorhea

The philosophy of death is daunting to explore. Of late, I have been overtaken by the thought of death and how it subtly creeps in on one. I previously wrote of my first encounter with it as a child, and I believe from thereon my understanding of it has been distorted by fear. Much like when an individual in a closed society fears speaking against an authoritarian regime, death is in some sort the one tyranny we cannot protest against.

In my daily route to school, we used to pass by a cemetery that had a Quranic verse placed in a large banner above the entrance. It translates to “every soul shall have a taste of death” (كل نفس ذائقة الموت). Raised a muslim, I was taught to accept it as God’s unquestionable command. In fact, I was taught not to fear death but what comes after; torture of the grave and Judgment Day. I even recall my Islamic teacher once shaking her finger at me and saying, “Beware of Munkar and Nakir,” who, according to Islamic doctrine, are angels that will test a muslim’s faith in their grave. Of course, the concept of torture of the grave is one that precedes Islam, though I could find very little of history texts to prove so.

The islamic faith denotes should a muslim stay true to his / her faith, there should be no worry of death as it is the second stage of their journey of meeting their creator in heaven. Prior to death, comes the stage of dunya (i.e., current life); a temporary period of time, to which muslims live to practice their faith and so forth. I will not get into details of the Islamic faith, nor will I turn this into a lesson. This is a very general attempt, a grain of sand, to explain Islam’s philosophy of death.

While reading Buden’s attempt to explain the “The Existential Compromise in the History of the Philosophy of Death,” I could not help but notice how the “Platonic strain,” referring mainly to Plato’s Phaedo and “Epicurean strain,” deriving from Epicurus and his letter to Menoeceus (that I very much recommend you read), have similar philosophies to that of Islam when it comes to death (or almost). Of course, each branches out to form his own philosophy; Epicurus puts an emphasis on the current life, yet Plato focuses on the prolonged existence of the soul after leaving one’s body.

Seemingly, they all agree that death must not be feared, but embraced. I read over Epicurus’s letter several time, each time with greater questions. He wrote of death as though it is just another bus stop. It’s “nothing to us.” That with the pretense of knowing death is coming, one must live their life carefree. It must not be feared as, “the tiny particles that make up the soul evacuate the body and are dispersed at the moment of death, leaving behind no subject to experience any evil that might be associated with death.” To him, the afterlife is merely insignificant. He wrote:

Accustom yourself to believing that death is nothing to us, for good and evil imply the capacity for sensation, and death is the privation of all sentience; therefore a correct understanding that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life enjoyable, not by adding to life a limitless time, but by taking away the yearning after immortality. For life has no terrors for him who has thoroughly understood that there are no terrors for him in ceasing to live. Foolish, therefore, is the man who says that he fears death, not because it will pain when it comes, but because it pains in the prospect. Whatever causes no annoyance when it is present, causes only a groundless pain in the expectation. Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not. It is nothing, then, either to the living or to the dead, for with the living it is not and the dead exist no longer.

With Plato, on the other hand, the soul lives on; it is an immortal notion placed in mortal matter. In fact, to him, the soul was being held captive by the body, as though it is a prison. The main character in his book struggles with the notion of death and attempts to reason with it in most basic terms, “either the dead man wholly ceases to be and loses all consciousness or, as we are told, it is a change and a migration of the soul to another place” with both situations being good. So death is just a mere transportation from one form to the other. 

Now I have three notions of death; one being that of Islamic doctrine: The body deteriorates, while the soul roams according to its deeds or sin, till the day of Judgment. Death is temporary. The second being that of Epicurus, so joyful as death is nothing and the soul instantly scatters, leaving nothing behind. Platonic strain, being the third, explains how death is a state of transition from point A to point B (with A being a prison and B being freedom). 

My attempt of understanding the philosophy of death transformed from theoretical readings to experiencing a loss of a great man I had the honor of knowing. Even after reading hundreds of pages on death and how much of a breeze it can be, one tear was enough to make me feel otherwise. I think we fear death because we do not have control over it. We fear it because we fear the heaviness of an unwanted void settling within us. We fear death because death itself means the end of all that we know and believe in. We fear death because we do not know what comes next; we have no clue but faith (or unfaith) of what comes next. Faith alone cannot stand against fear, for faith is in itself a form of holistic fear.

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