in Philosophy & Theology

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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  • youdontneedit

    “No one wants to die even people who want to go to heaven.” – Steve Jobs

    • NourAlAli

      What’s interesting is that our contemporary view of the death notion is quite volatile and fearful in comparison to philosophers like those mentioned above!

  • jnana

    That was a beautiful post. The Islamic philosophy gives death two outcomes (either eternal bliss or eternal hell) and Plato’s philosophy is in-line with the former outcome. This world, for the faithful, is indeed a prison.

    • NourAlAli

      You’ve said it in a way I was baffled to say!

  • Husam Aldahiyat

    Humans are plagued by questions of existence and death, so much that they make up religions and philosophy to better accomodate themselves within the world they live in. In fact, one of the main reasons people join a religion is their ignorance of what would happen after life ceases to be, and the fear that nothing will actually happen.

    Personally, I come from a materialistic background and believe that after your brain dies you simply become non sentient matter that is left to be recycled in the world, and that’s the end of it. There’s no soul, you just disappear and nothing else matter. I’m comfortable with this revelation and waste no time contemplating it or spending any of my valuable moments trying to make it easier.

    • Nour Al-Ali

      I read much more on the matter after this post, I plan to post another post with Hegel’s view and a few existentialism theories as well. I see the logic behind your thinking, though I may not personally agree with it.

      I find that my need for a happy ending, or holding on to some faith that much of this suffering we go through will be rewarded eventually is my last thread of hope for this burning world.

      But yes, you and Epicurus do share the same view on that.

      • Husam Aldahiyat

        What’s the point of a blog if you post the opinions and theories of others?

        • Nour Al-Ali

          I’m discovering myself through others. I redirect you to my about me section:

          • Husam Aldahiyat

            I hate to break it up to you but there’s no such thing as a ‘soul’. This is an infantile vestige of when humans didn’t know our actions are the result of our mind’s processes. Doesn’t matter what others said about it, neuroscience proves it. We are bound by the deterministic reactions that our brain decides on. Free will is an illusion, the afterlife is an illusion.

          • Nour Al-Ali

            Perhaps what you say is true, and everything I set myself to believe in is an illusion. My knowledge of the scientific notion is limited, I admit. However, as for now, and till I decide to shift (if I may) my beliefs, I will continue to believe in all that you don’t.

            Not because I refuse to see as far as you do, but because I personally find hope of the afterlife something to look forward to. This life has failed from birth to this day.

          • Husam Aldahiyat

            I’m glad I have your attention.

            Hope doesn’t give you an after life. Do you have evidence of the after life? Any kind of tangible proof? You don’t need knowledge of neuroscience, just think of it in this way:

            All of your actions come from your mind, is that not correct? If you get hit on the head you feel dizzy and unable to think straight, right? If your brain gets damaged in one area you lose a certain ability (for example language, movement, etc). If it gets heavily damaged you become unable to do additional things (thinking at all/retardation, complete motor loss, etc). Yet… if the mind dies and ends completely (with death), you think you just regain all functions as if it were in its full power?

            You’re afraid and that’s understandable. Beliefs such as the afterlife and having an immortal soul/being feed on your fear. Dogmas thrive in dark scared caves such as the mind. Naturally, we are scared creatures. Scared of the unknown, scared of ignorance, scared of death. Genetically we’re hard-wired to fear these things so our species may survive, as is the purpose of life and evolution. If not for our ancestors being scared of death long enough to live and reproduce we wouldn’t be here having this conversation right now. Similarly, fear of ignorance leads us to seek knowledge, and for this reason humans are constantly plagued by questions of existence and purpose. For this reason humans invented philosophies and religions in the first place!

            Still with me? These fears make humans create fantasies to comfort themselves, this is evident to anyone not indulging in these fantasies. I may be mistaken about free will being an illusion, but it is almost certain that there isn’t an afterlife, and this is more than an opinion or a simple idea of mine; it is the consensus of every intelligent human on earth. If you think your life is failing you it is infantile and weak to give up reason and rationality to instead delve in fantasy of a second one giving you a clean slate. The earlier you realize this the sooner you have a head start on fixing the only life you ever will have.

  • Hamster41

    Good post. If you ever get the time I would suggest reading Ghazali’s Remembrance of Death And the Afterlife. A book that helped me deal a lot with the whole concept of death.